Entry from April 24, 2010

How I look forward every weekend to The Washington Post’s Saturday “Free for All” section. It’s a sort of “Letters to the Editor” with attitude and is mainly written — or so it often seems — by those in search of excuses to be perpetually aggrieved. When crazy feminists write in, outraged about somebody’s inadvertent use of a non-gender-neutral pronoun or some helicopter parent wants to complain about an “inappropriate” photograph on page one or grammarians and editors manqué spot syntactical confusions or amusing misprints, their letters tend to end up here — usually with a codicil about how low the editing standards at The Post have sunk. Even the occasional conservative protesting about the paper’s all too obvious liberal biases is allowed a couple of hundred words — to call them to the attention of those who are likely to think that the paper is not biased enough.

The section is difficult to find on the Post’s website and, even if you do find it, doesn’t include all the letters. Today, the short ones are to be found here, and they include this priceless gem from one Rocky Semmes of Alexandria, Virginia:

The April 16 Metro article “Out of the depths, into the spotlight,” about the first human descent to Challenger Deep, noted that this unique site, almost seven miles down, is “the deepest place in all the world”s oceans.” But this feudal fiction of multiple oceans is outdated, inaccurate and unnecessarily deceiving. Our planet is enveloped by one single and significant ocean. There are those who want to break it up and claim parts of it for their control and command; is it the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf? But to draw any line where one “ocean” ends and another begins is an entirely artificial exercise, unrecognized by either the water or the aquatic life that ebbs and flows. The sooner that all of humanity recognizes this fundamental reality of one ocean, the sooner we can restore the failing health of this critical and singlemost distinguishing feature of our world.

I take the liberty of calling your attention to the use of the word “reality” in this passage which, as you will doubtless have observed for yourself, we can pair with “this feudal fiction,” which is the name that Mr/Ms Semmes gives to the world — and the oceans — as the rest of us know them. Names are, indeed, artificial, like language itself, but that doesn’t make them unreal.

Yet in a way, he or she — or should I say she or he? — is right. A convention is not quite the same thing as a fiction, let alone a feudal one, but it is conventional that we give different stretches of the great world ocean different names. Without them we’d never have had that great Irving Berlin song, sung by Fred Astaire in Follow the Fleet (1936):

We joined the Navy to see the world
And what did we see?
We saw the sea.
We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic,
But the Atlantic isn”t romantic;
And the Pacific isn”t what it”s cracked up to be. . .

et very much cetera. Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire are good enough for me as pinnacles of civilization, but the names of the oceans, like those of the myriad other geographic features of the planet, remind us of many other such pinnacles. They are a glorious patchwork of human history — most of it, oddly enough, post-feudal — during which the sort of aboriginal primitives who had only one name for the sea were displaced by Europeans carrying with them Christianity, economic development and a rational and scientific view of the world which had found certain uses in being able to distinguish parts of the globe by different names. One such use lay in being able to comprehend, as those primitives never quite did, that it was a globe, self-contained yet comprehensible, which comprised many different lands and peoples, each with their own names for things. The ability to distinguish this unity in diversity and not simply to see everything as the same was all part of the Christian festival of naming, and it is even the ultimate origin of the romantic (unlike the Atlantic) one-worldism that Rocky Semmes preaches.

Why, then do so many progressives, like Ms/Mr Semmes, have nothing but contempt for their intellectual forbears? Why do they want to cut the rest of us off from the storied past they and their naming represent? I think the answer is that such people have a nostalgic longing for that primitive state which only knew to differentiate “sea” from “land” and therefore, of necessity, kept to an understanding of both that was limited to what they could see around them. Instead of Irving Berlin’s, their musical anthem comes from the hippie profundity of the Chicago Transit Authority, also known as Chicago, circa 1969:

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?

For time, too, is merely conventional, invented for the purpose of getting things done in an industrial economy, and of no use to drugged-out layabouts who dream of a return to what they imagine to be the innocence of the pre-Columbian Americans or pre-Cook South Sea islanders. If they could live as such people lived, however, they would develop a more accurate understanding of what “reality” really is. I don’t think they’d like it very much.

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