Saturday, November 21, 2009

Darwin Awards for 2005 - a Proposed Amendment

I want to propose that the Darwin Awards for 2005 be amended to include the State of Texas.

In 2005 they amended their state constitution.

Here's the proposal they adopted:

Prop. 2 - The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.
Outcome: Adopted
Election date: 11/08/2005
Votes for: 1,723,782
Votes against: 536,913
Look at that carefully. What they were after, of course, is evident in the first part - a way to kill any hope of marriage for gay folk. And not only marriage, but domestic partnerships, as well - hence the "identical or similar to" bit.

Now read the second part, starting with "prohibiting," and you'll see that what they actually got was a prohibition of marriage entirely.

This means, of course, is that all marriage became illegal in Texas in 2005, and all children born since 2005 are officially bastards.

The challenger for the post of State Attorney General, Barbara Ann Radnofsky, is making hay of this.

Wish Molly Ivins were still alive to join in the chucklin'.

For a fuller report, check out:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nice to see you again, Mr. Hobbes

I saw in this morning’s paper that Hobbes’ Leviathan has just been translated into Hebrew.

I might have put that with my collection of things like “pieces of string too small to use,” but for the fact that Israel and I share a birthday (even if mine came eight years earlier). Maybe that’s why I’ve always had some interest in what goes on there.

In any case, I’m aware that for most of my lifetime Hebrew was spoken by too few people to warrant a translation of something this esoteric. You publish a book, somebody’s got to want to pay to read it. Norway has figured out it’s easier to have all their university students learn English than pay for everything to be translated into Norwegian. Hebrew, too, not that long ago, had only about a million speakers. If you wanted to read Leviathan, you read it in a European language.

Native speakers of Hebrew now number nine million and the scales have shifted. A Hebrew edition of Leviathan is now financially viable. Practical linguists take note and move on. Few others even do that much.

But this is no ordinary applied linguist you’re talking to. I’m also a sucker for conspiracy theories. I live by the maxim that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I anticipate foul play. I’ve known nefariousness. My shortwave is constantly tuned to trouble and scarcely a day goes by that I don’t exclaim, “Aha! I just knew it!”

My aha moment this morning came when I read the comment that the real reason Leviathan never saw Hebrew’s affectionate embrace was that the people who founded Israel wanted the young theocratic nation never to doubt that they, the children of Abraham, were carrying out God’s plan, and Hobbes, as we know, was concerned about keeping religion in its place.

The aha didn't last. That can’t be right about the initial motives for not translating Hobbes. 80% of Israel consists of non-religious folk, and the Zionists were overwhelmingly secular. Still, one has to consider that since its founding and despite its secular origins, Israel functions very much like a theocratic state. No non-orthodox marriage. No busses or trains on the sabbath. And not much luck in turning back the takeover of “Judea and Samaria” (i.e., the West Bank), an idea which would never have gotten off the ground and become the stumbling block it is to Jewish-Arab relations without the power of religion.

You might argue I’m making too big a deal of Hobbes. He’s the big daddy of political science because of his notion that we need to form social contracts and govern ourselves lest our lives remain “nasty, brutish and short” as they were in the pre-civilization wild. But others have surpassed him in furthering human rights and the pursuit of happiness. And his idea that it’s better to put up with an autocrat’s abuse than surrender to chaos doesn’t sit well. But we know that he wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, and from his perspective, keeping men’s passions in check was the greater challenge.

And what makes my ears perk up is the information that in 1666 the House of Commons went after Leviathan for its “atheism, blasphemy and profaneness.” The guy had something going for him, obviously.

Hobbes was not an atheist, actually. All he was doing was urging that, for the sake of proper governance, we needed to keep religion in check. “They who have no supernaturall Revelation to the contrary,” he wrote, (Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 40) "… ought to obey the laws of their own Soveraign, in the externall acts and profession of Religion…. "

Thanks to the Enlightenment and modern democratic thought, we have come to understand “the people” as our sovereign. Otherwise, the principle stands.

As one commentator to the Hebrew Leviathan story in this morning’s New York Times has pointed out, it was the polytheists who invented democracy. (See comment #7.) (And for more of this guy's ideas, see his blog.

The trouble with monotheism, Hobbes understood, is that those who buy into it believe they have to knock down your god and put theirs in its place. Check out the works of Papa Ratzi. You and I worry about health care. Benedict XVI has his tail in a knot over relativism.

Unlike the apparently trivial issue of how many folk speak Hebrew, whether we run our country on relativistic values or absolutist ones is no small matter. The universal golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is relativistic. It doesn’t say, “Do only the right thing.” It says, “Make judgments on the basis of what feels right to you.” Not what the Almighty or the College of Cardinals says. What you say.

I, for one, am delighted Hobbes will now be read in Hebrew. It is unlikely to hit the best seller lists, but it never hurts for the foundational texts of modern democracy to be revisited and distributed more broadly from time to time.

Here in America, we struggle constantly against religion. We’re losing at the moment. George Niederauer, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, riled up his Mormon friends in Salt Lake City and together they organized the campaign to remove the right of gays in California to marry. The Catholic Church then made it happen again in Maine.

They haven’t stopped there, of course. Now they’re working with another set of absolutist religionists holding health care in America hostage over abortion.

Well-intentioned folk, for the most part. All convinced their universal God wants them to step in and take away your rights as a citizen to decide for yourself how you will be governed.

Hobbes’ Leviathan is far too heavy going for the average person today. But, even if we get him now mostly in the Wikipedia version, it’s good to be reminded from time to time how much we owe to the the father of modern political theory.

Without his urging that we keep religion in check, just think where we might be.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whom Cares?

A friend wrote to tell me I was wrong-headed to fuss over the difference between who and whom. Who cares, he asked. No meaning is lost when the wrong form is used. Change is inevitable, he says. Let it go.

Who cares?

Who/whom cares indeed?

He chided me for being such a prescriptivist. Aren’t linguists supposed to be descriptivists instead?

Well yes and no.

Here’s my response to his note:

Dear X:

Just because there is no way to achieve complete sterility in the operating room doesn't mean you operate in a sewer.

I'm not asking for their heads to be removed. I'm expressing an esthetic preference. If you want to put beautiful china plates on Mickey Mouse plastic place settings, be my guest. But don't ask me to call it pretty. Or pretend I didn’t notice.

Descriptively speaking, there is a difference between written and spoken discourse. We are less fussy about the spoken language because we allow for all kinds of idiosyncratic verbal expression. And it's tacky as hell to interrupt somebody while they're talking to hound them on their grammar or word choices. If you want to say, "I spoke to all the people who I had been previously introduced to" instead of whom, it won't even register on my radar.

But when you're writing, and have time to edit your work, I'd really like you to capitalize the days of the week, make the sign on your door say Accounts Receivable and not Recievable, and learn not to say "between you and I...less people today than yesterday...the smoke went up the chimbley" and "irregardless."

I repeat. I don't want to remove your right to satisfying sex if you do these things. I just want to feel free to think of you as a lazy uneducated dolt.

I’m not asking you to join me in kvetching about the current tendency to use it's for its or day's for the plural of day. But why are you asking me to turn away from this slop?

What’s wrong with expecting young people to give up their seats to old people, children to learn please and thank you, and the next generation to see some value in learning a variety of spoken and written registers in their native language and follow the conventions? If you make the effort, a whole world of possibilities opens up to you when you understand the effect you have on the world around you when you follow the rules and when you break them. And what the difference is between breaking the rules for artistic effect and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them.

I love the fact that the English language has both...

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: and there is no health in us…”


“Jesus, I fucked up.”

Two different registers. Both good. But imagine how the first one would sound if it ran:

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheeps... and there ain't no health in us..."

The Chickens Don’t Feel Much Like Dancing

I’m fully aware that politics is the art of the possible. It’s not about doing the right thing, except when you can get away with it, but about doing the doable thing. Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not holding out for the full loaf when you can take half and run.

I also know that when you begin to lower your expectations, you begin celebrating small victories as big victories. They’re dancing in Washington at the moment, and calling this health care bill the House just passed a big victory. Biggest thing since social security. Whopper of a turn-around on the public care option.

You know that classic example of “mixed feelings” – when your mother-in-law goes over a cliff in your new Mercedes? That’s how I feel about this victory. (I’ll leave off the quotes. Let’s call it a victory.)

Finally, one half of my brain says, finally finally finally you democrats now allegedly running the country have done the right thing. You passed a health care bill and you supported this man Obama we all love and want to look good. Millions of Americans will be covered. Nobody kicked out for “pre-existing conditions” or for losing their job.

The other side of my brain is with Dennis Kucinich. Most democrats who voted no, along with all the Republicans-but-one, bought the Republican argument that this land with its 350 billionaires and its 2.5 million millionaires and its 44% of the world’s wealth and its endless billion dollar wars can’t afford to cover the uninsured thirty million folk. Dennis Kucinich voted no because he says it’s a lousy phoney bill, designed to make democrats look like they’re doing something when they’re not.

That old dilemma. Do you follow your principles? Or do you get practical?

I’ve been known to pass up half a loaf only to have to eat crow in the end. I want gay people to have the right to marry, not because it’s the most important thing in the world but because the frigging Mormons and frigging Catholics tell me we can’t. And I want not just the public option in health care. I want to throw the bums in the insurance industry out in the street and their hired hands in Congress with them. I’m with Dennis Kucinich here. Bring on the friggin revolution! You ain’t got principles, you ain’t got nuttin.

Have to pause briefly here for a quick aside. Is this all a moot point? Once this gets into the Senate, will they vote to allow states to opt out of the public option and gut the plan? Probably, given the number of senators who are insurance company whores. Maybe Dennis understands that and that’s why he’s decided to shout fire in the crowded theater. I really don’t know.

Then there’s the no-abortion provision. Great. Here we go again, America. The goddam catholic church is up to its old tricks again, trying to keep women barefoot and pregnant. No healthcare funding for abortions? Why are we still fighting this? Mr. Wall Street CEO sends his daughter off for a skiing vacation in Switzerland where her real purpose is a safe abortion in a first-rate hospital. His janitor’s daughter can jolly well do without. Government funding is a clerical matter for the rich; for the poor it’s the difference between getting to the shore and drifting out to sea. Why are we still allowing the rich to screw the poor like this?

OK, some of you catholic folk get annoyed at my catholic bashing. You want to remind me that the majority of catholics are in favor of abortions being covered by healthcare. It’s only the church fathers who are agin it.
In your pews/bulletins today, you’ll find a special flier/bulletin insert from the US Bishops Conference asking you to please contact your Representative and Senators immediately and urge them to fix these bills with pro-life amendments...
15,000 of these messages went out in your churches. If you’re not going to stand up for the living church, the one that’s all about love, charity, generosity and compassion, and kick these infallibility-junkies in the butt, who will?

The Stupak Amendment, it’s called, not only prevents new programs from providing health care to women needing abortions; it takes away rights they currently have by forbidding even plans patients would pay for with their own money. The pro-lifers had the democrats by the cajones and they squeezed. And the democrats, believing it was this bill or none at all, caved.

I mean seriously. No access to health care, even in the case of rape or incest? Try to go abroad (like in a Greyhound Bus) for an abortion and you go to jail. No IVF. No contraception. No treatment for ectopic pregnancy or medical anomalies during pregnancy.

The country is celebrating a great victory. Historic, they’re calling it. Obama may not lose the 2012 election after all. Whoopie.

We’ve kept the Republican foxes from the henhouse by tossing them a few chickens. Reasonable solution if you’re not a chicken.

Go ahead and dance, you guys that did all the work. I’m really happy 30 million Americans will now at long last have healthcare maybe.

Party on.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Give a Little, Get a Little – Not

OK, so it’s going to take a little longer. The good people of Maine – and growing up in New England I came to love Maine with a passion – have decided to take back the right of gays to marry. It’s a devastating setback. A clear majority win for the homophobes. In a democratic state. I don’t have the religious affiliation breakdown, but Maine is largely secular, I understand, even though the Catholic Church ran the show. It brings to 31 the number of states with anti-gay statutes. And it really feels like a kick in the gut.

Most gay organizations are accentuating the positives, the gay wins in the rest of the country. They are considerable. But I can’t take my eyes off this train wreck. Did I tell you it smarts?

All those young people who went to Maine to knock on doors. All those people who gave up mileage to help fly them there. All that money that could have done so much good in other places, all to fight a fear of sexual difference sanctified by cherry-picking religious folk. It’s all so damn senseless.

Gays and their growing number of allies are reduced to saying things like, “Well, we have to wait till the geezers die out.” Keep focusing, they say, on the stats. The 18-35 crowd. The future lies ahead.

For the nth time, yes, yes, yes. Homophobia will pass, just as racism and sexism are passing. But that’s true only if we keep up the pressure. Pick up and fight some more.

Which brings me to the real question. Since the result is pretty certain, we need to focus on how we get there. And there’s work to do there. There is so much infighting among gay groups. Won’t list them all, but I do want to mention one battle I used to be on the fence about, but no longer am. That’s the battle between the incrementalists and the hardliners. You know, those who want to “be sensible” and work this one tiny step at a time, giving a little here and hoping to gain more there in the end. And the hell-freezes-over folk.

That’s me. Cold day in hell camp. I am tired of reading that since we lost both in California and in Maine because people are afraid their children will be taught in schools that homosexuality is OK, we should work harder to convince the good Christian folk that we’re not after your children’s hearts and minds. We’re after equal rights.

That’s such a mistake. Of course we’re after your children’s hearts and minds. You don’t want your children to hear there are gay people? Well, tough shit, Sheila. We’re here and we belong and we are not going away.

I went to a medical center yesterday to pick up some forms for my partner. “Is this for you?” the nurse asked me. “No,” I said. “For my partner.” “Well tell him or her to be sure to …” She didn’t need me to be specific. “Him or her.”

Do you have any idea how good that feels? Back in the 60s I once wore a button, “How dare you assume I'm heterosexual?” That form of aggressive behavior doesn’t suit me any more. I don’t want to slap the faces of people I haven’t met yet.

I do, however, when I’ve been slapped, want to slap back. If the Christians can toss out the “Turn the Other Cheek” embarrassment that Jesus slipped into the Bible somehow, and advocate preemptive bombing of Iraq for God and Country, my advocating a little slapping back doesn’t seem like asking too much.

I remember when blacks used to walk up to me in the 60s and say, “I’m black and I’m proud.” It was a kind of initiation right into a club dedicated to ridding itself of internalized racism. Blacks had to go through that. Once I figured that out, my attitude changed from “Why are you pushing your black liberation in my face” to “Black and proud! Why the hell not! You tell ‘em, Jack.”

Please, please, please, can we sit at the big people’s table? Please, Mr. Catholic/ Mormon/ Southern Baptist Person, can we? We’ll promise to say nothing about being gay in the schools. Your children will never know who we are. You can go on teaching your children there is something wrong with being gay. Only please let us have the right that you have to form a civil union with a person of our choosing? Please?

Man, even joking about it makes me want to retch.

Please let us send our Jewish children to public schools. We’ll tell them to pray to Jesus. We’ll make them hide their star of David necklaces.

Please let us send our little Negro children to public schools. We’ll straighten their hair first and make them whiten their skin.

Please let us gay people send our kids to school with yours. We’ll make sure they never let out the secret they have two mommies or two daddies.

Yeah, right.

When hell freezes over.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Singing through the Swine Flu

I’ve long since given up trying to defend the German sense of humor. They make the Mercedes and the BMW and the People’s Car. They do Christmas like nobody else in the world. And nobody fries Bratwursts and roasts potatoes like the germanophones. So what if their humor tends to suck.

If you don’t know what I mean, let me give you an illustration.

You may remember Max Raabe, that guy with the skinny tuxedoed Fred Astaire look who sings with the Palast Orchestra reproducing the big band music of the 30s.

One of the songs in his repertoire is “Kein Schwein ruft mich an.” Which you can hear on YouTube, if you’re interested: Click here.

Translating it only adds to the misery of German relations with the English-speaking world. Literally it means, “No pig calls me up.” “No pig” is a crude way of saying “not a single damn person.” The second line goes, "Keine Sau interessiert sich für mich." (“No sow is interested in me.”) If this were done in English, it would probably go something like…
My phone never ever rings
Nobody, but nobody seems to care about me.
or some such.

To German ears, that’s a lousy translation. All the fun goes right out of it when you take out the pig as the subject of the sentence.

Different strokes for different folks.

But it’s not Max Raabe that I had in mind when I spoke of dumb-ass humor. Raabe simply provides the set-up. No, it’s a Swiss guy. A tenor by the name of Leo Wundergut. I understand he does a mean “Nessun dorma,” but for purposes of illustration, here he is yodeling with his buddies. Kind of.

Now that you know who he is, check out another YouTube piece where he sings “Kein Schwein steckt mich an.” (No pig gives me (the flu).) You’ll recognize the melody and you can hear it’s a deliberate play on words. Turns out there are all sorts of things you can do once you go down the path of putting pigs on the telephone.

Second line of the Swine Flu song is, “Keine Sau infiziert sich bei mir.” (No sow catches anything from me.)

Dumb. Pure unadulterated dumb.

The good news is it can’t last. As one commentator wrote:
ein paar monate groß in den medien. *puffff* und keine sau erinnert sich mehr an die schweinekrippe! (a couple months of big media attention and then poof – “no sow” will remember the swine flu any more.)
In the meantime, though, I guess there will always be people who, when presented with opportunity, will pick it up and smear it all over their body.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Woman in Berlin (A Review)

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953, it caused such a stir that its author insisted it not be published again as long as she was still alive. Her recent passing, as well as a considerable culture change in attitudes toward sex, gender relations and war responsibility finally enabled its return, first in Germany in 2003, and in the English-speaking world in 2005.

A Woman in Berlin
is a diary, the day-to-day account of a 34-year-old woman’s will to survive the invasion of Berlin by Russian troops between April and June, 1945.

It’s not hard to see why it would not become a best-seller so soon after the war. Too many people were rebuilding their lives. If you were German, the last thing you needed was a reminder of a time when rape and pillage was the norm. If you were not German, there were too many other narratives calling for your attention. Why would you stop to focus on an account of German suffering.

All accounts of people in conflict situations are Rohrschach tests of their readers’ experience. German men, we are told, hated this story because it revealed them as weak, no longer able to defend their women. Russians justifiably complain there is too little background information on the rape of Russia by the German invaders. Such information, while not justifying the brutality in Berlin, would at least help to explain their rampage.

Had I read A Woman in Berlin thirty years ago, I would have felt obliged to tie it to the struggle between my German self and my American self and focused on the question of German guilt and responsibility. Time has put that struggle to rest for me, though, and I am a somewhat less subjective reader. I see the book as a powerful contribution to feminist history, and believe that’s true no matter where you’re coming from. (That's still subjective, of course, and the international women's movement, I suspect, was the last thing the author had on her mind.)

It’s about a woman who realized she could not escape the mass rapes in the first days of the invasion, sought out a Russian with power and paid with sex for his protection. I don’t have the filters that led people of earlier times to judge and condemn. On the contrary, she comes across to me as a person of remarkable intelligence and courage. Caught by surprise in a raging river, some people might accept drowning as fate. Others look out for paddles and something to float on, and aim straight for the rapids.

Not that all women need be judged by how well they imitated her course of action. Not all women had the resources she had - a smattering of Russian, a belief in entitlement to life and the initiative that comes with a sense of self-responsibility. But those characteristics, to push the raging river metaphor a bit, merely put her in the boat. She still had to face the rapids on her own.

If you are shocked or distressed by tales of rape, you might miss the fact that this story is really about coping with vulnerabilities, sexual vulnerability being only one of many. To read this woman’s story is to become convinced that if you survive it’s because you are able to gather enough nettles by the roadside, and make do with potato mash, and rancid butter, when you can get even that. You haul your water up several flights of stairs and live without electricity, and with soldiers entering at will, standing on the back of your sofa and defecating in your living room. The question, with all due respect for those who fear being duped again, as we once were with Hitler's diaries, is not whether this happened. Of course it did. The question is why write about it and why read about it in years to come.

The quick answer is you write about it if you are fortunate enough to be able to channel your grief and fear and misery that way. And you read about it if you are fortunate enough to understand that nothing about the human condition need be shied away from. You will have to provide your own answers, if those are insufficient.

To read a personal narrative of this nature is to face another question. To what degree does one judge it on its literary merits, to what degree on its utility as insight into the human condition. Those are never entirely mutually exclusive categories, but you find yourself at one moment focusing first on one, then on the other. I read the book in part because it is Berlin history and because I know the kind of people who inhabit the book, including women not that different from the author. It’s not unlike discovering a family album and realizing as you turned the pages that your family had secrets you never knew and were never supposed to know. Discovering the writer understood how to arc a story was icing on the cake.

Because I had read the criticism first, from the cruel and stupid “how dare a German seek sympathy” criticism to the fuss about whether the story was authentic, I found myself reading defensively. I wanted to like this woman. Once I realized how much I was coming to respect her, I began to worry I was being conned, and began to look for chinks in her hero armor. She gets a bit superior at times, dividing the world into people with class on the one hand and pig farmers on the other. But it doesn’t take long to realize she is using everything in her armory to survive. Also, to her credit, she admits her shame in once celebrating German victories in Russia with full knowledge that the Russian people were being brutalized. Her journalist’s eye spots the weakness in people and she is unforgiving, but ultimately she judges herself by the same standard. She manages to poke fun at the German propensity for following orders – “The soldiers had trouble storming the train station because they had not bought platform tickets first.” And at the same time she displays another German vice, Sachlichkeit (dispassion), and makes you see its upside. That’s an understatement. The dispassion revealed in her self-description is no doubt why she lived to be an old woman.

When I was in my early teens, one of our neighbors returned from the Korean War, and I had my first encounter with a person traumatized by horror. His wife used to come to my mother for comfort. He regularly woke up screaming, and she was afraid he might hurt her. I was not supposed to be listening, but ours was a very small house. And my mother used to relay the stories to my father. “Poor woman, she’s got it tough,” they would say to each other, not knowing how else to respond. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not in anybody’s vocabulary. Eventually the couple divorced.

The guy became an object of fascination to me, and he would let me hang out with him whenever he was outside tinkering with his car. Once I drummed up the courage to ask him about the war. “You’re too young to understand,” he said. “Some things you just can’t talk about.”

By the time I met a concentration camp survivor some time later and saw the number tattooed on her arm, I had learned it was not polite to ask people to talk about things that might embarrass them. By age fourteen I had learned there were some things one either picked up indirectly or not at all.

I know parents have to do that to their kids or they won’t be able to take them out of the house. But because we live with those strictures, it seems to me, we ought to celebrate each time somebody crosses the line of taboo and reveals what we are told ought to be hidden.

The author wanted not to be identified. The title page reads: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City – A diary – by Anonymous.

In recent years the Korean and Chinese women pressed as girls into prostitution by the Japanese military in World War II are crossing the same line Anonymous crossed. The time is right now for them to “come out.” Smash the closet door and force the world to stop shaming them for things they had no part in creating. You may want to say that Anonymous is more of an Everywoman than a member of an abused class. Or you may want to take the feminist stand that being a woman is being a member of an abused class. In peacetime, we can argue over where the line is between fact and rhetorical excess.

In wartime, though, just as when we say “doctor” most people imagine a male being, when we say victims of war, we ought to think first of the women.

* * *

261 pages in its Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Co.) First American edition, 2005. Translated by Philip Boehm with a foreword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and an introduction by Antony Beevor.