We can end alliteration in our lifetimes

Debut New York Times columnist Bari Weiss

There are two reasons to write: for approval and for satisfaction. Satisfaction is generally held to be the more noble motive, or at least the more sustainable one. But insofar as satisfaction is just another kind of approval, i.e. approval of oneself, there’s really only one reason to write. That’s why reading sucks. Most written works are series of bids for the reader’s approval, with small amounts of useful information inserted like the hook in a big, plastic lure. Look how yellow and glittery my lure is, dear reader! Don’t you want to swallow that fat worm and become my meal? Every writer thinks this, consciously, each time they sit down to write. The trick is to hide it. Here’s the first sentence of Bari Weiss’s debut column in the New York Times:

A mere half-year ago, before collusion and Comey, before Mika’s face and Muslim bans and the Mooch, there was a shining moment where millions of Americans flooded the streets in cities across the country to register their rage that an unapologetic misogynist had just been made leader of the free world.

I see what you did there, and I am displeased. “Collusion and Comey” is all right, even euphonious. That would be just enough spice to get me through this longish compound sentence. But then I get “Mika’s face and Muslim bans and the Mooch,” which is both conspicuous and unsatisfying. Alliteration doesn’t work with phrasal nouns. You could do “Mika and Muslims and the Mooch,” but that doesn’t make sense. Neither does  “Muslim bans,” though, since Donald Trump started talking about that early in the campaign, before the women’s march.  This sentence has to work to wedge in all this alliteration, and for what? It only distracts me while I’m trying to decode the meaning—something along the lines of “It seems like a long time ago, but before all this craziness, Trump’s election brought about something good: the women’s march.”

That sentence conveys the same ideas as the one Weiss wrote, but it does not demonstrate the felicity of the author. I submit that alliteration serves only that purpose in nine out of ten uses. It is a time-honored way to show that you are a good writer, despite the fact that anyone can do it. As a skill it is even less difficult than rhyming, yet generations of English teachers have taught it is a Literary Technique. It is not. Alliteration is a literary term, and as a demonstration of mastery it is only slightly more impressive than enjambment and about as difficult, i.e. easy to do but hard to do meaningfully.

Alliteration works well in epithets, such as “nattering nabobs of negativity.” This leads us to assume that it would constitute wit in prose. But while alliteration is good for coming up with catchy nicknames, it almost never makes a sentence more trenchant. Neither does it introduce double meanings or resolve ambiguities, except incidentally. It doesn’t engage the realm of meaning at all, operating on the level of diction by making it serve arbitrary similarities between words instead of connotation and nuance. It’s frosting. Alliteration is the kind of wit that isn’t funny or insightful, the kind of poetry that does not address the soul.

And yet we keep taking it up. I think alliteration is a step we take not because it gets us where we’re going, but because it’s sure. If I sit down to write the first sentence of something important, I am liable to think too much. I need to just start typing, and alliteration gives me a form I can follow almost automatically. That is a reason to avoid it. Sentences get hard to write when we are not sure what they say. To govern them by some other logic is to avoid the hard questions good writing seeks out.

Anyway, a lot of people are mad at Weiss for attacking the leaders of the women’s march on the basis of their past approval of problematic figures, such as Louis Farrakhan and Fidel Castro. She also seems to put “anti-Zionism” in the same category of bad ideas as anti-Semitism and killing cops. Those are valid grounds for criticism. I also think Weiss is right to be on the lookout for anti-Semitism in contemporary progressive movements, which seem to defend the rights of Jews less vigorously than those of other groups. Reasonable people can disagree about which ideas are “beyond the pale of the progressive feminist movement in America”—a truth that constitutes both a criticism of Weiss’s column and a defense of it. But the issue on which there can be no disagreement, where we must enforce consensus with an iron fist, is alliteration. That shit must stop immediately.

Startled by bukkake, columnist blames feminism

Award-winning author Joseph Dobrian reads at Prairie Lights.

Award-winning author Joseph Dobrian and his pocket square at Prairie Lights

At the risk of feeding the outrage machine, I urge you to read this column by Joseph Dobrian in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, “Feminism does not empower women. It infantilizes them.” Mad props to Justin, Den Man for the link. The first paragraph goes like this:

I saw a revolting image on Facebook the other day: a nude woman on whose face and torso several men had evidently just ejaculated. The caption said, “Feminism. Because being a housewife wasn’t degrading enough.” That accusation — that feminism encourages such conduct — might sound counterintuitive, but there’s something to it.

I’m going to stop you right there, bro. You saw an image of a nude woman covered in ejaculate on Facebook? Facebook content is vetted by automatic and human moderators. That’s why you don’t see hardcore pornography in your News Feed. Maybe Dobrian confused his browser tabs.

Continue reading

Study finds judges with daughters more likely to rule for women’s rights

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Reagan, some guy and Toots

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist takes the oath with Reagan, some guy and Toots

In 2003, Ruth Bader Ginsberg described William Rehnquist’s feminist turn as “such a delightful surprise.” Maybe he suddenly decided that combating pervasive gender discrimination trumped states’ rights, or maybe his daughter had just become a single mom. The second explanation would comport with a new study out of the University of Rochester, which found that “judges with daughters consistently vote in a more feminist fashion on gender issues than judges who have only sons.” The effect is especially pronounced among Republican appointments.

Continue reading

Forced into bottle service, “men’s rights activist” loses lawsuit

Self-described antifeminist attorney Roy Den Hollander, with subpoena and unfair cheese

Self-described antifeminist attorney Roy Den Hollander, with subpoena and unfair cheese

Back in 2010, a bouncer told Manhattan attorney Roy Den Hollander he could only enter the Chelsea nightclub Amnesia if he bought a $350 bottle of vodka. At that same moment, that very same bouncer let in an attractive young woman for free. It was a clear human rights violation, mostly having to do with Hollander’s gender but also possibly his age. As he puts it, Hollander is “middle-aged.” He would not say the exact number to the New York Daily News, leading to this delightful sequence of paragraphs:

“If I’m hitting on some young girl at the club—and I won’t be hitting on an older one because they don’t look as good—if she knows how old I am I’m not going to be able to exploit her infinite capacity to delude herself into thinking I’m younger,” he said.

A search of public records revealed he’s 66 years old.

He is also a jerk, which is maybe what happens when you’re scheduled to live to 132. Props to The Angel Ben Gabriel for the link.

Continue reading

The unpopular position: rape isn’t funny

I opted to not go with a rape-related image for today's post. Although, frankly, this picture may be funnier in that context.

Today's graphic will, you know, not relate to the subject at hand. Although it is probably funnier in that context.

Alert reader/irascible curmudgeon Ben Fowlkes sent me a link to this post over at the feminist blog Shakesville, in which the author lambasts Ricky Gervais. The comedian—whom you probably remember from the original British version of The Office, or from this comedy about a man whose paranoid schizophrenia leads him to become fixated on a woman in his building—recently came under fire in the British press for the following joke:

“I’ve [driven drunk] once and I’m really ashamed of it. It was Christmas—I’d had a couple of drinks and I took the car out. But I learned my lesson. I nearly killed an old lady. In the end I didn’t kill her. In the end, I just raped her.”

First of all, that is not a funny joke. Who can tell when non-John Cleese British people are being funny, though? Bafflingly, the UK press describes it as a “drink-driving joke” and seems to find it objectionable on those grounds—in response to which I refer you to the second sentence of this paragraph. Gervais, in his own defense, says that the turn is “comedically justified” because it addresses the phrase “nearly killed her.” The idea is that rape is less bad than murder, kind of, and the sudden recontextualization of the “nearly killed her”—from hyperbolic expression to literal statement—is funny. Explanations like these are why you shouldn’t talk during comedy or sex, but that’s beside the point. Gervais argues that it’s not a rape joke, which is a difficult position to maintain when you compare the joke with other jokes that do not contain the word “rape.” Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan argues that the joke is unfunny—in fact, unacceptable—because it’s about rape. I contend that Gervais’s joke isn’t funny, not because it’s about rape, but because it’s not funny. So in fact the subject of today’s blog is that rape isn’t funny, which is why it’s such a good subject for jokes. Gotcha!

Continue reading