Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why I am an American

If, after reading this title, you suppose that this is a patriotic screed you will be excused. You will be wrong, but you will be excused. If I read a title: "Why I am a Christian", or "Why I am a Lesbian", (neither of which would be true) I too would expect some sort of argumentation to follow. It's natural. But what I will write about here is nothing like that. This post concerns only linguistics. Think about it: Both 'Lesbian' and 'Christian' are qualities, while 'America' and 'Lesbos' are places.

I want to explain why we here in the United States have arrogantly grasped for ourselves the quality of being American, when certainly Argentineans, Canadians and all the many peoples in between on this side of our planet would seem to have an equal claim on the term. When traveling to other countries I used to be reluctant to say yes when asked "Are you American?". Often I would just reply "Yes, I'm from the States." I thought it sounded more humble, and I like that quality. But on reflection it is easy to see that Mexico consists of united states, just as we do, so that's not a very good answer either; what makes us think we are The States? So the thing is, there's just no good way around this problem. I have quite given up, and now just reply "Yes, I'm American." Let there be an end to this humility.

The forming of adjectives from nouns is actually a trickier business than one might at first think. If I am from Australia I have a pretty easy job: tack an 'n' on the end and you're done. Simple as pie. You're Australian; easy. If you're from Romania, ditto. Costa Rica, ditto, you are Costa Rican.

Now give a moment's thought to Canada. For some unknown reason they don't follow the pattern. They're not 'Canadan', like every other country name that ends in a, they are Canadian, they have, it seems to me, and somewhat pretentiously, added an extra fillip to the standard formula, which goes to show you that even the seemingly humble Canadians are not entirely without a sense of extravagance—perhaps the French influence.

If one hails from Britain, one becomes British, in the same way that an imp, having a good day, might become impish, or a ripening apple might become reddish, a state of being that implies, hints at a condition, not definitely stating it. The English are rightly credited with understatement. And further, this reticence is often carried to the further extreme of simple truncation as in, "Yes, I'm a Brit." And what are we to make of Japanese, Chinese, and even Taiwanese and Lebanese? The linguistic mind boggles. But the real trouble is this:

What can we call someone from the United States? United Statesian? Doesn't exactly roll around on the tongue does it? USian? I don't think so. How do you pronounce it? So you see the problem.

We needed a term and we took it. Get over it. And of all the places in the western hemisphere, the continents of the Americas, that might have a claim on the term—whether one likes what we do, or dislikes what we do—it would be hard to argue that we're not The Americans. Which will certainly put a shiver down the spines of Canadians and Europeans (who by rights ought to be Europan), many of whom speak pejoratively of American Exceptionalism. What they may not realize is that by assigning us this judgmental phrase they simply confirm the term we have assumed, American, since everyone knows who they're talking about.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Media Minutes

Brought to me through ESPN:

I recently watched The St. Louis Cardinals play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball had never interested me much until I started hanging out in bars—which contain experts. Now, with their help, I'm beginning to get the hang of it. The game is considerably more subtle than I had imagined. But the thing that most interested me was when the action ceased for the Seventh Inning Stretch. During this traditional break (baseball is nothing if not tradition) a quite large woman who looked like Kate Smith but sang more like tweety-bird belted out the national anthem. I had not been aware that a person of such bulk could reach such high and sharp notes. Imperceptibly, I scrunched down on my stool, just a little embarrassed for her.

Near her on the infield grass was a young man who served no obvious purpose, but he silently, and reverently mouthed the words along with the singer. I believe he held his hand over his heart. The camera panned her and him first, and then other parts of the stadium showing rough-tough baseball players, obviously infused with patriotism, standing pensively. It was a moving moment in the same way that wax museums bring to mind the souls of people who no longer move, those who will indefinitely evoke some grand aspect of their past.

This diorama made me wonder just why is it that professional sports—a quite profitable private (not to mention monopolistic) enterprise—feel themselves obliged to project such still-life patriotism. And the same can be said of other sports not even excluding NASCAR automobile racing. The more I thought about it the more I realized that sports themselves are enactments, miniatures of life, small dramas that illustrate proper morals and, at their best, if only occasionally, good sportsmanship.

Then a dark shadow passed across my mind and I wondered if perhaps this waxen patriotism might not be part of a unwritten deal with our government which grants them this monopoly, a deal to promote right thinking and good citizenship among the masses and, lately, to give just a slight boost to multiculturalism. But then I thought, Willi, you're old and getting cynical.

In the bottom of the ninth, the pirates won 5-4. All cheered.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Be careful what you wish for: Royalty

To be frank I care little about the release from prison of the convicted Lockerbie bomber sent home from Scotland to Libya to die of pancreatic cancer. But an article concerning it, in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, caught my attention because it crisply expresses a more fundamental concern that, as an old person, (75) I have been noticing more and more often here in the United States.

Janet Daley, in writing of the different ways in which Gordon Brown, the Labor Prime Minister of Britain and David Cameron, the Tory, Shadow Prime Minister, have spoken of the release of this prisoner, has clearly encapsulated a new sort of political relationship between heads of government and the populace who vote them in or out of office. (It is also worth noting that the British seem to have a command of the English language that American journalism can only aspire to.)

She says that Brown "has been hit hard while Mr. Cameron has benefited." And she goes on to explain that the non-obvious reason for that is that Cameron seemed more genuine when speaking of it than Brown:

There is now an accepted (if largely unconscious) compact between political leaders and the electorate: to refuse to speak to the people, to fail to give them the common courtesy of an explanation, an opinion, an expression of feeling, anything at all to indicate what you really think about a matter of national concern, is no longer acceptable. For this is the truth about modern politics: it is seen (constitutional purists will disapprove) as a relationship between the people and their leaders of an almost domestic kind.

There is a strong ring of truth to this notion, and it is I think more noticeable here in the United States than it is in Britain: we (the people) lately seem to wish for a relationship with our heads-of-state that resembles that which the British have traditionally reserved for their Royalty. This would certainly surprise the founders of our country.

If a hurricane occurs we want our President to personally console us as well as to take charge of handling the disaster. The governor of the state in which the disaster occurred, and in whom responsibility is constitutionally vested, is sidelined, excused or, at the very most, seen as an assistant to the Royal Manager.

When a recession occurs, it seems to belong to the President, and the Secretary of the Treasury plays the bit part of assistant to the Royal Manager who takes as his role that of the confidence builder who bucks us up, and encourages us to see the crisis through without being discouraged.

One day I noticed these several articles concerning President Barak Obama in RealClearPolitics; they illustrate this tendency: Is He Weak, Obama Saved the Economy, The President Seems Lost.

We seem to have deified our presidency in some needful way. We have become a nation for whom feelings have become paramount, a people who require a National
Shrink as much or even more than an Executive. Individual rectitude and assignment of responsibility among States and other formerly primary elements of government seems to have melted away.

Be careful what you wish for…

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Be careful what you wish for: the Professor Gates affair

To any grownup person there can't be much doubt about what actually happened: after a long flight back from China, Professor Gates, not a spring chicken anymore, was tired. On top of that he had the flu or a cold, always aggravating. Then, he finally gets home, and can't get in the damn house and has to break into it. In other words, he now feels like shit and is probably looking to get a beer and go to bed. But then, to top it all off, a few minutes later he's followed in by a policeman who wants to know what he's doing there.

Now he's just about at the end of his tether. He's a well-known Harvard professor, and black, which, in the state he's in when confronted by this white policeman, amplifies his angst to the point of explosion. So, for him, it now gets visceral, never mind that he's an intellectual, this is deeper than that. He mouths off; "contempt of cop" as they say. All of this is as clear and understandable as the sun coming up in the morning.

The woman who phoned in to 911 was asked by the dispatcher whether the intruders were African American. She said that she didn't know and that, by the way, she wasn't sure if they were breaking and entering or not, or if anything was even wrong; she was calling as a precaution. The police sergeant, responding to the call apparently asked the dispatcher over the radio whether she had any information on the race of the reported malefactors. She told him one might possibly be Hispanic, but she wasn't sure. At the house, Gates, after mouthing off, was arrested on something like disturbing the peace, handcuffed, taken to jail, photographed and then released.

As to racial profiling, in spite of what has been written about the nice policeman, a well-thought-of trainer against this very thing, there was, and is, profiling of all sorts going on in this encounter: Why did the 911 dispatcher ask about race in the first place? Why did the sergeant, on his way to the scene, inquire of the dispatcher about race? It seems quite obvious that this is a factor built right into the system. And perhaps for good reason. In a pretty ritzy neighborhood, the presence of someone who doesn't ordinarily live in such a place is indicative, useful information.

I'm 75 years old and I find myself being profiled all the time, but in a good way. I'm often given a break, and deference, for the very reason that I am an old person. And, no matter what they say, with the perspective on reality that age gives one, I can assure you that profiling for security reasons in airports goes on routinely, though invisibly, right alongside of the frisking of a little old white lady with her shoes off, just so that no one can say that profiling is going on. It would be silly for profiling not to be done in this instance, and in innumerable others. It's useful.

My first academic experience was in a Catholic grade school. The teachers were nuns in full habit. While not routine, it was not unusual to be wrapped over the knuckles with a ruler for malfeasance, often for the offense of "contempt of nun". And there were other, more subtle, corrective and coercive measures applied routinely as well. As a young student one is faced every day with uniforms and coercion, clearly separating those who run the show from those who don't.

On an airplane, the captain is the captain, and he wears a uniform that lets everyone know that. The cabin attendants do as well. And nowadays, with higher security, they have a certain amount of coercive power which one ignores at one's peril.

I have never been in the military, and that's probably a good thing. But my understanding is that a clear distinction between officers and men (generically speaking of course), is maintained, and respect—even if feigned—is a strict requirement. The military seems to think this ranking is necessary for discipline. No doubt why they wear uniforms which have the distinguishing characteristics that form a hierarchy.

Now we come to the police. I have been confronted by the police for minor traffic violations. I was, I suppose by my early training, respectful and polite, and of course I'm white too which certainly didn't hurt anything. So I was never arrested and handcuffed. Nevertheless I did feel uncomfortable and somewhat helpless as, in the encounter, the officer seemed to speak a special language taken from a police manual that inhibited ordinary conversation; he asks the questions; you do the answering. Period.

In spite of never having been arrested I did once take it into my head to protest a ticket and so I went to court. There, the judge had on a robe, though he was obviously an ordinary civilian underneath, and he was seated on an elevated platform, while I was at a lower level with the hoi polloi. Once again, here was a uniform, and a certain subtle, coercive demand for respect.

This litany of authority could go on to include pharmacists, firemen, "holy men" of one sort or another, doctors, and many others, and not excluding professors when they are lecturing. The point is that society seems to have found that in certain situations things work more efficiently when a hierarchy is established. This consensus has been weakening, probably since the sixties, and constraints are being routinely applied to limit discipline and to restrict coercive power. The jury is out, weighing the efficacy of these changes. For now, society seems more and more tolerant of aberrational behavior and ever more set on resolving "issues" verbally or psychologically. An extreme example, but not ridiculous, consider the attempt at verbally coercing Iran out of an atomic bomb. Good luck to all.

Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Be careful what you wish for 1: energy independence

Let us imagine, just for a moment, that unlikely scenario in which the United States and its Allies, in their energy needs, become completely independent of OPEC. All the grasping oil kings: the Chavezs, the Saudis, the clerics of Iran, and the other troublemakers, who previously were floating calmly about in their elegant, regal yachts on a sea of black gold have had to come to shore since that oil is now worth about… Oh, 18 cents a barrel. We still use it for grease and the occasional kerosene lantern on our green camping trips.

We are now completely powered by sunlight beamed down from gigantic collectors orbiting in space, or by nuclear fusion, or by vast forests of slowly spinning windmills, or by some other magical, green technology. Detroit has been reborn; now we all drive around helter-skelter in cheap, little, wheeled, electrical marvels manufactured by American Motors, an amalgamation reborn from the ashes of GM, Ford and Chrysler. Everyone in the country has a few shares; you're given 100 when you're born.

Is this great or what?

The Arabs, and all the other former malefactors, are poor as church mice and no longer jet around to those conferences at which they used to set the price for our oil. They're back to camels. Unfortunately they had become so dependent on our largess that they failed to learn how to do anything useful. But we send them checks now and then. We can afford it and we're all brothers under the skin, after all.

But ask yourself, what is it precisely that poor people, getting welfare, do best? You're right! Procreate. The demographics of youthful male society had been getting unbalanced with ours before, but now they're producing young guys exponentially, just as fast as we're producing power. And there seems nothing much for all these guys to do. But they sit around in their coffee shops and grumble about those rich Americans who have nothing better to do, "than make money and keep us poor."

"Omar, have you seen that latest playboy. Disgusting!" Omar, not sure whether to admit he had seen it, finally shook his head sadly, then agreed, and noted that The Faith is not spreading as it should.

Now ask yourself, What are Omar and crew doing now? Think about it. Here's a clue: They're not playing cards.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The New York Times is my homepage

The Times is full of useful information. I find it without peer in the newspaper world, and I read a lot of newspapers. I visit the site at least once a day, sometimes more. Besides that, and irrespective of content, its format, its style, is in my opinion the best on the web; the fonts are carefully chosen, both for headlines and for text, in a such a way that I don't continually have to zoom in or zoom out, even with a high resolution screen, and it is pleasantly arranged to boot.

You might ask, don't I know that The Times is biased? Of course I do. I'm easily right of center politically. But why shouldn't it be so? It's their newspaper. Scanning their front page, the paper conveniently make looking through the headlines for things that interest me easy; it's child's play to detect the drivel before being sucked into the article. Very little practice is required. These headlines resemble crystal-sprinkled traffic cones on a great field of black asphalt. One does not have to be in the upper quintile of IQ to easily make this discrimination. I simply avoid articles in which I already know what they are going to tell me.

But every once in awhile, when I need a chuckle, I bump into one of these cones on purpose, just for the exhilaration of it—how crazy are they now? With luck, this can put a smile on your face that can last for several hours. I hit paydirt in this way yesterday with a story written, fittingly, by Louise Story: A Rich Education for Summers (After Harvard).

Now, right off the bat, just by reading the headline, you know that Larry Summers is going to get the stuffing beat out of him, again. Larry needs to resign himself to the uncomfortable fact that on the two coasts he is, and will remain, a pariah. He probably already has.

Louise writes:

Mr. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president who is now the chief economic adviser to president Obama, earned nearly $5.2 million in just the last of his two years at one of the world's largest funds,… [H]e worked there just one day a week.

Bam. Take that Larry. Ready for more?

Mr. Summers joined the hedge fund world after his tempestuous, five-year term as the president of Harvard came to an unhappy end in February 2006, after a statement he made that women might lack an intrinsic aptitude for math and science.

Louise, just shy of slavering now, is giving us the juicy irony that at least women didn't fuckup the entire economy of the world as did Larry and his close associates. Here, she not only sticks it in, but she twists it, quite discombobulating Larry's stuffing.

It seems that after Harvard Larry applied for a job at D. E. Shaw, a hedge fund company. Though he was considered a "marquee hire," at his initial interview for the somewhat geeky firm, "where jeans, sweat shirts and sandals are common," the former Secretary of the Treasury was asked to solve math puzzles. It appears that he quite impressed the geeks interviewing him. Now this is a golden nugget of information that I had not expected to find; interesting in its own right. They weren't sure that he could still do math. Louise continues:

It is a quicksilver business and wildly lucrative. Mr. Shaw is said to be worth $2.7 billion…

If Louise thinks that a net worth of $2.7 billion is wildly lucrative, what must she think about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? Doesn't she read? $2.7 billion isn't even a round off figure compared to the numbers I see in the paper every day now, usually ending in trillions. She does like her adverbs and adjectives.

[Larry's] arrogant personal style that turned off some Harvard colleagues seemed to evaporate [at] Shaw…

Of course it did, since he was no longer surrounded by the fuzzy wuzzies at Harvard.

Mr. Summers traveled to Dubai for a series of meetings with Shaw's marketing staff and potential investors. Bankers from across the region flew in for the event. Mr. Summers spoke at several lavish dinners…

In December, he attended the firm's annual holiday party, held in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, beneath the giant model of a blue whale.

If one is it all familiar with Dubai, and still under the illusion that a meeting of bankers there could be less than lavish, well… And it seems that Larry attended the firm's annual holiday party that was held at a museum. That's big news.

The other thought that this article left me with is that Louise, in her scorn of Larry Summers, seems completely to have ignored Tim Geithner, the now Secretary of the Treasury who, supposedly, is running the show in Washington. Larry would have been, well,… too visible. I, for one, hope that Larry and Tim are just as smart as can be. Having read dozens of articles on the state of the global economy, I confess I haven't the slightest idea how to fix it. Nor, it seems to me, have the myriad writers who criticize the government's every move, but don't really have a viable solution of their own. Go Larry!

As I neared the end of the article, I was not only feeling sorry for Larry, I was beginning to feel sorry for Louise. Dear, you need to get out more. I know you don't make a great deal of money at the Times, but you can probably afford a truly lavish dinner at La Grenouille for about 100 bucks, 200 if you take a friend, and 300 if you split a bottle of wine. It's not out of the question. And it will do you good.