Sunday, February 14, 2016

Phrase of the Day: “I’m from Missouri”

Throughout most of my lifetime,  the American two-party system has met little serious challenge.  (“Third parties are like bees:  they sting, and then they die.”)  That hasn’t yet really changed (anyone seen the Tea Party of late?):  even the floridly contrarian candidates Trump and Sanders  chose a major-party banner to run under (or in Trump’s case, perhaps to trample underfoot).   Yet the public mood is indeed evolving -- souring, mostly -- even if not in a way that so far has managed to embody itself in an organized party with a positive platform.  The movement is essentially negative, or rather a congeries of semi-related negatives.

The phenomenon is not unexampled in our nation’s history.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson came, for a time, to be the seed around which contrarian sentiments nucleated:

Jacksonianism was … a “persuasion”, a set of attitudes  united by little save discontent.
-- Wilson McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973)

A prominent feature of the present mood, is simply not believing what the government tells you (nor indeed anyone perceived as somehow working for the government, such as climate scientists).   And alas there has been much matter, indicative of the wisdom of examining their statements from this angle and that, and reserving judgment --  though surely politicians are no more egregiously peccant in this respect, than beleaguered generals, gossipy neighbors, ex-wives, and anyone trying to sell you something.

Again we notice widespread nineteenth-century precedents:

Missouri's nickname is The Show Me State. There are several stories concerning the origin of the "Show Me" slogan. The most widely known story gives credit to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver for coining the phrase in 1899. During a speech in Philadelphia, he said:
"I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."

(Melville features a relatively hard to bamboozle character called the “Man from Missouri”  in his enigmatic 1857 sotie The Confidence Man.)
So far as that goes, it is an expression of healthy skepticism.   The implication is that the speaker is open to being shown, given well-marshalled evidence.

A rung lower than this, this classic expression of popular disbelief:

“Sez you” became the cry of millions.
-- D. W. Brogan, The American Character (1944), p. 92

(Mostly among men.   For women, a couple of generations later, the catchphrase was a less chin-out pugnacious, but even more utterly dismissive “What-ev-vahh…”)

Or again, the Studs Lonigans of the day:

He may fall back on “Oh, yeah” or the more adequate “however you slice it, it’s still baloney.”
-- D. W. Brogan, The American Character (1944), p. 164

(Cf.  “I say it’s broccoli, and I say the hell with it.”)

Such folks are, unlike the Missourian, not inviting you to “show them” anything;  but in many such cases, attitudes are still subject to change,  not perhaps via reasoned argument, but by such dramatic images as may eventuate.

Rungs below that  is the attitude of systematic belief  that scarcely deserves the name of “skepticism” at all, for it simply does not engage in the practice of evidence-and-argument.  Birthers, alien-abductionists, conspiracy-theorists of various stripes, are no progeny of Diogenes;  and their abstraction from the world of fact  would have baffled Aristotle.


For more on genuine skepticism versus lazy know-nothingism:

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