Saturday, May 18, 2019

Politics and the American Language: Clarity and/vs. Squishiness

Part of what makes working political systems work is occasional squishy lack of clarity. In the US, one swears or affirms loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, but the far more frequent patriotic exercise is pledging allegiance to a flag that represents the Republic that is also a Nation and (lately) a Nation under God, claiming liberty and justice for all (even though people justly imprisoned are clearly without much liberty). And neither the Pledge nor our oaths or affirmations mention "the American State," with "statehood" usually applied to the various American states federated into a Union that may or may not be as indivisible as the purported Nation.

We are now engaged in a not-so-great, not-so-civil figurative war, much of which is getting down to what the US is.

Donald Trump and his core followers have claimed the emotionally-compelling romance of "the Nation"; his opponents often talk of "our democracy." I think opponents to Trump should concede that he and his followers have effectively seized the great Myth of the Nation and could attempt to claim a pure People's Democracy, with the Leader embodying and channeling the will of the People ("Folk," "masses"), by-passing the moribund and/or pernicious institutions of "the Deep State."

It's time for opponents of a potential Trumpian mass movement to claim "the Republic" and talk about "crucial democratic institutions in our Republic." That avoids the embarrassing fact that the US is obviously not a direct democracy and only intermittently a participatory democracy and has un- and anti-democratic elements we're still working on (and some of which — like an independent judiciary, some form of a Senate — are good ideas). The Republic can also be a potent idea: a social contract one chooses and re-chooses, not just gets born into; an ideal to strive for, a way of governing and way of life we need to preserve, protect, and defend — as many of us have sworn to do — against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Saving Our Nation's Democracy from Enemies of the People: An Exercise in "Red-Teaming"

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice 
have each of them several different meanings which cannot be 
reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy,
 not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to 
make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally 
felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: 
consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, 
and fear that they might have to stop using that word 
if it were tied down to any one meaning. 
Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  —
George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

“Well, Doctor [Franklin], what have we got—
a Republic or a Monarchy?”
  “A Republic, if you can keep it.” — 
Exchange with Benjamin Franklin leaving  the
Constitutional Convention of 1787, as reported

There is one and only one official democratically elected by the American Nation: the U.S. President. And that President represents, embodies, and implements the spirit and will of our Nation. The purest democracy, therefore, consists in ensuring the People's will is fulfilled, allowing the majority — the true Nation bathed in the blood of patriots and rooted in native soil — to rule.
The Deep State of bloated bureaucracies and corrupted institutions must not be permitted to thwart the will of the People, the demos in "democracy." These enemies of the People are to be circumvented or pushed aside, and if the Congress or a political party or lying media consistently attack the People embodied in the President, these enemies are to be neutralized.
"Lock them up!" and let them be happy they are no longer taken out and guillotined or shot as a matter of Revolutionary Justice or Racial purification.
Perfect democracy is direct and spiritual: the Rule of the People — the real Nation, purged and purified — not that of law or moribund assemblies. 
And that, brothers and sisters, is why I for one repeat the line of 1950s conservative curmudgeons that the US is not a democracy but a republic, and not a nation in the sense that, say, Japan is a nation: pretty much one people with one religious tradition (in two main strains in Japan), one history, one Emperor, one language — which at least so far the US is not. This is why I recommend to the Blue Team stressing our Republic, the rule of law, and a tradition that includes an ideal of majority decision, not majority rule (where you ignore and/or screw minorities), within a "mixed constitution" that includes Federalism and divided governments with a law-making legislative branch, an executive, and a judiciary (in that order).

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer — One Nation (or People), One Empire, One Leader — is Nazi German stuff; Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality is Czarist Russian (now making a comeback). "We are the wretched refuse" as Bill Murray's character says in STRIPES, the mongrels of the Earth; and a good part of our good traditions is rule of law, and the institutions of the Republic.

If we can keep it. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Student Essay in the 1960s, Russian Interference in US Election 2016 — And "Misprision of Felony"

I learned the phrase "misprision of felony early in my teaching career when a student in Rhetoric 101 — think 1st semester College Composition — responded to a personal narrative assignment with the story of a young woman who'd joined heR friends in perjury and maybe insurance fraud in a context I've long-ago forgotten.
I sought advice from older colleagues and was told that since the event was in the past and directly harmed at most only a fictive individual — a corporation — and indirectly only their other customers for small sums, my duty to protect the confidentiality of student work outweighed my other social duties, and, if necessary, I should go to prison rather than betray the student/teacher relationship.
"Prison?" I asked.
I was told prosecution was highly unlikely, but it looked like a felony was committed, I had information about said felony, and, if I didn't report it, I might be guilty of "misprision of felony," at that place and time at least, itself a felony.
When the student came in for our "tutorial" conference, I started out with how we should talk a bit about her very nice development of the Persona of the essay, her "I", the protagonist-Narrator of the story who, in the story, committed perjury and what just might look like insurance fraud.
And after a moment for that to sink in, that is what we talked about.
Okay, so much for confession for me. (In my adult life I also advocated draft resistance and apparently violated Federal and possibly Provincial election law in Canada going with a group to have a great time in Toronto and informally advise on the Pierre Trudeau campaign. "But that was in another country, / And besides" — we yanks were with the George McGovern campaign and, as the US election worked out, maybe didn't have much advice to give.) But —
But what about the Family Trump and people representing Russia and the possibility that members of the 2016 Trump campaign new that a foreign entity or two were messing around in a US election. Is there "misprision of election-law violation"? Did they have a legal as well as a civic duty to report what could have been some sort of crime. Is even the non-action of silence a crime far more a crime here as it could have been for me as a writing teacher?
I did say I taught Rhetoric 101; so the question may be rhetorical.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Editing/Ethics (Legal) Issue: Royal Pudding Jingle from Long Ago

Rich, rich, rich in flavor!
Smooth, smooth, smooth as silk,
More food energy than fresh, whole milk!"

The folklore, anyway was that Royal Pudding was required by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or other regulator to remove their eminently memorable jingle because it was misleading. The two main ingredients in Royal Instant Vanilla, e.g., are "SUGAR [and] FOOD STARCH MODIFIED, " with some cottonseed oil lower on the list, but there, for your desert basics of sugar and fat. So of course mixing Royal Pudding with "fresh, whole milk" yields an enticing dish with "more food energy" per unit weight than even pretty high-caloric "fresh whole milk."

The FTC — or whoever — ruled that the ad was misleading, making Royal Pudding sound downright healthful as opposed to a high-calorie dessert suitable for only occasional eating, unless one wanted to gain weight (a high-calorie pudding helped save the life of one of my cats when he needed to start eating again after a serious jaw injury).

But "food energy" is what is at issue here — the thing in itself — and "calories" just the unit of measurement in colloquial American; so the ad as it stands should be preferred, one might argue, to stating that the prepared pudding has "more calories per unit of weight than whole milk" (ca. 19 kcal per ounce in one on-line chart, vs. 100 per ounce for Jello Chocolate pudding according to another).

Sooo ... folks who edit now and then or for a living — how would you come down here? Exactness of meaning as stated, or what most of an audience will hear? And lawyers out there (or just fans): Should it be illegal to mislead an audience speaking truth to their ignorance or just failure to think through a jingle?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Equality Before the Law: One Idea, and Not Always Dominant

There was a pre-Watergate turning point in US popular culture in a film where Harry Morgan, who'd played straight-arrow Detective Joe Friday's partner, and Peter Lawford, JFK's brother-in-law, were agents of the law facing the problem of getting sensitive (medical? psychiatric?) records. The Harry Morgan character said the only way he knew to do a search was to get a warrant. The Peter Lawford character gave him a look — and quick cut to the two of them with small flashlights going through records in a darkened office. Then the Charles Bronson character in DEATH WISH (1974 f.) and a line of figures responding to the rhetorical question and the misquoted answer, "Rules and regulations — who needs them? / Throw them out the door." 

Combine that with the literally ancient idea that laws are for the little people, or, from at least The Code of Hammurabi on, the idea of different laws for different classes and classification — and there's a point many of us need to deal with. Equality before the law is one theory. And sometimes it's "All the people who (fully) count" are equal before the law. There's a line in a play by Aristophanes of a young citizen claiming his rights: "I'm Athenian, male, of age, and free" — democracy was for men and citizens, not resident aliens, women, girls, boys, or slaves. 

"No one is above the law" is an ideal, and not one everybody supports all the time.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Few Words on the Anti-Vaccination Movement

At least since people figured out that PLAGUE!!! is contagious, public health issues have been special cases where community safety overrides what are usually individual rights. So long as herd immunity is enough to ensure the health of the group, we should defer to people's: 
• (highly justified) suspicions of Big Pharma, 
• somewhat less justified dedication to the unsapped power and purity of their precious bodily fluids,
• desires to keep out of their bodies the artificial, "unnatural," and/or toxic or related to the toxic or pathological,
• beliefs in belief and the healing power of faith and/or Nature,
• usually true and useful ideology that their bodies are their own to do with as they will,
• usually true and useful ideology that "Freedom isn't free" and requires taking risks and the occasional literal or figurative blood of patriots and/or the innocent to figuratively water and fertilize the tree of Liberty. 
When herd immunity is insufficient, however — uh, no. Then we-all usually understanding and peaceful folk should use social pressure to encourage and if necessary State power to coerce getting the goddamn shots already.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Climate Change / Political Changes: The Need for Historical Background

We need more books like Brian Fagan's 2008 The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations: history books, mostly, that help us understand that climate change isn't just  about changes in some abstract "the environment," but about great changes in human politics.

This book is about "the Medieval Warm Period," ca. 800-1300 C.E. and its generally positive effects in, e.g., northern Europe and utterly devastating effects elsewhere, e.g., in already warm, dry places such as long-term droughts in what's now the U.S. southwest.

These Medieval data can cut different ways, as a warning to try to reduce the speed of global warming and try to mitigate its effects — or to say that climate change ca. 900 obviously wasn't caused by human industrial activity, so we needn't reduce current economic activity with its benefits and irrelevant, or even beneficial greenhouse gas emissions. 

To quote for background one on-line pundit, "Climate scientists now understand that the Medieval Warm Period was caused by an increase in solar radiation and a decrease in volcanic activity, which both promote warming. Other evidence suggests ocean circulation patterns shifted to bring warmer seawater into the North Atlantic." So why should we try to reduce greenhouse gasses?

The question isn't rhetorical. For one thing, the article linked last paragraph notes that there's no evidence for a recent increase of solar radiation, nor, in our times, significant decrease of volcanic activity;, and I'll note that currently there's not a damn thing the human species can do about either. We can reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, which will slow the rate of warming, and we should reduce those emissions anyway to save some easily extractable hydrocarbons for our descendants. They might find safe and efficient ways to use petrochemicals and need some — and be very pissed off at earlier generations who went and burned them. 

They may also be pissed off at a re-run, but worse, of, especially, long-term, catastrophic droughts. 

In addition to the obvious, some of the effects of climate changes indeed include the geo-political. William Grimes's New York Times review of The Great Warming has an arresting sentence indicating that what was so good for much of Europe may have had negative effects: "Although data remain sketchy, it seems probable that extended droughts dried up pastureland on the Central Asian steppe, propelling the armies of Genghis Khan westward." The career of the Great Khan (1206-1227 C.E.) achieved some impressive empire building that, in Europe, arguably set the stage for what was once called the Renaissance, but unarguably resulted in an extraordinarily high body-count. Matthew White tallies up Genghis Khan's "multicide" score at 40 million, which puts the Mongol invasions just behind World War II (1939-1945) for destruction of human life. 

And destruction of the great Muslim civilizations at the center of Eurasia — which in a twisted way brings me to where I started thinking about this post. 

I had typed out on Facebook a quotation from Introduction to Medieval Europe: 300-1500 by James Westfall Thompson and Edgar Nathaniel Johnson (New York: Norton: 1937). In an early chapter on "The Empire of the Arabs," Thompson and Johnson give Mohammed and the early leaders of the Umma credit for organizational genius and make the point that medieval Europe was a side-show as civilizations of the time went. They are far from "climatic determinists," with an Index innocent of such references. And they fully recognized the arrogance and stupidity of the remaining Roman Empire and Persia in their continuing wars and machinations. Still, Thompson and Johnson asserted (in 1937!) that "The expansion of the Arabs is best understood in the light of previous movements out of the desert [...]. These were constant phenomena, to be explained by the vicissitudes of climatic conditions, which always drove nomadic peoples outwards. [...] The [Arabian] peninsula itself was experiencing a periodic desiccation, which made life within it ever more unbearable and drove its inhabitants to seek relief elsewhere. It seems, accordingly, highly probably that what occurred would have happened even without Mohammed and Islam" (p. 166). 

"What occurred" was the end of Late Antiquity, with the final end of the Roman Empire, and the Persian — and Rome in the East (the Byzantine Empire), reduced to a regional power. T & J and those with similar theories may be wrong, but it's a point to consider, along with the possibility that the following round of "desiccation" in the Medieval Warm Period led to that drying out of parts of the Eurasian steppe leading to the western thrust of the Mongol invasions and, let's say, a figurative arrow from a powerful bow through the figurative heart of "The Empire of the Arabs."

It's possible that two major changes in the course of human history had as one basic cause the long-term droughts — the "desiccation" — brought on by global warming. Mohammed and Genghis Khan count, and their decisions are important. Still, one thing Karl Marx got right was that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please [...], but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." And those circumstances include a physical environment that is both beyond human control and influenced by our actions.

Unless we want some really bad circumstances for the next generation, we'd better get right some important decisions — and soon.