Tractable and Ornery
“No, no, no,” said the Skeptic. “I’m telling you—the language itself is corrupt. The words you use make the outcome a foregone conclusion. Always. They limit your vision.”
“You’re—ehhh—telling me?” asked the Cynic. “With, like, words? Pretty presumptuous of you, isn’t it?”
“You know which words I’m talking about,” said the Skeptic. “Can we all agree not to say them? Just to see what happens?”
“Not even under erasure?” said the Academic. To which the Council, save one, glowered.
“‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative,'” said the Skeptic, “I hereby banish you to the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear. In fractured atoms.”
An eyebrow raised on all save one.
“You know. Just for good measure.”
“What shall replace them?” asked the Malthusian. To which the Skeptic made no answer.
“Tractable,” said the Academic at length. “And ornery.”
“Did you make those up yourself?” asked the Capitalist.
“Not entirely,” said the Academic. “I owe the second to Orson Scott Card, I blush to say.”
The eyebrows again, all save one.
“Describe,” said the Capitalist. “Do they merely map one-to-one?”
“No,” said the Academic. “I have read my Wittgenstein. The terms often overlap, if I may say so, but not at all entirely. And they each describe an entirely plausible disposition, which puts them well ahead of our dispositional politics usually so described.”
“I’m not yet with you,” said the Skeptic.
“The real question of politics-as-disposition is not whether we prefer that things stay as they are, or whether we prefer a change. No one has that kind of disposition. Not consistently, anyway. ‘Change’ can be toward anything. ‘Progress’ just begs the question. Even ‘keep things as they were’ can describe almost anything, just by virtue of selective quotations from the past. As the admirers of the nineteenth century — that grand old time — would do well to recall: The past is a menu, not a recipe.”
“Perhaps they recall the items on the menu all too well,” said the Cynic. “Only their tastes are different.”
“What about Oakeshott?” asked the Skeptic. “Didn’t he have the disposition to keep things as they are?”
“Not even him, I don’t think,” said the Academic. “But let’s keep matters close to home: Who wanted change this past presidential election? And who wanted change the election before that? And so on.”
“But answering those questions would lead us to use words that are… banished,” said the Humanitarian. “And that would break the rules.”
“Your disposition doesn’t turn on change or continuity,” said the Academic. “They’re too abstract. Much more immediate is whether you are tractable or ornery.”
“Meaning what?” asked the Capitalist.
“The tractable disposition works like this,” said the Academic. “We are all a part of a really big thing called society. To make it work, we have to make some sacrifices. The good citizen will make those sacrifices, and he will make sure that everyone else darn well knows that he’s making them. He wants to be the orderly subject of a well-run government. To be governed is to be comfortable, and he wants everyone to know it and to agree.”
“An example?” asked the Skeptic.
“Politically correct language,” said the Academic. “The ultimate expression of tractability. If someone said tomorrow that ‘left-handed’ were a term of abuse, you can be sure that by Monday, the tractable among us would have purged even the thought of that term from their very minds. Is it a term of abuse? It hardly matters.
“Good government, to them, is to a high degree about good political manners. About voting, obeying the laws, picking up litter in the street, and paying your taxes on time and in full. If the government calls on you — say — to give up your guns, or recycle, or stop smoking pot, the proper response is to obey. Not to question, but to obey. Why? Because that’s what makes things run smoothly. And when things run smoothly, things go better for us.
“The tractable subject sees the cold, sterilized armamentarium of Foucauldian biopower—yes, even that—and declares to himself and to others, ‘Here, fellow citizens, here is a game that I can play. And I’ll be really, really good at it. For the good of everyone. Now watch!’ And he dutifully pees in a cup.”
“What about ornery?” asked the Capitalist.
“The ornery soul takes to his dictionary and looks up the words ‘armamentarium’ and ‘Foucauldian.’ It’s not that he’s stupid, mind you. Even if he knew the words quite well already, it’s bad form not to let the gears grind at least a little bit. Then he declares the tractable fellow emasculated. Or he just smacks him upside the head. Which amounts to the same thing.
“To be an orderly subject of a well-run government is to be a pet — a kept man — a sheep — a tool. Good government is about a timid government. If the government tells you to stop smoking pot, well, you darn well should smoke pot. At least once, anyway, to confound them all.”
“Don’t conservatives support the drug laws?” asked the Skeptic.
“They do,” said the Academic, “and you’ve broken your own rules.” All gasped, save one.
“No matter,” the Academic continued. “The ornery would have a set of few, simple, easily obeyed laws, and woe to those who break them — because the laws have been pared down enough already, to make room for all the orneriness. Any disobedience after that isn’t just impolite, it’s barbaric, and no mercy is shown. The mere call to do more than the laws require is in itself a reason to be suspicious. When the government asks you to sort your trash, or to pee in a cup, or to surrender your guns, the ornery response is in all cases an angry failure to comply.”
“It seems like,” the Skeptic paused. “It seems like there is an ornery party, and a tractable party, but there are an awful lot of exceptions.”
“There were an awful lot of exceptions in the old system, too,” said the Academic. “There always will be. Now the real question — how do you feel about that?”