Tagged with language

Nixon In China

Do you know the saying Only Nixon could go to China? I didn't 'til just now. It refers to the 1972 visit and as a metaphor means that somebody (or an organization) that has a reputation to strongly lean one way, has much more leeway to act in the opposite direction than someone else.

A few examples that come to mind immediately:

  • If a (European) Green Party were to turn pro-nuclear for climate-change reasons, after decades of opposition, they would immediately have more credibility than the parties that always have been for nuclear power.
  • It took the social-democrats to dismantle the western European welfare states. Similar attempts from the right would have been fodder for the next election.
  • Super-rich people that want higher taxes.
  • Were the Swedish Moderates, who opened up schools to the private market in the 90s, to admit that this was a bad idea, the perpetual stories about horrendous consequences might actually have something done about them.

Interestingly, politicians usually don't want to be "caught" changing their mind on some issue, which might not be the optimal strategy in light of the above.

And it should be very effective for someone with an agenda to try joining the other side and change their stance from within; the low chances of success might be outweighed by the larger impact in that case. The episode of The West Wing about a gay Republican (in the early 2000s) fits that idea.

I think Nixon in China is one of those mental models that is worth keeping in the back of one's mind for a while and see how many more examples show up.

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Exceptions Prove What?

You know the saying "the exception that proves the rule". If you are a non-British European like myself, chances are that that this expression exists in your native language as well. To name just the tree that come to mind immediately:

  • German: Die Ausnahme bestätigt die Regel
  • Swedish: Undantaget som bekräftar regeln
  • French: L'exception qui confirme la règle

The problem is that these treat the word prove as meaning to give proof for or confirm. It can mean that, for sure, but it can also mean to put to the test! Swedish even has the word pröva, with presumably the same origin as prove, which means exactly that.

Is it presumptuous to think that this would have been a better translation? After all, it does not really make any sense that an exception should count as evidence for a rule. It should diminish our credence in it, a good counter-example can completely disprove a rule. It makes however perfect sense to think that an exception tests a rule. In fact I was happy when I realized this misunderstanding some while ago because I never liked the expression before.

Nevertheless, I wonder if there is some language-thing going on here that I am missing. Can it be a simple mistranslation (which inverts the meaning of the saying!) that made its way into the other languages? If so, why did the expression stick anyway? Does it appeal to some paradoxical mindset or Straussian subtext?

Interlude: Five minutes pass, with me being annoyed that what I just wrote does not feel right. Until I finally look it up.

Here is the actual meaning: By pointing to an exception that is explicitly part of the rule, the rest of the rule can be implied. Like a sign that says "no parking from 9-5" would tell you that it is allowed the rest of the time. Or the sign outside work saying "smoking allowed", thereby passive-aggressively telling smokers to not do so anywhere else.

This make some sense. But as far as I remember, this is not how the expression is commonly used. The paradoxical meaning is dominant, in the context of real counter-examples. But maybe I am wrong about that, too.