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Joe Lieberman’s “Insipid” Internationalism?

Taking Joe Lieberman to task for some unfounded swipes at Democrats in the Financial Times, Matt Yglesias complains that Lieberman's interpretation of the history of liberal internationalism "is really insipid." Now look, I'm not trying to pick on anyone, and … Read More

By / November 9, 2007

Taking Joe Lieberman to task for some unfounded swipes at Democrats in the Financial Times, Matt Yglesias complains that Lieberman's interpretation of the history of liberal internationalism "is really insipid."

Now look, I'm not trying to pick on anyone, and Matt is far from the first person I've seen or heard indulge in this usage, which is precisely why I find it so grating. ‘Insipid' means bland, flavorless, tasteless, vapid, not noteworthy, lacking distinction, und so weiter und so fort. It does not mean inane, dumb, fatuous, specious, unlearned, uninformed, lacking intellectual acuity, or whatever shade of stupidity or ignorance Matt is taking it to mean. On the contrary, there are many modifiers I can think of to describe Lieberman's understanding of 20th century liberal foreign policy, none of them complimentary, but a term meaning ‘without distinctive quality' is not one of them.

So how did ‘insipid' become a synonym for ‘stupid'? Granted, it's not a linguistic atrocity on the scale of confusing ‘disinterested' and ‘uninterested', but by the same token, it is comparably egregious to using ‘tragic' to describe a situation that is merely sad.

As it happens, I have a pet theory. ‘Insipid' is part of that battery of Latinate words that dominates the SAT, the GRE, the LSAT, the GMAT — the array of multiple choices that determines entry into elite academic institutions and lucrative careers and therefore the future of America. Now, as anyone who has had some success in these ventures can testify, just as standardized "quantitative ability" tests have far less to do with actual math than with heuristic strategies that substitute for math, verbal and reading comprehension tests are predictable enough to be rather easily gamed. For example, if ‘insipid' were the prompt for an antonym question, and of the five answer choices, four were either negative or neutral modifiers, the remaining positive modifier would automatically be the answer. The upshot is that rising generations of ambitious, intelligent, and over-tested young professionals have a vocabulary that is quite limited if a vocabulary includes only those terms for which one possesses a uniquely-denoting concept, but very expansive if have a vocabulary that is quite limited if a vocabulary includes only those terms. Needless to say, the default stance of ambitious, intelligent people is to make full use of the inventory of that broader vocabulary. Hence ‘stupid' is such a gauche word, so ‘insipid' it is.

I'm not a prescriptivist about language, but I find this phenomenon distressing because among words such as ‘insipid', ‘inane', ‘fatuous', ‘specious', ‘vacuous', ‘vapid', etc., there are finely-grained (and in some cases coarsely-grained) distinctions in meaning, what philosophers of language call intensional distinctions, that render these terms non-substitutable salva veritate. Quite a lot of the richness of a language, to say nothing of its ability to express a multiplicity of ideas, depends upon the preservation of such intensional distinctions, and one consequence of our reliance on standardized tests as mechanical gatekeepers for the upper strata of a meritocratic society is that these distinctions are imperiled. (There are, I might add, political implications to the excision of semantic values from a language, whether deliberate or not, as Orwell recognized in his invention of Newspeak.)

On a related note, I have to take pedantic issue again with this sentence from Yglesias: "You'd have to be an idiot to draw from the FDR-Truman school of internationalism the simple lesson that a disposition to start wars is a good idea." Well indeed, except that a disposition is not an idea (good or otherwise) and as a former philosophy student, Matt should know that.

On the whole though, I agree with Matt that Lieberman's comments betray both a bloodlust and a lack of education that ought to relegate the Saintly Senator to the status of his fellow "Independent Democrat," Lyndon LaRouche. That thinking like Lieberman's, if not in the dominant position it once was, remains a powerful current among foreign-policy decision makers, is a malignancy waiting to metastasize. Incidentally, Lieberman, as the soi-disant paladin of a lost "muscular Democratic foreign policy," places himself in a logical thicket that Republican warmongers need not worry about. Matt gets at one piece of it: If you take a position of maximum belligerence on all international questions, and simultaneously claim to be doing so as means of emulating Kennedy administration foreign policy, how can you possibly account for Kennedy's greatest foreign policy triumph being his demurral on the nuclear war that the Liebermenschen of that time were eager to provoke? But the problem goes deeper. Lieberman is also claiming the mantle of FDR, who, rather than take pre-emptive action against the Nazis by joining the Spanish Civil War, let alone wage a war preventively, only entered the war after the Axis had attacked us. In other words, the tradition Lieberman believes himself to be championing exists only in his mind.

To be sure, the Spanish Civil War poses a problem for the right, too, namely, by the lights of their ridiculous with 'em or agin 'em binary conception of geopolitics that discerns an axis running from Riyadh to Isfahan to Caracas, do their apologetics for the Falange not render them objectively pro-fascist? And since it's always 1938, and every enemy is Hitler, doesn't the anti-Soviet bellicosity which led them (hilariously) to castigate Reagan, and disastrously to support the mujahedeen, render them objectively pro-Islamofascist? True, they've had a change of heart, but as the thoroughly Islamofacism-aware David Horowitz never ceases to prove, you can take the boy out of the totalitarian movement but you can't take the totalitarianism out of the boy.

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