Saturday, November 23, 2002

Triumph of the Absurd

There must be a name for this phenomenon: In opposing position X, someone observes that the same arguments that support X would also justify some other position Y that appears, at the time, to be patently wrong. Maybe the point is made as a reductio ad absurdum: "If you support X, you must also support Y, but Y is clearly absurd." X nonetheless gets adopted. Then, some time later, Y is proposed in all seriousness, and the absurd becomes reality.

Exhibit 1. When lawsuits were launched against the tobacco companies (and later, gun manufacturers) for the voluntary actions of their customers, some defenders of the wacky notion of personal responsibility noted that some of the legal arguments employed against the tobacco and gun companies could be targeted against (say) food companies that sell high-fat, high-cholesterol foods. But we would never actually blame companies for individuals' poor eating habits, right? Wrong - now people are suing McDonald's for tempting them to eat unhealthy fast food products.

Exhibit 2. When I hear people defend "buy American" campaigns, I often ask if they would support similar discrimination against products made in American states. Should Texans refuse to buy automobiles manufactured in Michigan? Should New Yorkers resist the urge to buy products made in New Jersey? With the exception of Pace Picante Sauce (which is made in San Antonio, by people who know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like), I thought the very notion ludicrous. Well, it has come to pass. Earlier this week I saw a television advertisement urging me to "Buy Californian." It featured people saying things like, "I'm not an actor, but I am a Californian. And I buy California vegetables." Right - we wouldn't want Californians to become dependent on Florida's farmers, because someday we might go to war with Florida, and then what would we do?

If this phenomenon doesn't already have a name, it needs one. After consultation with my brother the linguist, I propose to call it "absurdum evenit" - the absurd comes to pass. (Or perhaps the more alliterative "absurdum advenit" - the absurd arrives.)

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