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The Language of Terrorism

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

tomtomorrowterrorguns

[Tom Tomorrow, May 6, 2013]

Among the many victims of our War on Terror, now in its second decade, is the word “terror” itself. Terror has come to refer to what Muslims do to non-Muslims, or to Christians, or to Americans. With bombs. A white supremacist kills six Sikhs in Wisconsin with a gun? He’s crazy. An anti-abortion fanatic kills a doctor while the doctor is attending church? He’s a man of conscience. But if a Muslim shoots people, or more likely, explodes a bomb, then he’s a terrorist. Bomb + Mulsim = terror; gun + Christian = freedom. I know, I’m simplifying. But it’s how these events get covered, and how too many politicians speak of them.

Which brings me to Hamilton Nolan’s article Terrorism and the Public Imagination today at Gawker. (Hat tip: Glenn Greenwald.) It’s worth checking out. I’ll quote from it below.

In America, all villainy is not created equal.

A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten.

[snipp

Besides countless deaths abroad and a staggering debt at home, the primary legacy of America’s “War on Terror” is our profoundly warped sense of the dangers of the world we live in, and of who our “enemies” are. As a rule, the rare violence committed by Muslims, with some political or religious motivation, is “terrorism,” and deserving of the attention of the public and of our stern-faced leaders. The far more common and destructive acts of violence committed every single day on the streets of America due to poverty and the drug war and lack of education and simple human viciousness are “street violence,” which is treated as some timeless aspect of the human condition. This violence, which kills many more Americans each year than any Muslim terrorist could dream of, is unworthy of our brain space.

[snip]

This modern age of Terror That Matters vs. forgettable violence is not simply a matter of ratings. It is a direct outgrowth of a deliberate post-9/11 political strategy to create a world in which the vague specter of “Terrorism” could fill the role of The Big Bad “Other” that had been empty since the end of the Cold War. That strategy was wildly successful. It helped to cow the nation’s news media enough to pave the way for the war in Iraq. It made patriotism synonymous with suspicion. And it persists today, in our reflexes that cause us to instinctively and unquestioningly expect an act of violence inspired by Muslim zealotry to mean something more than an act of violence inspired by any other cause.

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Categories: Language, Politics

On Ice

April 15, 2013 Leave a comment
Yale scores over Quinnipiac

Yale scores over Quinnipiac

[Gene Puskar/Associated Press]

It’s been a while since I’ve written about college hockey. I’ve explained before that I used to be a big fan. That happens when your older brother goes to school at one of the great hockey powers out west (which wins the NCAA title his junior and senior years), and then you head to school at one of Boston’s four great hockey powers—ranked #1 frequently during your time there—only to watch another of the Boston powers win two titles in a row, with the championship games played in Boston three consecutive years.

Starting sophomore year, I never missed a home game or a game in that best of all Boston sporting traditions, the annual midseason Beanpot tournament. Boston schools continue to dominate, BC having won three championships in the five years prior to this one and BU another. Harvard, though, has fallen on hard times, with former doormat Yale becoming the best Ivy team of late.

Well, none of this is germane to the point of this silly post, which I’ll soon get to.

In recent years, I haven’t followed college hockey so closely. There was a bit of a revival of interest when Joel attended one of Boston’s big four schools. I followed their hockey fortunes more closely than he did. And at the same time, a good friend of mine became president of a new hockey power, Miami University in Ohio, which lost the championship game way too painfully four years ago after leading BU 3-1 with just under a minute left.

So I keep up. A little. Enough to have learned that the NCAA tournament has come to be run in two parts. Sixteen teams are selected. On the same weekend that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments reach their sweet sixteen and elite eight stages, hockey’s first two rounds are played, producing the four teams that go to the Frozen Four. (Get it? Frozen Four, not Final Four?)

Then something incredibly annoying happens. The four finalists are in top shape and eager to go at it. But the next weekend, what does the NCAA do? Okay, get ready. This post is not about hockey. It’s about a pun, one I used in explaining the situation to Gail two weekends ago, when basketball was on but not hockey. Here’s what happens:

The NCAA puts their hockey tournament on ice!

Yes, they put it on ice! Instead of letting hockey get lost amid the basketball, they postpone the Frozen Four a week, as if delaying will focus more attention on the hockey games. I just don’t get it.

But how about that pun? I was proud of it, as you can see, proud enough to devote an entire post to it.

As for this year’s tournament, the championship game was played two days ago, Yale playing another hockey upstart, Qunnipiac. (Imagine that! Suddenly Boston isn’t the epicenter of college hockey. Greater New Haven is, with two schools just six miles apart, though much farther apart in their histories.) Quinnipiac was ranked #1 in the country and had beaten Yale three times already this season. Through almost two periods, the game was scoreless. With seconds to go in the second period, Yale scored, adding three more goals in the third to shock Quinnipiac 4-0. Yale, national champions of hockey. I never would have expected the day to come.

Categories: Hockey, Language, Sports

Euphemism of the Week

March 19, 2013 Leave a comment

illinoispension

[AP Photo/Seth Perlman]

Last week, that is. I’m a little late with this. And on uncertain ground with regard to the facts. Nonetheless, when I read the NYT article a week ago on State of Illinois pension woes, I was struck by Governor Quinn’s use of the phrase “pension reform,” suspecting immediately that “reform” is a polite word for “cuts”.

Are cuts necessary? Again, I’m no expert on this. Clearly the state has made a mess of things. A huge mess. From Mary Williams Walsh’s NYT article:

For the second time in history, federal regulators have accused an American state of securities fraud, finding that Illinois misled investors about the condition of its public pension system from 2005 to 2009.

In announcing a settlement with the state on Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Illinois of claiming that it had been properly funding public workers’ retirement plans when it had not. In particular, it cited the period from 2005 to 2009, when Illinois also issued $2.2 billion in bonds.

The growing hole in the state pension system put increasing pressure on Illinois’ own finances during that time, raising the risk that at some point the state would not be able to pay for everything, and retirees and bond buyers would be competing for the same limited money. The risk grew greater every year, the S.E.C. said, but investors could not see it by looking at Illinois’ disclosures.

[snip]

The charges put the state’s pension system, generally thought to be the weakest of any state, back in the national spotlight. In his budget address last week, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, issued a clear warning that the system had to be fixed.

“Without pension reform, within two years, Illinois will be spending more on public pensions than on education,” said Mr. Quinn. “As I said to you a year ago, our state cannot continue on this path.”

[snip]

By 2003, the state was so far behind that it issued $10 billion of bonds and put the proceeds into its pension funds to make them look flush. The main underwriter of those bonds, Bear Stearns, was later found to have made an improper payment to win the business, figuring in the corruption trial of a former governor, Rod R. Blagojevich.

In 2005, the state passed another law, giving itself a holiday from making even the inadequate annual pension contributions called for by its 1994 schedule. It said it would offset the missing money with bigger contributions from 2008 to 2010, but then did not do so. By 2010, the reported shortfall of the pension system was $57 billion, and senior officials were warning that the system was at risk of breaking down completely.

I just wonder if ultimately reform means that employees who have paid into the pension system are destined to receive less than they contracted for. That’s certainly what right-wing Americans for Prosperity has in mind. In his article Fix Illinois Pensions Now, state director Joe Calomino argues:

Generous pension benefits that the State cannot afford are at the root of this problem. While the state took a step in the right direction last year by reforming benefits for NEW government workers, CURRENT government workers continue to participate in the State’s traditional and costly plans.

They can retire at age 55 or 60 and receive generous cost-of-living adjustments each year. These lifetime benefits can be worth more than $1 MILLION for a full-career employee who retires at 55 or 60. They are completely out-of-line with the benefits offered to taxpayers working in the private sector. Yet the 95% of Illinois taxpayers who do not receive such generous benefits will pay higher taxes to pay for the 5% of State residents who do.

Short of the facts though I am, I can at least say that when cutting contractually promised benefits to current employees is called reform, language is being abused.

I know, it’s those lazy, overpaid, underworked state employees who are the problem. They deserve to have their generous benefits cut! As a state employee myself, albeit in another state, I am not a fan of public sector employee bashing. And I can tell you, the two retired friends of mine who devoted their careers to Illinois and its residents could have made far more money in the private sector, but chose instead to do good for the state. It’s a mystery to me what they’ve done to deserve benefit cuts.

Anyway, the pension issues need to be addressed, and maybe Governor Quinn is on the right track. I just object to the changes being labeled “reform.”

Categories: Language, Politics

Polite Pinkerton Agents of Education Reform

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Pinkerton agents escorting strikebreakers, Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.

As a counterpoint, we can turn to the series of articles Diane Ravitch has been writing for The New York Review of Books recently. I quoted from one in a post last May. Here’s a passage from another.

The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.

[snip]

The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.

A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.

By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.

I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.

Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:

Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.

[snip]

One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.

Categories: Education, Labor, Language

Fun With Words

March 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I can’t resist posting Tom Tomorrow’s new cartoon (above) at Daily Kos as a follow up to my post last night on Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern a week ago. In my post, I quoted from Scott Horton’s analysis of the speech , including comments on Holder’s use of the word ‘assassination’. Since assassinations are illegal, and the whole point of Holder’s speech was to explain why US actions are legal, he took care to point out that when the US assassinates people, we call it something else.

Haven’t we been through this before, with a president who explained that since torture is illegal and what the US does is legal, it therefore follows that when we torture people, we call it something else? And didn’t Obama and Holder object to this behavior?

Categories: Cartoons, Language, Law

Sofa King

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

I was astonished to learn from Geoff Pullum at Language Log on Thursday about this news story:

A slogan used by a furniture store for nearly a decade has been branded offensive by an advertising watchdog.

The Northampton-based firm uses its own name in ads and on vehicles to claim its prices are “Sofa King Low”.

Police investigated complaints in 2004 and no action was thought necessary, but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received more complaints.

After further criticism over a regional newspaper ad the ASA has served a ban as the words could be “offensive”.

Three readers of the Northampton Herald and Post claimed the catchphrase was “offensive and unsuitable for general display”.

The ASA upheld their objections because the phrase could have been interpreted as a derivative of a swear word.

“Consumer research had found this to be a word so likely to offend that it should not be used in ads at all, even when it was relevant to the name of a product,” the watchdog said.

“Because of that, we concluded that the slogan was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.”

Perhaps you’re already familiar with the underlying Sofa King pun. It was the premise, for instance, of a Saturday Night Live skit in April 2007 (which I can only link to on hulu, not embed), prompting a Language Log post at the time by Eric Bakovic.

Sophomoric humor, for sure, but ban-worthy? As Pullum points out, why is Sofa King to be banned while French Connection United Kingdom markets t-shirts featuring its acronym? Quoting Pullum again, this is “sofa king stupid.”

Categories: Advertising, Language

Eskimo Perception

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m a huge fan of the Language Log blog and its co-founders, the linguists Mark Liberman at Penn and Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh. Pullum has spent two decades in fierce combat with the myth that Eskimos have twenty-three words (or is it two hundred? or two thousand?) for snow. (See his 1991 essay The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, which follows up on the 1986 work of Linda Martin.) I made brief reference to this in a post three Julys ago on linguistic fact checking, or the lack thereof.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was reading some of the next day’s NYT online when I clicked on the Monday book review and stumbled on the astonishing opening by Emma Brockes to her review of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel:

“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, opens on a scene in Harrow and Wealdstone, a suburb north of London chosen by the author to represent the middle ground, that is the space between the upper and lower orders — or rather, this being England in 1913, between the orders of lower upper middle and upper upper middle.

As Eskimos do with snow, the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife.

Wow! Eskimos have not just a multitude of snow words, but also gradations of snow perceptiveness invisible to the rest of the world.

The thing about those words is, any language has every bit as large a snow vocabulary as the Eskimos. Slippery snow. Grainy snow. Powdery snow. Oh, those aren’t words? Okay, how about slippery-snow, grainy-snow, powdery-snow? The oft-repeated claim is inane. But read Pullum for that.

Speaking of which, I wasted no time sending the latest example of Eskimo snow inanity on to Professor Pullum. A day later, in his characteristic style, he pounced.

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn’t count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

I notice that Brockes’ version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads’ perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?

Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Pullum goes on at length, all worth reading, concluding with a blast at the NYT.

A casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won’t cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in “Eskimo”, and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don’t worry about it: it’s only language and cognition we’re talking about — just make stuff up.

I’ll say this, though. We Pacific Northwesterners perceive gradations of gray invisible to the rest of you. Dark? Rain? Give us more, so we can make our perceptive skills still more powerful.

Categories: Journalism, Language, Stupidity