Thursday, December 13, 2018

Polls, Taxed

“Raise your hands, all in favor of declaring that gay people are no longer afflicted with a mental illness.”

Well, it wasn’t done as starkly as that, but as Andrew Scull points out, the declaration “that homosexuality, previously labeled a mental illness, was nothing of the sort” was decided “by a majority vote of America’s psychiatrists,” and thus the second edition of the bible of the profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM), published in 1968, eliminated that diagnosis. It was, Scull writes, “surely an odd way to decide a scientific question, though, to be sure, one that all but the most bigoted would eventually endorse as appropriate.” (1)


A few years before that change in the mental health field, a massive headache afflicted a good number of editors and writers upon first gazing into Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published in 1961 by Merriam-Webster. Those folk were appalled because, as they saw it, the new dictionary left the vast public of English speakers up the language creek without a prescriptive paddle.

To the rescue came a new dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary. What was special about the AHD was that its parent company gathered together a panel of 105 literati and others to advise “with regard to dubious or controversial locutions.” (2) The voting by the panelists on questions of English usage was, to paraphrase Scull, surely an odd way to decide language questions, the answers to which are not determinable by democratic shows of hands. And what do you do when you have a tug of war over the use of the split infinitive—with half the panel on each side of the rope?


I remember, in that general period of time, that one year when Downbeat, the jazz magazine, was conducting its annual awards poll, one of the magazine’s writers refused to participate in selecting a best trumpeter or best pianist (and the rest), because, he claimed, art is not to be judged like a beauty contest or sporting event. (3) Of course, no one in any artistic field pays any attention to such an argument. So the public is offered a steady diet of meta-lists, as “experts” in the theater and music (and so on) are polled to anoint the BEST actor of all time (Judi Dench, as I recall) or the BEST pianist (Rachmaninov, wasn’t it?) 

While one doesn’t expect that the next show of hands by American psychiatrists will decide that gays really are neurotic or psychotic (or whatever), artistic polls (being totally subjective) are quite quixotic. Consider the movies (or should I say “cinema” in this context?): For gazillion years the BEST movie of all time was proclaimed to be “Citizen Kane”; then, out of the blue, in 2016, “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock’s neutron bomb (4) of a movie, topped Sight & Sound’s 10-yearly poll. (5) 

How is it, I wonder, that when nothing had changed in ten years (“Vertigo” did not pitch 5 no-hitters, during which time “Citizen Kane” suffered through several prolonged batting slumps) that the former film could leapfrog over the latter? 

All who proclaim “Total Bollocks” raise your hand.

As for me, I have more faith in magazine polls that list New Jersey’s best dentists.   


(3) I don’t recall which writer it was (perhaps Leonard Feather), and, even more regretfully, I don’t recall his exact argument. So, I offer the assumed explanation above with fingers crossed that I came close to his argument.

(4) “A weapon that killed [people] by irradiation while sparing property.”
I fully expect to discuss “Vertigo” in a future post, but today’s my birthday, and I don’t want to have to deal further right now with that dud of a film.

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