When was the last time you got into a vigorous nerdy argument in the comments somewhere? You know, about something that you know little about, but a bit more than someone else? Someone is wrong on the Internet! Someone needs to be taken down a notch. Your opponent slips and slides around some very important point that you’ve made, and you’ve noticed a sizable, but surely not fatal flaw in your arguments. You opponent is guilty of some logical fallacies that you know by name. So are you. Shockingly consensus is nowhere in sight. You know, that kind of an argument?
Well, I willingly walked into one very recently. In the field of (shame, shame) cosmology as it relates to creationism. I was not debating a creationist either, far from it. It was a very intelligent, well-educated proponent of science. Except maybe one that watched a few episodes of those popular cosmological shows fewer than me. I was making a rather obtuse point that cosmology is so confusing that a wooly creationist might actually be less wrong in a ridiculous sounding statement…. blah blah blah. Snooze. My bad. Certainly not a good use of a good chunk of my weekend. But something good came off it. I finally had a small epiphany. These arguments that we weave in are exactly like a powerful trope that was used by late Donald Westlake in his Dortmunder series of books .
All the Dortmunder books have a scene set in O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. Besides master thief Dortmunder and his loyal and sometimes disloyal circle of criminals associates we encounter a strange lifeform: some barflies known as “the regulars”. The regulars pass time by having inane arguments with each other. They are extremely ignorant and clueless , but like a stopped clock, they are correct twice a day or so. Not for long, though.
I’ve collected three classic excerpts featuring “the regulars” from my favorite Dortmunder books. I’m pretty sure on some level every single argument that I’ve had on the web went exactly like that.
“What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”
“Right,” Dortmunder said, and moved toward the bar, where the regulars were discussing those black lines that’s on everything you buy now that make the cash register go beep.
“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying. “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”
“Why do it in code?” the second regular asked him. “The Code War’s over.”
A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying, “What? The Code War? It’s not the Code War, where ya been? It’s the Cold War.”
The second regular was serene with certainty. “Code,” he said. “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.” With a little pitying chuckle, he said, “Cold War. Why would anybody call a war cold?”
The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was called the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”
The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound. “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”
The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”
“With Russian dressing.”
Dortmunder leaned on the bar, off to the right of the main conversation, and watched Rollo in the backbar mirror.
When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at ten that night, the regulars were discussing why the big annual automobile race called the Indy 500 was called the Indy 500. “It’s because,” one regular explained, “they run it on Independence Day.”
Rollo the bartender was nowhere to be seen.
“They do not,” a second regular responded. “Independence Day is the Fourth of July.”
Dortmunder walked over to the bar to see what was what with Rollo.
The first regular reared back and stared at the second regular in aggressive astonishment. ‘WVhat boat did you get off?. The Fourth of July is the fourth of July!”
The duckboards behind the bar were lifted and leaning against the backbar and the trapdoor was open. Dortmunder settled down to wait.
“And the Fourth of July is Independence Day,” the second regular said, with the calm confidence of the well-prepared scholar. “They run the Indy Five Hundred on Memorial Day, if you want to know.”
“They why don’t they call it the Memo Five Hundred?”
“The place where they run it–” started a third regular; but, no. Not a regular at all, or he would not have allowed himself to be interrupted.
Which he was, by the first regular, still as calmly confident as ever, explaining, “The reason they call the Indy the Indy is because they named it in honor of the guy in Ra/ders of the Lost Ark. On account of what a terrific driver he is. Indigo Jones, nickname Indy.”
“You know,” mused a third regular, “it’s only called the Indy Five Hundred this year.” Yes; this is the third regular. “Next year,” he informed the world at large, “it’ll be the Indy Five Hundred and One.”
Everybody paused to think about that.
“It’s called the Indy because—” said the nonregular.
“Are you telling me,” the first regular said to the third regular, “the Indy Five Hundred started in the sixteenth century? Are you sure they had cars then?”
“They used chariots the first few years,” the third regular explained. “That’s where the movie Ben-Hur came from. It’s like the Super Bowl, with the numbers, ex-ex this and ex-ex that. Only they use American numbers. Five hundred. Five hundred and one.” “Indianap–” said the nonregular.
“It isn’t Indigo,” said the second regular.
The first regular reared around to confront this new challenge to his scholarship: “Whatisn’t Indigo?”
‘I’he guy’s name,” said the second regular. “An indigo is a kind of fruit, like an orange or a quincy.”
‘I’hat’s right,” the third regular said. “My first wife made pies.”
The first regular did another half turn on his stool to lower an eyebrow at the third regular. “Indigo pies?”
“And quincy pies. And rubabayga.”
When Andy Kelp walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at six in the evening, the regulars were discussing the proposition that the new big buildings that had been stuck up over on Broadway, one block to the west, were actually spaceships designed and owned by aliens. “It’s for a zoo,” one regular was suggesting.
“No no no,” a second regular said, “that isn’t what I meant.” So he was apparently the one who’d raised the suggestion in the first place. “What I meant is for the aliens to come here.”
A third regular frowned at that. “Aliens come here? When?”
“Now,” the second regular told him. “They’re here already.”
The third regular looked around the joint and saw Kelp trying to attract the attention of Rollo the bartender, who was methodically rinsing seven hundred million glasses and was off in a world of his own. The regular frowned at Kelp, who frowned back. The regular returned to his friends. “I don’t see no aliens,” he said.
“Yuppies,” the second regular told him. “Where’d you think they came from? Earth?”
“Yuppies?” The third regular was a massive frowner. “How do you figure that?”
“I still say,” said the first regular, “it’s for a zoo.”
“You need a zoo,” the second regular told him. “Turn yourself in.” To the third regular he said, “It’s the yuppies, all right. Here they are all of a sudden all over the place, every one of them the same. Can actual adult human beings live indefinitely on ice cream and cookies? No. And did you ever see what they drink?”
“Foamy stuff,” the third regular said thoughtfully. “And green stuff. And green foamy stuff.”
“Exactly,” the second regular said. “And you notice their shoes?”
The first regular said, dangerously, “Whadaya mean, turn myself in?”
“Not in here,” Rollo said absently. He seemed to look at Kelp, who waved at him, but apparently Rollo’s eyes were not at the moment linked up with his brain; he went on with his glass-rinsing.
Meanwhile, the second regular had ignored the first regular’s interruption, and was saying, “All yuppies, male and female, they all wear those same weird shoes. You know why?”
“Fashion,” the third regular said.
“To a zoo, you mean?” demanded the first regular. “Turn myself in at a zoo? Is that what you mean?”
“Fashion?” echoed the second regular. “How can it be fashion to wear a suit and at the same time these big clunky weird canvas sneakers? How does it work out to be fashion for a woman to put on all kindsa makeup, and fix her hair, and put on a dress and earrings and stuff around her neck, and then put on those sneakers?”
“So what’s your reading on this?” the third regular asked, as the first regular, zoo partisan, stepped slowly and purposefully off his stool and removed his coat.
“Their feet are different,” the second regular explained. “On accounta they’re aliens. Human feet won’t fit into those shoes.”
The first regular took a nineteenth-century pugilistic stance and said, “Put up your dukes.”
“Not in here,” Rollo said calmly, still washing.
“Rollo?” Kelp said, wagging his fingers, but Rollo still wasn’t switched to ordinary reception.
Meantime, the other regulars were gazing upon the pugilist with surprised interest. “And what,” the second regular asked, “is this all about?”
“You say it isn’t a zoo,” the pugilist told him, “you got me to answer to. You make cracks about me and zoos, we’ll see what happens next.”
“Well, wait a minute,” the third regular said. “You got a zoo theory?”
“I have,” the pugilist told him while maintaining his fists-up, wrists-bent, elbows-cocked stance, one foot in front of the other.
“Well, let it fly,” the third regular invited him. “Everybody gets to say their theory.”
“Naturally,” the second regular said. He’d been gazing at those upraised fists with interest but no particular concern.
The pugilist lowered his fists minimally. “Naturally?”
“Rollo,” said Kelp.
“You got an idea that’s better than yuppies,” the second regular told the pugilist, “let’s have it.”
The ex-pugilist lowered his arms. “It is yuppies,” he said. “Only it’s different.”
The other regulars gave him all their attention.
“Okay,” the zoo man said, looking a little self-conscious at being given the respectful hearing he’d been demanding, “the thing is this: you’re right about those new buildings being spaceships.”
“Thank you,” the second regular said with dignity.
“But they’re like roach motels,” the ex-pugilist said. “They attract yuppies. Little tiny rooms, loft beds, no moldings; it’s what they like. See, the aliens, they got these zoos all over the universe, all kindsa creatures, but they never had human beings before, because there weren’t any human beings that could live under zoo conditions. But yuppies do it naturally!”
“Rollo!” insisted Kelp.
“So, what,” asked the third regular, “is your reading of the situation?”
“Once all the buildings are completely rented out,” the ex-pugilist told them, “they take off, like ant farms, they deliver yuppies all over the universe to all the different zoos.”
“I don’t buy it,” the second regular said. “I still buy mine. The yuppies are the aliens. You can tell by their feet.”
“You know, but wait a minute now,” the third regular said. “Botha these theories end at the same place. And I like the place. At the end, the new buildings and all the yuppies are both gone.”
With a surprised look, the second regular said, “That’s true, isn’t it?”
“Spaceship buildings,” agreed the ex-pugilist, “fulla yuppies, gone.”
This idea was so pleasing to everyone that conversation stopped briefly so they could all contemplate this future worldsoon, Lordwhen the yuppies and their warrens would all be away in some other corner of the universe.
Kelp took the opportunity of this silence to say, very loudly, “Well, Rollo, looka this! You got a customer here!”