Combat! blog has returned to Missoula, where the weather is suspiciously nice and normalcy resumes. I should warn you that we will only be operational for a short time. On Friday I drive down to Jackson, Wyoming to hang out with Stubble and his girlfriend, and I won’t get back until Tuesday, so this is pretty much the only regular blog post for a week. But how fine it is! Last week, the White House redistributed a column headlined “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why” in support of its proposed budget. The column, by Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, was satire. Petri suspects that they didn’t actually read it but assumed from the headline that it supported their position. In this way, the Trump administration continues to operate as your aunt’s Facebook feed come to life.
The prospect of a corporate-state apparatus that knows exactly what you’re doing at every moment is the stuff of science fiction. Books like 1984 and We imagine a surveillance that has successfully penetrated every aspect of our lives. But what about the surveillance that has unsuccessfully penetrated our lives? We imagine the dangers of everyone else knowing what we’re doing, but we should probably be worried about the scenarios where total information awareness is mistaken. What happens when the security state confuses you with the previous tenant of your apartment? In our culture of surveillance, whither the Charles Monsons and Khalid Steve Mohammeds? Today is Friday, and the danger is not so much that the government will know everything about you as that it will think it does. Won’t you overlap with me?
The morning after Britons voted to leave the European Union, Matthew Yglesias posted a piece to Vox headlined Brexit: British people probably should have Googled this stuff before voting. It reported that as polls closed and Leave’s narrow victory became apparent, Google searches such as “what happens if we leave the EU?” increased more than 250 percent. After Brexit results were announced, “what is the EU?” became the second-most searched question on the subject.
The cynical explanation was too good to resist. Yglesias took this Googling of Brexit-related information as proof the Leave vote was motivated by ignorance, citing it as a reason to leave policy decisions to representatives and not the people themselves. Over at The Washington Post, Brian Fung ran a similar take on the same numbers headlined The British are frantically Googling what the EU is, hours after voting to leave it. Both of these stories offer an irresistible narrative: that voters made this evidently bad decision without understanding what they were doing. But there are two problems with that story:
- Although the volume of EU-related searches tripled, the total number of searches for “what is the EU” came to less than a thousand, and the others were comparably low.
- “Public Ignorant” is a funny headline to read in the newspaper.
The Islamic State is the combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell of 21st-century geopolitics. It’s a terrorist organization and a state. It’s a brutal army and a pious theocracy. It’s our enemy, but it is also our fault. The only way ISIS is not like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell is that it is not profitable. Back in January, it cut its fighters pay by half. Last week, the Washington Post announced that it was paying $50 a month—more if you have a wife and/or sex slave—and was struggling to supply electricity and medicine to the regions it controls. It turns out ISIS is good at taking over Iraq but bad at running it. Of whom does that remind me?
Last week, the Washington Post announced that it would begin using the pronoun “they” for people who identify as neither male nor female. The WaPo will also allow singular “they” to avoid gendering impersonal pronouns. Here’s Bill Walsh:
It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: “All students must complete their homework,” not “Each student must complete his or her homework.” When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible.
Unlike Spanish, English does not have a singular impersonal pronoun. The APA recommends writing around this deficiency in the language, just as Walsh does. Props to Miracle Mike Sebba for the link. The combination of these two guidelines—call a person “they” if they want you to, but rewrite a sentence to avoid singular “they” if you can—suggests an odd but commendable system of values. Guideline number two insists the singular “they” is not correct. We’re willing to fudge it, says guideline number one, but not for your stupid sentence—only for people.