Thursday, March 27, 2008

Proper Grammar

Have you ever wondered where "correctness" in grammar comes from? Is there, somewhere, perhaps just outside the orbit of Pluto, a fully-developed, perfect, immutable set of rules that defines what is right and what is not in grammatical usage? How about this sentence for instance: "Yesterday I boke a cake." Sounds weird, but the past tense of bake was once boke, like the plural of shoe was once shoon.

Truth is, there is no absolute standard of correctness in grammar. Never has been. The notion of absolute correctness comes from a combination of strange Biblical interpretations mixed with the "golden age" hypothesis. In the 19th century, it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was Hebrew (though why anyone in his/her right mind would think that is beyond me). All languages were descended from Hebrew and were corrupt forms thereof (see "Babel, Tower of"). English in particular was a degenerate form of Latin, and if Latin had an ablative, then English must have one too. The "Golden Age" of language was the aforementioned garden, and things have been going downhill since, which they continue to do.

Because of this and some rather pernicious inventions (two negatives make a positive), there is a great deal of nonsense taught in the school systems about what one should or should not do in writing. For instance (and all of these are ridiculous rules):
  • Never begin a sentence with "because"
  • Never begin a sentence with "and" or "but"
  • If you outline and you have an "A," you've got to have a "B"

Bah! And humbug! But you may not believe me. Because of this, you'll continue to fret over things that are not only non-essential, but not really real except in the minds of English teachers, who should find better things to do with their time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Politicians

The big news, of course, is that HRC (That does not stand for Her Royal Consort) got caught in a lie. Or, as she said, "mis-speaking" (I don't care what other people do, I'm hyphenating it so that it is at least readable. Otherwise it looks like third runner-up in a beauty contest for orators). I have a couple of questions concerning this incident. First, is it a mis-speaking, an honest error in memory, a fib, or an outright lie? Hard to tell, though I think I would lean toward the fib explanation. After all, she was in a war zone, and had been warned of the possibility of sniper fire, so I don't call for the outright lie. On the other hand, it can't be an honest mistake or a memory lapse, because HRC is smart and has a good memory. So, it's a fib. Which brings up the second question: Why? This was a serious lapse in judgement imho. Because it's verifiable, or as the new term in science is, falsifiable. And it was falsified. The media pounced on the statement like a hungry lion on the lamb it's supposed to lie down next to. The only explanation I can think of, and it's a little far-fetched, is that she is trying at one and the same time to emphasize her experience vis-a-vis BHO and also establish her creds vis-a-vis JMcC. If so, it backfired badly. It gave BHO a chance to flaunt his halo.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Secret of the Universe

Have you ever had this happen to you? A friend comes up, presses a book into your hands, and says something on the order of, "Read this. It changed my life." No? You're lucky. It happened to me last night, and, being a compliant sort (muffled laughter in the background) I took some time to read in it. I found an interesting heading: Incontrovertible proof of immortality. Now this struck me, as I've always had a secret hankering to be immortal, so I read on. The text was only about a hundred words, and the gist of it was something like, "There is no separation of the 'I' from life. You don't have a life; you are a life. So, you can't lose what you don't have." QED. I really haven't twisted the text at all. I came away realizing I had read nonsense in the purest use of the word: non-sense. The writer had strung words together and they made syntactic sense, but that was it. There was no data, no logical chain of reasoning (as you find in, for instance, Descartes's' exposition of cogito, ergo sum). Nothing except a sort of cryptic reference to the unity of existence.
There are two kinds of self-help books, I think. There are the practical ones (How to win friends and influence people kind of thing), and then there are those that promise you the totality of enlightenment. These are dangerous. They are flimsy strings of assertions parading as facts; they ignore all hard-gained knowledge in biology, physiology, evolutionary studies, physics, psychology, and economics; they offer no replicable studies, hard data, or even tight reasoning. Worst, they say that the scientists and thinkers of the world are wrong because "they don't have the secret."
I've got news. Nobody has the secret. There ain't no secret. It's best expressed in the koan, "Before enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Guns and Rosie's

"A conservative is a liberal who was mugged the night before." Alfred E. Newman

For those of you who don't recognize the name, he's the "What me worry?" kid from Mad Magazine. A couple of incidents to start.

A friend of mine, very liberal, was once threatened by some seriously bad people. They said something on the order of, "We will get you." My friend came to me one day, told me of this, and asked if he could borrow one of my handguns.

Another friend, also very liberal, was going to take a long motor trip, alone. She asked me if she could take one of my handguns with her.

In both cases, I asked the same question: "Would you be willing to use the gun?"

In both cases, the answer was "No, I don't guess I would." Wherewith I refused their requests.

I'm not here to make fun of liberal resolve not to use deadly force, or to discuss what happens when abstractions become reality, but to talk about using guns.

Look, folks, I believe in guns. I believe in the overwhelming evidence that says, "More citizen guns, less crime." But I am also scared silly of the things. I mean, they can be lethal. I also realize, as most people do not, that guns are not demons, not angels. They're just a way of throwing a little piece of metal very fast. And they're not efficient. If you haven't practiced and practiced with a handgun, you might as well throw it at an attacker. So, unless you 1) are willing to use one, and unless you have really thought and thought and thought about how and what you would do in every possible situation, and 2) shot and shot and shot until it's all automatic (no pun intended), then leave them alone and trust to the police to help you (good luck).

And the "Guns and Rosies"? Just a way to get a clever title,

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Boho two-step

Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, describes a peculiar dance that artists have to do. On the one hand, they have to disdain the "establishment," refer to them as "proles," and generally deride their insensitivity to matters artistic. On the other hand, artists have to court these same people, be seen at their parties, sell them paintings, and -ultimately- join them (albeit in paint-spattered jeans).

I see the same form of this dance in approaches to terrorist regimes. It's the "let's figure out why they hate us," phenomenon. The sentiment sounds large-hearted, forgiving, and humanistic. But look behind the saying for a moment at the entailed assumption. The assumption is that these people who hate us can't really help themselves. They are children, really, who must be nurtured, led, and taught the right way. We, on the other hand, are mature, have restraint, and don't hate. Suppose we were, however, to suggest that the people who hate us were not that different from us. We'd then ask "What is going on?" in a matter that doesn't put the responsibility for their hate on our shoulders, but may suggest that they hate us because of other factors. Perhaps it's that the Timothy McVeigh's are in charge over there. Perhaps it's a political ploy. Perhaps they're envious because they have the beaches but we have two oceans.

The same thing is operative when we deal with other cultures. Let's suppose that we go visit a foreign country, and want to visit a religious shrine. We are told that it is the custom in their country to wear a mask inside the shrine. So, we dutifully don masks, all the while feeling silly but congratulating ourselves on our ability to deal with foreigners. Let's say then that some of the people in this same country want to visit us and see our shrines. It's the custom in some places for women to cover their heads in holy places. The visitors don't, which is an insult to us, but we say, "They are, after all, foreigners and don't know our ways." So, we honor their silly customs but don't expect them to honor ours. It's the same thing, isn't it? They are children. We are adults.

If we visit Japan, we sit in holes with legs crossed and eat live fish. Ah, but when the Japanese come to visit us, what do we do? Well, we sit in holes with legs crossed and eat live fish. We assume that the Japanese are so dense that they can't learn to sit at a table and eat with a fork.

I don't for a moment think we are really fooling anyone but ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back and praise our tolerance, while the rest of the world thinks we're jerks.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Inside the mind (?) of a terrorist

I own guns. I've gone hunting and killed various furry and feathery creatures. I would without regret or compunction shoot someone who was trying to harm a loved one of mine. I eat red meat. I am, in short, a thoroughly despicable creature.

But I can't get inside the mind of a terrorist. So, if I ask myself the question, "How would a terrorist vote in the upcoming election?" I have to guess. Let's say that we have a three-way contest for president: (alphabetically) Clinton, McCain, Obama. If I were a terrorist, what would I want?

Well, the first answer is, "I would like to blow up all three of them." The next answer is, "Well, according to his/her position statements, _______ (Fill in the blank; I'm not about to), would be less likely to hunt down and kill me and my brothers and sisters."

Notice I'm not asking which of the three the terrorist would like to vote for; simply musing about which of the three would be least repugnant to a terrorist. Of course what is most likely is that any terrorist is so filled with righteous rage at the mention of any of them that there is no distinction possible.

I do not think that any of the candidates is "soft" on terrorism. It's more a question of what lengths they might go to to combat it. Would any of them invade a country? Nuke a city?

The reason I am asking these questions is that I am trying to figure out whether there might be an attempt by terrorists to disrupt the election process. Now, a clever, subtle, patient terrorist might decide A) to let the process proceed if the least reprehensible candidate appears to be winning, or B) interrupt the process if the most reprehensible candidate appears to be winning. Unfortunately, I think that interfering with the process is probably more important to a terrorist than influencing the election. But then, who knows what goes on inside the skull of a terrorist?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Power and corruption

I started to respond to a post by bekkiann about the corrupting influence of power, and realized that I had too much to say for a mere comment. So, with thanks to bekkiann for sparking this, here goes.

Becky (alias bekkiann) reminded me that "power corrupts," might well be an absolute. I'm not willing to go quite that far, as there are prople in history who had power but weren't corrupted by it. Give me a little time, and I will come up with an example.

The saying "power corrupts," is attributed to Lord Acton, who said "Power corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's the kind of shivers-down-your-spine thing that you know is true.

Let me come to it from another angle: Joesph Smith wrote, "We have learned through sad experience that is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

Amen, brother. I see it every day. Joseph Smith was talking religion, Acton was talking politics, but they were both talking human nature. In other words, this does not seem to be a negotiable item. It's part and parcel of the human genetic makeup, can't be altered (though it can be ameliorated) by education. We can't educate people not to abuse power. What we can do is make them liable for such abuse. And basically that's what Democracy is all about.

Requiescat in Pacem

I think that's the way it's spelled. Means "Rest in Peace," and it's the RIP on gravestones. Who's it for? William F. Buckley, who died a few days ago at the age of 82. It's in his honor that I tried the Latin. WFB was intelligent, very well read, and civilized. His only show of temper that I recall was when he threatened (on TV) Gore Vidal with bodily harm when Vidal suggested Buckley was a cypto-Nazi. Buckley frequently used words that nobody else ever used, mainly for their sound effect, I always thought (eleemosynary, jejune). I got one of my greatest insights from his book God and Man at Yale, which is that we deplore certain types of behavior but excuse certain other types based on how we view the world. Liberals have tolerance, all right, but only in a leftward direction. Conservatives have tolerance, but only in a rightward direction. So, Liberals will tend to excuse the actions of, say, a former member of the Weather Underground, because he was acting out of convictions that they themselves also hold, and after all, boys will be boys. Conservatives will excuse the actions of a person who bombs abortion clinics, because he is only helping to preserve life in the long run. And, in the background, we hear the crash of glass houses coming down.