If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?   https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/28/joe-biden-presidency-first-100-days

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

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Laudable Pus

As I write, protesters are banging pans in the street to bring down the federal government.

Their indignation is ostensibly spurred by outrage over corruption—a moral malady that has blighted Brazil, as it has every post-colonial nation, since its inception, but which, in fact, has declined somewhat over the past 13 years of PT (Workers’ Party) rule.

This is not to say of course that the PT itself has been entirely free of this endemic ailment. The realities of governing in coalition have necessitated that its very survival was predicated from the start on doing dirty deals to garner votes in a largely hostile Congress in order to push through its novel socially progressive agenda.

Despite much hullaballoo in the right-wing press, however, no-one took to the streets to protest this more originary sin.

As a consequence of developments in the global economy and some less than wise long-term government policies, Brazil is now in deep recession. It is by no means clear, however, why the current Brazilian government should be blamed for this, especially when a fractured opposition offer little in the way of viable alternatives to the export-driven cycles of boom and bust to which Latin America has forever been prone.

People are understandably frustrated about the present state of the economy and anxious about the future and this more easily turns to anger when a large swathe of the population have only recently come to know relative prosperity only to have it suddenly snatched away. It would be wrong to see the current wave of protests as a primarily middle-class endeavor to topple a hated leftist government. We should remember that this recent cycle of economic discontent first erupted in Brazil, from the left, in 2013, over white-elephant World Cup building projects and bus-fare hikes. Nothing came, however, of these more grass-roots demonstrations, which were met with a combination of indifference and police brutality.

The key, however, to the current wave of protests, which meets with very little police interference, lies perhaps in its highly personalized nature. The protests focus hatred on stereotyped figures of Lula and Dilma (Brazil’s first working class and first woman president respectively) and take the form of a cacophonous banging of spoons on metal pans—an act that has historically been used to shame situations that are not illegal but are perceived to be out of kilter with the traditional moral order. Such noisy protests would disrupt the wedding nights of brides and grooms who were kissing cousins or of widely differing ages shamelessly marrying for money in Medieval times.

Cowed or mollified by significant economic and social progress and mass support for the first three PT governments, voices deeply inimical to any change in long-standing traditional social hierarchies have hitherto bitten their tongues, remained silent and secretly seethed at the unprecedented but still somewhat timid promotion of ethnic minorities, women and the working classes in many sectors of society in Brazil. The current economic downturn and flurry of corruption scandals have now justified the venting of this long pent-up anger. And, as is always the case with long-standing self-repression, such anger tends to come out with especial violence in its ugliest and most unadulterated form.

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The same goes for what is currently going on in the United States and it is no coincidence that the opposition PSDB in Brazil is modelling its strategy on that of the US GOP, with its own colorful homegrown cast of fiscal conservatives, media personalities, crime-busters, Bible bashers, gun nuts, climate change deniers, closet racists, bigots and clowns.

Beset by a recalcitrant economic recession that seems only to affect the middle to lower classes, voters to left and right alike have turned their backs on traditional political leaders, unable to get a symbolic grip on the true causes and agencies at work behind the global economic crisis.

On the right, this frustration has tapped, as in Brazil, into a long-repressed resentment with regard to social, racial and sexual equality and relative tolerance of the free flow of labor across international borders, and the ideology of political correctness that has accompanied these trends.

Donald Trump has, perhaps less wittingly than is made out, struck the oil of this repressed resentment and it is gushing forth with all its original violence and ugly vigor threatening to poison and pollute the whole political culture of the most powerful nation in the world. Voiceless disenfranchised bigots in other countries are already following suit.

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This upsurge of the ugly right, in Brazil, in the US, and around the world, is certainly nasty but is it necessarily a bad thing?

Unable to make headway with a more progressive economic agenda, the left has focused increasingly on issues of social inclusion and identity politics. Given that, in the absence of a more radical approach, they are incapable of dragging society out of the mire created by the dominant right-wing élite, left-wing parties are blamed (justly) for their failure to manage an economic system in which they do not truly believe and this failure is (unjustly) associated with a top-heavy superstructure of political correctness upon which leftist ideology increasingly depends.

The anger stirred is misplaced, but it is understandable in so far as the left has done little or nothing in recent years to channel it in a more positive direction.

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Pre-modern medicine had a notion of ‘laudable pus’—a creamy brown voluminous discharge that supposedly augured well for the progression of an infection towards a more desirable outcome. This was contrasted with drips of thin yellowish blood-flecked discharge, which indicated a more problematic course. Interestingly, the kind of pus that looks ugliest, is in fact the healthiest kind.

We should perhaps be grateful to the likes of Donald Trump for lancing this long-festering boil of resentment and bringing it to light. A copious outflow of right-wing bigotry may, at this point in time, be necessary to expose its malignant ugliness and free ourselves of it forever and, moreover, to force reflection on the way this symptom is related to the underlying much more serious systemic condition of neoliberal capitalism.