If I were a rich man...

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday March 7, 2012 11:12 PM

The importance of the subjunctive mood in political thinking and argument has been often bruited here: If McCain had won, or Bush had not, then certainly X or Y or Z would have followed. These contrary-to-fact conditionals always being advanced as self-evident truths.

Recently however I've been pondering a particularly startling subjunctive argument, namely the one that begins with the words "If you were". As in, "If you were a woman," or "If you were an urban Iranian secular intellectual", or "If you were an urban Iranian secular intellectual woman". The apodosis is always something like this: You would think differently about Ahmadinejad, or the importance of some imperialist murderer's views on abortion compared to his views on aerial bombardment.

What gets me is the utter unintelligibility of the premise. If I were somebody other than me? What meaning can we attach to these words? Doesn't being "I" consist merely in being me, and not somebody else? If I were somebody else, I wouldn't be me; that person's mind wouldn't be mine, and mine wouldn't have changed in becoming her. I would always have been her, and my/her mind would have grown in the soil of her life, as my actual mind has grown in mine.

Saying "If I were you" or "If you were a Holocaust survivor" is like saying "If even numbers were odd." Well then, all bets would be off, wouldn't they?

Yet it's a perennially popular argument. Why?

Well of course it undermines the universality of my own viewpoint. This would be very damaging if I had ever claimed any universality for it; but alas, I haven't. By the same token of course it undermines the universality of every viewpoint, including that of the secular urban intellectual Iranian woman aforementioned.

Is it a way of privileging some viewpoints over others? There's a case to be made for privileging the woman's viewpoint -- turnabout and all that; bottom rail on top dis time, massa. Well, fair enough. One can see the logic and the justice in that.

Devotion to a single issue is actually quite admirable. By extension, it's admirable to acknowledge that even though issues X and Y both matter to you, Y matters a lot less than X. But it's important to be candid. If your stance is that abortion matters so much that you're not too concerned about Obie's drone slaughter and police state, who am I to argue with you?

If I were you, I'd be... you.

Comments (13)


You can sincerely try to broaden your outlook to be able to see things from a woman's point of view as well. But, I understand why you won't ever be able to see my point of view, a complaint I share with this non-standard issue Texan who managed to transcend the narrow compass of his Southern Baptist persona.


the white hat v black hat trails

these questions are about
marking out
the marginal aggregate policy differences
between dum and dee

you best make em stark and with a high human price tag

most often
this amounts to star powering the potus choice
b4 us

an entertaining cover
for Al's crack pot" realistic choices "

example :

gore in '00 v bush in '00

no iraqathon
hey why not ?
i'll buy it

on a bigger scale though
is this
odds becoming evens
if so
do evens become odds ?
or in this parallel universe
are all rationals divisible by two ?
if not then consider this:
neither white hat potus nor black hat potus
will knowingly
run the system over a cliff
so the zig will follow the zag

if the system "lives" to fight another day
after a few more zigs and zags
where are we after all
that is so different from otherwise ??

if Clio has us running after each other
thru a noisey elastic walled channel
generated by the interactions of
our present set of only incrementally self modifying institutional arrangements
i say skip the fine choices look for the ground crackers

the possibly triggerable fault lines

i guess we either see this fine choice farce
for what it is or we don't

either we have our very own
"george wallace moment"
or we don't

if we don't
if we have convinced ourselves ...
if we are still trying to convince ourselves
what really really matters to us
or ought to matter to us
can live florish or whatever
on one path
but must wilt or die on the other ....

these subjunctive specs
can on occasion if well designed
reinforce or destroy such convictions

i think noam has thisa about right

and its worth answering if
for example
you plan on broad fronting it
with the conscience driven merit class fragment

imagine if you thought the net rresult was one less anguish unit tomorrow ..all else equally uncertain

if that means something to you

spend half an hour and go pull the lever

the rest of your time i sugest however
u look for some cracking points in the ground under it all
that might some how get set into motion

inducing social ground motion quakes ?

but they happen somehow in time
after lots of somebody types
do lots of something or other
now and again

u know the acts

the shearing
the tensing
the compressing acts
that build the stress at the fault lines


As to the other shoes gig

The twilight zone
Suggests we retain our essential me
And only assume the others
Social context and accidents of circumstance

Not much of a stretch and good
for humanist civilizer interventions

How would u like being in them shoes citizen smuckface ?

quite different from
"why are they what they are ?"

"why do they believe and value
what they believe and value ?"

getting inside "other minds"
is a neat trick
but of course we do that all the time
or at least we believe we do ...

There's a great wisdom in those speculations, but likely not one that the speculators ever intend. Creating an indivisible "self" upon which perception is based--regardless of perspective--is as limiting as the wearing of blinders by a horse. Useful sometimes, but terrible if you forget you can take them off whenever you'd like.



There's another form of this MJS. It's called, "Ask a...".



To which Chomsky, in staccato fashion, threw it back in ole Bill's face: Ask a Guatamalan. Ask a Vietnamese....

Of course, the "if you were's" always, as you note, justify invasion and bombardment, both by Uncle and, of course, Mini-Me.

Re the latter, why am I always asked to "put [my]self in the shoes of" someone in Tel Aviv? As in: "Imagine someone were firing rockets from Weehawken..." It's never, "Imagine someone threw you out of your house, cut off your power, made your go through a bunch of checkpoints before you get home, added hours to your 30-minute commute, locked up your kid for no reason..."


I'm with HA on the dubious status of the unitary isolated self; and who can argue against imaginative sympathy -- the envisioning yourself in another's shoes. The more we have of that the better. But the 'if you were me' argument always seems in practice a little lopsided: what's yours is mine and what's mine is mine too. If you were me then you would do such-and-such. 'You" must become 'me' but 'me' doesn't become 'you'; 'me' remains 'me'.

Peter Ward:

It is ironic those who whip out the imagine ifs are, outside our rulers, perhaps the least capable of actually imagining what another in a different class or situation experiences. They're the same assholes going ape at the barrrista, putting him or her through hell, for their mociatichino having the wrong proportion of foam.


But the 'if you were me' argument always seems in practice a little lopsided: what's yours is mine and what's mine is mine too. If you were me then you would do such-and-such. 'You" must become 'me' but 'me' doesn't become 'you'; 'me' remains 'me'.

The "If I were" formula is often the merest show of empathy: "If I were a pregnant woman, I would never kill my baby." It's the arrogance of imagining oneself as others in order to put them in their place.

"If I were poor, I'd refuse to ask for public assistance." The person who says this has no trouble demanding subsidies though rich.

"If I were a cashier, I wouldn't keep people waiting while I chatted." I would, if I were a cashier. You have to do something to keep yourself from zombifying. Preserving your humanity is a hell of a lot more important than optimum efficiency. And the ones who complain the most about waiting: they're the same ones who, when it's finally their turn to be served, act as if time itself has stopped while they blather, dawdle, kvetch, opine and quibble.

If I were god I'd have never created such a miserable race of fuck heads.


the train of comment cars
dribbled off into toon tales

a libel on the species

i am a cashier and that gibble is
typical grinch like
sotto voce
from the self important line grumps

not the sage post festum
analytic talk
one hears from behind a register

"takes all kinds "

its a job
de humanizing ?

not like "collections"

we got only 200k souls in that game
but millions running registers

Greg Cantwell:

"If I were" currently more interested in politics than in sailboats and sailing, this blog would satisfy my need for good writing . . . but, it is getting warmer and I think we're due for some boat tales.
Greg in New Bedford.

Sorry to post here, but I couldn't get a comment on your sailing blog.


Must be something weird at Blogspot. Nothing I've set at Fake's Progress specifically. And yes, time to start workin' on the boat.


'If you were..'
Well, if I were someone who already have all the things I needed I will be using it wisely and using it to help others as well.
Nice of you to think about this certain puzzle.

Faye from comment soigner une gastro 

Post a comment

Note also that comments with three or more links may be held for "moderation" -- a strange term to apply to the ghost in this blog's machine. Seems to be a hard-coded limitation of the blog software, unfortunately.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on Wednesday March 7, 2012 11:12 PM.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License

This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.31