What you can do with an English major; or, How to be a pro bono counterintelligence operative

What can you do with an English major?

I’m gonna tell ya.

Well, I should confess: I’m not a real English major. But I hereby confer an honorary English major upon myself, on account of Mrs. MacMeans and Mrs. Stallard and Miss Mann and Mrs. Garrett and others did such a smash-up job of teaching me to read, write, and vivisect English, plus I give myself credit for all the lit crit I did in Latin, French, Greek, and biblical studies classes.

One thing you can do with a English major is detect BS.

Some other majors might also be good for detecting BS. Philosophy. Psychology, perhaps. Social work? Criminology? I dunno. There are also courses of study that equip you well for generating BS, but I won’t list them right now. Actually, the lists may overlap. The ones that train you to generate BS without training you to detect it are are great if you want to avoid growing in self-awareness, which you might want to do, because self-awareness can connect with having a conscience, which can really slow down your efforts to amass money and power.

Anyway, the thing that makes an English major stand out is that it can teach you to recognize BS on the basis of linguistic-stylistic criteria alone without reference to content. The syntax, style, diction of an utterance will whisper secrets to you that others won’t hear, even before you focus on the explicit message. Although noticing the content as well can help.

For example, what if you were to see a blog site with these characteristics: (1) It’s anonymous. (2) The blogger’s self description is:

I am a scientist and writer. I aim to be a voice of reason and facts in this distorted world in which opinions are considered truth.

Now I ask you: What do you make of that pair of sentences?

Here’s what I make of it: the first sentence is straightforward and clear, but the second sentence gives me pause.

  • First, it’s pompous enough to gag a merely garden-variety pompous ass. (I should know.) Who would write that?
  • Then there’s “voice of . . . facts.” Mmm . . . no. “Voice of reason” is a common enough expression, but “voice of facts”? Nobody says that. Not English. Don’t trust me? Ask Ngram Viewer: it’s a flat line.
  • Then “this distorted world.” A nearer miss, but still unidiomatic. In street English, you’d say “messed-up world” or something equivalent. If you were aiming for a higher register, would you say “distorted”? Not impossible, but I seriously doubt it. We talk of an image being distorted, or perceptions, or vision, but I think it’s less usual to apply the adjective to the thing that is being misperceived than to the perception. Maybe “this benighted world”? Or “this confused world”?
  • And that last phrase. Both of these nouns (opinion, truth) can be either a mass noun or a count noun (won’t explain, you can look ’em up). In a clause like this, it would be more natural to use them both same way: opinion vs. truth, or opinions vs. truths—but if you’re going with the plural, you’d follow “opinions” with “facts” rather than “truths.” And I’m not sure you’d say “are considered fact(s)/truth(s).” You might say “are mistaken for” or “are taken as” or “are accepted as” or better yet, to place the blameworthy agency where it belongs, “are passed off as.” See? That sentence just isn’t quite English.

Taken one by one, none of these awkwardnesses (here I creatively use “awkwardness” as a count noun—want to see my editor’s license?) would prove that their author is not a native speaker of English. Native speakers of English write worse barbarisms every day! But piling up vaguely disturbing dissonances like this takes something special. And this person claims to be a writer. Taken together, these slips make me think something is fishy.

So then what? Let’s say (3) the hosting platform tells you that this person has been a user of this platform since July 2020 (less than a month). And what if, in addition, you (4) notice the half-dozen posts to date are all reproducing articles that cast doubt on the reality of the Covid pandemic, or question the legitimacy of the countermeasures taken by various governments?

And what if (5) the latest of these is a translation of an article published recently in German—a particularly vehement and exaggerated piece by a retired epidemiologist in Switzerland (6) who wants you to think that the establishment scientists and those who heed them are all fools?  And (7) then it turns out that some of the others are translations also. What working scientist-writer has time to do that?

This is not a scientist-writer who is at home in the English language. This is a third-rate character actor who got undoubtedly well-deserved A’s (or equivalent) in English at whatever the Russians call their equivalent of a German gymnasium. Or A’s in German and B’s in English. Or A’s in both.

That’s right, boys and girls, with your English-major skills, you have just busted one of the Internet Research Agency’s thousands of bogus accounts. That sentence was written by someone in St. Petersburg whose English is far better than my Russian will ever be—but not quite good enough. (Or is it? Would it fool you?)

We just looked at one sentence here. This site offers other examples of this same sort of curiously stilted English—treading close to the edge of ungrammaticality and sometimes tumbling right over. This is part of the “disclaimer” that closes several of the posts:

I have no political affiliation. I am not an anti-vaxxer or government consipiracist [sic]. I am a well-educated, reasonable being [sic]. I advocate for people paying more attention to local government, local action according to local needs. I advocate for people leaving social media and come [sic] back to live in the real world, engage [sic] their brains and common sense.

Yeah, right. We have seen these  claw prints before. Of course you’re not an anti-vaxxer or a government cponspiriwatichitorist! You work for the IRA.

If you want to look at the Medium page for yourself, you can probably find it. Not posting the url because then They could find me.* I will tell you this, though. Taken one by one, the articles reposted are not crazy. Well, the one that caught my attention today devolved into demented ranting in places (though not all the way down to the Hannity-Ingraham-Carlson level, to be sure!), but other parts were lucid and in some places maybe even valid.

And certainly the blogger wants to be seen as a balanced, reasonable person. This Medium account is not a stupid meme, aimed at trapping the undereducated folk who cannot or will not read even a few paragraphs of a substantive article. It is for literate people who can read several paragraphs in a row of somewhat demanding prose. For people who see themselves as fair-minded, not as crazy partisans.

It does not run over you with a Avtomobilnoe Moskovskoe Obshchestvo truck, nor does it prick you with a poisoned umbrella. Rather, with its consistently one-sided wheedling, insinuating, posing, and disclaiming, it reaches gently inside your head, puts its thumb on the scale, and reinforces your preexisting tendency to inhabit our distinctively American paranoia, to reject whatever the authorities are saying, to dissent and rebel against science and against any other discourse that infringes upon your individual freedom to believe, say, and do whatever the hell you want because you’re an American, dammit.

But you, my fellow English major, can sniff them out and expose them. You can save the world. If anyone will listen to you.

And there’s the problem. Who listens to English majors? Especially merely honorary ones.

* Well, all right. I’ll give you the url in a paranoidly disguised form to keep the Novichok dispensers off my tail: ht*ps://medium.com/[at]vernunftundrichtigkeit. Gotta love that vernunftundrichtigkeit. Talk about jumping the BS shark. (I guess Cyrillic characters in the site name would have been too much of a giveaway but German is fine.)

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