Where to go when it’s one smiley face too far

I

“Keep It Simple” is one smiley face too far for me. Obviously, we shouldn’t make things more complex than they already are. But when an experienced county emergency manager tells us, “Floods are complex events, they have many variables,” it’s hardly helpful to pipe up, “Just remember: Whatever you do, keep it simple!”

John Stuart Mill said of Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “By Bentham beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? And by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it?” Today, when what we know and don’t know have many meanings, the challenge is: “True with respect to which meanings and how so?”

A more effective response to the emergency flood manager would be one of identifying other emergency response professionals who routinely manage difficult problems, and see how they do better than the rest of us in handling difficulty: to identify in other words their respect-to-what.

II

In addition to keep-it-simple, faux logics are rife. The income inequality debate is plagued by syllogisms passing as policy analysis. Since the marginal utility of a dollar is higher for poorer people than for richer, since the gains in happiness from the marginal dollar are greater among poorer people than losses in happiness among richer people, since more affluence above a point make people unhappy, and since people care a great deal about their relative income, therefore it is better to tax the rich (if simply to contain the unhappy rat race they foster), transfer that money to the poor, and make incomes more equal overall. Or something like this: Since uncertainty, conflict and unfinished business are the problem, therefore getting rid of them is the surest way to happiness, Q.E.D.

Also when it comes to simplifying, we mustn’t forget those who also go for “the root cause” of contemporary behavior. Ah, but which one? Hegelian estrangement, Marxian false consciousness, Weberian disenchantment, Freudian defense mechanisms, Sartrean bad faith, Orwellian doublethink, Gramscian hegemony, 1950’s alienation, Goebbels’s Big Lie? Or is the root cause, in that infamous “last instance,” Kuhnian exemplars and paradigms or Foucauldian discipline or God’s plan or that sure bet, money—or have I stopped short of the Truly-Rooted Root Cause? Yes, no; yes?, no?

III

A great deal of US policy is caught up in those yes’s and the no’s.

Lionel Trilling said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. To the contrary, Gore Vidal said: Most Americans cannot tolerate yes and no; it always has to be yes or no. Though here as Robert Frost put it in his Notebooks, “yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”. How might that be so? “Education begins with the word no, and begins as the self-education that is called repression; this no has to be persuaded to turn into a yes,” Adam Phillips, the essayist, tells us, “and this requires another person.” Frost and Phillips are to my mind spot-on: Yes and no don’t go far enough, if they’re treated as ideas primarily outside human interaction, which in turn is so often full of contingency.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks of Mexican term: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” This is difficult to answer because any answer must be difficult if it is to matter. Bolaño captures the difficulty quite well,

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Simonel: not really yes and no, but rather not quite one or the other. For my druthers, I’d like to go where the term insists that “yes” and “no” matter only when followed by the qualifying “but. . .”

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