Monday, 24 February 2020
When travelling in the United States some years ago I was struck by what I thought at the time was a curious gullibility in accepting the most outlandish of explanations for the origin of words and phrases. There seemed to be a sort of epidemic of such inquiry and a willingness to accept the most peculiar distortions of history, physics, grammar and reality itself to placate this thirst for knowledge, however unreliable.
I wish I could remember some specific examples but I do recall being amused at some long-established phrases of well-known nautical origin being explained away by the use of colourful and imaginative invocation of what were relatively recent phenomena. Thus a salty insult derived from the days of sail would be shoehorned into a tale about the early years of computing and accepted without question. I actually bought a book of such explanations and chuckled at both the ingenuity and naivety of some of the expositions.
Long ago I noticed the propensity of humans to swiftly accept the most unlikely of reasoning for observed phenomena, to ascribe the most complex of motives to the simple failings of competence; to search for greater depth than is actually there. Now, in the post-truth era we are said to live in, such ability to set aside the simple for the complex appears to have become ubiquitous. Who cares for the truth when a ripping yarn gets the blood flowing?
I write all this because over the last few days I have been mildly assailed by interlocutors demanding I accept their facts, when opinion or distortion is all they have offered up. One such issue was the case for immigration: “Immigration is a net benefit!” insist the soundbite swallowers, without even the most cursory reflection on why such a generalisation has become so widely promulgated. “There is no evidence that low-skilled immigration lowers wages!” is another frequently expounded notion.
Try telling any of that to the working communities who have been displaced by industrial scale invasions of people who are, frankly, ‘not like us’. Because it is one thing to amalgamate all the doctors and scientists and engineers and artistes along with those who work in the low wage economy to come up with a minimally positive financial calculation, but the truth to those who are face-to-face with it is a different thing entirely. Or maybe, in order to make that national omelette it matters not how many eggs you have to break?
Another was trying to argue that full employment meant there was no demand for labour and thus would keep wages low. It didn’t matter that this inverted the basic supply and demand formulation, this was his truth and he was sticking to it. This was on the back of a diatribe about how the state should intervene to distort the labour market, even though the state intends to do exactly that by announcing future restrictions on low-skilled immigration. The truth didn’t matter because the truth is now what you want it to be. Facts are fluid and for every verifiable statistic, multiple interpretations can be constructed.
It was thought that the internet would bring us access to all the world’s knowledge. It was even proposed that schoolchildren need not even be taught facts because the facts were at their fingertips. It turns out that none of that makes a blind bit of difference and that H L Mencken’s observations still hold true. Here’s one to be going on with: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” And here’s another: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."