That (Black) (Guy) Teacher

First, Meryl kissing Sandra. Now, Cate Blanchett being solo-hot. Loose relevance below.

Guy Deutscher has written an interesting article for this week’s NYTimes Magazine: “You Are What You Speak.” It’s adapted from his upcoming book, Through the Language Glass. Yes, he’s just full of clever titles.

He gives us a crash course in linguistic history by introducing the ideas of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who in 1940 proposed that the presence or absence of certain words in a language can tell us something about the mind of the speaker. For example, if a Native American language has no future tense, perhaps this means Native Americans have no concept of the future.

This might sound appealing but Whorf had no evidence, and Deutscher dispatches his theory with this example:

“When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, ‘Are you coming tomorrow?’ do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away?”

I like his dry humor. But, Deutscher says, perhaps language does make us different, “not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

He then goes into several examples involving gender. In English, you can tell someone you had dinner with a neighbor without specifying the sex of the neighbor. Not so in French or German. Same with teacher, friend, and others.

So what? Deutscher shies away from the mental implications of this, but perhaps gender-neutral language makes us more open to women in roles of authority. Or perhaps it makes us less so, because our language gender codes are more hidden; we never hear “woman teacher” or “man teacher” aloud so we are more able to always assume one or the other. Think about why we often feel the need to specify “male nurse.” 

What about gender assigned to inanimate objects? Apparently there are interesting psychological studies going on concerning words (like “bridge”) which are male in one language and female in another. It may be that male-bridge-speakers are more likely to be pleased with bridges that are strong, while female-bridge-folks prefer slender and elegant designs.

Hemingway, in The Old Man and the Sea, wrote that some sailors called the sea la mer while others called it el mar, and the difference was in the way they viewed its temperament. Perhaps a push for Gendered English would lead to more specific speech? While we’re at it, lets add race markers to our words to spare us the awkward of saying, “He was the…black…guy at the party.” Maybe it will make us less racist? Of course, so might going to parties with more than one black guy present.

But the example Deutscher’s most in a sweat over involves Guugu Yimithirr, a “remote Australian aboriginal tongue.” If you speak Guugu Yimithirr, you do not “use words like ‘left,’ or ‘right,’ ‘in front of’ or ‘behind,’ to describe the position of objects.” You use cardinal directions.

There is an ant just north of your foot.

People who speak such languages have a sense of direction so attuned that they can describe that ant’s location no matter how you move your foot, and they do it instantly, just as we say right and left. Well, some of us still make the L with our hands.

Now check this out:

…if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant. 

Does this mean that Guugu’ers are less “egocentric” than we are because they describe the position of things in terms of global rules and not personal position? This would fit neatly with most “evil white man” theories. You can see how this language study could provoke all kinds of armchair speculation – does a language with no passive voice make its speakers more leaderlike? does speaking in double negatives make you more defeatist? – which Deutscher makes clear we have little way of reliably testing. Someday, “when out experimental tools are less blunt,” we may be able to better measure the consequences of language.

Still, he urges us to abandon the idea, a politically correct one, that underneath our different languages we are all the same. In fact, we may find out that we’re more different than we ever knew.

But I already knew that ’cause I get my learning from Hollywood and I saw Babel. At least I think that movie was about  us all being different. It might have been about us all being the same. I can’t remember.

Cate Blanchett pees herself. I remember that.

Poor, Poverty

I have a new crush. Do you know why?

Poor comes from the Latin pauper, which is related to the Latin paucus (little), and, M-W tells us, the Latin parere (to give birth to, produce). This I find curious. The combination – giving birth to little – makes sense, but in etymological isolation it may be ironic (not really) that poor is related to giving birth, since so much debate about poverty and aid revolves around how many children poor families have. We have all heard how welfare moms have more kids to buy more crack and Nike shoes.

The roots also tell us why paucity means scarcity, and paucity is one of those great 5-cent words. Use it well at a party and you will not be going home alone, you know what I mean?

The top three definitions of poor are “lacking material possessions,” “less than adequate,” and “exciting pity.” I think exciting pity is a funny phrase, because it makes me think about how some people really get turned on by seeing the downtrodden. Poor baby!

Poor is also of or related to poverty. Poverty is “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.” You can see that usual and socially acceptable are elastic and could make defining poverty problematic.

We could try to just know it when we see it, or we could try to establish a poverty line. This is a term traced to 1901, in a work called Poverty: A Study of Town Life by a British sociologist, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. It’s possible the term was used before then, but Rowntree’s is the grandfather of poverty line studies. He was studying poverty in his native York, and in chapter four, “The Poverty Line,” he gets specific:

What proportion of the population is living in poverty? It will be the aim of the present chapter to answer this question.

The families living in poverty may be divided two sections

1 Families whose total earnings are insufficient to obtain the minimum necessaries for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency. Poverty falling under this head may be described as primary poverty.

2 Families whose total earnings would be sufficient for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency were it not that some portion of it is absorbed by other expenditure either useful or wasteful. Poverty falling under this head may be described as secondary poverty.

Already he sets up a hierarchy of poverty. Some poverty is higher in “rank, importance, or value” (M-W def. of primary) than other kinds. Does secondary imply more easily fixed or less so? If a family is only poor because dad drinks it all, does that make them less poor or more?

I have not read all of Rowntree so I do not know if he answers this question elsewhere. But he goes on to establish criteria for the poverty line. First, “we must ascertain what income is required by families of different sizes to provide the minimum of food clothing and shelter needful for the maintenance of merely physical health.”

He is upfront about leaving out all “expenditure needful for the development of the mental moral and social sides of human nature.” So no education for getting oneself out of poverty, or tithes for belonging to a church and leading a full spiritual life, or pints at the pub in order to not feel like killing yourself.

Rowntree then includes a number of charts as he tries to nail down exactly how much of what kinds of food is needed to provide the right caloric intake for a working class family. Just imagine trying to quantify that, and you’ll know why I opted out of Statistics and became the Calc BC village idiot instead.

In case you’re curious, not much has changed in terms of defining a poverty line. The American poverty line (actually we call it a threshold, because it sounds prettier) was first created in the 1960s by economist Mollie Orshansky. Orshansky used Department of Agriculture data to determine how much money was needed to survive on a very bare bones food plan, and then for families generally multiplied it by three. The data had shown that families spent about a third of their after-tax income on food.

The Census Bureau now publishes annual poverty thresholds. The 2008 threshold for an  individual under 65 was income of $11,201, and for a family of four, $22,025.

Criticism of poverty lines comes from several directions. For one, it is somewhat arbitrary. If I make $11,202, I don’t count as poor anymore. For another, the definer of poverty has certain political power. A recent Newsweek article (you know I love them) by Robert Samuelson outlines the shortcomings of the poverty threshold, and brings attention to how politicians might “define poverty up,” meaning they use misleading standards to make us think the situation is worse than it is.  Why? To garner more support for your aid and welfare programs. To redistribute wealth.

Cue organ music.

Similarly, you might define poverty down, trying to establish that you’ve done more than you actually have. Samuelson says that our poverty threshold ignores immigration – if we restrict immigration, we might decrease poverty. It ignores supplemental income sources for the poor – things like welfare and food stamps and other legacies of LBJ’s War on Poverty (aided by Orshansky’s original work). Finally, it ignores that the standard of living for the poor is higher: “In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cell phones.”

Hot damn. We gotta microwave.

Maybe it’s time for some bipartisan threshold reform. In the meantime, perhaps we could also try to solve, not simply define, the problem.

In terms of causes, Rowntree defined the potential ones in York of primary poverty as six:

1 Death of chief wage-earner

2 Incapacity of chief wage-earner through accident, illness, or old age

3 Chief wage earner out of work

4 Chronic irregularity of work [this can be sometimes attributed to unwillingness to work, he says; the old “get a job” bit]

5 Largeness of family [parere much?]

6 Lowness of wage

Of these, by far the two biggest are largeness of family, which caused 22 percent of York’s primary poverty, and lowness of wage, which brought in a whopping 51 percent.

This brings me to the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, pictured above, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, along with his Grameen (which means Village) Bank of Bangladesh.

Yunus was an economics professor who saw the poor in the village next to his university and decided to do something about it. No bank would loan the poor any money – since they had no collateral – so he loaned them $27 out of his own pocket. The rest is history.

Yunus pioneered what is known as microfinance, or microcredit, the giving of small loans to the poor so that they can become entrepreneurs and savers.  He found, surprising to many, that nearly 100 percent of the loans he gave out would be repaid by the poor. He found that being an entrepreneur is not a rare quality. He found that people can lift themselves out of poverty if you throw them a line (not a statistical one, though).

Last night Dr. Yunus spoke at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and he said things like, “Poverty is an imposition on human beings,” it is not self-created. Think of Rowntree’s data – over half the problem is low wages for people who are regular workers. Yunus has expanded Grameen Bank into a family of companies that tackle all kinds of social issues, including healthcare, technology, green practices, clothing, food, and so on. His work has expanded to many countries, including ours, where Grameen America has given out 5,000 loans in New York City, averaging $1500, and has a 99.3 percent repayment rate.

The economic crisis did not chill his business.

Almost all microcredit programs lend money overwhelmingly to women and not men. This is because studies are showing that money lent to women goes to the welfare of the family, while money lent to men too often slips through hedonistic cracks. Remember Rowntree’s secondary poverty? We wouldn’t be poor if dad didn’t drink it away.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in their excellent book Half the Sky (thank you, Margarita), confirm these phenomena. They have several wonderful stories of microcredit success in their pages, and go into depth on the studies about female/male spending. Check this out: “If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries.”

Now if you say that about crack and Nikes in America, you’re a monster. Their data are third world specific, and yet I’d like to see similar studies about percentage of income for poor families in this country. Anyone?

A kind of international poverty line has been set at $1 or $2 a day, depending on the country. Dr. Yunus eschews these definitions. In Creating a World Without Poverty, he opts for a kind of Bangladesh-specific, negative definition of poverty: ten standards which, if met, mean you are not poor. These are things (specific in details) like the family has an adequate dwelling, they drink purified water, all children are in primary school or have finished it, there is a fall-back source of income, a sanitary latrine, and everyone eats three square meals.

Read more of the work of Dr. Yunus and Nick Kristof. It is inspiring, and all the more so because they are optimists. Perhaps it is time to redirect our energies, and create a threshold based on quality of life, on concrete details, but which is defined by achievement – by what you have, and not what you are lacking.  Wealth comes from the word well, and from well’s literal definition of bubbling, springing water. Is it just silly humanism to ask for framing the debate in terms of well-ness, of the existence of fresh water?

Or maybe we should take to heart the words of American Socialist Eugene Debs, beloved of Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn, among others, who said this:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Maybe we all ought to be poor if any of us is. This is a nice idea for me to write. It is harder to truly keep in one’s heart. But there’s no harm trying.

To the right, you can see Edna Adan Ismail, whose awesome story is in Half the Sky. She is graduating a class of nurses here at the hospital she founded in Somaliland.

By complete coincidence, I ended up typing this entry while listening to a remix of Tears for Fears’ “Woman in Chains.” I’d never heard the song before, but it is fitting. Women, for many reasons, may be the answer.

It’s a world gone crazy keeps woman in chains

So free her, so free her, so free her

Can/Should (The Professor in Chief)

Hello, shoulder.

During the Bush presidency, I read a lot of Maureen Dowd because I thought her sharp barbs were awesome, and then I stopped reading her because her sharp barbs were the same every week, and then she wrote Are Men Necessary? and I figured we were kaput. You know, like she and Aaron Sorkin are (oh to be a fly on that left-leaning wall).

But just when I thought I was out, she pulls me back in.

You probably have no idea, but some people are trying to build a mosque on Ground Zero. Yes, right where the towers used to be. A giant mosque with an invisible statue of Mohammed for everyone to not unsee.

I’m exaggerating a little bit. The proposed “community center” (which just happens to include a mosque) is, from my eyeballing, two blocks away from Ground Zero. Farther away than St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

Nobody is suggesting that, in the interests of secular humanism, the Church be asked to relocate, but we can’t have a mosque. Radicals distorted Islam and brought down the towers, you see. Radicals distorted Christianity and fought the Crusades, led the Inquisition, butchered the New World heathens, ripped Iraq to shreds…

Perhaps no one from St. Peter’s Catholic Church was personally involved in the less dignified actions of the Church; perhaps the Catholic Church is responsible for many good works in addition to its terrible wrongs – two good reasons to have the mosque too.

I would think I’m preaching to the choir here, but then I heard about this much-quoted CNN poll which says 70% of Americans oppose this mosque. Since ten people read this blog, I assume a majority of you are sharpening your freedom daggers.

Forget that Jimmy Kimmel perhaps made the best comment about the affair, reducing it to its absurdity, when he suggested we build mosques on the tops of all of our tallest buildings, to protect them. Forget that Michael Bloomberg has become an interesting poster boy for the pro-mosque movement. What’s hot right now is Obama’s weighing in on the issue, or his not unweighing in, or his weighing/reweighing. He’s all weigh-weigh’d up.

Obama is known for being verbose. He does not like to get tied down to simplistic answers and statements. In a debate in 2007, back when it was still seven people at podiums vying for the Dem. nomination, Obama and Wolf Blitzer had a showdown (watch it here). Blitzer was trying to get him to “yes or no” drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. Obama said it was a “wedge issue,” and distracted from the real issue of immigration reform. Blitzer’s demand for a one-word answer was met with laughter, applause, and whistling from the audience (at Obama’s expense).

These days, he’s being derided for being a “law professor” (or as Dowd called him today, a “hyperarticulate” one; egad) and not a president. We know that law professors are famous for being Socratic, for asking questions (sometimes many frustratingly difficult ones) designed to get to the right answer. We also know that they are famous for, well, being smart.

Apparently we don’t want that here. Dowd also calls Obama a “situationist.” I’m as good with Google as anyone else, and all I can tell is that a situationist is someone who prefers judging things individually, situation by situation. Heaven help us.

So the problem now is that Obama, at “a White House iftar, a Ramadan sunset dinner,” said this (reported by NYTimes):

“As a citizen, and as president,” Mr. Obama said then, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” 

Then Harry Reid, Democrat Majority Leader in a tight reelection campaign, and other Dems got weigh-weigh’d up, saying that the President, being the head of their party, had now forced them all to give two cents on a divisive wedge issue.

Perhaps he wanted to backtrack, or perhaps he truly thought he was clarifying his original point. Whatever the case, Obama said this the next day:

“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Mr. Obama said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

I think you and I see the distinction. I used to try to get my students to agree with me that while you CAN make a movie that says Neo-Nazis are great, you really SHOULDN’T.

Now there was backlash the other way, as defenders of the mosque felt he was flip-flopping, so the White House, sweating, had to issue a clarification of its clarification, saying that the Prez stood by his comments…of both days.

Americans understand this distinction, says CNN: “a separate poll released Wednesday by the Siena Research Institute found that 63 percent opposed it, but 64 percent said the center’s developers have a constitutional right to build it.” There is enough forced overlap between those numbers to demonstrate that Americans are quite capable of separating the distasteful from the illegal. They can think like law professors.

Dowd is comparing this to Clinton’s “is ‘is,'” which is a bad comparison. I thought about dressing that sentence up, but I went Orwell with it and ended with a bump. It’s just bad. Clinton was being intentionally deceptive, and his distinction was verbal smuggery.

On the other hand, it does offer the President up for carving from all sides, as the soundbyte culture, which refuses to be denied, simply slots in a bit here or there to make him look like an equivocator. It is true that he usually sounds more like the academics Orwell was criticizing than Ecclesiastes. But we had eight years of Ecclesiastes, of simple blunt imagery coupled with the worst twisting of abstract idea nouns (freedom, liberty, terror). Obama, bless him and his refrain of “uhs,” is following Orwell’s rule no. 6, which supercedes all others, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” 

And even Sarah Palin, or the intern who writes her facebook, understands this distinction. Her reaction, in a facebook note, asks: “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?” Palin taunts Obama, saying the question is not above his “pay grade,” and yet Obama was clear – that is not a question he is going to answer. Because why should he? Why do I need a President or any politician to decide what SHOULD be built where?

Get on the right side here. The protestors hold signs that say things like “Mosques are Monuments to Terrorism.” Newt Gingrich compares it to putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust museum.

I’ll take the law professor, thank you, and so will the new silent majority. Long-winded intelligence beats quippy bullshit.

Newsweek’s cover story featured two grieving mothers who lost sons on 9/11. One opposes the mosque, one supports it. (It’s sort of like being pro-choice; you may not like the mosque there, but you support the right to it). But the article ends with them agreeing on one thing: their anger at politicians who use 9/11 for an easy emotional gain.

Am I missing something? Isn’t that exactly what’s going on right now?

Furthermore, and finally, more time and space could be devoted to the use of the words holy, sacred, and hallowed in recent reference to Ground Zero. These words, coupled with “ground,” are used by those who oppose the mosque. One may sound more secular than another, but they really mean the same thing (holy, related to a deity). And I think issue should be taken with turning this piece of ground into a religious symbol.   

People of many faiths died there, and I would bet some godless capitalist hedonists were included. The towers were chosen as an economic symbol, after all.

Keep your god off my real estate.

Word Extinction #2: Not Un-

George Orwell, penname of Eric Blair (1903-1950), was the author of 1984, which gave the world Big Brother and “doublethink” (see illustration), and Animal Farm and my favorite essay of all time, “Shooting an Elephant.”

Thanks to my friend Matt, today I read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” and I feel both chastened and inspired.

Inspired because this essay, written in 1946, includes a better description and diagnosis of fuzzy English than I could ever hope to write.

You should read the essay right now, but I’m going to quote most of it anyway.

First sentence: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.”

But, he will tell us, we can! De-Fuzzyfiers Unite!

Orwell gives many examples of good and bad English, some of which he makes up himself. Here he goes: 

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Isn’t that so true?

Back to that first sentence. Some people, like Sarah Palin, believe that since English is an evolving language, changes in meaning (and fake words) are inevitable, and in fact, something we “got to celebrate.” Orwell refuses this argument:

Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.

These being phrases which are still used, we can assume that their “deaths” were only temporary, or only accepted in certain circles. But he encourages us: “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.”

Take the word tantamount, which we previously explored. This word is used, as Orwell would say, to “dress up simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments,” or to “dignify the sordid processes of international politics,” or simply with the “intent to deceive.”

He continues, and gets us to our new word extinction candidate:

There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence*, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases.

*One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

Here are some links which show up when you Google “not un,” and strain out the U.N. hits:

“Homosexuality is Not Un-African” Change.org

“Corporate free speech is not un-American” Seattle Times

“‘Avatar’ is Political But It’s Not Un-American” HuffingtonPost

“Paradox: Non-Biblical, but Not Un-Biblical” revelife

“New G.I. Clip is Not Un-Crappy” filmdrunk

Chances are at least one of those made you think twice, and if they didn’t, perhaps you are too well-versed in political language. In particular, not un-American seems to be popular. But why do we even accept un-American as a term? What does it mean? It would make little sense to say that “‘Avatar’ is American,” which is the equivalent, I would think, of “Not Un-American.” Cameron, of course, is Canadian.

I also think “not unlike” is popular, and that I’ve probably used it in my writing here or elsewhere. That’s the chastened part. Orwell acknowledges in his essay that he is guilty at times of bad writing, and I am too. I intended for this blog to be short and sweet – see the first entry – and each post seems to get longer as I fall more in love with my own cleverness. I think we are somewhat trained to write this way: we have to dress up some pretty standard eighteen-year-old lives for college applications (then college essays, and so on) and so we choose flowery rhetoric and “dying metaphors” in order to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Add to this the increasing pressure (self-imposed perhaps) to write more things more quickly. Blogging is not a form which lends itself to careful study and revision.

We also do it to sound better. It is harder to artfully arrange blunt constructions and concrete words. Most of us are more on the talent-level of “objective consideration” than Ecclesiastes. So reforming ourselves will be not undifficult:

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

And if we are on guard for each other.

Here are some parting rules from Orwell:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

A final, concrete image: this week I was at the Open Door and saw a homeless man, sitting on a bench in the front yard, reading Orwell’s 1984.

This reminded me of another concrete image from Doris Lessing, in her Nobel Prize lecture:

…I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.

The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn from a book. She is reading Anna Karenin.

She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman’s headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms.

…That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

Proud/Pride

Today’s entry is brought to you by the special reporting of Lee Smith, Fuzzy English contributor. You too can, and should, be a contributor. Just write something, yo. Even if it stinks, we’ll make it better. More politely: even if it’s just notes, we’ll flesh it out.

Pride is a tricky term in the best of times, found in everything from the Marines (few, bold, proud)  to graduation announcements to the seven deadly sins. Pride, or the lack of it, is a force strong enough to bond Tiger Woods and Mel Gibson. Gibson defended Woods earlier this year, you see, asking us all, “Have you ever done anything that you’re not proud of?”

Which made us all remember that time we cheated on our wives with nineteen people, and so we all set down our first stones.

Jane Fonda is not proud of her recent plastic surgery. I just had to put that in there. Proud of being Hanoi Jane? She does not say. But proud and not proud do make good soundbyte material.

To be proud is bad, but to be proud of something is good. Being proud is a hallmark of Hallmark cards. It’s great to be proud of Suzy actually managing to graduate. Yet there are other things which divide us in pride; is it “right” to be proud of one’s homosexuality, or proud of one’s  race, or one’s country? How do we decide?

Clearly, there’s more to this word than a harmless excuse for gay men to dress scantily and dance on floats,  or a group of lions, or a reason not to marry someone even though he’s British and really ridiculously good looking.  

Daniel’s middle school yearbook (yes he still has it) contains a nice spread on the word “pride.” His mascot was the Wildcat, BTW. Because that’s fierce.

The yearbook gave a pretty standard dictionary definition (we’ll get there), although it added

5. a company of wildcats!

But the quotations from the student body are the real treat. You know the yearbook editors make them up anyway, but we’re going to call these people out so maybe someday they’ll Google themselves and feel PRIDE!

“A proud, positive inner feeling that inspires confidence, intiative, and success.” – John Spindler, Principal

“It’s believing in yourself…the way you feel after you have done something good. Self-respect!” – Natalie P., 8B

“Faith in your school.” – Nicole H., 6B

“A feeling of goodness inside.” – Adam C., 7B

“Being able to show how much you love your school.” – 8th Grader who wishes to remain anonymous

Faith in your school? And how does one have an “outer” feeling? Okay, this is a lot less interesting than I thought it would be. Really you have to see the pictures with the kids in the braces and flannel and really light jeans.

I hate to do the middle school thing and quote Merriam Webster, but I found something interesting: within the same definition is a contradiction:

Proud 

1 : feeling or showing pride: as a : having or displaying excessive self-esteem b : much pleased : exultant c : having proper self-respect 
2 a : marked by stateliness : magnificent b : giving reason for pride : glorious <the proudest moment in her life>
3 : vigorousspirited <a proud steed>

Proud can be “much pleased” and also “displaying excessive self-esteem.” Excessive is more than is necessary. Apparently you can have too much self-esteem. Yet proud can also be having proper self-respect. What’s the dividing line between proper and excessive, esteem and respect?

Check out the MW synonyms for proud:

disdainful meaning showing scorn for inferiors. proud may suggest an assumed superiority or loftiness <too proud to take charity>. arrogant implies a claiming for oneself of more consideration or importance than is warranted <a conceited and arrogant executive>. haughty suggests a consciousness of superior birth or position <a haughty aristocrat>. lordly implies pomposity or an arrogant display of  power <a lordly condescension>. insolent implies contemptuous haughtiness <ignored by an insolent waiter>. overbearing suggests a tyrannical manner or an intolerable insolence <an overbearing supervisor> supercilious implies a cool, patronizing haughtiness <an aloof and supercilious manner>. disdainful suggests a more active and openly scornful superciliousness <disdainful of their social inferiors>.

 Ah,  I can see the card now: Dear Graduate, We Are Disdainful Of You!

And the references to “social inferiors” and “superior birth” feel very aristocratic, don’t you think? This is not to imply that synonyms are only valid if they can be used interchangeably with the base word and retain the same meaning. That’s why we have more than one word for similar things – to be able to express different shades of the same thought. But really, proud and disdainful get us into touchy territory. Does Black pride imply that White is inferior, or vice-versa? Did you know that most of the children singing back-up for James Brown in “I’m Black and I’m Proud” are actually White or Asian? Irony.  

Another Hallmark reject: Dear Daughter, Having abandoned you at the age of three, I can take no real part in your recent accomplishments, but I have just read about them on facebook and I am so PROUD of you!

Does pride imply a form of ownership? Asking a friend about a show he was working on, he neglected to say he was proud (even though the show was well-received), because he had “little ownership feelings about it.” Little ownership feelings, as opposed to big ones.

Can you be proud of something if you had nothing to do with it?

Pride is a very parental kind of term. “You must be so proud of your kid.” “We are so proud of you.” What does that mean? It’s more than “we are pleased with you”; it seems to denote some action on the part of the congratulator [the proud one] responsible for the recipient’s current successful state. Why? Maybe because fertilization and then the act of keeping a kid alive for any period of time is cause for praise.

Of course in the 80s Lee Greenwood gave us all reason to be proud with his song “God Bless the USA.” No it isn’t called “Proud to be an American,” even though that’s 30% of the lyrics. The song became a kind of anthem for the Reagan/Bush set, especially during the first Gulf War, the one we “won.”

You can be proud of your own country, but can we be proud of France, even in the “much pleased” sense? You may be happy for, or pleased with another country, but you wouldn’t be proud, would you? You go, France. I’m so proud you’ve stopped hating on your Muslim immigrants.

No, that’s silly. You have to be personally involved, somehow. And the French will never stop hating.

So what did Michelle Obama mean when she said “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country”? She meant she was thrilled to see changes for the better that she had viewed as big black smudges on the tablecloth of America before, proud about “hope making a comeback,” and that people are finally “hungry for change.” She didn’t mean she had never seen good things before, just that in this instance, she was particularly pleased with the direction of the country. Didn’t get her off the hook from the media, though.

Firing back, Cindy McCain (the wife, not the hot daughter), offered that she has “and always will be proud of my country.” Because unquestioning pride has never gotten anyone into any trouble.

Michelle Obama and her peeps tried to cover by adding “really” to proud. Does that make it better or worse? Dear Son, For the first time I’m REALLY proud of you!

Unpride:

On the flip side, “I am not proud of what I did” is a good politician statement, kind of implying responsibility and a humble attitude to whatever screw-up is being referred to. I do not revel in my actions. I do not wish to cite them for my resume.  I acknowledge that I did something of which people do not approve, and it is not something with which I am allowed to be pleased.  

Question of the Day: Did Bill Clinton, in his televised address to the American people, admit that he was not “proud” of his actions with Ms. Lewinsky? Answer below.

Anyone who ever took high school freshman English and read (or glazed over) parts of The Odyssey knows that there is good pride and bad pride. Good pride is parental pride, unless your parent’s proud of you for being a screw-up. Bad pride is the hubristic kind (that’s a definition link in case it’s been a while since you were fourteen), the kind that leads to self-destruction and the refusal of assistance and all that. The kind that is supposed to be swallowed. Unless of course it gets you out of the cave with the Cyclops. Then you spit it out.

This is getting harder and harder. Is it possible we only know good pride and bad pride…when we see them? Curse you, Potter Stewart!

I eagerly await the first Supreme Court case on pride. I will mail you a cookie if you can find me one.

While we wait for our trivia answer, here’s someone who certainly did use the p-word, and about whom I bet you do not know:

Hyman G. Rickover, known as the “father of the nuclear navy” said in 1982 at a congressional hearing (full quote on the Wikipedia page),  “I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all.  I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country.” He took part in creating a nuclear navy not because he thought it was good, but because he thought the alternative was worse, and thus, he is not proud of it.

Sink our own ships? All right. That guy’s got moxie.

Another blogger wrote about a cross-cultural scientific study of pride, (The Situationist) and it shows a lot of the negative views of pride, in cultures across the planet. And by the way, I’m proud to say that I wrote that section about hubristic pride before I found this article.

Answer to today’s question: He did not. First, Clinton maintained that answers he had previously given were “legally accurate.” In one of the great coups of Fuzzy English, you remember, he told us his honesty depended on what the definition of is is. This is because he once told his aides, “There’s nothing going on between us,” and claimed that “is” was accurate because, technically, she was not, at the moment, chomping his cigar.

But Clinton did say this in his apology: “Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”

A month later he took another crack at it, in a speech at the “annual White House prayer breakfast.” Apparently he wrote this speech by himself, by hand. We know because he says that. I think he was proud of the fact.

Agreeing that his previous apology was “not contrite enough,” he vowed never to hide behind legal language (unless it had to do with genocide, probably), and acknowledged “I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

He didn’t give us the “I’m not proud,” but he seemed to be renouncing bad pride, hubris.

Hillary was in the audience. I wonder if she sent him a Hallmark card after.

Tidbits

from Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs:

During my years in government, I found that foreign aid was about as popular as fleas. It didn’t help that the term “foreign aid” sounded vaguely treasonous. I removed the phrase from my own vocabulary, referring instead to “national security support.”

This is a cute little switch, if a deliberately deceptive one, but it also calls attention to the fact that we help ourselves by helping others. So is this a laudable change, or a silly or harmful one?

Be warned, this is gruesome:

George Will, conservative columnist, has been trying in Newsweek to tie Senator Barbara Boxer (in a close re-election fight) to partial-birth abortions for weeks. This grisly procedure adds just another layer to the verbal antics that make up the abortion debate: Boxer, Will writes, prefers “the more anodyne but less descriptive phrase ‘late-term’ abortion. Readers can decide which is the more candid denotation of this: The baby is about 80 percent delivered, feet first, until a portion of the skull is exposed. Then the skull is punctured and collapsed as its contents are sucked out.”

The Will/Boxer squabble is perhaps less important than the power words might have in shaping our opinions of such procedures (surely, for example, you can find someone who would describe the procedure differently than Will does).

Newsweek has two other goodies for this. One is a piece by the chief editor of the soon to be published Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), who assures us that our English has not been completely “flattened” by media, but is “as varied as ever.” Consider, she offers, the variation offered by “the boonies, the sticks, the tules, the puckerbrush, and the willy-wags.”

There is still, of course, high tension around the soda/pop debate, and I won’t even dignify the people who use “coke” as a generic. Shame on you.

Finally, Senator Lindsey Graham is up to some antics on immigration, apparently calling for “a constitutional change to revise the right, enshrined in the 14th amendment, that grants automatic citizenship to any child born in the United States” (Newsweek‘s words). This is no stunt, says a spokesman; Graham is “very, very serious” about it.

The 14th Amendment provision in question would be this: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”

Fuzzy English up for grabs these days includes legal, illegal, immigrant, citizen – even, back to the abortion debate, born (they try to tie Boxer up by having her imagine a hypothetical in which the baby slips entirely from the birth canal) I welcome any thoughts or sources on this debate.

And go pick up or click over to Newsweek. It needs support.

Disclosure, Part 2: Citizens, Unite!

Open the paper this Saturday (7/31) and you might see Sandra Bullock holding up a finger, as if she is telling us we need to stop, or we’ve been naughty. This sounds promising, perhaps even prurient (yes, the picture is just an excuse for me to put Meryl Streep kissing a woman on here).

But the NYTimes assures us the matter is more mundane: “Bullock Wants to Be Removed From Oil-Spill Video.” Why, you might ask? Anything to do with Jesse James and an adopted New Orleans baby? No; her Indian giving spirit springs from a problem of disclosure.

Ms. Bullock, a New Orleans resident, is among the celebrities who appear in “Be the One,” a video that describes the oil spill’s national implications. A credit at the end of the video says it is presented by Women of the Storm, and among the partners listed at the campaign’s Web site, restorethegulf.com, is the America’s Wetland Foundation.

All well and good except that WotS and the Wetland Foundation, according to The Huffington Post, are “financed by oil companies, including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Citgo and Chevron.” Nobody wants to be the secret prop of Big Oil. A prop, maybe, but not a secret one. Let me know when I’m signing up, please, just what I’m signing up for.

Or is she being unreasonable? Officials for the Wetland Foundation said oil company “contributions” are “for scientific and ecological research.” That doesn’t sound very diabolical. So what’s the big deal?

Disclosure.

The Latin prefix dis- means “apart,” but the prefix can be used in may ways, according to M-Webs. Consider the differences between disestablish (doing the opposite of) and disbar (excluding from) and disagreeable (plain old not) and disannul (which means the same thing as annul, but perhaps just means it more completely). Closure, which originally referred to fences and other enclosing devices (and is thus related to cloister), is a word we’re all familiar with, though it too has different definitions – it could be the closure of one’s teeth, but it could also be the closure one has after a few months of being broken up with. M-W calls this “an often comforting or satisfying sense of finality.” Indeed.

You can twist around these pieces to read disclosure as “complete” or “excluding from” emotional closure – as in, last night’s perusal of facebook photo albums brought me some serious disclosure, but we generally agree that the word means the opposite of closing; to throw light upon. I leave it to your further linguistic amusement to ponder whether disclosure generally brings closure or disturbs it.

Closure is also the etymological cousin of cloture (60 votes to end a filibuster), which is what the Democrats cannot muster in order to bring their DISCLOSE Act to pass. Aha! There’s a piece of verbal legerdemain for you (“sleight of hand,” don’t be that guy who writes it “slight”). It’s also a great segue (please also note this spelling, or pat self on back if already aware).

DISCLOSE stands for, and I love this, Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections. I just get tickled when legislation wears its heart on its sleeve. The bill, passed in the House of Reps, is a direct reaction to the Supreme Court ruling referred to as Citizens United.

I will let Citizens United define themselves/itself: Citizens United is an organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control. Through a combination of education, advocacy, and grass roots organization, Citizens United seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security. Citizens United’s goal is to restore the founding fathers’ vision of a free nation, guided by the honesty, common sense, and good will of its citizens.

That smells okay, although the word sovereignty always sets of alarm bells in my head, as does “founding fathers’ vision,” which we all know would include black people hobbling around at 66%, and women speaking when spoken to.

On their website currently, you can browse their documentaries, including “viewer favorites” such as the following:

“ACLU: At War With America” 

“Celsius 41.11: The Truth Behind the Lies of Fahrenheit 9/11”

“Gingrich:  Rediscovering God in America”

“Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration” (which hopefully at least has some good action in it)

And also the more curiously titled “Blocking: The Path to 9/11”

As of this typing, if you stayed on the CU mainpage for a few seconds, a video would automatically start playing. It runs thirty seconds, has www.StopIranNow.com pasted in the top right corner, and features documentary footage of Neville Chamberlain – you know, the guy who appeased Hitler – dissolving into footage of President Obama. The end features a couple of explosions and the words, “Mr. President, STOP Iran, NOW.”

Obviously, when you hop on the CU bus, you’re buying in to a certain vision of America, and a cavalier attitude toward historical analogies, which are less than clear from its blandly cheerful mission statement.  

The documentary at issue in the SCOTUS case was one called “Hillary: The Movie.” Running ads for this film during the 2008 election was challenged under legislation which “prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an ‘electioneering communication’ or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.”

And you thought electioneering was just a Radiohead song.

In the good old days, corporations could not spend their own money on any kind of pro- or anti-candidate speech in the run-up to an election or primary. First CU tried to assert that “Hillary: The Movie” is not any kind of electioneering, but SCOTUS labeled it “pejorative” (disparaging). You can look at trailers for the film, and make the decision for yourself. It certainly is negative, but on what grounds is harder to say. They try to make Hillary look scary, and have dramatic music, and zoom in on words like “cronies” and “guilty,” and then have a bunch of people armchair-shrinking her.

Perhaps most telling is a 10-second spot featuring dear Ann Coulter. A voiceover says, “First a kind word about Hillary Clinton,” and Coulter says, “Looks good in a pantsuit.”

Fashion criticism, with just a touch of “butch” smear. Ann, the high ground is yours again.

SCOTUS, even though the parties in the lawsuit were no longer asking it to, went ahead and considered the case on some pretty broad First Amendment grounds, ignoring its own precedent, and decided that corporations were being discriminated against. The precedent, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, was based on the idea that corporations, having more funds at their disposal than the average citizen, could too easily achieve “an unfair advantage in the political marketplace.” SCOTUS’s new reasoning essentially says that there are rich people too, and we don’t handicap their speech. The First Amendment, SCOTUS says, is meant to ensure an “open marketplace of ideas.”

Because the free market is doing just wonders for us in other fields right now.

Some people believe this decision is a win for First Amendment supporters. The naysayers predict that Pandora’s Box has been opened, and upcoming election cycles will feature a veritable flood of negative ads. But we already have those, you say. But just imagine NOW, they say. And we all feel a little bit like Dakota Fanning, clutching Tom Cruise’s shoulder with our impish mittens and looking scared, or, well, kinda stoned.

One of the naysayers is President Obama, who supported the DISCLOSE Act as a response to Citizens United. In a speech given on July 26th, Obama warned that “big corporations – even foreign-controlled ones” (!) can “spend unlimited amounts” on campaign ads. And “worst of all, they don’t even have to reveal who’s actually paying for the ads.  Instead, a group can hide behind a name like ‘Citizens for a Better Future,’ even if a more accurate name would be ‘Companies for Weaker Oversight.'” Zing. 

“These shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.”

As badass as it would be to have my own shadow group, Obama reminds that “millions of Americans are struggling to get by, and their voices shouldn’t be drowned out by millions of dollars in secret, special interest advertising.” The DISCLOSE Act “would simply require corporate political advertisers to reveal who’s funding their activities.” It would be the equivalent of all those “I’m John McCain and I approve this ad” bits. It’s the kind of thing that maybe could have saved Sandra Bullock a little embarrassment.

The bill even had an exemption for corporations which are big enough, like the NRA (check out an article on how the NRA, with constitutional gun rights practically locked up, is now shopping its $300 million political budget to other causes). Republicans threatened to filibuster, and it died in the Senate.

What? 

This is what I sent to Georgia Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. 

Dear Senator:

I am writing as a concerned Georgia voter to ask what the problem with the DISCLOSE Act could be? Why are Republicans in the Senate intent on not letting this bill be voted on? All I can see is that it helps the democratic process – it does not restrict ads, but requires that the sponsors of ads be listed. Perhaps this is my limited understanding or even a misunderstanding.

I am very concerned in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling that election cycles will become bidding wars between corporations flooding the airwaves with partisan, empty rhetoric.

Please address when you can.

Now, it’s possible that this new unrestricted spending will have some unanticipated results. Check out a Mediaite blog entry on a boycott of Target and Best Buy because of six-figure donations to a potentially anti-gay Minnesota Republican. There is hope, in this day and age of the blogger (that Sherrod business notwithstanding – potential lawsuit), that we have enough media watchdogs out there for a quick internet search to do our disclosing for us. There is hope that big donations coupled with good reporting will make us take a hard look at some strange political bedfellows, and then these corporations will have some explaining to do.  

And for people like you, and me, people who probably turn off the TV when those ads come on anyway, or who don’t get our political bread and  butter from them, there may be little danger. But the very presence of those ads implies their effectiveness (they’re expensive). And if they’re working, they’re working on somebody. And so education, and watchdoggy-ness, and vigilance, will be more important than ever.

Come on. You know the people I’m talking about. I mean heck I’m one part of the time myself. I don’t do enough of my own homework and every single race, and if I happen to see something on TV, especially if that something already aligns with my personal views, that stuff starts to set in. Will it make a difference (for better or worse) if I find out that the NRA paid for that ad? Or the ACLU? Or Target? Or McDonald’s? Or Starbucks, Apple, etc.?

Would it matter to you if an oil spill commercial was actually paid for by BP?

We need to not be lazy. And we need to help each other out with this stuff.

And we’re not just talking about Target getting their say like everyone else, but about how Target and its ilk can now afford to crowd out the other speakers if they so choose.

I know at least one of you reads The Week, which is like a blog in magazine form – good for us low-attention folk out there to get a lot of news in a short space. Well, The Week had two paragraphs on the failure of the DISCLOSE Act. The headline?

“Boring but important”

I think the Dems really blew it. If they had gotten one of those liberal communist Hollywood corporations to pay for a bunch of ads with Demi Moore taking her clothes off, disclosure would have been sexy again.

Finally:

It would be negligent to discuss Michael Douglas’s anxious white male poster boy status and not mention Falling Down. This movie came out in 1993, right after the Year of the Woman.

The exploits of Douglas’s “D-Fens” (get it?) include shooting up a McDonald’s clone because it’s no longer serving breakfast, walloping Latin thugs with a baseball bat, and telling a Chinese, I mean Korean, shopowner, you come to my country you can’t learn my language? In a particularly Tea Partyesque moment, he criticizes some construction workers, believing there’s nothing wrong with the street they’re tearing up, and that they’re only doing it to justify their inflated budgets. “I’m not economically viable!” becomes an ironic battle cry of our hero.

You can find this movie on YouTube, and studying the comments would be a lesson in itself. For instance, describing the Latin gang’s drive-by, some webshark wrote this: “[bleeping] lowlife primates killing random people cause some guy kicked their ass… problem is, this happens in real life.” Primates. Or, after D-Fens strolls through a park with alleged homeless vets and AIDS-afflicted in it: “homeless piece of shit got nothing, too bad there wasn’t a bomb inside the briefcase ready to go off as soon as it was opened.” There are others, including some fun ones the unreasonable expectations of the modern woman.

In the climax, D-Fens bemoans that he did everything right and was lied to by The Man. Robert Duvall’s kindly (and complacent) cop explains to him, “They lie to everybody. They lie to the fish.” Even though D-Fens is ultimately depicted as crazy, his many fans illustrate that, as with women, there is no particular year for the Angry Whitey, or Angry Anything Else, probably. He is of perennial vintage. And he is not afraid of public, if anonymous, personal disclosure. And he, and many others like him, including Sandra Bullock, is a big fan of public disclosure as well.

The only question is, do you get your point across through your publicist or your bag of assault weapons? We may scoff at this dichotomy, yet the point remains that they both did something.