Since I developed the vice of reading the New York Times, I have seen many a daft story, for which the recent controversy about Sarah Jeong can be adduced as Exhibit A. This morning, however, I read the most delightfully bizarre headline I think I have ever encountered: “Sharice Davids Could Become First Lesbian Native American Congresswoman.” She would also thereby be the first lesbian congresswoman from Kansas.
What is at issue here is not homosexuality or racial politics, which I can address elsewhere. My quarrel is with made-up stats.
The trouble with progress is that its returns diminish almost entirely after Phase I. At one time, Congress comprised only white men, so gradually minority groups were admitted to the public square. The categories are easy to list: blacks, white women, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, atheists.
Then we get into the compound categories, such as black women, since while blacks had to battle racism from whites, black women also had to overcome sexism from black men. Extend that to the other ethnic and religious categories.
Right about here is where progress stops being plausible and starts being ridiculous, leaving us with such artifices as “first lesbian Native American congresswoman,” or the next milestone, “first mixed-race Buddhist orphan senator from South Dakota.”
Almost an exact parallel, oddly enough, exists in baseball. There are the major statistics: batting average, RBI, ERA, OBP, home runs, stolen bases. But there is also the nonsense that commentators are in the habit of saying to fill dead air during a broadcast:
“Darvish this season has given up only three hits to left-handed batters with runners at the corners after the fifth inning at home.”
That, Joe Buck, is not a stat. That’s just a multivariate regression from hell. Ichiro’s setting the single-season hit record is exciting; some guy’s setting the single-season hit-off-a-righty-submariner-after-the-All-Star-break record isn’t. Yet we are constantly molested with this intern busywork masquerading as accomplishment and useful information.
I can understand marking the attainments of univariate minority groups, and possibly of the bivariate minority group of a minority group. After that, it’s time to stop the parade. The whole excitement of the initial advances was the hope that one day no one would care what a politician’s background was. Nowadays the reverse is true, and the Times is out to taxonomize the population so minutely that every single person elected to Congress will be the first of his (or her) kind.
The Capitol Rotunda, after all, has room for only so many statues. We’ll soon have the first black senator being elbowed out by the first bilingual Safavid transvestite sergeant-at-arms, and damned if that isn’t the American way.