Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Schooled in dishonesty about the nation's past

 You may have seen an asinine tweet by Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, earlier this month: "If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That's really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country."

Even I, in American history class in my junior year of high school knew about the three-fifths clause: that the slaveholding states would not ratify the Constitution without protection of slavery, and that counting each Black human being as a non-voting three-fifths of a person would give those states a boost in representation in the House of Representatives. 

And I knew, in the sanitized textbook version,* that the fights over admission of new states in the first half of the nineteenth century were over maintaining enough slaveholding states to maintain a bloc of senators able to thwart any antislavery legislation. 

The Civil War, I recall, had something to do with tariffs and was mainly about states' rights. We were not told that slavery was the only state's right the Confederacy cared about, though their own secession legislation said so. Reconstruction was something about "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags." Don't recall that we go to Jim Crow. 

At least we weren't subjected to one of those Southern textbooks saying that enslaved people were well off and grateful to their beneficent masters.**

Everything touchy about the nation's past was minimized. There had been "problems," for sure, and perhaps mistakes were sometimes made, but nothing halted our national triumphal rush to glory. 

My history teacher, Jim Johnson, had impulses to encourage thought. He set up a class debate over the Mexican War and assigned me the contra side. So I pointed out, with evidence, that the United States provoked a conflict with a weaker nation to seize territory for expansion. (Abraham Lincoln opposed the war.) And I was voted down by my classmates, who had swallowed Manifest Destiny whole. 

So it's not surprising that those whose scanty schooling in history amounted to patriotic mythology resist any effort to teach an honest account of our past. 

* To learn why U.S. textbooks reduce the country's history to a kind of anodyne paste, look into Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979). 

** I suspect that Mr. Pompeo may not be as ignorant as he sounds. He doesn't want anyone to think that the United States has a racist past extending into the present, but I expect that he knows that there was once a legal category, octoroon, to identify someone with one black great-grandparent who was therefore Black. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Not worth knowing

You do not have to be on Twitter or Facebook long before you come across some glaring example of pedagogical malfeasance. 

Today some poor devil mentioned a teacher who cut one letter grade from a paper each time the word that occurred, a lesson the poor devil has apparently carried into adult life.* One recalls Jane Austen: "We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing."

Let's be clear.

That as a relative pronoun introduces dependent clauses, marking the relationship with a main clause. 

It is often omitted in speech, particularly when the main clause and dependent clause are both short, as in the line from O Brother, Where Art Thou?: “We thought you was a toad.” But you do not want to make this a universal practice.

The Associated Press Stylebook, so frequently cited by people unaware of what is in it, offers useful advice. First, that must be used when an adverb of time follows the main verb. "They found out Thursday that their ship had sailed." 

Also, some verbs idiomatically require the use of thatadvocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose, and state

And it must be used before subordinate clauses beginning with after, although, because, before, in addition to, until, and while. "McIntyre said that while he has made this point repeatedly over the years, no one appears to have taken notice."

AP advises, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.” 

For my part, it is depressing to calculate how much time I spent over the past forty years inserting that into awkwardly phrased and unidiomatic newspaper copy.

* I do not know but suspect that the class was in journalism, since journalists as a class appear to get the fantods over that relative pronoun. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Another futile low growl in the morning

I snarled one morning on reading that someone had refuted another party in a political dispute, deploring the erosion of the word's strict sense of "to prove wrong."  

But it has been a long time since Samuel Johnson could reply to the argument of Bishop Berkeley that the objects of our senses are not actually material objects by dashing his foot against a stone and saying."I refute him thus!" Today, I think thanks mainly to journalists, the sense "to deny the truth or accuracy of" or "to dispute" is prevalent. 

Thus when you read that one bombastic politico has "refuted" another bombastic political, you are to understand that the one merely rebutted the other, proof being in short supply among us these days. 

You may feel, as does Bryan Garner, that refute "doesn't mean merely 'to counter an argument' but 'to disprove beyond doubt; to prove a statement false,' " and that the "rebut" sense is an error. But Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that the "rebut" sense became standard in the twentieth century, and it can be found today in all the dictionaries. 

What then to do. There is always the option of taking to some online platform to whinge that people who use the "rebut" sense are uneducated cattle and that English is rotting away before our eyes. (You know the type.)

But the language goes where it will, even if I do not care for the direction. That leaves me, in practice as a writer and editor, to frame a necessary question: If I want to use refute in the older, strict sense, can I be sure that readers will understand how I mean it? 

If I can't pile up enough context to bolster the "prove wrong" sense, then I am better off abandoning the enterprise. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

It looked so nice they wrote it twice

From The New York Times as published in my morning paper: "Large contingents of Cuban police patrolled the capital of Havana on Monday following rare protests around the island nation against food shortages, high prices and a worrying lack of medicine amid the coronavirus crisis. [Take a breath.] Cuba's president said the demonstrations were stirred up on social media by Cuban Americans in the United States. [Take another breath. Second paragraph] "President Joe Biden on Monday called on the Cuban government to heed the demands of thousands of citizens who took to the streets Sunday to protest power outages, food shortages and a worrying lack of medicine."

Of the two opening paragraphs tacked on to this article, I much prefer the shorter one, the longer one being upholstered with "the capital of Havana" when "Havana" would have been concise and less condescending, and that hoary cliche "the island nation," assuming that I wouldn't be quite sure that Cuba is surrounded by water.

Later in the article, the reader discovers that Cuba is "a country known for quashing dissent." Noted.

This concludes the morning grumble.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Your complaints about English usage are noted and disregarded

 After forty years in the Wilderness, the Israelites arrived at Canaan, the land that had been promised to them,  to discover that there were already people living there.


The Book of Judges describes, among other things, the slaughters that were required to command the Promised Land. Among them there was a battle of Joshua and the Gileadites with a people called the Ephraimites, which the Authorized Version describes:

"And the Gileadites took the passages of the Jordan before the Ephramites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over: that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Efhraimite? If he said, Nay: Then they said unto him, Say now Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame how to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand." 

Shibboleth in Hebrew meant "ear of grain." The word was meaningless to the Ephraimites, but their inability to pronounce it identified their ethnicity, and thus their vulnerability. So, in time, the word in English has come to mean variously, Merriam-Webster says, "a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning," "a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group," and "a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others."

Thus a shibboleth is anything, however intrinsically trivial, that enables us to separate ourselves from people we would prefer to look down on. 

The word popped into my mind as I followed yet another sterile online discussion about the word irregardless, with predictably uninformed comments that it is "not a word"* and a mark of the "uneducated." 

It was the "uneducated" that caught my eye, because I too in my hot-blooded youth was an insufferable prig about language and what I understood to be "correct" usage. It took me a long time to understand that formal standard English is not the only English and that all the other Englishes serve perfectly well in their respective domains. 

Sneering at the "uneducated" who use some nonstandard form of English, I realize, is a pathetic form of linguistic snobbery, no more noble or praiseworthy than any other form of snobbery. It is common among people, like me, who can not claim distinction by birth, wealth, physical beauty, or social status. A defective education about how language works is all we've got, so we have to work it. 

I once thought to respond to such whingeing that no one cares about your language peeves. Now I think that there are indeed other people who care about your language peeves, but they are not worth caring about. 

*Yes it is. It has a spelling, a pronunciation, an etymology, a history, and a widely understood meaning. It has been listed, though as casual or nonstandard, in dictionaries for decades, and if you complain about that, you betray a lack of understanding of how dictionaries work and how language works. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Independence Day

 When I was a graduate student at Syracuse University, a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral described a Memorial Day service at which a military color guard trooped down the central aisle at the opening procession, dipping its service flags at the altar. 

Memorial Day, that year, happened on the commemoration of the Feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the universal presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, regardless of national or cultural identities. It was outrageous. I wrote a sharp little note to the dean of the cathedral, suggesting that attempting to portray the Episcopal Church as a national church was misguided. I received a mealy-mouthed response from one of the canons. (When they tell you your letter was "well-written," it means they have ignored the contents. See Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room.") 

Later, at another parish, I made use of an occasion to remove items on display in advance of Holy Thursday to spirit the U.S. flag out of the chancel to conceal it in an obscure corner of the undercroft, hoping it would not be discovered. 

I am a native-born American citizen who has paid taxes without complaint for more than half a century and has voted in every election save one (a primary election when I had to be out of town) since coming of age, and I will happily dispute anyone who disputes my patriotism.

But I do not believe that the conflation of Americanism with Christianity is healthy either for the United States or Christianity. We live in what the Founders rightly established as a secular republic (though many of them did give lip service to a Deist deity). 

So mark the Fourth, and mark our hesitant efforts to live up to its ideals, but pray leave the Almighty out of it. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Sound familiar?

"The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule."  

Hiram Wesley Evans, head of the Ku Klux Klan, eighty years ago, quoted in Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life