Language

Does Spanish Scare You?

Fights about whether we should adopt "English only" legislation have little to do with language.

(Flickr/C. Pualani)
Every once in a while, when anti-immigrant sentiment is running high, Congress will revive the "English-only" debate, which was last a topic of national conversation during the 2006-2007 push for immigration reform. But the most recent attempt to make English the official language of the United States came out of the blue, the day before Congress's August recess. Led by Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on an English-only bill that would require all federal government communications—including voting materials—to be printed in English. The proposal would nullify a Clinton-era law requiring that federal agencies provide interpreters for non-English speakers for certain activities. In protest, Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, voiced his opposition in Spanish: " Hoy en día, los inmigrantes de Asia o América Latina son los objetivos de la demonización y la discriminación...

What Poor Women Need Is ... Marriage?

Flickr/eivindw
For several years, sociologists and demographers have been discussing a new socioeconomic division in this country: the widening family divide between the highly educated and everyone else. On one side are those who get at least a bachelor's degree—or wait even longer—before they marry and have children. On the other side are those without a college education who have children—early and often—and have a series of partners (with or without marriage) who may or may not be related to their children. In the second group, an unexpected pregnancy may interrupt the woman's education; sometimes she wasn't going on anyway. The first set of families—call them "blue" families, because they cluster in those states—tend to be stable, maritally and financially, which is extremely helpful for the children's well-being. The "red" families are far more chaotic, emotionally and financially. The children's family configurations shift around them, with parental figures coming and going; the parents don't...

The Data Are Speaking

The only singular data.
I have more than my share of pet peeves about language usage, none greater than the ubiquity of the phrase "I could care less" when what people are actually trying to say is "I couldn't care less" (it's one thing to say something wrong, but something else entirely to say the opposite of what you're trying to say, for frack's sake). But whenever I'm feeling doctrinaire, I think of "February," and ask myself whether I really think anyone ought to be saying "Feb-ROO-air-ee." Then I get sad thinking about how in 50 years, we'll all be saying "nuke-yoo-lar" like a nation of George W. Bushes. The point is, pronunciation and usage are constantly evolving, and there's only so long you can hold out for what's correct against what's common. Which brings me to "data." Although I agree with Kevin Drum about most things, I found out today that he and I have different ideas about this word: But I won't rest until they — and everyone else — accept the plain fact that data should be treated as a...

On the Word "Faggot"

Making terms taboo has the paradoxical effect of giving them more power.

(Flickr/Lisa Monster)
(Flickr/Lisa Monster) Rabble-rouser and sex columnist Dan Savage has a corner of the gay blogosphere clutching its pearls over his use of the word "faggot" to describe members of GOProud, the gay Republican group that endorsed Mitt Romney last week: The GOP's house faggots grab their ankles, right on cue: thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/goproud-endors… . Pathetic. — Dan Savage (@fakedansavage) June 20, 2012 GOProud supporters shot back, attacking Savage for being a "bully," and now the gay commentariat is debating the use of the word "faggot." Let me say first that I'm no huge fan of Dan Savage, whose moral absolutism I find grating. And while I think it's good that there are people on the right fighting for LGBT inclusion, it's baffling that GOProud supports politicians like Mitt Romney who are antagonistic to their interests. But I think it's a bad idea for gay-rights supporters to go on a crusade against the word "faggot," which in Savage's case seems little more than a mocking barb...

You Can Have It

I know what you're thinking. Here it is, National Poetry Month, and E.J. hasn't yet posted a single poem. Mea culpa. So here's a famous progressive poem by our current national poet laureate, Philip Levine , a poem that is still as heartbreaking as it ever was. You Can Have It My brother comes home from work and climbs the stairs to our room. I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop one by one. You can have it, he says. The moonlight streams in the window and his unshaven face is whitened like the face of the moon. He will sleep long after noon and waken to find me gone. Thirty years will pass before I remember that moment when suddenly I knew each man has one brother who dies when he sleeps and sleeps when he rises to face this life, and that together they are only one man sharing a heart that always labours, hands yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it? All night at the ice plant he had fed the chute its silvery blocks, and then I stacked...

Watergate Finally Gets Its Novel

Thomas Mallon's new fiction humanizes the ultimate D.C. scandal.

Watergate: A Novel . By Thomas Mallon, Pantheon Books, 448 pages, $26.95. Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life . By Ann Beattie, Scribner, 282 pages, $26.00. T his year will mark the 40th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by yeggs with White House connections that provoked the Watergate scandal and led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as 37th president of the United States. It’s the kind of benchmark that leaves people who lived through those days facing two realizations, fused by the unwelcome recognition that we’re pretty old. Something we experienced is now as dusty as Ginger Rogers in Gold Diggers of 1933 . An event we were convinced would always resonate turned out to be our random turn on the merry-go-round. All sorts of nefariousness later—from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra end run around Congress, arguably a worse assault on constitutional niceties, to Bush v. Gore , definitely a grimmer satire of the election process—Watergate’s Queen...

And Then There Was Light, Man

Mimicking a familiar format, Alan Lightman's Mr. g fails to create a unique world.

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume —the book Einstein’s Dreams , which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations. I could already imagine that the experience was going to be something of a “groovy” ticket to the mother ship. In many ways, I was right. What I hadn’t expected, though, was author Alan Lightman’s uncanny ability to turn psychedelic scientific concepts and abstract philosophy into concrete images and scenes. Which is precisely...

Best New York Times Caption Ever

A typo in the caption of this New York Times photo raises questions about the nature of war. Isn’t that how wars start? Someone tells a story about what happened to them. Another person tells a different story. And so a fissure forms and widens. Fiction between ostensible allies leads to disasters. Honesty is the best policy.

Death Rattle

A new musical movement turns Mexican drug violence into catchy sing-alongs.

Movimiento Alterado has taken traditional narcocorridos to a new extreme.
GerardoOrtiz.net Gerardo Ortiz, whose latest CD both celebrates and questions the culture of drug violence I n 2010, the collective of Mexican musicians known as Movimiento Alterado released a rousing carousel blitz of tubas, accordions, and snare rolls it called “Sanguinarios del M1.” The song’s title roughly translates as “The Bloodthirsty Killers of El M1”—M1 is the nickname for Manuel Torres Félix, an infamous member of the Sinaloa drug cartel. (He also goes by El Ondeado , “The Off One” or “The Crazy One.”) His long rap sheet includes a 2008 “message murder” in which he left three decapitated bodies with severed legs in the trunk of a car with a signed note and a decapitated snake. “Sanguinarios” begins with the sound of semiautomatic gunfire, and then a rotating cast of singers role-plays as AK-47- and bazooka-toting M1 mercenaries. “We are crazy bloodthirsty guys,” the singers declare. “We like to kill.” They brag about their kidnapping, beheading, and torture skills and...

Tocqueville for Toffs

O n any given day in Washington, D.C., the city’s hotels teem with civic activity. Trade associations, lobbies, corporations seeking government contracts, lawyers looking to influence agency rules—all form a beehive of action. At last count, there were 12,200 registered lobbyists in Washington, according to opensecrets.org, and that doesn’t include the many thousands of corporate attorneys who are technically not lobbyists. Of the top-spending trade associations or issue organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads the list with a budget of more than $46 million. Only one quasi-liberal group, the AARP, is even in the top 20. This is the vision of Alexis de Tocqueville made flesh, with one notable difference: Nearly everyone in this associational paradise speaks for the top 1 percent or 2 percent of the income distribution. Tocqueville, in Democracy in America , famously identified “the art of association” as an essential complement to American constitutional democracy. The...

Language in Exile

As long as we are speaking of cultures that have simmered in exile, let's turn to Tibetans, whose leaders have consulted with Jewish and Israeli leaders about what it takes to keep a diaspora culture alive. One of the answers: keep alive the language. Hebrew was essentially a language on ice, used primarily in religious services but not to communicate, rich with symbolism but lacking words for anything related to post-exile life—until early Zionists performed CPR and turned it into a living vehicle, actually spoken daily (usually very, very quickly and disputatiously) (#joking). Whatever you think about Israel, reviving Hebrew was a remarkable and nation-making feat. It bound a shattered and dispersed set of people back together in linguistic rhythms that were simultaneously foreign and familiar, in distinctive alef-bet characters that were indisputably their own. The political Tibetan community in exile has taken this lesson deeply to heart. Do read this report on a recent conference...

Capitalism by Any Other Name

Republicans are fighting to rebrand capitalism as economic opportunity but their agenda remains the same.

I've been thinking about the term "capitalism" since Frank Luntz, the renowned pollster, told Republicans to quit saying it. The Occupy Wall Street movement has turned "capitalism" into a dirty word, he said. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they'd better stop worrying and learn to love "economic freedom" instead. It's a stunning turning of the tide. No matter the kind of conservative—Southern, evangelical, libertarian, Tea Party, or old-school Rockefeller patrician—conservatives have never hidden their allegiance to the moneyed class and power elite. I have never in my lifetime seen a conservative counsel against expressing one of the major tenets of conservative ideology. You might as well advise the GOP to stop trying to repeal the New Deal and start defending labor rights. I've been thinking about this rhetorical shift while riding the bus in New Haven every day. The passengers are typically at the bottom of the 99 percent. Some are destitute; some are unemployable. Most are...

More Thoughts on Football

I should have posted this poem in October. But since I'm on a football jag now, here's a famous poem about what young men are channeling when they play football. Written in 1964, it includes some offensive language from its era. But I love this poem and have known it by heart for decades. Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio -- James Wright In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, Dying for love. Therefore, Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Good Night, Sweet Prince

The tooth fairy visited our house recently, which made me remember the time—many years ago, when tooth redemption brought only a quarter—that the tooth fairy kept forgetting to claim the tooth under my pillow. After a week, I put a sign on my bedroom door: TOOTH STOP! The next morning, I had my quarter, and a signed note. The tooth fairy explained that he had an extraordinarily large territory that included the Indian Ocean, and apologized for having been delayed by recent monsoons. The note was signed “Prince Oberon.” Of course I recognized the handwriting; I was eight, and by then I knew who the tooth fairy really was. But the note’s full delight didn’t really hit me until, in college, I read Midsummer Night’s Dream and laughed out loud. I loved that about my father: Playfulness that I would only fully appreciate years later. He was ordinary and extraordinary, like everyone: a Korean war vet who went to grad school on the GI bill, a mathematician who helped the Air Force's prime...

What's in a Name?

Urban Outfitters removes the word "Navajo" from its product line, but the cultural poaching is the same.

Urban Outfitters' formerly "Navajo" hipster panty. AP Photo/Matt York
U rban Outfitters, the retail mecca for once and future hipsters, recently scrubbed its website of all references to “Navajo.” What was once the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask” is now the “Printed Fabric Wrapped Flask”; the “Navajo Hipster Panty” is now the “Printed Hipster Panty”; and so on. The items are still available for purchase, but they’ve all been renamed. AP Photo/Matt York Urban Outfitters' former "Navajo" hipster panty. The move comes on the heels of a Web-based campaign against the retailer’s marketing practices and official requests from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. In June, the Navajo Nation sent a cease-and-desist letter to Urban Outfitters CEO Glen Senk, citing the company’s numerous registered trademarks for “Navajo” on clothing, footwear, household products, textiles, and online retail sales. This was followed by an open letter at the Racialicious blog by Sasha Houston Brown , a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, who assailed Urban Outfitters' “mass...