Archive for the ‘don’t want to be an American idiot’ Category

Glenn Beck, consider yourself on notice.

You denounced $500,000 in government subsidies to help the National Czech and Slovak Museum after it was hit by massive flooding in Cedar Rapids as one of your stupid, ill-informed examples of “waste” in how taxpayer dollars are spent?

$500,000 for exhibits at the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids — what about the Serb, Croatian and Albanian exhibits? Don’t we care about them?

While I’m a bit surprised you managed to name three separate East-Central European ethnic groups (I honestly didn’t think you were that knowledgeable), your snide rhetorical question lacks any logic.

Do us a favor: when it comes to a question about which you know little or nothing, just keep your mouth shut.

(Yes, I realize this means you’ll have to be silent pretty much all the time. That’s the point.)

Read Full Post »

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has a fascinating post at NPR on the linguistic vacuity of the Pledge of Allegiance. Nunberg does a nice job of explaining some key bits of historical context pertaining to the origins (and evolution) of the Pledge, and showing how the Pledge is little more than a ritual lacking a real connection to the language therein.

Particularly interesting is Nunberg’s explanation about how Congress inserted the politically thorny phrase “under God” into the Pledge during the Cold War. It’s rather archaic language, though the obsolescence of “under God” isn’t without its advantages, as Nunberg explains.

That ambiguity has certain advantages. But it actually came about because of a linguistic misunderstanding. The words were taken from the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln asked his listeners to resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Except that in the Gettysburg Address, “under God” didn’t modify “this nation” but the following phrase, “have a new birth of freedom.” In Lincoln’s time, “under God” was a common idiom that meant “with God’s help” or “the Lord willing.” People used it to qualify a bald prediction or promise, mindful of the admonition against vainglory in the book of James.

Inshallah indeed.

And as a tangent: before traveling to Egypt several years ago, I had read in some guidebook that inshallah — “God willing” — was a commonly used Arabic phrase. I had no idea how common, however, until I spent two weeks in Egypt and heard it peppering everyday speech. I can still recall my good friend hailing a cab for us back to his flat in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, leaning into the window of a taxi, and saying to the driver, “Mohandiseen, inshallah. The use of inshallah made his statement a question, practically a plea. Literally, it was like flagging down a taxi in Manhattan, then asking the cabbie, “Brooklyn, God willing.” But in everyday speech, it functioned more like asking, “Will you take us to Mohandiseen?” Still, the fact that my doggedly atheistic friend was invoking God in hailing a cab offered a clue to how ubiquitous inshallah was in Arabic speech.

Read Full Post »

Now, I know the NYT isn’t necessarily going to produce the most insightful reporting on the Tea Party movement, and articles with headlines like “With No Job, Time for Tea Party” smack of elitist smugness.

Still, it’s hard not to think that this air of condescension isn’t warranted, when you read about some of the illogic at work in the minds of Tea Partiers.

For instance, this story refers to a woman from the Philadelphia area, Diana Reimer, as one of the “stars” in the effort of a Tea Party group called FreedomWorks to fight health care reform.

On the one hand, you have to respect someone willing to toil so hard for a cause in which she believes.

Ms. Reimer often wells up talking about her work. “I’m respected,” she said, her voice breaking. “I don’t know why. I don’t know what is so special. But I’m willing to do it.”

On the other hand, you’d like to see a little more thought and reason put into that cause and her efforts to advance it.

She and others who receive government benefits like Medicare and Social Security said they paid into those programs, so they are getting what they deserve. [Emphasis added.]

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

She has no patience for the Obama administration’s bailouts and its actions on health care. “I just don’t trust this government,” Ms. Reimer said.

So much to parse. There’s the objectionable premise that only those who “paid” into entitlement programs are, well, entitled to collect those benefits. By this logic, public education is a crock since there aren’t a whole lot of first-graders paying the property taxes that support their education. (And yes, I’m aware that most kids’ parents are paying in some form or another for the property taxes that finance public schools. But if you have to make that kind of a retort, it just illustrates how torturous your logic is.)

Then there’s also the part about finding it OK to accept Medicare while simultaneously railing against government-sponsored and -funded health care.

Honestly, we ought simply to repay these people the money they “paid” into the Medicare and Social Security systems over the years, then let them fend for themselves in the eternally virtuous free market when it comes to health care and retirement income. Maybe they won’t think so harshly of government involvement in health care when they find no corporation willing to insure a senior citizen without premiums that are astronomical above and beyond the currently stratospheric levels.

Then there’s Jeff McQueen, who got involved with Tea Partying in the Rust Belt after losing his job in auto parts sales.

He blames the government for his unemployment. “Government is absolutely responsible, not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s,” he said. “The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.”

He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact.

If you don’t trust the mindset or the value system of the people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore,” Mr. Grimes said. [Emphasis added.]

Well, you certainly can’t reason — or argue — with that (il-)logic. Though I do think it nicely encapsulates a problem pervasive in politics of all persuasions, and why it’s increasingly difficult to find any sort of common political ground on anything. After all, if you don’t share the mindset and value system of the person dispensing the facts, then you just can’t be bothered with facts.

Read Full Post »

There’s nothing that raises hackles like some stupid nationalistic law trying to compel patriotism.

This week it happened in Slovakia, where the ruling left-wing/nationalist coalition passed a “law on patriotism” that requires students at all state schools and universities to sing the national hymn at the beginning of each week, as well as promoting the Slovak flag and other national symbols.

The new law isn’t universally popular within Slovakia, where people in some quarters are complaining about the effort to mandate this kind of patriotic ritual.

Moreover, the law is raising alarms among Slovakia’s neighbors. In Austria, an editorial this week responded to the patriotism law by describing Bratislava as “Pyongyang on the Danube.” I haven’t seen any reports about the reaction from Hungary, but it’s pretty clear that the language law, which looks like yet another sop by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing party Smer to the right-wing Slovak National Party, notorious for its baiting of Slovakia’s Magyar minority (as well as the Roma population).

Of course, it’s also interesting to see the backlash to the law, then to think about how American schools arguably take it further. I think we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day I was in public school, though I suppose there’s no federal law requiring recitation of the pledge, as far as I know. Then there was that whole period in fourth grade, during Gulf War I, when Mrs. Banks had our class signing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” almost daily.

I guess, again, the operative difference is the element of legal compulsion. Still, it’s not like most schoolchildren are really old enough or informed enough to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in such nationalistic rituals.

Plus, it would be hilarious if, for instance, the Globe and Mail took to referring to D.C. as “Pyongyang on the Potomac.” It has a ring to it.

Read Full Post »

A big part of the reason I stopped watching the History Channel eons ago was that I grew tired of the constant assault of programming fixated on the Second World War. It seemed like there was always some documentary or special touting some minor campaign in the Pacific, or cheering the heroes of D-Day, or (somewhat less frequently) pointing out the horrors of the Holocaust.

Of course, as I began training to become a professional historian and read more widely, I found the American perspective on the war tiresome and wanting. To watch the History Channel or, I’m guessing, to ask most Americans, the history of the Second World War went something as follows:

Hitler and the Nazis did some bad stuff, and there were evil deeds afoot in Japan, then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the war began, and it was a slog until D-Day, which turned the tide of the war and it was only a matter of time before the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and then Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war in Japan.

Certainly that version captures some of the general contours of the war. And it definitely covers the major American participation. But as tantalizing as it is to think that “our boys” single-handedly won the war, such a view just doesn’t do justice to what actually happened.

Then again, it’s convenient to forget that a bunch of Commies did a lot of the heavy lifting and bore the biggest human toll. Even if we occasionally remember that Stalin was an ally: remember “Uncle Joe”?

Anyway, I saw a headline for a story in the NYT op-ed section that piqued my interest: “How World War II Wasn’t Won.”

It seemed promising. I wasn’t offhand what occasioned such an audaciously headlined piece, but I thought it might be an attempted corrective on the narrative so entrenched in the American popular consciousness.

Naturally, I was wrong. Wrong to think this was going to challenge American perspectives. Wrong to think it would deflate the deification of D-Day, if only a little bit. And certainly wrong to think it might be something so simple as a think piece to say, “Actually, the turning point of the war in Europe came on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army did the real heavy lifting.”

Nope. None of that. In fact, there was no mention at all of “Soviet” (or “Russian,” which was and remains synonymous with “Soviet” in the American lexicon) or “Red Army” or “Eastern Front.” Nope. Nothing.

Instead, the piece focuses on a counter-factual about a possible “second D-Day” along the Western Front. Chance to end the war a few months earlier. Potential glory for the Americans. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.


Read Full Post »

Many, many months ago I happened to become a “fan” of NPR on Facebook, probably by accident. (I think I was trying to click an adjacent link and instead unintentionally hit the “become a fan” link.)

I’ve never, ever in my life listened to NPR, mainly because I largely stopped listening to the radio way back in high school, once my parents put a CD player in my car, obviating the need to listen to the endless commercials, inane banter and crappy quasi-metal that increasingly dominated most of the “modern” music stations at the time. (By that point, if I had the radio on in the car, it was tuned to classic rock, since I knew there’d be less chitchat, and more importantly, by virtue of the station format I knew I wouldn’t have to suffer through lots of crappy music whose sole “virtue” was its “newness.”)

Anyway, since I virtually never listened to the radio at home (where I had an ample CD collection at my disposal), no longer having a car in college meant I basically stopped listening to the radio entirely.

It was also in college that I was exposed to the phenomenon of liberal-minded, highly educated folks name-dropping NPR in everyday conversation. After a while, I started to think I might be missing something, and I kind of regretted not listening to it, but it was a passive lament; I wasn’t about to start listening to the radio on a regular basis, even if I thought there might be something worth hearing.

Anyway, since becoming an unwitting “fan” of NPR, I’ve been getting various NPR stories and articles popping up in my news feed, which isn’t bad. Sometimes there are interesting stories, things I wouldn’t get elsewhere or might otherwise miss, and it’s nice in general to have another source of news, even if not a comprehensive one.

Regular NPR listeners always struck me as people of relatively like mind in terms of politics and worldview. They’re probably much more establishment than me, and more wedded to the Democratic Party, even if to its “progressive wing.” In short, they’re people with whom I should see eye to eye and find easy conversation and general agreement on a range of issues, and that’s probably always been the case.

Still, in recent days my generally favorable view of NPR and its listeners has soured a bit. For instance, last Tuesday there was a story about the outrage of conservatives in Egypt over an “artificial virginity device” designed to simulate the wedding-night bleeding of a virgin bride. I had read about this controversy elsewhere, but I was unprepared from the culturally condescending attitudes of some of the comments of NPR Facebook fans on the story:

“Hard-line Islamic and Arab values are an assault on women”

“I laugh at their insane stupidity”

“This is no surprise for a culture that still lives in the middle ages, considers a woman as less than a man, and an object to be bartered, traded, or dumped if she doesn’t measure up to whatever arbitrary standards a man decides to invoke.”

“As I was flying home last week on Egypt Air, I was reading the English version of the Cairo Newspaper, and on the front page was this story about this virginity device…at first, I thought that my sleeping pill was causing me to read this looney story, but then as I read on, I realized that Muslim women can be put to death in Eygpt for lying about their virginity…. I shook my head and said yet again “so glad to be lucky enough to have born in the USA”. I didn’t tell anyone about this story when I got home, for they would have thought that I made it up….NPR comes through for me!”

And so on. I understand the instinct to feel outraged at a society in which women appear to be second-class citizens. But it’s another thing to use so broad a brush in conflating Egypt with the Arab and Islamic world more broadly in condemning this behavior. I can’t claim any great breadth or depth of knowledge about either, but I know that there is considerable difference among Arab (and especially Islamic) societies, and more than that, I know that I don’t know enough to make blanket indictments of the Arab and/or Islamic world. I mean, if I were to learn of a case of a young woman of European descent living somewhere in the United States being discouraged from attending college or pursuing work outside the home so that she might find a husband and become a homemaker — certainly not a stretch of the imagination — I wouldn’t take that as an invitation to condemn the entire European and Christian value system that I blame for this sorry state of affairs.

Discovering that Orientalizing attitude disturbed me, though after thinking about it I decided it wasn’t entirely surprising. I kept thinking of the Phil Ochs song about sixties liberals, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and thinking these were probably just the equivalent people for the aughts.

Then, this afternoon, another NPR story caught my attention, one with the suggestive headline, “Slavic Soul Party: The Bayou Meets Bratislava.”

Naturally, seeing “Bratislava” in the headline, I was intrigued and clicked on the story, thinking it would have some Slovak angle.

Naturally, that assumption proved completely wrong.

Evidently Slavic Soul Party is “a New York brass band that takes inspiration from Balkan and gypsy music, but also funk and New Orleans traditions.” There are mentions of “Greek and Macedonian groups,” “Serbian brass” and an “experimental Balkan music movement,” as well as “traditional Slavic music.” But the closest anything comes to Bratislava is perhaps conflating “Slovak” with “Slavic.”

Perhaps this is just a case of the person who writes the headlines not being the person who writes the articles, and thus the headline writer is to blame. A perfectly plausible suggestion. It doesn’t make it any more excusable to think Bratislava is somehow located in the “Balkans” — maybe the headline writer was confusing Bratislava and Belgrade? Or Bucharest? — and it doesn’t absolve the responsible party from having this Orientalist perspective to think the Balkans begin roughly where the former Iron Curtain stood. Moreover, it makes NPR look bad as a news organization if it can’t even get basic European geography correct. (When I was in journalism school this kind of factual error would’ve be grounds for an automatic F, assuming the professor in question knew it was a mistake.)

Of course, even if the headline writer is to blame for this butchering of Eastern and Central European geography, the author of the story isn’t immune from similar mistakes born of cultural ignorance:

Of the nine players in Slavic Soul Party, only one has a real background in traditional Slavic music. That’s Peter Stan, a third-generation Romanian accordionist. When Stan takes a solo with this band, his roots show, but so does his delight in breaking with orthodoxy.

Romanians, of course, identify themselves not as Slavs but as descended from the Roman colonists of the empire, two millennia or so ago. They speak a Romance language (even if it has absorbed various Slavic words), and they would be quick to take offense if someone was to suggest they were Slavic. To say a “Romanian accordionist” shows his “roots” in playing “traditional Slavic music” is nonsensical. Or, at least it would be to anyone who knew better.

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to pick on NPR and its listeners for demonstrating staggering ignorance of a region they probably envision as “Eastern Europe” or the “Balkans,” since the wider population likely knows even less. But it does make me realize how dilettantish all the involved parties can be.

Read Full Post »

Here’s an actual screen shot, captured moments ago, from the New York Times web site’s front page.

NYT headline writers exude the sense of understatement for which their fellow New Yorkers are renowned

NYT headline writers exude the sense of understatement for which their fellow New Yorkers are renowned

I loved loathed that second headline, which so neatly encapsulates everything I hate about New Yorkers, namely their obnoxious sense of superiority and total lack of self-awareness about same.

Moreover, the second headline especially captures the attribute that most compels me to revile the Yankees and their fans, since it suggests, without irony, that the Yankees should not only be in the playoffs every season, but should also win the World Series annually. It’s practically their birthright, can’t you see?

Thus, New York must be elated that the Bronx Bombers have returned to the postseason for the first time in — let’s see, 2009 minus 2007 — two years. Even a humanities scholar like me can do the math and figure out that the Yankees’ postseason drought had reached an onerous, soul-crushing, franchise-deflating, fan base-dejecting one year. And no longer counting.

OK, so the headline wasn’t alluding to that specific postseason drought. Making the playoffs is practically a formality for the Yanquís. (It’s beyond my comprehension how Yankee fans survived last season without a playoff berth.) I was actually surprised on some level to see the picture of the Yankees celebrating their division title with more emotion than they’d muster for burying the Royals in mid-May.

Rather, as the linked story describes, the Yankees are hoping to end their disappointing run of postseason flameouts that stretches back five, six or nine years, depending on what you take as the benchmark of success for the Yankees (hint: it’s not sweeping a mid-summer twin bill against the Orioles).

But the Yankees did not unload close to half a billion dollars to simply win the A.L. East. While the Yankees are pleased with what they have accomplished, their mandate, as always, is to win it all. The Yankees have journeyed to the postseason for 14 of the last 15 seasons, but they have not won a title since 2000 and have not been in the World Series since 2003 [emphasis added].

Gasp! Eek! Pow! Can you imagine that? I’m surprised such celebrated tormentors of the United States as Hugo Chávez, Muammar Qaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t take the opportunity of their addresses at the United Nations this week to decry the egregious treatment of Americans living in the UN’s backyard.

I’m not even going to bother listing how many other teams have endured similar postseason “droughts” to the Yankees’. Suffice it to observe that the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had so much as a winning record, much less playoff success of any sort, since before the Yankees began their current run of postseason berths in fourteen of the past fifteen seasons.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »