Leftists love to rewrite the past, a creative totalitarian approach that allows them to forget all the lessons — both good and bad — that history teaches. For today’s lesson about the past’s relevance, this post looks at one movie from 1946 and one book from 1948 and uses their wisdom to expose socialist fallacies, both about economics and about human thought.
The movie from 1946 is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, the perennial Christmas classic that sees Clarence the Angel teach George Bailey that even an apparently undistinguished, and often frustrated, life can have inestimable value. It popped into my mind when I read an article giving tips for talking to a Leftist about “income inequality,” a catch-phrase justifying government wealth redistribution.
According to Beverly Hallberg, the first thing a conservative should do is seek common ground with the Leftist. After all, conservatives are as hostile to poverty as Leftists are. It’s just that conservatives seek a market-based approach, while Leftists seek a government redistribution approach. The second step in the dialog is to explain that we no longer live in a feudal age that saw wealth locked into
The second step in the dialog is to explain to the Leftist that we no longer live in a feudal age that sees wealth locked into generational land ownership and that is no longer socially or economically stratified. Instead, wealth and class are fluid commodities, with the former working best when constantly reinvested in the marketplace, thereby reinvigorating both the original investor and those downstream from that investment. According to Hallberg, the conservative needs to remind the Leftist about the fact that handing money to the government takes it away from small business owners that create most of the dynamism in the American marketplace:
Those beating the drum of income inequality to the tune of the rich paying their “fair share” often neglect the fact that the “rich” includes small business owners (by the way, usually not millionaires or even close). The more money small business owners have to pay in taxes to the government, the less money they can pay their employees, which leads to layoffs and/or the closing of businesses. And fewer jobs help no one, least of all those struggling to make ends meet.
Hmmm. Where have I heard that before? Oh! I know. I heard much the same when George Bailey gave his “bank run” speech in It’s A Wonderful Life:
That speech is so good that it should turn the Leftist’s ideas upset down. George Bailey and his friends are the small business people and their employees. The evil Mr. Potter is the government. Both Potter and the government crudely, forcibly take people’s money and then distribute it along rigid lines to favored constituents (including Potter himself or people working in and with the government).
If you want to confound the Leftist even further, tell him that a market-based economy is the true socialist dream, insofar as it ensures that money is spread around as much as possible. Meanwhile, government control over money is like the old feudal or aristocratic system, with the all-powerful government picking winners and losers, as corruption and favoritism rot everything along the way.
The book from 1948 is George Orwell’s 1984. I thought of it when I read Ed Driscoll’s review of Tom Wolfe’s newest book, The Kingdom of Speech. In his book, Wolfe argues that everything we think we know about speech and culture is wrong. In other words, Wolfe directly challenges Noam Chomsky’s theories.
Wolfe’s challenge to Chomsky’s linguistic theories matters in part because it shows that, even if 97% or 99.9999% of all academics agree about something, that doesn’t make it right. It’s also a good thing to challenge Chomsky because he is such an important spokesman for Leftist ideas in academia. Anything that undermines Chomsky in his actual field should lessen his impact when it comes to political ideology.
Ed’s review is wonderful and Wolfe’s book sounds fascinating. I want to glom onto just a single portion of the review, which is Ed’s discussion about Daniel Everett, a linguist, and his experiences with an Amazon tribe, the result of which was that he started chipping away at Chomsky’s outsized presence in the linguistic world:
[I]n the last third of The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe profiles Daniel L. Everett, the anti-Chomsky, who went from dropping LSD in a Methodist Church—Ken Kesey call your office!—to falling in love with the daughter of evangelical missionaries and then eventually the two of them heading out to document “the Pirahã, a tribe that lived in isolation way up one of the Amazon’s nearly fifteen thousand tributaries, the Maici River. Other missionaries had tried to convert the Pirahã but could never really learn their language, thanks to highly esoteric constructions in grammar, including meaningful glottal stops and shifts in tone, plus a version consisting solely of bird sounds and whistles… to fool their prey while out hunting.”
As Everett documented, this primitive tribe, with its remarkably limited language and concomitant worldview, served as the CTL-ALT-DLT key on Chomsky’s theories of linguistics. With Everett’s introduction in The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe’s latest book seems to accelerate a gear or two in interest from a scholarly tome to genuine excitement, as Wolfe describes both the harrowing trek the Everetts made, and its aftermath.
So what exactly did Everett do to undercut Chomsky? This: Chomsky’s theory is that humans are hardwired for complex thought expressed through complex, cumulative speech. As you often see in my writing, I pack a lot of ideas and descriptors into a single sentence. A simple example would be that, rather than saying “There is a girl. She is getting into a car. She is in a red dress,” one of mine sentences (which fits Chomsky’s theory) would say “The girl in the red dress is getting into the car.” According to Chomsky, “baby, I was born this way.” That is, assuming average intelligence, humans are incapable of any other type of grammatical, linguistic construct.
After working with the Pirahã, however, Everett concluded that humans are not hardwired to think in such complex ways. Our cumulative grammar and our abstract thoughts are learned, cultural constructs — and, argued Everett, the Pirahãs, who have ordinary intelligence, never learned these constructs.
Writing in The New Yorker in 2007, John Colapinto interviewed and traveled with Everett, and offers a fascinating insight into a culture that has no complex language and no complex, abstract thoughts:
Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
[Everett’s] work remained relatively obscure until early in 2005, when he posted on his Web site an article titled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” which was published that fall in the journal Cultural Anthropology. The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe’s living conditions and culture. The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.
Everett had to bridge many such cultural gaps in order to gain more than a superficial grasp of the language. “I went into the jungle, helped them make fields, went fishing with them,” he said. “You cannot become one of them, but you’ve got to do as much as you can to feel and absorb the language.” The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths. Marco Antonio Gonçalves, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, spent eighteen months with the Pirahã in the nineteen-eighties and wrote a dissertation on the tribe’s beliefs. Gonçalves, who spoke limited Pirahã, agrees that the tribe has no creation myths but argues that few Amazonian tribes do. When pressed about what existed before the Pirahã and the forest, Everett says, the tribespeople invariably answer, “It has always been this way.”
Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’ “ Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like vrvcum’—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”
[Everett] hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ “ Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’”
Everett was convinced that the Pirahã’s immediacy-of-experience principle went further still, “extending its tentacles,” as he put it, “deep into their core grammar,” to that feature that Chomsky claimed was present in all languages: recursion. Chomsky and other experts use the term to describe how we construct even the simplest utterances. “The girl jumped on the bed” is composed of a noun phrase (“the girl”), a verb (“jumped”), and a prepositional phrase (“on the bed”). In theory, as Chomsky has stressed, one could continue to insert chunks of language inside other chunks ad infinitum, thereby creating a never-ending sentence. . . .
According to Everett, however, the Pirahã do not use recursion to insert phrases one inside another. Instead, they state thoughts in discrete units. When I asked Everett if the Pirahã could say, in their language, “I saw the dog that was down by the river get bitten by a snake,” he said, “No. They would have to say, ‘I saw the dog. The dog was at the beach. A snake bit the dog.’ “ Everett explained that because the Pirahã accept as real only that which they observe, their speech consists only of direct assertions (“The dog was at the beach”), and he maintains that embedded clauses (“that was down by the river”) are not assertions but supporting, quantifying, or qualifying information—in other words, abstractions.
Hmmm. Where have I heard before the notion that thoughts and language are inextricably intertwined so that if a coercive power deletes one — either the words or the ideas — the other atrophies? Ah! Orwell. That’s where I first came across this idea, set out in George Orwell’s ruminations about his invented language in 1984, “Newspeak”:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
Orwell’s notions may seem strangely familiar to you too. If you can’t place them, just think about the headlines about America’s institutions of higher education:
Remember: When you’re little darling goes off to college, not only is he or she not learning how to think, the college is deliberately removing the tools (i.e., words) that make thought possible.
By the second half of the 1940s, the world had gone through a devastating depression; an hot; devastating war, and it was embarking on a Cold, equally devastating, War pitting the free world against the totalitarian, communist word. Indeed, Orwell had seen communism close up and, despite still cherishing socialist ideals, had the wit to realize that communism works best when the government exerts total control over everything, including thought.
The issues we face today were issues people dealt with in the 1930s and 1940s. The smart ones reached conclusions that we would do well to understand today.