Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Clothes Have No King

Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute has tallied fifty nine (and counting) "Deceits in Farenheit 9/11."

Reading this made me think of faggots, and of Boss Tweed.

OK, I'll back up. One of my online lives is as keeper of a dictionary of etymologies -- word origins. Which means a good deal of my online time is spent tilting at the false etymologies people embrace (e.g. "golf is an acronym for 'gentlemen only; ladies forbidden' "). I also correspond with fellow word mavens, and we often lament the persistence of these false memes.

One of my current correspondents, a delightful fellow names Frank, shared a few juicy stories about the linguistic faux pas of some prominent academics. Shocked? Hardly. I've had my faith in academe shattered so many times I've stopped counting.

There's a lamentable tendency in the university set to cling to a beloved false etymology because it provides just the perfect detail to illustrate the world-view being advanced. I can understand that tendency in average folks (like me). I just learned that the "Mama Cass choked to death on a chicken sandwich" factoid is a false meme. I was crushed. But it seems to me that academics, of all people, ought to be committed to rigorous inquiry after true origins, rather than blind clinging to the paps of false idols.

One of the disputes this dictionary brought down on me was from professors and students in the "sex and gender studies" departments, who insist that faggot meaning "homosexual male" and faggot meaning "bundle of sticks used to light a fire" are the same word, and this reflects the medieval (or whatever age) abhorrence of homosexuality, via the phrase "throw another faggot on the fire."

As short as I can make it, the faggot that meant "bundle of twigs bound up" is a 13th century word that came to English with the Norman-French, and it ultimately comes from Latin fascis "bundle of wood" (which is also, interestingly, the root of fascist). During the Reformation (16th century) faggots were used in burning heretics so often that phrase fire and faggot was used to mean "punishment of a heretic." Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on their sleeve, as an emblem and reminder of what they deserved.

Fast-forward from 16th century to 20th. The faggot that means "male homosexual" only goes back to 1914, and first appears in American slang (the shortened form fag is from 1921). It probably was extended from a contemptuous slang term for "a woman," especially an old and unpleasant one, which is a reference to faggot in the "bundle of sticks" sense, as something awkward that has to be carried (cf. "baggage," as slang for "wife"). D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others in the last century, used "faggot" in this "old woman" sense around the same time it was emerging as a slang term for "gay man."

[It may also have been reinforced by Yiddish faygele "homosexual," literally "little bird." It also may have roots in British public school slang fag "a junior who does certain duties for a senior" (1785), with suggestions of "catamite," which comes from the verb fag, meaning "to become tired," which seems to be an alteration of flag.]

However, the statement that male homosexuals were called faggots in reference to their being burned at the stake is an etymological urban legend. Burning was sometimes a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe (on the suggestion of the Biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorah), but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method proscribed.

Furthermore, any use of faggot in connection with public executions had long become an English historical obscurity by the time the word began to be used for "male homosexual" in 20th century American slang, whereas the contemptuous slang word for "woman" (and the other possible sources or influences listed here) was in active use.

Yet the connection seemed to be the hinge-point of so many sociology lectures and published papers that its adherents would not give it up. And unlike other people who write to me about such things, the academics were snippy in the extreme. They immediately pulled rank on me. "I have a doctorate, I teach. What qualification do you have to contradict me?" Well, a doctorate in gender studies no more qualifies you to do etymology than a plumbers' certificate does.

It reminded me of the AOL Civil War message board where I used to participate. One day, a "professor" showed up and tried to silence his opponent (in this case, me) by demanding to know where I had done my graduate studies an where I had been published. Someone else politely informed him that he wouldn't automatically win arguments because of a sheepskin framed on his wall, but if he could muster some facts and present a cogent argument, he would get due credit. Needless to say, the professor vanished after that. His chaser was a man who drives truck for a living and knows more about many aspects of the Civil War than anyone I know.

So in the dispute with the faggot people, here was a second-rate copy editor in a small-town newspaper teaching graduate students and professors how to think critically about the evidence in front of them. It says a lot about the modern university, I suppose. Certainly it illustrates while I bailed out of higher education after just four years of college. So many of its arguments are built on shadows and innuendos of association.

Which may be why Michael Moore and the college professors seem to agree with one another so well.

Yet it just falls apart, because the factoids the lecturer or filmmaker is stitching together turn out to not exist. The thread is rotten. And the clothes have no king.

Todd Gitlin, in an essentially laudatory review of Moore's movie and his role in the modern American political landscape, actually puts his finger on this quality:

He’s an entertainer (when it suits him) whose brush is so broad, at times, as to coat all evidence and logic with bursts of sensational color. His chief method is the insinuating juxtaposition. Presto, proof by association. Fahrenheit 9/11, his election year release, is like a beer commercial. When you see the gorgeous women drinking the beer, the subterranean layer of your cortex is supposed to think: if I drink, I get. This deep layer is protected by the more deliberate thought: hey, it’s all in good fun. Bush–haters can say, I knew it! Moore can say, I don’t do proofs, I do provocations.

Gitlin himself is a '60s student protest veteran and a professor -- of journalism and sociology, of course -- at Columbia University. Despite the beer commercial metaphor (because we're all so much cleverer than those beer-swilling Red State denizens), I wonder if his ability to recognize Moore's intellectual chicanery is not an accident. Gitlin concludes:

Moore is the master demagogue an age of demagoguery made. He’s an impresario of spectacle and he corrals people who don’t pay attention to news to pay attention to him and his facts, his footage, his badinage, his sarcasm, his factoid detonations, all of it, indiscriminately, smashing up the complacency that watched George Bush seize power in the most powerful nation in history.

And so Gitlin, eyes wide closed, annoints Moore as the "most compelling, useful filmmaker of the 21st century." Demagogues, and their allies, know the virtue of getting people to look at the right manipulated images. They always have.

It reminds me, in reverse, of a story from the movement to overthrow the corrupt Tweed Ring in New York City government. On July 22, 1871, the New York Times began publishing an exposé of the Tweed Ring's activities. Harper's Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast did his part with cartoons lambasting Tweed, in dead-on caricatures portraying him as a vulture feeding on the public. "Let's stop them damned pictures," the Boss supposedly said, "I don't care so much what the papers write about —- my constituents can't read —- but damn it, they can see pictures."