A Tiny Typo
From Intellectual Responsibility
To The Law Of Unintended Consequences

by Gilles d'Aymery

June 3, 2002


We all know the law of unintended consequences and have more than once experienced well-intentioned actions turned into nightmarish scenarios; from a straightforward re-roofing of a house leading to thousands of dollars in unforeseen, rot-related expenses, to al Qaeda "blowback;" from "war on terrorism" turning into terror war upon civilian populations and increased risks of "terrorism," from Mutually Assured Destruction becoming potential nuclear madness in South Asia; or, more innocently, from a simple typo and a helping hand to genuine embarrassment and learned lessons.

An innocuous typo

It all began on May 20, 2002. I had just posted the Swans' rendition. It included an article of mine, Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Or Is It Dystopia?, which started with a Latin quote by Juvenal, the Roman satirist who is, to say the least, an unknown entity to most. For cause, here is what ancienthistory.about.com has to say about Juvenal: "We think his full name was Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis. He may have come from near Monte Cassino. His father may have been a rich (because, since he didn't dedicate his work, Juvenal probably didn't have a patron and so would have needed an alternate source of income) freedman and rhetorician. We don't know Juvenal's birth or death date. Even the period at which he flourished is debatable. It is possible he outlived Hadrian. What is clear is that he endured the reign of Domitian [A.D. 51-96, ed.] and was still alive under Hadrian [A.D. 76-138, ed.]." (While not registering on most radars, those of you who have a sense that McDonald's did not really invent the world we live in may want to further consult De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.)

I had found the quote when surfing the Web and it reminded me of something I had come across in times past. It read, "Duas tantum rex anxius optat, panem et circenses." and was translated, "The people long eagerly for two things, bread and circuses."

I kept it the way it was but for one exception: I changed 'eagerly' to 'anxiously,' after having consulted an old friend, the Gaffiot dictionary.

Well, the very same day, May 20, I received an e-mail from a loyal reader, Thomas (Tom) L. Karst of St. Louis, Missouri, who alerted me to an error. The mail read:

"The word 'rex' means 'king' not 'people.' A dictator wants bread and circuses to keep the people docile and dumb. Today it is fast food and television that keep Americans fat and sedated -- and totally unaware of the destruction carried out by their government around the world. "

Shoot! Oops, sorry, I should say, Arghhh! (Must keep with the lingua franca of the day, musn't we?)

Shoot, oops, Arghhh, I messed up....was my immediate reaction upon reading Tom's e-mail. Need to correct the boo-boo quickly, right now.

I jumped. I did.

Then, I sent an e-mail back to Tom:

" Thank you so much for catching my error. It's particularly embarrassing since I have my Latin-French dictionary right next to my desk. Well, I am not too proud....but I have quietly corrected the error. I will however acknowledge it in the next rendition by publishing your note. Many thanks again "

I will however acknowledge...

I went on to prepare this coming rendition, a job that starts, at least in my mind, the minute I have posted the latest one, over a job well-done -- give me five, drink a glass of scotch moment of exuberance shared with Swans' co-editor, partner in crime and companion along the journey (a.k.a., Jan Baughman), that follows each and every rendition. So I prepared a "Letter to the Editor" that explained what had occurred. I appended a link and an explanation to the article and went on with the preparation of this rendition (with the usual anxiety....who's going to contribute, or more to the point, who's not? A very existentialist concern when drowned in the Coke and junk food, TV guided, Hollywood manipulated ocean of materialism).

This was May 28.

I was acknowledging my error and standing up to the only immaterial thing I truly own, intellectual integrity -- no property rights there. There is something refreshing, almost cathartic, about acknowledging one's error. You should try it sometime.

However, in the afternoon of the same day, having written and formatted the changes, I received another e-mail from Tom which led to a series of exchanges. I won't go on through the chronology. It's all there, published (with Tom's authorization) in the Letters to the Editor which, this time, is an e-mail correspondence between Tom and me.

Simply put, Tom alerted me that his initial correction....was incorrect! The English translation was correct. The Latin quote was not! It should have read "res" instead of "rex, " and indeed it was the people that yearn for bread and circuses, not the king -- though the latter happily obliges with, nowadays, the Mall and TV.


Again, ARGHHH!

I had it right though I was wrong and Tom had it wrong though he was right; an amusing conundrum that I'll leave to you to figure!

The golden rule of intellectual responsibility

The striking part of this happenstance is how much two would-be careful individuals, Tom and I, meaning awfully well, simply screwed up and ended with their respective faces reddened by embarrassment.

All out of a plain, tiny little typo...

Of course, we profusely apologized to each other and, being both certified members of the commons, I've not an inch of doubt that Tom would join me to assure you of our deepest and most profound regrets!

Irony apart, there are a few lessons to be learned.

First, I took at face value a quote I found on a Web site and out of mere sloppiness disregarded a golden rule, that of double-checking. (This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's experience with such a sloppiness, back in 1997 -- see "Shooting the Messenger: Vonnegut, Schmich and the Internet," Swans, August 9, 1997.)

Second, I also took Tom's correction at face value, and again did not double-check. Embarrassment is turning into an egg or two on my face, especially because I did not look back, did not think it through and felt quite self-satisfied with the fact that I was going to publicly acknowledge the error, as though intellectual integrity can erase intellectual responsibility, or in this case sloppiness (it does not!).

Third, Tom, who legitimately alerted me that "rex" meant king and not people, had the curiosity, possibly inclination, to dig further and the courtesy to alert me to his own error (after having kicked himself for not having dug first, then...). In other words, Tom did what I didn't. He double-checked. By the time of his second alert I became quite....alert myself, so to speak, and I finally double-checked and more. At least and at last we now have the correct quote!

In an era when even fresh water and clean air is no more a given, when the tsunami of commercialized information has drowned all critical senses, desensitizing our faculty to think through the sheer number of hogwash constantly hitting a population preoccupied with daily chores and ratcheted anxieties, the simple attitude of doubting becomes more important than ever. In other words, do not take things for granted. Do not believe. Doubt and double-check! One consonant can make all the difference!

The law of unintended consequences

To the casual observer this diminutive fracas may look like a storm in a teacup -- it was only a quote and a typo, for goodness sake -- but as Tom wrote, "watching a small error bounce through the system is fascinating and somewhat frightening. And that brings us back to where we started. In view of the public's appetite for bread and circuses, or for hamburgers and television today, how hard would it be to create a completely fictitious world of propaganda that would control the thinking of an entire society? That's what the Army's 'psychological operations' endeavor to do, and in regard to the war against Yugoslavia, they were admirably successful." But beyond mind control, this small error illustrates an ancient law: Well-intentioned people often leave a pile of wreckage in their tracks as they trot along on their path to moral certitudes and beliefs. Add expediency and personal agendas to the equation and the toll can expand exponentially as well as erratically.

Cases in point:

The US Administration raises the tariff on imported steel to supposedly help the American steel industry. Now, this was a well-intentioned decision (even if slightly in contradiction with the free-market mantra), right? And if, as an aside, it helps the Republicans to harvest a few more votes in the mid-term elections, well so much the better. Good deeds deserve reward. Wouldn't you agree? Certainly... Till a European bureaucrat in Bruxelles, made unhappy by the good intention, decides in turn to raise the equivalent tariff against US products. Eh, what do you expect from a European bureaucrat anyway? These guys, in Europe, they see typos everywhere!

To demonstrate that he really is concerned about the environment, President Bush pledged $235 million to buy back oil and gas rights in the Florida Everglades and Panhandle, and it's no typo to read that Jeb Bush says this happens to help his re-election campaign. The next day, California requests that the federal government acts similarly. Will Bush also campaign for Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat in good standing? Oops, slight typo!

More seriously:

When Bush II, gung-ho with the you-are-with-us-or-against-us war on terrorism (the moral clarity syndrome of the messianic and fundamentalist crowds), goes around clamoring about and demonizing his axis of evil it leaves the door wide open for other powers (e.g., Israel, India) to expediently run through the opening with near total impunity and achieve goals that are far from the claimed objectives of fighting "terrorism" (to grab more land for Israel, and to win the coming elections for the BJP of Prime Minister Vajpayee in India). To ask restraint from people who are essentially replicating what you are doing is a rather awkward proposition...

Paradoxically, at a time when the Bush Administration says it needs Pakistan's help in its "war on terrorism" (that is, to further consolidate the Western advance in Eurasia) it finds itself cornered by its own rhetoric and forced to put more demands on Pakistan than it does on India when, in reality, the pressures should be directed toward India, notwithstanding the Jammu and Kashmir intractable conflict. But Pakistan has been used and abused so many times by the US that she might not be particularly shocked by this latest coercion (see, "Pakistan, the Subcontinent and U.S. Foreign Policy," Swans, June 1, 1998).

Playing with brinkmanship for political, economic or territorial gains -- something this current administration has mastered, and a behavior fully emulated in the Middle East and South Asia by their respective powerhouses, Israel and India -- could turn sour at a moment's notice. The tensions, relentlessly raised by India, a country pounding the drums of war whose echoes reverberate in the genocidal valleys inhabited by nuclear slaughterhouses, silencing the voices of reason, may turn out to be a high-stake chess game, a colossal bluff by a shark against a smaller fish -- Pakistan certainly does not want a war in which she has the most to lose -- but one has to wonder, could a typo or any other erratic occurrence transform the drums into devastating shots?

Thinking of it, well-intentioned people seem to be taken aback by Pakistan's potential willingness to use nukes. How could they?, sing the pundits. These Moslems are all potential "terrorists!" Yeah, sure, religion again (any pattern here?). But a) when you are a relatively small country with 140 million inhabitants and you are being bullied by a much bigger country with over one billion inhabitants, that you are at a loss to figure out the actual intentions of a decidedly extreme Indian government (yes, democracy can breed extremism....remember Weimar?), and b) you live in a world where the most powerful nation has never relinquished the right to use its nuclear arsenal, a nation in which a former president felt that a nuclear war was "winnable" and could joke about it on TV, a nation who's currently debating the possible use of nuclear weapons to defeat "terrorism" and the states abetting or harboring "terrorism" (read Iraq but think China, as the well-intentioned game has little to do with "terrorism"), what is Pakistan suppose to do? A typo....and kaboom!

Take Colombia: the middle class and the elites got what they wanted in the person of Alvaro Uribe Vélez who won the presidential elections on a platform of "war on terrorism" against the FARC and the ELN. Another good intention, I suppose. Once more the well-to-do are ready to go to war (so long as they do not have to wage it personally) to defend their privileges. The American people, fanning the unending military corruption, in the name of the war against drugs (another good intention!), will gladly finance the hostilities until, the carnage mounting uncontrollably, they are reminded of Colombian history and the macabre tenure of President Gómez who between 1950 and 1953 presided over the slaughter of 50,000 people per year. But history, like geography, is no more taught in school and we need the oil... Any typos will gladly be accepted and its consequences pragmatically handled....until further notice....or the next country (say, Venezuela?).

Notice in passing that since 9-11, all liberation or political movements have been transmuted into terrorist organizations, a trend that began in 1998 (heads I win, tails you lose) when a then U.S. State Department designated "terrorist" organization was metamorphosed overnight into "freedom fighters" by the likes of Senator Joe Lieberman & Associates. So the FARC and its cohorts are no longer rebels or so-called Marxist revolutionaries, they are now labeled "terrorists;" and quite possibly the right-wing hyper violent paramilitaries (AUC) which have gained fame on their reputation for using chain saws to dismember their opponents and are overwhelmingly responsible for the current carnage, will, like the KLA, become "freedom fighters." No need for typos here!

But typos abound around Enron and the overall 90s snake oil swindle. Good intentions then translated into whatever fast lane one could get onto the way to paradise, meaning getting rich. Even middle class bipeds believed in the trick so long as there was someone else, at the lower end, that could be more deceived, double crossed, ripped off, and defrauded than they were. They're now left with their usual whine and led, sheep-like, toward whatever direction the upper middle class and well-to-do tell them, in the name of order and stability, aka, the status quo. While the typos abound however, orthography, like geography and history, is no longer a part of schools' curricula. Don't even think about Latin. Dead languages like dead people are the province of anthropology.

So, what's being taught by well-intentioned-people beside trusting god (whichever totem of the monotheist trinity), get a job, watch TV and enjoy the Mall? Just learn to shut up! Behave and the "kingdom" will welcome you!

Intellect, having been hijacked by Big Mac, the Mall and the World Series -- rex or res, king or people -- a typo no longer matters.

At Swans it does, still. Thank you Thomas Karst. Thank you.

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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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This Week's Internal Links

East Timor: A Child Is Born - by Michael Stowell

The Name For Our Profits Is Democracy - by Stephen Gowans

Conspiracy Caution (Introduction To Jon Phalen's Article) - by Gilles d'Aymery

Digging Through The Morasses (Second Opinion on Jon Phalen's Article) - by Milo Clark

Let's Step Out Of The Box For A Moment, Shall We? A reply To The Anticonspiratorialists - by Jon Phalen

Conspiracy And Paranoia As Distraction - by Jan Baughman

Oprah Closes The Book - by Alma Hromic

Going Home: iv - Memories of Dreams - Poem by Alma Hromic

Letters to the Editor


Published June 3, 2002
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