Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Right to Be Let Alone

In 1972, Student Life officials at Miami University (Oxford, OH) applied the University rule against solicitation in the dorms against political campaigns. For sound political reasons, neither the McGovern nor Nixon campaigns intended to canvass the MUO dorms, but we joined together to assert what I explicitly called our right to annoy people to spread our message — propaganda in a neutral sense — and solicit votes.
The two campaigns and our First Amendment rights prevailed, which was and remains a good thing.
Since then, the means of communication have multiplied, and simultaneously we've moved toward the hyper-capitalism and rule by hucksters satirized in Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's great comic dystopia, The Space Merchants (1952/53). So nowadays we must balance a generalized First Amendment right to propagandize, sell to, and annoy against a generalized (Fourth Amendment) right that can be usefully overstated with Justice William O. Douglas's line, “The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."
As lawyers can now chime in, it will be a complicated balancing act.

Monday, March 12, 2018


News story passed along on Twitter: 
"The NRA [National Rifle Association ...]
just sued Florida based on the astounding 
argument that 18 year olds have a constitutional
right to buy assault rifles."

On this issue, I'm kind of with the NRA, which is something that hasn't happened much since I quit high school ROTC and the rifle team (in the 1950s) and since the NRA was taken over by fanatics.

I'll get in the argument this far, with my standard comment on young adults but with a bit of a twist: As is frequent, a wide-spread problem in the US about which we must DO SOMETHING!! is shifted to the schools and to young people. Mass shootings are only a small proportion of US gun deaths; most mass shootings do not occur in schools; the great majority of shooters in mass shootings are White males between the ages of 20 and 49, not teens. 

Humans mature into our social roles at different speeds and in complex ways, some people living long lives but never making it to adulthood. "The age of majority," therefore — when one gets pretty much the full rights and responsibilities of adulthood — is always somewhat arbitrary. That is *not*, however, a good argument for adulthood by degrees, but for setting a minimally ambiguous age of majority, enforcing it, and, in a manner appropriate in a secular republic, ritualizing it with some brief ceremony/"rite of passage." 

Old enough to be conscripted to take up weapons in defense of the country, old enough to vote. Old enough to function as a sovereign citizen electing officials and voting on referendums, old enough to buy legal psychotropic drugs such as ethyl alcohol (street names: booze, "drink" ...). Old enough to buy booze, old enough to keep and bear legal firearms: which I'd have bolt or pump-action, single-shot, small caliber long-guns unless one has a really good reason for something more deadly — plus a background check, training, and a license that needs periodic renewal after testing at least as rigorous as for initial drivers' licenses.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


I've recently been thanked for what for me have been generous contributions to local political causes, and I replied something like, "Thank you ... but they really aren't all that generous."
They aren't, and I'll share with the group part of why not.
In part, it's money my heirs fortunately don't need and which, unfortunately, I won't need for my illustrious career in film production (now, let us say, on long-term hiatus).
More relevant, it's money I'm withholding from commercial ventures, politicians, and charities that are practicing "Constant Contact" — actual name of actual company — far too literally.
Some people like a lot of stimulation, some a little. Me? I find it uncomfortable just to use washrooms where the light intensity is for women applying makeup. Also, many of us old folk were raised to respond and respond politely to requests. So I find the inundation of ads, catalogs, and, importantly here, appeals in varied media to be more than just annoying but mildly painful — and a serious matter when important mail gets lost in the mass and my not-*that*-old computer functions get slowed down.
A bit of street theater that moved me to action in the Vietnam Era was on the theme, "If You Don't Like the War Machine, Don't Feed it." The moral issues are much less urgent here, but I will resist feeding "Constant Contact" as both a corporation and a fund-raising strategy. Those groups I'm supporting, I'll mostly continue to support. Newbies who've bought my contact information — unless I've heard of you some other way, and you've got a really good cause (and maybe an "UNSUBSCRIBE" function that definitively stops your appeals) — you are likely out of luck.
Local folk and groups I know and who know how to ask and then back off: Yep, now and then you'll find me looking considerably more generous than you expected. Don't thank me too much, though: part of that money has been shifted from good people taking prudent advice — and succeeding at pissing me off enough to stop complaining and act.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

If You Don't Know What First Name I Use, Should You Be Calling Me By My First Name?

When I first started teaching, forms of address were simple: my students called me "Mr. Erlich," and I called them "Miss/Mr./Mrs./later Ms. Last Name." Then my students mildly objected to formal usage for themselves, and I mildly complained about their complaint to a colleague, sniffily noting that it was a matter of indifference. And he threw back at me a line I'd used, "If it's a matter of indifference to you, and they care, do it their way."
Since I taught English, what I did was spend a few minutes first day of class on forms of address, and we had an exercise in very limited democracy where the students voted on how we addressed one another — with the restriction that we'd stay on one level of formality, and that wouldn't include calling each other by just our last names (which is for superiors to inferiors or close friends or colleagues). They almost always voted for "a first-name basis," but I had to insist that I really wanted "Rich" and not "Uhhhh." (The "Mr. Erlich" vs. "Dr." or "Professor Erlich" is another issue. When and where I was, it was "Mr." when I got my Ph.D. — after the first couple of weeks, anyway.)
Retired, I'm caring again about how I'm called, especially in medical contexts where I already feel somewhat juvenilized. When called "Richard," I'm tempted to say, "I don't go by 'Richard'" and if asked what I go by reply, "If you don't know the first name I use, maybe you should call me 'Mr. Erlich.'"
It's "Err-lick," as in "to "err is human," and either pronunciation of that "err" is fine, and if you use a German "ch," that's also okay, and I'll shudder and accept "er-lich," with an English "ch." That's two syllables of a fairly common name. People should try, but pronunciation issues aren't the main point. The point for my students was a legitimate desire to stave off adulthood (which in the US often sucks); and, more generally, the issue is good ol' semi-sincere American friendliness.
About now in life, from people half my age who don't know me, I think I prefer some stodgy formality. Especially when that first name reference is followed by, "And how are *you* today?" when they really don't care and — unless getting medical information — do *not* want you to tell them.

Monday, February 19, 2018

"News Illiteracy," Speaking Logic to Power — and Little League

"The power of news illiteracy. At the heart of the Russian fraud is an essential,
embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans
are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read.
The willingness to believe purported news stories, often
riddled with typos or coming from unfamiliar outlets, is a
liability of today’s fragmented media and polarized politics.
Even the trolls themselves were surprised at what Americans would believe."
 Evan Osnos, New Yorker, 16 February 2018

            Since the comments I incorporate here were in an e-mail post on a "thread" that got archived I can tell you exactly when I wrote this version of one of my standard themes; it was "Sent: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 6:03:57 PM GMT." I was responding to a post about Poetry Slams and went on to discuss what I call — and relevant here — "The Little League Syndrome" (a minor obsession of mine). I was pleased to learn about poetry slams since the description had them sound like the youngsters involved are getting good experience using language, and getting back to at least some of the roots of (satiric) poetry: judged competitions. Throw in competitive insults, and you're in the teen culture I grew up in and back to the Old English and Old Irish traditions, and more recent cultures in fiction and the real world.
            The most immediate poster on the thread had used a sports analogy for poetry slams, which I thought a good one. The more hopeful side would be if young people start to take seriously the serious joke among intramural sports organizers that "Something really worth doing is worth doing poorly." The downside is that adults rarely want to let the kids run things. The history is the semi-professionalization of college and then high school sports, with intramurals among high school SAC's (Social/Athletic Clubs) giving way to "the Little League Syndrome," plus varsity sports, and adult organizing of intramurals. There's a good chance well-meaning/control-freak grownups will do the same with poetry slams - and the kids will have to move on to something else.
            This is nothing new. Back in Chicago in 1961, a control-freak senior-class- ... Coordinator(?), well, Semi-Administrator accused me of "never" participating in our high school activities. I told her that I did participate but, indeed, not all that much since, "I can never be elected principal; so I put my effort into groups where I can at least have some clout." When asked by the director of a new Jewish Community Center what they could best do for the local teens, I said, "Mostly, leave them alone. Rent to them - at a fair price - but let them run their own events. Let them learn to organize."
            Alexis de Tocqueville praised Americans for the ability to organize themselves and not wait for some State official to come along and organize things. What with the Little League Syndrome in sports and probably poetry, dance, and music, things may be getting worse for civic life and civil debate. What I learned about politics I partly "absorbed" growing up in the warm, corrupt heart of the Chicago Democratic Organization, but mostly from adult-independent clubs in high school and my fraternity in college. The down sides of such groups have been rightly stressed, but even a street gang teaches important lessons, including the various means of getting your peers to do what you want (them) to do.
            When it came up in discussion — I have no idea what the context was — some of my university undergraduate students were surprised to learn that in the high schools in my area we kids organized our own sports leagues. ("Hey, we didn't build the parks! We just organized a schedule and signed up.") Some kids have never even organized a pickup basketball game.

            Earlier than that 2009 post, I wrote a piece for a newspaper guest column and guest lecturing with a suggested title something like, "Be Happy Johnny Can Talk," riffing on titles like, "Why Johnny Can't Read," "Why Johnny Can't Write." I wrote there about Little-League Syndrome and what has since been called "Helicopter Parenting." Between the two, and other influences, Americans were producing a lot of middle-class kids who make highly proficient (figurative) drones and worker bees in public- and private-sector bureaucratic hives, but not very good citizens.
            Johnny and later Jane weren't and aren't encouraged much to think critically and argue civilly.
            Not in classes in school with rote learning, machine-graded exams, and the student methodology of "cram and regurgitate." Take a moment to think seriously about that last figure of speech. Cram it down; don't "chew on a thought" — and then vomit it out as soon as possible, lest you chew on an idea too long, decide to swallow it, and then digest and assimilate it, making it part of you, maybe changing you.
            But classes are only part of school, and school is only part of kids' lives. Also part of school is "the life of the mind" on the school-yard and with friends — or lack thereof or utter contempt therefor. And home-life counts, especially with actual children.
            A friend suggests any chance you give her that American discourse has gone straight downhill since families no longer eat together and kids don't get supervised practice in arguing with one another. I stress the decline of more or less lawful kid-run activities and the increasing horror of "free-range kids." (Hitchhiking, for example, had its advantages of meeting strangers and talking with them, as well as the danger of the occasional serial-killer psychopath.)

            I suspect a crucial reason John and Jane Q. Public don't think too good is that they're not called upon that often to think much at all, combined with a media and advertising environment where they're encouraged to make decisions based on impulse, emotions, and spurious appeals. "The bigger the burger, the better the burger. The burgers are bigger at Burger King," to quote a classic commercial ca. 1967. Uh-huh. "And," as we wise-ass youngsters and young adults used to ask, "if it's a shit-burger?"
            Certainly American kids aren't asked to do much formal analysis of commercials, propaganda, political, ahem discourse, or the things their superiors lay on them.
            Coach says s/he wants "110% from each of you for the team"? Will Johnny Jock or Jane Sports-Bra get praised for a raised hand and, "Coach, you can't have more than 100%, and even 30% of our time and effort is way too much. We understand that you want a kind of blank check from us — but just how much of our time and effort do you actually want? We have other commitments." I wouldn't count on that going over very well. Worse if instead of Coach it's your boss.
            Indeed, at an older age, approaching 30, I sat next to the President of Miami University as a new, untenured, almost-assistant professor (don't ask), while he looked out the window at a campus traffic jam during New Student Week and intoned, "If we got rid of the 'No Car' Rule, we'd have a jam like that every day." I thought for a half moment — after a full moment I would've known better — and said, "Non sequitur, Mr. President; that doesn't follow." He looked at me. I replied, "Those are parents' cars for the most part; we don't know what it'd be like if the students drove up on their own … or during the year … no parents' cars around." And then some ancient part of my brain that handles survival stuff kicked through to the speech mechanism and shoved a spear into the gears, while screaming without words, "Shut up, already, you idiot! Shut up!!!" A bit after retirement, I asked our now-former President if I recalled that incident correctly — he had a phenomenal memory — and he replied that, Oh, yes, that's how he remembered it; he'd never forgotten it. Which was reassuring about my memory, and ambiguously reassuring on my suspicions on a small part of the reason it took me so long to get tenure, get promoted, get … anything.
            As Kurt Vonnegut points out somewhere, Americans are programmed less to be thinking entities than agreeing machines. Speaking logic to Power is probably not in the program.
            And it's not just our failures to be courageous or exquisitely tactful in talking to others. It's bad enough that we don't listen to other people and take them seriously enough to argue civilly with them; most of us much of the time don't even listen carefully to ourselves.
            Listen to yourselves and others with (for my example for the last few months) "everybody," "nobody," "best," "worst," and other absolutes. With "best" and "worst" and such there's an old tradition here, going back at least as far as Beowulf and other Old English heroic poetry where it's almost always "the best sword," "the best mead hall," "the worst monster" until when you get a simple assertion like "That was a good king," the line stands out. As Mort Sahl pointed out in the 1980s or so, we don't have to give "The Grimmy Award" and something doesn't have to be the worst!! to be bad. Or the best to be good. And if the assertion is about "everybody" or "nobody," it can be refuted with, "Uh, I don't" or "I do." (And if it's on something sexual, check out a porn site: what you think nobody would like probably has its own pages and a standard abbreviation.)
            One of my frosh writing students started an essay with, "Since the beginning of time, Man ___________." I asked, "Are you dating 'The Beginning of Time' from the Big Bang or the rise of consciousness, or God's creating the world or what?" And he said he hadn't thought about that at all. Uh-huh, and
Does 'Man' include boys and girls and women and …?" He was getting uncomfortable, so I said, "Let's put it very formally, what's your data-set here — just who-all are you talking about?" And he said it was "me and my buddies back in high school." And I said, "Then you should start out with "Me and my buddies back in high school" — or "My buddies and I" for a formal essay, and then get on to just what you can talk about." I didn't add, I meant talking about without bullshitting his readers, most immediately me.
            "The worst disaster to hit America in modern times"? You've heard variations on such a line. I don't think they had what we'd think of as America in Medieval Times. Does that just mean "recently"? "That I can remember?" "That me and my buddies back in the newsroom could think of off-hand?" And a worse disaster than the burning of Washington DC during the War of 1812? Worse than the Civil War? Spanish Flu? The Great Depression? The attacks of 11 September 2001? Does some bad thing have to be the worst before your audience will pay attention?
            So we get the sort of language-inflation and hyperbole we have gotten used to — and inured to — in advertising.
            About once a year back when I was in the Ed Biz in English, I'd write across the chalkboard in large letters, WORDS MEAN. And meaningful words should go into sentences and paragraphs in at least a vaguely coherent manner and add up a fair amount of the time as an insightful description or useful set of instructions or even a rational political analysis and sensible recommendations for action.

            Meanwhile, it'd be nice if people could as least read such discourse and differentiate it from what we can compact into a set labeled bullshit.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Guns, Rights, and the Deaths of Children

Rhetorical question raised on my Facebook page: 
Is your 2nd Amendment right more important than your child or grandchild’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
This question should be taken literally as well as "rhetorically." 
From George Orwell's, "Politics and the English Language" (1946): "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face [...]."
If willing to make a brutal argument, people could argue logically — and some on the radical fringe do — that the 2nd Amendment is central to Liberty and the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the firepower that underlies the Right of Revolution and the threat in the Right of Revolution to overthrow any government that threatens American rights. The 2nd Amendment in this view, and its protection of a civilian population armed and potentially dangerous is the final guard against government tyranny.
So the blood of children is to be added to the literal "blood of patriots and tyrants" that figuratively waters and feeds the Tree of Liberty. And, of course, the American Nation does not lack people and can afford the sacrifice: given our current birthrates and immigration, given the relatively small investment the Nation has made in young children, and given the death rates Americans routinely tolerate in such areas as alcohol consumption (some eighty-eight thousand Americans per year) and automobile fatalities (37,461 in 2016, which could easily be reduced by returning to a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit).
So, the distressingly high rate of US gun deaths, including children, "can indeed be defended, but," again, "only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language" defending wide-open gun ownership, as with wars and purges, «ethnic cleansing» and other horrors, "has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
To start a legitimate debate, politically-active Americans need to deal with those arguments on the anti-government fringe, and, as Jamelle Bouie has suggested, and some of my Facebook colleagues have endorsed, show widely visuals that can drive home the carnage produced when high-energy bullets impact human bodies, especially the bodies of children.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pledging Allegiance (Flag Debates Again)

As long as we're re-cycling arguments on patriotism, treason, the National Anthem, and such, here's me briefly on The Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag from April of 2004. Hey, if we're going to keep recycling arguments on symbols, I think I should get to recycle my short contributions. Anyway,  I take very seriously my oath "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States (and will repeat that below) but have some qualms about the patriotic exercise of pledging allegiance to a flag.

* First off, allegiance is pledged to the flag, with "to the Republic" almost an afterthought: following an "and" and never mentioned as a variant title for the exercise (we don't talk about "Pledging Allegiance to the Republic").
* The Republic in The Pledge is defined as "one nation," as opposed to a confederation of states undoubtedly, but also as a conflation of nation and republic. The U.S. isn't a nation in the same sense that Japan is a nation, or in the sense of "nations" in the joke in the song from HMS Pinafore: "But, in spite of all temptations / To belong to other nations / He remains an Englishman."
In everyday usage "nation" is still often expanded to "Christian nation," and at one time that was "White, Christian nation" (and Catholics, in such usages, weren't Christians, and Jews weren't White). And the nominally-Christian racists had and have a point: traditional nations were supposed to be united by "blood" and faith or "blood and soil" (Blut und Boden). I am a citizen of and have sworn my loyalty to the American Republic established by the U.S. Constitution; I don't belong to some hypothetical American nation.
* As the U.S. prison population continues to rise, with many inmates incarcerated for minor drug crimes — and many of them young African-American males — the line on "liberty and justice for all" becomes increasingly problematic.  In the War on Drugs and the War on Crime, Americans may prefer security for themselves over liberty for other Americans, often justly, but often not.
* Between "liberty for all" on U.S. territory and a sense of security for "natural born" U.S. citizens, most Americans would probably go for security.

If we want a patriotic exercise, maybe reciting this: "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Federal Republic established thereby, and will strive to achieve domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for us today and for future generations."