"It's not easy being me," Walter E. Williams says. He goes on to describe (but not to demonstrate) his exquisite sensitivity to language, which doesn't permit him to indulge in the tawdry pleasure of personification.
How many times have you heard a weatherman say that the sun will try to come out later in the day? Sometimes their prediction turns out to be false and I wonder whether they would explain it by saying the sun didn't try hard enough. But it's not just weathermen who use teleological explanations, ascribing purposeful behavior to inanimate objects. I'm currently listening to CD lectures on particle physics and I'm told that strange quarks want to decay. I'm wondering how the professor knows what a strange quark wants; has he interviewed one?Bwa ha ha, as the saying is.
Williams also gets upset when people call zeros Os:
In the past, I have asked operators whether I'd reach my party by pressing the telephone's "o" key instead of the zero key. Operators have always told me that to reach my party, I'd have to press the zero key, whereupon I'd ask them, why did they say "o"; were they deliberately trying to sabotage my communication efforts?And a stern lesson it was to them, I'm sure.
Having wasted most of his space on this sort of grueling pedantry, Williams has only a moment left to get to the point:
I wonder whether it's just me, or is anyone else bothered by silly talk? It might be that I'm getting old and out of touch, or it might be that I'm suffering from having received my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people and nonsense was unacceptable.This last sentence is fascinating, both grammatically and philosophically. As far as I can tell, the gist of Williams' column is that black people would be better off if white people stopped pretending to like them, because they would then be forced to use reflexive pronouns properly and to sneer at "nonsense" (e.g., personification, prosopoiea, synecdoche, and any other rhetorical figure that strays too far from the cold hard Gradgrindian facts).
In other words, whatever feeble analytical power Williams can bring to bear on these trivialities ennobles the educational system that prevailed in those dear dead days when it wasn't "fashionable for white people to like black people," and "nonsense was unacceptable" (except, of course, for the racist nonsense that made it fashionable for white people not to like black people).
If that's not what Williams is arguing here, I can't begin to imagine what he's actually trying to say.
(Illustration: "The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell, 1964.)