All Hail the Gostak!

Sometimes a story has a moral that sticks with you. One of these was “The Gostak and the Doshes,” written by Miles Breuer and published in Amazing Stories in 1930. I read it in my childhood (no, I’m not that old, it was in a collection of classics) and I’ve never forgotten it. It involved a man who journeyed to an alternate universe in which the nonsense phrase, “The gostak distims the doshes,” was a political slogan. People had such strong opinions about it, both pro and con, that it caused a war. Here is yet another example in which fiction is used to illustrate a fundamental truth.

I think of the Gostak and its well-distimmed doshes (the phrase was actually coined in 1903 by educator Andrew Ingraham as an example of English grammatical structure) every time I read a news story about some irrational lunacy. The latest was when I heard that Paula Deen was fired from the Food Network over rumors that she’d used the infamous N-word many years ago in the South. Never mind that she’s not accused of harming anyone; apparently uttering an offensive word is not forgivable, even after multiple public apologies. Yet when a President tells lies, commits war crimes, and violates the Constitutional rights of the American people, his successor refuses to prosecute him, saying, “Let’s look forward, not back.” In my opinion, this attitude would be more appropriate in Paula Deen’s case.

I’m not just talking about this country’s obsession with political correctness. This has been going on for a long time. When a protester burns the American flag, the conservatives act as if the country itself has been attacked. If a redneck hoists the Confederate flag, the liberals treat him like he’s a member of the KKK with multiple lynchings to his credit.

One of the most idiotic examples of the phenomenon was the controversy that erupted a few years ago when Arizona voters rejected a state-sponsored Martin Luther King holiday. Immediately we were painted as Lester Maddox-type racists, and the NFL decided we couldn’t have the Superbowl. Never mind that there were had been two competing MLK holiday ballot propositions, which split the vote causing neither to win. Eventually the legislature enacted the holiday anyway, but the “racist” stain stuck with our state, despite the fact that the holiday didn’t do a single thing for our black citizens, unless of course they were public employees. It didn’t create jobs, it didn’t improve education, and it didn’t end racial profiling by the police.

The Gostak Effect, as I like to call it, isn’t confined to Americans. In Afghanistan, when there were rumors of the American occupiers desecrating copies of the Koran, the people rioted. An offense against this symbol of the faith was more egregious than actual violations of the Koran’s precepts (for example, the killing of innocent Afghans by the invaders.) China tolerates Taiwan’s de facto independence, but if Taipei ever made an official declaration, Beijing would be across the strait in an instant, the Taiwanese-American alliance be damned. In the Middle East, much of the Israeli-Palestine conflict centers around demands that the Palestinians accept Israel, not just as a legitimate state but as an explicitly Jewish state.

Why do people act this way? My guess is that it’s an inherent intellectual laziness we humans have. It’s a lot easier to react to a shibboleth than actually investigate a person’s character. Also, it’s a handy way for politicians and other “leaders” to instigate mobs to do their bidding – and then deny their malevolent intent when things get out of hand.

I guess there are two morals to this story: (1) people are highly irrational about their symbols, and (2) if somebody tells you that the gostak distims the doshes, you don’t dispute them; you just say, “When? And how many?”