This Is the Way the World Ends

This Is the Way the World Ends May 1, 2013

Confucius thought that social unrest could stem from dissociation between language and reality. A “rectification of names” was called for when words no longer related to their material referents. But how do you rectify emotions or conscience? How do you re-sensitize a world gone numb?

Lately, I’ve come across a little interjection of indifference—“meh”—that tersely appraises the emotional lethargy of our age. There’s a certain economy to the remark, a complete confluence of sound, syllable, and even appearance that expresses the languor of a soul that won’t be stirred by what’s posited for its consideration.

If a grunt-like “eh” is the vocal equivalent of a shoulder shrug, the addition of the “m” somehow enervates the utterance further, conveying both the anemic ennui of the subject and a dismissive judgment of the object.

Although pop-culture credits The Simpsons with spreading its use, you tend to run across meh mostly in print. The depleted way in which it’s uttered doesn’t have the same impact as it when it’s spelled out; in fact, I’m not convinced it’s really being heard in a distinguishing way yet. But once it’s seen enough and its semantic difference acculturated, people will speak it more. Right now, it’s the kind of thing that shows up in comments sections and on smug T-shirts.

The impact of meh seems proportionate to how much apathy is shown towards that which was meant to elicit emotion. For example, in one of its initial outings (again, The Simpsons) it was used to put across the younger generation’s overall dispassion about things like triple bypass surgery.

In comments-section jousts, someone might mention the Jewish holocaust to make a point, only to be answered: “Meh. There were lots of so-called ‘holocausts’ just as deadly as that one in the twentieth century.” The shock of the reply also comes with a subtext: “I’m being realistic and objective. You’re being emotional and simplistic.”

A few weeks back, doing research, I was confronted by the phrase in conjunction with a press story shouldering its way onto the airwaves.

The discussion was one of those “media self-reflection” moments. Print, television, radio, and internet news sources were asking whether it was true that they’d ignored the criminal trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. He’s the Philadelphia abortionist charged with murdering four babies (the original count was seven) born alive in his clinic, and also of causing the death of Karnamaya Mongar, a Nepalese refugee.

If you don’t know the story—and that was the critics’ charge, that the press purposefully kept you in the dark—the facts from the grand jury report are these:

Found in Gosnell’s flea and rat-infested clinic—with blood-soaked floors and urine-ridden air—were the body parts of forty-five children (feet, primarily, but also whole legs, being preserved in milk jugs, orange juice cartons, and cat-food containers). Witnesses—patients and clinic workers—testified that many of the remains belonged to babies who had slipped from the womb during partial-birth abortions.

Flailing there—one worker said that they squealed like “aliens” for twenty minutes—the infants would then undergo a “medical procedure” known as “snipping”: Gosnell inserted scissors into their necks and cut their spinal columns. He reportedly charged according to the child’s size—sometimes seven and a half month-old infants—and joked about how they “flopped around like chickens” afterward, and that some were big enough to “carry him home.” One child was born in a toilet, thrashing about in the water before she died. In fact, body parts consistently obstructed the plumbing.

Further, Gosnell seems to have been something of a racist. Black himself, he performed his procedures on minorities in the abattoir downstairs, whereas white women were serviced in the cleaner spaces above. Numerous sickened and maimed patrons complained to authorities, but nothing was done. No one inspected the place. Not for two decades.

So there were many angles to this story—criminal, political, social; something for everyone. And the charge was that the mainstream press—with notable exceptions (J.D. Mullane, for one)—remained almost completely absent during the trial. The picture above is that of the courtroom benches reserved for the media. Apparently, nobody cared to hear; it was all one big meh.

The reasons proffered were that Gosnell’s was only a “local crime story” (the rejoinder: weren’t Trayvon Martin’s and Caylee Anthony’s the same?); it was “too grisly” (Newtown? Sandusky?); or, quizzically, it was “too charged with partisanship.”

As Victor Davis Hansen pointed out, had the victims been dogs, as in Michael Vick’s story, we’d have had blanket coverage and unified outrage. But here? Meh.

Some counter-reaction to the critics is telling. A follower on Dave Weigel’s twitter account (Slate) dismissed the whole affair with a “meh.” She said the trial was only being used for “political posturing.” Subsequently, at a congressional committee hearing, Planned Parenthood lobbyist Alisa Snow wouldn’t agree that a baby born in the “Gosnell circumstances”—breathing, moving—was herself a patient, deserving of respect and attention. The child’s fate was still contingent; it was a “health care” decision, she said.

But if there is no common ground here—with a live child—then I ask where? If this doesn’t appall everyone, what will? When you look right at this business and won’t call it what it is? Worse, won’t feel that it is what it is?

If that’s so, then what’s left to be rectified? Names are the least of it.

This is the way the world ends, said T.S. Eliot, Not with a bang but a whimper.

I’ll go him one step further: yes, with a whimper, but with no plaintiveness in that sound, neither of remorse nor even of self-pity. A whimper unmoved by its own end, let alone that of others; the bored sigh of those who have hollowed out their capacity to bother, and whose three-lettered epitaph dies in the smothered torpor of their own contempt.


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  • matilda

    Holy cow! It’s not everyday that I come across two of my favorite linguistic points, and here they are, in this lucid post. One is the old, wrong-headed linguistic determinism: from Confucius to today’s media, people have replaced names, hoping to change our perception of reality. We have been on the euphemistic treadmill for along time, and somehow the expected magic has not materialized: ‘infanticide’ is not ‘health care,’ for Pete’s sake. The other is the never-ending need for new words in all languages: ‘meh’ is the English interjection needed for a heightened state of cynicism. It is badly needed.

    • agh

      Thank you for that insight. Linguistic determinism is one of the silliest charades that we play–that by changing the names things will magically be different than they are.

  • I can’t tell you how much this meant to me. Your thoughtful, articulate voice here cuts through all the haze – the ‘meh’ induced haze – and brings us all back to our senses, if we let it. Thank you.

    • agh

      Thank you. That’s a good way of characterizing this haze.

  • Caroline

    Thank you, AG, for speaking boldly about this situation and its ramifications. I hope a lot of folks see it and pay attention.

    Walker Percy would have said that our American tendency to “sentimentalize” the good life–not paying attention to those instances in which someone’s (like these little children’s) lives don’t measure up. And blindness, both metaphorical and linguistic enables us, and our media, to do this.

    Incidentally, I am reading this post during Eastern Orthodox Holy Week, in which columnist Rod Dreher has posted an account of the sufferings of a Romanian Orthodox priest during the Cold War. To think of that account–also horrid and anti-human, but yielding of miracles–against this one makes me shiver. Lord have mercy on us all.

    • agh

      As things turn out, someone who knew that same priest told me about him just a few weeks back.

  • I read that Gosnell is being kept in protective solitary confinement, for fear that other inmates will harm him because of his alleged crimes. Which raises the distinct possibility that the moral sense of convicted felons exceeds that of the New York Times editorial board. Thank you for writing about this.

    • agh

      And also exceeds that of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Health and several political administrations, who wouldn’t touch him or his like for some seventeen odd years despite what they knew.

  • Bizzy

    Thank you for writing this! It is so beautifully written. It’s been several years since I’d have the pleasure of reading anything close to modern commentary with anything like this eloquence. Thank you for bringing dignity to this discussion!