Friday, November 23, 2012


Some years are just more chock filled with newsworthy stuff than other years. I always think that in my lifetime 1968 was the most eventful year. If there is another year that is comparable someone tell me about it.  I was just a kid, turning 10 exactly in the middle of the year when it was all going on, but I still knew that a lot of stuff was happening. There are timelines online recording each little thing, but no point in re-doing that, so I only want to talk about a few of them that loomed large in my mind at the time and other things that I've learned about since, being oblivious to them when I was young.

The Pueblo. I was vaguely aware when the Pueblo was taken by the North Korean  Navy. The rest of it I learned much later. The whole thing is somewhat lost in history now, and I'm sure that some people who read this would say - "what?" or just have the vaguest notion about it. At the time, it was briefly quite the big deal. And, though swamped by other events, it kind of lasted a lot longer than most people think.
There are a lot of misconceptions about it even among people who were alive at the time. In fact, in one sense, you might say that the "event" is still ongoing today in that the ship, still commissioned by our navy, is also still held captive. It is a museum in North Korea, much like we display The Intrepid as a museum in New York. From time to time the Koreans offer it back in exchange for normalization of relations or to have a high ranking official come to North Korea, but no deal yet.

It was not an innocent ship. It was a spy ship used by the Navy and the National Security Agency to gather intelligence. The question will remain, was it in North Korean waters, as they claim, or international waters, as we claim? Given what we know about North Korea's habitual lying and incompetency today, it is hard to believe them anymore than we believed Iran when they took a British ship more recently. But, as far as the Pueblo is concerned, we can't really know with much reliability. At least nowadays we can look at real or doctored satellite photos in the papers. The crew and Navy insist that it was outside the territorial limit.  We do know that it was spying on North Korea (and the Soviet Union), whether or not in her waters.
There was never a chance for a fight. The ship was chased down by two sub-chasers, two Migs and four torpedo boats. Though weaponized, almost everything that could be used for combat was stored away and only one crew member aboard was trained to use them. They never fired a shot. Though they delayed two hours before surrendering and had another hour after that to destroy sensitive material, the ship was a bit of a mechanical nightmare in steering, communications (even between decks) and so on. There was virtually no way to destroy their materials and in the end, they managed to destroy very little of it.

The intelligence loss was quite severe. Materials were immediately flown to Moscow by Korea and it is estimated that 3-5 years of intelligence advantage was lost. The military was gung ho to retaliate, but Johnson refused, caring more for the safety of the crew. By the time he was awake, the ship had already been taken. With one man killed while carrying boxes to be destroyed, the remaining 82 member crew was tortured, some brutally so, and mainly they co-operated with their captors. They signed confessions and made recordings for them. On camera and in their letters they made a few puns and attempts at telling us that it was all a pack of lies. I don't think they needed to do that, and it did get them in more trouble when they were found out, but it is probably human nature to try to communicate with your hoped for rescuers. The crew was held eleven months before the U.S. admitted to spying, apologized to the Koreans and promised to be good in the future and they were released into South Korea. As soon as they were free, the admissions were renunciated, but that was actually was part of the negotiations. The North Koreans already knew it when they signed. Silly, but that is how these things are done.

Serving in the forces can be tough when you lose a battle, and there was actually a court of inquiry for the crew. A court martial was recommended for the Commanding Officer and head of research, but the Secretary of the Navy refused it. 

At the time, the belief was that the action was as a result of Soviet prodding, but, apparently along with the opening of the Eastern bloc, it was learned that it was all North Korean. Though a huge event when it occurred, the incident was dwarfed by the ongoing Vietnam War, which I cover next.

And it's 1, 2, 3, 4, what the hell are we fighting for?. . .
I want to be an air force ranger; I want to go to Vietnam. . .

Those are songs, or in the second case, a chant I remember from the Summer of '68, when I was in summer camp. Possibly the second one has been garbled in my mind. I have read that "air force," is wrong and "airborne" correct. There is no such thing as an air force ranger. But, I'm pretty sure that was what was being sung. I was not a singer myself, but other kids sang those lyrics all the time. The first one is an actual recorded song. I'm not sure about the second.  I do recall one summer day when the counselors asked the kids not to sing them,as a friend of theirs, a pilot, had just perished in the war.
Vietnam was in the air that year. News and images in your head of fighting in jungles and dogfights with jet planes, napalm being dropped. The Tet Offensive came at the end January, but I am not sure I knew it at the time, or if I did, attached any importance to it. It was, though, one of the most critical battles in the war, probably more psychologically than practically.

The next day, a photographer caught the image of a South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong. The image is still in my mind, though I don't think it meant to me what it did to some others - that the South Vietnamese were no better than their adversaries. The Vietnamese complained that that was an unfair judgment, but it stuck. The government announced the greatest military casualties of the war to date for a month - over 500 dead and 2500 injured. It cannot be imagined what totals like that in a war would mean to us today, where even the death of a few makes us want to flee any war. While I was in camp that summer, there were over 540,000 military personnel in Vietnam - the peak. The Paris Peace talks started in May. Later that year Johnson announced we would no longer bomb the north. Eventually, of course, we left and barely supported our allies, while China and Russia fully supported theirs. A couple of years after that, the North was victorious, and the feelings of failure pervade our military and national conscience to this day.
I've written here before of my interest in the events leading up to WWII. Of those, there is little doubt that the Munich Agreement, a peace treaty later widely considered a craven and foolish act of appeasement that led almost directly to the war, is most important, and had its 30th anniversary in '68. No doubt American policy makers had that in their heads when it determined to become involved in and then escalate the action in Vietnam. Nevertheless, it seems that in '68 we nevertheless sought negotiations against a relentless and merciless foe with greater will than we had.

Martin Luther King, Jr., now almost universally respected, but was a divisive figure in those days - a hero to some and a louse to others. Not in my house. We knew which side was right in the civil rights disturbances going on in the south. Though I later questioned most of the political beliefs I was taught then, I do not question that.  

Memory can be funny. I was four when JFK was killed in 1963, yet I remember it well, at least images of it.  My main concern was that they would take my cartoons off the air while they covered the assassination. I know my memories cannot be accurate as it is not possible that I watched the bullet fly through the air in a newscast, but I do remember something. Yet, I was almost ten when King was killed and have only the slightest memory of it happening at all.

What is often not recounted today is that his murder caused riots throughout America, apparently well over 100 of them.  JFK's brother, Robert Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate himself, is sometimes credited with preventing it from happening in Indiana where he gave a speech announcing the murder and dealt with the issue of retribution directly. He asked the audience to reject savagery and violence, and instead show compassion for each other. He quoted from a Greek playwrite, which somehow transformed it for many into a great speech. It was not his translation, but one he had read in a book by the great recorder of Greek myths for the English speaking world, Edith Hamilton, and he certainly bolluxed one word of it, though perhaps making it better. New York Mayor John Lindsay has been credited with similarly preventing a riot with a speech in Harlem, New York. I know that many people died as a direct result of the riots, but can't recall how many. I want to say 56, but that may not be accurate. There is only so much I will research for these posts.
King's assassin was James Earl Ray, a career criminal on the lam and supporter of segregationist Governor George Wallace. He was seen running from the scene where his fingerprints were found on the rifle he had left behind. He was later caught as he headed for white minority dominated Rhodesia in Britain and was extradited here. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty but recanted his confession a few days later. He tried repeatedly to get a trial during his life, proclaiming his innocence or at least partial innocence. In fact, he even convinced members of the King family of it. At one point, he even escaped from jail, but was quickly caught.

Two months after King, it was Kennedy's turn. He was campaigning for president and stood some chance of winning (he was behind Hubert Humphrey, but had just won the California primary). His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was a young Palestinian from Jordan. Sirhan, still alive today at 68 years old, was caught red-handed. The most astonishing part to me is that though he was twice punched in the face by a security guard and then pinned to a table by at least five men including the huge professional football player, Rosie Greer, and Olympic decathlete, Rafer Johnson, he somehow managed to wrest himself free and pick up the gun again. Fortunately, he had already emptied it.
Although Sirhan was a Christian, he was anti-Zionist, and killed Kennedy over his support for Israel.

"Bobby" was a complicated person. He could be ferociously angry and vindictive, but, also fiercely loyal and compassionate. Robert Caro, LBJ's biographer, sees him as a project in development, a vastly different person from the Attorney General in his brother's administration. His death immortalized him, not quite to his brother's or King's degree, but immortal is immortal.
The Music

I didn't know anything about music in 1968. I didn't even know the words to Happy Birthday. My family was very non-musical. The only one who seemed to care about it at the time was my oldest brother, who, though not quite a hippy, certainly liked their music. I remember most him playing The Animals' I'm Henry the Eighth, I am and Tiny Tim's bizzare Tiptoe through the Tulips over and over again. Tiny's song was from '68 when he became a media sensation, as strange in real life as he was in performance. The Animals' hit was already a few years old when my brother seemed to discover it. Both were actually covers of hit songs from much earlier in the century.
Despite my own lack of musical knowledge, I do remember knowing that music was vastly important to most young people, particularly rock & roll, and I knew that the Beatles and The Monkees were big deals since 1964. Music was actually at something of a crossroads, with the Beatles recording very new music the year before with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, still on the charts in '68, while The Monkees, a made up tv band that somehow became real, actually outsold them in '68 with hits like Daydream Believer. The same year Mason Williams' Classical Gas, foreshadowed the progressive rock era (Williams, still alive, was a renaissance man, being a poet and comedian as well as talented guitarist).  This following list, hardly comprehensive for a year of iconic music, is not music I liked at the time (which was nothing), but what I liked from it a few years later when I became interested in music.

HEY JUDE, REVOLUTION and LADY MADONNA - The Beatles, (Sittin' On) THE DOCK OF THE BAY - Otis Redding, MRS. ROBINSON - Simon & Garfunkel,  HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. - Jeannie C. Riley, MONY MONY - Tommy James & the Shondels, HELLO I LOVE YOU - The Doors, YOUNG GIRL, WOMAN, WOMAN and  LADY WILLPOWER - Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, DANCE TO THE MUSIC - Sly & the Family Stone, JUDY IN DISGUISE - John Fred & his Playboy Band, LOVE CHILD - Diana Ross & the Supremes, ANGEL OF THE MORNING - Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts, THOSE WERE THE DAYS - Mary Hopkin, BORN TO BE WILD and MAGIC CARPET RIDE - Steppenwolf,  CLASSICAL GAS - Mason Williams, GREEN TAMBOURINE - The Lemon Pipers, JUMPING JACK FLASH - The Rolling Stones, I'VE GOTTA GET A MESSAGE TO YOU - The Bee Gees, SCARBOROUGH FAIR/CANTICLE - Simon & Garfunkel, MIGHTY QUINN - Manfred Mann and SUSIE Q - Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And, of course, Arlo Guthrie' rambunctious Alice's Restaurant, which stands in a category by itself and makes me smile merely to write the name. When I hear it - which is rare, it brings back to me the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of that era.

This was an exciting year for politics too. Nixon, Eisenhower's VP, was running for the Republicans and the Democrats. But, just like  Mitt Romney this year had to fight off a few challenges, so did Nixon. First it was Romney's father, George Romney, who was the former Governor of Michigan. He had a shot, but blew it with comments about the war. Then Nelson Rockefeller, later Ford's VP after Nixon resigned, took a run at it and failed. Finally, another guy you may have heard about named Ronald Reagan also made a run at it. Reagan would not win the nomination for another 12 years, but it is mostly forgotten about him that in '68 he won the California primary (he was the only one on the ballot) and by doing so slightly edged Nixon in the nomination process's popular vote, while losing the delegate vote.

The Democrat side though was by far more exciting. Johnson decided not to run and made a Shermanesque speech about refusing to spend one hour campaigning when the war was ongoing. He had won the election by over 60% in '64, probably the greatest landslide since Washington, but definitely since 1824 when they started counting the popular vote and greater even than FDR's '36 re-election (and, in the future, Nixon's '72 re-election). But the war had hurt him and he was secretly concerned about living out the term. As it turned out, he barely did, and quite possibly the stress of campaigning and governing again, had  he won, would have killed him earlier. Robert Kennedy was, of course, murdered, leaving the front-running northern liberal, Hubert Humphrey, the anti-war Eugene McCarthy and the future '72 nominee, George McGovern, as the other main contenders. Former Democrat and segregationist George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ballot.
The matter was still undecided at the convention, which was marred by bloody riots between the Chicago police and anti-war demonstrators. It is quite possible that the spectacle of the riots and the tension in the Democrat Party later cost Humphrey the election, as it was exceedingly close. In fact, had Humphrey won California, or Ohio and Illinois it would have, thanks to Wallace's third party effort, went to the House of Representatives to decide. Humphrey would have won easily there, as the Democrats controlled it.

The Olympics
Actually, none of the above was too important to me in those days. I was just a kid and I mostly liked sports. The thing that was by far most important to me that year was the Summer Olympics held in Mexico City. And what an Olympics it was. America had an awesome team. Perhaps the highlight was a political message from two American Sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who, at an awards ceremony for the 200 meters raised blacked gloved fists to promote, we were told, Black Power. Later Smith claimed the gesture stood for human rights, but right after getting off the stand, he had mentioned being proud of being black. Smith had set a world record in the 200 meters and the silver medalist, Peter Norman, a sympathetic white man from Australia, like Smith and Carlos, also wore a human rights badge, but did not raise his fist, which adds to the idea that their gesture was about black power. Carlos wore his black glove on his left hand because he had forgotten his glove, and at Norman's suggestion, wore Smith's other one.  Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics for life. Norman was not technically punished, but was left off the Australian 1972 team.

But, political drama aside, Bob Beamon jumped 22 inches further than anyone else ever had, 29 feet, two and a half inches in the long jump, a record that lasted 23 years. Lee Evans set a record in the 400 meters that lasted for almost 20 years and was on the 4 X 400 meter relay team that set the world record for about 24 years. Everyone on the relay team was also capable of a world record, but the last time Evans had lost in that event was actually to Tommie Smith, a world record holder in it, but his specialty was actually the 200 meters.  The two were close friends, but extremely competitive with each other. Smith, sometimes described as superhuman, might have even been better than Lee at that time it if he had continued to concentrate on it. Dick Fosbury not only won the high jump, but changed the event forever with his Fosbury Flop.  Jim Hines broke the 10 second barrier in the 100 meters. He and three other Americans broke the 4 X 100 meter relay record. Willie Davenport set the Olympic record in the 110 meter hurdles, Randy Matson in the shot put and Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Bill Toomey set it in the decathlon.

As for non-Americans, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia won the marathon and came in second in the 10,000 meters. Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union set a world record in the triple jump, after it was broken 4 times earlier in the same competition. Kipchoge Keino, a Kenyan police officer, beat the amazing Jim Ryun in the 1500 meters. Ryun would never win the gold at the games. Vera Čáslavská, a Czech, dominated women's gymnastics with 4 golds and 2 silvers, but her protest of the Soviet invasion of her country by looking away while the Soviet anthem was played, a barely noticeable gesture, got her ousted from future competition by the Czechs. She was made persona non grata until the 1980s when life in Czechoslovakia changed and she was resurrected from a political graveyard. My prejudice makes me leave out the swimmers, but we had some good ones.
What else?

There were some other things at the time of which I was aware of that I'll just briefly mention:

Planet of the Apes came out. I never saw it to this day, but I felt like the only one at the time. I did not see The Lion in Winter until many years later, but it was some movie and in my belated opinion, should have won the Oscar.  Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey did win, but, when I saw it later on I found it a little boring, if an exciting idea and the effects were revolutionary until Star Wars made them seem old fashioned. The film was based on a short story, The Sentinel, and the novel with the same name as the movie actually came out afterwards. Night of the Living Dead, perhaps the best horror movie ever made, came out too.

Hair made its Broadway debut. I wonder if most kids have even heard of it today.

Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers won 31 games, the last time any pitcher wins more than 30. But, Bob Gibson, a prickly pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals did something I thought even more remarkable - he was 22 and 9, but had a 1.12 ERA. Even more remarkable, from June 2nd to the end of July, just short of two months, he had an inconceivable 0.20 ERA. The Tigers beat the Cardinals in a close World Series where the pitching star was actually another great Tiger pitcher, Mickey Lolich, who was overshadowed during the season by McClain, but won 3 complete games in the World Series.

I do remember that Jackie Kennedy got remarried to a billionaire named Aristotle Onassis, and thinking how sad it was that she would marry for money. I did not realize then how common it was. Why I thought I knew that about them then I'm not sure, but apparently it was largely true. Ari was seeking advice on divorce when he sickened and died, and Jackie had a long and bitter inheritance contest with his daughter.

And, though the landing on the moon wasn't until the next year, the Apollo program was a big deal in actuality and in my mind. I looked this up, but Apollo 7 orbited the earth 163 times and Apollo 8 orbited the moon.

I really have no memory of the following, but, just to show you what a busy year it was -
Andy Warhol was shot in his apartment.

Czechoslovakia had its Prague Spring (from which the name for the Arab Spring and other springs sprung - it it hard to say who used it first, but it might simply stem from a music festival known as Prague Spring) and the Soviet Union pounded them into submission.
Some books I never heard of then, but loved later on - Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, John Irving's Setting Free the Bears, John LeCarré's A Small Town in Germany, Lloyd Alexander's The High King, and, of non-fiction, William Manchester's masterful The Arms of Krupp: 1597-1968 and Erich von Däniken's silly, but wonderfully fun, Chariots of the Gods.

The Yippies (Youth International Party) was hardly a party but a group of young protesters and adventurers, particularly Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman (whose Steal this Book a few years later made even this unconventional weirdo dislike hippies and yippies even more than I had). The Yippies' biggest moment was inciting the riots at the Democrat's Chicago convention.

The My Lai massacre occurred, but no one knew it yet.

That should do it. A very eventful year. It would be hard to beat.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Two or Few - language and its sniffgarishness

Recently at a gathering the topic came up about whether the host's use of the word "couple" to mean more than two was okay. At a later gathering he used "unique" to mean "special, but more than one." Was he wrong both times? Some people thought so. I did with respect to "couple" but not "unique." But, later on, I realized in the first instance I was violating my own understanding of language and I agree it was okay to say what he did, though I would not use "couple" in that way myself.

A "few" weeks later I was researching the debate about "few" and "couple" online. After reading the other comments, I made mine (At least, I tried. I am very bad at posting comments and sometimes it doesn't take). This was it:

"In short, it usually means 'two,' but used as an idiom it can mean 'a few.'

Longer -- like all words, it means what the maker intended OR the receiver understands. While this is painful for those who want a prescribed language, it is always true in the unrestricted parts of a real language (so, it might not be true when a term of art, like a legally defined word, or in a fantasy glossary, such as Tolkien's Sindarin or Star Trek's Klingon, but is in normal written or oral conversation between actual people).
Whether it is standard or not is a different question. We can ask -- what do most people in some selected time and place mean when they use it? For 'couple,' it would seem that for more people who post here, and I believe in my age and peer group in New York, it usually means 'two.' Thus, someone is a cute 'couple,' two mechanical parts fitting together are a 'coupling,' and it has even been made into a verb -- they 'coupled' (never it seems for a ménage a trois, though).
But, as some have shown, it is often used by people to mean 'a few,' such as in the phrase 'I have a couple of things to do first.' They know what they mean and we do as well. Who would not understand them (though some would pretend not to have)? I would be surprised if even those who commented here that it means 'two' would not understand that and probably have even have used it that way themselves.

A similar question comes up with 'all' and 'everyone.' A friend of mine who argues that 'couple' means 'a few' also, ironically, has argued with me that those two words must mean every single person. But, it is very common to say, 'They all do that,' or 'Everyone goes there.' We know what the word 'technically' means, but we use it comfortably to mean a lot of people or mostly everyone, without specifying. In fact, I have, of course, heard him use it the same way.
And, of course, this is very topical with the word 'marriage.' It seems that even a few years ago for almost everyone it could be used only to mean one man and one woman. Some people insist that is still the case. But, rapidly, many people use it to mean the solemnization of a relationship between two people, regardless of sex."

I have known some people to get agitated and others quite smug about the proper use of language.  So, I created my own awkward word for them - sniffgarish.  It has probably never been used before (I just googled to make sure and to my surprise, no hits) and you can say it is not a word. But, I use it to mean someone who turns his nose up and sniffs at what he thinks is a garish use of language. Now, at least for the rest of this post, you will understand what I mean.

Is it a word? I say it is. I'll use my comment above as my starting point and aim my argument at imaginary others who would say it is not a word, because I am sure they exist.

We use an alphabet to make words (it's not the only way) and have a spoken language very similar, though idiomatically and practically speaking, not exactly the same. Certainly "sniffgarish" fits into the category of a group of letters or sounds forming a symbol for something.  Not every combination is. Suppose I just type in "jkht" here, without thought or meaning. No one would suggest it is an English word. Why? It uses the alphabet? Still, I would agree it is not a word, because it is not assigned a meaning by me or anyone else. It also has no vowel, which the unwritten rules of our language insist upon - and has all the way back to ancient Greek. Even adding a vowel - say a final "e" in "jkhte," we are still unsatisfied because the vowel does not come between two consonants in the way we are used to vowels doing.  If I write "jekht," we feel a little better about it but, the ". . . kht" part still doesn't sit right. Finally, if I write "jekhot," we might say, okay, that is a foreign or imaginary word, because it works as two syllables, but has no meaning in the English language.

But, what do we mean when we say something has meaning in the English language? Here's my definition: To say a word has meaning in the English language means that enough people who believe they can recognize "English" can communicate a thought using that combination of letters or sounds and agree that is English. 

Let me break that statement down:

What do I mean by "enough people?" I mean that for a word to be accepted as having meaning as English, it cannot be used by just one person. It might still be a word. Suppose I never wrote "sniffgarish" here, but kept it to myself. It might be a word to me because when I think someone is sniffgarish, I know what I mean and can communicate a thought to myself in my head or by speaking it outloud or writing it down somewhere. If I write it today about Bear, and, seven years later come back, not even remembering that I wrote it, I can read it and say, oh yeah, I thought he was sniffgarish in those days.  

But, if a word, sniffgarish is not a word in the English language because no one else would agree. But, if you and the seven people or so who will read this now all understand it, then it has some standing - it is a word that is understood by some English readers. But, would we say it is English? No. How many people have to use it for it to be English? There is no number. Of course, we know that if all English speakers accept it as so - it's enough. We know if most accept it - it's enough. We know if half accept it - it's enough. Below that - what's enough? It can't be further defined. The word "enough," meant as a "tipping point," must suffice. Enough is enough when it satisfies enough people it is enough. It's both subjective and a tautology, but that's often what you come down to eventually when you try and get to the bottom of something. If that sounds like an excuse, it's not.  

Suppose the editor of Merriam-Webster reads my post because he googled his dictionary and this popped up. He is tickled by sniffgarish, puts it in his dictionary and publicizes the fact that he is including it. Then, Conan uses it on tv and Will Smith uses it in his next blockbuster movie. Lady Gaga uses it as the title of her next album. People all over America use sniffgarish to mean someone who is uppity about calling certain words English. That would certainly be enough to qualify as English. Suppose though along the way, the reference to the English language is dropped. It would still be a word, but now it might mean someone who is a snob regardless of what its creator would like.

When "enough people" say it is English, then it is "enough people," vague though that might be. Enough is the key concept, but it can't be pinned down any further.

What do I mean by "people who think they can recognize English." Why don't I just say English speakers? For a couple of reasons. First, those English speakers from London and those from Philly can pretty much understand each other, but there are other English speakers who have difficulty doing so. For example, one day, standing waiting for my car at a lot, I asked two young attendants who looked like they were from the same country what language they were always speaking together. They laughed. "You'd never know it, but it's English." How could it possibly be English without me understanding it? Most people who heard it - the vast majority - would not call it English. The speakers were from Guyana and they spoke a form of English that is very hard for North Americans to understand. But, they assured me -- it is the same langauge and they can, thanks to television, understand us without a problem without ever really learning a new language.

What we call English, others might not. For some people, all that matters is what dialect or language they use -- that's official to them. But, it's not. There is no official.

What does can "communicate a thought using that combination of letters or sounds and agree that it is English" mean? 
You might be thinking - why does that even need be part of the explanation? I think it does because otherwise all kinds of sounds or even a head nod would be English.  
Take the the letters or related sound "ummm." We can mean by it -- "I agree," "I disagree," "I like that," "I don't like that," or use it as a nonsense word (that we can use deliberately or unconsciously) or time killer while we think, or, to inject humor into a comment. It may be a word, because enough people say it is. But, is it English? I would say no, it's not. We are communicating a thought using sounds, or, if we write it, letters, but we would not agree that it is English, even if it is found in books or plays.  In fact it may be a word, but not in any language for that matter.
So . . .

This does not mean that any word means anything.  If I use a word different than everyone else it means that only to me.  And, two people or more can use a word to mean anything they understand it to mean. It is probably arguable whether a code used for a limited purpose can be a language. We don't normally call it so but it is hard to differentiate. Suppose two people spoke only in a code. What would be the difference. I'd say only that everything they say, for a while anyway, would be translated it into something else by them -- a real language. But, eventually, they'd start thinking about it in code without translation, and then, what's the difference?
My "sniffgarish" is certainly not an English word today and planned words don't usually catch on so well. But "muggle," a word invented by the author of Harry Potter novels, is an English word now. What's the main difference? -- muggle is used enough to qualify.
A last word on dictionaries. I love them. People consider them authoritative for lots of reasons.  They are invaluable to help us preserve our language. For games like Scrabble you need something like them and for that purpose, they can be authoritative. Many people consider dictionaries the "end all" just to end discussions about words. To me they are one more tool we can use, and since they are often the product of scholars, mostly better than the rest of us can do. But they aren't the Holy Grail either; just somebody's opinion. When it comes to language and real communication -- not games, there's no such thing as authoritative.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Potpourri day

This is a potpourri day. The online dictionary has as one definition:

"4. any mixture, especially of unrelated objects, subjects, etc."

So, this is just a bunch of different stuff I was thinking about this week. There is easily the capacity to take notes on whatever we are thinking these days, but, it is apparently too much effort for me (though oddly, I can spend hours every day copying out of books I find interesting). I find that even if I'm thinking about something that interests me and I want to dredge it up later I often can't recall anything but a shadow of it as soon as a few minutes later. I'm all long term memory.  But, I brainstormed yesterday to try and remember a word here or there. These are the fruits of those words.


Emails? Really, oh, super spy?
When I was a law student a professor gave, as an aside, what I've always said was one of the best pieces of advice I'd ever heard.  Don't talk in the courtroom bathrooms until you've checked all the stalls. The reason is obvious. You don't want anyone to hear what you are saying.

Today, I give similar advice to my friends all the time - even strangers. Don't put anything in writing - especially via email, text, chat or any other digital device - that you don't want someone other than your audience to read - or someone in particular you don't want to read, because sure as the night turns to day, they will be reading it by next morning.   
In virtually every case that I have dealt with recently in a substantive fashion the "bad guy" had left an email trail or something similar. In one case I had, and this goes back even ten years, a paralegal accidentally forwarded us emails from the other side that included their attempt to bribe a witness. It had a huge impact on the case. In another case I litigated myself, the whole argument the "bad guy" attorney was making was undone by a single sentence in a letter to a client that he had attached to a discovery response, thinking he was giving up nothing (and, he literally gave nothing else).  In another situation, a friend of mine lost a great business opportunity by calling the big boss a crude name in an email to a co-worker.  And so on.

Because we type these things in private and we trust the people we are sending them to, we think that they are safe. But, Ben Franklin was right (I am not checking to see if this is apocryphal or he really said it). "Three can keep a secret if two are dead."  Of course, Franklin violated the rule himself.  Once in writing, it can read by any amount of people and is hardly deniable, much as you may try. 
So, here's my simple rule. Don't. Don't write bad things about people whose feelings, for any reason, you don't want to hurt. Don't write things that would harm you or someone else if you don't want that to happen. Don't make fun of people even harmlessly, if you don't want them to see it.

This is very easy advice to give - incredibly obvious, but very little given out or followed by people. Lawyers violate it every day. I'll admit that I have on occasion violated it myself, because I'm as human (stupid) as Benjamin Franklin, or the "next guy." But, I do try very hard to follow it and do far more often than I don't. My interactions with others though tells most people are the opposite.  
Why did Petraeus do it? I don't mean why did he cheat. That's obvious.  But why did this military expert put in writing what he would have gone to his grave not wanting anyone else to know? I don't know. Too many possibilities. Maybe he got sucked into the belief that it would remain a secret, which is ASTONISHING for a general or head of the CIA? Maybe she promised to delete them (as if that works)?  Maybe they were just too important emotionally for him to get rid of. Or maybe he/she thought that they were too unimportant to bother with -- who would look?

What we do know is that it was put in writing. And that is a mistake.

There is a commercial on lately for a charity that talks about ordinary heroes which makes me think of a western little shown these days called The Magnificent Seven. TM7 was based on a Japanese film, The Seven Samurai, by a lauded Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, whose films bore me to tears. Call me uncultured.  But, the western was fantastic and starred Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and one of the all time great bad guys, Eli Wallach. Elmer Bernstein did the score which has been used by many others, including Bruce Springsteen as he comes onto stage. There are many reasons to watch TM7, but most of all because it is fun and inspiring. And what heroism means is the main underlying theme. In one scene, three hero worshipping boys are asking to go with Charles Bronson's character - a half Mexican, half Irish gun fighter, who is there to help rescue their village from the baddie, on a mission, when one of them says that their fathers are cowards. It's going to seem hokey when you watch it now, but, in the movie, when you are caught up in it, it was great. Bronson spins, grabs the kid, spanks him, and then gives the kiddies a lecture. 
Better you watch it than I talk about it.

We all like heroes and there are all kinds. My favorite heroes are the obviously flawed and unsung ones. Which is why the end to Angels with Dirty Faces, another great ensemble movie  -- Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogard, Pat O'Brien, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, and others,  is one of the great endings in all movie making.  I haven't seen it in many years, but I know if I watched it now it would still make me cry.

You can argue by analogy, but don't think it is likely to score a point if there isn't an independent audience or judge.  Whenever I make an analogy in an argument, I find it is always shot down as being different than the situation at hand. My friends, whoever I am arguing virtually always tell me it is a bad analogy.  There is a possibility that I am just very bad at making analogies, but I really don't think so (I once posted an actual list here of things  I think am bad at - it was really long and necessarily incomplete, but making analogies wasn't on it). 
The whole point of an analogy is that it is meant to make a point, not to be exactly the same situation. If it was, it wouldn't be an analogy.  But, try telling that to the person you are arguing with. It appears to me that it doesn't matter if my analogy is of the weak or strong variety (or if I say it is a weak analogy), it is stomped upon.

Nowadays, when I make one (in an incredible display of optimism that it will work), and it is inevitably shot down with some version or other of - No, because in your analogy the crayons were red and these are orange crayons -- I like to say, "You know, it's funny. When I have taken a standardized test, I do surprisingly well on analogies. But, somehow, when I use one in an argument, it is always bad. Amazing how that happens." Believe it or not, I have found that works well.
I tried reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.  It always looked too long for me to try, but so many people insisted I'd love it that I gave it a shot. I did like it a bit at first, but it was too long after all. And, a little repetitive. We got it in the first few chapters. Libertarians good, socialists bad. Anyway, I bring it up because there was a sentence or so about arguing by analogy which made me happy, because it as similar to what I thought and now write here. But, though I tried a few times, I could never find it again so I could use it in a quote.

My Aunt Tess passed this week.  She was either 99 or 100. We will find out soon when her safe is opened if her birth certificate is in there as it is supposed to be.  

In her last few years she suffered a great deal. Her husband died well over 30 years ago; his sister -- my grandmother, about 30 and my grandfather, who became Tess's last real companion of her generation, about 20 years ago. She has lived in her own apartment all these years, and had few friends, not being a very social person, though she was very dignified and pleasant. Eventually she needed help and then inevitably, a nursing home, going into one initially as a rehab in June.
Her recuperative powers were so amazing that a few times in the last few months we wrote her off as dead shortly, or going to continue in a coma or vegetative state, and then I'd get a call from her to say hello. I visited as much as I could in the last few months, but there is only so much time you can spend there. She was not one to spend time in the social events.  But, there were a few of us of younger generations, so, though she did not get the support that many do, it was more than many others get.

Though physically she continued to deteriorate as you might expect, her mind remained strong until a month or so ago when she seemed unable to any longer tell the difference between nightmares and reality. She lay or sat day after day in her room by herself, unless she had a visitor, or a nurse was taking her tour and felt she would go crazy from boredom, being surrounded by people who had lost the ability to communicate or reason. Yet, sometimes she would say something very insightful and you had to wonder how she knew things she couldn't well see or hear.
Though she was by nature a gentle person, she became angry she had to be there and was often disappointed at the staff who could rarely meet her standards. As she came nearer to the end it got worse.  Eventually, she could not even feed herself and she became frantic that her bedclothes or clothing they put on her weren't "smooth." The staff, who were kind to her, were described as "fresh," or the like.

My aunt has wanted to die for at least ten years, though I suspect it was only when she began to say it out loud. She was very vocal about it. I don't think it was because she was depressed, though I'm sure she was often lonely. But, many people are lonely. I think it was because she was deteriorating and knew it would never get any better. Sure, if she was surrounded by family, it might have been easier for her, but even when my family took her out she complained that she could not follow the conversations and wanted to die. Once at her birthday party in a restaurant she simply began to cry because she was here another year. Despite that, she maintained her dignity, made sure she was always presentable and acted according to her lights.
Why, she would ask me in the last few months, am I here, over and over. I did not have an answer, of course. I would smile and say I understood what she wanted, but she unable to kill herself and no one could help her, though I would gladly - done so if I could have avoided jail for doing so.  Perhaps at the end a grand jury would have understood if I videotaped her at first, but, I doubt it.

At the end, the state, which will not legalize assisted suicide, took her dignity. Right up to the last few weeks it was so important to her that she thought her hair was combed and what nightgowns she had.
In the last week or so, she changed dramatically. My niece had a horrific experience and I went I think two days later to see her, hoping she would be improved as she always seemed to after she slept a while. But, the last time I saw her was terrible. She was like a creature with, as my niece described it, a goblin like voice, and she did not seem -- except for one horrible moment-- to recognize me. She thrashed and reached out, moving quicker in the last few minutes I saw her than in the last 30 years. She made me think of a dying fish swimming upstream.

As I stood by her bed that last time, she grasped at my shirt sleeves desperately seeking something - but what? I asked, but she could not say what it was. I guessed and finally said as calmly as I could - "Tess, can you tell me what you want?" She turned to me for the first time, and said in a low, raspy, angry, betrayed and, yeah, goblin-like voice --"You know what I want," and she turned away to battle with some unseen foe.
I did know what she wanted. She wanted to die. And as much as I'd like to believe she could not tell it was me there, I think she did. It was all she wanted and I could not give it to her.  I went to the head nurse and confessing that I was an ignorant man when it came to palliative care, this, I said, I am sure is not palliative care, and I described her. The nurse was already familiar with what was going on (she was hardly the only patient in this condition). She was on my side, she said, and wished we could put her out of her misery.  Why don't we put her on hospice, she asked?

I was puzzled. I thought she was on hospice, though it didn't seem like much. I said I would get my brother and niece on it as I had no authority. I called them - they were also surprised that she wasn't on hospice - and it was put in motion. She died two days later before it could take effect and I imagine it was horrible for my poor aunt.
I hope there was a second she knew she was dying and could breathe a sigh of relief. I am realistic but part of me wished I could have been there at the end, though I thought I was no longer a comfort, much as she wanted me with her in the months previous. You couldn't be sure.

I have always been for assisted suicide. I think not allowing it is a relic of religion and state authority that makes no sense and is in fact cruel.  My aunt deserved a good life, but she deserved to die peacefully and with dignity when it was time, with, of course, proper safe guards in place. In all likelihood, she would not have done it the last decade when she was speaking about it, but she would have done it this year. I would have been happy to help, however hard it might have been.

The storm was bad. In some senses historic for our region. People died , were severely injured, made homeless and had their property destroyed.  Very sad.  Others never lost their power and still others lost it but not for long.
And then, there was me, who was kind of in the middle. We lost power for ten days. No heat (and it got colder every day), no tv, internet, warm water or lights. I went to a lot of bookstores and friends of ours made their home very available after a few days when they received power back, but, we slept at home.  

The toughest part was the showering.  Often it occurs to me that if you have some place to rest, food, a decent bathroom and hot water, you have nothing to complain about.  For me, I have to add . . . and something to read all the time, but that's an obsession. Like Churchill said about getting shot at without result, taking cold showers concentrates the mind wonderfully. You learn to work real fast.
So, though I know others meant well and were being compassionate, and though I joined in telling people what everyone seemed to want to know - what my energy status was, I was a little embarrassed that people kept saying how sorry they were for me. There was nothing for which they had to be sorry.

Third Party
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about our need for a legitimate third party. I was aware of course that this would be anathema to my natural enemy, the partisan. One wrote a column of his own about how we should not have a third party. His reason - his party would lose out.

He's not necessarily wrong. The author was a Republican named Rich Galen. He seems like a nice guy and sometimes I agree with him. But, usually, like all partisan writers, even when he is right he takes it too far, thinks his side's arguments were ordained in heaven (or in liberals case's, are scientifically proven). He thought Romney was a sure thing too.
If there was a third party of so-called moderates it might take more people more Republicans away as people who economic conservatives or even libertarians, but are repelled by the gay/atheist/American-Muslim bashing, prayer in school and ten commandment in court crowd, might just flock to a real third party they thought had a chance to win. But, if there was such a party, then I have a feeling an awful lot of people who were socially liberal or even libertarian, who were repelled by the let's tell everyone what they have to eat, abortion on demand, tax and spend crowd might just flock there too. Hard to say. But, I would say that the Republicans would likely lose more at first. The reason is, right now, the Republicans are far more split than the Democrats, who, if not lock step, are much closer together than the religious and fiscal branches of the right wing.

I look in the past and I think of the last time there was a third party that ended up having any legs  (no, not the Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party or Perot's Reform Party), but the Republican Party in 1856. They were carved out of the ruins of the Whigs, but, they also took from the Democrats (mostly northern Democrats). Ironically, though the Republicans were also a new party, they were worried about other new ones who would keep them from winning in some states. We know this really because of how closely Lincoln is studied. He knew that in Illinois the competition from the Know-Nothings (anti-slavery, but, also anti-Catholic - how weird is that in modern thinking?) would split the anti-slavery votes with the Republicans and give the Democrats the victory. And, that's exactly what happened.
Eventually though, in 1860, the split of parties including the Southern Democrats and the Northern Democrats splitting up and having separate nominations, led to Lincoln's victory, while getting a smaller percentage of votes in the entire South than Romney did in Philadelphia.

So, sure, it might hurt the Republicans more if there was a legitimate third party (by the way, the Tea Parties were not so much parties as a movement, and they were always a motivated, if now divisive  branch of the Republicans). The Republicans would split into two and the Democrats perhaps 2/3rds 1/3rd.  But, eventually, I believe that party could fly.

The problem is, as many have discovered the last few years, you cannot plan or manufacture a party. It has to be organic and grow - like the Tea Party, but not flame out either.  I hope it happens, but I'm a watcher, not a doer, so I'll just be waiting to see what happens.


Why is it that physics accelerated so quickly in the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century (and, no, not just Einstein) and so much slower in the second half and beginning of the 21st? Whether hooked on the standard model or string theory or super-symmetry, not that much has happened. I know, they think they found the "God particle,"  or Higgs Boson, they think there is dark energy and dark matter.  Just words for now and doesn't mean much. Let me know when they have a completely new view of the atom, or come up with the equivalent of relativity or the development of quantum theory or atomic energy.

I have a short answer. Big physics technology has developed much too fast, too fast for new theory. While new technologies often provide the final proof of theory - such as the way that geosynchronous satellites and gps have proved relativity (they wouldn't work if it weren't true).  We need both theory and experimental physics, but we sorely lack the first.  So, we can see further and further with our telescopes and do more and more with the giant accelerators, but not much theoretically or practically has come from it to excite anyone who isn't involved. Maybe some nice pictures.

Doc Holliday Wyatt Conversation

Like many men, I love the movie Tombstone, which I've written about here before. It has great acting, production, direction (really Kurt Russell) and brilliant writing. I think my favorite scene, which I've mentioned to people this week and quite often before, involves just Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Doc is dying in the hospital and Wyatt comes by to see him (from -

"Doc Holliday: What do you want Wyatt?
Wyatt Earp: Just to live a normal life.
Doc Holliday: There is no normal life, Wyatt, there's just life, ya live it."

So many people I know spend their lives doing their best to appear "normal," though it has little real meaning. I don't pretend to be above it. In fact, as strange as some people find me, I believe I acquiesce in about 99% of conventions. Yet, I often find that the 1% drives some people crazy. When I was young, it was very much an issue for a lot of people. As I get older, it appears that it may be an issue once again. What can you do? People want you to act and believe just like them and they want you to think they fit in perfectly too.

The answer many of you are looking for is this, particularly those of you who are unhappy - There is no normal life. There's just life. Ya live it.  All you had to do to learn that was go to the movies.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

So, what really, really, really happened? Post-Mortem on 2012 Election

After Hurricane Sandy - AND I JUST GOT POWER BACK TODAY TEN DAYS LATER - somehow the presidential election feels a little anti-climatic. Despite hoping Romney won for the sake of the country, I am not an insane partisan and realized a while back (along with many others) that this was probably going to be Obama's race, because Romney had to win everything he was supposed to plus some swing states like Florida, Ohio and Va. He lost Ohio and Va. and Florida is still too close to call the next day (but, who cares?) So, he really didn't get all that close. He is credited with making a really nice concession speech. Big deal.

After weeks of reading and listening to right wing bloggers and hosts saying how the polls have it all wrong and Romney was way up, there was a part of me that wanted them slapped - then again, if that happened - it meant Obama won. So, now, even though I'm disappointed (and a little worried - Obama is trouble for the economy unless he pulls a Bill Clinton) I do feel a little smirky that they were so wrong. I don't mean Dick Morris. He's virtually always wrong. I mean an awful lot of so called pundits. As I am fond of saying, partisanship makes everyone crazy - and it made the droolers among the far right crazy in the same way the lunatic left was made crazy when they nominated Kerry, one of the few men in the country almost guaranteed to lose to Bush.

Even Jonah Goldberg, one of the more rational of the right's pundit core published a column today mocking the incredibly accurate Nate Silver of the New York Times. Silver was dead accurate again, state by state and Goldberg, if he wants to have credibility with me, has to say, he knows his stuff a lot better than I do, or, I was crazed by partisanship and saw rainbows in the dark. Silver actually called a 2 point Obama victory in September before the first debate unless certain things happened (and they didn't).

I haven't done a review yet of how the leading pollsters did, but suffice to say, in general, they were as a group pretty accurate and all that "malarkey" from the right about how they were deliberately oversampling Democrats (apparently even Fox News, if they were consistent, though they never said that) wrong.

I listened to Rush Limbaugh today. He made me laugh. He didn't have a real explanation yet, but said that Romney was a fine man who would have made a really good president. He forgets, of course, that not so long ago he said that Romney was done for in the primaries based on one position. Sean Hannity was busy saying how Obama's team should be ashamed of themselves the way they carried on the campaign, talking about Big Bird, binders full of women, accusing Romney of killing someone and Ryan of pushing Granny off the cliff, etc. Well, all true, and I do think that Romney ran a fairer campaign, although, they were dishonest about a number of things too. But for Sean Hannity, who had Donald Trump on his show without calling him a polite word for an idiot, and frequently Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, well, sorry, but what goes around comes around.

Which brings me to another thing I always like to say - Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, all deserve each other. Unfortunately, the rest of us don't, but we get the short end of the stick too because they control everything.

So, what really, really, really happened? Why did Romney lose. Here are my reasons, not in order of importance.

* It is really hard to explain libertarian principles to a nation that knows almost nothing about it anymore, that has been raised on quasi-socialist principles for everyone's lifetime (except my Aunt Tess, who turns 100 - I think - at New Years), likes the nanny state and really doesn't care so much about freedom as libertarians do.

* Romney ran a decent campaign. He was patient and calm, did a great job in the Republican primary debates and killed in the first presidential debates. But, he did not follow through in the next two debates and let Obama get away with saying a lot of things that were completely untrue, let him off the hook on Libya (it was all but forgotten after Sandy anyway) and did not repeat enough how big the deficit has grown under Obama and how his spending policies have failed.

* The antipathy of many independents who lean a little left to Bush is understated. They hate him and a little brushed off, unfairly, on Romney.

* Political disasters for the right like Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich sabotaged Romney with their - I hate to use these words for specific people - crazy ridiculous maybe even moronic nonsense about birth certificates and vulture capitalism.

* Most of all, it was the cultural stuff that sunk the Republicans. Too many people have said to me that they did not want Obama, but they couldn't stand the Republican obsession (my word) with gays, atheists and American Muslims. They will continue to lose presidential elections if this continues to be the case. I've written about gay marriage before, so I will just say, one more time, the country is changing culturally, and if Republicans don't get off this reactionary notion soon, they are really going to damage themselves, just as they did when they continued to pounce all over Martin Luther King, Jr. Enough. See the light. You are wrong and it really bothers people.

Well, I've said a lot of this before and I don't want to go on and on about it, so I will leave it at this - I am disappointed and worried that Obama won. No, I don't think it is the end of everything, but it is a big sign that our country needs a re-education (no, not in camps, in school) about economics and liberty values. At some point anyone who educates himself about what has happened with our spending and borrowing should know - it is over one day. It is now recognized that it is probably not our children and grandchildren who will feel the noose around their neck, but us.  We don't know when, but we know that it is going to happen, as Greeks and Spaniards can testify about. The re-election of the progenitor of the stimulus package and Obamacare shows that we haven't learned anything. And, not that Romney would have been all that different - but a little better.

Last thing I like to say over and over - we don't like to fix things in this country until they are broken but good - like economic disasters, for example. And, that is probably going to happen some day. Many are still going through the drain of being without power for a week and half already. It is tiring and though we've handled it quite well, you can see tempers fraying and it wearing people out. Imagine this happening because of a snowballing disastrous economy. How will we handle it then?

I don't know. Maybe I'm just feeling blue because the wrong guy won in my opinion. But, nothing I've seen or read gives me confidence that this isn't bad news.

But, most of all, the Republicans


Monday, November 05, 2012

Photography and freedom

Hurricane Sandy has not only wreaked havoc from the Caribbean up through the mid-Atlantic and New England States, leaving the proverbial trail of death and destruction, it has also blacked me out and kept me from posting this week. With no real complaint (I'm cold at night, but alive and my insignificant other's home saw no damage) and sick of listening to people complain about what happened to them short of death or destruction - one woman on the radio sickened me and I'm sure others by whining over a few trees she lost - I post tonight! The election is tomorrow and I stick with my view of a close popular race and Obama winning the Electoral College. But, I've had enough to say about the election here and will comment more when it is all over. Tonight, one of my favorite topics - religion.

Religious accommodation
Gay marriage is still a pretty controversial subject. Personally, I believe in a generation of so, maybe 20 years, many of those who now oppose it will be claiming they were never against it, just as it is hard to find many to admit they had believed that it was okay that gays should go to jail. Yet, it is less than a decade ago that most consensual sodomy laws were made unconstitutional as a result of Texas v. Lawrence.  But, for now, many people, somewhat less than half of those polled, still oppose "gay marriage," *(see poll summary below)* and anecdotally we know that opposition ranges from head shaking to outrage. A distinct bi-coastal (pro) as opposed to western and southern (con) tilt as well as general religious opposition can be seen in the country. Obviously, more conservatives oppose it than liberals. Again, anecdotally, those who oppose tend to believe that the very word and institution of marriage is a thing that is fixed, and that they may only exist in the traditional sense. Further, some of this group believe that the law should not even recognize a committed relation between two people even if a word other than marriage is used. Although they are certainly wrong that marriage has always been deemed between one man and one woman in Western civilization, they are certainly largely correct that this has been the case. Anything else is the exception.


* American gay marriage polls in 2012 summarized from Wikipedia article: CNN/ORC International: 54% support (same sex marriage), 42% oppose; NBC News/Wall Street Journal: 54% support, 40% oppose; ABC News/Washington Post: 53% support, 39% oppose; USA Today/Gallup Poll: 51% support, 45% oppose; Gallup Poll: 50% support, 48% oppose; Pew Research Center: 48% support, 44% oppose; ABC News/Washington Post: 52% support, 42% oppose, 5%; Public Religion Research Institute: 52% support, 44% oppose; NBC News/Wall Street Journal: 49% support, 40% oppose. Go to the Wikipedia article - for the actual wording used in these polls and their dates. Feel free to argue with them for any reason, but the trend seems clear to me and the results are fairly close.

I cannot tell from these polls how many people support the idea of legal civil unions without the use of the word "marriage," but there is material in the Wikipedia article which discusses earlier polls concerning that issue. Based on a more nuanced Fox News poll, I suspect that given the additional variable of using the words "civil union," instead of "marriage," there are substantially more of those in total who would approve of legalizing same sex commitment ceremonies in general but don't want it to be called "marriage": 37% approve of "gay marriage," 33% legal gay partnership and 25% completely opposed, with the trend towards legalization since the 2010 poll.


I've written my opinion about this before and won't repeat myself much here except to say as follows: words are mutable and legal terms especially so. It is preposterous to argue otherwise, and, those who specifically make this argument, don't make sense when pressed on it, failing to  distinguish between a thing and a word used to describe a thing. No constitutional clause gives any group of people the right to prescribe a word's meaning or to fail to recognize a law that utilizes marriage to mean something they don't want it to, just as they can can't require the law to define peanut butter the way the rest of us do. There is no such thing as a right to have marriage defined in the manner they wish.  Privately, of course, anyone can have their own opinion, but the important thing is whether it gets legal meaning that must be recognized by others. None of the above necessarily means I think that the law must require that gays have access to the same benefits as heteros in the same situation, but I believe that is the better policy. Whether it is a matter of equal protection under the law, I have not fully analyzed, but I do believe the Defense  of Marriage Act, sometimes called DOMA, is unconstitutional. Either there should be no benefits for a committed couple, or all committed couples (at least adults), should be recognized. It does not matter that it is appalling or even nauseating to other people. I have a lot of trouble dealing with facial piercings, but it would never occur to me that someone who participates in it should have less rights than I do. Best, the government should be completely out of the marriage business except perhaps for clerical reasons.

What I really want to talk about today is the idea of religious accommodation. I'll use a case that may end up in the Supreme Court as a starting point.

In New Mexico, a photographer, a married couple Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin ran a photography studio. They advertised as Christian photographers and had an unwritten rule that they did not photograph ceremonies that were contrary to their religious beliefs. Mostly, perhaps always, that meant they did not photograph same sex ceremonies. Incidentally, gay marriage was not at the time of their case or even now, recognized in New Mexico.
Eventually, the Huguenins were contacted by Vanessa Willock via email with respect to photographing her same sex ceremony with her partner, Misti Collinsworth. The Huguenins declined the job, replying that they photographed, among other things, traditional marriages. But, when Willock wrote back to get clarity on whether they would photograph her wedding she received a clearer, if polite response, "Sorry if our last response was a confusing one. Yes, you are correct in saying we do not photograph same-sex weddings, but again, thanks for checking out our site! Have a great day."

The facts of the case seem fairly clear cut. I do though have difficulty believing that Ms. Willock truly found Huguenin's reply to be hateful and that she was fearful because of it. I think she was just angry that she would not respect her marriage (ironically, even thought the State of New Mexico did not). However, there is no disagreement that the Huguenin's did not wish to photograph the wedding because it was between two women.  In any event, Ms. Willock brought a claim under New Mexico's human rights law, not seeking monetary damages (there were none, anyway), except her attorney fees, just essentially an official chastisement and fine. And the law in New Mexico is clear that establishments offering services to the public cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation, whether it be hetero, homo or bi-sexual.
The gay couple won the case in the administration Human Rights Department. It went to a trial court and they won again. They won the first level of appeal and are now appealing to New Mexico's high court. I suspect that either party, whichever is unsuccessful (my guess is the Huguenins) will appeal again.

There are a number of legal arguments I am not discussing here with respect to that case, including freedom of expression and the validity of anti-discrimination laws, but only the issue of religious accommodation - whether otherwise neutral laws be enforced against those who have religious opposition to it.
Many constitutional principles sound pretty simple until you try and apply them. For example, it seems very simple to say that if one of the states is involved in something that state action must follow the rules of "due process" required by the fourteenth amendment. So, it is easy to say that the police must follow due process rules (though, that took a long time to accomplish). But, it has also turned out that it is very difficult to say exactly what is "state action" and what is not?  For example, is a private corporation that contracts with a state to provide traditional municipal services to the public close enough to state action to have to follow its rules? How about a power authority created by a state that gets an easement wherever it likes and can have a monopoly? Or the luncheon in the State Office Building?  A few Supreme Court justices have stated that this question is one of the most difficult issues they face.

In the same way, the two strands of the first amendment religion clauses sound very simple. One says congress cannot establish religion and the other that we have free exercise of religion. But, it turns out when you try to apply both, you run into problems. Little remembered in this day and age is that at one time, this problem was  most acutely felt by Catholics, beginning in the 19th century, who were offended that public schools taught doctrine that was Protestant in nature and not Catholic. Naturally, the majority Protestants disagreed. This is a major reason why a first amendment is so necessary. The majority religions should not be able to use the government to satisfy their religious needs at the expense of the minority religions. Catholics wanted their own schools, but felt they should get the same public aid that so called "public" schools, which they saw as Protestant, received.

In 1875 President Grant came out against any public funding for religious schools and in the 1880s a future presidential candidate named James G. Blaine, no longer well known (he repeatedly lost), sponsored a constitutional amendment known as - brace yourself - the Blaine Amendment. It not only would have applied the first amendment to the states, but made it mandatory that public funds not be used for religious school. In the abstract, this seems very fair and logical. But, as Protestant doctrine was taught in public school already, this seemed very unfair to Catholics. The amendment didn't pass, but judicial decisions still largely, if not completely, favored the majority Protestants. Also, most states passed similar versions of the Blaine Amendment, which still go by that name, and some are still in effect (though they are now unnecessary and relatively irrelevant for other reasons).
The manner this is argued should be understood. It is not as if Protestants were saying or probably in many cases even thought, that they were getting an advantage. They simply argued and believed that their doctrines and beliefs were so prevalent as to be secular in nature. Even today, when the battle lines are no longer drawn between Catholics and Protestants, but Christians as a group and other religions (or those without religions) the same argument that some aspects of Christianity are so prevalent as to be "secular" in America has led to decisions such as that local government may restrict commercial activity on the Christian Sabbath and display Christmas trees. These are, of course, just examples.

It is only in the 20th century that most of liberties in the bill of rights - those which were deemed fundamental to our system of government - were judicially applied against the states by the manufactured fundamental rights doctrine.  The method used was to apply them was through the due process clause in the fourteenth amendment, as it is applicable against the states.  And, with this doctrine, not to mention the advent of increased government spending, there have been many decisions which occasionally gratify or aggravate so many people concerning religion. This is the constitutional issue that I find the most interesting and one of the most important. Fortunately for you, I'm not going to review the many cases as it would take too long and anyone really interested can wiki it or read any number of books. It is not an area of law ever likely to become completely settled. Rather, back to the question of when do our laws bend so that religious people do not need to follow otherwise neutral laws (which do not intentionally discriminate between religious groups) because to do so would accommodate their religious beliefs? In one sense it is the flip side of religious toleration, which concerns the government not favoring or persecuting any particular religions or all religion (such as a Communist country might). But, in another sense it is the very same question, which I will demonstrate in the next example. So you could say I'm discussing religious accommodation, toleration, or both.
The Mormon religion permitted, until it was made illegal, a man to have multiple wives. We know that there are some sects of Mormonism where this is still practiced illegally, though the main branch no longer supports it. Some argue that polygamy is inherently abusive and some few  that it is a matter of individual decision. Many apply to it the same argument that is applied against same sex marriage - that marriage is between one man and one woman, whether based on religion, history or just general cultural preference. This minority practice of polygamy did not have any real chance against the tidal force of monogamy.

In any event, the Supreme Court held in 1890 in one of its bigamy case, "The state has a perfect right to prohibit polygamy and all other open offenses against the enlightened sentiment of mankind notwithstanding the pretense of religious conviction by which may be advocated and practiced."  
It would not be put that way nowadays. The court would have instead said that free exercise of religion does not mean someone may be exempted from the restrictions or requirements of a valid and neutral law that generally applies to everyone because the person's religion is in disagreement -- if in somewhat stodgier language. But, is it really any different than the 19th century Supreme Court holding? It is merely the substitution of one religious point of view for another, one having the authority of the majority behind it.

That was the analogous reasoning of a more recent Supreme Court case in 1993 in which the majority held that the State of Oregon was within its rights to withhold unemployment benefits to employees fired for peyote usage, even though the employees claimed that it was part of their practice of their Indigenous American Indian religion (I'll call it the "Smith case" below). The court determined that a state could give religious exemptions based on religious belief, but did not have to do so. As often with these cases, I am simplifying to make a point.
If we did not have this rule, there would be essentially no enforceable law. Anyone could circumvent it by claiming religious disagreement. That would even, ironically, include a law forbidding discrimination against various religions. This is a very old argument and has even been used, for centuries, to justify religious intolerance.

So, what about the Huguenins? If we apply the Smith case then it is just too bad on them. But, I know that I feel in my heart of hearts that it is a wrong decision and want to think about why/  I can easily think of a rule of law that would render the opposite conclusion.  It is called the 13th amendment, which outlawed involuntary servitude. It meant slavery, of course, but why does slavery need to be wholesale? If the Huguenins can be forced to service one gay wedding, they can be forced to service many gay weddings.  Imagine that if for some reason gays in New Mexico decided for vindictive reasons to all insist on hiring the Huguenins for their commitment ceremonies. Would that not be involuntary servitude in the ordinary sense of the word (even if they were paid a lot of money)? Of course it would. And put that way, it just seems so wrong. And, why stop there. Could a man who was attracted to a child, but refrained from sex with it (so there could not be a crime), not require the same of the Huguenins. I suspect such a case would have a completely different result because of the specter of illegal sex with a minor, but, since arguably two lesbians cannot have intercourse, it is no different than a very old couple getting married, or anyone who determines not to have illegal sex.
But, of course, the country is already awash with anti-discrimination laws. Most politicians these days, for example, say that they favor the 1960s anti-discrimination laws. In fact, now, both Democrats and Republicans take credit for them. But, those laws include requirements that people service others they'd rather not in the private sector, just so long as there was some connection to interstate commerce. And, when the cases came up, the Supreme Court went to ridiculous lengths to make damn sure that everybody litigated against was included as part of interstate commerce right down to enforcing the Act against a very local club in a rural area just because it bought its furniture from another state (and other similar reaches). It is no longer really necessary to go to these lengths, because, first, nowadays, virtually every business would easily be connected to interstate commerce in a variety of ways, arguably even international commerce, just by using the internet and the telephone, and second, these Acts are now accepted both legally and morally as the law of the land. It would be political suicide to go against them and businesses would be driven under if they gainsaid them in anyway. Not too long ago one of the leading "libertarians," Rand Paul, running for a Senate seat, was pretty much forced to publicly say he was for them if he wanted to win.

The only difference between my position with respect to these laws and libertarians like Rand Paul who under pressure claimed he favored them, is that, rather than go to lengths to find them constitutional, I admit that I cannot justify them as constitutional, but think, nonetheless, because of our history, they are among the best laws ever passed and have greatly improved our country. It is a paradox sprung from the covenant with hell (that is, slavery) that was our Constitution. But, admitting that, how far can it be taken? Now, every state has anti-discrimination laws on top of the federal ones and they are not just based on skin color and ethnicity. They usually include gender, physical handicaps and sometimes, as in New Mexico, sexual orientation. This last is the difficult one because it is so unsettled whether it is a physical or psychological condition (or perhaps a mix) or a choice. Many people believe the choice option, though it strikes me as absolutely ridiculous. Knowing that gays often come out in soul-wracking fear and reluctance due to the still powerful stigma, it is just not logical to believe that absent a sex drive in that direction, they would gladly be reviled and even engage in self loathing, just to be different or have more sex partners. Plus, at least for a man, given the way our sexual apparatus works, the difficulty in performing against their sexual nature leaves the possibility that this is a matter of choice near zero for me.
Nevertheless, it is an important distinction because the only thing left to us as individuals to discriminate against others is their personal opinion and other non-heritable or non-physical criteria. You can fire someone in most places if you don't like them for a variety of reasons, including their political opinion (maybe there are laws against that, but I am not aware of them). You can still refuse to serve people you don't like, and they are left with the option of going away quietly, or, perhaps, manufacturing a case based on a false claim of discrimination under one of the forbidden labels.

The Huguenins would have probably done better if they claimed that they did their best to discriminate against others who also show liberal propensities, so long as they made an effort to make it consistent and not just apply it to gays.
This case may well get to the Supreme Court, and it is my expectation that it will be upheld, if for no other reason than Justice Kennedy, who wrote Texas v. Lawrence for the majority, is still sitting. Because it is a state law, the interstate question will not even be considered. The question put will likely be a variety of - does a state have the power to require those in its jurisdiction not to discriminate against anyone because of their sexual orientation despite religious convictions otherwise?

But, the flip side of the question - even if it is the same question in practical terms - is, can the state require a private person to service someone they would rather not for religious reasons? Put this way, there are unmistakably important judicial, political and even psychological questions, for it has been put into a libertarian, rather than discriminatory, framework. Who is the state to tell us what work we perform and for what people? And, then, suddenly, you are right back with the Civil Rights Act. Not such an easy question. Given a choice, I would uphold these laws against private persons (the government is different) only with respect to ethnicity or skin color and nothing else, because of the racial questions that have not always plagued us, but also were built into our government. This would lead to some uncomfortable situations we are no longer used to. And I would not make it dependent on religious belief, but merely personal decisions.
There is another issue of religious accommodation that has made headlines recently. As part of what is commonly called Obamacare the Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations requiring businesses to provide health care insurance options that included coverage for abortions. Some Catholic organizations protested the the regulation would require them to provide insurance coverage for a medical procedure they oppose on religious grounds. And, it was not just any religious ground or medical procedure, but the sine qua non and holy grail of religious issues for about 40 years.

Again, the rule in the Smith case would seem to be against the religious groups. But, I look at the question  slightly different than most people do, and this is why I would cast them in different terms than now is common. These are questions of how free we all should be and not questions of how free those who choose to be religious should be. It is general freedom, not just religious freedom, that we should be talking about. In the case of the Huguenins, can they be required, against their will, to service someone they choose not to, regardless of their religious beliefs. For whatever the decision turns out to be with respect to the Huguenins, it should apply the same for their secular neighbor who might also be opposed to same sex marriage. With respect to Catholic hospitals, the rule should not be any different for them, because their opinion is tied to their religious affiliation, than it should be for any other business that is anti-abortion.
It's a difficult subject and I notice that when I state a positon on it I feel a little uncomfortable. Perhaps that is how we should feel. Or maybe I'm just wishy-washy.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .