Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for November, 2006

Richard Gere and Carey Lowell read prison writings

Posted by metaphorical on 29 November 2006

Our nation’s prison population has soared by more than 600% since the 1970s, despite a drop in crime rates. As of 2005, over two million people were imprisoned in this country: almost one in every 136 U.S. residents.Black men, who make up 6% of the U.S. population, comprise over 40% of our prison population. A black male born today has a 32% chance of spending time in prison.Eleven states do not allow ex-cons to vote. Nearly 2,800,000 American children have at least one parent in prison or jail.

What does this mean for our democracy?



Read Prison Writings

Thursday, November 30

6 p.m.

Tischman Auditorium: 66 West 12th St., NYC

For tickets, please call (212) 229-5776, ext. 3121 or visit http://www.socres.org/punishment/

Posted in language, politics, writing | 8 Comments »

Burning the village, cont.

Posted by metaphorical on 29 November 2006

Keith Olbermann picks up where Gingrich’s speech left off.

GINGRICH: My view is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that we use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us, to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us.

OLBERMANN: If you’re going to destroy freedom of speech, bub, you’ve already lost all the cities.

Rob Kall at OpEdNews.com asks,

Why isn’t Mainstream Media Skewering Gingrich for Anti Free-Speech Remarks?

Think about he way the mainstream media went after Howard Dean when he got overenthusiastic, or how they went after Kerry, when he blew a joke, leaving out a key word or two.

Posted in journalism, language, politics | Leave a Comment »

Burning the village to save it

Posted by metaphorical on 28 November 2006

The story, from WCSH in Portland, story is brief, but the lead sentence says it all anyway, at least for those of us collecting entries for the “Most Orwellian Moment of 2006” competition.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used a New Hampshire event dedicated to freedom of speech to say the United States will have to re-examine that constitutional right as it fights terrorism.

Kind of reminds you of this gem from back in March 2003:

Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia is slated to accept a free speech award today in Cleveland. Among the conditions Scalia put on his appearing to accept the award: a wholesale ban on any media presence.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, technology | 3 Comments »

Subpoenas and the press

Posted by metaphorical on 27 November 2006

In today’s NY Times, the usually excellent David Carr defends the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the Balco case. Well, he doesn’t so much defend them as assume that the reporters are completely in the right and the case against them should just go away in the name of press freedom.

For anyone whose desert island subscription set doesn’t include Sports Illustrated (which would certainly describe me), the Balco case turns out to be the one that revealed the extent of steroid use in Major League Baseball.

Way down in the 8th paragraph, Carr gets around to the government’s side of it, and here’s how he does it:

government prosecutors, in the name of protecting the sanctity of the grand jury process, are still trying to throw Mr. Williams and Mr. Fainaru-Wada in jail for 18 months.

Excuse me, Mr Carr, what exactly is wrong with the idea of protecting the sanctity of the grand jury process? If a free press is one leg in the cathedra of a democratic society, isn’t the grand jury process another? (A third is the secret ballot in free and fair elections. The fourth used to be habeus corpus, maybe we’ll get that back and democracy won’t teeter-totter so much as it does on only three legs.)

Long before the 8th paragraph, Carr paints a most sympathetic portrait of the the defense attorney, Eve Burton, general counsel at the Hearst Corporation (parent company to the Chronicle), who only wanted to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for “for 10 bachelor farmers in the area, aged 84 and up” in upstate New York (no, I’m not making this up. What’s the smiley character for ‘world’s smallest violin’?).

This is the single biggest case I have ever been involved in,” [Burton] added. “In terms of the public’s right to know what the government does and doesn’t do, it is huge.

Give me a break, Ms Burton. Is major league baseball so important that we couldn’t wait until the grand jury had finished its investigations? Could anything be less important?

In the last 18 months, [Burton] says, her company has received 80 newsgathering subpoenas, for broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines. “But that was after the Judy Miller case,” she said, mentioning the case in which the former New York Times reporter went to jail to protect a source.

Maybe that’s because the Miller case was an awful one to hang the issue of the confidentiality of sources on. She was a bad reporter who did bad reporting, and her editors did a bad job of supervising her, and now all reporters are suffering the consequences.

You know what Mr Carr? Maybe the Chronicle and the Hearst Corporation have it right after all. I sure don’t know. But is this the case you want to rest the sanctity of source confidentiality on? The Judith Miller case was a bad one, and this is another bad one. And bad cases make bad law.

Posted in journalism, politics | 1 Comment »

Let us be grateful for… the suffering of patriots

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2006

Today in history: 1783 – The British evacuate New York, their last military position in the United States during the Revolutionary War.

On a private mailing list, Scott Marshall points out that as a consequence, thousands of British prisoners captured in the war were finally freed. Many others, unfortunately, did not live long enough to be freed. As the Fort Greene Park Conservancy points out,

In the years following the war the bones of the patriots would regularly wash up along the shores of Brooklyn and Long Island. These remains were collected by Brooklynites with the hopes of creating a permanent resting place for the remains of the brave Prison Ship Martyrs.

Several monuments were created over the years; the current one, dedicated in 1908, is in Fort Greene Park.

The backstory should be of interest to any nation that wantonly captures people and jails them without due process of law:

During the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, the British arrested scores of soldiers, sailors, and private citizens on both land and sea…. When the British ran out of jail space to house their POWs they began using decommissioned or damaged ships that were anchored in Wallabout Bay as floating prisons.

Life was unbearable on the prison ships, the most notorious of them being the Old Jersey – which was called “Hell” by the inhabitants. Disease was rampant, food and water were scarce or nonexistent, and the living conditions were horrendously overcrowded and wretched. If one had money they could purchase food from the many entrepreneurs who rowed up to the boat to sell their wares. Otherwise, the meager rations would consist of sawdust laden bread or watery soup.

A great number of the captives died from disease and malnutrition. Their emaciated bodies were either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves in the sandy marshes of Wallabout Bay. Even thought the British surrendered at Yorktown Heights in 1782, the surving prisoners were not freed until 1783, when the British abandoned New York City.

Who were these prisoners?

Many were imprisoned simply because they would not swear allegiance to the Crown of England. Besides American civilians and resistance fighters, the British captured the crews of foreign ships on the high seas, especially Spanish vessels. The apprehended soldiers, sailors and civilians were deemed by the British to be prisoners of war and were incarcerated.

Sound sadly familiar? Well, at least, as the Conservancy notes, “after the war, the British Commander in charge of the Prison Ships was brought up on war crimes charges and was subsequently hanged.” Of course, it’s not the case that thousands, or even hundreds, have died in U.S. military prisons in the 21st century. But there has been torture. When, if ever, will those in charge of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib be called to account?

Posted in Orwell, politics | Leave a Comment »

Do people find value in Technorati?

Posted by metaphorical on 24 November 2006


Posted in language, technology | 3 Comments »

The New York Pirates

Posted by metaphorical on 24 November 2006

What exactly is the problem with renaming Shea Stadium? It’s not as if it’s named for the team, or some individual who wasn’t a political hack who built a stadium that was neither on time nor under budget, nor as planned (where’s the dome and the other 35,000 seats?). Denis Hamill’s otherwise estimable rant is typical.

“What’s next,” Hamill asks, “the Chaseboro Bridge? The Citisphere? North Fork Hall of Science? Hey, how about the Statue of Liberty Mutual?” The difference between a bridge and ballpark, Denis, is that one is an inherently commercial enterprise with the ceaseless goal of screwing the municipality and its citizen-fans, all in the name of profit. If some sap corporation wants to kick in $400 million to fulfill some masochistic wet dream of its own, do we really care?

I grew up 30 blocks from Shea. I was 12 in Tom Seaver’s sophomore season (16-12, 205 SOs, 2.20), the first year I was allowed to go to games by myself. I used to ride my bike there and lock it up to the chainlink fence of the parking lot (and idea that today would be so stupid I’d deserve to have it stolen), or take the subway. In the glory year, one year later, I used to look in the afternoon paper, the Long Island Press, see who was pitching, and ask my mother for $2, enough for a round trip on the subway and a $1.30 general admission seat. Around the third inning I would relocate myself, but never lower than the yellow seats (the first decent viewpoint at a ballpark that, like Madison Square Garden, ought to give out binoculars to everyone in the cheap seats).

My friend Mike always knew which week in early autumn the stadium was switched over from baseball to football. The seats were angled away from the center, the field re-striped, and the dugouts filled in with dirt. We used to watch from the bullpens, casually throwing a football back and forth on the soft grass. I loved the stadium, but not necessarily the name.

Shea was a political hack attorney, hardly a rare breed in New York, nor one much worth celebrating. His first idea was to do to Cinncinnati, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh what California did to New York. If that didn’t destroy whatever moral authority the new baseball enterprise would have, his next strategy was to fill the heart of an aging Branch Rickey with hope that he could run a ballclub one last time. With Rickey’s reputation and heart in his pocket, Shea announced plans to form a third baseball league. MLB quickly capitulated with four expansion teams, one in New York. Shea got his team, Rickey got nothing, and the stadium I grew up a mile and a half from was named for a hack.

Posted in journalism, language, politics | 1 Comment »

There’s journalism and then there’s this

Posted by metaphorical on 21 November 2006

“Britney is gold, she is crack to our readers. Her life is a complete train wreck and I thank God for her every day.” — Harvey Levin, managing editor of TMZ.com

TMZ is, according to a story in today’s NY Times, a web site that “publishes celebrity news in real time.” The name stands for “the Thirty Mile Zone that defines the site’s celebrity hunting ground in and around Los Angeles.”

I think it’s pretty generous for the Times‘s generally excellent David Carr to call this news at all, when the site’s top stories include the likes of photos of Tom Cruise’s wedding and “that guy who played Doogie Howser walking his dog.” (“That guy” would be Neil Patrick Harris, who shared in the rave reviews of last year’s stunning Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Assassins.)

Certainly Levin has an interesting theory of journalism when he says, “We have created a vibrant news organization that is breaking news in real time.” On the site right now, for example, is footage of Naomi Campbell walking from the curb, up the steps, and into a New York courthouse. Then, later, walking out. That’s it. That’s the whole “breaking news” story.

Posted in journalism, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

No, peace is peace

Posted by metaphorical on 21 November 2006

That was a bit of a cheap shot at Rangel yesterday.

The general idea of universal service is a good one, and it’s what Rangel is really proposing. In the same AP story, there’s this:

He said having a draft would not necessarily mean everyone called to duty would have to serve. Instead, “young people (would) commit themselves to a couple of years in service to this great republic, whether it’s our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals,” with a promise of educational benefits at the end of service.

If young people started choosing schools and hospitals instead of the military, we’d know right off a war was unpopular, and if all the young people did it now, we’d not only know not be in Iraq, we wouldn’t have the troops to be there at all. If soldiers vote with their feet as well as march with them, we’d only fight the wars we really need to fight.

Posted in language, politics | 5 Comments »

Up is down, to is fro

Posted by metaphorical on 20 November 2006

When tectonic plates grind up against one another, you get earthquakes and mountains, right? So what happens when entire decades collide? Among other things, this: the unindicted war criminals admit the “conflict” in Iraq is unwinnable, while the liberals call for a return of conscription.First, here’s Henry Kissinger:

If you mean by ‘military victory,’ an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don’t believe that is possible.

There’s plenty of links to choose from, but the AP version is fine:

“Kissinger presented a bleak vision of Iraq, saying the U.S. government must enter into dialogue with Iraq’s neighbors – including Iran – if progress is to be made in the region.”

Next, there’s Charles Rangel who apparently thinks the way to peace is to reinstate the draft.

There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft, and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way,” Rangel said.

In other words, War Is Peace. So there’s the answer: when the 1960s crash into the 2000s, they split the difference and end up at 1984.

Posted in language, politics | 1 Comment »

Can you really say “vulva” in a newspaper?

Posted by metaphorical on 18 November 2006

 I have right here in my hot little hands that actually aren’t all that little and are only slightly warm at the moment a brand new lick-ready smooth-as-love Apple MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo Super Orgasm Deluxe Ultrahard Modern Computing Device Designed by God Herself Somewhere in the Deep Moist Vulva of Cupertino Yes Yes Don’t Stop Oh My God Yes.

 Does that sound like idiotic gushing? Like undue praise for what amounts to just another dumb computer that has its share of flaws and glitches and armies of sneering übergeek detractors on Slashdot? Once again, I do not really care. Because like it or not, Apple has actually managed something quite radical for a tech company: They have not merely changed the world, they have actually improved it. Oh yes they have.
— the SF Gate’s Mark Morford sings Apple’s praises, apparently with the entire 16th Street Baptist Choir behind him, in When Apple Rules The World

Damn, that’s some fine writing.

Oh, and my shiny MacBook 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo arrives from China on Tuesday, not that I’ve been tracking it or anything.

Posted in journalism, language, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Twyla Thwunk

Posted by metaphorical on 18 November 2006

Twyla Tharp’s Dylan show is closing the end of this month. Good riddance.

While her Billy Joel show was pointless fluff, this one really bothered — and baffled — me. Is it really possible that Tharp lived through the eras in which the songs were written, and has her eyes open today, and came up with the show she did?

When you think about the 1960s and 1970s, and you think about 2006, do you really think a traveling circus, or, I don’t know, maybe Iraq?

When you hear songs like “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” in 2006 do you really think about domestic violence or Iraq?

When you hear lyrics like

My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.


Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?


The savage soldier sticks his head in sand
And then complains
Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf
But still remains
Upon the beach where hound dogs bay
At ships with tattooed sails
Heading for the Gates of Eden

do you really think about a love triangle between a father, his
girlfriend, and his son, or Iraq?

When you pair up the two lyrics

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?


Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?

do you think about lions and elephants and the flying trapeze, or — I’m just spitballin’ here — the central dilemma facing the American people as we enter the fourth year in Iraq?

Posted in language, the arts | Leave a Comment »

A Senator-elect on America’s “class-based system”

Posted by metaphorical on 17 November 2006

 The most important–and unfortunately the least debated–issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people.
 This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris
 It should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions, and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life.


James Webb, the newly elected Senator from Virginia, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece dated 15 November.

Posted in politics | 4 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 16 November 2006

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.” — George Carlin


My friends know how obsessed I am with quotations. The above was grabbed from Quotiki, a great little site I didn’t know about until today.

Posted in language | 1 Comment »

stepsister impromptu

Posted by metaphorical on 15 November 2006

Have you noticed the latest style for spam subject lines? In my inbox, at least, I see short phrases (often two words long), in odd juxtiposition. They remind me of the Carolyn Forché poem, “On Earth,” from her collection Blue Hour. The poem consists of a list of phrases 46 pages long.

Here’s a sample:

as for children, so for the dead
as gloves into a grave
as God withdrawing so as to open an absence
as he appears and reappears in the unknown
as if a flock of geese were following
as if there were no other source of food
as if to say goodbye to his own mind
as if we had only one more hour
as if with the future we could replace the past
as in the childhood of terror and holiness

There are a few things to notice. The lines are mere phrases, sentence fragments, and they are alphabetically arranged. If you read the whole poem, you’d see there are themes only in the vaguest sense; if some ideas are returned to, it’s almost by accident.

In Honor Moore’s literature seminar last semester, Honor told us that Forché, a friend of hers, called her one night and told her about a new poem. She had had a computer file of lines, mostly phrases, that she had been collecting for years. One day, “I just pressed ‘sort’,” Forché told her. Honor showed us there are all sorts of things you can do with such a list besides sorting them.

So here we go. The rules are simple. The subject lines are unedited except minimally for punctuation and capitalization. Some great lines, such as “silken devastation” or “dysentery nondenominational,” have been omited because they were, well, too good.

Or Rare Of Rock

agree agree
don’t win
overly repetitive

each con
scorn overcrowded
sentence, followed

recreation adopted ethic

allow donated
planetaria junk food
greenhouse bold
nankeen lily palm kale

through frigid water
or rare of rock

suffix after
timer below
known perpetual
gold specific clock
miscarriage vanguard
traveling machine

rag hotcake
pocketbook accolade
cosmopolitan blistering
stepsister impromptu

plight fourteenth
of the circlet
slacken hour
write nonintervention

dove antique
and this

to to athwart
walrus ebony
ratification purist
exonerate topic sentence
turtleneck recoup
drachmae schoollike rehypothecation

Posted in language, spam poetry | 5 Comments »

E-voting can’t be recounted – this shouldn’t be news, but it is

Posted by metaphorical on 12 November 2006

Perhaps the media is ready to stop pretending that elections run with today’s e-voting equipment can be recounted.

I blogged about this at work, so I’ll just point to it there.

Posted in politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Politics and the English Language

Posted by metaphorical on 7 November 2006

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

— Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946

In his last sentence quoted above, is Orwell, not generally noted for his optimism, being overly optimistic? I think so, but it’s a lovely thought, and without it, perhaps he felt there was less point to the essay. But it’s anyway useful to know the causes of the decline of a language (and a civilization, we might add), even if the decline is not, in the long run, preventable.

The complete essay is, fortunately, available all over the web.

A Project Gutenberg version, the text completely unformatted, is here.

A version is also at the self-proclaimed official Orwell site.

A nicely formatted version, if you don’t mind a PDF, is here.

I’ll have more to say about the essay of course.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, writing | Leave a Comment »