This morning, after yesterday’s American presidential election of the businessman Donald Trump, I went looking for perspective. I wanted to help myself understand more fully why many Americans voted for him. I found a somewhat unexpected explanation through the mathematician and philosopher David Schweickart. In the title of an essay, he claims that “Yes Virginia, There Is an Alternative” to the global capitalism represented by rich elites such as Trump. Coincidentally, my very first post on this blog was an open letter to Justin Trudeau, one that alluded to the child’s letter to Santa Claus that received the famous response from the Republican outlet the New York Sun, “Yes, Virginia… [there is a Santa Claus].” I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I don't believe in Trump, and I don't like Schweickart's newly minted socialism, which—the day after the election—feels just too close to one of Trump's very few ideas, even though it's not. And so today’s post returns to the rosy nostalgia of the Sun’s letter in the context of Trump’s blatant mischaracterization of Hillary Clinton as the rich elite and himself as the outsider to the system.
Trump himself said, and I paraphrase, that America needs not a politician but a businessman—as if there was never a politician who was a businessman first. Many voters echoed this rationale for electing Trump: that government is corrupt and that the United States needs a leader who “isn’t owned by anybody,” and someone who will fire his underlings and thereby increase accountability. But this idealized “boss not politician” identity reveals an disheartening confusion of economy and government: the mistaken idea that capitalism is somehow more democratic than elected government. (This confusion is partly what led to the popularization of the term "neoliberalism" to describe ubiquitous capitalism, i.e., capitalism that is now inseparable from democratic governments, following I think from Margaret Thatcher’s claim that capitalism has no alternative.) Even if it were true that capitalism allows any new competitor into the market and hence provides renewal of its leadership, it would not be true that capitalism is accountable to anyone. (Exceptions are few and far between, especially among transnational capitalists. I don't have a problem with most small businesses, though they be capitalist.) If you disagree with the beliefs and actions of the chief executive officer of the biggest business in the country, you cannot vote that person out. If you think that businesses are somehow better at managing their finances than governments are with theirs, look at the huge number of businesses, including some of Trump’s, that have bankrupted themselves, with negative repercussions on investment and employment.
Americans are not entirely irrational to appreciate corporations and mistrust a government that is associated with police brutality; illegal, immoral, and costly wars; and surveillance, torture, and murder. The president is ultimately responsible for these problems, but the police, the military, and the spy agencies are not exactly “government.” I’d like us to remember the term “civil servant” when we think of government. The connotation of civility shouldn’t be forgotten, and servitude, though not a word that describes most workers in government, can at least connote a devotion to a cause. If we, anywhere, are serious about upholding democracy, good government has to be a cause, and we need to consider whether the fat cats are in government as much as in big business. Few of us today are devoted to our corporate employers, because corporations demonstrate little fidelity to employees and often benefit from precarious (yes, sometimes unpaid) employment.
Schweickart addresses this comparison in his essay, remarking that among the top 25 incomes in the United States in 2009 was that of a hedge fund manager: $900 million. To tax his income so that it would be equal to that of the president of the country, his tax rate would have to be between 99.95% and 99.99% (Schweickart 174), depending on equalizing before or after the president pays his taxes. (It’s always his. The United States just missed its first opportunity to elect a woman and to realize, at least for another moment, equality of opportunity.) But Schweickart’s essay is weirdly neoliberal in that it accepts, completely, that capitalism should be a part of government. Or that democracy should be a part of capitalism, which is probably the more accurate way of describing Schweickart's suggestions. In his aforementioned essay and his book After Capitalism, Schweickart conceptualizes a form of corporate government called “economic democracy,” which he calls “our new socialism” (183). The innovation, Schweickart claims, would be to replace labour and capital markets (183) with capitalism by the people and for the people (i.e., profit sharing or “worker self-management of firms”) and “social control of investment” (184). As a result, his economic democracy “is also far more compatible with ecological sanity than is capitalism… Capitalist firms tend to maximize total profits. Democratic firms tend to maximize profit-per-worker” (187) and therefore would not expand unsustainably. I like most aspects of these ideas, but not the conflation of government and economy implied in "economic democracy," and anyway these ideas will not be realized at a transformative scale without the regulatory insistence of government, notwithstanding the successes of the Mondragon Corporation, a cooperative. I used to work both for Canadian Tire and the Royal Bank of Canada, both of which engaged in limited profit sharing, but they were hardly democratic institutions willing to change according to the results of a vote. Trump would never do it. When political allies vote for, or work toward, a politician who wants less government and more leadership by corporate fiat, they are forgetting how democratic government serves and protects them with a much higher priority than how corporations do.
This ignorance or selective memory has various historical dimensions that can best be explained through Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” This imperative assertion is an order, in fact, that both reifies his authority and delegates accountability—a big problem with corporate governance. It suggests that now, the end of the Obama administration, is a time when American is not great. Greatness is the past—perhaps the so-called Golden Age of capitalism in the two or three decades after the Second World War. (Trump might well prefer a revolutionary era.) Trump’s echo of Ronald Reagan’s slogan ("Let's Make America Great Again") suggests that he can remember only as far back as the late 1970s and into the 1980s, around when a potentially sustainable capitalism (Schweickart 177-178; Featherstone and Miles 126) veered off the cliffs of insanity. Trump’s remarkably short memory is a sign that we live in a time that Mark Featherstone and Malcolm Miles describe as “a permanent present” (125) on the pretense (not theirs) that no alternative to capitalism means no change and thus no future. It is also evidence of Trump’s nostalgic desire, as Svetlana Boym might describe it, “to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology” (xv). Voters buy Trump’s economic rationale because it encourages them to romanticize the past rather than believe, as Hillary Clinton asserted, that America’s best days are ahead of it (maybe four years ahead). And, in this case, it’s easy to forget. It requires no work at all.
The New York Sun advised Virginia not to think so much about questionable characters like Santa Claus, and its message—though seemingly winsome—is far too close to the anti-intellectual message of Trump and his most manipulative and manipulated followers. The editors in 1897 encouraged young Virginia, eight years old, to concentrate on “faith, poetry, love, romance” rather than wonder about the truth and even begin, in her innocent way, to do some research. How sad that she put her faith in the Sun! How ironic that Trump pointed fingers so often at the liberal bias of the media when this historical example is so aptly contrary. How hilarious to imagine Trump expressing a thought or feeling even remotely poetic. We in (North) America cannot trust “the” government when “the” means Trump and his corporate agenda, one premised at least in the popular imagination on the end of the separation of government and economy. And I am simply heartbroken that so many Americans could trust someone so unwilling to allow his deals to be scrutinized for their legality. And someone so evidently racist, in his plans to ban Muslims and build a wall against Mexico.* And sexist, in his admitted sexual harassment and his repeated misogynistic slurs against one of the most accomplished diplomats in the world.
* See the It's All Narrative blog for a convincing explanation of the relationship between economics and racism in Trump's electoral victory.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Trump’s Appalling Economic Democracy.” Publicly Interested, 9 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Recently, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, helped to cause a minor scandal when he refused to use gender-neutral or accommodating pronouns with students who self-identify as other than “he” or “she.” The university remonstrated him—and then Rex Murphy came to his defence a week ago in The National Post. Yesterday, the professor had a major news outlet, The Toronto Sun, to publish his own essay. That Peterson is gaining publicity for a right-wing perspective should be obvious from the stated dislike of Marxism in his essay and his nigh inexplicable claim that people who want to change pronoun usage have “an intense resentment of anyone who has become successful for any reason whatsoever.” As a more-or-less leftist liberal with only a little nostalgia for the bygone conservatism of the Red Tories, I want to use my own admittedly (and helpfully) jumbled politics, and my position as a professor of English, to ask a simple question. How can we set aside the us-and-them politics of this debate?
Before I go too far, I want to say that if a student ever came to me and said, “I prefer the pronoun 'per'" or any other pronoun, I would use it, or, if I couldn’t remember it among all the options, I’d use the person’s name. Having some control over the words people use to define you is meaningful to your sense of identity and belonging. Here is one of my favourite poets, the insistently or at least consistently lower-case bill bissett, offering a similar opinion:
. . . . . . . . . . can b myself he
she thinks thn thats the feer
that th punishment will cum
fr sure if he she cant leev her
call her him n start packing
Here bissett is also radically objecting to the authority of standard English, while offering the he/she option that many people today would change to “they.” Who would have thought that bissett’s writing would ever be old-fashioned in the eyes of other radicals? But rather than do any research right now to answer this question, I also want to say that I note as “incorrect” the grammar of most students who use “they” when referring to singular nouns and names. When a student’s writing is already excellent, I try not to count “they” as a technical error.
Most students, however, are not using "they" for political reasons. Rather, they don’t know which parts of the sentence benefit from agreement with each other. They need a lot of reminders about how parts of sentences fit together to generate and express coherent, consistent thoughts. Asking for agreement in writing is usually not as political as many students and critics think.
It's obviously political in the case of Peterson, however, with various parties attempting to convince or cow each other. In my opinion, confrontational assertiveness is no help, and a third way out of the double bind is needed. I can respect someone’s stated preference for a set of pronouns, but, if the word “they” comes from standard English and is plural in standard English, I’d also like people to respect my preference. It’s a part of my sense of identity and belonging as someone who loves language and has fostered that love against various stigmas that persistently degrade art and the humanities. Rather than err with “they,” I’d rather see writers use neologisms such as “per,” “pers,” and “perself,” which Marge Piercy coined in her 1979 novel Woman at the Edge of Time. (I like these ones because they remind us of the English word “person,” so they’re not only affirmative but also easy to remember and say.) To butt heads on “they” as plural or singular is to perform a script produced by a binary opposition whose politics is equally binary and thus potentially antagonistic. (“Politics is” can be correct when “politics” is used as a synonym for other singular nouns such as, in this case, “ideology.”). The third way is the neologism, which should be less contestable, in theory but not in Murphy’s or Peterson’s case.
Murphy’s conservatism reacts partly against the perception of these pronouns as “a set of freshly made up words,” or, in other words, what he calls “neologisms.” Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "neologism" itself dates to 1772, which is closer to “new” than “old” in the history of the English language. If Murphy reflected on this relativity, he would soon realize that the English language is constantly changing to reflect new realities, partly by gaining new words. I would remind Mr. Murphy of George Orwell’s coinage of “doublethink,” which I suspect Murphy himself has been glad to have in his verbal toolbox. I love Murphy’s subjunctive and his vocabulary of “imprimatur” and, perhaps ironically, “obscurantists”—but, Mr. Murphy, to use “midwife” as a verb would surely have bothered some English professor somewhere. Maybe even me.
Yes, I have been—am—a prescriptivist much of the time. In trying to improve a student’s writing, we’re trying to improve the student’s thinking. Many of us need to improve our thinking by learning how to think beyond binaries, or black and white. This lesson comes partly out of the debate over pronouns, and many of the advocates of gender-neutral pronouns identify as “non-binary.” But, still, knowing how words agree with each other is really helpful: it helps writers to be aware of how sentences work and how their readers might experience their sentences. There’s nothing wrong with this purpose.
So I was stung when I first saw how the website Motivated Grammar attacks professors like me for prescriptivism. I’m amazed at how someone could write against prescriptivism and sound like such a bully! Check it out:
The only problem with this view [of grammatical rules as helpful] is that all
you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release
some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some
authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just
getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you
up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they
feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown
violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety
of the language. (par. 4)
Notably, Peterson believes that his university and his provincial government are trying to do just that: “[scare] people into submission.” He worries that the government will dramatically expand hate speech laws to punish people who misuse pronouns which, I agree, would be scary. I know that a pronoun can be used hatefully, but there are all kinds of other words that are much worse; "hate" is a very serious word. What if you could be punished if someone overheard you misidentifying a genderfluid person who identified as “she” when you knew her, and who later flowed into “he”? Gender is too complex to regulate with such imagined laws, and one would hope that the tone of the discourse surrounding it could be less brutish.
Laws can be too rigid, and other forms of power can be more flexible. I like the power of contextualization, of putting things in perspective. Motivated Grammar states that many well-respected writers throughout history have used the singular “they.” If great writers break the rules, why can’t we all? Using a claim to authority (the great writers) to deconstruct a claim to authority (grammar) is fine, but it can be interpreted as just another power play, one power against another. Recently, I heard Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea hosting his program on CBC Radio, and he said of a song he had just played, “I love it—loves it!” He corrected himself into using the grammatically incorrect but culturally appreciated error of subject-verb agreement in Newfoundland. This example of self-policing demonstrates to me that the “grammar police” and the related discipline are not only functions of a dominant language or culture. (Read DA Miller’s The Novel and the Police or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for more on police and self-policing.) Dialects and subcultures have their own gatekeepers, often cultural figures such as Doyle or Murphy.
I like their respective styles of writing, but let me give my own example of a great writer. Not too long ago, I was reading Tim Ingold’s wonderful book Being Alive, specifically its chapter on landscape and weather. The blurb from Stuart McLean (not the Stuart Mclean of The Vinyl Café) on the back cover claims that his prose “is exactingly lucid and charged with poetic eloquence.” Indeed, he is a writer who can use the subjunctive perfectly: “Are pebbles, then ‘objects on the earth’? [James] Gibson would say so, and so would we, were each of us to stop to pick one up and, having examined it, to replace it where it lay” (131). But I found this sentence: “For formerly blind persons whose sight has been restored by a surgical operation, and doubtless for the newborn opening their eyes for the first time, the delirium [of seeing the world appear to be formed in the moment] can be overwhelming” (128). Here, a writer many would call “great” switches from the plural “persons” to the singular “newborn” for no apparent reason, thereafter linking “newborn” with “their” when “newborns” would agree better. Why not write “newborns”? (It’s so easy to fix these minor errors, so why not?) Did Ingold intend to refer back past “newborn” to “blind persons”? Not likely. (That’s a sentence fragment, of course, and I’ve started some sentences with conjunctions, too.) But what harm is done by agreement? And why doesn’t this usage cast doubt on the writer?
The short answer is that we trust Ingold’s writing because of who he is (however questionable such authority might be) and, more important for my argument, because most of his writing really is above reproach. Readers in the academy, however, are trained (perhaps a distortion of our education) to be critical of everything, including each other. One of the recent peer reviews of one of my essays returned the feedback that my writing is too “conversational”; I had used a single contraction in 6,500 words. (The essay has since been published.) My former supervisor, in contrast, reacted to my attempt to minimize metaphor (read my book if you wonder why) by telling me my writing had become almost unbearably “stark.” Professors tend to approach everyone’s writing with a critical eye. Students, especially, are usually in the early phases of establishing credibility as thinkers and writers. If my professors over the years hadn’t noted the myriad ways in which my essays were difficult to understand, I might have improved simply by reading a lot more, but I might have needed twenty years instead of—I won’t say how many.
In the end, I wish Peterson would relent and eschew his overly conservative ways, but I also wish that the more ardent prescriptivists and political correctors would calm down a little so that we can talk about writing and gender without polarizing our debates.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Confessions of a Sisyphean Prescriptivist and bill bissett Fan." Publicly Interested, 4 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.