“I know it when I see it.” (this entry includes SEX)

In 1964, the US Supreme Court heard a case (Jacobellis v. Ohio) in which a movie theater manager was convicted of violating a state obscenity law for showing a certain French motion picture, Les Amants (The Lovers).

The Court reversed, throwing out the conviction. It was a landmark victory for boring French movies that make you wait two hours for the sex scene. Justice Potter Stewart concurred, which means that he agreed with the opinion but wanted to add his two cents anyway. Here’s the end of what he wrote:

I have reached the conclusion…that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the  motion picture involved in this case is not that.

So Stewart is saying, hard-core porn is illegal. However, I cannot tell you what hard-core porn is. I can only tell you that I know what it is, or at least I know what it isn’t.

This may remind you of Donald Rumsfeld at his finest. Hart Seely, writing for Slate, once turned some of the former Defense Secretary’s best fuzzies into poems:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

I think what you’ll find,
I think what you’ll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.

And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

Back to Stewart. Anyone can see that this kind of subjective definition (or lack of one) could only cause a headache when trying to legally enforce any kind of standard. Forget that there are eight other old men who have their own subjective definitions on the matter.

SCOTUS has flirted with more objective definitions in the past. According to Bob Woodward’s The Brethren, a history of the court from 1969-1975, Justice William Brennan should be considered “the father of obscenity law” since in 1957 he originally tried to define the obscene (in this case, in order to prevent things like James Joyce’s Ulysses from being banned). Here the key was if “the average person” would find “the dominant theme” of a work to be appealing to “the prurient interest.” Prurient is one of those words, like prescient, used to be classy; it means “dirty-minded.”

A few years later, he tweaked this, saying material must be “utterly without redeeming social value” in order to be obscene; Woodward reports that “pornographers then took to citing medical reports or throwing in lines of Shakespeare to protect the product” (230). At the end of a film, for instance, you might have a psychiatrist analyze a woman’s nymphomania – proving that even multiple orgasms can be a “teachable moment,” as we call it in the education biz.

However, in 1967, SCOTUS gave up on defining and embraced the subjective. Redrup v. New York established that so long as five Justices felt something was not obscene, that meant it wasn’t. This led to the neologism (new word) “Redrupping,” to describe the process wherein the Justices would sit around in a darkened room and watch porn together, in order to decide if it was obscene. (Also, the dissent in Redrup neatly points out that all this etymological debate does not truly resolve the legal issue at hand in the case, which is…no one remembers).

That’s right. They would sit together, with their clerks, too, and watch nudie movies, on the taxpayer’s watch. Then they would see how those films measured up (chuckle) to their personal definitions. Judith Silver of coollawyer.com compiled the definitions in The Brethren:

Justice Byron White’s Definition: no erect penises, no intercourse, no oral or anal sodomy. For White, no erections and no insertions equaled no obscenity.

Justice Brennan’s Definition, The Limp Dick Test: no erections. He was willing to accept penetration as long as the pictures passed what his clerks referred to as the ‘limp dick’ standard. Oral sex was tolerable if there was no erection.

Justice Stewart’s Definition, The Casablanca Test: In Casablanca, as a Navy lieutenant in World War II and watch officer for his ship, Stewart had seen his men bring back locally produced pornography. He knew the difference between that hardest of hard core and much of what came to the Court. He called it his ‘Casablanca Test.’

Maybe this is why Humphrey Bogart didn’t get on that plane. Rimshot. No, not that kind of rimshot.

The Supreme Court saw all kinds of crazy stuff in its fight to define the obscene. In 1966 they had to figure out if receiving naked photos of yourself in the mail was a crime (it isn’t, although I think the Court missed a chance here to subjectively say this depends on how attractive you are).

Then things began to quiet down. A commission appointed by Nixon declared that pornography (which literally means writing about prostitutes, by the by) “had no measurable ill effects.” Then the video boom happened – if you’ve seen Boogie Nights, you know – the stuff got cheaper to make and now you could enjoy it in the privacy of your own home, which gave you more legal protection.

Not so fast, says the ghost of Ronald Reagan. During his second term he had another commission take a look at porn. Where Nixon’s guys had used science, the Reaganites used “anecdotal presentations” (this comes from a good history of porn discourse). And now, thanks to that women’s lib movement, there were feminists who championed the ban of pornography because they felt it (any of it) was demeaning to women.

Still, while the commission could not tie porn to “social ills as drug use, prostitution, and spousal abuse” (thanks, PBS), it recommended the creation of a National Obscenity Enforcement Unit. This badass government agency had the job of…kicking porn’s ass, I guess. NOEU even had sweet task names like Operation POSTPORN, or Operation WOODWORM. Yeah! Wait, woodworm?

Later, NOEU’s name was changed to the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, which is not nearly as cool.

Transformers, P.S., besides being how I imagine NOEU agents, remind us that Reagan helped get rid of FCC guidelines regulating children’s TV programming. “By fall 1984, children’s TV was packed with shows that sold toys constantly. Transformers, Masters of the Universe (He Man), Voltron, and Rainbow Brite all vied for children’s attention. The shows were the commercial.” Good thing he was against exploiting our little ones.

But porn, like the gingerbread man, cannot be caught. And once the Democrats took over the White House and gave us the internet, the battle was over. Nicholas Confessore’s interesting history of this includes some enlightening figures:

The ease of consumption made porn even more popular — and more profitable. Between 1992 and 1999, according to research by Showtime Event Television, pay-per-view revenues went from $54 million to $367 million. In 1998, the adult content market earned roughly $1 billion, according to Forrester Research. By 2001, the total was up to $14 billion — bigger, according to some estimates, than football, baseball, and basketball combined. “What investors and bigger corporations soon discovered,” according to The New York Times, “was a vast audience for pornography — once the privacy barrier was eliminated.”

So perhaps IRONICALLY, it’s by closing down porn theaters and driving smut out of the public arena (Giuliani, I’m looking at you), that conservatives played a part in exponentially increasing the number of Americans who consume porn (this is a curious expression, but one you find often).

Could it also be that by trying to fit some kind of definition onto “obscene” you end up protecting countless other potentially objectionable materials? Artists can easily stay one step ahead of definitions, having their lead recite “to be or not to be” as he climaxes, thus bestowing social value (Kenneth Branagh practically does this anyway).

Princess Leia understood this kind of paradox years ago, explaining to Grand Moff Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Yes, I typed that quote from memory. And yes, Grand Moff Tarkin would be a great porn name. And yes, that picture is from a completely different movie. But I thought it was fitting for this post. Nothing demeaning to women about Star Wars, thank god.

Here’s the last word on this. Potter Stewart knew it when he saw it, for him, as we all know how much is too much. (TMI, as the kids say). In a non-porn case (Trop v. Dulles), in fact in a case dealing with capital punishment (the death penalty), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the Eighth Amendment, which protects us from “cruel and unusual punishment,” is not “static,” and that our definitions of cruel and unusual should be “guided by ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'” This is a lovely, liberal idea – that we could outgrow the death penalty as we, as Americans, become more enlightened, more merciful.

Porn may show us that we have evolving standards of indecency. Everyone bitches about how much sex and violence is on TV and in the movies these days. Instead of seeing this as a Pandora’s box scenario (double entendre in porn entry), maybe we could say that this is evidence of a society more ready to be open about sex and sexuality, more willing to leave decisions and judgment about sex and violence, about the beautiful and the damned, to its citizens, which is where the power ought to be anyway.

I grant you that at times it is difficult to believe Americans are evolving into anything.


Porn > Ingrid Bergman 

Internet > Republicans

Rumsfeld > Linguistic certainty

Oh here’s a footnote for the real nerds out there: Louis Malle, director of Les Amants, was later married to Candace Bergen. Candace Bergen was in the Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge, which was the subject of another Supreme Court case (Jenkins v. Georgia). The Justices watched the movie one day, and were quite disappointed.

“‘I thought we were going to see a dirty movie,’ [Thurgood] Marshall complained at the end of the movie. ‘The only thing obscene about this movie is that it is obscenely boring,’ said White” (Woodward 331). And somewhere, co-star Art Garfunkel cried softly to himself. Which is nothing new.

Tantamount II: The Wrath of Ghan(di)

I can be hip.

I went to see The A-Team last night. It was the first time I’d been to the movies since the Oscars. Yeah, I’m that guy. So the movie was very entertaining. It even dabbles in social relevance!

For instance, after a brief romp in Mexico, the movie takes us to Iraq – but a subtitle tells us that this is Iraq just before the American withdrawal. The withdrawal. You remember the withdrawal? The one President Obama promised would happen by August 31, 2010? Although technically it’s not a withdrawal, it’s a “drawdown,” which sounds like an Old West thing, and even if it ISN’T being delayed, which it maybe is, it would leave 50,000 “non-combat” troops in position to keep an eye on our stuff. Non-combat troops. Sort of like UN “Peacekeeping Forces,” except the irony of the boys in the baby blue helmets is that they generally can’t use any force to keep the peace.

I digress. The point is the fact that the movie puts us in the future – and perhaps a purely hypothetical future – is enough to give you a doubletake. But then there’s Liam Neeson, aka Army Obi-Wan, patting some cheerful Ewoks, I mean Iraqis, on the shoulder, telling them they’re gonna do fine, etc. He then advises one playfully to keep his helmet on, which is a bit patronizing, but given the state of the Iraqi forces, you never know.

Still, all is not quiet on the Middle Eastern front. Enter Black Forest, a bunch of military contractor ne’er-do-wells. Black Forest is clearly a stand-in for Blackwater, the military contracting firm that gets paid by the US Government (and others) to kill Iraqis, including civilians. Yes, that’s right. Just ONE incident from Blackwater’s shadowy history involves a 2007 firefight where Blackwater guards went on “an unprovoked killing spree against unarmed civilians.” 17, to be exact.

You might think that retributive justice was swift in dismantling this tainted firm. You would be wrong.

The Black Forest guys are really obnoxious, and Liam-Wan tells them that they are not real soldiers. Mostly because they do not have the cool tattoo which cues the trumpet music (go Rangers). Their leader turns into one of the villains of the film, proving that mercenaries are not as good as The Real Thing. Except, you know, all of the A-Team gets thrown out of the Army, forcing them to become…mercenaries. Irony?

But that’s not all! The part that’s drawn the ire of the most bloggers would have to be Mr. T’s prison conversion. Okay, it’s not really Mr. T, but I don’t know the name of the actor or the character, so we’ll call him Mr. T. In the movie all the guys get sent to jail. Well, surprise surprise, the black guy is the one who reads a book and gets religion. No, he never says he’s become a Muslim because that would be too dicey (though it does kind of feel like that, in a Muhammad Ali way; he even grows out his mohawk). He’s just gone non-violent, like some people go vegan.

Cut to the greatest scene in the history of action movies. Mr. T is playing with a doll or something, and Obi-Neeson comes over to chat. Mr. T quotes Gandhi – yes! “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.”

Most of us in the audience, of course, are sitting there saying, shit. Gandhi. Tantamount. You just can’t beat that. But we are no Jedi. Liam Neeson counters with a second Gandhi-ism: “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”

Oh snap!

Another blog, Two Fools and a Friar, has such a good analysis of the Gandhi-off that I must quote at length:

It’s depressingly ironic that Ghandi would be so badly misused. Hannibal’s quote was cut off. It continues, “Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent.” Ghandi then of course went about demonstrating in his life the conclusive superiority of non-violence to violence, which is the opposite of impotence and cowardice which is what is implied about Baracus during his pacifist phase in the movie.

…The completion of the ironic reversal is in the ending of the movie. The A-Team fails to get their name cleared and their elaborate scheme is completely undone in a matter of moments by corrupt government agents. They find themselves once more fugitives, arguably worse off than they were before, yet the movie shows no hint of awareness that the quote Baracus pulled from Ghandi had actually been prophecy.

Irony, see, because it’s the opposite of what we expect from the situation. I guess. If nothing else it’s dramatic irony because we get it even if Mr. T doesn’t. Dare I say we might pity the fool?

Tantamount gets around. My friend Kim brought to my attention an episode of Bewitched entitled “Samantha’s Caesar Salad.” One of her kooky relatives somehow zaps Julius C. into 1969. Hilarity ensues (the laugh track tells us so). You can find it on youtube, if you wish. At 7:15 of Part II, Caesar throws down with a cop.  

“You dare to touch the person of the imperator!” he yells. The cop claims he just touched his toga. Caesar retorts: “Touching my toga is tantamount to touching my person!” and then declares, “I’ll have you fed to the lions!”

As one of the two-dimensional hippies in the scene says, “Now that sounds official.”

But if we’ve learned anything by the end of The A-Team, it’s probably that these days a moderately successful script and one or two enjoyable action sequences coupled with throwback appeal means that the credit sequence is just tantamount to an ad for a sequel.

This word needs to be stopped.

Commies Get It

Today I started teaching at the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, which has been called Nerd Camp. It is a 6-week (soon to be 4 thanks to state budget cuts; write your local reps) program at Valdosta State University designed to give GA’s best and brightest (subjectively) a taste of a college experience.

I am teaching Communicative Arts, which is a fancy term for English that teachers like better because it can include theater, film, music, etc. We call ourselves Commies for short.

Today I started a class called The Word Congress, wherein I will be having the students represent historical and contemporary figures (Chairman Mao, Angelina Jolie) and have them negotiate legal definitions to fuzzy words.

To start, today, after a session defining “love,” I asked how definitions might save, or end lives. Here are my notes from their ideas:

Murder – because a doctor might be on trial for euthanizing someone but his idea of murder is different

Measurements/Diseases/Medicine – if I say to a nurse hand me 40ccs of something and she gives me 40 kilos, we have a problem; if I try to describe what someone is dying of by saying “the thing where you’ve inhaled volcanic ash” it’s not as helpful

This expands into drugs, alcohol (“alcoholic” on a beverage could be deceiving if it’s not specific), sugars (like labels on food – making fancy names for sugar, or hidden ingredients which we might have allergies to), the word “spicy,” (how do I know your spice tolerance?).

Betray – treason may be a capital crime, but what does it mean to “betray” one’s country?

Child, baby – abortion complications

Alive, or life (Terri Schiavo and euthanasia again)

Saved – one girl made the point that to some it means baptized or born again, but if you’re drowning and you say, “Save me!” and someone baptizes you, this is no good.

Poor – this was good because I am currently building up ammunition for an entry on poverty; we discussed the arbitrary nature of poverty lines

War v. Conflict – US Gov’t technically hasn’t declared war since…and yet here we go killing and dying

Blockade v. Quarantine (Kennedy and Cuba in ’62; this looks like great political word sterilization; never heard of it before)

Kindness – one doctor may see euthanasia (again) as kindness; another as murder

Government – what IS government, after all? Where is it?

So this leads me to believe that Commies get fuzzy English. We even read my entry on genocide and one guy said, “So does this mean abortion should be considered genocide?” He had also heard of the Armenian genocide because he had followed the Obama shuffle on it. Next to him sat a young lady whose great-grandmother suffered through the genocide. She described the psychological effects it took on her (kept little furniture in the house, had irrational fears that the Turks would come and get her).

It was also pointed out to me that Turkey holds a seat on the UN Security Council right now, and that US interests in getting new sanctions against Iran might have something to do with g-word anxiety. The sanctions have passed, even though Turkey and Brazil voted against them.

More to follow; the class runs until Saturday.

My other class spent most of the time discussing the fuzziness of tragedy. More on that later too.

Word Extinction #1: Tantamount

I am reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, so lexicography (the making of dictionaries) is on my mind. 

The editor of a dictionary invariably makes choices about words to exclude. These words sometimes become known as “obsolete” or “extinct” or “lost.” Of course since the internet has everything, it has plenty of weird people spending their time archiving these outmoded words. I mean weird affectionately. A guy who goes by “The Scribbler” blogged “Obsolete Word of the Day” for several years (though not daily). I like “rememble: a false memory.” There’s also a collection of lost words at The Phrontistry, which takes itself pretty seriously. Here:


diloricate v 1623 -1656
to rip open a sewn piece of clothing
She deloricated his silk shirts so she could use them as dishrags.

First, riddle me why the word is spelled two ways in this one entry. Then, tell me why the Phrontistrists chose such a lame demonstrative sentence when diloricate obviously lends itself to all kinds of steamy bodice ripping. This word just seems poised for a comeback. I diloricated her all night long. 

But, deeper stuff – Does a word exist if no one knows about it? If no one uses it? 

Dictionaries shape our language – they promote some words and demote others. As such they are political creations – made by people, not disinterested word gods who hand down objective denotations. In this spirit, since I’m as good as the next guy, I would like to call for a vote of no confidence in the word “tantamount.” It has run its course. 

Tant means “so much” in French. Add amount: the word means to amount to as much. 

M-Webs gives us a sample phrase: “A relationship tantamount to marriage.” 

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, this word smells an awful lot like “equivalent,” or other such comparatives, but tantamount has something else going for it: it’s just fancy enough to temporarily throw us off the scent. 

Go take a shot of espresso because here comes the g-word. 

My future friend, Samantha Power, demonstrates in A Problem From Hell how Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher danced around the subject of genocide. For those of you playing the home game (Genocide! 2-4 players), the Clinton crew sat back and watched it happen at least 1.5 times. Anyway, Warren Christopher, from whom the book got its title (he really hated dealing with the g-stuff too; not sure if it’s because of the sleepy thing), kept getting pressed on the Bosnian situation, and if it was genocide. This is significant, we know, because if the US government recognizes genocide, they are obliged to take certain actions. It is significant, also, because Bill Clinton used H.W. Bush’s inaction on the issue to score some points in the ’92 campaign. Then he went all mum. Sounds kind of like a Hawaiian fellow I know. 

An Hawaiian fellow? 

So look. Warren Christopher is asked if it’s genocide and he says, after reading the definition, “that seems to me to be the standard that may well have been reached in some of the aspects in Bosnia.” Seems, may well, some – he’s on a decisive roll. Then he says, “Certainly some of the conduct there is tantamount to genocide.” 

Tantamount was delivered to the Clinton camp like the gospel. It became The Word on Bosnia. Christopher had his underling, Stephen Oxman, carry on this work (he’s being interrogated by pro-intervention Congressman Frank McCloskey): 

Rep. McCloskey: As you know, since April, I’ve been trying to get an answer from State as to whether these activities by the Bosnian Serbs and Serbs constitute genocide. Will I get a reply on that today? 

Mr. Oxman: I learned, just today, that you hadn’t had your response. And the first thing I’m going to do when I get back to the Department is find out where that is….But to give you my personal view, I think that acts tantamount to genocide have been committed…. 

Mark Greif, writing for Radical Society, calls this one of the “notable insults to the English language” which genocide has inspired. Tantamount means equal to. That means it’s genocide. But McCloskey falters. 

Rep. McCloskey: This word tantamount floats about. I haven’t looked it up in a dictionary, though. I’m derelict on that. I don’t know how – I guess I have a subjective view as to how to define it, but it’s an intriguing word. But I’ll look forward to your reply. 

Nobody’s got a pocket Webster’s handy? Congress can’t spring for a single dictionary in the Capitol? Isn’t that what pages are for? Go look up this word, boy, so that this bureaucrat can stop using it as a smokescreen! 

It’s not just Christopher, though he’s fun to beat up. Nothing’s ever tantamount to a good thing. Google it, and you see tantamount to treason, torture, national humiliation, religion without god (Earth Day), failure, the end of the Euro (a kind of boogeyman worst case scenario), fraud, child abuse, defeat (a gem from Gandhi – “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary”), SUCCESS (okay, there’s one), then torture again, slavery, arrest, and, of course, submerged embodied historiography, which is the worst of them all. And don’t get excited by the image to the right – corny poetic sentiment is also a negative. 

This is not a recent phenomenon with this word. Gotbrainy.com lists its uses in literature and shows examples which either are negative (failure, signing the death-warrant), or which have to do with declarations – people’s actions demonstrating something even though they don’t say it (like politicians avoiding words). 

And a 1914 issue of Pearson’s, a smart-person mag copied by the Americans from the Brits, has a “corking good story” of a fiery young lawyer taking on The Man. “Mr. Prosecutor,” says the uptight judge, “do you appreciate that what you say is tantamount to gravest charges against the fountain-head of Smoketon’s Police Department?” 

To which our hero says, “‘Tantamount to grave charges!’ Let’s eliminate the ‘tantamount.'” 


Why use this word to compare situations only to equivalent negative things? Because you’re too scared to take out the middleman. 

A) The behavior of Abu Ghraib guards was tantamount to torture. 

B) The behavior of Abu Ghraib guards was torture. 

These two sentences mean the same thing. But one of them is more polite. Alright, you’re pointing out that technically the definition says “equivalent in value, significance, or effect.” As the sample phrase (tantamount to marriage) points out, you are taking one thing and saying it essentially equals another. Yet equivalent still works by itself, as does essentially, for that matter. And neither of these are words which would give a Congressman pause while he is on the attack. 

Tantamount just sounds fancy. Maybe that’s why Barbara Willard chose it as the name of a mysterious castle in her 1960s children’s novel The Richleighs of Tantamount. (Two fun tidbits – the Richleighs celebrate Toy Sunday twice a year, which is exactly what it sounds like, and their favourite – extra u in honor of Brits – game is Wif, or “what would you do if…”; parlor games!) 

Its fancy vagueness may also account for some NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) headaches: 

No Party may directly or indirectly nationalize or expropriate an investment of an investor of another Party in its territory or take a measure tantamount to nationalization or expropriation of such an investment… 

So says NAFTA. And the fact that tantamount makes people run around like decapitated chickens has led to much confusion – why a measure tantamount to nationalization is different from nationalization itself beats me. 

The Open Door Community is a radical Catholic organization which provides food and other services to the homeless, imprisoned, and spiritually hungry of Atlanta (imagine! How radical). In an anthology of Open Door writings, A Work of Hospitality, there is a shocking article on the abuse of women in Georgia prisons. What is this article titled? “Tantamount to Torture.” 

Why not “Torture”? Why hedge? Why use this word to obscure the true meaning – that women in Georgia’s prisons are tortured? You are RADICALS. Just say it.  

For these reasons, and others (I am being paid by the Anti-Tantamount lobby), I recommend striking this word from the English language.

Although, I’d tantamount her all night long.

Somniferous, or Irony part 1/100

Some of us now know that genocide has a short but complicated lexical history. Others, perhaps, are only aware that a new bullet point should be added to its definition:

– that which, when brought up as a topic of conversation, causes an audience to shift uneasily, search the area for escape routes, or become incredibly drowsy

It is no secret to me, because I have been told several times, that the last post is a difficult one to get through. Perhaps it is the length, or the style, but assuredly part of it has to do with the content, which I am beginning to think is somniferous.

Somniferous is a sturdy Latin word, from somnus for sleep (think of others? insomnia, somnambulant – sleepwalker) and fer for bearing (conifer, aquifer). So it means sleep-bearing, inducing sleep.

Those of you who are former American Literature teachers may have had a chuckle in the past over this word. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses it in The Scarlet Letter, that bane of 11th graders. (Bane – killer or curse; used lots in Tolkien).

You see, the timid minister Dimmesdale has fallen asleep in his chair, reading a book. And Hawthorne adds, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek aside to the reader, “It must have been a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature.”

At this point you look at your students and say, “Anyone see the irony here?”

And they all stare blankly back at you. Because that’s what they do.

Some teacher of mine, probably my AP trainer, advised me that if your students understand irony, they really “get it.” This idea that there might be a literary grail provoked a response in me not dissimilar to the one I had when I learned there was one unforgivable sin (click on your peril). Both involve a panic – do I understand this concept? And then a mental struggle: one part of you thinks everything is fine, you understand irony and are not a blasphemer, while the other part cackles merrily that you don’t see why Romeo and Juliet is ironic like your professor said, and that you are going to burn in hellfire eternally. 

Indeed, perhaps abuse of the term irony is the unpardonable English sin, which is why Alanis Morrissette brought down such snobbery when she dared bring the term to the masses back in 96. Ah, 96.

A gentleman named Matt Sturges has amusingly tried to figure out which of Morrissette’s examples in “Ironic” are truly deserving of the title. Here’s his first blow:

1. “An old man turned ninety-eight/He won the lottery and died the next day.”
While an amusing (if morbid) coincidence, there is nothing particulary ironic about the death. It is certainly an awe-inspiring sequence of events — the gentleman celebrating his 98th birthday, winning the lottery, and dying all in a two day period. What kind of shitty luck is that?  The ineffective slant rhyme, btw, is a little jarring, too.

Sturges points out here and elsewhere that our Canadian songbird might be confusing irony with mere “bad timing.” This is similar to how many people – especially teenagers (curse you) – use irony when they mean “coincidental,” (hey! we’re both at the mall and didn’t even text each other!) or uncanny (hey! I was just thinking of you when you texted me!) or even garden variety “weird” (hey! Text texty text text texting). Slant rhyme, BTW, is fuzzy poetry: it’s like all those hymns that try to rhyme “heaven” and “even.” If you squint, maybe…

However, take a look at this one:

2. “It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay.”
The irony here is that there is nothing remotely ironic about this line. In perhaps her one sweet moment of unadulterated genius, Alanis has shown us the true meaning of irony by giving an example of it that isn’t ironic at all!  Get it? It’s a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning: the textbook definition of irony! 

This made me uneasy, because when my sister and I engaged in debating the ironicisms of this song (yes, we like parlor games like that; next year, The Minister’s Cat), I tried to defend this one. Irony, if you have to sum it up in a few words, has to do with a reversal of expectations. Here’s this tall strapping young fellow: I shall call him Little John. Ha ha. Here I am in this police station, center of law and order, and I get mugged. You expect one thing, you get another.

Formally: 3 a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity (thanks, M-W).

I’m at a nice restaurant with an attractive young woman. She orders a very expensive Chardonnay. I get a little queasy thinking about the bill. The waiter comes back with the drink, she brings it to her lips, and alas, an ugly black fly.

Is this not the opposite of the expected result (which would be a classy, tasty sip of a cultured treat)? And for reasons like this, irony is incredibly difficult to nail down. Ball’s in your court, Sturges.

Back to The Scarlet Letter. Do you see the irony yet? All of my students had fallen asleep reading the book, meanwhile it was criticizing books that make you fall asleep!

That is ironic, isn’t it? Come on, back me up here, I don’t need no eternity in the hellfire.

Well, perhaps it is because you would not expect a book that is critical of boring literature to be so boring. But maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe this is just coincidental or weird. Votes?

If this has made you thirsty for some heavy duty (and even funny) irony, flip to the back page of Newsweek. They’ve done a nice job compiling a chart of all the anti-gay legislators and pastors who have turned out to be (alleged) homosexuals. Nearest and dearest to me is my hero, Ted Haggard, but the Florida state rep. offering to orally stimulate the cop for $20 is a keeper, too.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A priest, a rabbi, and Michael Jackson walk into a killing field.

Alright, admittedly there is very little that is funny about genocide. But how about this classic comic gem from genocide expert Adolf Hitler:

It was knowingly and lightheartedly that Genghis Khan sent thousands of women and children to their deaths. History sees in him only the founder of a state….[And] who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians? (Power 21)

If you’re like me circa 2008 you might say, uh, Arwhonia? Which clearly is his point. We’ll get there briefly.

First, Hitler couldn’t really be a genocide expert because the term was not even invented until 1944. It was coined by a Polish linguist and laywer named Raphael Lemkin:

[Genocide] combined the Greek derivative geno, meaning “race,” or “tribe,” together with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” “Genocide” was short, it was novel, and it was not likely to be mispronounced. (Power 42)

Why did we need a new word? Because exterminating a people was not technically a crime yet.

Samantha Power, my latest literati crush (sorry, Maureen), published in 2002 what has become a seminal work on genocide (in part because it became so widely read; a rare feat in the field), A Problem From Hell. She begins this work with a hashhashination – that of Mehmed Talaat (Turk), by Soghomon Tehlirian (Armenian).

The CIA World Factbook tells us that, “Despite periods of autonomy, over the centuries Armenia came under the sway of various empires including the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian, and Ottoman.”

The Ottoman Empire, which mostly became what we now know as Turkey, was a power in World War I against the Allies (the winners, us). Turks used the war as both cover and excuse to target their Armenian citizens. Armenia, says the CIA, “prides itself on being the first nation to formally adopt Christianity (early 4th century).” But the ruling Turks were Muslim.

In 1996, Wallace Shawn, American playwright, wrote a play called The Designated Mourner. In the play, three overeducated people discuss a revolt in their country (which could well be our own) in which the lower classes, spurred on by vague Communist sentiments, go after the ruling class. As a result, intellectuals get pinched from both sides – from the government, for being sympathetic to the guerrillas (you know how academics love to love Communism, “in theory”), but also by the rebels, for being eggheads.

It’s an interesting play, but I remember thinking, as I watched it, come on, that’s ridiculous. You can’t tell me that if I’m trying to start a revolution, my first target’s going to be Susan Sontag. Or my old thesis advisor. These people are harmless. No, really. They’re all liberal pacifists and they don’t work out.

But I was being naive. Intellectuals are often among the first targeted in genocide. The reasons are probably obvious to smart people like you – kill the writers and silence criticism; kill the smarties and you eliminate the ones who can point out historical parallels, or who might choose reason over passion. Then you can shape a new intellectual class in your own making. In Turkey, for example, “Armenian schools were closed, and those teachers who refused to convert to Islam were killed” (2).

In Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge (rouge for Communism – which is why some of those liberal intellectuals were initially blind to how vicious this regime would be) took power, they declared it Year Zero – implying that all the economic and social distinctions (and institutions) which existed previously would be no more. An English Christian charity group puts it this way on their website:

People who were deemed to have been the lazy elite, in other words the educated and the skilled, were also disposed of. Every vestige of the former corrupt way of life had to be destroyed. Many people tried to conceal their identity or former occupation, but were eventually found out or betrayed. Whole families would be executed. Even babies were killed by smashing their skulls against trees.

Back to Armenia. The CIA reports an estimated “1 million deaths” in the Turkish attempts to exterminate the Armenians. However, Talaat was freely wandering the streets of Berlin on the day Tehlirian shot him. This intrigued Lemkin, our wordsmith. He asked his (presumably liberal, unathletic) professor “why the Armenians did not have Talaat arrested for the massacre,” only to find out that there was no crime of which Talaat could be accused, no law he technically broke (Power 17).

“It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?” Lemkin asked, adding, in true lawyer understatement, “This is most inconsistent” (17). But at the time there was no “universal jurisdiction,” so what a State did in its own borders – even killing all of its citizens – was not something other States wanted to mess with. Because then they’d be opening themselves up to be messed with for similar reasons (for instance, keeping a large section of their citizens at the back of the bus?).

Lemkin, who lost 49 family members in the Holocaust, went on to create the word genocide, then he worked tirelessly for its promotion, achieving, in 1951, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Before he died (his funeral, Gatsby-esque, was attended by seven people), he had seen his new “law rejected by the by the world’s most powerful nation” (Power 78). You guessed it.

There are many reasons why American lawmakers resisted adopting the UN Genocide Convention. Some feared it would pull us into struggles in faraway lands (which is what Woodrow Wilson wanted to avoid by maintaining US neutrality during the slaughter of the Armenians). Others didn’t see the point in intervening when specific Americans or American interests aren’t threatened. Plus, what if American interests are aligned with the murderers?

Lest you think these concerns are safely in the past, now that the US has adopted a version of the UN Convention, consider President Obama’s recent dance around the Armenian genocide.

First you have to understand that some people claim the Armenian genocide is a myth. The doubters often cite doctored or mislabeled photos of dead Armenian bodies, or they point out that Armenians were provoking the Turks with violent acts of rebellion. This argument, that violence is being used by both sides, is often used as a way out of declaring genocide – never mind that one side heavily overpowers the other, or that one side’s “violence” is self-defense in the hopes of not being macheted to death.

The State Department reports that “the Turkish government insists the Armenians were victims of widespread chaos and governmental breakdown as the 600-year-old empire collapsed in the years before 1923.” Other critics are less eloquent: Yahoo questions includes an entry on “Why do you stupid Armenians fake genocide?” Luckily, this query, which ends with a request for the Armenians to suck something, is listed as “Resolved.” Whew.

It seems to be resolved for Obama, too. He resolved about it twice, in fact. When he was running for president, he resolved, “I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” (You can find this speech on his website). Then, as President, he urged Congress not to pass the Resolution, and in a speech on Armenian Remembrance Day, April 24, 2009, he distinctly did NOT use the g-word, although Senator Barbara Boxer, among others, had publicly urged him to do so.

Apparently this little word packs a big punch. It frightens politicians. It does this because it stirs memories of the Holocaust and of other tragedies, because it forces the US to act (and we prefer to force others to react to us), and because, well, getting accused of genocide can really piss some people off.

The word does risk dilution, of course, and so fears about its being overused have merit. For instance, there is a website claiming that now, in South Africa, white Afrikaners are being targeted for cruel practices (like prison rape), and that these attempts to destroy the foundation of Boer life constitute genocide. 

And in Taryn Simon’s The Innocents, a collection of photos and testimonials from American men freed from prison by DNA testing, Larry Mayes, wrongfully imprisoned for 18.5 years, claims, “What it really is, is genocide: getting rid of all the young black men so we can’t produce. Put ’em all in the penitentiary. There’s so many guys in there that are innocent but can’t get a chance. They take us, put us in cages, and leave us there. You go there. The whole cell house is nothing but black dudes. It’ll always be that way” (70).

If that disturbs the Reagan Republican in you, you might see why we’d also rather not ruffle any Turkish feathers with the word. Obama emphasized, in his speech, the need to move forward and reconcile. That bastard.

What’s so hot about Turkey that we don’t want to annoy them? Well, it’s big, and Muslim, and we don’t need another big Muslim enemy. The State Department also tells us that “Turkey allows the use of Incirlik Air Base for the transport of non-lethal cargo in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom” and we export about 11.9 billion dollars worth of American goodness to them each year. Armenia is small. Size matters.

As do other variables. Alright, quick quiz. If you had to guess which of these three people represents the ethnic group the United States expended the most effort on saving, which one would it be?


 If you guessed the one who looks like your white friends and neighbors, you may now pat yourself on the back. Bosnia got the bombs. Rwanda and Cambodia got some sideline handwringing. I’m sure we could all think of a few other charged words to describe this reality.

P.S. The resolution on the Armenian Genocide made it out of committee by a 23-22 vote, even though the White House asked to not pass it. Currently, 44 out of 50 states have recognized the genocide. Which begs the question, what the hell is with the other 6? And you may still ask yourself, as I did when a student of mine gave a presentation on the Armenian genocide, why the hell have I never heard of this?