Virtucrats versus Virtuecrats

These words (one without an ‘e’, and one with) are pronounced the same. The first has a narrow, fixed, meaning, but the second, although frequently used as a synonym for the first, also has a wider meaning. The first was invented by Joseph Epstein, and his remarks that we refer to here are from an article of his in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, which you can see here.

Let’s take these two terms one by one.
1. The term ‘virtucrat’ (without the ‘e’) was invented by Joseph Epstein, who defined virtucrats as being “those people whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible”. However, I think a better definition can be obtained from Wiktionary (which uses the ‘e’ spelling). It’s definition is: “A political figure who preaches his or her own morals as a cultural imperative.” Now, Epstein did not restrict his definition to political figures, so all we have to do to get the more succinct definition is to replace ‘A political figure’ by ‘One’: “One who preaches his or her own morals as a cultural imperative.”
2. Paraphrasing Epstein, we get the following definition of the second term: “those people who stress the need for virtue in the conduct of public and private life”.

Background and foreground

Distinguishing between background and foreground dispels a lot of confusion. Here, we will focus on the dynamic that the difference between these two realms gives rise to between the two logical connective of ‘and’ and (inclusive) ‘or’. What happens is that the sense of these two connectives flips across the boundary between foreground and background (much like the sense of a mathematical inequality flips when you multiply it through by -1). For example, if you’re the IT person in your company and the boss says to you, “Give me a list of all our salesreps living in Chicago and Boston.”, then you know that as you pass the salesrep file, you change the boss’s intuitive “and” to logical “or”. That is, you output the salesrep’s information if, and only if, the salesrep lives in Chicago OR the salesrep lives in Boston. (The boss was being ‘illogical’, because the boss is always in foreground, and foreground, the terrain of ‘natural language’, is governed not by symbolic logic, but by its own logic of perception and convenience.) So, a foreground ‘and’ becomes a background ‘or’. Also, a foreground ‘or’ becomes a background ‘and’. For example, if you are the hospitality agent for your company and the boss says to you, “We want to offer each guest the choice of coffee or tea.”, then in background (that is, in the company kitchen) you have to prepare a batch of coffee AND a batch of tea. So, a foreground ‘or’ becomes a background ‘and’. Also, problematical situations are alluded to or acknowledged by using this flip-phenomenon. Specifically, tautologies are highly complaisant (indeed, trivial – although the determination that something is a tautology can be highly nontrivial), and the natural habitat of tautologies is, of course, background. Therefore, foregrounding a tautology (by, for example, saying it in the presence of others) alludes to or acknowledges a problem, because the flip-side of complaisance is severity. For example, it is a tautology that boys will be boys, but if you happen to overhear someone actually SAYING so, you can be pretty sure it’s not good news that they are commenting on. A foregrounded tautology is virtually always a vector of bad news. So, when someone says, “Boys will be boys.”, it’s highly unlikely they’re reporting a merit-badge boy-scout activity. To take another example, someone wearing a shirt that says, “It is what it is.” is endemically unhappy about something in the world. Some other thusly-used tautologies are “Kids will be kids.”, “Facts matter.” and “Enough is enough.” (and its over-the-top version, “Too much is too much.”) The purpose and technique of foregrounding some tautology in order to make a negative point in a passive-aggressive manner is understood by everyone at the gut level, but it deepens cognition to treat this matter explicitly. So, if someone says, “We’re going to have some weather next week.”, you know that that implies “We’re going to have some bad weather next week.”, because a foregrounded tautology implies some kind of mischief, and therefore you should ignore those who say that the word ‘bad’ should have been explicitly included.