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…