POLEMICS

 

 

 

Thomas Russell Wingate  

July 2012     

 

 

 

                   1

 

Like clothes, analogies fit—or don’t.

 

                   2

 

My high school chemistry teacher demonstrated to his class something I recall forty-nine years later.

 

Clear liquid #1 was poured into a clear container. Clear liquid #2 was added to #1. For a few seconds, he stirred them with a glass rod.

 

We all watched attentively. As he had said, exactly twenty-nine seconds later the clear liquid instantly turned black. I mean: the blackest black anyone ever saw.

 

We all expected the clear liquid to go black by degrees: the blackness starting here and there, then spreading. That’s what Disney cartoonists depict.

 

Not so: every molecule of that liquid turned jet black at the same instant.

 

If you had been there, you would remember it, too.

 

                   3

 

I am following Webster’s Second (1968), the last important prescriptive dictionary.¹

 

Polemics is the art or practice of disputation or controversy. A polemicist is a skilled debater or writer of polemic discourses.

 

                   4

 

Who, nowadays, is not inundated by polemics?

 

Some polemicists say: rely upon evidence ABC—event KLM will happen. Others say: rely upon evidence DEF—event NOP will happen, KLM won’t.

 

Cacophonous, aren’t they? Why should you trust any of them? Why should any polemicist trust himself? Does he not have a record of failed predictions? Is he displaying that record to you? Is there something (such as money, votes, esteem) he is trying to get from you?

 

When an astronomer foretells an eclipse, it is not any kind of polemic.

 

5

 

A polemic may be logical and factual. A polemic may be scholarly. Scholarly materials may be used (or abused) for polemical purposes.

 

A polemic may be emotional, vulgar, treacherous, unuttered.  

 

Every polemicist has adversaries whose methods seem to him defective, reprehensible, and undeserving of kindness.

 

                   6

 

Ask twenty people what is meant by “peanut butter.” Then, ask the same twenty what is meant by “the economy.” You will be unable to find a common answer to the more important question. Disinformation is rampant and not innocently spread.

 

The media often cite “top experts.” What do “middle experts” or “bottom experts” have to say? Why haven’t you heard this question before?

 

7

 

When I was a political science major, California had a ballot proposition. It was highly controversial. All polls were in agreement right up until election day: the measure was certain to pass by two to one. When the votes were counted, the measure failed by three to one. There was only one possible explanation: the voters lied to the pollsters.

 

Since then I have paid no attention to polls.

 

And I became a history major.²

 

                   8

 

To build my analogy: polemicists insist they are trafficking in clear liquids.

 

What they don’t know, and what I have seen, is what happens when certain clear liquids are stirred together in a clear container for twenty-nine seconds.

 

It isn’t transparency.

 

It gives no warning.

 

Drink it not.   

 

 

 

NOTES

 

 

1 See Bits of English 14 on website.

2 See History for Perspective on website.


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