Note 4: Words have meaning

Multi-level marketing and German tongue twisters.

Even before she was appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and I go back quite a ways. Not in any manner that she would recognize (she has no idea who I am), but the DeVos family shaped me in some pretty significant ways.

You see, back in the late ‘80s, my father remarried and my new stepmother’s family was really into something called Amway. For those who are not familiar with this particular enterprise, Amway is a multi-level marketing firm founded in 1959 by Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, father-in-law to the future Secretary of Education. The way that Amway worked (I’m not sure if this is still the model or not), is that participants were situated at various levels of a pyramid. Someone signed you up for Amway underneath them and you earned Amway points (my term, not theirs) by purchasing various goods from an alternative universe of consumer merchandise, and people above you in the pyramid would get Amway points of their own for the purchases made by folks beneath them in their personal pyramid. You’d never get rich purchasing products on your own (you likely lost money due to higher prices, due to Amway goods occupying an alternate consumer universe without supermarket competition and the “upline” kickbacks), but you could get rich (in theory) if you built a large enough pyramid of your own and skimmed Amway points from all the consumer purchasing happening underneath (“downline” from) you.

If you’re an entrepreneurial Amway go-getter, and you want to get rich, and you get rich by building a large pyramid, how do you do that? You show people The Plan, a standard presentation that elaborates on the preceding paragraph with lots of circles on a whiteboard. Not convinced that’s a good idea? That’s because I left out the second component of Amway (aside from the pyramid scheme to overpay for consumer goods), which is its library of motivational cassettes and other media that will teach you how to sell Amway goods for folks accustomed to just picking their laundry detergent at the local supermarket. As folks starting something new know, it’s never good enough to be better than the competition, or twice as good as the other guy - you have to be 10X better than your competitors if you want people to change their spending behavior. And the Amway tapes teach you how to sell the 10X, be it cleaning supplies, vitamins, or whatever else was in the Amway catalog that year.

Getting back to the point of this digression, the DeVos name was etched into my psyche from an early age from Amway in general, and most specifically, those 10X sales tapes that I listened to as a kid in car rides around southeastern New Mexico. (And if you know anything about New Mexico, car rides are rarely short.) I credit those tapes with making me anti-enthusiastic (as in, I can’t stand the sound of the word) and stunting in me any desire to be “thrilled” or excited about things the way those narrators were about their vitamins and cleaners and the Amway organization in general. I became very good at tuning things out and getting lost in books to pass the time sitting in the back seat.

Though to be fair to Mme. DeVos, her family’s enterprise may have done more to make me an advocate of reading outside of my Granny Martha (whose library of alien abduction books we’ll address in a future Note). I also feel like that experience also inoculated me against cults, enabling me to NOPE away a handful of invitations to join sketchy groups that I’ve encountered over the years. Looks like the DeVos family was furthering my education earlier than anyone would reasonably expect!

What does that even mean?

I opened up with my experience with the DeVos clan not bury the Secretary, but to praise her. As a Princeton alum, I’ve been following the institution’s recent struggle with its implied racism and I was pleased that the Department of Education is taking Princeton at its word and launching an investigation into the university’s racism after its president, Christopher Eisgruber, made a big public deal about how the institution’s racism has harmed people of color:

In an open letter outlining the University’s efforts to combat racism early this month, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 wrote, “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and racist assumptions “remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which considers those statements to have “admitted racism,” has launched an investigation into whether the University has discriminated on the basis of race since Eisgruber took office in 2013.

In a message to Eisgruber on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education Robert King wrote that the University president “admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist” in his early-September message — prompting concerns that the University has been violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for decades.

Now, I don’t actually believe that Princeton is a racist institution and its actions render it invalid for participation in federal programs. I don’t believe that it goes out of its way to disadvantage any particular race or ethnicity, and I would hold it up as a good example how many people from many different backgrounds can come together in a common environment and work toward productive common causes. I believe that the institution and community around it take very seriously its revised motto, In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity. Are there areas where it can improve? Absolutely. However, I also feel more strongly that it’s an institution that others should emulate, rather than serving as an example of what not to do.

So, why praise the Secretary of Education for trolling the critical race theory crowd? Because I think it’s a great example of an issue that’s endemic in modern social settings and discourse: how modern mainstream American English is breaking into sets of mutually incompatible shibboleths. (A shibboleth is a manner of using language in such a way to signal to the listener that you belong to one group or another and/or you hold some set of distinct beliefs.) When Eisgruber was confessing to Princeton’s racism, he was speaking from within the academic and critical activist realm. When DeVos’s assistant secretary drafted his letter to Princeton, he was speaking from within the legal realm. And through the dual usages of the word, we encounter racists in a box (with apologies to Schrödinger and his cat) where Princeton is simultaneously both racist and not racist, and we won’t know for sure until someone opens the box and proclaims which it is from their particular vantage point.

Why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because it makes communication more difficult than it needs to be. When the costs of communication increase between different groups, what do we expect to happen? They stop talking and listening to each other. They retreat into their own enclaves where communication takes less effort, because they are only speaking with like-minded speakers. The in-group becomes insular and members of out-groups become strawmen and parodies. Nothing productive or useful arises out of this. As inter-group communication fades, we become collectively stupider as a result. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again, except for a deity splitting people up, we do it voluntarily ourselves and, more often than not, feel quite virtuous for doing so.

What do we do about this?

I think the most immediate thing that we can do is stop using terminology that is designed to confuse. One of the best comments that I’ve seen concerning the Princeton investigation is that it’s pretty clear that a good lawyer didn’t read Eisgruber’s original statement before publishing it, and didn’t stop him from saying something that would put the university in legal jeopardy. If Eisgruber wants to confess to Princeton’s history of racism and discrimination, he should have used more precise and nuanced language that reflected Princeton’s history accurately (which led to regulations like the one DeVos is using to cudgel the institution), while also not discounting the strides it’s made since then (which keeps it eligible for federal education and research dollars).

Second, I think we need to to make piggybacking terms unacceptable. You see this happen all the time, where someone is trying to make bigger point than is merited, so they claim an existing term with a load of emotional baggage, in lieu of creating a new term that must earn its own baggage.


If you’re trying to say something that doesn’t fit within the generally-understood definition of the word, the proper path isn’t to try and get your addition shoehorned into the existing term, it’s to create a new term and educate people about its meaning. I mean, German has all these wonderful words to describe pretty niche concepts, so why let them have the monopoly on Zungenbrecher?

RBG Intermission Updates

Over the weekend, I published an Intermission with some comments about Justise Ginsburg’s untimely passing. I also made a couple of predictions, so let’s see how they’re holding up a half-week later:

  1. Trump nominates Barrett to replace Ginsburg this next week. Still waiting on this, but it seems that he’ll nominate Friday or Saturday.

  2. Two centrist senators rally against McConnell. I was half-right here. Murkowski was already a given when I made my prediction, and I expected Romney to join her (he didn’t). I didn’t expect Collins to join Murkowski, given that she needs the Trump base to win her race in Maine.

  3. Republicans fast-track the nomination. I still expect them to rush the nomination through, but the clock can’t start on that until Trump drops a name.

I’ll post updates in future Notes.

One other comment I received was that my content warning didn’t actually warn about anything that made anyone angry or annoyed. The main reason for that was that I expected to get into a larger discussion of why I’m a textualist, but felt that post wasn’t really the right place to get into a discussion of why I felt one mode of Constitutional interpretation was better than that of someone who made their life’s work applying another method. (I should have taken out the warning, but didn’t.)

My argument for textualism is a simple one: it’s the Occam’s Razor of interpreting the Constitution. It relies on the words on the page as the source of meaning. It doesn’t require knowing the mental space of the people drafting it at the time (originalism). It also doesn’t look to find overly creative readings of the text to try and find solutions for modern problems in a document drafted two and a half centuries ago (a “living document”). When someone subject to the laws of the United States cannot understand what that law is, that’s a failure of the law as written. And from that perspective, I find textualism the easiest approach to defend and justify compared to the alternatives. One shouldn’t be required to have a law degree to understand what will or will not land them in legal hot water. A high school reading level should be more than sufficient.

(I’m happy to go into this further - including the implications of a textualist approach - should folks be interested. Let me know.)

Local updates

Late last week, I finished my first 5k in the last 15 years or so. I was excited earlier this year to start preparing for the annual Race to Wrigley, where I was going to use that as my excuse to get into running shape once more. Then COVID happened, and I completely failed to follow-through on that goal. The in-person race was rescheduled to last week and participants could complete the race virtually. With that option in hand, I headed out last Thursday and walked from Irving Park down past the zoo to North & LaSalle Aves. It was pretty anti-climatic, and I really need to start doing better fitness-wise, if only so I can get back to wearing my old pants.

In TV news, Sunday night’s Lovecraft Country was pretty good. My opinion of the show has been mixed overall, but the episode covering Atticus’ time in Korea really showed what the show is capable of. We’re half-way through, and it’ll be interesting to see how well the showrunners stick the landing. (A tall order given Watchmen as an inevitable comparison from the last season.) The Third Day continues to be a beautiful show highlighting closeups of Jude Law’s face, but it’s time to push the plot along and show to what extent it is or is not a Wicker Man homage.

I also bought a new washer and dryer this week when the one that came with our place started leaking. It’s about twenty-five years old, so it was time for a replacement. Looking forward to having it installed on Friday.

Yay adulting.

Occupational update

Last week’s Python 2 to Python 3 updates have expanded to include updating most of my tech stacks from Django 1.11 LTS to Django 2.2 LTS. That’s eaten up a good portion of the last working week, but I am getting past it and getting some new code shipped. This week’s been all about playing catch-up on the pre-existing jobs I needed to get done before this impromptu infrastructure modernization became an issue.

Yay adulting.

Interesting reads

A Notorious COVID Troll Actually Works for Dr. Fauci’s Agency (The Daily Beast)

Discovery of noxious gas on Venus could be a sign of life (The Verge)

Computing Pioneers Endorse Biden, Citing Trump Immigration Crackdown (New York Times)

The Dark Side of the ‘Angel’s Share’ (Atlas Obscura)

In 2020, Super Mario 64 has been reborn as a horror game (Polygon)

Jerry and Marge Selbee were two Michigan retirees who figured out how to make millions playing the lottery (Huffington Post)

What Makes People Fall for QAnon? (The Dispatch)

Interesting watches

Until next week, o7!