On Supermarket Tabloids

“I was looking at those papers at the checkout counter last night,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “I really don’t know how they get away with making stuff up about the president like that.”

“I don’t think it’s right to say they make stuff up,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Supermarket tabloids, at least when they touch on politics, deal in metaphor. Their target readers are—to be uncharitable but strictly accurate—sort of stupid. They have strong feelings, but they can’t articulate reasons for them. So the supermarket tabloids give them a metaphor that describes perfectly what they feel.

“In the waning days of the previous administration, the tabloid readers were sick of President Bush. They couldn’t say why, but they knew they were very angry with him. So the supermarket tabloids were full of stories about his marriage. His wife was going to divorce him within days of leaving the White House, because he had been unfaithful with a string of tawdry mistresses. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, true, but it was a metaphor that perfectly described the dissatisfaction of the tabloid readers: George W. Bush had been an unfaithful husband to America.

“Now the tabloid readers are dissatisfied with President Obama, so the tabloids give them a metaphor to describe how they feel: he’s not a real American at all, and he’s not a Christian—he’s a dirty foreign infidel who wants to sell our country to the terrorists. Once again, the facts are false, but as a metaphor the story perfectly describes what the tabloid readers are feeling. There’s a lot more truth in those crazy tabloids than we usually give them credit for—not truth about politics, but truth about the mind of Middle America.”

On China

“How did we end up owing most of our country to China, anyway?” Mr. Bates was grumbling.

“You have to give the Chinese credit for the most successful crash course in capitalism ever seen in the history of the world,” Mr. Magundi said. “When it became clear to their leaders that the key to world power was economic rather than military, they set about gaining that power in a methodical and relentless fashion. Even fifteen years ago, it was possible for American politicians to talk seriously about sanctions against Chinese imports; now everyone knows that sanctions would completely destroy the American economy. The Chinese have earned the power they wanted: not the power to defeat us in battle, but the power to buy and sell us.

“At any rate, China is the future. We can denounce the authoritarian control freaks who run the place as much as we like, but our criticism is blunted a bit by the way we elect indistinguishable authoritarian control freaks, Republican or Democratic, who have pretty much exactly the same notion of what constitutes successful government. As the world becomes more and more interconnected, the more controlling governments will dictate the terms of those connections, and the developed nations will look more like China or Singapore. They’ll be prosperous and pleasant to live in, as long as you cooperate. And if you refuse to cooperate and get beaten to a pulp by the secret police, most of the people around you won’t have much sympathy, because their lives are prosperous and pleasant.”

On ‘Bromance’

“It’s such an ugly word,” Mr. Bates was complaining. “I’d like to punch the next person who says ‘bromance.'”

“But I can see why someone invented it,” Mr Magundi said. “We used to have a word for a deep and selfless but not sexual love between two people. We called it ‘friendship,’ and we praised the love of one friend for another as one of the highest expressions of human nature. But we’ve simply lost the use of the word ‘friend.’ Partly it’s because of what I call social neoteny: we’ve become a culture of fifth-graders, who titter at the suggestion of anything involving ‘love’ and can’t resist making a smutty joke of it. And partly it’s because we’ve trivialized the meaning of the word ‘friend’: a ‘friend’ now can be any of the hundreds of people whose status updates appear on your Facebook page. Because we can’t grow up, and because we make everyone we know and don’t actively hate our ‘friend,’ we simply don’t have a word in English for a strong attachment between two men. And until someone comes up with a better word, ‘bromance’ will continue to infest our language, because it describes a phenomenon we often see but don’t have any other name for.”

On Magic Legalism

“He says the income tax is unconstitutional,” I was explaining, “and he says he can prove it. But I have to admit I couldn’t follow some of his argument.”

“You were dealing with an exponent of what I call ‘magic legalism,'” Mr. Magundi said. “Without really even thinking about it, the magic legalist sees the law, not as an expression of the intent of the legislator, but as an incantation. If a jot or a tittle of the incantation is out of place, it loses its effect. So, when he is dissatisfied with a law, the magic legalist looks for a way, not to change the law, but to break the spell. The income tax is a perfect example: Congress intended to amend the Constitution to allow an income tax, and the state legislatures intended to approve such an amendment; but the magic legalist imagines that he has found some flaw in the process, and therefore the spell is broken, or rather the incantation was never effective in the first place. Fortunately most sane courts take the position that, barring egregious errors, the obvious intent of the legislators is a guide in interpreting the law. Otherwise, if any act of Congress could be voided by a single misprint, then—well—have I talked myself into a corner here?”

On Loitering

“Everywhere you look it says ‘No Loitering,’” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “All up and down in front of all the stores. Right over there beside the bench. And the signs say you can go to jail for loitering. You’d think they’d want people hanging out in front of their stores so they could sell them things. Why do you suppose people put up so many ‘No Loitering’ signs?”

Mr. Magundi answered, “I think it’s because the Supreme Court has told them they can’t put up signs that say ‘No Colored People.'”

On Dramatic Theory

“It’s another movie about a comic-book superhero up to his eyebrows in angst,” I said. “I’m getting a little bored with those.”

“Two aesthetic ideals have taken over our popular entertainment,” Mr. Magundi said: “the aesthetic of the comic book and the aesthetic of the soap opera. It’s worth remembering that, when you and I were growing up, those were considered just about the two lowest forms of entertainment. Now we see men in colored underwear whining about their love lives, and we treat them as though they were Shakespearean tragic heroes. But they are not. Shakespeare will survive as long as there is drama, but Angst-Man will be forgotten in a generation.”