The Politics of Lexicography, or How To Become Normative Without Really Trying

One of many hats I wear is that of a lexicographer. In 1990 I began maintaining the Jargon File, still available on my website and released as three paper editions in 1991, 1993, and 1996. At the time, I was a bit nervous about what I might learn if a “real” lexicographer ever showed up to critique the work. Would I be told that my efforts were amateurish, shoddy, and marred by methodological error?

Somewhat to my own surprise, the answer turned out to be not just “no”, but “hell, no!”. As professional lexicographers became aware of my work, not only was it never panned but they actually praised it and adopted it. Rather than tediously multiply examples I’ll jump straight to the top of the lexicographic food chain; I have been assured by editors of no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary that they consider the Jargon File a high-quality and reliable source.

One one level I found this praise a bit disturbing. What kind of parlous shape was the field in that a rank amateur like myself could make such an impression? It seemed to me in some vague way that standards ought to be higher. But as I learned more about the behavior and working methods of actual lexicographers, and how they evaluate work like mine, I began to understand in more detail why they considered the Jargon File authoritative, and that evaluation began to make sense in a larger context.

Furthermore, I learned that the question of linguistic authority has interesting nuances that most non-lexicographers don’t appreciate — and which, for complicated historical/political reasons, often go unadmitted by lexicographers themselves.

The question at the bottom of everything I’m going to write about in the rest of this essay is “Who controls the norms of language?”. That is, how do we judge whether a lexical or grammatical usage is correct or incorrect?

There is a belief, widespread among non-lexicographers, that this sort of question is archaic and disreputable: that lexicographers have abandoned making normative claims and merely survey the drift and trend of popular usage in a completely non-judgmental way.

This belief is false. It does not describe the actual behavior of lexicographers when they make dictionaries. Rather, it corresponds to an extreme of one position about the source of linguistic authority, which I’ll call the populist position: correct language is what a perceived majority of speakers is using.

For contrast, I will now describe the other major positions about linguistic authority. Some of these are, for English-speakers anyway, mainly of historical interest. Others are still very much alive among lexicographers, though often semi-covertly for reasons I’ll describe later in the essay. The history of lexicography can be modeled as a sort of tug-of-war between these positions about linguistic authority.

Please note that in some cases I’ve had to invent terminology for this discussion. All lexicographers would recognize these positions, but not necessarily label them exactly as I do. They tend to show more as revealed preferences than conscious, articulated theory.

For starters, there’s the elitist position: correct usage is what the King and his court, or more generally the wealthy upper class of the language’s speaking population, is speaking.

Related, but distinct, is the academic position; correct usage is defined by elite grammarians and lexicographers. In some languages this elite is formally constituted as a language academy; in English, it’s a looser network of communicating scholars that now includes, in a minor and particular way, myself.

Finally, there is the functionalist position; correct usage is that which increases (or, at least, fails to decrease) the language’s utility as a functional tool of communication.

Now let’s consider the justifications attached to these positions.

The elitist position is justified very simply: in a society with a really dominating power elite, you’d bloody well better consider their language “correct” unless you want to spend your life on the outside looking in, on your knees eating mud. The elitist position in this crude a form tends not to survive the impact of industrial revolution and political democratization on language groups.

In the history of English, however, the elitist position retained a lot of appeal until relatively recently, because it gave the middle classes a way to better themselves, an aspirational target along with upper-class clothes and manners. One might think of this as the Pygmalion effect after George Bernard Shaw’s play (later recast as the musical “My Fair Lady”) which both affirmed and satirized the aspirational use of elite language through the interaction between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Until well into the twentieth century it was quite powerful and retains some force even in the anti-elitist climate of roughly 1960 to the present day.

The justification for the functionalist position is just as simple: language is a tool for conveying meaning. Changes that increase its capacity to convey useful distinctions are good. Changes that decrease its capacity to convey useful distinctions are bad. Changes that have neither effect are neutral.

The justification for the academic position is somewhat mixed. In many societies at many times, academic grammarians and lexicographers have viewed it as their job to codify and explain elite speech, both to outsiders and (even more importantly) to the children of the elite itself. Their job was to be maintainers of the elite language construct and even to reinforce its differences from common speech.

As the prestige of elite speech has fallen, academic grammarians and lexicographers have justified normative control in different ways. One that is still important in (for example) French is a program of purging the language of foreign elements. In English, with its egalitarian societies and tradition of gleefully mugging other languages for their vocabulary items, academic grammarians have fallen back on essentially functionalist arguments for their normative privileges.

A near archetype for this sort of thinking in English is Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”: all their prescriptions about speech are justified by arguments about concision, efficiency, and clarity that are functionalist rather than elitist. Significantly, this book premiered in 1918, two years after “Pygmalion”. Both the book and the play were reactions to the fact that the the elite/aspirational rationale for language norms was losing its force.

The justification for the populist position is even more mixed. At the bottom of it, for most people, is the belief that popular usage always wins in the end, so why fight it? But this isn’t actually even remotely true; as far back as Middle English, academic grammarians imported Latin and French words into English wholesale, and they often displaced more popular “native” words. The anti-populist effect of class stratification has been taken over in our time by mass media, especially television and movies, which have enormous power to ratify minority usages and pronunciations and make them normative.

The widespread belief that the populists not only do always win but should always win — that no other sources of linguistic authority are legitimate — is essentially a political fashion of the late 20th century, a reaction against earlier elitist thinking. It is, at bottom, also rather fraudulent!

Crowds don’t write dictionaries, editors do — or, at least editors filter them in critical ways. And yes, this is even true of wiktionaries and works like the Jargon File, not to speak of the really authoritative traditional sources like Oxford’s or Webster’s. Linguistic populism often reduces to a sort of cowardly academicism in which grammarians and the compilers of dictionaries suppress their own, inevitable normative role. In extreme cases they may suppress it from their model even of their own behavior.

What, then, is an honest lexicographer to do? And how is he to represent what he does?

The answer, in the early 21st century, is simple: Most grammarians and lexicographers are functionalists pretending (sometimes even to themselves) to be populists. The functionalist prescriptivism of Strunk & White rules actual behavior in making dictionaries and grammars, even as the rhetoric of descriptivism owns the public relations about how the dictionaries are made. And almost everyone else falls for the pretense.

I am unusual only in that I refuse to pretend, either to myself or to others — and I take heat for it, notably in discussions of loaded terms like “hacker” and “cracker” where I consistently maintain that a usage can be both popular and incorrect. I do so on the functionalist grounds that confusing these terms destroys a useful distinction and violates the norms of the speech community that invented “hacker”.

To a working lexicographer, these are both excellent arguments. However, lexicographers often, perversely, refuse to cop in public to the fact that they give weight to such arguments, because it’s politically difficult and involves them in distracting disputes with loud and clueless people.

Now, it would be oversimplifying to say that all lexicographers are closet functionalists and nothing but. In fact, what they tend to use is a weighted sum of all the sources of linguistic authority which varies in interestingly contingent ways. Here’s an example:

In most dialects of English, the pronouns of second-person plural and second-person singular address are both “you”. There are dialects in which “you” is used as a second-person singular and “you-all” or “y’all” is used as a second-person plural. In a third category of dialects, “you-all” or “y’all” is used for both singular and plural second person.

A truly extreme functionalist would say that the you-y’all usage should be preferred over both others because it makes a useful speech distinction that is otherwise unavailable. In fact, for this reason I myself often use “y’all” in informal contexts despite the fact that my birth dialect (educated East Coast Middle American) rejects this usage.

Most lexicographers and grammarians would not go so far as to call this “preferred” or “correct” — the fact that you-you is both majority and elite usage prevents them. However, the functionalist program become clearer when you compare their reactions to the other two; y’all-y’all is more likely to be ignored and condemned when noticed than you-y’all.

For a simpler example of where functionalism completely overrides populism, consider that the aggressively populist culture of Internet email and forums still repeatedly slams people who confuse “lose” and “loose”, or put apostrophes in plural forms with terminal s. There is a widespread sense that no amount of popular adoption can make these usages correct, and that sense is justified.

Now we’ll return to the question of why the OED editors consider the Jargon File authoritative. It took me a while to figure this one out, but the answer turns out to start from the following question: supposing you are in fact a lexicographer with a primarily functionalist program, how do you know which distinctions are important?

Part of the answer turns out to be this: for technical jargon and slang, you consider the purposes and behaviors of the originating speech communities to be normative. Geometers own the meaning of the term “trapezoid”, surfers own the meaning of the term “hang ten”, and people setting themselves in opposition to these meanings, whether deliberately or by mistake, are simply screwing up no matter how popular the erroneous usage may become elsewhere. The application of this principle to the terms “hacker” and “open source” is left as an easy exercise for the reader.

But even if you have this as a rule, it’s difficult to interrogate an entire speech community about what distinctions and lexical items it considers important. It’s especially difficult when you know that you lack the technical competence to do the interrogation, even if you could round up enough suspects.

So, when a core member of a specialist community drops a lexicon in your lap, and it exhibits signs of even minimal scholarly care for documenting facts and being up-front about things the editor(s) don’t know, and it becomes clear that the members of the speech community themselves largely consider it correctly descriptive, that’s actually about as good as it ever gets; you are likely to seize on it with glad cries of glee.

And that’s how I first became an authority…

120 thoughts on “The Politics of Lexicography, or How To Become Normative Without Really Trying

  1. This entry makes me curious of what you think about the various attempts at “non-sexist” language and other language reform proposals. The only real case I can think of is with Spivak pronouns in games of Nomic, where the legalese makes the use of singular ‘they’ and generic ‘he’ a potential loophole.

  2. An interesting argument from authority to justify your position in the hacker-cracker distinction. I’ll be very selfish and assume that this, possibly among others, prompted this article.

    But there’s two different points to argue against:
    One, that many people inside the community think that some additions you’ve made to the JF describe not so much the Hacker community but your own world of hacker/libertarian/gun nuts. These additions were made mostly after the 1990’s editions you mention. Special mentions go to Aunt Tilly, Fisking and GandhiCon.
    It is also notable that you don’t mention the wide community of ‘young’ coders, with jargon like LoCos and the like, at all. While it might be arguable that there’s little actual jargon involved (‘planet’ is not a jargon term, at least, not only ours), avoiding to mention the existence of these groups is to me a serious omission.
    You might argue that Ubuntu Developers aren’t the be-all, end-all of the community, but that would go against all you’ve written in your apology of your work against old school ‘navel-gazing fuddy-duddies’.

    Second point I tried to make in earlier posts is that, no matter what the actual definition of hacker is, nobody else gives a fuck. I won’t use it to describe me because more often than not, I have to explain that I’m not a criminal, and eyes glazeth over. I prefer to use terms like ‘coder’ or ‘developer’ that have no criminal connotations as of yet. I’m certainly not the only one.

  3. Linguistic populism often reduces to a sort of cowardly academicism in which grammarians and the compilers of dictionaries suppress their own, inevitable normative role.

    There’s a lot of pressure from ordinary users of a language to stabilize it as well as to change it. The motivations include preserving status markers, maintaining communication, and probably aesthetics.
    Grammarians might need to be normative, but I don’t see a problem with dictionary compilers recording the current state of the language, complete with indications of how mainstream a usage is. Or, more exactly, a dictionary for fast use doesn’t need to be that ambitious, but something of the scale of the OED should be and is making the attempt.

  4. I agree with the endless ranting of the Language Log guys that a lot of what passes for functionalism in the prescriptions of popular language mavens is really just veiled academism or elitism. Not always, mind you — I think there is clear evidence for the blurring of “hacker” and “cracker” causing confusion in the real world, so it’s a good functional argument to keep those. But you’d be hard pressed to find genuine, unfeigned puzzlement over such bugaboos as “lose” vs. “loose”. While the misspelling annoys me, a sentence where this particular error would cause true confusion seems unlikely. “Loose” is usually an adjective, and “lose” is usually a verb, so the syntax alone disambiguates these most of the time.

  5. An interesting approach, but I think you might be setting yourself up for some identity politics traps, especially when dealing with words that classify people. What about the term “queer”? According to the norms of the speech community that redefined this term, just about anyone can use it to describe themselves, thus making it nearly useless except as a general victim-descriptor. I think you’re equating functionalism with ‘originating-communityism’ in a way that may not be accurate.

  6. >One, that many people inside the community think that some additions you’ve made to the JF describe not so much the Hacker community but your own world of hacker/libertarian/gun nuts. These additions were made mostly after the 1990’s editions you mention. Special mentions go to Aunt Tilly, Fisking and GandhiCon

    Anybody who can detect even a whiff of libertarianism or gun-nuttery in those entries has got to be smoking remarkably potent hallucinogens. Really, it amazes me that people can talk shit like that and look at themselves in a mirror afterwards.

    I may remove “fisking” at some point, but not because of or in spite of the politics. I thought at the time I had seen it cross over from the political blogosphere into the hacker culture, but it has sunk out of sight since.

  7. >I think you’re equating functionalism with ‘originating-communityism’ in a way that may not be accurate.

    It would certainly be a mistake to equate the two. Privileging originating communities is a functionalist tactic, but it’s not the strategy.

  8. >Or, more exactly, a dictionary for fast use doesn’t need to be that ambitious, but something of the scale of the OED should be and is making the attempt.

    You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I’ve been behind the scenes; most recently I was a principal informant in the OED’s effort to track the use of the term “sophont”. They’re more selective than anyone outside the process understands, and for good reason – much of the input they get is noise.

  9. >This entry makes me curious of what you think about the various attempts at “non-sexist” language and other language reform proposals.

    I think they’re largely pointless. On the issue of sexism, there is no reason to believe that whether the pronouns of a language are gendered or not has any impact on the degree of sex role equality in the cultures of its speakers – consider Turkish, for example, with its ungendered pronouns and deeply antifeminist culture.

    Indeed, from a functionalist point of view “Ms.” was a step backwards — it would have been better to invent or revive separate pronouns of address for married and unmarried men – and I’m not back-projecting, I had exacyly that reaction when it was first being pushed hard in the early 1970s.

  10. >For those unfamiliar with the original article that called out on “Fisking, Aunt Tillie and GandhiCon”: http://www.ntk.net/2003/06/06/

    Right. Taking NTK seriously. Always a mistake. I know those guys – they don’t even take themselves seriously, and I’ll bet they’ve been laughing their asses off at all the self-important twerps they put the wind up with that article ever since.

    British humor can be subtle sometimes. I used to live there, so I know that its barbs are often directed as much at its audience as at the ostensible target of the satire.

  11. Right. Taking NTK seriously. Always a mistake. I know those guys – they don’t even take themselves seriously, and I’ll bet they’ve been laughing their asses off at all the self-important twerps they put the wind up with that article ever since.

    Eric, it’s beginning to become difficult to take you seriously, especially when you make excuses like this for letting the warblogging entries and “moderate to neoconservative” verbiage stand when every single prominent hacker out there except for yourself has made stridently clear their opposition to neocon perfidy. Particularly this last election cycle.

  12. I guess I’m not a prominent hacker, then. That doesn’t bother me greatly, as I don’t consider myself such. Still, Jeff, that statement seems to me to demand substantiation.

  13. > Anybody who can detect even a whiff of libertarianism or gun-nuttery in those entries has got to be smoking remarkably potent hallucinogens. Really, it amazes me that people can talk shit like that and look at themselves in a mirror afterwards.

    I would say that the JF has a higher rate of sci-fi references than libertarianism or firearms. A quick grep seems to agree with me (I can’t even find a sentence on firearms that would imply a second amendment position), but my internal thesaurus may have missed a possible synonym.

    Why did I notice this? I’m not interested in science-fiction, and when I originally read the JF’s Appendix B, it seemed to be describing someone who wasn’t me. For example, the only connections with the “other interests” page that I have is that I own a Go board, and I used to have a few music CDs. Don’t get me wrong, I can think of someone I know when talking about most of it, but it still isn’t me. Video games would be a big interest for a lot of hackers I know.

    But what I honestly can’t point out, is a hacker I know in real life, that talks about libertarianism. The only conversations I’ve ever had in real life on the subject are when we talk about American politics (Ron Paul). I hadn’t even heard the word outside of a civics class until I was 19 (talking to an American student). And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a non-hacker/teacher talk about it offline. Of course, a lot of people I know (my age) would self-identify as social libertarians, but they don’t because the word really isn’t in the local vocabulary.

    So why don’t people point out the sci-fi “bias” at all? What I’m anecdotally trying to suggest is that foreigners are detecting a provincial point of view, that they can’t recognize. Much like one would feel like “they weren’t in Kansas anymore” (that phrase, amusingly, is in the local vocabulary) if they stumbled upon a conversation about ceilidhs or tarabish. I wouldn’t perceive anything out of the ordinary, but you probably would.

    If it were me, I’d just rip out Appendix B because I wouldn’t think it was worth the acrimony. But I tend to take the path of least resistance, which is a trait that you should add to Appendix B! I know that was lame, but I couldn’t resist.

  14. >Indeed, from a functionalist point of view “Ms.” was a step backwards — it would have been better to invent or revive separate pronouns of address for married and unmarried men

    I once received a letter referring to me as “Master Stephen J…” I thought it was hilarious. But I don’t think that reviving that title is what feminists would want.

  15. To be clear, I was only pointing out that NTK came up with the example terms first, nearly 6 years ago.

    My read on the NTK article is that it was pointed directly at esr, not ‘the audience”.

  16. I guess I’m not a prominent hacker

    Of course You Are Not!

    Sorry Jay! I am just trying to find out wordpress’s secrets and I used you as an object.Maybe l8r I will seek your geekie advice! :)

  17. I typed the following in the previous thread but I think here is its suitable place:

    >The war for terminology is over and we lost.

    Jeff! I typed “define: hacker” in Google and this was the first definition in the long list:

    someone who plays golf poorly

    so I guess even crackers have lost the battle!! :)

    But in POD (Pocket Oxford Dictionary) I looked it up and it turned out as the following:

    hacker n. 1 person or thing that hacks or cuts roughly. 2 colloq. a person whose hobby is computing or computer programming. b person who uses a computer to gain unauthorized access to a computer network.

    The entry suggests that the term which ESR advocates is more credible in not only academic circles but also among the non-geek but literate people.

    You said that his work on the Jargon File doesn’t meet academic standards and should only be regarded as a tribe-nucleating effort.I can name a dozen prolific CS scientists and highly educated people using its entries as gospel [e.g Peter Norvig and Paul Graham are easy to check.Go on and search .they do own official websites]

    I am not a so-called devoted ESR fan boy but you’re definitely undervaluing his contributions.

  18. >One, that many people inside the community think that some additions you’ve made to the JF describe not so much the Hacker community
    >but your own world of hacker/libertarian/gun nuts. These additions were made mostly after the 1990’s editions you mention. Special
    >mentions go to Aunt Tilly, Fisking and GandhiCon

    >Anybody who can detect even a whiff of libertarianism or gun-nuttery in those entries has got to be smoking remarkably potent
    >hallucinogens. Really, it amazes me that people can talk shit like that and look at themselves in a mirror afterwards.

    >I may remove “fisking” at some point, but not because of or in spite of the politics. I thought at the time I had seen it cross over from the
    >political blogosphere into the hacker culture, but it has sunk out of sight since.

    Exactly my point. I meant ‘your own world’, which I described somewhat, based on your own words; and not the fact that those entries belong to those categories. If you define yourself as a gun-nut, a libertarian or an anarchist), and a hacker, why am I wrong describing you like that? And what about my other points?

  19. >> “I won’t use it to describe me”

    > Thank goodness.

    Great point. An argument of utmost value to contribute to the discussion. Thanks for enlightening us.

  20. >Exactly my point. I meant ‘your own world’, which I described somewhat, based on your own words; and not the fact that those entries belong to those categories. If you define yourself as a gun-nut, a libertarian or an anarchist), and a hacker, why am I wrong describing you like that? And what about my other points?

    You are desperately, desperately confused.

    Anyone doing what I do can – and sometimes will – fall victim to a sampling error. I work at avoiding this, which is one reason I sometimes remove entries. There is a big difference, however, between occasional sampling errors and the injection of bias. There is no mention anywhere in the Jargon File of firearms, and only three mentions of libertarianism, one of which references a a fictional context to explain a term and the other two simply alluding to the completely uncontroversial observation (one often made by people actively hostile to libertarianism) that the hacker culture contains a relatively high percentage of libertarians.

    I therefore conclude that the people who whine that I’ve injected my biases into the Jargon File are seeing what they want and need to see, not what is actually there – they’re so hot for a fight with me over politics or whatever that they wouldn’t give me credit for objectivity even if I systematically biased the File against my own view of the world.

    So fuck ‘em. They’re idiots. The only rational response to that kind of obstreperousness is to ignore it with contempt and write what you were gonna write anyway. Which is exactly my policy.

  21. >The entry suggests that the term which ESR advocates is more credible in not only academic circles but also among the non-geek but literate people.

    One line of evidence for this proposition is that I’m frequently asked to explain the distinction by savvy non-geek interviewers. Happened just three days ago on the EconTalk podcast.

  22. >I am not a so-called devoted ESR fan boy but you’re definitely undervaluing his contributions.

    Never underestimate the power of the inverse-fanboy effect. That is, if you’re a public figure with a strong personality, one of the phenomena you’re going to attract is people who are obsessed with you in a weird, negative, stalkerish sort of way. They’re just as attached as fanboys, but their secondary gain comes from relentlessly attacking you, in a way that’s just as unrelated to the merits of anything you actually say as fanboyish worship.

    Several of these pathetic creatures frequent this blog.

  23. I guess I’m not a prominent hacker, then.

    If you be prominent, then it is likely not for your programming prowess (though you may have that in abundance) so much as your cosplay skillz. :)

    Nevertheless I retract my original statement, because both you and Tom Lord have made comments in your respective blogs that ring neoconservative, or at least hawkish with respect to the Islamic world.

    But you are in the minority. In today’s hacker culture, leftism or perhaps left-anarchism is dominant. We are mostly what was called in the 80s “Atari Democrats”. Shrub’s toxic policies drove even more of us to the left.

    That doesn’t bother me greatly, as I don’t consider myself such. Still, Jeff, that statement seems to me to demand substantiation.

    Oh, let’s see: Vint Cerf, Obama supporter. Linus Torvalds: Obama supporter. Stallman was calling for Bush’s head from the get-go. Aaron Swartz formerly of Reddit posted a long screed about the operation of right-wing think tanks and how they subtly manipulate minds and even challenged his readers to find a false statement made by Chomsky with only one successful claimant. Paul Graham has been known to pepper his talks with anti-Bush quips.

  24. In today’s hacker culture, leftism or perhaps left-anarchism is dominant. We are mostly what was called in the 80s “Atari Democrats”. Shrub’s toxic policies drove even more of us to the left.

    In perfect honesty I actually cannot make that strong a statement, lest I do what I just got through accusing Eric of doing. But in my own observations, surveying the cultural landscape, opposition to Bush, his policies, and his war seems to be a given; people who support them being a remarkable exception.

  25. The Left tends to think the whole world is with them, largely because they spend a lot of time listening to themselves. Your observations are likely colored by that effect. Yes, there are examples of Obama supporters in the hacker community; I’d be astonished if there weren’t. I know I’m in the minority. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have had the utter disaster that the last election constitutes.

    As for being a prominent hacker, I do wish my work with Hercules got more recognition…

  26. >Paul Graham has been known to pepper his talks with anti-Bush quips.

    Paul Graham is a libertarian – and I’ve made anti-Bush quips myself. Are we leftists?

    You see only what you want to see, and disregard the rest. As Jay observes, this is a chronic disease of the left.

  27. >the utter disaster that the last election constitutes.

    Oddly enough, Jay, I’m more sanguine now than I was before election night. Obama looked unnervingly like the Manchurian Candidate at the time, but his transition appointments suggest he might actually throw all his hard-left cronies under the bus. Never have I been more grateful for evidence that a politician is an approval-seeking, unprincipled weathervane.

    (Everyone else: One of the relevant differences here is that Jay is a conservative and I am not.)

  28. I, too, feel better than I did on the morning after the election…but I’ve also bought firearms and ammunition since then, too. If you haven’t stocked up, I recommend you do so, because your Second Amendment rights are in serious jeopardy.

    That Clintonian policies cause me such relief is a real marker of just how far to the left Obama appeared on Election Day. Things could have been far, far worse.

  29. >So fuck ‘em. They’re idiots.

    Thanks for such a rude simplicity.Elegant remark and fantastic conclusion.I am really sorry for you ESR!

  30. Jeff Read and Adriano have contributed a lot to your threads and have maintained a considerable amount of respect towards you even when they are against your ideas.I regard you as a fascist because you believe It’s my blog, so I have the right to insult others.
    Yes I know,you have an unending thrill to rule but like an old Nazi living the last painful days on a wrecked wheelchair,you are just a ranting old fart.

  31. There are some concepts that deserve nothing but ridicule, such as the notion that is once again about to gain ascendancy that it is possible to tax ourselves into prosperity. Holding such ideas up to ridicule is nothing less than a public duty.

  32. >you are just a ranting old fart.

    You know, I am now really rather tempted to rename my blog “ranting old fart”. Unfortunately, I suspect many people are just as oblivious as you and would fail to get the joke, much less notice that it’s at their expense.

    Some days it gets tiring, being a walking Rorsach test for all the world’s neurotic twits.

  33. But it is his blog, and that does give him the right to insult others. That isn’t fascism, its his right to say what he wants on his own property.

  34. >Several of these pathetic creatures frequent this blog.

    If you are pointing to the likes of Sir Jim Thompson I want to announce that we regard him as a hero and forth runner for Raymond-Baiting campaign .He is a wise geek who see your defects and point them to you but when the feedback is pure name calling and hissy fits he simply ridicules ya.

  35. As for being a prominent hacker, I do wish my work with Hercules got more recognition…

    As do I.

  36. “they wouldn’t give me credit for objectivity even if I systematically biased the File against my own view of the world.”

    That wouldn’t be objectivity at all, just more bias. If you’re trying to be ironic, it’s not working.

  37. Obama looked unnervingly like the Manchurian Candidate at the time, but his transition appointments suggest he might actually throw all his hard-left cronies under the bus. Never have I been more grateful for evidence that a politician is an approval-seeking, unprincipled weathervane.

    Scanning the newspaper headlines on the train into work I notice many stories of Obama’s “stimulus package” and so forth, and couldn’t help but think to myself: I thought we voted Bush out of office?!

    Unlike Jay and Eric I’m willing to concede that government intervention in the economy is sometimes a necessary and useful practice. However, what Congress, Bush, and now Barry are doing with their various bailouts, stimuli, and so forth is nothing short of packing sand down a rathole. I feel it will exacerbate matters and increase the likelihood of 1930s conditions prevailing rather than help.

  38. What does “The precondition on the request for the URL /wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.” mean?

  39. Sorry, that was luserish. I mean to say that, trying to add a comment to your latest ‘koan’ post, that’s the answer from the server.

  40. But it is his blog, and that does give him the right to insult others. That isn’t fascism, its his right to say what he wants on his own property.

    gee whiz! JohnOC, Are you a masochist or something?

    Yes it’s his blog, so he has the Right opportunity to shoot his mouth about any god damn thing that comes to his deteriorating and/or dysfunctional diseased mind.Who really gives a heck? A pile of wrong reasoning and series of soon-turned-out-to-be-merely-hilarious predictions of any kind from Obama Campaign’s failure to Microsoft’s demise on OS sales.Other than bashing his own fading credibility he has achieved nothing.

    Frankly speaking Eric!, I don’t hate you but for heavens sake think twice before the next enlightening revolutionary prediction and postpone the date in which nobody even those minorities who hold your absurd ideas in high esteem like sacred cow won’t give a flying felafel what you are talking about.

  41. Why do you remove entries for the reason of “no longer live”? I find those entries about bygone uses of jargon to be a fascinating look into an era of technology now past. If a term was never really in use it should be removed from the main file and either segregated or purged entirely for reasons of integrity. Terms that really were in use at some time are different. I know it’s not completely congruent, but English dictionaries mark no-longer-in-common-use terms like “prithee” as archaic. Why not do something along those lines? Otherwise, in some future and better world when users are no longer familiar with, for example, Microsoft Windows entries like Blue Screen of Death will be removed from the body of the File. I disagree with that. I think the Jargon File is not just a reference for current usages but a repository for the linguistic aspects of our subculture’s heritage.

    Otherwise I appreciate greatly the work you do on it. I own two of the print editions, which are well-thumbed.

  42. esr: Never underestimate the power of the inverse-fanboy effect. That is, if you’re a public figure with a strong personality, one of the phenomena you’re going to attract is people who are obsessed with you in a weird, negative, stalkerish sort of way. They’re just as attached as fanboys, but their secondary gain comes from relentlessly attacking you, in a way that’s just as unrelated to the merits of anything you actually say as fanboyish worship.

    I’ll agree that I come here in part because I disagree with you on so many things (I also come here because you discuss topics of interest to me), but I disagree (surprise!) with your conclusion that it’s because I have some personal stalker issues going on. I go to places where I disagree with people precisely so I won’t become a victim of the echo-chamber effect; I do this elsewhere, I find it edifying; I started because the best way for me to learn something is to explain it to other people, and creationists are an excellent target for that sort of thing. I continue because I think it’s important not to wall myself off from people who I disagree with.

    Jay Maynard: The Left tends to think the whole world is with them, largely because they spend a lot of time listening to themselves. Your observations are likely colored by that effect. Yes, there are examples of Obama supporters in the hacker community; I’d be astonished if there weren’t.

    You’d have a more convincing point–heck, you’d have a point at all–if you actually provided examples. You could severely damage Jeff Read’s argument with a couple of counterexamples, but you (conspicuously) haven’t.

    For my part, I’ll mention that Donald Knuth is apparently Objectively Pro-Terror. (Are folks still saying “Objectively Pro-Terror”? I always thought it had a nice ring to it.) Perhaps this all has something to do with assuming overlap between the SF fandom and the hacker community

  43. Jay Maynard: The answer to that objection (and it’s one that I share) is that Bush was hardly acting like a conservative.

    The “Bush was never a conservative!” maneuver doesn’t really hold water unless you said so before his approval ratings tanked.

  44. I said so when he quit acting like a conservative…which, for me, was when he started bailing out industry right and left, which was well after his approval ratings tanked. I don’t care what others think when I make decisions about what I consider to be conservative or not.

  45. >The “Bush was never a conservative!” maneuver doesn’t really hold water unless you said so before his approval ratings tanked.

    I know Jay Maynard well; he’s a good sort, and this is not hypocrisy or backfilling on his part. He really believes it. And his political positions are, taken in themselves, quite sensible and more “liberal” (in the classical individualist sense) than most of you might guess. The problem is that his belief that “Bush was never really a conservative” is grounded in an idealized and false-to-fact notion of what conservatism is. He thinks — or perhaps “wishfully hopes” would be more accurate — that conservatives as a group are as decent and principled as he is.

    Unfortunately for us all, he is wrong. This is really the heart of the reason I am not a conservative.

    People like Jay want conservatism to be a principled ideology of individualism and minimal government, and are perpetually waking up the morning after to discover that they’ve been fucked over by something almost but not completely other than that – Bush’s drunken-sailor-like increases in government spending and regulation being the case in point here.

    Alas for Jay, real existing conservatism is a lumpy and rather grotesque chimera composed mainly of reactionary gut rumbles decorated with a few bits of jewelry borrowed from pre-socialist classical liberalism. Its only continuing virtue (a significant one, I must admit) is that it’s not the Left. For Jay, and most of the conservatives I know, this is enough to keep them hoping that the lumpen-thing can somehow be redeemed. I never held that hope, so I’m not disappointed.

  46. “that ring neoconservative, or at least hawkish with respect to the Islamic world.”

    Sigh.

    OK, so let’s examine this word “Neoconservative” according to the lexicographical approaches outlined here.

    The populist definition is largely “I don’t know jack shit about it other than it’s has something to do with being aggressive/militaristic and that Bush is one of them.”

    If you read the Neoconservatism: Autobiography of An Idea, by Irving Kristol, which can be considered both a functional view (as he invented the term) and an elitist one (as it’s a way more intelligent book than whatever goes these days under the label of either neoconism or a critique of it), he defined it as: liberals mugged by reality. I.e. a largely urban, modern, and (unfortunately) quite statist version of Conservatism.

    Even more functionally – looking at the experts – those I know who are taking an academic interest in the history of Conservatism, talk about “first generation Neoconservatism”, meaning largely what Irving Kristol meant, a highbrow, intellectual, modern and urban version of Conservatism, and “second generation Neoconservatism”, which may be described as a hawkish kind of dedication of spreading liberal democracy all over the globe, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer etc.

  47. >However, what Congress, Bush, and now Barry are doing with their various bailouts, stimuli, and so forth is nothing short of packing sand down a rathole. I feel it will exacerbate matters and increase the likelihood of 1930s conditions prevailing rather than help

    Hm. First you noticed the prospiracy around Naomi Klein, now this. Sounds like you’re gradually undoing the Gramscian programming, maybe.

  48. >OK, so let’s examine this word “Neoconservative” according to the lexicographical approaches outlined here.

    Good exegesis, Shenpen. I’m not a neoconservative, but I think what you have to say about it is largely correct.

  49. Hang on, folks…I didn’t say “Bush was never a conservative”, and I don’t believe it. What I said was that he wasn’t acting like a conservative, in regard to the bailouts and such, and I do believe that. There are lots of things he did that I disagree with, some rather strongly (you do NOT want to get me started on the TSA!), but he was, at heart, a conservative.

    FWIW, the term “neoconservative” is used mainly by the Left to tar anyone they don’t like with a brush guaranteed to make the average American go “eww!”. I’m not a neoconservative, and disagree with both the first and second generations as Shenpen describes them. I’m best described as a Reagan conservative with libertarian leanings. Don’t make the mistake, as some have, of calling me a libertarian, or else you’ll incur Eric’s wrath.

  50. >Why do you remove entries for the reason of “no longer live”?

    I used to do that when the main medium of publication was paper. Now they go in a different on-line file

    Um., it isn’t obvious? I really do try to track live usage.

  51. >Don’t make the mistake, as some have, of calling me a libertarian, or else you’ll incur Eric’s wrath.

    You meant this as a punchline, but in fact I wouldn’t get wrathful about that. You lean just far enough libertarian that only a gentle correction, or at very most a very minor snit, would be appropriate.

  52. >> “they wouldn’t give me credit for objectivity even if I systematically biased the File against my own view of the world.”
    > That wouldn’t be objectivity at all, just more bias. If you’re trying to be ironic, it’s not working.

    Sorry, I thought about it better and understood that you meant how fanboys will think that some opinion is objective because it fits their preconceptions. My bad.

  53. ESR,

    “And his political positions are, taken in themselves, quite sensible and more “liberal” (in the classical individualist sense) than most of you might guess. The problem is that his belief that “Bush was never really a conservative” is grounded in an idealized and false-to-fact notion of what conservatism is.”

    I believe it’s you who are always and consciously misusing the terms Liberalism and Conservatism. It makes sense from your Libertarian perspective, but it still it can cause confusion, so I think you should not do it.

    Libertarianism is a purely legal/political philosophy while both Conservatism and Liberalism are _general_ philosophies that only overlap or overflow into politics and legal thinking. This is a very important distinction.

    Example: I applied Conservative philosophy to the question why does management consulting fail so often here: http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=ahb2hddjffjv_15fsvpmrrg&hl=en

    Someone else, perhaps, someone like Jeff Read or Grendelkhan could perhaps just as well apply Liberal philosophy (i.e. maximizing personal autonomy) or a Progressive philosophy (i.e. maximizing equality) to the very same subject, or to a similar subject, and get a coherent result. So these philosophies can be used in non-political, non-legal contexts. They are general philosophies.

    However, Libertarianism, being purely political and legal, has absolutely nothing to say about e.g. management consulting and a thousand other interesting things. It says as long as it’s voluntary, contractual and respects property rights, it’s all fine and let the market sort out the rest. It’s indifferent.

    Which means when a management consultant decides on what strategy to pursue _within_the_market_process_ he can borrow from Conservatism, Liberalism, Progressivism or a thousand other schools of thought, but he cannot learn from Libertarianism as he will learn nothing he could use from there. Perhaps you see it as an advantage. I see it both as an advantage and a disadvantage. Preventing abuses of power by separating power-related philosophies from philosophies for other use is a win. Loss of a general coherence in theorizing about the general workings of human nature and human relationships is, well, a lose.

    But that’s your problem, not mine. My problem is that you misuse the terms Liberalism and Conservatism.

    You often attempt to define both as if they would too be purely political-legal philosophies.

    Knowing how conscious you are about terminology, I can hardly believe it’s an unconscious mistake, I’m more inclined to think you are consciously trying to exert influence on the public usage of these terms. Which is OK but at least own up to it.

  54. >Sorry, I thought about it better and understood that you meant how fanboys will think that some opinion is objective because it fits their preconceptions. My bad.

    Or, more precisely, that the inverse-fanboys would trump up some reason to be in dispute with me even if I wrote in bias against my actual positions. There is no pleasing those people, because their enmity is not rational – the value conflicts are a pretext, not a motivation. So fuck ‘em.

    Good on you for noticing that and admitting that you’d done so.

  55. >Knowing how conscious you are about terminology, I can hardly believe it’s an unconscious mistake, I’m more inclined to think you are consciously trying to exert influence on the public usage of these terms. Which is OK but at least own up to it.

    No such covert agenda, I just don’t agree with your assumptions here.

    I use the terms “conservatism” and “liberalism” honestly as I think they apply. I do try to distinguish, when there is possible ambiguity, between classical liberalism and left-liberalism.

    I grant you there’s a sort of vague philosophical umbra around these terms that isn’t about politico-legal philosophy, but I think that is (a) equally true of ‘libertarian’, and (b) primarily of historical interest, not very relevant to modern usage.

  56. Shenpen, you’re mistaken about libertarianism being purely a political philosophy. In terms of the formal theory of libertarianism, i.e. self-ownership, the non-aggression principle, etc., you’re correct. In practice, though, you’re dead wrong. As I wrote in an essay which ESR promised to eventually blog about:

    > Libertarian attitudes routinely overshoot libertarian principles. Essentially all libertarians support the right to bear arms, but consider property rights more fundamental. Thus, we acknowledge the right of property-owners to forbid firearms on their property. But that won’t stop libertarians from getting annoyed whenever a property-owner exercises that right.

  57. “Or, more precisely, that the inverse-fanboys would trump up some reason to be in dispute with me…”
    More generally and exactly, fanboys and inverse fanboys (and indeed most people) do this all the time, it doesn’t have to be just an argument with ESR.

  58. For those wondering about what neocon means, check out Irving Kristol’s “Neoconservatism: The Autobiopgraphy of an Idea.” This is an excellent collection of essays about what it is and whey they think the way they do. It comes from some surprising Trostkyite roots (but has since moved far on from that.)

    Of course, for some, and Jeff Read and ilk I’m looking at you here, Neocon has a become an antisemitic insult for conservative jews.

  59. “primarily of historical interest, not very relevant to modern usage.”

    It is – your non-politico-legal opinions are for example a mixture of the two, but the interesting thing is that regarding every subject you are either this one or that one, rarely combined. You are Liberal about sex, laughing at any assumption that abstinence or any other kind conscious self-restrain or avoidance may be a virtue. Full reign to autonomy and the pursuit of desire here – Liberalism. You are Conservative about how classical culture works in The Deadly Genius – tradition etc. Your non-political-legal views seem to be a fairly random collection of Liberal and Conservative thoughts. (I say random because I don’t yet see the what connects them. Clearly not always individualism – The Deadly Genius isn’t particularly individualist.)

    Actually thinking a bit more about it you and Daniel are right, a broader Libertarian culture does exist, as I just suddenly remembered The Red Planet, from Heinlein. One could see it as a Libertarian handbook about child-rearing. OK – but again it’s a fairly random collection of different kinds of ideas. At least in it I did discover consistency. Perhaps the most interesting part is when they talk about not giving a shit about gun regulations at one page and lecturing the boy to treat his little sister politely, as one should treat a lady, on the next one. First is Liberal-Anarchistic, fuck authority, long live autonomy, I do what I want to, period. Second is Conservative – importance of virtues, politeness and behaving like gentlemen. It’s undisciplined from one point of view and disciplined from another: it hates externally enforced discipline but holds it very important to learn in childhood an internalized kind of discipline. This I can recognize as a philosophy of consistent and mature kind individualism. I can respect that if one can really live that way, I only see big problems if or when only the easier half of it gets popular… and in fact it already did.

  60. A more general look at a libertarian utopia would be found in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein describes a pure libertarian society, after essentially handwaving it into existence. I’m not sure it would work as he describes with real people, but it’s a fascinating exploration of the concept.

  61. >You are Liberal about sex, laughing at any assumption that abstinence or any other kind conscious self-restrain or avoidance may be a virtue.

    That’s an interesting misinterpretation of my views. I see how I may have encouraged it, so I’ll try to clear it up. In fact I think conscious sexual self-restraint can be a virtue and don’t laugh at it at all. It looks like I disdain it because I think most of the reasons commonly given for advocating such self-restraint are bogus, thinly-veiled pretexts for irrational prudery. That is, I admire self-discipline of all kinds (including sexual) but laugh at prudes and for-your-own-gooders.

    >It’s undisciplined from one point of view and disciplined from another: it hates externally enforced discipline but holds it very important to learn in childhood an internalized kind of discipline. This I can recognize as a philosophy of consistent and mature kind individualism.

    Now you’re getting it. If you keep thinking in that direction, the apparent randomness of many of my views will start to make much more sense. Do you see how this connects which the correction I just uttered?

    I think your not being American makes it more difficult for you to get this. The combination of anarchistic impulses with an almost fetishistic cultivation of internal self-discipline that you see in Heinlein (and myself – that’s part of what the martial arts is about for me) is very, very American.

  62. Jay,

    The Red Planet is at least realistic from a social dynamics point of view. The Moon clearly isn’t.

    It’s full of unsolved ethical questions and wishful thinking. Unsolved ethical question is f.e. that how cool it is to achieve a revolution via a conspiracy of a small elite who consistently lie to the people about their leader, and hide other information from the masses too. Wishful thinking is f.e. how Adam, the computer has practically unlimited power and could easily become a tyrant, he is just too benevolent to do so. WTF. That the society quickly starts to degenerate into democratic statism but Heinlein just, indeed, handwaves it away that hopefully it won’t. And so on. To be perfectly honest I don’t think it’s one of his best works. Rather The Red Planet, Starship Troopers or Glory Road.

    Having side that, I have good reason for respecting Heinlein, but different ones. What I respect is that he toyed around, played around with a lot of ideas, never allowing any one of them to become a narrow ideology for him. He always kept an open mind and seem to have always understood that such ideas are more like a game, never to be taken deadly seriously.

    If you like this “playing around with ideas, never ossifying” aspect of Heinlein, I recommend reading G.K. Chesterton. He is a similarly playful thinker of a more reactionary sort, and has some really deep insights.

  63. “I recommend reading G.K. Chesterton. He is a similarly playful thinker of a more reactionary sort, and has some really deep insights.”

    Chesterton certainly considered himself to be a liberal, and also very much a democrat: one remembers the relish with which he quotes someone who said “Chesterton *is* the mob”.

    But then I’m not sure what value the term “reactionary” has anyway. Behind it there seems to be a vaguely Marxist notion that they themselves – the revolutionary left – initiate things and others merely “react” to them. I think that’s highly questionable. There’s a flavour of their (surely by now ludicrously unbelievable) historical theodicy about it, too.

    In Chesterton’s “historical” writings – a version of “Merrie England” – he seemed to have stuck himself with trying to prove that mediaeval England was very much more liberal and very much more democratic that one might think. But then it would have to have been for him, since he’d decided he was (a) liberal, (b) a democrat, and (c) Roman Catholic, and in that period the English Church hadn’t yet broken with Rome. So, I think, in his mind everything at that time would have to have been for the best – and what would be for the best would be a situation that satisfied all his own preferences (whether – as with Eric (grin) – those preferences were internally consistent or not).

    But, yes, he can be interesting and has perhaps worn better than others of the period (Shaw? Wells?). The novels and short stories, including the Father Brown stories, are worth reading and often good, too – although one could often wish not to have a “teaching point” worked in, as it usually is. But then he’s not alone in that.

  64. >But then I’m not sure what value the term “reactionary” has anyway. Behind it there seems to be a vaguely Marxist notion that they themselves – the revolutionary left – initiate things and others merely “react” to them

    The term well predates Marxism; it was originally coined during the French Revolution to describe factions that wished to restore some version of the ancien regime. Today it still has the same primary meaning: a “reactionary” wishes to restore an earlier social order that he judges better than the present one.

  65. “The combination of anarchistic impulses with an almost fetishistic cultivation of internal self-discipline (…) is very, very American.”

    Yes, I think it is, although not entirely unknown outside of it (Vaclav Klaus is a good example, see his book published by Cato Institute). But yes – I think it’s a combination of Protestantism (the Swiss are similar, and the Scots were similar at one time) and some attitudes inherited from largely the Greco-Roman Ancients. The first is a matter of course (dissenter pilgrims et al.) the second could use some explanation – why had Cicero et al. a much bigger impact in the USA than South America or Europe?

  66. > Geometers own the meaning of the term “trapezoid” …

    I like that but for some reason this does not always seem to work. Consider the disagreement over the steepness of Learning Curves:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_curve

    If somebody plots a learning curve (time is on the ‘x’ axis, and widgets per hour or hours per widget on the ‘y’ axis), how can there be any disagreement?

  67. OK, so to get back ontopic, is it a realistic aim that every term should mean the same thing for everybody?

    Consider “training” – does it mean the same for the guy who visits a gym twice a week in order to get a bit fitter and an Olympics athlete? Is the difference purely quantitative, or, as I suspect, qualitative, a different _kind_ of training?

    Consider the term “science” whose usage consists of layers. In the outermost layer it basically means systematic knowledge, much of what requires no proof, justification or evidence whatsoever, example: anatomy. Everybody can easily figure out what bones we have by looking at a skeleton, it requires no proof that we do have bones, but when all bones are assigned a Latin name, like tibia and femur, i.e. there is a systematic accounting of our bones and each are assigned a name, then that’s called the science of anatomy, purely by the virtue of classification, systematization, labelling and nothing else. That’s the outermost layer of science. Then travelling inwards you see stricter and stricter ways of proving ideas, looser ways of proving in f.e. history, stricter ways in empirical, experimental physics and chemistry and probably at the core, the most “sciencest” science is math where proofs are considered bulletproof.

    Science clearly does not means the same for everybody. Nor does training. Neither many other terms. So is it necessary that words mean the same for everybody? Can’t we just say “X in the Yian sense” or “X, as defined by Y” or “X, as used by people of Y” ?

  68. >But yes – I think it’s a combination of Protestantism (the Swiss are similar, and the Scots were similar at one time) and some attitudes inherited from largely the Greco-Roman Ancients

    I agree about the tie to Protestantism, and that your examples of the Swiss and Scots are on point; I’m skeptical that the Greco-Romans had much to do with it, though I agree the parallels with (in particular) Aurelian stoicism are suggestive.

    Here’s a thought: one of the most distinctive things about the U.S. is the influence of the Scots-Irish and Anglo-Scottish border tribesmen. David Hackett Fischer and Walter Russell Mead have argued (the former in Albion’s Seed and the latter in The Jacksonian Tradition) that their peculiar folkways have been the most important shaping influence on the U.S.’s national character.

    Read Mead’s essay and tell me if you think that might be at the root of the Heinleinian attitude. I won’t say it’s a complete explanation, but it might be a large part.

  69. The hosts of the U.K. car show Top Gear have a fastidious, European engineering aesthetic. Not only do they give scathing reviews to American autos on their show, they’re also apparently not above some good old-fashioned American-baiting.

    Here they are writing inciteful, offensive messages on each other’s vehicles in order to attract unwanted attention to the other guys. Such scandalous verbiage as “Hillary for President”, “NASCAR Sucks”, “Man Love Rules OK”, and “country music is rubbish”. Now sit back, relax, and watch that American obsessive self-discipline at work:

    http://www.videosift.com/video/Top-Gear-crew-nearly-get-lynched-in-Alabama

    “Now, are y’all gay lookin’ to see how long it takes to get beat up in a hick town?”

  70. >“Now, are y’all gay lookin’ to see how long it takes to get beat up in a hick town?”

    I feel a need to point out that, once you translate that out of Southern, it’s actually a pretty reasonable question, under the precise circumstances given.

  71. I feel a need to point out that, once you translate that out of Southern, it’s actually a pretty reasonable question, under the precise circumstances given.

    I like how he responds: “I’m not gay.” With the unstated subtext that the “lookin’ to see how long it takes to get beat up in a hick town” part is, technically, accurate.

    And I’m not saying their actions are within the bounds of propriety or good taste. But they certainly don’t deserve to be pelted with stones and fear for their lives for doing it. A culture which fetishized self-restraint will leave them alone.

  72. >A culture which fetishized self-restraint will leave them alone.

    You actually chose an incident that undermines your argument. Leaving aside the “deserved” part for the moment (I’ll get to it later), you need to reckon with the cultural norms of the Scots-Irish Jacksonians who inhabit southern Alabama – not my culture, but one that I understand. You might find it helpful to read the references I gave Shenpen upthread.

    The culture of the Jacksonians does fetishize self-restraint, but it also has a rigid notion of personal honor. In this culture, one is not required to exercise normal self-restraint when defending one’s manhood – in fact. rage and violence directed at the offender is considered both manly and appropriate. See “Albion’s Seed” for extended discussion of this specific point.

    So your claim that “A culture which fetishized self-restraint will leave them alone.” is false in this instance; among Jacksonians there is a competing norm which trumps self-restraint under the kind of intentional, extreme provocation that was deliberately offered. Note that I am not making this argument to excuse the behavior, I am just pointing out that the inference you drew from it is incorrect.

    Actually, given the percentage of men who routinely carry concealed in the rural South, there is good evidence of self-restraint in this incident; that is, none of the Top Gear crew were shot or pistol-whipped. Shooting would have been a bit extreme by local standards, but I’m mildly surprised nobody was pistol-whipped. Them good ol’ boys were being nice, comparatively speaking.

    As a separate issue, passing to ethical analysis:

    >But they certainly don’t deserve to be pelted with stones and fear for their lives for doing it.

    Oh, I dunno. I think they got just about exactly what they deserved. Nobody was killed or seriously injured, and the Top Gear people received a valuable education the import of which (to paraphrase Mark Twain) is never likely to grow dim or doubtful.

  73. Shenpen,

    I’ve read quite as much Chesterton as I’d wish, too – shedloads of it. And I’m quite aware of what his “picture” is, as I explained.

  74. Mead: it reads like a shorter and several orders of magnitude less entertaining version of Jim Goad’s excellent The Redneck Manifesto (available on Amazon). (He is a unique phenomenon – he is the Mozart of trolling, more or less. Highly recommended.)

    Yes, it does explain some parts of it, no, nearly not all. Heinlein has transformed, refined and sublimated this attitude in many ways.

    There is something unrelated but interesting in that article. “Just as Southerners whose grandfathers burned crosses against the Catholic Church” – WTF? Ku Klux Klan? Crann Tàra? What does it have to do with the Catholics?

  75. >Yes, it does explain some parts of it, no, nearly not all. Heinlein has transformed, refined and sublimated this attitude in many ways.

    Indeed, And then you have people like myself, who are not closely connected to the Jacksonian tribe by birth or upbringing but learned much from Heinlein,

    Actually…that’s oversimplifying a bit. I wasn’t raised among Jacksonians, but my father was; he grew up in the mountains of central Pennsylvania in a family impoverished by the Great Depression, poverty made more painful by the fact that they had memories of having been what passed for gentry in late 19th-century America (a long line of engineers, judges, and military officers).

    The respects in which my personal style overlaps with Jacksonianism are partly Heinlein’s doing and partly transmission through my father. Which is why, despite my Ivy-League diction and L.L.Bean clothes, I can disappear into the crowd at a gun show by putting on a tractor cap. I wouldn’t be caught dead chewing tobacco, though :-)

    >WTF? Ku Klux Klan? Crann Tàra? What does it have to do with the Catholics?

    Ah, this is a murky little corner of U.S. history that I’m unsurprised you don’t know; it’s near-forgotten even here. My family was Catholic to the extent they were anything, which is how I know that anti-Catholic bigotry has been a dead issue in the U.S. for essentially my entire life. But it was not always so; in the late 19th century Catholics were considered an alien tribe of doubtful loyalties, and there was a rather powerful nativist movement that compounded racism and anti-Catholic hatred.

    That’s where and when the KKK’s origins lie. You can still find traces of the old animus among the really hard-shell evangelical Protestants, but only traces – it’s an even more discredited form of prejudice than anti-black racism, which itself is getting hard to find in the U.S. these last three decades or so.

  76. >Jim Goad’s excellent The Redneck Manifesto

    Oddly enough, I was unaware of this book. Having read some reviews of it, I’m pretty sure I’m on his side.

    There is no denying, for example, that the push for gun control by bicoastal elite liberals has a very strong whiff about it of class warfare against Goad’s tribe. I’ve blogged on this theme before.

  77. “Having read some reviews” – I’d recommend reading the whole book, not for informational reasons but for those of fun. I was laughing my ass off at about every page. Three times as funny as Terry Pratchett in a unique, vulgar, pain-in-the-ass, trollish way.

  78. >I’d recommend reading the whole [The Redneck Manifesto]

    Found the Amazon preview; I’ll probably pick up a copy of the whole book shortly. That’s my father’s family and childhood friends and hometown Goad is describing, right enough – substitute the Pennsylvania Appalachians for New Hampshire and it all maps over with barely a glitch. (My mother, on the other hand, hailed from a more elevated social class; her dad was a scenery artist during Hollywood’s glory years and she grew up on Laurel Canyon Road. Coincidently, Robert Heinlein was a neighbor.)

    Reading the preview, I’m actually wondering why so many people were shocked and offended by this book. The prose isn’t any more over-the-top than (say) Hunter S. Thompson, and most of it seems like repeated restatements of the stone-obvious.

  79. spot on, eric.
    (i disagree very slightly in one or two truly trivial areas, but these could at best be described as nit-picking. so i won’t.)

    >There are dialects in which “you” is used as a second-person singular and “you-all” or “y’all” is used as a second-person plural.

    in australia, a not infrequent colloquialism is “youse”. as in jeff fenech’s classic “i love youse all”.

  80. >in australia, a not infrequent colloquialism is “youse”. as in jeff fenech’s classic “i love youse all”.

    Interestingly, this same formation is native to South Philadelphia not far from where I live. It’s especially associated with working-class Italians, but you’ll occasionally hear it from other prole white ethnics as well. Unlike “y’all” it’s definitely urban.

  81. It’s also native to some parts of New York City, and maybe Boston as well, again in what’s referred to as the “working classes”.

  82. Some addition thoughts about the topic of individualism: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/seminar/1999/reforms/fukuyama.htm

    What do y’all ( :-) ) think about it? Libertarian view? Liberal view (Jeff)? I think he is up to something very important.

    Core idea:

    “If a democracy is in fact liberal, it maintains a protected sphere of individual liberty where the state is constrained from interfering. If such a political system is not to degenerate into anarchy, the society that subsists in that protected sphere must be capable of organizing itself. Civil society serves to balance the power of the state and to protect individuals from the state’s power.

    In the absence of civil society, the state often needs to step in to organize individuals who are incapable of organizing themselves. The result of excessive individualism is therefore not freedom, but rather the tyranny of what Tocqueville saw as a large and benevolent state that hovered over society and, like a father, saw to all of its needs. “

  83. You know I think those Top Gear guys are pretty funny.

    Why don’t they do an experiment where they drive through San Francisco and Berkeley with “Liberals Suck” and “The 60’s are over, and so are you,” or how about “Obama is rubbish,” painted on their rides?

    Think they might have a bunch of liberal wackos and neo-hippies running them out of town? And would it not be hilarious?

  84. re: anti-Catholic bigotry:

    Eric is quite right about this.

    I live in Louisville, and in the 1850s we actually had anti-Catholic riots here in the Ville.
    This is hard to imagine today, as the town these days is mostly Catholic.

    And those Top Gear guys got what they deserved: they were not hurt just scared a little. Hell they were acting like jerks trying to provoke exactly that sort of thing.

    If you go poking the hive, don’t be surprised if the bees start swarming.

  85. >Think they might have a bunch of liberal wackos and neo-hippies running them out of town?

    Berkeley? Nah. The liberal wackos and neo-hippies haven’t got enough cojones to do their own stomping; they’d trump up a hate-speech lawsuit or have Top Gear’s tax records snooped a la Joe the Plumber. Down-home-style personal violence is too honest, and much too risky, for that crowd.

  86. BTW another book I’d recommend is The Morality of Pluralism from John Kekes and pretty much everything else he wrote. He’d probably change your perception of Conservative thinkers: he is fully secular, makes serious attempts to be systematic rather than just cherry-picking some arguments, and attempts to build a coherent theory. (Although, just like in the case of Buddhist thinkers (Nagarjuna), it basically ends up being an anti-theory, an argument against taking abstract speculations too seriously.)

  87. Several of these pathetic creatures frequent this blog.

    Hey! Eric’s back! W00t!

    Nobody ever tells me anything.

  88. > And I’m not saying their actions are within the bounds of propriety or good taste. But they certainly don’t deserve to be pelted with stones and fear for their lives for doing it. A culture which fetishized self-restraint will leave them alone.

    Self-restraint doesn’t mean “do nothing”, it’s avoiding excesses with respect to one’s self and not intruding/imposing on others.

    What the TopGear boys experienced was hospitality. They came looking for something and they got it.

    That’s one of the nice things about the American South/Jacksonians. If you ask, they’ll help. That’s true whether you’re working on a car or wanting to find out how tough you really are.

  89. > Ah, this is a murky little corner of U.S. history that I’m unsurprised you don’t know; it’s near-forgotten even here. My family was Catholic to the extent they were anything, which is how I know that anti-Catholic bigotry has been a dead issue in the U.S. for essentially my entire life.

    It was a very small issue during the 1960 presidential campaign and that came up in two contexts during the 2008 campaign, wrt Romney (folks projecting that Repubs wouldn’t like him because he’s Mormon while nodding approvingly at their co-religionists who were excited about his underwear) and elite Dems arguing that their proles might not be on the bandwagon wrt Obama.

  90. > With the unstated subtext that the “lookin’ to see how long it takes to get beat up in a hick town” part is, technically, accurate.

    > But they certainly don’t deserve to be pelted with stones and fear for their lives for doing it.

    Hold it – you admit that they asked a question yet you think that their question shouldn’t have been answered?

    Why shouldn’t they have been given what they asked for?

  91. I was informed by a lady of the south that the plural of y’all was all y’all. Regards

  92. >What the TopGear boys experienced was hospitality. They came looking for something and they got it.

    >That’s one of the nice things about the American South/Jacksonians. If you ask, they’ll help. That’s true whether you’re working on a car or wanting to find out how tough you really are.

    This is one of those claims that sounds like a joke, but is much more hilarious because it’s true.

  93. From an alternate angle:

    “No self-restraint? What are you talking about?? They did ask first…”

  94. >[Anti-Catholic bigotry] was a very small issue during the 1960 presidential campaign

    That’s true. It’s the last historical instance I was thinking of. I was 3 years old then.

  95. An interesting exampe of the Jacksonian attitude is: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=nYymnxoQnf8

    I love this video – and I especially love it because Buckley was a gentleman of the highest level [1] to my standards and yet he knew when NOT to use it, when to suspend being so for a while. Good common sense :)

    ([1] Those tiny handful of Conservatives who are left in the Old World (UK/Europe) have generally higher standards of gentlemanship than Americans. Honour, honesty, common sense, the typical American virtues are all right and are important. But they are to us not enough. You also have to have class, style, taste, culture, you can’t afford to be crude, crass, vulgar or impolite in any sense. Something that Americans don’t always value very highly, not even Conservatives. Despite that, Buckley was a real gentleman even to these higher standards. He was a really exceptional guy, this is why it’s very entertaining to see him take a short holiday out from behaving like a gentleman :-))) )

  96. Interestingly ‘youse’ is also common in Northern Ontario, particularly in mining towns like Sudbury. Those towns have a similar ethnic makeup to South Philly too (Working class white ethnics, mostly Italian and Eastern Europeans).

  97. It’s not that suprising that “youse” would develop independently in several different dialects, I guess. It applies the normal ‘s’ plural to singular “you”.

  98. About the South/Rednecks: there is this very interesting phenomenon that can be best called Redneck Intellectualism. As I mentioned above, I’ve read much, perhaps too much mises.org in the last 2 years. It’s a bit controversial: they are very smart but often not a bit crazy. Mises.org is like a drug, it can get you hooked, can make you smart, challenges and trains your logic, butcan also make a bit deluded and lose a large amount of your common sense.

    At any rate, the funny thing is that they are, to a certain extent, Redneck Intellectuals. It’s not an insult, those things that I tend to like about America always have a fairly large RQ (Redneck Quotient). After all, they are located in Auburn, Alabama. Just look at this Tucker guy (picture on the right side): http://mises.org/story/3298 – the pic just screams redneck. But the article itself is very well argued, intellectually challenging, and logical. An about as impractical as it can get. Interesting combination.

  99. For a simpler example of where functionalism completely overrides populism, consider that the aggressively populist culture of Internet email and forums still repeatedly slams people who confuse “lose” and “loose”, or put apostrophes in plural forms with terminal s. There is a widespread sense that no amount of popular adoption can make these usages correct, and that sense is justified.

    What, that little squiggle doesn’t mean HOLY SHIT HERE COME’S AN S? News to me…

  100. > For starters, there’s the elitist position: correct usage is what the King and his court, or more generally the wealthy upper class of the language’s speaking population, is speaking.

    Normative linguistic elitism is not always determined by a wealthy upper class. There are a number of cases where the correctness is determined by a linguistic elite based on criteria other than wealth and class.

    For example, Modern Hebrew speakers by and large consider the “sephardic” dialect to be more correct than the “ashkenazic” dialect, even though the “sephardic” Jews are generally lower on the Israeli socio-economic ladder. The elitist standard for correctness is based on the (established) belief that the “sephardic” dialect is closer to Biblical Hebrew.

    Old Church Slavic is another example. Its sole claim to elitism is the purpose for which it was created: to be used in liturgy, prayer and study. It has never had too many native speakers (in all of its 1100 years), though it has influenced several Eastern European languages.

    Norway made a mess of their two main languages (Bokmal and Nynorsk) for various historic reasons. If I’m not mistaken (I can’t quite recall the specifics), Bokmal is the most common written form and based on a wealthy upper class but Nynorsk is the most common spoken form. In the 80s, Nynorsk was banned by law (IIRC), the tables were later turned, eventually oth were made legal and of “equal status”. So today they have a double standard for correctness, based on wealth and class on the one hand and on politics and feigned equality on the other.

  101. >Normative linguistic elitism is not always determined by a wealthy upper class.

    I was aware of the three cases you mention, and others like them — the Romantic idealization of “folk” Danish in the last century, which led to the huge gulf between today’s spoken and written Danish, is another one. So were the language wars in Greece between proponents of katharevousa and demotika, which demotika eventually won.

    What you say about these cases is true but historically exceptional. In all these cases, academicians and literary people were able to have a particular non-elite dialect declared normative through politics. This invariably coincided with a collapse in the political power of an old ruling elite, but equally marks the ascension of a new one.

  102. > What you say about these cases is true but historically exceptional.

    No argument there. I’m not familiar with the Danish history; I’ll look it up.

    > In all these cases, academicians and literary people were able to have a particular non-elite dialect declared normative through politics. This invariably coincided with a collapse in the political power of an old ruling elite, but equally marks the ascension of a new one.

    “Coincided” is the key word, because though this generalization has some factual basis, I think the analysis is essentially incorrect. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to reduce the root of all of these cases to “The kind is dead! Long live the king!”

    The reasons for Norway’s linguistic divide and eventual egalitarianism is clearly very different from Modern Hebrew’s reincarnation. You could say that Modern Hebrew is factually the new king to the displaced British colony’s English or to Ancient Hebrew, but the reasons for its reincarnation really have very little to do with the British nor was it recreated *in response* to the decline of Ancient Hebrew. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but there was no “old ruling elite”.

    And having the “dialect declared normative through politics” incorrectly implies that the heart of the matter was political. This declaration can probably be justified (man is a political animal), but it is by no means the only possible interpretation, and in my opinion, not very significant. It focuses on the common political mechanism by which a dialect or language started dominating instead of the social and economic motivations that brought that brought it to the fore.

  103. >Correct me if I’m mistaken, but there was no “old ruling elite”.

    In the case of Hebrew, the old “ruling elite” was arguably Ashkenazic rabbis. :-) Yes, I know, they’d be better analyzed as “elite grammarians” in my terms.

    >I’m not sure I’d go so far as to reduce the root of all of these cases to “The kind is dead! Long live the king!”

    Well, no, I wouldn’t either. The “elites” associated with (for example) Nynorsk or Demotika were populist politicians who gained and exercised power in a more subtle way than royal courts did, claiming to be tribunes of the authentic people.

  104. Noam, in the case of Hebrew you are not talking about a difference in dialect but in accent. And the Modern Israeli accent is not at all identical to any authentic Sefardi accent; it’s a sort of lowest common denominator accent, where any distinction that could be eliminated was. But as far as dialect is concerned, Modern Hebrew’s grammar is heavily based on those of Yiddish and Russian, to the point that some linguists have half-seriously proposed classifying it as a Slavic language! The early adopters of Modern Hebrew were Ashkenazim, and they learned the new language by translating word for word from Yiddish; later Sefardi immigrants who spoke Hebrew had to relearn this strange new language with a similar vocabulary but a foreign grammar.

  105. Re: Anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th century. You have to remember that at that time the Pope was still trying to take over the world. It wasn’t until the Popes took a time out from 1870 to 1929, and had a good hard think about their position in the world, that the modern politically neutral Catholicism emerged. The founders of the USA were big fans of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was all about saving Great Britain from Catholic rule. This explains the sentiment that led to the Know-Nothing movement and the KKK.

    Re: “Youse”, as I understand it it’s an Irish usage, and came to Australia from Ireland, along with pronouncing the letter H as “haitch”.

  106. >The founders of the USA were big fans of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was all about saving Great Britain from Catholic rule

    I largely agree with the rest of what you said here, but “all about” was a bit of a stretch. I think period sources are clear that the the anti-Catholicism of the Glorious Revolution was a surface phenomenon, with the true contention being against the Stuarts’ absolute monarchism. Evidence for this is the fact that James’s most important allies were High Church Anglicans.

  107. For what it’s worth, after letting it sink in a while and pondering this post and the previous discussion, I’ve changed my mind. I now think you’re right about the use of ‘hacker’, and that I was wrong.

  108. >Norway made a mess of their two main languages (Bokmal and Nynorsk) for various historic reasons.

    Norway’s a rather peculiar case. They actually had a LOT more than 2 languages, and Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”) was actually an Esperanto-like deliberately manufactured amalgamation of common elements in order to create a single national language.

  109. gotta say, you guys’ interpretation of Top Gear (missed that earlier) is so far off-beam it’s surreal.

    they actually idolise american cars with traditional american engineering. each of the presenters owns at least one classic american car, and on the show ravings about them or holding them up as standards to aspire to are common.

    don’t confuse a single focussing (of their constant critiquing) on american cars, with one-eyed patriotism. they are looking at the cars as cars, not as political expressions. european engineering gets a LOT of stick on the show. and they typically rubbish and lament english engineering, with a real sense of pain. to the point of recently firebombing one of the most widely sold english cars in history.

    they DO dislike “modern” american cars. not as a Stance, but as a reaction to the way they drive, and to the claustrophobic insulation of the driver from the car. i feel exactly the same, for exactly the same reasons.

    you will note that a year later they returned to america and tried a roadtrip in the very newest “muscle cars”. and they did more than sing the praises of them. they were euphoric that american cars had got their mojo back. that these cars had reclaimed the spirit of their tradition and turned it into something even better. the closing summary left a lump in your throat and a mistiness in your eye for the sheer joy of it. as they said (something like): “for the ultimate summary of how these cars made us feel — well, just look at our faces”. and the segment closed on a series of ear-splitting shit-eating grins.

    >Why don’t they do an experiment where they drive through San Francisco and Berkeley with “Liberals Suck” and “The 60’s are over, and so are you,” or how about “Obama is rubbish,” painted on their rides?

    they’d do that in a flash. you guys have wildly misread their politics. they are ultra-solidly entrenched in the libertarian mindset. clarkson writes several national newspaper articles weekly that typically sound like eric on a tear. yes, right down to gun ownership, and witheringly contemptuous dismissals of the faux-Left that make eric sound bowdlerised.

    you(se) may have mistaken the profoundly strong english culture of taking the piss out of anyone taking themselves too seriously, with taking one side in america’s similarly strong culture of partisanship. trust me, like hackers, they are utterly focussed on the machine and the user and the user’s result. to the point of dissing outstanding cars (eg bmw Ms) that have been mass-adopted by wankers more interested in showing off than driving.

  110. (i’m australian, by the way. i regard BOTH english and americans as nuts for not taking the best of both worlds.)

  111. “i’m australian, by the way. i regard BOTH english and americans as nuts for not taking the best of both worlds.”

    I figure in your case the first is heritage and the second is climate.

    I have a theory, or rather just a hunch, that climate has a profound effect on culture, but haven’t really worked out the details or found many proofs, just correlations, but largely goes like this:

    – warm and dry: “cowboyish”: individualistic, outgoing, passionate, fun-loving, somewhat violent: American Red States, Australia, Navajos, Bedouins

    – warm and wet: “passionate-collectivistic”: Aztecs, Mayans, South America, Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, to a lesser extent, Italy

    – cool, but fertile: “reserved individualistic”: stay-at-home, mind-your-own-business: UK, Canada, Sweden

    – cool and not very fertile: harsh, violent, warlike: Russia, Mongolia, perhaps Apaches?

    Yes I know it’s far from flawless, some of the examples are a bit stretched, it could use some improvement.

  112. In the last sentence in the first paragraph it appears that “told” is mispelled.

  113. unless you are making an obscure joke i don’t see: no. it is correctly spelled and in its correct conjugation.

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