Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Books about the Love of Words

People who love words must seem strange to people who are indifferent to words. I am fascinated by word origins. (I sometimes dream that I have traveled back in time and learned to speak Proto-Indo-European. ) This is the source of bemusement to my long-suffering wife.

I am reminded of Fred Pohl's comment, "Number theory is like religion. It's either of no interest or of transcendent interest."

David Crystal pens this installment of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page's "Five Best Books" series with the Watch Your Language, giving his list for the top five books of the history and use of English.

Four more rare, out-of-print books for me to track down. Happily, I have read and reread the fifth book of his list: Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. Subtitled, "English and How it Got That Way," this book should be on the reading list of every high school student.

Anyone who enjoys Mother Tongue will enjoy Mr. Bryson's follow-up volume, Made in America, a wonderful look at American English which is becoming a world language.

If I can suggest a sixth book to Mr. Crystal list, it would be The Story of English, by Robert MacCrumb, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.

It is from The Story of English that I first encountered this Bernard Leving quote (which is one huge sentence):
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

You're Strange. But in a Good Way

Over at the Weekly Standard, Dean Barnett reviews Red! Blue!, D. Quinn Mill's novel about a civil war between Democrats and Republicans. He concludes by pointing out how politically aware people are completely clueless about the rest of the population's indifference to politics:
BUT WHERE MILLS STUMBLES is in his assumptions about American political passions. If you're reading this story, you're strange; strange in a good way, but strange nonetheless. You're by definition a high-end consumer of news. Few Americans have ever heard of, let alone often read, political magazines or websites.

Most Americans maintain an attitude towards politics that is best described as benign indifference. Even when the Bush-Gore battle hung in the balance, concerned partisans did not take to the streets in significant numbers. When the Supreme Court put an end to that struggle, there were some delirious Republicans and some despondent Democrats. But most of America shrugged its shoulders and began looking forward to the second season of Survivor.

There's a good explanation for this. On the global political menu of ice cream flavors, if we called George W. Bush vanilla and Mahmoud Ahmadenijad New York Super Fudge Chunk (with extra nuts), our elections give Americans a choice between vanilla and French vanilla. Elections matter and ideas have consequences. But the American political system has already worked out the biggest questions--democracy, free market capitalism, individual rights, suffrage, etc. Even in the most polarized of times, the differences between the parties aren't so stark as to warrant a manning of the barricades. That's a very good thing.
UPDATE: Re-reading this reminded me of a wonderful line by a British comedian whose name escapes me. His quip was explaining the U.S. political system to fellow Brits:
Like Britain, the United States has two legislative houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives is like our House of Commons, and the Senate is like our House of Lords.

Again, like Britain, the United States has two major political parties, the Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans are like our Conservative Party, while the Democrats are like our Conservative party.
The United States is, by comparison to the rest of the world, a very conservative place.
A situation that drives many people I know and love to drink.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Losing the Evangelical Vote: The Right

I've pointed out in earlier posts how Democrats lost the Evangelical vote and are still losing it today, both locally in Washington State and nationally.

In the Wall Street Journal's editorial content, Naomi Schaefer Riley points out how some on the right can be as tone-deaf as those on the left.

Tomorrow morning, Sen. John McCain delivers the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Conventional wisdom has it that Mr. McCain is trying to win support from the religious wing of the GOP for a presidential run. The decision to appear at a university founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell has not gone over well with Mr. McCain's fans on the left. "You're killin' me here," Jon Stewart told the senator when he appeared on the comedian's "Daily Show." "I feel like it's a condoning of Falwell's kind of crazymaking."

Mr. McCain's advisers probably saw this reaction coming but felt it was worth the hassle if it meant getting evangelicals on the "Straight Talk Express." What they didn't consider, but should have, is the evangelicals who cringe when they hear Mr. Falwell's name. It is exhausting to recount the ways in which Mr. Falwell offends many devout Christians, but Mr. McCain should get used to hearing them....

So why doesn't Mr. McCain just go to Wheaton? Or Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, whose 7,000 members more closely mirror mainstream evangelicals? Or Saddleback, the Southern California church led by Rick Warren, whose "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold more than 20 million copies? Or how about a meeting of World Vision, a Christian relief organization operating in 99 countries?

John C. Green, a pollster and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, tells me that "there are lots of other places that Sen. McCain could go where there wouldn't be the downside" associated with Mr. Falwell. Mr. McCain could still appeal to "the religious right" by talking to what Mr. Green calls the "centrist" evangelicals.

I guess that politicians, Left, Right, and Center don't see Evangelicals as people whose primary focus is (for better or worse) otherworldly. The see demographic figures and power blocks. I'm sure that it is much easier to pick up a phone and talk to a Fallwell or a Robertson, than to deal with the untidy mass of individuals represented by the broad swath of Evangelical Churches in America.

I'll bet though, that Senator McCain deosn't lecture the graduates about his favorite New Testament book of Job.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Vegas, Baby!

I'm currently sitting in a room of the Paris hotel on the strip in Las Vegas. You cannot imagine the cognative dissonance that this situation ring in my head. I am a much more down-home, guy-next-door kind of person and being here seems to require that you channel your inner Rat Pack character.

It's OK, though. I'm here attending the 53rd annual convention of my professional society.

First impressions: The Paris hotel is gaudy, overdone Chateau de Versailles with lots of people in shorts and halter tops wandering around with drinks.

It is kind of weird walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street and being surrounded by people with cocktails.

But, enough for now. Tomorrow is a big day. First session "Using Dita to Develop XML Documents!"

The fun never ends!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Faith as a Component of Political Views, or I am Not Montel

Here's why I often comment on the missteps of political machines and people when those missteps are within the field of the Christian faith: I am a Christian.

By this statement I mean more than I was born in a country that was predominantly Christian (though it was), to parents who were practicing Christians (though they were), or that I attend the church of my choice on a regular basis (though I do.)

What I mean is that I take my religion straight---no chaser. I have experienced things that do not make sense in a materialist worldview. (My atheist friends would say that that statement shows a lack of imagination.) I have examined both the materialist and supernaturalist worldviews and find myself on the supernaturalist side.

This is not to say that I have only supernaturalist friends. Many are far from my beliefs. Many friends are supernaturalists with views that I consider ill-formed to heretical.

The only thing I require is that if you are going to honk on about "faith issues," especially if you are trying to influence my political behavior, is that you have some idea of what you are talking about:

Continuing his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, John F. Kerry addressed (by telephone) a conference convened by that racist hustler and prevaricator Al Sharpton who won, if I'm not mistaken, exactly one delegate at the party convention in 2004. According to The New York Times yesterday, in what appeared to be rather inchoate remarks, Kerry used Iraq as a trope but offered a ten-point plan for the nation from soup to nuts ... well, from getting Osama bin Laden to legislating lobby reform. The Times alluded to Kerry's well-known verbosity. So it wasn't surprising that he also went off and said, "Not in one phrase uttered and reported by the Lord Jesus Christ, can you find anything that suggests that there is a virtue in cutting children from Medicare." I'd actually go Kerry one further: I doubt that Jesus ever mentioned Medicare at all. Still, it's probably significant that some presidential aspirants--Kerry, for one--want to demonstrate that there are among them some real live Democrats for God. Or, as the Times said about him, he is "A Roman Catholic, who has struggled at times to talk about his own faith ... Mr. Kerry also told the group that he believed 'deeply in my faith'." Now, there are many Catholics including high ecclesiastics who doubt this. But who am I to have a point of view on what is essentially an intramural fight? In any case, as it turns out, Kerry is not only a Roman Catholic but also an ecumenicist. Once again I rely on the Times: Kerry asserted that "the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles had influenced a social conscience that he exercised in politics." My God, what bullshit politicians feel obliged to utter! Or maybe the bullshit is already second nature, or even first. But since Kerry raised it, let me ask: What hadith of the Prophet influenced him the most, and why? And here I have a personal interest: Which of the injunctions of Leviticus and who among the Prophets have the most meaning for him? Ordinarily, of course, I wouldn't ask such personal questions of a politician. In the spirit of Jesus, Kerry will certainly forgive me for doing so.

--Martin Peretz
I am reminded of Richard Belzer's character Detective John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Street:
You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop, is that it? I'm just a donut in the on-deck circle. Wait until the real guy gets here. Wait until that big guy comes back. I'm probably just his secretary. I'm just Montel Williams. You want to talk to Larry King.

...If you're going to lie to me, you lie to me with respect. What is it? Is it my shoes? Is it my haircut? Got a problem with my haircut? Don't you ever lie to me like I'm Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams.
That's the message, Democrats: I am not Montel Williams.

Democrat Angst

One of the things that I encounter again and again is people's surprise that I'm a fairly nice guy. I mean this in the context of my political propensity to conservatism and my party affiliation to the Republicans.

Why would a nice guy like me associate with those horrible, mean, puppy-kicking Republicans? How can a person who can count to 20 without taking off his shoes fall for all their lies?

Attention, Democrats. The reason that I am not a Democrat is because you have drawn lines that leave me no possibility of considering your party. Caitlin Flanagan has been able to hold out, but it seems as if the author of To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife encountered all the casual contempt and even open hostility that make the Democrat Party inhospitable to me.
...there is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P. And the bayonet at my back isn't in the hands of the Republicans; the Democrats are the bullyboys. Such lions of the left as Barbara Ehrenreich, the writers at Salon and much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have made it abundantly clear to me that I ought to start packing my bags. I'm not leaving, but sometimes I wonder: When did I sign up to be the beaten wife of the Democratic Party?

Most of the 60 million people who voted against George W. Bush have lifestyles more like mine than the Democratic Party would like to admit. Most of us aren't the Hollywood elite or the nontraditional family. Many of us do what I do, which is go to church on Sunday, work hard and value my marriage. Again, it's not so much my party's platform that rejects the family; God help us all if Bush's brutality to the poor continues much longer. It's a small but very vocal minority, the Democratic pundits, who abhor what I represent because it doesn't fit the stereotypical image of the modern woman who has escaped from domestic prison. Fifty years ago, a stay-at-home mom who loved her husband would not automatically be assumed to be a Republican. The image of the Democratic Party that used to come to mind was of a workingman and his wife sitting at the kitchen table worrying about how they were going to pay the bills and voting for Adlai Stevenson because he was going to help them squeak by every month and maybe even afford to send their kids to college.

The Democrats made a huge tactical error a few decades ago. In the middle of doing the great work of the '60s--civil rights, women's liberation, gay inclusion--we decided to stigmatize the white male. The union dues--paying, churchgoing, beer-drinking family man got nothing but ridicule and venom from us. So he dumped us. And he took the wife and kids with him.

And now here we are, living in a country with a political and economic agenda we deplore, losing election after election and wondering why.

It's the contempt, stupid.
I admire Ms Flanagan tenacity, and I'm sure she has enough advice so that she won't need mine; but if the Democrats can't stick a sock in the hate speech of their standard-bearers, they are going to loose many, many more wonderful people like Ms Flanagan--if not to the Republicans, then to a third-party candidate or political cynicism and apathy.

Robot Theocons

I've been watching the Battlestar Galactica first-season DVD set (thanks to Taleena and Todd). I am enjoying it hugely. I've heard some nationally published television critics call it "the best television on television," and I agree.

One of the elements of the show that is so striking is fact that they are addressing several big issues. But because they are operating in an almost cartoon-like setting (and it is cartoon-like in the best sense), they can take up themes and motifs that would be very difficult in a more mundane setting. (Of course doing those themes successfully in a mundane setting would be high art. Battlestar Galactica settles for being great television.)

The theme that I love most, that fills me with glee, is the handling of religion. The only other show that dealt with religion in such an engaging way was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And it turns out that Battlestar Galactica's creator, Ronald D. Moore, was a staff writer for Deep Space Nine.

Last night as Mrs. Islander and I sat watching a funeral scene in the episode "Act of Contrition," she turned to me and said, "They're Christians." I started to disagree and gas on a bit about how they weren't really, they were some kind of fusion of New Age mysticism, ancestor worship, and Mormon backstory, but then I stopped. She was right. No matter what came out of their mouths, their actions, the roots of their behaviors are "Christian."

This is not surprising. Mr. Moore is a product of his culture. And this is not a bad thing. You cannot understand either Shakespere or Oscar Wilde without being aware of the Christian presuppositions of their work. A good writer can provide keen and close observations on their own culture.

What really tickles me is that while the "Colonials" struggle to make sense of their moribund religious beliefs using their modern sensibilities (Gaius Baltar is merely the most outspoken of the skeptics), the Cylons are ablaze with evangelical fervor. The drop-dead gorgeous Number Six delivers street-corner preacher lines ("God loves you Gaius, and he has a plan for your life,") even as she seduces Gaius to allow her kind to commit genocide. The robots have blasted through modernism to arrive at a post-modern religious sensibility.

I guess I would differ from some of my co-religionists in my viewpoint, but one of the things that make Battlestar Galactica so compelling is that they are portraying religious beliefs and religious believers and taking them seriously.

Robot theocons. What a concept!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Can We Blame Lee Harvey Oswald?

The Constant Reader will remember my earlier remarks on the remarkable journey the Democratic Party has taken in my lifetime.

The goo-goo campaign of George McGovern could only have taken place in the wake of the Democratic Party Convention riots of 1968. The riots of 1968 could only have taken place in the wake of the convention seating conflict of 1964.

Now, James Piereson, in Commentary Magazine, focuses on the JFK assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up, Mr. Pierson reminds us of how vital and central the Democratic Party, and Liberalism in general, were to the American scene. And motes how the political left and right have swapped places.
Liberalism entered the 1960'’s as the vital force in American politics, riding a wave of accomplishment running from the Progressive era through the New Deal and beyond. A handsome young president, John F. Kennedy, had just been elected on the promise to extend the unfinished agenda of reform. Liberalism owned the future, as Orwell might have said. Yet by the end of the decade, liberal doctrine was in disarray, with some of its central assumptions broken by the experience of the immediately preceding years. It has yet to recover.

What happened? There is, of course, a litany of standard answers, from the political to the cultural to the psychological, each seeking to explain the great upheaval summed up in that all-purpose phrase, "“the 60's."” To some, the relevant factor was a long overdue reaction to the repressions and pieties of 1950'’s conformism. To others, the watershed event was the escalating war in Vietnam, sparking an opposition movement that itself escalated into widespread disaffection from received political ideas and indeed from larger American purposes. Still others have pointed to the simmering racial tensions that would burst into the open in riots and looting, calling into question underlying assumptions about the course of integration if not the very possibility of social harmony.

No doubt, the combination of these and other events had much to do with driving the nation'’s political culture to the Left in the latter half of the decade. But there can be no doubt, either, that an event from the early 1960'’s--—namely, the assassination of Kennedy himself--—contributed heavily. As many observers have noted, Kennedy'’s death seemed somehow to give new energy to the more extreme impulses of the Left, as not only left-wing ideas but revolutionary leftist leaders--—Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro among them--—came in the aftermath to enjoy a greater vogue in the United States than at any other time in our history. By 1968, student radicals were taking over campuses and joining protest demonstrations in support of a host of extreme causes.
Piereson reminds us that the nation was ready to see American intolerance as the root cause of Kennedy's death. When the assasin was shown to be a Communist, indeed a Castro supporter, the cognative dissonance was too great for many liberal-thinking people. So they created the Queen Mother of all conspiracy theories.

John F. Kennedy's very coolness (and believe me kids, he was the essence of cool) became the inkblot upon which every kook faction of the Democratic Party, not to mention the Socialists, Communists, and every other party of the left could project their own gestalt.

In the end, the mantle of Paranoid Party passed from the John Birchers and their insistence that flouridation was a Ruskie plot to poison our precious bodily fluids, to the Democratic Underground types that see plots and conspiracies everywhere.

Illuminati, thy name is Haliburton.

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