Monday, December 14, 2009

Let Men Their Songs Employ

I'm sure I've complained about this before.  I find the current passion for verbal political correctness grating, if only because it produces such ugly English.  I ran up against this again last week, singing Christmas carols.

I've given up on Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, where the line "She bore to men a saviour" has been corrected to "She bore to us a saviour."  Which doesn't sound all that bad.  But this year our caroling director decided that it was just too, too politically incorrect to sing, "Let men their songs employ," in Joy to the World.  We were supposed, she said, to sing, "Let all their songs employ."

Well, I'm not a-gonna do it.  (I'm also not going to sing, "The Lord has come."  The line is, "The Lord is come," and that's what I sing.)   The beauty of this song is the line of its poetry, taken from Psalm 98 in that most politically incorrect of documents, the King James Bible; and trying to sing, "Let all their songs employ" is like biting down into a piece of fudge and cracking your tooth on a rock.  It's the right number of syllables but it feels wrong.  I am (believe it or not) a feminist; but I'm also an English major, and I refuse to disinfect my favorite Christmas carols like this.  I won't sing Good Christian People, Rejoice, either - besides, it doesn't scan.

We're missing an opportunity for some historical perspective here, and a little comparative linguistics.  One of the English language's annoying  characteristics (to a feminist, at least) is that it has no gender neutral pronoun.  You can't refer impersonally to a person or class of persons without implying gender, usually male gender.  According to Wikipedia, "most Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and a number of Niger-Congo languages" do not have a gender-neutral pronoun (who else is there??), and use the masculine pronoun as the general.  (I thought I recalled gender neutrality of a sort in both French and German; but it's been a long time since I studied either.)  Until the French Revolution, and its call for general equality, nobody in Europe complained publicly about this; but it's now very fashionable to insist that we not use the masculine pronoun as the general, because it is sexist and promotes discrimination.  

To quote the Wikipedia article on this point:
Patriarchal societies with genderless languages, such as Chinese, demonstrate that gendered pronouns are not a prerequisite for inequality to exist.

(Oh, Chinese.  That's who else.)  According to Wikipedia again, there have been a number of attempts to produce a gender neutral pronoun (I like hir, myself - Larry Niven used it in Ringworld), none of which have ever stuck.  Our languages are wired very deeply into our brains, it seems.

In pre-industrial Europe, the general pronoun was the masculine partly because most of the actions of any significance were, in fact, taken by men.  I don't necessarily approve of this; but it was so.  And we can't really evaluate how far we've come toward the demands in Mary Wollstoncraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) unless we look back at where we were then, when women were not allowed to vote, hold property, or become educated.  

But I digress.  This isn't a defense of women's rights.  This is a plea that we should find a way to respect everyone's rights without destroying the beauty of our language and the astonishing poetry it can produce.  We need the beauty of the poetry, too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Schizophrenic Republicans

OK, this is it.  The Republican party is officially talking out of both sides of its mouth.  Today's business news proves it.

In one article from the AP, Obama administration extends bailout program, several Republicans urge strongly that the unspent portion of the $700 billion TARP funds "should be devoted exclusively to curbing the country's soaring budget deficits," instead of putting it into a jobs program (tax breaks for hiring new employees, increased small business lending, and an infrastructure program) as the administration proposes.

In a second article from the AP, House vote raises taxes to pay for extending tax breaks, Republicans object to proposed tax increases, which would pay for extending a number of miscellaneous tax breaks by increasing the penalties on international tax cheats (nobody objects to that!) and by taxing fees earned by investment managers as ordinary income (top rate 35%) instead of capital gains (15%).  

Republicans argued that the tax increase would reach far beyond Wall Street, hitting real estate investment funds across the country. Instead, Republicans said, the tax breaks should be financed by federal borrowing, increasing the budget deficit.
So - it's OK to increase the budget deficit to protect the favorable tax treatment of some of the richest people in the country, but it's not OK to increase the budget deficit by helping get unemployed Americans into work.

Do these guys ever actually listen to what they're saying, or do they just pick talking points off the list, as the spirit moves them??  I understand that the national Republican Party, as an organization (I except various individual Republican politicians), has no interest in the welfare of this country and its citizens at all - its only interest is in getting back into power.  But do they really think that this form of "white man speak with forked tongue" will do that??

Monday, December 07, 2009

Memories of Cal - Smyth Fernwald

The U.C. Alumni Association has a discussion thread going on LinkedIn called "what did you do while you were at Cal, other than go to class?"  I've posted a couple of notes there, but the exchange has got me thinking, and I think I'll put some of those memories up here, too.

Going to Cal was tremendously exciting to me.  I'd literally never been away from my family before, and here I was, living by myself in a dormitory, sharing a room with a stranger!  I didn't live in any of the dorms you see at Cal now, certainly not in any of the classy new ones with wireless Internet and actual interior decoration.  The dorms I lived in, called Smyth Fernwald, aren't dorms any more - they're student family housing and they have been extensively remodeled!  Trust me.  No modern families would live in those rooms. 

The Smyth Fernwald complex was unique because of the location:  it was and still is at the extreme top of Dwight Way, a solid mile from the Bancroft and Telegraph intersection (and probably a couple of hundred feet difference in elevation!).  The last block up that hill was steep enough to give small cars a problem; it certainly gave hoofing students a stiff climb.  A geological web site I found suggests that the old buildings were torn down in 1999 because of seismic problems; they were right on the fault scarp for the Hayward Fault!  I never did athletics at Cal, but walking back and forth to the dorms kept me pretty fit.  There was a shuttle bus, but it didn't run out of class hours or on weekends.

I started at Cal in the fall of 1963, and the dorms were still segregated - women in one building, men in another.  I don't think co-ed dorms evolved for another 10 years.  The Smyth-Fernwald buildings were U-shaped, two long 2 story wings connected by a lobby and lounge at one end.  Women lived in three two-wing buildings; men lived in a single building, Smyth Hall, with three wings in a W.  Persons of the opposite gender were allowed only in the lounges, under close supervision by the building housemother.  You went through a permanently locked door to get from the living wings to the lounge.  You signed in and out when you entered or left the dorms; on weeknights you had to be back in by 10 or 11 (this time may be wrong), on weekends you had till 2:30 AM.  After that the doors were locked, and you had to ring and wake the housemother to get in - or climb through the window of an accomodating friend.

The rooms were just large enough for two single beds, two small desks, and two modest closets.  They had two double-hung windows.  I think I remember steam heaters.  I don't think they had telephones (I'm not totally sure of this); if you wanted a telephone you used the pay phone in the lounge.  Communal bathrooms and showers were down the hall.  The rooms were painted one of four pastel colors - pink, blue, green, or yellow.  You decorated your room with anything you could attach with a pin - tape was verboten because it took the paint off.  Draped madras bedspreads were fashionable curtains, and one of my roommates went in for a draped fishnet dyed hot pink.  At the time it seemed tremendously romantic and exciting, but as I think back now, the place was a dump, the paint was applied thinly, the bathrooms were Soviet (although they did mostly work).  The communal bathrooms meant that residents regularly marched up and down the hall in varying states of undress, so any male visitors to the living floor (workmen, family members) were supposed to be preceded by a female, loudly announcing, "Man on the floor!"

Dorm residents had a meal ticket that entitled them to three squares a day in the dorm cafeteria, except for Sunday nights.  Because we were so far from the campus, I think I recall that we could use our ticket for lunch in the campus cafeteria; most dormies had to go home for their ticket lunch.  I was having lunch in the cafeteria on campus on November 22, 1963, when one of my fellow Smyth dormies set her lunch tray down on the table next to me and announced flatly, "They just shot the president."  I can't recall her last name but her first name was Marsha, and I can still see her face.

Sunday nights you were on your own for food.  I remember walking down the hill on Sunday nights to a pizza joint on Telegraph which even I recognized as dubious (but it was cheap!), for a slice and a coke.  Then I'd walk back up to the dorm and listen to old episodes of The Shadow being rebroadcast on a local radio station.  The pizza joint didn't survive my tenure at Cal; the space is now occupied by Amoeba Music.

I remember the food at the dorm cafeteria as pretty ghastly, but it was probably just standard steam-table fare.  Unlike the campus cafeteria, I have no special memories of the Smyth cafeteria, except this:  they used to serve red snapper on Fridays, fried and breaded (these were still the days when Catholics didn't eat meat on Friday), and I still won't eat red snapper if I have a choice of any other fish.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

More on Afghanistan

So we're sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  But we'll start pulling them out in 18 months.  I expected better than this from the president; but it is a difficult and complex situation.  Back in October I thought through some of the issues with sending an army into Afghanistan, and you could have concluded from that, that I didn't think we should.  So now I'll look at some of the other arguments.

The first and biggest argument is:  the United States made this mess, the United States ought to clean it up.  You wouldn't let your ten-year-old walk away from a broken window with the argument that he had other things he needed to concentrate on.  That's roughly the position being taken by the folks who say, bring the troops home, we need to spend the money on health care / jobs / climate change / fill-in-the-blank.  It's true that we actually had a reason to invade Afghanistan (unlike Iraq); but the fact is we invaded.  And now some people argue that we can't afford it, we have responsibilities at home, etc.   Yeah, but we invaded.  We broke the window; we ought to sweep up the glass.

A second related argument will probably be pooh-poohed as old-fashioned.  OK, I'm old-fashioned.  We're getting a reputation as a nation that others can't depend on, because when the going gets tough, the Americans go home.  That wasn't the reputation we had in World War II, or even in Vietnam (until Nixon decided to cut his losses).  We've been building this rep since the first Bush administration, when George I let the Iraqi "marsh Arabs" think he would back them against Saddam, and then sat back while Saddam gassed them; it picked up steam when Clinton pulled the Marines out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk down" incident, because nobody at home was willing to accept American casualties.  We're in the process of pulling out on the Iraqi Sunnis (or so they could argue).  And now we've just told the Afghans that we're only there for another couple of years.  Believe me, the Taliban was listening.

If we aren't willing to finish these little expeditions, we shouldn't start them.  So in this case I'll say, very reluctantly, that Obama is right - at least right that we should send the 30,000 more troops. 

There were two very interesting op-ed pieces in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle that I'd like to bring to the president's opinion, although I think Gen. McChrystal may already understand them.  Both of them make the point that the central government in Afghanistan is an active hinderance to our efforts; both of them point out that Afghanistan has, in John Arquilla's words, "no history of successful democratic rule from Kabul."

John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, argues that we need to negotiate with the Taliban (Flaws in Obama's Strategy for Afghanistan), because many of the people who look like Taliban to us are actually Afghan patriots who regard us as invaders.  If we can treat them with respect and help them to develop their own societies, they may turn on the actual Taliban, whom they don't like either.  This is what happened in Iraq with the Sunni Awakening.

Mizgon Zahir, an Afghan-American freelance journalist, urges Obama to bypass the Kabul government and deal with local tribal elders (Afghanistan needs nation-building from U.S.), because Afghan citizens don't trust the corrupt government in Kabul.  Ms. Zahir argues that "community self-governance makes the most sense in a tribal country."  Afghans trust their tribal elders, and a true government can only be built on the basis of that trust.

If we pull out in 2011 with the Taliban just waiting to take over, we'll add Afghanistan to the list of people who believe that you can't depend on the Americans.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Never apologize...

Tiger Woods' current mess has got me thinking about the phrase, "Never apologize, never explain."  Which Tiger certainly should have taken to heart, but let that pass.

This is one of those phrases that you hear, or read, and you can never quite remember who said it.  I had a list of names in my mind that I thought were responsible for "never apologize, never explain" - they included Disraeli, Napoleon, and the Duke of Wellington.  I'm not the only one who thought of this in connection with Mr. Woods, and there's been some web discussion, which led me to Google the phrase.

Apparently nobody knows where it really came from.  What seems to be the authoritative research was done on a site called Ask Metafilter - I've found multiple links to it and of course, here's another one.  One source, according to Metafilter, is:
... the screenplay for the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings. The line is spoken by John Wayne and the exact quote reads, "Never apologize and never explain--it's a sign of weakness."
Evidently I had the wrong Duke.  The Ask Metafilter site has a series of posts about the phrase, and a lot of interesting back story, but apparently none of the people I had it associated with ever said it.  So much for my erudition; John Wayne, indeed.  I've never even seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  If you read the whole thread, though, the screenwriters copped the line from someone - but no one is quite sure from whom.

But back to the Tiger. On December 1, the day before it all came out about the girlfriend and the voicemail message and the sheaf of emails (can emails be in a sheaf?), somebody on a local forum I follow posted the following link to the Wanda Sykes show - and Wanda summed it all up, and it's even funnier considering what came to light the next day:

Poor Tiger.  I wonder how he likes the taste of crow.