Friday, May 27, 2016

The gazillion Trumps

HuffPost ran an intriguing article the other day entitled "Trump’s Neo-Nazi And Jewish Backers Are Both Convinced He’s Secretly On Their Side." Specifically:
Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, the founder of the Facebook group Rabbis for Trump, argues that Trump’s daughter’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism is proof enough that he harbors no ill-will toward Jews. “You’ve got two Trumps — The Trump that’s trying to get the vote, and the Trump in real life,” said Rosenberg, who renamed his group “Rabbi for Trump” after failing to attract support from other Jewish clergy members.

[Neo-Nazi Andrew] Anglin agrees that there are two Trumps, and he isn’t worried that Trump has Jewish supporters and family members. Trump, he said, is too savvy to openly announce his views on Jews, and only allowed his daughter to convert to Judaism to trick Jews into supporting him. “He couldn’t simply say it straight,” Anglin wrote. “That just wouldn’t fly in America.”

The notion that "there are two Trumps" is one I have seen expressed by a number of supporters. Here, for example, is former rival Ben Carson explaining his endorsement of Trump:
"There are two different Donald Trumps," Carson said at the billionaire's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. "There's the one you see on the stage and there's the one who is very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully. You can have a very good conversation with him. That's the Donald Trump that you're going to start seeing more and more of."
In a similar vein, Rush Limbaugh describes Trump's heresies as proof of his brilliance:
Will we finally now admit how brilliant Trump is? Can we all finally admit that he’s been setting these people up for years? He’s been out there praising the Clintons. He’s been fooling them. He’s been making the Clintons think he loves them, he supports them, he’s in their camp, he’s got them tamed, they’re not even thinking about Trump, even looking about Trump, and Trump is just icing them.
I could go on with further examples, but you get the idea. In my last post on Trump, written in December, I wrote that I didn't think he was going to win the nomination, but I also imagined that if he did I'd be half-expecting him to suddenly announce it was all one big joke. What I failed to grasp was the extent to which his supporters have embraced his aura of profound unseriousness, to the point that it's become their main rationalization for dismissing any areas of disagreement they have with him. If you like his border wall idea but don't like his past support for the Clintons, you say he wasn't serious about the latter but is serious about the former. If you have doubts about the border wall but like other things about him, you call it a "virtual wall," as Rep. Chris Collins did a couple of weeks ago.

Politicians have always found ways to attract disparate groups, like FDR being able to garner support from both blacks and segregationists. But I don't know that it's ever been accomplished by having the different groups assuming he's telling boldfaced lies for the things they're against and the unvarnished truth for the things they're for. I'm not sure if that makes his supporters incredibly cynical or incredibly naive--or some bizarre combination of the two.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The troll primary

For some reason I've been having the following fantasy lately:

Donald J. Trump sweeps the Republican primaries, easily collecting enough delegates to nab the nomination. The mainstream GOP press starts to panic. After a few stray comments by a couple of pundits and operatives hinting at the idea that the convention should ignore the results and pick a more conventional candidate, the right goes berserk. Erick Erickson accuses the RINO establishment of attempting a coup d'etat, and Michelle Bachmann says they're working in cahoots with ACORN and the IRS. After a few days of this, most mainstream Republicans start to make peace with the idea of a Trump nomination. They note that it's really not so bad: they won't have to worry about turning out "the base," and they're relieved to see that some polls show Trump trailing Hillary by only 10 percentage points, well within striking distance. The convention is set up in Cleveland. A slot of speakers is introduced including Rubio, Kasich, Jindal, and a host of other figures who had once bashed and ridiculed Trump, but who now tout Trump's business acumen and talk about how he's going to bring back greatness and to save America from the horrors of the Obama years and "the Clinton machine." Several days pass until finally Trump is introduced to speak. He walks triumphantly across the aisle, chin set, bird's nest on head, and he steps up to the podium. After a lengthy pause, he opens his mouth and speaks, in front of America and in front of the entire world:

"Fooled ya! This whole candidacy has been a joke, and you fell for it! I just did this to prove once and for all how dumb Republican voters are, and to destroy their chances of winning. Which I just have, ha ha ha! Of course Mexicans aren't rapists and Muslims didn't cheer on 9/11, but by giving me your support you just proved beyond any doubt you're all a bunch of racist, backwards lunatics who are so moronically predictable you'll believe someone who's totally faking it! What a sad, pathetic bunch of assholes you all are, and don't blame me: you brought this on yourself. And oh, one more thing: God bless America."

He steps to the side of the podium and makes an up-yours sign straight at the camera. He then turns around and walks back down the aisle, leaving everyone in stunned silence.

**********

Is this really as far-fetched as it sounds? Well, for the record, I don't think Trump is going to win the nomination--I don't even think he wants it--and in the unlikely event that he does win it, I doubt he'd have the balls to pull off something like the above scenario. But I do seriously believe there's a decent chance this hypothetical speech represents what he truly thinks about the GOP.

After all, his public persona as an unreconstructed wingnut basically goes back to 2011, the first time he flirted with a run for the Republican nomination--there's no record of him ever holding such views prior to that year. Some of this has already gotten a lot of press, such as his defense of single-payer health care or his donations to Democrats. Other past statements of his have been surprisingly overlooked, as when he praised President Obama to high heaven in 2009. Now, I'm well aware there are people who soured on Obama in the course of his first term. Still, it's really hard to reconcile these statements with the birther stuff he got into in 2011. Not only did Trump never sound this right-wing, he simply has no history of embracing lunatic conspiracy theories of any sort, and it's not as if the stuff he complains about now weren't part of Obama's agenda from the start.

I'm not saying his candidacy is necessarily some Borat-like social experiment to expose the GOP base's stupidity and bigotry. But I do strongly believe it's an act of some kind. I agree with those (like Nate Silver) who have described Trump as basically an Internet troll. (That's actually one of the reasons I think it's quite likely he will go third party in the end; it will enable him to milk this thing for as long as he can without having to worry about actually winning.)

Truth be told, I've had similar feelings about other figures on the right--Ann Coulter especially, though it's a style that goes back at least to Rush Limbaugh. I'm not saying any of those people are closet liberals, but they do very often give the impression that they’re engaged in some bizarre type of trolling. When Coulter says that women should be denied the right to vote, does she really mean it? Or is she simply reveling in the reaction this statement provokes among liberals and the media? Whatever the reason, I've never been able to bring myself to be actually outraged by anything Coulter says, because I get the sneaky feeling I'd be reacting exactly the way she wants me to. I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert once wrote about a Monty Python film: "This movie is so far beyond good taste, and so cheerfully beyond, that we almost feel we're being One-Upped if we allow ourselves to be offended." So whenever I hear someone react to a Coulter remark by exclaiming "That's terrible!" I'm almost tempted to roll my eyes and say, "Whatever." Coulter has another thing in common with Trump: she has never publicly apologized for anything, ever. Their consistent response to criticism is to double down on their controversial remarks.

This places him in a different category from demagogues of the past he's often been compared with, such as Charles Coughlin or George Wallace. If you've ever read any of Coughlin's monologues (I have), he sounds almost intellectual. And while Wallace was somewhat of an opportunist ("I will never be outniggered again"), I wouldn't describe him as trollish. True believers or not, these men were either extremists or pandering to extremists for political gain. People who think that's all what Trump is about are missing something, in my view.

The point isn't to make excuses for Trump, whose rhetoric is deeply dangerous regardless of his motives for engaging in it. The real lesson of his candidacy is what it says about a large segment of the Republican Party. It's like an experiment I read about years ago in which scientists designed a robotic honeybee that real honeybees ended up accepting as one of their own. The fact that it was fake didn't take away from the fact that it did a good enough impression of the real thing.

Friday, September 25, 2015

More on Trump's "authenticity"

Frank Rich is a good columnist who over the weekend engaged in a bit of silly contrarianism entitled "Donald Trump is saving our democracy." And no, he wasn't being sarcastic.
...for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.
Steve M. of Crooks and Liars wrote in response:
Candor? You can use a lot of words to characterize Trump's rhetoric in this campaign, but the one thing he's not giving us is candor -- certainly not about himself, and certainly not about the vast majority of the issues.... We know he's lying when he says he has a "foolproof plan" to beat ISIS. We know he's lying when he says he'll get Mexico to pay for a border fence. We know he's lying about his own net worth. We know he lied in the last debate about his efforts to establish casinos in Florida.
In my last post I marveled at how quick so many people are to attribute honesty to Trump, but it's especially striking coming from a liberal like Rich. It shows how deeply ingrained this way of thinking is in our culture--this habit of equating sincerity with a willingness to outrage. Commentators like Rich overlook the fact that some celebrities seem to have a pathological need to put themselves in the headlines, and that they achieve that goal by deliberately stoking outrage. It's a tactic that usually works very well, because outrage is to the media what a flame is to moths.

Why do so many people mistake this tactic for honesty? I think it comes from a sense most people have that if they were placed in front of a TV camera and were to speak aloud every thought that passed through their mind, they'd start offending people before long. I'm reminded of a bit from a Steven Wright routine:

"Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" Yes, you're ugly. See that woman in the jury? I'd really like to sleep with her.
One thing most people figure out sometime after their 6th birthday is that an essential part of functioning in the world is avoiding saying what you really think about other people. You learn not to tell someone you find them annoying and would like them to leave; you learn not to tell someone your assessment of their sexual attractiveness or how that colors your perception of them; you learn not to say you feel immediate anxiety at the sight of a young black man walking down the street; you learn not to say transgender people make you uncomfortable.

Since many people avoid saying these sorts of things out of fear of shame, embarrassment, and ostracization, they automatically assume that the only possible explanation for why someone might break these taboos is honesty and courage. They fail to understand the topsy-turvy world celebrities live in, where it can be remarkably easy to lose one's sense of shame when doing so can be the source of a lucrative career. And it's especially seductive to think of such celebrities as bold truth-tellers if the things they're saying happen to agree with your own private beliefs.

For the record, I do think there are aspects of our culture that have gone too far in trying to suppress feelings of prejudice on such matters as race, religion, and gender. We've made bigotry into such a supreme evil that many ordinary, well-meaning people feel they have to pretend no such feelings exist inside of them when it would probably be healthier if they got it out into the open. You can call this problem "political correctness" if you like. But confronting these feelings is only a good thing if your ultimate purpose is to grow past them. Most attacks on PC, including Trump's, are based on the idea that these feelings should be expressed because they reflect sound judgment and an accurate perception of the world--and, further, that we know that's true simply because they've been suppressed. Their taboo status is their justification.

The attack on "political correctness" began in the 1980s as a critique--and a largely legitimate one, in my view--of the stifling atmosphere on many college campuses in America. But it has since devolved into a rallying cry in defense of ignorant and reactionary beliefs. When someone says "I'm not politically correct," what they usually mean is that they're refusing to rethink their beliefs in the face of other people's negative reactions to them. It's a way of celebrating a primal and simplistic outlook and treating any challenges to it as censorship.

What PC originally referred to has hardly any relevance to a figure like Trump. His views aren't being shut down, and he isn't going to starve for having expressed them. And however entertaining his candidacy may be, I can't bring myself to call his taboo-breaking courageous, not when he's getting exactly the kinds of results he craves: he's the center of attention, he's riding high in the polls, he's generating all the headlines. It should be patently obvious that he's saying what he says because he knows what buttons to push. Bashing immigrants in a Republican primary doesn't take courage; defending immigrants would. Now that would be a true example of "political incorrectness"--except nobody uses the term that way. Instead, we use it only to describe the outrageous and offensive, and to wallow in the delusion that it automatically shows authenticity and courage.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Political correctness and sincerity

One thing I found interesting about the recent showdown between Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly is how he brought "political correctness" into the discussion:
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness.
What I noticed was that he didn't actually bother to defend the behavior which Kelly complained about, namely his disparaging remarks about women. He wasn't so much making a bad argument as making no argument at all. He simply observed that his behavior is "not politically correct" and claimed that political correctness is a big problem in this country--as if to suggest that his behavior's taboo status was itself proof of its worthiness.

You could use this reasoning to defend any position at all. Hey, I think a man should beat his wife with a frying pan every night! You offended? Sorry, I'm not PC. I think black people are feeble-minded, Jews are cheap, and only the rich should be allowed to vote. Don't like what I'm saying? That's just because you're too PC.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this type of thing as simply another Donald Trump absurdity. On the contrary, it lies at the heart of most arguments attacking political correctness, and it's been a feature of these arguments for the last thirty years. Whenever you say something that offends someone, you say you're "not being PC" as if pointing that out automatically absolves you of responsibility for your remarks.

I mentioned the following anecdote a couple of years ago on this blog, but it bears repeating. I was once reading a blog discussion on a subject that had nothing to do with politics. One commenter referred to the author of some book as an idiot. The blogger said he agreed with the criticism but added that there was no need to engage in ad hominem attacks. The commenter retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC."

One of the assumptions underlying attacks on PC is that you're being more authentic, more truthful, than the other person. As a result, the anti-PC trend in our society has fostered an idea that civility and common courtesy are nothing more than strategies for hiding what people are really thinking.

This idea is reflected in the repeated claims I keep hearing--and not just from Trump admirers--that Trump is "speaking his mind" or engaging in "straight talk." This is a patent misunderstanding of Trump's whole public profile. It's obvious to anyone who bothers to pay attention that Trump's antics are pure theater. I literally have no idea what he really thinks about Mexicans or PMS or Obama's birthplace. It doesn't matter. He understands something which shock jocks began capitalizing on more than a generation ago, which is that outrage sells.

That's part of the whole allure of attacks on PC: they equate sincerity with a willingness to offend. The assumption is based on a fundamental fallacy. It's certainly true that professional politicians typically behave in a canned and artificial manner by avoiding saying anything that will offend their constituents. But it doesn't follow that going to the opposite extreme, acting rude and boorish in an erratic and unpredictable way, automatically implies authenticity.

Nobody argues that when Andy Kaufman did his Tony Clifton act, he was showing a truer version of himself. Yet that's just the sort of assumption people make whenever celebrities or politicians stray outside the boundaries of what is generally considered decent behavior. Trump may be a walking caricature, but like a lot of caricatures he throws some things about the real world into sharp relief.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The joys of being persecuted

In a piece on separating myth from reality in the history of anti-Irish bigotry, Megan McArdle writes:
As I read about these notices, I wondered: Why was I so glad to read that my ancestors had, in fact, faced nasty discrimination? It's a reaction that needs scrutiny.
This is something I was thinking about recently in light of all those stories on Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as black and became an NAACP leader. It reminded me of the case of "Binjamin Wilkomirski," a man who published a memoir in the 1990s detailing his experiences as an Auschwitz survivor before it was discovered that the events he described never took place, he wasn't even Jewish, and he had a totally different name.

What fascinates me as a Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors is why people would want to engage in this kind of deception. Cases like these are as bizarre as they are uncommon, and surely mental illness is involved. But I also think they stem in part from the same tendency McArdle is alluding to, of taking pride in being the member of a historically persecuted group. Modern society has romanticized persecution to the point that everyone wants part of it, as when a billionaire last year claimed the wealthy in America today were being treated like the Jews during Kristallnacht. The statement was both silly and offensive, and it's hard to imagine anyone who actually lived in the 1930s making such a comment. Back then, being the victim of anti-Semitism or racism wasn't regarded as cool.

It brings to mind a Mark Twain quip: "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read." Nobody wants to be in a concentration camp or be lynched by the Klan or beaten by cops or harassed or discriminated against--but a lot of people, whether they admit it or not, wouldn't mind having those things on their résumé.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Conservative muggers

The recent story about the South Carolina man who was an avid Tea Partier before discovering the virtues of Obamacare has gotten me thinking about the old aphorism, "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged." What do we say in cases like this? Maybe "A liberal is a conservative who lost his health insurance."

That brings me to a general point: the "liberal who got mugged" expression is highly misleading and ought to be retired. It perpetuates the false notion that liberals live in ivory towers and that if they were better attuned to the real-world consequences of their policy preferences, they'd be conservatives. I believe that in many ways the reverse is true.

Where did this expression come from? A while back I searched newspaper archives for the answer, and with the help of The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum (previously known as Cynic, a commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog where we hung out), I found it. The line was apparently coined in 1972 by Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo when talking to a Newsweek reporter. "You know what a conservative is?" he asked. "That's a liberal who got mugged the night before." According to Appelbaum:

The article itself 'Living with Crime, USA' is a famous exploration of the intersection of crime and our fear of crime, written by David Alpern after he himself was mugged. Rizzo, a Democrat who ascended to the mayoralty through the police force, was making a point about the paramount importance of law and order. His point was that stopping muggings was a basic prerequisite for any other initiative. And most conservatives, at the time, were justifiably offended. The quip, after all, implies that liberals win in reasoned, principled debate, but that conservatives are fueled by fear.
As the expression gained popularity, its original meaning was forgotten, and--perhaps owing partly to Rizzo's own reputation as a law-and-order Democrat who eventually switched parties--it soon evolved into a condescending indictment of liberals. Its new meaning was encapsulated by Irving Kristol in the late '70s when he declared that a neoconservative was a liberal who got "mugged by reality."

Liberals over the years have struggled to come up with alternative expressions. One I've often heard is "A liberal is a conservative who got arrested." Actually, though, that to me almost sounds like just another diss of liberals, implying they're "soft" on crime if not criminals themselves. (Maybe it would work better if it went "wrongly arrested.") One thing liberals rarely do is question the original expression, probably because they believe it has kernels of truth to it. And so it does. The problem is that it stacks the deck against liberals in a way that just isn't accurate--and that's something we ought to point out more often, instead of searching in vain for our own quips.

For one thing, it comes with an assumption that the liberal who gets mugged has made a wise choice by turning conservative, rather than having simply given in to base fears that may have little grounding in reality. Let's say a liberal's house gets burglarized, and he goes out and buys a gun to protect himself from future home invasions. He may have become more conservative, but has he become objectively safer? The evidence wouldn't seem to support that conclusion.

The expression stops making sense altogether once you move beyond the subject of crime. (Even on crime it is questionable and betrays a white perspective since it doesn't account for a fear of police, a big factor in the lives of African Americans.) On issue after issue, from health care to Social Security to unemployment and beyond, it is conservative elites who don't have to deal with the real-world consequences of their policy-making. Kristol's statement in particular looks ironic now, since the Iraq War was essentially a case of neocons getting mugged by reality. And as we can see from the story about the South Carolina man, the GOP's war against Obamacare has opened up new avenues for conservatives to be mugged by reality.

But let's not kid ourselves that this will create scores of new Democratic voters. What will prevent that from occurring is something that has been a great friend to the GOP over the past several generations: namely, good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance.

It's what gets people to go to Tea Party rallies declaring, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." It's what gets the actor Craig T. Nelson to say, "I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anybody help me out? No. No." It's what gets Kentuckyans to like their health-care exchange but hate Obamacare. It's what gets some of the reddest states in the nation to have the highest rates of food stamp use.

Getting mugged isn't going to change you when you've been brainwashed into thinking the mugger is your savior.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In (partial) defense of nonliteral literally

Gene Weingarten has written a piece decrying the Oxford English Dictionary's recent decision to include in its definitions the use of literally for nonliteral expressions (as in "I literally died of laughter"). While I share some of Weingarten's distaste for this usage and find it to be a fun topic, I cannot agree with his complaint. It has to do with what you consider a dictionary's purpose. Weingarten apparently believes it is to serve as an authority on how people ought to speak and write. This school of thought, known as prescriptivism, once dominated lexicography. But over the past century most dictionaries moved toward descriptivism, the idea that their purpose is simply to describe the language as it is currently used by its speakers. According to this view, if enough people use a word in a certain way, it deserves inclusion in a dictionary. Weingarten thinks this is simply "rewarding vapidity."

Weingarten's harangue is typical of prescriptivists, who in my experience tend to be scarcely aware they're even advocating a philosophy, let alone one widely rejected by lexicographers and linguists. They present their criticisms of the way people speak and write as nothing more than commonsense conclusions that they remember better than others because they stayed awake during third-grade English. Rarely do prescriptivists question any of the traditional rules they were taught in school, many of which do not hold up to scrutiny. They are discussed at length by the linguist John McWhorter in his 2001 book Word on the Street, which presents a wealth of evidence that many of the so-called "rules," from avoidance of split infinitives to the prohibition on using they with a singular antecedent (as in "everyone returned to their seat"), are rooted in the basically arbitrary decisions of a group of 18th- and 19th-century writers who often had a poor understanding of how English worked. But because these rules have been taught to generations of schoolchildren as ironclad truths, educated people have come to think of them as being on par with the laws of thermodynamics.

That's why no evidence from history or literature or any other field can possibly sway the fervent prescriptivist. Consider how Weingarten addresses the fact that many classic writers such as Jane Austen adopted the nonliteral literally on occasion: "That no more makes it right or acceptable than it makes it right for you to annihilate 100,000 people with a bomb just because Harry Truman once did it."

With this statement, Weingarten joins the honorable company of the critic John Simon, who wrote in 1980 that "The English language is being treated nowadays exactly as slave traders once handled the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers." Most language scolds I've encountered aren't quite this colorful in their choice of analogies. A professor of mine made the point more simply when confronted by evidence that a usage he disapproved of appeared in the works of great writers: "It's still wrong."

The real problem with this argument is that it assumes a word's proper definition is some immutable law of nature, like gravity, that can never be shaped by the people who use the language, not even by the people who use it best. This view is positively blinkered. There's no reason why the English of Shakespeare is different from that of Chaucer, or from that of Weingarten, other than that human beings of every generation have spoken and written differently than their predecessors. And if there is one thing linguistic history absolutely makes clear, it is that today's error is tomorrow's rule. For example, nice once meant "foolish." It evolved to its present state because people kept using a "wrong" definition, but it's hard to see how English suffered as a result.

Of course, literally isn't just any evolving word. Its traditional definition is a useful concept to have a word for, and it would be a shame to see it go obsolete, which may happen if more and more people say things like "He literally puts his money where his mouth is." In that sense I'm with Weingarten that the looser definition should be avoided (though not excluded from dictionaries). What's striking is that he never makes this argument. His point is simply that it's the law, and we must obey. His indifference to judging word usages based on their utility is revealed in his offhand comment, "although I may cringe at 'blogosphere' and 'webinar' and, sigh, 'whatevs,' I do not protest their appearance in dictionaries." Now, why would anyone cringe at a coinage like blogosphere? (Least of all a blogger?!) Only someone who believes that language should remain literally frozen in time, and that all change is bad, would find anything wrong with that type of innovation.

Weingarten doesn't even accurately explain the loose definition of literally. He claims it is being used to denote its opposite, the word figuratively. It is not. As the OED notes, it is being used as an intensifier. It's basically a synonym for really or actually, except that those words have been blunted from overuse, so when you want to express that you really, truly mean something, literally sometimes gets the point across with more force.

Hence, "the coach literally hates my guts" is meant to convey that you aren't exaggerating the coach's hatred. In a way this is a form of traditional literally; it's just being applied selectively, to the level of the coach's hatred rather than to the metaphor used to describe it. What this example shows is that a statement can have multiple layers of presumptive nonliteralism, and literally may be intended to unpack one layer while leaving the next alone.

My point here is not that I approve of the loose definition of literally, but that it isn't necessarily based on ignorance of the traditional definition. Rather, it's a reflection of the fact that our language is littered with dead metaphors that are all but invisible to us. (The mixed metaphor I just used is further evidence of that fact.) This helps explain why the traditional definition hasn't disappeared from the language, despite centuries of being disregarded. Annoying as it is, the loose sense has come to coexist alongside the traditional one instead of replacing it outright. Weingarten misses this point when he quotes Ambrose Bierce's supposedly accurate prediction that "within a few years the word 'literally' will mean 'figuratively.'" In fact most people today use literally in exactly the way it was originally intended. We just pay closer attention to the loose sense because of the way it literally sticks in our craw--suggesting the danger it poses to our ability to communicate may be overstated.

That's actually true of most gripes about language usage. Some are completely groundless (the most famous being the split-infinitive "rule"), while others, such as this one, at best point to bothersome trends that detract from our language's vitality. In neither case is any large-scale damage on the horizon. As McWhorter explains in his book:

What we must realize...is that during these changes, because renewal always complements erosion, all languages are eternally self-sustaining, just as while our present mountains are slowly eroding, new ones are gradually being thrown up by the movement of geological plates. Thus at any given time, a language is coherent and complex, suitable for the expression of all human needs, thoughts, and emotions. Just as linguists have encountered no languages that do not change, they have also not encountered any languages whose changes compromised their basic coherency and complexity. We have encountered no society hampered by a dialect that was slowly simply wearing out like an old car. Anthropologists report no society in which communication is impossible in the dark because the local dialect has become so mush-mouthed and senseless that it can only be spoken with help from hand gestures. In other words, there is no such thing as a language 'going to the dogs'--never in the history of the world has there existed a language that has reached, or even gotten anywhere near, said dogs.