Archive for April, 2013

Terrorism, Bad Spelling, and National Defense Fellowships

April 28, 2013

Does anybody else remember the National Defense Education Agency? They were set up shortly after the Russians put a satellite in orbit, back in the late 1950s or thereabouts. Our leaders determined that the Russians’ having beaten us into space proved that our educational system was dangerously outdated, and that we especially needed to encourage people to study science, math, and foreign languages. This produced what was probably the best-educated generation in our history. And that generation in turn brought us — wait for it — THUH SIXTIES! Sex in our streets! Rock music in our earphones! Pot smoke in the air! Woodstock! Hair! (and “Hair”!)

I sometimes think that Our Leaders concluded from that episode that maybe we shouldn’t be working quite so hard to educate our younger generation, and in fact, that maybe we need an educational system designed to lower our consciousness and our expectations. But OTOH…

We didn’t catch Tamerlan Tsarnaev because the FBI couldn’t spell his name right. How humiliating is that? I can remember when sports writers — not exactly the intellectual elite of the journalistic profession — could spell Carl Yastrzemski. When music critics could not only spell but pronounce Gennady Rozhdestvensky. When a food writer could not only eat but spell canthaxanthin.

Some of us actually tried to help out. When I sent my FOIA request to the FBI many years ago, I included half a page worth of possible misspellings of my first, middle, and last names. You live in the US with three names subject to almost infinite possibilities for misspelling and you get used to this.

But one can hardly blame Tsarnaev, who was not a citizen and had been in the US only ten years or so, for not being more helpful. He probably never got past Stage One of the name game in the US. Stage One is what happens in a nation of immigrants when a person repeatedly hears his name (the most personal attribute of his being, actually sacred in some cultures) mangled beyond recognition, perhaps even badly enough to put him in the wrong alphabetical file folder (that happens to me occasionally.) After a while, he snapped. (Are the profilers considering this possibility?) If he had learned enough equanimity to get to Stage Two (where you do whatever it takes to get the right spelling across to strangers), obviously he would never have gotten into terrorism in the first place. (I’m sure Gandhi spent a lot of time telling well-intentioned Brits “no, the ‘h’ comes after the ‘d’.” But he was Gandhi.)

What does this have to do the NDEA, of blessed memory? It is, obviously, time to reinvent it, this time to provide fellowships and government funding for the study of spelling. (If you watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year, you would have notice that almost all of the top spellers in the United States of America are of South Asian extraction (perhaps fellow countrymen of Gandhi.)) A non-Asian young friend of mine was in the semifinals last year and is probably headed for the finals this year, but, so far as I know, she has not been offered any NDEA college money to continue her studies in orthography. She is exactly the kind of person we should be encouraging and subsidizing. Now that we are approaching this year’s terrorism season (yesterday, the Taliban announced its official opening, a bit later than spring training in major league baseball, a bit earlier than soccer and football and hockey) we need to start thinking about this more seriously. Defend freedom! Learn to spell!


More Constitutional Revisions: Cities, States, and City-States

April 24, 2013

Those of us who still remember studying ancient history in the 6th grade or whenever know the concept of the city-state.  Athens, Sparta, Thebes, those guys.  The cognoscenti attribute their rise to the peculiar geography of Greece (and, later of Italy—you know, Rome, Milan, Venice and so on, especially during the Renaissance)—you couldn’t go much of any place without fording a river or climbing a bunch of mountains.  The only currently operating city-state is Singapore, though it is large enough, rich enough, and peculiar enough to be worth taking seriously despite its uniqueness. 


It might be worth looking at the federal system in the US in relation to our cities, if we are going to talk about revising the Constitution at all.  ATRORM (see, there are 38 states with smaller populations than New York City, and 26 smaller than Los Angeles. Each of those states gets two senators and at least one congresscritter. The cities get precisely none. Most states are cobbled together from one or two large cities and their environs plus a “downstate” or “upstate.” Senators, generally, get to be senators by juggling the interests of cities and downstates (or sometimes upstates), and only the congresscritters from the cities get to represent interests of those cities, in which the largest number of Americans live.


The larger cities clearly have more in common with each other than any of them has with the other residents of the state in which it is located.  According to the latest information, the largest cities in North America, by population, are Mexico City, New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago.  Mexico City and Toronto are, obviously, not under discussion here.  Yet.  But I suspect that the next ten probably deserve consideration here too (that’s Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Jacksonville FL, Indianapolis, and Austin.)  And maybe a few others as well, like Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, and Cleveland (or everybody with a major league sports franchise?)

There have been a few serious proposals about reshaping the states, most notably Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America (1981), “How to Make a State” (, “Electoral college reform (fifty states with equal population)” (, and “The US Redrawn As 50 Equally Populated States( I’m not sure any of them really deal with the urban-vs.-everyone-else dichotomy which is the real fault line here. 


One of the things that the original city-states often did (both in Greece and in Italy, and still later, in Germany) was form leagues for purposes of trade (mostly) and self-defense.  Perhaps that should be a structural alternative for the smaller cities (everybody but the Big Three?)  Maybe Northern, Midwestern, Southern, and Western leagues of cities? Each of the Big Three and each League would have the constitutional status now held by the states. Assuming that each state (minus its ranking cities) would retain its current status, that would leave us with fifty-seven states, 114 senators, and a major but perfectly feasible job of reapportionment for the House of Representatives.


At the same time, we ought to get rid of the current 435-member cap for the House (set in 1929, for pete’s sake!) and go back to the 30,000 to 40,000 citizens per representative that the Framers originally had in mind.  The 1929 cap, by the way, was originally set because 435 was the largest number of desks the House chamber could accommodate.  These days, desks are probably the least important furnishings in the chamber.  One comfortable chair and a table large enough to hold a laptop computer (or maybe just a tablet) per representative would easily suffice. Or the chamber could be enlarged.  Or both. 


Along with all of this geographic rejiggering, if we Wired Sisters had our druthers, we would like to see a constitutional requirement that all reapportionment be done by non-partisan, non-political entities on the basis of natural or geometric boundaries, to end the current practice of politicians choosing their constituencies, rather than vice versa.  Given how long (roughly 200 years) it took the Supreme Court to come up with the Baker vs. Carr requirements for one-person-one-vote districts, it would undoubtedly take a constitutional amendment to accomplish this.


We will probably be coming up with some other revisionist proposals in the coming months—it seems like a good way to avoid the news.  Let’s hope next week is better than this week has been.






What Would You Add to the Bill of Rights?

April 24, 2013

Apparently I’m not the only person doing this thought-experiment —  Privacy seems to be on everybody’s mind.  I’d like something saying “No citizen or resident of the United States shall ever be required to testify under oath in any proceeding whatever about sex between consenting adults.”  Take that, Ken Starr!  And the Second Amendment should be revised to include precisely what its Framers originally intended—the right of citizens to keep and bear smooth bore muskets and flintlocks.  And how about “the right of citizens and residents of the United States to travel within and among the several states shall not be infringed”? 


Red Emma

All In the Family

April 2, 2013

The tradition of the “Roman father” is long gone and so utterly forgotten today that most of us don’t even remember what the phrase means.  It goes back to the early days of the Roman Republic, when Lucius Junius Brutus executed his own sons for plotting to restore the monarchy.  We no longer expect public officials to rule impartially upon the guilt or innocence of our own family members.  Instead, we often require them to recuse themselves from any case in which they have even a hint of personal involvement. 

A couple of recent instances:  a student of mine twenty-odd years ago, who was a strong evangelical Christian, who told me that if his daughter came home pregnant, he would certainly not stop loving her, but he would tell her to leave his house.  And then, on the other hand, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose son “came out” to him as homosexual a couple of years ago, has recently announced his support of same-sex marriage. 

I certainly don’t blame Portman for taking his current position, which is one that I share.  I would never expect him, or anyone else, to cut off all contact with a child who had done something he disapproved of, however strongly.  What raises questions for me is his previous position of opposition to same-sex marriage.  How much principle could have been involved in his fervent backing of the GOP’s opposition to gay rights, if he could abandon it to spare his son pain?  After all, every homosexual is somebody’s son or daughter.  My student in the previous paragraph shocked me by his willingness to sever connections with a pregnant daughter.  But on the other hand, I had to respect the seriousness of his principles, even though I do not share them.

I think most Americans these days side more with Portman that with my unnamed student.  It used to be fairly common for gay teenagers to be thrown out of the house by their parents (usually their fathers.)  It doesn’t happen much these days.  We don’t do a whole lot of “never darken my door again” to any of our family or friends, for any reason, these days.  I think that’s generally a good thing, a sign that our “family values” have become kinder and gentler. 

But it’s also a sign that most of our principled positions have limits.  The Wired Daughter says that most conservative legislation or proposed legislation includes in invisible ink the phrase “except for me and the people I care about.”  Most of us are willing to accept not only same-sex marriage, but abortion, unwed pregnancy, and cheating on taxes from our nearest and dearest, no matter how enthusiastically we denounce such behavior among strangers. 

Portman’s move is, one suspects, the death knell of cultural conservatism.  We are no longer up to the demands of Roman fatherhood.  We are becoming nicer people than our grandparents raised our parents to be.  Ain’t that too damn bad1

Red Emma

On Not Dying in Vain

April 2, 2013

How does victory confer retroactive meaning on the deaths of the winning side’s soldiers?  For that matter, what is the “meaning” of a death?  Obviously, I have been nudged into this line of inquiry by the wave of second thoughts about the war in Iraq now that we have been fighting there for ten years.  Which in turn recalls to my mind the ten-year war in Vietnam. 

And (given the Lincoln film and the wave of other Lincoln material on my not-so-secret vice, the History Channel) the Civil War and so on.  “That these dead shall not have died in vain…” – aside from the elegant use of the future perfect verb, which I can’t imagine even the best speechwriter daring to use today, this requires some mental gymnastics, looking back at the past war deaths from the viewpoint of a yet-unformed future.  Did Lincoln mean that, at the time he was actually speaking, those deaths were (had been?) in vain, and would continue to have no meaning unless the United States conferred meaning on them in some way? The battle of Gettysburg was pretty close to the end of the war, but that might not have been readily apparent to Lincoln or those who heard him at the time; so was he only saying “we have to stay with this war, finish it, and win it”?  Or was he saying (as Garry Wills tells us) that the people of the United States can confer meaning  on the Civil War deaths only by committing to his vision of freedom and equality as the outcome of the war?  Or (skilled politician that Lincoln was) was he allowing his listeners to take their choice of commitments?

At the most basic level, most of us die for nothing.  The privilege of dying for a purpose is rare, dearly bought, and usually an integral part of living for a purpose. 

Some of us die as “martyrs” to our freedom to smoke tobacco or eat fatty foods or drink alcohol or ingest various other drugs or drive fast cars or have unprotected sex.  Most of us just die “for lack of another breath,” as the old epitaph puts it.  Why should we demand more for those who die fighting in a war?  (We rarely, by the way, insist on conferring meaning on the deaths of civilians in wartime.  There is no monument to the Unknown Civilian, though perhaps there should be.  The closest we get is G.B. Shaw’s imagined monument to Jack Falstaff*.)

The “meaning” and “honor” of death in battle are among our oldest social/ religious/ political sancta.  The Iliad doesn’t quite have Achilles telling his buddies that Patroclus should not have died in vain (which is just as well, given the difficulty of using the future perfect in Homeric Greek), but it comes pretty close.  And I think it all connects to guilt.  The soldiers who died in battle died serving us (whoever “us” may be—Greece, Troy, Christians, Muslims, France, Germany…), and “we” (who in many instances are still alive because we dodged the draft or in some other unworthy way avoided military service) can’t do much to compensate them except to be appropriately grateful to them for making our lot better in some way than it would have been without their sacrifices.  It is they who have conferred meaning on our lives, rather than the reverse.

Is there no meaning to be found in a losing battle?  The Alamo?  Masada?  Thermopylae? Two of these three were actually losing skirmishes in ultimately victorious wars, and acquire their meaning after the victory to which they contributed.  Masada, perhaps, is sui generis.  It is part of a much longer “war” on a much more significant, well-nigh cosmic level. 

And, of course, there is always the Lost Cause.  I grew up in the American South, when Robert E. Lee was an eternal presence in our history and our geography, the 800-pound spiritual gorilla in the room.  It has, finally, lost most of its meaning, mainly by being outweighed by other, newer martyrs.  It lasted as long as it did mainly because the culture of the American South did, after all, survive to tell its story.  History is not always written by the victors, but it is almost always written, or at least preserved, by the survivors.  Sometimes it is the survivors on the other side, who demand the credit due to those who nobly defeat a noble foe (as opposed to the Crips defeating the Bloods, or maybe even the Capulets and the Montagues, or the Hatfields and the McCoys.)

But, History Channel buff that I am, I long for a different view of historical meaning.  I long for a monument to the Unknown Civilian, to those who not only died (everybody dies, after all) but who first endured, who gave us not the cheap flashy courage of the NASCAR driver or the fake courage of a John Wayne, but the deep-rooted long-lasting courage of the Middle Passage, of Leningrad, of Sarajevo, of Robben Island, of the Warsaw Ghetto.  That kind of courage, we can all attain, and it can give meaning to all of our lives.









* The real  Falstaff, Sir John Oldcastle, actually was a martyr, burned at the stake for his commitment to his proto-Protestant Lollard heretical beliefs.  Shakespeare chose to play him for laughs mainly for political reasons.  Although his martyrdom is memorialized in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he seems to have no physical monument, unless you count a pub named for him in Farringdon, UK.