“I had to ask how to spell it three times,” Mrs. Bowman said, “and I might still have it wrong. I was going to order a personalized blanket, but now I’m afraid to.”
“I can’t help thinking,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “that parents who give their children’s names unorthodox spellings are doing their children a great disservice. An unusual name may be a boon; at least it’s a distinction. But a name spelled creatively—which is to say incorrectly—is a kind of orthographic poison that taints the child’s whole perception of the language. English spelling is far from perfect, but it does largely follow certain predictable laws. A child’s name must be one of the primary filters through which she sees English spelling. If her name violates the rules of our orthography, that filter is broken, or at least badly smudged, and it will take her some considerable effort to overcome the handicap. In fact, she may never overcome it, since the effort would demand an admission that her own name is misspelled, an idea that may well be psychologically impossible for her to form. Yet if the child with the misspelled name cannot see that her own name is misspelled, then the orthographic rule it violates must remain invisible to her. And one rule can hardly be lost without taking the others with it. The lack of an essential piece will obscure the whole pattern, and learning to spell will cost her enormous labor, because she will have to learn the apparently arbitrary spelling of each word separately.
“I should like to see every place of birth employing a competent proofreader to help mothers and fathers with the spelling on the birth certificate. But I know that the parents who most stand in need of that assistance are the ones who would most resent the interference.”
“I think the French have got the right idea for once,” Mr. Bates said. “If those people want to live in our Western society, they have to share our values.”
Everyone instinctively turned to see how Mr. Magundi would respond, but for a moment he seemed pensive. At last, when he spoke, he seemed to be picking his words more carefully than usual.
“If, hypothetically, I were a Muslim fundamentalist demagogue who wanted to convince my followers that the so-called Western democracies were the enemies of freedom, it would be hard for me to concoct a lie that would suit my cause better than the simple truth of the anti-veil persecution in France. The full weight of the French penal system is being brought down on women who have literally done nothing wrong. It’s not possible to come up with a starker case of doing nothing wrong. These women could wear abbreviated shorts and cut-off T-shirts with offensive slogans on them, and no one would dare to object; but they incur a fine if their clothes are too modest. They’re being punished, not for being offensive in any way, but for not being offensive enough. I’ll agree that they practice the virtue of modesty to an excessive degree, but I refuse to admit modesty as a vice. And if you have a mind for history, can you look at this persecution without thinking of the Christian martyrs in Rome? The pagan Romans punished Christians for refusing to share Roman values. How did that work out for them?”
“Well, I got my taxes sent out,” Mrs. Bowman remarked, “and with just a few days to spare. I spent three nights working on them, too.”
“Yes, it’s obvious that, for many people, filing the forms is far more of a burden than paying the taxes,” said Mr. Magundi. “Yet the forms are as simple as they can possibly be made as long as Congress demands an infinite number of special credits and exemptions for various causes and interests. Fortunately, I have solved the problem, and I have done so in a way that will be profitable to our government as well as being less burdensome to the ordinary citizen. Let every kind of income, from whatever source, be subject to withholding at a predictable rate. Congress may continue to make as many special laws as it likes, but the withholding remains unaffected. Then, at the end of the year, if you want to claim all your special exemptions and credits, you file a return, and the government writes you a check. If you do not file a return, no questions are asked: the government simply keeps the money. If there were no legal requirement to file a return, tens of millions of taxpayers would never claim their refunds, and the government would have that much more money to play with. I think you should write our congressman and urge him to adopt the Magundi Plan. I’d do it myself, but lately his office seems to be blocking all correspondence from my email address.”
“Where do you work, Mr. Magundi?” Brielle asked.
“Work?” Mr. Magundi replied with an expression of blank horror.
“He says the war was never about slavery,” I explained. “It was about states’ rights.”
“It was about one right only,” Mr. Magundi replied: “the right to allow slavery. The southern states worried about states’ rights only because they thought their right to slavery was endangered. South Carolina led the secession, and her leaders produced a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes” in which there is not a single complaint that is not related to slavery. The North knew that there was no other dispute; the South claimed no other dispute; it was slavery, and nothing else. Now, you can produce a good, coherent constitutional argument that the states ought to have had the right to determine for themselves whether to allow slavery. And you can produce a good argument from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or of the Christian religion, that no one ought to be allowed to hold another human being as a slave. In the incompatibility those two arguments you have the cause of the Civil War, and it is not necessary to go looking anywhere else for it.”
“They brought one of those business-school types in to run the department instead of promoting someone,” Mrs. Bowman said, “so now we have a boss who doesn’t have any idea what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“The idea that business-school graduates know best how to manage everything has taken hold so deeply that I see no way of extirpating it in our lifetime,” said Mr. Magundi. “It shows all the markings of a religious belief: it is dogmatic; it is non-negotiable, so that those who question it are dismissed or (more frequently) demonized; and it is immune to contrary evidence. Certainly it would not be hard to argue, looking at the evidence alone, that the conventional wisdom of the business schools has frequently led us into disaster. Yet a government department, or a school, or a church, that was doing perfectly well on its own will be turned over to a business-school graduate to be ‘run like a business,’ although for some reason we never consider that perhaps ‘running it like a business’ means sending it into bankruptcy and then begging the government for a bailout. You must accept the pronouncements of your new manager, not because he has any evidence to back them up, but because he is invested with infallible authority in matters of management; and because, by his definition, everything in life counts as a matter of management. Businessmen are our new bishops; given the choice, I prefer the old bishops, but it doesn’t look as though I’ll be given the choice much longer.
“Still, the pendulum always swings eventually; and I can imagine a time—perhaps when our children’s children are old—when an assistant dean will be brought in to run a marketing department, and all the employees will be told, ‘From now on, this place is going to be run more like a university.'”
“But I guess I’m getting too old for them to be interested in my opinion,” Mrs. Bowman concluded.
“A child born in this country has a reasonable chance of living to be eighty years old,” said Mr. Magundi. “He will spend the first twenty-one of those years being too young—too young to live independently, too young to drink alcohol, too young to make decisions for himself. At twenty-one he becomes a full adult, with all the privileges thereunto appertaining. At twenty-nine he realizes that he is almost thirty, and begins morbid reflections on his own mortality; and when he turns thirty his friends give him a party with black candles on the cake and a big “Over the Hill” banner on the wall, and after that he is too old. So of his eighty years on this earth, he will spend exactly eight, or ten per cent, being the right age. The other ninety per cent of his life is spent being the wrong age. I could write any number of elaborate satires on the mores of our twenty-first century, and yet none of them would be as biting or as ridiculous as the simple statement I’ve just made to you, which your own experience will confirm is absolutely true.”