Writing Right with Dmitri: Was du ererbt hast

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Was du ererbt hast

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Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast,

Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.

Goethe, Faust, act I, scene i
Translation: What you have inherited from your ancestors,

Earn it for yourselves in order to possess it.

Or words to that effect.

I am reminded of this by every foolish person that claims, 'Kids today are so smart. My three-year-old grandson can program the TIVO.' Yes, madam, he can. That does not mean that he understands it. It means that the company has finally designed a human interface that is user-friendly – as long as one approaches it with no technological preconceptions, and with the 'monkey-see, monkey-do' attitude of the average three-year-old.

(None of that applies to a certain two-year-old European of our acquaintance who was recently narrowly prevented from uncoupling the supermarket's collective coolers. That child is obviously a genius who will rival Edison in her later years.)

But back to the subject at hand, which is how we all think we're clever because somebody before us was clever. Take Twitter. (Please.) The other day, I saw this, and angels started howling in my ears.

wtf why is he calling him self Princes Harry now in case he offend the snow flakes!!!! PC gone buzerk

I'm not sure exactly why this turned up in my feed, but the next time anyone retweets stuff like this, I'm unfollowing. Anyway, what ensued in the thread was twofold: people correcting the post by explaining that 'Princes Harry and William' was a correct locution, and other people asserting that the original poster was an amazingly clever wit who should be praised for expert trolling.

Er, no. Said 'amazingly clever wit' should go and stick [preferred pronoun]'s head in a porcine receptacle.

NVM 'political correctness'. What's at stake here is consensual reality. Meaning: we either have it, or we can't talk to one another. Here's my advice: the next time someone displays, or pretends, ignorance on a subject, only to chortle and say, 'Fooled you! Fooled you! I really knew that! Boy, are you dumb!' Do this:

Refuse to believe them. Ever. Continue with your tedious explanations. Send them links to online courses in whatever subject is under discussion. Stay pleasant. Say encouraging things, such as 'I'm sure you can get it right, once you put your mind to it. Oh, and your last post misused 'it's' again. Let me refresh your memory about the rules.'

Ignore all accusations that this makes you a 'grammar fascist'. Reply with long-winded discussions of the politics of the 1930s, including the ways in which language is misused in the struggle for power. Recommend, urgently, the latest in-depth biography of Mussolini. In Italian. Suggest the idea that, if they do not already know this language, there are online courses available at reasonable rates…

In other words, give notice: anyone who betrays your conversational trust like that is the Enemy. You do not negotiate with the Enemy. You do not seek the approval of the Enemy. You are not in any way required to share a reality matrix with someone who is determined to bring everyone down to [preferred pronoun]'s level of ignorance. Just keep talking at them, but not to them. See how they like them apples.

For the rest of us: what Goethe meant was that we can't take things for granted. All of those riches the humans who lived up the timeline from us unearthed – with blood, sweat, and tears, and without the aid of Google Translate – are our natural inheritance. An inheritance is also a responsibility. If we let all of those wonderful things go to waste, or get lost in the chaos of 21st-century idiocy, we will not only have cheated ourselves. We will have robbed humankind. Just as surely as the extinction of each species on this Earth is a crime, so is the extinction of our knowledge base, and its reduction to commercial jingles, political slogans, and hip-hop lyrics.

'Oh, you know what I meant to say' is not a valid excuse for a writer to be incoherent. Go out there and fight for the body of knowledge. Do it for the kids.

So they'll have something else to be good at besides programming the TIVO.

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