Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Every Inaugural is Important

essaysbysean.blogspot.com


Although skin color cannot travel the airwaves, last week I had a distinct impression that I was hearing an officially important black lady, on the phone long distance, talking to a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She was saying she would not go to the inaugural ceremony of President-Elect Donald Trump. She’s not alone. As she noted, it’s in the news that a number of elected democrats are planning to “not attend.” To her the inaugural was a celebration, and since she didn’t see Trumps’ election as something to celebrate, she wouldn’t attend.

A celebration? A happiness thing? Wrong. While it’s true that everybody will be wearing their “Sunday go to meeting” clothes, the event is not solely like the happiness of shouting the gospel, but also, in small part, like the quieter formal sacrament of the bread and wine. Every society needs ceremonies. Old ladies just know in their bones that certain traditions are necessary, while old philosophers know why: The alternative is grim.

A thought-scenario might help explain things: So I invite you to depart with me,

To another space and time.
There I am, a simple peasant hoeing my simple plot of land in the shadow of the castle. Do I care if the flag on the castle changes? Or if the duke is killed and replaced by his rival? In truth? Not unless my taxes go up. I don’t care for the elite, I don’t like them, and I even—whisper it—despise them. That’s why every Sunday the priest says, “Bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations.” My station? Peasant. One day my blood boils over because the elite are being extra stupid, my family is getting extra skinny, and maybe the queen is saying, “Ah, let them eat cake.” So we take up arms and leave the farm for a while, then we return home—and we all convert to democracy.

So far, so good. For the first time ever we have folks without royal blood, without the anointment of God, in charge of the country. Heaven on earth? Or history repeating?

If the new leaders are not quite legitimate, then next thing you know, some really short guy decides on a “stroke of state,” something the French call a “coup d’etat.” Me? This time around my blood only gets lukewarm, and I stay put. I don’t know much about democracy, but I know that my little plot needs hoeing.

When I was a boy growing up in the mid twentieth century, when all those former colonies were becoming new countries, and joining the United Nations, every once in a while a young country would experience a coup de’tat. As Turkey did just last year. If they can, the rebels quickly put a symbolic tank in the public square. Not to fight other tanks, —what tanks? But to be a symbol: Don’t resist, you can’t fight the new city hall.

If the stroke was sharp and swift, then peace would be restored within 48 hours, after someone had literally lost his head. Maybe a king, maybe a rebel. If the stroke was not swift, half bungled, then there would be a long civil war: Now people would leave their farms to fight.

Of course, if only you would all rush to join the fighting right away, then you would avoid a lot of future bloodshed and a long war. Yes, but what if you see that ominous tank? History shows us that on rare occasions an army unit will rush in during the critical 48 hours, that sometimes a short captain will show initiative with his small body of troops, rushing up the stairs of the capital building. But not the bureaucrats, no, they will stay in their cubicles, like peasants on a plot. And not those “bureaucrats in uniform,” the city’s finest, also known as the police.

An expert on coup de’tats, Professor Edward Luttwak, could not find any case of a police captain taking action. To me this makes good sense: The cops in those new countries don’t know much about democracy, but they know they don’t want to take risks for a…  not-so-legitimate government. They won’t care to die for an elite who won’t “give a care” about them.

Meanwhile, back in America,
The issue is the word “legitimacy.” Be it the stars and stripes or the stiff formal robes of a judge or the heavy chain worn by “the” mayor, people will rally around a legitimate symbol. In a courtroom, as the judge enters, I will “rally” by jabbing the uninformed longhaired boy next to me in the ribs, advising him we must all rise when the judge enters. My own freedom to sit is not as important as all of us having a society where the forces a judge wields are legitimate.

There’s another word, “force.” Local farmers will little note, and little care, when down at the local widget factory a new chief executive officer takes over the big corner office. No ceremony is needed. But at the rural army base, then even if none of the farmers are going to come attend a really boring parade, there will always be a “change of command” ceremony. Always. Force must be legitimate.

The outgoing U.S. president managed something President Clinton tried and failed to do: To drag the U.S.A. kicking and screaming into the modern world of affordable health care. The U.S. system is not as good as over in New Zealand, Australia or Japan, not as good as up here in Canada or over in Western Europe, but at least it’s a start.

And if you were opposed? You probably called it “Obama-care,” you probably routinely referred to that man’s surname without using the honorific of “president,” and you may have even maintained he was not born in the U.S.A. (The “birthers”) All this friction could only have been worse if Barack Obama was without the legitimacy of a presidential inauguration. The symbolism matters.

In England, of course, they elect a prime minister. The King only leaves office by dying. Back in the day, though, the English avoided civil war by saying, all in one breath, “The king is dead, long live the king!” It sounds silly to us here and now, but for them? The alternative was too grim.

As for me, I guess even if I lived right in the city of Washington I might stay at home or go to the library on the day of the presidential inauguration. Fine. And if I was a female black elected official?

Attending the inaugural is important, because America is important.


Sean Crawford
up in Canada,
hazy on modern specifics,
clear on old principles,
January 2016

Footnotes:
~For folks overseas, coup de’tats are not boring history. In fact, Edward Luttwak’s book, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, has been translated into over 100 languages. Here's a New York book review.

~Of course I’m not a minority of one. I'm sure others know history too. By the time you read this, older and wiser heads may well have talked the elected democrats into attending.



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Anglicizing

Anglicizing

Hello dear reader,
Got Anglicizing?
You should, if you’re reading this in North America, because hey, that’s your culture.

“Anglicizing,” of course, means pronouncing stuff so it sounds regular, not twisted. After all, nobody tells tongue twisters in everyday life. But if you are truly tempted to, then I totally recommend a tome of tongue twisters, The Fox in Sock by Dr. Seuss—My second favorite childhood doctor.

As for who is my favorite doctor: I have a nice blue ceramic copy of a certain police call box, complete with piggy bank slot.

Recently, I was delighted to hear the pronunciation of “the doctor” during a commercial for a Doctor Who special. He said, watching historical figures appear: “There’s Winston Churchill… and there’s Van Goff…” Of course it was Vincent Van Gogh, as in “go.” As for me, I will say “go”, but only because, as an adult, I have heard Vincent’s name spoken so very many times.

I suppose the doctor was being courteous to British children: As practical journalists know, “there are new babies being born every minute who have not heard the name pronounced,” not by anyone in their dear housing tenement. The innocent children who read “Gogh” will say it as it is spelled.

Is being innocent right and proper? Not necessarily so. Suppose you are child: If your parents can afford a nanny like in the Mary Poppins books, if you are growing up in a big house with a nursery and a drawing room, if your parents buy expensive art at timely intervals, giving you enough time, between each new painting, to practice saying the name of each new foreign artist… then I say, practice away!

If your parents for some reason want you to say “limb” instead of “leg,” or a “pride” of lions and a “murder” of crows, instead of a bunch or a flock, then practice is important. Maybe your parents are more concerned with “appearing classy” than with being courteous to those poor kids reading in the tenements. Since they are your parents, please forgive them.

As for me, I think of a truck driver: my older brother, Jimmy. If he were to drive all across Canada, all of five and a half time zones, then I would hope all the other English speakers use standard words and pronunciation too. For any new words, they could still all talk nicely together. No getting fouled up: No, because all across Canada, all of those raised without nannies would have agreed to a common sense default pronunciation. No fault, no foul.

Jim’s lifestyle allows him time to read good novels, mostly westerns and science fiction, but he hasn’t enough time to learn exceptions to the rules of English pronunciation. Having learned as a child the five vowels, “and sometime Y,” James won’t take time as an adult to stand in front of a mirror and practice shifting gears to drop into strange foreign vowels and back up again. In other words, his sentences will not include any words abruptly spoken in italics.

As for driving trucks and cars, Jim and I both learned to drive a manual transmission, shifting gears smoothly, but such learning required extra work. There’s a good reason most Canadians stick to automatics—it’s practical.

And so is English practical. When I was in high school taking French, every year I kept learning a long list of irregular verb forms, even during my last year. And those conjugations—arrrgh! “I rock, you rockez, they rockoley…” No wonder, as a rebellious youth, I failed French. I just wanted to rock.

We still have a few English exceptions to memorize: I drink, I have drunk, I had drank … but fewer all the time. These days, only swimmers my age and older say “I dove in,” just as only older basketball players switch to shooting with their left or right hand depending on what side of the key they are on—young players complain it’s not practical to do so, and they won’t learn to take penalty shots with an underhand throw.

Another practical English thing: no genders to memorize. No la knife and le fork. For our innocent nonsexist children, no teacher and teacher-ess.

The language encourages non-sexist democracy for English speakers. Not like in Germany, where, according to some guy in a tavern, there are seven “verbal salutes” built into their language, where you must acknowledge a speaker of a higher social class as being your superior. I suppose the German language has sexism too. In Japan, as I heard in the aforementioned tavern, there are 27 salutes, but some of those are only for addressing the emperor. Well. No need to ask whether the Japanese have sexism, eh? No wonder back during my youth in Vancouver, when a rebellious Japanese teen was addressed in Japanese by his parents, the boy would reply in English.

Back in the mists of time, back when France was still Gaul, then, on lush green hills across the English Channel, the original creators of English were practical and democratic. They had to be: After the fall of Rome restless tribes poured in, mostly the Jutes, (there’s a Jutland in Denmark) the Saxons, (There’s a Saxony in Germany) and the Angles. Others too, of course. An English common prayer ended, “And deliver us from the fury of the Northmen.”

If, late on a tired English afternoon, you ran into a bearded fellow from the next valley, looking at you under his furrowed brow with suspicion, his sword loose in his scabbard, well, that was no time to be throwing a childish tongue twister at him. If the man was from another tribe, then you needed a practical pidgin language. Can do? No time for memorizing irregular verb exceptions. No irregular vowels. The democracy of the language was a happy side effect of peace.

For the English, peace was a practical courtesy.

I suppose “being practical” explains why the English use so few syllables compared to everybody else.  Another word shortener, I suspect, is the standard default to put the accent on the first syllable. Which has the added bonus of making English nice for singing popular songs. At least, that’s what a famous Swedish group said. They thought it was practical to just take the first letter from each of their names to give their band a nice short two-syllable title.

When I was a boy my brother Jim taught me to say the fuzzy name Jean Val Jean, a name which buzzes on your tongue, sounding fun to say, like the name of Pooh’s friend, Tigger. Therefore when I read a children’s story, in English, of poor Jean Val Jean doing years in prison for stealing one loaf of bread, I made an exception for his name… but not for everybody else. I did not call the author Veectwa Yugo. No, in Victor Hugo’s world I read everyone’s name in English. You know what I’m saying? I Anglicized their names… according to our traditional default.

Speaking of Jean, and practical defaults, the Canadian armed forces, with lives at stake, is certainly practical: In a Quebec base where I was stationed, Canadian Forces Base “Saint Jean,” was pronounced “Saint Jeen” to avoid mistakes. (And to Anglicize, of course) Similarly, during the Second World War, to avoid any confusion of Iraq and Iran, the allied forces changed their maps to make the latter “Persia.”

In any language, of course, unless you speak Esperanto, there will always be some exceptions: Being polite means not making new ones. Call me an adult rebel, if you will, but it’s only common sense to Anglicize everything that’s not nailed down. And besides, being Canadian, Anglicizing is my culture, my Traditional Culture. It’s a culture as honest as bread and butter: I won’t pronounce Paris as Paree… unless I’m saying “gay Paree.”

“But wait!” cries a voice from the peanut gallery. “Speaking of Hugo and the classics, ooh, I just loved reading War and Peace, by Leon Tolstoy. I ask you: Won’t it hurt those people’s feelings to Anglicize their names?” Surely the answer’s obvious: No, not if they overhear me speaking English. Not if they are thousands of miles away in Russia, and hundreds of years away in time, and only fictional characters to begin with… Oh all right, sometimes I will compromise while they’re still alive, but I tell you: Once they’re dead, they’re Anglicized.

For example, remember that president and war hero “of France,”—“de Gaulle?”—pardon the pun—the fellow who wanted Britain kept out of the EU? And France out of NATO? Today no one in London calls him Sharlez. Except folks inside the French embassy, and even they respect English culture, calling him Charles, if they meet you outside in Trafalgar Square.

Unfortunately, there will always be some who see themselves as elite, the “jet set,” the ones who seem to believe in existing without tradition, without roots, and with no Anglicizing. Before Brexit, they were the ones who wanted Britain to replace the pound sterling with the Eurodollar. So they could jet to “the continent” easily. They would be the same guys who now wish to multiply the sheer number of exceptions to memorize. This at the expense of their rural cousins down the highway. At the expense of my brother Jim.

Why?

I can only guess why.

I imagine folks who can afford to fly instead of taking the greyhound are carrying a two-sided coin: On the one side, snobbery; on the other, fear. Snobbery of thinking that people who grew up in house trailers or, like my brother, on a farmstead, somehow don’t wash enough and don’t realize how foreigners pronounce their words. Fear of being like my brother, yes, and also a fear of their peers: guilty white liberals. Fear of not being “Politically Correct.”

What rubbish. I can remember when PC was confined to Marxist study groups, back when Politically Correct communists would translate Russian directly to English, and then be puzzled as to why the rest of us couldn’t work up any concern about being “imperialist lackeys” or “running dogs.” If you wish to “spread the revolution,” then you would do best stick to your roots. To English, and our culture of Anglicizing.

My own roots? I am the only one of six kids in my family with a university degree, which I guess makes me an honorary member of the middle class. And that’s fine by me. I don’t mind smart people: Some of my best friends have degrees. I don’t mind wealth: Some of my best friends are rich. Of course they are, since I live in a wealthy oil town, complete with ethnic diversity from skilled workers moving in.

What I mind is when snobs wimp out, giving in to their fear, distorting our traditional Anglicizing culture, committing their “micro aggressions” against honest people like my brother. I live here. I don’t like it when they try to make Canada into a place more complicated, less practical and less democratic. 

…Well dear reader, that’s enough writing for today. Maybe I’ll go off to read a children’s book of tongue twisters, The Fox in Sox by that nice Dr. Seuss. Come to think of it, he’s the one who wrote against snobbery in The Star Belly Sneetches….

Sean Crawford
Alberta
January
2017
Sidebars and Footnotes

Sidebar I: I have sympathy for people of subcultures using their jargon, such as the nice art gallery guys where I go to make the payments on my art, or nerdy scientists.

When I studied scientific terminology at university I learned many “proper” ways to make things plural… (One octopus, two octopi; one datum, two data, one Scout staff, two staves, one alumnus, two alumni, one spagetto, two spaggetti) …But when I talk with regular Canadians, I normally make a plural by simply adding S.

Today guys like my brother can easily learn about art and science just by tapping on their keyboard. But surely Jim won’t think to memorize all those plurals. He’ll just use a practical “s.” Well then. Should we college graduate-types be scolding Jim? Scolding Jim into being politically “proper and correct” with his plurals, or… shall we open our language up to everybody? …

Footnotes:
~ I met a nanny once. In my night school drama class. She was blond, not dark haired like Mary Poppins. No talking parrot umbrella handle. I’m sure nannies are more common back east where, according to rumor, mansions come with a “nanny apartment.”

~On my first literary holiday to England, the one where I traced H.G. Wells, I visited the London Zoo. The first thing I asked at the info desk was, “Where would Mary Poppins take the children?”

Sidebar II:
As I waited to print this, I found an Edmonton (population one million-ish) newspaper opinion piece. It seems a woman—no doubt an ivory tower graduate—wishes to stick a wrongly spelled, and tongue twisting, aboriginal name onto an Edmonton street.  

Ostensibly, she wants to have a street name that sounds like the indigenes folks in the outlying reservations.  

But given her scolding tone, I sense her wish is not from any bountiful love of our traditional culture, and not with any sense of tongue twisting fun. When I think about her writing, then despite her nice degree, I would never want her as my children’s nanny. Not just because she lacks democracy, but also? Because she’s no fun.