Friday, December 31, 2021

Some Things I Learned After Watching "Get Back"

My grandmother must have really loved me. What else would explain her sitting through a quadruple feature (yes a quadruple feature) with me of all four theatrical releases of Beatles films in a Chicago theater fifty years ago? 

The total running time for A Hard Day's Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine and Let It Be clocks in at around six hours. You could add in their TV special Magical Mystery Tour and still end up an hour short of the running time Peter Jackson's epic three-part saga The Beatles: Get Back. And while the five films span five years, much of the public life of arguably the greatest rock and roll band ever, Get Back spans less than one month in the life of the band.

I've written in detail in this space before about my passion for the Beatles so I won't repeat myself here. If you're interested, you can read about it here and here. Suffice it to say the Beatles provided the soundtrack of my formative years and many of the ones to follow. While I would hardly consider myself a Beatles scholar, yes such a thing does indeed exist, I probably know more about the Fab Four than your average Joe on the street. 

But as the title to this post suggests, there were a number of things that I and no doubt many other fellow Beatlemaniacs learned from our required viewing of Jackson's monumental re-edit of the documentary footage of the band shot in January of 1969, under the direction of Michael Lindsay Hogg. 

Here are a few of them:


The first thing I never realized was that the end result of the 1969 project which resulted in over 60 hours of film footage, double that amount of audio recordings, and a live performance on the roof of Apple Records headquarters in London, ended up being a far cry from the original concept. The idea was to document for television, the band composing, rehearsing and performing live in concert (for the first time in three years), fifteen or so new songs, which were to be included in a new album. 

The working title for the project was Get Back, reflecting Paul McCartney's idea to return to the band's roots and perform their music live, just the four of them, without the help of overdubbing and other postproduction effects that defined much of their work after they stopped performing live in 1966. 

The time frame for all of this, including choosing, procuring and performing in the as yet to be determined venue for the concert, was three weeks. Talk about not making little plans!

It turned out to be all too much. A good portion of the first episode of Jackson's film is devoted to heated discussions on a venue for the concert. Ideas ranged from the mundane, a London music hall, to the curious, an orphanage, to the outrageous, a Roman amphitheater in Libya where the band and their audience would be transported aboard a cruise ship.

Needless to say, in the end none of those worked out, they settled on the iconic rooftop performance which concludes the movie, and we are all the better for it.

There would be no TV documentary. By the end of shooting in late January,1969, that performance was all they had to show for their efforts. A single, recorded during the filmed sessions was released three months later. Beyond that, none of the miles and miles of film and tape they went through, would see the light of day for almost year and a half, not until things had changed considerably for the band. More on that later.


...AKA John, Paul, George and Ringo. Clearly things had changed since A Hard Day's Night. Common knowledge has it that the Beatles were John Lennon's band until the groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper, Paul McCartney's baby, came out in 1967. That year also saw the unexpected death of the group's manager Brian Epstein which had a profound impact on the band. By that time, George Harrison had become deeply interested in Indian philosophy, music and culture, John had become interested in Yoko Ono and drugs, and Ringo Starr was busy being Ringo. That left the reigns to Paul who according to common knowledge, was a bit of a control freak and taskmaster. This could be off putting to the rest of the lads who were beginning to lose interest in being Beatles. Much of the rancor famously came to a head during the recording sessions for the White Album when even the normally docile Ringo walked out on the band for two weeks. 

As I mentioned it was Paul's idea to get back to their roots so to speak and try to be a rock and roll band once again. But as one can imagine, for him at times, leading a group whose members were starting to go their separate ways, must have seemed a little like herding cats. 

This comes across in Peter Jackson's documentary. What doesn't come across at least for me, is the common assumption that McCartney was being an asshole, unreasonable and out of line. What does come across was his tremendous passion to keep the band together and moving forward, while John appeared to be constantly stoned out of his mind, George had a perpetual chip on his shoulder, and Ringo seemed as if he'd rather be in bed.

Paul's devotion to The Beatles is painfully apparent in the most revealing scene in the entire eight-hour saga, when after George walked out on the band and John was MIA, McCartney, visibly shaking, ruefully contemplates the all too likely day when the Beatles would be no more. 

Despite the bumps in the road including George's departure, McCartney succeeded in bringing the band together. Much to the contrary of common knowledge, Jackson's film shows that when they were together, the Beatles were still a tight unit, full of creative energy who cared deeply for one another.

It also showed that Paul McCartney was the glue that held the whole thing together. Without him, the Beatles would have been done much sooner. My respect for him grew in leaps and bounds after I saw the movie.


In the beginning, things did not go well. For starters, the producers decided to shoot the film not in a natural environment for creating music, but in a cavernous motion picture sound stage in London. Making matters worse, the shooting schedule revolved around the convenience of the film crew, not the subjects. Getting up earlier than normal and forced to perform in a cold and unwelcoming environment led to some very grumpy Beatles, not just George. It became clear very early on that they weren't going to make the quota of fifteen new songs. So they decided to run through some old numbers of theirs they never recorded, each one sounding worse than the one before.

As part of the effort to bring George back, it was decided they would forgo the soundstage in favor of a place more conducive to creating music, a hastily put together recording studio in the basement of the Apple building. That seemed to help a bit. 

But just like manna from heaven, what really turned things around was the appearance of Billy Preston

The Beatles were all gifted musically, especially in their ability to create songs and perform them. That they weren't exactly virtuoso performers was no secret, but it hardly mattered. Their competency as musicians was more than enough to serve their music. Besides, if they needed to up their game, they could bring in others to help take up the slack such as when their longtime producer George Martin would bring in classical musicians, or when George Harrison invited Eric Clapton to perform lead guitar on While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Their relationship with Billy Preston, a virtuoso keyboard player and singer, went back to their Hamburg days in the early sixties. It was Harrison who invited Preston to show up to the Apple basement. From the moment he walked in, the entire vibe changed. He immediately (at least in the film) sat down at an electric piano and joined the band as they rehearsed John's Don't Let Me Down, his familiar riffs to that song coming to him seemingly out of nowhere. 

Watching Billy Preston walking into that studio in the film reminded me of the time I was photographing a high school orchestra when Yo Yo Ma came and sat in with the group. The presence of the master helped make all the awestruck students play better. 

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Preston's calmness, his positive demeanor and above all his brilliant musicianship, rescued the Beatles from the brink of extinction. So grateful were they for his contribution, Preston's name was credited as an artist on the Get Back/Don't Let Me Down single, the only artist who was ever credited for his work on a Beatle record. 


A couple months after the January, '69 sessions, the Beatles with Billy Preston returned to the studio where the Fabs had made most of their recordings, the EMI Abbey Road studios. It also marked the return to full capacity of George Martin who was briefly relegated to second banana status during the January sessions. He appears in the Jackson film mostly wandering aimlessly about the Apple studio.

With Martin back in command in the booth and the group back to more familiar surroundings, they laid down the tracks for what would become what many consider to be their magnum opus, the album Abbey Road

Meanwhile, Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hard at work editing down all the footage his team shot during the January sessions. As the group was contractually obligated to produce one more feature film, it was decided the finished product of Lindsay-Hogg's efforts would now be a film, not a TV program. Glyn Johns, who produced many of the seminal recordings of the British Invasion with the exception of the Beatles up to that point, was mixing the recordings from the sessions for the movie's soundtrack. Upon hearing Johns' final mix of the recordings, The Beatles, who had asked him to make the mix sound rough and unproduced, in keeping with McCartney's intentions to get away from the slick studio sound of the past three years, rejected it because it sounded too rough and unproduced.  By and large the Beatles had lost interest in the project as much of the experience had left a bad taste in their mouths, and the project languished for well over a year. 

Eventually Lennon gave the tapes of the sessions to the infamous American producer Phil Spector "who puked all over the bloody lot of them," in the words of Johns who is prominently featured in Jackson's film. If you saw it you know him, he's the guy in the studio who's dressed like Austin Powers. It was the over-the-top, puked all over Spector produced mix that ended up on the Let It Be album.

Let It Be, both the film and the soundtrack album, were finally released in May, 1970, one month after Paul McCartney publicly announced he was leaving the group. John Lennon had privately announced his decision to leave the band to the other three Beatles the previous September. 

The film developed the reputation of having been a bleak look at the demise of a cherished institution.

I only saw Let It Be the film twice, the second time around 1977 with my friend Jeremy, and my memories of it are not vivid. The film did include the famous exchange between McCartney and Harrison, where Harrison taking exception to McCartney's overbearing nature, expresses his frustration at his bandmate. With the exception of the rooftop concert, it is one of the few scenes that are included both in the film Let It Be and Jackson's Get Back. Aside from that scene with Harrison, I don't recall Let It Be being particularly bleak. Much of it was devoted to finished performances of the songs, some in the studio, others on the rooftop. And I distinctly remember scenes of the group having fun jamming together, tearing up corny ancient pop tunes they played in their early days such as Besame Mucho.

It could be that since I became a Beatle fan right around the time the band broke up, I had always accepted the band's demise as a fete accompli. Had I been following them for years I'm sure their breakup would have been devastating. I have no doubt that seeing the film right on the heels of learning of the demise of the Beatles had to have colored the opinions of both the film and the album for long time fans. 

For me the big difference between Let It Be the film and The Beatles: Get Back, beside their running times, is that Let It Be strove to be a documentary in the tradition of cinema-verite, where the camera is meant to be a passive, unobtrusive recorder of events, giving viewers the feeling that they are the proverbial "fly on the wall" witnessing the events taking place. 

What we see in the footage Jackson uses in his film is that the film crew and especially Lindsay-Hogg himself, were actually the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. John is constantly mugging for the camera. In one scene he surreptitiously removes something from his pocket then looks over in the direction of the camera and as if he were caught red handed, puts it back into his pocket. It's funny despite it being obviously set up. And in case you were wondering who was calling the shots, during the first episode, Lindsay-Hogg asks the Beatles if they could turn down the volume of their amps so his audio people could better record their spoken dialog. Cinema-verite indeed.

Let It Be the album didn't fare much better. Like the film, it didn't help that it was released after the announcement of the band's breakup, and well after the much more adventurous Abbey Road

Consequently, it was excoriated as having been a very weak swan song for the band. As they say, timing is everything and I have no doubt that had the two been released closer to when they were made, their reception would have been much different.  


I never did buy into the idea that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. Why? Because they said so themselves in interviews given way back in the early seventies. John and George especially were looking to get out and do other things which they couldn't if the Beatles still existed. And Paul who we find out in Get Back, didn't want to quit the band, and really didn't mind Yoko, said one of the most remarkable lines in the Jackson film: "it's funny, people fifty years from now will be saying that the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp."

He was right, it's fifty years later, and then some, and a whole lot of Beatle fans still blame Yoko. I hear way more trashing of her than of the person singlehandedly responsible for making sure the Beatles would never perform together again, the guy who killed John Lennon.

Some people regard the breakup of the Beatles as a tragedy on a par with the crash of the Hindenburg or the sinking of the Titanic. It's possible that I'm one of the few Beatle fans who view the breakup as a good thing. Quitting when they did, created a mystique about the band. The last album they recorded together was Abbey Road, and the last live performance they gave was on the rooftop, not a bad way to go out. 

Had they continued performing together as the Beatles, they would no doubt have gotten to a point where they were past their prime. People might have tired of them and the last image we had of band together instead of playing Don'tLet Me Down and Get Back on the roof at 3 Saville Row in Central London, could have been of them middle aged, performing She Loves You at the Nebraska State Fair.

Or maybe not, but you probably get the point.

Anyway. Jackson's film shows us that despite being at John's side during the entire movie, Yoko really wasn't much of a distraction. 

On the other hand, two scenes in the movie point directly to causes that really did break up the Beatles. One scene has George in conversation with John and Yoko, telling them that he has a whole catalog of songs that he thought deserved to be on an album. John and Yoko encouraged him to go for it, which he finally did in November of 1970 with the release of the three-disc set, All Things Must Pass, which many claim to be the best of all the post-Beatles records. (Not sure I agree).

The even more revealing scene regarding the eventual breakup comes in the third episode when John out of the blue brings up in glowing terms the agent Alan Klein whom he had just met. It was Klein, quite the notorious figure in his own right, who gained the favor of three of the Beatles, while a much skeptical Paul McCartney (who has a priceless reaction shot when John brings up Klein's name), preferred the services of the man who would become his father-in-law, Lee Eastman.

It was money, and the split over who would represent the band, that more than anything else led to the breakup of the band and the acrimonious relationship between its members for the next few years.


The crux of the matter, the real joy of The Beatles: Get Back, is the view into the creative process of the band. In the movies, it usually looks so easy.  A composer might hear a little tune from a nightingale's song and turn it into a theme for a pop tune. Or Mozart could compose an entire symphony in his head then write it down in between billiard shots, (allegedly he really could do that.) But I don't know of a film that has captured the actual composition of a song as Lindsay-Hogg's cameras did of Paul McCartney creating the main theme and refrain to the song Get Back out of nothing. For the life of me I have no idea why this amazing scene didn't make it into Let It Be, but it has become the most commented upon scene in Jackson's film. 

One might expect that Jackson's Get Back is filled with such scenes, but they are few and far between. This isn't a criticism of the film; on the contrary it is exactly the opposite. The creative process for most mere mortals, even ones as talented as the Beatles, is filled with false starts and misdirection, which comprise about 90 percent of Jackson's film. That goes along with the old adage that: "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." There are web sites that will tell you where to find all the gems in the movie, so you don't have to sit through all the perspiration, but I'm afraid that's missing the point. Doing so, one misses the true joy of coming upon those rare moments of genius in the midst of all the nonsense, chaos and tedium.

The general assumption if you have only a superficial knowledge of the Beatles is that, like many song writing teams, in the songs credited to Lennon and McCartney, John was responsible for the lyrics and Paul, the music. Then you learn that most of the songs, both the lyrics and music, were written by one or the other. Then you see this movie and realize that it didn't work that way either. Someone would come up with an idea, then bring it to the studio where the other three (four if you count George Martin) would put their contributions into it. I can't tell you what a thrill it is to see songs I know like the back of my hand in the process of being created. So many times I wanted to yell lyrics at the TV as the actual lyrics hadn't been written yet, such as when George was trying to finish the line: "Something in the way she moves, attracts me like..." To which John added, "a cauliflower" 

The Beatles: Get Back is admittedly an indulgence for Beatles fans who can't get enough of their heroes. For them it could have been several hours longer. On the other hand, Jackson probably could have cut a couple hours and the film would not have suffered any. Personally, I could have lived without sitting through performances of Two of Us, one of my favorite songs on the Let It Be album, sung by John and Paul with their teeth clenched. It was hysterical the first time we saw it but the second time? Well not so much.

Maybe I'm just not worthy.

I'm sure Jackson's film will not change many minds about the Beatles, only intensify them. If you hated the group, you'll probably hate them even more after watching the film. If you love them as I do, you'll probably love them more, especially the knowledge that despite all the distractions and bullshit, in the end they cared deeply about the music and especially about each other,

And if you were indifferent, you still are because you couldn't get past the first hour of the first episode. 

Finally, for me the most valuable contribution of The Beatles: Get Back, is how it puts everything into context. We can appreciate Let It Be, the album, probably the most maligned in the group's history for what it was, a brief, foray into the past, something they hardly ever did. We can see the struggles they went through working through difficult situations and time constraints placed upon them by the film makers. Despite all of that, they managed to put together a very good album and an unforgettable performance for the ages. 

In Jackson's film, we see they weren't done in January 1969 but were looking forward, working on songs that would appear on their next album, and also ones that would, unbeknownst to them at the time, appear on their solo albums. 

Let It Be's proper place in history is not as the last album released by the Beatles but as the penultimate album of original material created by the Beatles. When viewed in that context, saying Let It Be is the group's worst album (which may be true) is a little like saying that the Eighth, Beethoven's penultimate symphony, is that composer's worst:

What do you think?

It might be true that the Eighth is Beethoven's worst symphony, but does anyone really care? 

Same with Let It Be.

I'll give the penultimate word to Ken Mansfield, the US Manager of Apple Records, who was present at the rooftop concert:

I’m four to six feet away from the band, so I’m virtually looking in their faces. When they started playing, at some point – and this is something I’ll never forget – there was this moment where Paul looked over at John or John looked at Paul and there was this look of recognition. It’s like they were saying: “You know what? No matter what’s going down, this is us. This is who we are. This is what we’ve always been. Stuff’s going down right now, but we are what we are, and that’s a good rock’n’roll band.” 
The last word goes as it should to John Lennon:
I would like to say on behalf of the group and ourselves I hope we passed the audition.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Whose Narrative is it Anyway?

Another health crisis for my mother meant another chance to channel surf between moving in to her apartment to take care of her dog and visiting the hospital. 

Being given free reign of the remote enables me as it has in the past to toggle between two wildly divergent views of the world, parallel universes one might say whose points never meet. 

I'm talking about the two cable television channels (which we don't have at home) which on my mom's TV, sit only two clicks from each other, MSNBC and FOX. Watching these two networks side by side as I've been doing, it doesn't take much to realize why this country is hopelessly divided at the moment. 

The current crisis happened to coincide with the internationally publicized trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager from Illinois who shot and killed two men and severely wounded another during the unrest, or riot if you prefer, (depending upon which side you're on), over a white police officer shooting Jacob Blake, a black man, seven times in the back, right in front of Blake's children. This all took place in Kenosha, WI, a city I know intimately, which sits smack dab between Chicago and Milwaukee. 

If you choose FOX as your prime method of news delivery, this is what you know about what happened the night of August 25, 2020 in Kenosha:

Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man who spent his summers in Kenosha working as a lifeguard, offered the owner of a used car lot that had been torched by rioters, to help defend the business from further damage. Armed with a medical kit in one hand and a legally obtained AR-15 style rifle in the other, Rittenhouse found himself under attack from members of a mob. One of them, Joseph Rosenbaum, a man with a long criminal record, chased the youth into a parking lot while threatening to kill him, then lunged at Rittenhouse, trying to take his rifle. Fearing for his life, Rittenhouse opened fire on Rosenbaum. As he desperately ran from the scene trying to find police to report the incident, Rittenhouse was chased by more rioters, all with criminal pasts, one of whom jump kicked him after he stumbled and fell to the ground. Another, Anthony Huber, smashed the youth in the head with a skateboard and also attempted to take his gun. Again, fearing for his life, Rittenhouse shot Huber. Shortly thereafter, another rioter, Gaige Grosskreutz, pointed a pistol at Rittenhouse who in self-defense, shot Grosskreutz in the arm. 

If MSNBC is your primary news source, this is what you know of the same story:

A high school dropout from Antioch, IL, Kyle Rittenhouse, an alleged white supremacist and pathological liar, had a passion for law enforcement and Donald Trump. Enraged by the destruction of property during the unrest over police brutality that was taking place in another state, Rittenhouse took it upon himself to drive from his home in Illinois to Wisconsin armed with an assault rifle, to inflict vigilante justice in a place where he had no connection. During a confrontation with some of the protestors, Rittenhouse shot and killed two unarmed men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, then shot and severely wounded Gage Grosskreutz.

Rittenhouse was charged with two separate counts of first degree reckless and intentional homicide in the deaths of Rosenbaum and Huber, attempted first degree homicide in the shooting of Grosskreutz, and reckless endangerment for firing shots at the guy who kicked him. Another charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 was dismissed by the presiding judge due to a technicality. 

Both networks provided virtually gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial, not surprisingly each with their own slant on the proceedings. 

The Second Amendment and one's views of it play a great role in one's views of the case. To the gun crowd, many of whom are devotees of Fox, Rittenhouse was well within his rights to arm himself in order to help protect businesses targeted by lawless arsonists and looters, and also in defending himself against the men who intended to harm if not outright kill him. 

To those on the other side, Rittenhouse should have stayed at home that night and left the policing to the police.

The reaction to the jury's verdict of not guilty on all counts was also predictable. To the Fox crowd it was considered a victory of the American judicial system, preserving the right to bear arms and to defend oneself by using deadly force if necessary. To them, Rittenhouse was not only hailed as a fine, upstanding young man, but also a hero who has been celebrated and treated with offers of employment by ultra-right legislators tripping over themselves to hire him, a prime-time interview on FOX with their biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and an invitation to Mar-A-Lago where he was granted an audience with the exPOTUS.

To the other side, the verdict was a miscarriage of justice which set a dangerous precedent that will only encourage more people to openly carry guns in public. To them Rittenhouse is at best a foolish young man who got himself in way over his head, at worst a vigilante, some even call him a terrorist, bent upon taking the law in into his own hands in a place he had no business being. For them he murdered two men in cold blood, severely injured a third, and deserves to be held accountable for his actions.

After the not guilty verdict was read, FOX's prime time talking head Sean Hannity read a laundry list of misdeeds perpetrated by the mainstream media in their coverage of the Rittenhouse affair. According to him, "the media" (I guess to Hannity that term doesn't include himself or his employer), completely misrepresented the case by reporting falsehoods and leaving out details that "didn't fit into their narrative". That narrative according to Hannity, is to promote a progressive, left wing, "woke", anti-gun, pro-abortion, anti-Christian, pro-ANTIFA/BLM, and anti-American agenda.

Full disclosure, if you've read anything in this space before, you probably know my sentiments do not lie with FOX. In fact, I find the organization and its representatives to be for the most part, reprehensible.  

But in this case, having watched a good deal of MSNBC, CNN and FOX coverage of the Rittenhouse affair, I think Hannity has a point. That began to hit home after things I had assumed from the outset turned out not to be true, such as Rittenhouse having no connection to Kenosha, or that his mother drove him to Kenosha that fateful night, or that he illegally transported the gun from Illinois to Wisconsin. And the most controversial tidbit of information broadcast about Rittenhouse, that he is a white supremacist, has never been firmly established. For what it's worth, he publicly denies it.

Now these misconceptions once widely broadcasted MAY have been cleared up by MSNBC and CNN, but they certainly didn't go out of their way to do so. In fact, looking back on virtually everything I read and heard about the case from my usual go to news sources such as The Atlantic, the New York Times, NPR, and when I get the chance to watch cable TV, MSNBC (my mother's network of choice), the picture painted of young Mr. Rittenhouse's character was indeed bleak. There was little nuance, he was painted by and large as an ultra-right-gun nut, very possibly a white supremacist, and little more.  It didn't help his reputation that his cause was quickly picked up by nefarious groups such as the Proud Boys. 

I felt the coverage of the trial, especially on MSNBC was especially biased, leaving little doubt that Rittenhouse acted out of malice in killing two men and severely injuring another.  One of the talking points of Hannity and his FOX colleagues was that the just-left-of-Attila the Hun media infused the most polarizing issue of the day, race, into the equation. 

Again, reluctantly I have to agree. It's true that the violence in Kenosha was directly set off by police shooting a black man and fueled in large part by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis a few months earlier. But all four of the men that Rittenhouse shot at were white. Nevertheless, the question kept coming up again and again, what would the outcome of the trial have been had Rittenhouse been black? 

Other than stirring up more outrage, I'm not sure of the point of that question. I believe that had the circumstances been exactly the same but for the race of the defendant, in other words had a black Rittenhouse gone to Kenosha to help protect businesses from arson and looting, then had been chased and threatened by rioters whom he ultimately shot, I truly believe the verdict would have been the same. 

I believe this because after having listened to much of the evidence at the trial as well as having seen several of the videos of the shootings, I have no doubt that given the law presented them, the jury came to the correct conclusion. This is a controversial opinion especially in my circle of friends and family. But according to Wisconsin law, Kyle Rittenhouse from what I can tell, was within his rights to carry the weapon. You may or may not agree with the law, I sure as heck don't, but that opinion is irrelevant in a court of law. A jury's responsibility is not to judge the merit of a law, nor judge the character, politics nor feelings about race (repugnant as they might be), of the defendant. 

A jury's one and only job is to determine if the law in place was broken.  It is also clear from the testimony that Joseph Rosenbaum (who was carrying a chain), initiated the hostilities between himself and Rittenhouse, and the subsequent string of events that let to the other shootings. Rosenbaum verbally threatened Rittenhouse's life, chased him, and in the end, grabbed for his gun. 

The other men shot by Rittenhouse, also initiated their confrontations with him. 

It is entirely reasonable that in the moments before he shot and killed Huber and Rosenbaum and shot and wounded Grosskreutz who was pointing a pistol at him, Rittenhouse felt his life was threatened because it probably was. And according to Wisconsin law, that is a sufficient motive to legally shoot someone. 

However, being found not guilty in a trial does not necessarily make a defendant innocent. It's absolutely true that Rosenbaum and Huber most likely would be alive today had Rittenhouse not brought his gun to the protest.

Rittenhouse is not a hero. Openly armed with a powerful, deadly weapon that night as several other people were, Rittenhouse was an active participant in the violence that took place on the streets of Kenosha. As such, Kyle Rittenhouse is the poster child for the absolute insanity of laws around this country that enable people not only to own deadly weapons designed to commit mass murder, but to openly carry them in public. 

To the gun crowd who claim that Rittenhouse was just defending himself when he shot three men, killing two of them, I would ask this: would you feel the same if a protester, one of those big bad ANTIFA/BLM types you fear so much, shot and killed a self-styled paramilitary vigilante like Rittenhouse because he felt his life was threatened? It does go both ways, Wisconsin law permits everybody, protester and vigilante alike to openly carry weapons in public and use them if need be for self-defense.

I'm guessing had that been the case, the folks over at FOX would have been singing a different tune, one that better fit into their own narrative. 

I think it goes without saying that there is no room for agendas and narratives in the work of real journalists whose responsibility, in a perfect world anyway, is to the best of their ability report facts in an unbiased fashion. The people over at FOX get around this by claiming their prime-time talking heads are entertainers not journalists, ever since their defense of Tucker Carlson in a defamation suit brought against him and the network, that claimed no reasonable person would take anything Carlson said seriously. 

In her ruling in favor of Carlson, the judge in dismissing the case said this:

Fox persuasively argues . . . that given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer arrives with an appropriate amount of skepticism about the statements he makes....whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson's statements as exaggeration, non-literal commentary, or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same—the statements are not actionable.

Clearly the only credibility the FOX trolls have is what they bring to the company's bottom line, determined of course by their ratings. So as long as they tell their millions of viewers what they want to hear, according to the network it doesn't matter what they say or what damage it may cause. 

I would assume that the folks over at MSNBC and CNN looking toward their own bottom line, have at least a slightly higher standard and would not take such a brazen approach. Credibility over there, I would hope anyway, has at least as much to do with a semblance of accuracy in their reporting as presenting a palatable message to their viewers.

Of course journalists are only human and it's reasonable to expect them to have an opinion about what they're reporting. 

This is all the more true in a time when our country is indisputably at a crossroad, where our future has the possibility of moving in one of two distinct paths, either towards or away from democracy. It's only natural that all of us, journalists included, will be taking sides. 

Nevertheless, I believe it is incumbent upon real news organizations and the journalists they hire, to report as accurately as possible, giving expression to all sides of the story.

As an example, in all the coverage I witnessed, I did not once see or hear any reference on either MSNBC or CNN to the suffering of the people of Kenosha who watched helplessly as their city was in flames. It seemed as if the only viewpoint that mattered was that of the black community who was rightfully enraged by the shooting of Jacob Blake. To those news organizations and to those people who insist that looting and arson are justified if they are committed in the name of protesting injustice, I would ask this: How would you feel if it was your home or business that was going up in flames? Unless you are my friend Don Flesch (or someone like him), who somehow managed to find understanding and forgiveness as the family business he devoted his life to was being destroyed by looters and arsonists, your opinion on the subject is meaningless.

In the end, the MSNBC version of the Rittenhouse affair was just as incomplete and ultimately dishonest as the FOX version.

I'm reminded here of a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Right Stuff. In the scene, the CAPCOM folks on the ground are debating whether or not to tell astronaut John Glenn that there may be a fatal flaw in his spacecraft. Fellow astronaut Alan Shepard sets them straight by telling them, "He's a pilot, he needs to know the condition of his craft."

Here is an amazing film of the actual event. At around two minutes into the video, CAPCOM informs Glenn that there is to be a change of plans in his reentry procedure. Glenn asks them the reason for this and they tell him: "We'll get back to you." Then you hear Shepard come in and tell Glenn the truth about what's going on with his spacecraft.

My point is this, Democracy dies through division and hatred, promoted through dishonesty, misinformation, and outright lies. If our fragile democracy is to survive, we need to realize that we are all in this together and especially to be told the truth about the condition of our nation. If the folks at MSNBC and CNN are truly on the side of democracy, which I think they are, they need to trust the intelligence of their audience to make up their own minds by honestly telling the complete story, even if what they are reporting is not exactly music to their ears. 

In other words, leave the bullshit to Fox. 

Hannity was indeed paying them a high compliment. In accusing "the media" of lying and obscuring the truth all in the name of fitting a narrative, he was really saying this: "hey guys, you're acting just like me."

It's truly a cold day in hell when I agree with Sean Hannity.

By the way honey, pass me the blankets, it's freezing in here. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Great White Dope

I concluded my last post, part three of my language trilogy, on what an exciting and sometimes frustrating thing it is when languages evolve, especially when it happens before our very eyes. Sometimes it happens so fast it's hard to keep up. 

Take the word "woke". Woke is one of countless words that have entered Standard American English by way of Black American English. It's been around longer than I thought. According to the current Wikipedia article on the word, in the 1930s, the great blues singer Lead Belly used it in a song he wrote about the Scottsboro Nine and being black in America in the time of lynch mobs: 

I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.
According to Oxford English Dictionary, the first written appearance of the word is found in the headline of a 1962 New York Times Magazine article about white appropriation of Black English. The article was written by the author William Melvin Kelley who may or more likely, may not have been responsible for the title which to my ears anyway, sounds like it may have been written by a copy editor trying a little too hard:

If you're woke, you dig it.
The Wikipedia piece then sites a 1971 line from a play about the political activist and author Marcus Garvey written by Berry Beckham which puts the word more in its contemporary context: 

I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I'm gon' stay woke. And I'm gon' help him wake up other black folk.

In this context, to be woke means to be aware of the ways of the world such as injustice, intolerance and needless to say, racism.

In recent years, woke has been hijacked by the ultra right as a catchall phrase for, well just about everything they don't like, especially all those inconvenient nasty little facts that suggest this country may not be as lily white as they picture it to be. Today the word is used almost exclusively as a term of sarcastic derision, even among people who don't subscribe to Trumplicanism. 

In that sense it's like the term "politically correct" which originally was used without irony by the left to describe, well just about everything they did like. The difference is that PC was always a troublesome term with authoritative connotations that sounded like it could have been lifted straight out of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984

Of late, "woke" has been lumped together with PC, Black Lives Matter, ANTIFA, Critical Race Theory and other labels and expressions, as red herrings designed to send shivers up the spines of the MAGA crowd. Which is a shame because at least to me, in its original context, woke is a damned good word, spot on, immediate and to the point. It evokes care, passion and action for the betterment of the world, even if the attitudes of some of the members of "woke culture" may be rather stringent in their attitudes. Anyone who is to the left of Donald Trump has moved on from the word in its original context which for them has become as outdated as the phrase "twenty three skidoo."

So guess who just uttered the word "woke" the other day.

I didn't think there was any way I could dislike Aaron Rodgers more. As the all-star, MVP  quarterback of the much despised (around this house) Green Bay Packers, Rodgers has been a thorn in my side and my son's ever since he began picking apart the defense of our team, the Chicago Bears, after taking over from the equally annoying Brett Favre in 2008. Of all the heartbreaking moments for my son and me that came courtesy of Rodgers, the final game of the 2013 season had to be the worst. The NFC North Championship came down to that one game. With the Bears up by one, the Packers had the ball with 4th and 8 on the Bears' 48 yard line with 48 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter. Sorry for all the football jargon. Anyway, all that stood between the Bears and the playoffs that year was one lousy 4th down stop, and this is what happened.  

To add insult to many years of injury, a few weeks ago during his last game at Soldier Field in Chicago to date, after running the ball in for a touchdown, he taunted Bears fans by saying: 

I'll own you all my fucking life, I own you, I still own you, I still own you.

The act was pure bush league for sure, despite what he said being undeniably true. 

Of course all that is forgivable because had you asked me a couple weeks ago if I'd like to see Aaron Rodgers in a Bear's uniform, I'd have said in a heartbeat, "hell yeah."

So what happened in the past couple weeks?

Aaron Rodgers got caught with his pants down. 

He tested positive for COVID and had to truthfully address his vaccination status. It turns out that Rodgers is not vaccinated. 

Here I'll go on record with a somewhat unpopular opinion at least among my friends and family by saying that I understand why some people are hesitant to get the COVID vaccine. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the vaccine is safe and effective, we have to admit that no one knows for sure the long term effects of the vaccine that is being put into our arms. As I mentioned in other posts, I believe a healthy skepticism is a good thing, even skepticism of science that has certainly failed us before. On the other hand, blind skepticism of science especially if it is ideologically motivated, is worse than a blind faith in science.

Anyway, I believe that Aaron Rodgers and anyone else who chooses not to get vaccinated has a right to do so.


All of us have to be responsible for our actions, especially when it comes to the health and safety of our fellow human beings. The best evidence we have is that the most effective way we can get ourselves out of the grips of this pandemic, is for as many people to be vaccinated as possible, AND continue other preventative routines such as social distancing, mask wearing, etc. 

If people choose to exercise their right to not be vaccinated, it is their RESPONSIBILITY, to follow the protocols for the unvaccinated, set by their places of employment and the recommendations of government agencies devoted to public health and safety. This includes frequent testing, even more stringent mask wearing and social distancing, and most important of all, being honest about vaccination status. 

From all signs, while Rogers was tested frequently, he failed to live up to the protocols for the unvaccinated, and was clearly dishonest* about his vaccination status. By doing so, he unnecessarily put the people closest to him, especially his teammates at risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease. 

That is more than bush league, it is unconscionable. 

Then to add insult to injury, something we've seen he's used to doing, rather than coming clean and apologizing for his actions, Rodgers doubled down, claiming he's the victim of a "witch hunt" (where have we heard that term before?) against people who think differently from the norm about the virus. 

Rogers said this in a TV interview:

I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now, so before the final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I’d like to set the record straight on some of the blatant lies that are out there about me now.
He didn't elaborate on any of those "lies" about him but he did go on at length espousing discredited information on the three major vaccines, including the risk of them causing infertility.

Then Rodgers did something predictable as a newly anointed member of the good ol' boy, conspiracy theory slinging, anti-woke mob/cancel culture warrior club. He played the Martin Luther King card:
The great MLK said, ‘You have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that made no sense.
Usually the MLK card is played by white guys, and sometimes women, to prove they're not racists when they are in the middle of arguments that could be construed as being racist. I'm not exactly sure why Rodgers felt the need to bring up Dr. King since race is not at issue here. Maybe it's because so many of the people he works with are black, and who through his selfish negligence he's put at risk. Perhaps he feels the need to bond with them in some misguided way.     

Anyway if you've been reading my posts, you know exactly how I feel about the MLK card so I won't go about beating a dead horse.  

But he could at least have correctly quoted the man. I believe this is the quote he was trying to summon up: 
One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
I'm not exactly sure how a rule designed to protect the health and safety of people is "unjust."  Remember, there is no company rule in the NFL that requires players to get a shot in the arm, as there is for people in other professions such as public servants. All Rodgers had to do was follow the league protocol for unvaccinated players, and of course admit that he's not vaccinated. Those protocols may be time consuming, impractical, and just plain irritating, but unjust? C'mon. Rodgers went on to say that the protocol for unvaccinated players was simply a means to "shame them."

Sorry dude but if you're in the middle of a 134 million dollar contract to play a game, playing the role of the victim is not a very good look, especially when you compare your personal gripe to the struggle for civil rights and an end to poverty. 

Oh and you wanna talk "cancel culture?" I have two words for you, Colin Kaepernick. 

Now it's not really fair to compare Rodgers' actions with Kaepernick's, after all, the latter's public acts of protest during the national anthem had absolutely no potential for hurting anyone. Sure he pissed off a lot of people, but that's all.

And where has Kaepernick's football career gone after he took his famous stand against police brutality? That's right, he's been cancelled.

One the other hand, by not being clear about his vaccination status and not following NFL protocols for the unvaccinated, Rodger's put the health and safety of his teammates and other people he came in contact with at risk. And his punishment so far has been a $14,000 fine, which in his salary range doesn't even constitute a slap on the wrist.

But let's face it, no NFL sanction other than banishment from the game (which ain't gonna happen), would cause Rodgers much harm. 

At this writing, Rodgers is scheduled to return today to play in about an hour against the Seattle Seahawks in Green Bay. No doubt he will receive a hero's welcome in his home stadium. My fantasy is that a few of the members of the Packers' offensive line, the guys who put their health and safety on the line every play to protect their quarterback, "accidentally" miss some of their blocking assignments against the Seattle defense. That probably won't happen because offensive linemen are way more expendable than multi-million dollar quarterbacks, especially one of the best in the business. They unlike him, could be gone in a flash. But that's what is would take to show the bum Rodgers that what he did to his team really sucked.   

What's more, maybe then he'll understand a little better what woke really means. 

Is what Rodgers did unforgiveable? Certainly not. But this time if you asked me if I'd like to see him play for the Bears, in a heartbeat I'd say this: "not in a million years."

 *Rogers when asked about his vaccination status last August, told reporters that he was "immunized." Satisfied with the answer, the reporters present didn't press the issue. It turns out what Rogers was referring to was the a homeopathic "immunization protocol" prescribed by an unnamed medical team, not the vaccine which is what any reasonable person would have deduced from his answer. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

I Could Care Less, Literally

My mother bless her heart, is a stickler for grammar. This shouldn't come as a surprise after a long career as a teacher and public school administrator. To my mom, there are two forms of English, proper English, and everything else. 

The biggest bee in her grammatical bonnet is the confusion people often make of the English first person singular personal pronouns, that is to say, "I" and "me". The mistake usually occurs at the end of a sentence when folks refer to themselves along with another person as the objects of the sentence. So instead of saying "my mother gave a lecture on grammar to my sister and me" as is correct, they say "to my sister and I".

This drives my mother bananas. She inevitably responds: "you wouldn't say 'she gave a lecture to I' would you?, Then why would you say 'she gave a lecture to my sister and I'?". 

I've heard this so often in my life that I have to say this mistake sets off a little bell in my head as well, though I try to keep it to myself, except occasionally to members of my thoroughly ungrateful immediate family.

The rule is pretty basic, "I" is a subject pronoun, used when the speaker is performing the action described in the sentence. "Me" is an object pronoun, used when speaker is the recipient of the action.

I think the confusion stems from the fact that incorrectly using "me" instead of "I" seems rather crude, while the opposite is usually not. "I" gets more respect that "me", even though the two are technically not interchangeable. So I suppose most people figure: "when in doubt, use I."

Consider the signature phrase from everybody's favorite monster: 

"Me want cookie." 

Even a person with a rudimentary understanding of the English language knows that's wrong, which is what makes Cookie Monster so endearing. 

And yet, "me want cookie" is perfectly understandable, it's as unambiguous as giving something to "my sister and I." And intelligibility is the basic goal of any language right?

So really what's the big deal?

As with the question I posed a couple posts back about the difference between a language and a dialect, this is an extremely loaded question fraught with much peril because in two words: language matters.

In the business of foreign language learning, the teaching of grammar is a hotly debated topic. If you've ever studied a foreign language in school, as I believe most people in the United States have at one point or other, you probably got a large dose of instruction in the grammar of that language. Today many language teachers believe this is the reason why kids who study languages in school in this country may know the grammar like the back of their hand, but rarely come away with anywhere near an acceptable level of fluency in that language. 

They point to the most successful language learners in the world, children learning their first language and say that no one learns the grammar of their own language until they are able to speak the language. That is true for obvious reasons, imagine giving a one year old a lecture on the difference between subject and object pronouns and the correct usage of "I" and "me." 

But children learning their first language have several advantages over people learning a second language:

  • As I discussed in an earlier post, young children have an incredibly strong motivation to learn to speak the language that everyone around them is speaking but they're not. 
  • Every waking hour for them is devoted to language learning because it is built into all their other activities. 
  • Children learning their first language don't have another language to fall back on.
  • Young children haven't learned yet to be embarrassed by making mistakes, and learning from our mistakes is perhaps the single most useful tool we possess in language learning. 
  • And yes as people like to point out, the mind of a small child is particularly well suited, some would say designed to learn languages.

Yet I would point out that people (including older children) learning a second, third and beyond language have a few advantages over small children. They already know what language is and have a good idea on how language works. Another advantage is that most people over a certain age know how to read and can put that knowledge to good use, even if the alphabet of the target language is different from that of their first language. (I'm not sure however if this applies to learning a completely different writing system such as going from English to Chinese or vice versa).

In essence, grammar is to a language what architecture is to a building. When we think of architecture we usually think of superficial things like how a building looks, what materials it's constructed of, how it fits into its environment, etc. These are all essential, but the most important element of architecture, combined with engineering of course, is how a building works from the most basic, will it be able to stand, to how it accommodates the people who will use it, how well it is suited for what it was intended and countless other more mundane issues relating to function. 

Like architecture, grammar has its fine points, such as the difference between "I" and "me", which are the superficial parts of language. But grammar also serves as the foundation of any language; with just words scattered about aimlessly and no grammar to serve as a blue print on how to put them together, no language could function.

Consider this list of phrases:

  1. Marcus hit the ball.
  2. The ball hit Marcus.
  3. Hit Marcus the ball.
  4. Hit the ball Marcus. 
  5. The ball Marcus hit.
  6. Marcus the ball hit.

These represent all six possible combinations of three words (I'm counting "the ball" here as one word).

Despite the same words appearing in each phrase, each phrase means something different, unless you are speaking to Yoda, in which case number one and number six mean exactly the same thing.

Now here are numbers 1 through 4 again, this time with their Latin translations:

  1. Marcus hit the ball - Marcus pilam pulsavit.
  2. The ball hit Marcus - Marcum pila pulsavit.
  3. Hit Marcus the ball. - Marco pilam pulsa.
  4. Hit the ball Marcus. - Marce pilam pulsa.

As we see, syntax, or word order in English gives each sentence a different meaning, while in Latin the word order (which here I've deliberately kept consistent) does not change the meaning of the sentence. What does change in Latin are the endings of the words which indicate how each word functions in its sentence. 

From above, the most obvious change in Latin is the name Marcus whose function is different in each sentence. In the first, Marcus is doing the action (he's hitting the ball), so he's the subject of the sentence. In the second, it's the ball that's doing the hitting. What's getting hit? Poor Marcus, he's the direct recipient of the action so this time he's the direct object, hence he gets a different ending. The next two sentences are commands and in Latin (like many other languages), the verb changes "conjugations", here from pulsavit (to be technical, the indicative, third person singular, past perfect, active form of the verb to hit) to pulsa (the imperative, yadda yadda yadda). As for Marcus, again he's the object, but this time it's the ball that is the direct recipient of the action, it's getting hit, while Marcus, the intended recipient of the ball that's been hit, is classified as the indirect object, and gets yet another ending. Finally in sentence four, Marcus is being addressed directly by the speaker, so here Latin requires us to use a special case and ending for our friend, called the vocative.

What this little exercise illustrates is that learning fundamental grammar like this is essential to both speaking and understanding any language. In the case of English, it is essential to understand how word order effects the meaning of a sentence. In Latin, as well as contemporary highly inflected languages such as Czech, Hungarian, Arabic and scores more, it is essential to understand how the "inflection" of words changes their function.  

Otherwise you have no idea who's doing what to whom.

Anyway, I said a few paragraphs back that the difference between "I" and "me" is superficial in English, but that wasn't always the case. Long ago, English, like Latin was a highly inflected language with nouns, pronouns and adjectives  "declined" to indicate the function of the word. In Old English the equivalent of "I" (Ic) was the nominative of the first person singular pronoun, and "me" (spelled the same way then) would have been the "accusative (direct object) declension, as well as the dative (indirect object). Then there was a third declension as well, the genitive "min", the equivalent of today's "my".

That hasn't changed. 

But English gradually stopped declining its adjectives and nouns, except in the case of the genitive where a noun like "John" becomes "John's". In modern English, only pronouns are declined beyond the genitive case, and then inconsistently. "You" for example is the same in the nominative, accusative and dative cases, but changes to "your" in the genitive. And while "he" declines just like "I", from "he" to "him" to "his", the genitive form of "she" is "her", which is the same as the accusative and dative cases.

Go figure.

Because of this, English is categorized as a lightly inflected language but in reality, if you're declining some words but not others, the whole point of inflection is lost. In order to understand who's doing what to whom, what has taken the place of inflections are the addition of extra words, chiefly prepositions whose function was once implied by the different declensions, and you guessed it, a strong emphasis on word order. So the few and far between instances of inflection in English are merely vestiges (a good word borrowed from Latin) of Old English that no longer serve any functional purpose. 

The same goes for verb conjugations. The children of Latin, aka Romance languages, also gave up on noun declensions eons ago, but they still conjugate their verbs. In a language such as Spanish which has about 100 different conjugations for each verb, verbs function as the heart of a sentence, telling us not only what the action is, but also who the subject is, when the action takes place, the duration of the action, the likelihood of the action taking place, the mood of the speaker, and lots of other things. To do the same thing in English which takes a higgledy-piggledy approach to verb conjugation, again we need to add extra words to serve all those purposes. Consequently the few verbs we do conjugate fully, such as the verb "to be", is done out of tradition, style and habit, rather than function.

In other words, saying something like "I be hungry", is no less intelligible then saying "I am hungry."

If language were based purely upon logic and common sense, English would have lost these remaining vestiges of the old language centuries ago. We'd all be saying "I be hungry", and no one would bat an eye at "she gave my sister and I something", because me and I would be interchangeable.

But hardly anything about the evolution of language is logical, it's all about the way people talk. Look at the two examples I give in the title to this post, one expression and one word that have come to mean in our day, the exact opposite of what they seem. Even my language fussy mother sees no irony in saying "I could care less" about something when what she really means is that she could NOT care less. And don't get me started on the word literally, literally not meaning literally anymore. 

I don't often say my mother is wrong, but I have to disagree with her on there being only one proper English. As we just saw, the rules regarding language apply, until they don't anymore. If a dictionary defines a word one way, and a critical mass of people speaking the language defines it another way, the dictionary doesn't stand a chance. The same goes with grammar. When was the last time you heard someone saying (not in jest), the grammatically correct, "It is I"? 

Languages evolve. If languages were were immutable, they'd still be speaking Latin in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Romania.  And we'd be speaking God knows what here in the Anglosphere. 

Furthermore, language is more than a means for mass communication. I have a friend who has developed one of the least common languages in the world, only she and her brother speak it. I heard it once, and for all I could tell, the language was related to Martian. Some other languages may be more common than my friend's, but are still not intended to be in the domain of the general public; think of the Navaho code talkers of WWII.. Don't get me wrong, there's a good reason to have a "standard" language around such as the one I inherited from my mother. Lot's and lots of people speak it, therefore lots and lots of people can communicate with one another. But it's important to remember that languages such as the standard English of Britain and the US, get to be "lingua francas", not because they are the highest examples of linguistic art, moral virtue or intellectual fortitude, but purely out of chance, power and influence.

Beyond that, the way we talk, speaks volumes about who we are, where we come from, and what we want people to think about us.  

In a 1975 television interview, (at the 8:45 mark of the linked video), John Lennon told Tom Snyder that the one and only axe the Beatles ever had to grind was their insistence, despite a great deal of resistance in Britain, on maintaining their working class identity and the most salient symbol of it, their distinct Liverpool accent. This brought up an interesting discussion on the nature of  "standard languages," giving away no trace of the speaker coming from anyplace in particular. 

Below you can see Lennon ten years earlier, reading from his book, A Spaniard in the Works. Between the gibberish, the cheeky malaprops, and Lennon's intentionally exaggerated accent, his reading takes a little effort to comprehend, even for fluent English speakers. In the clip you can compare  Lennon's Liverpool "Scouse" accent, with the standard British "Received Pronunciation" (RP), otherwise known as "BBC English" of the program host, BBC personality Kenneth Allsop. 



At this late date it may be hard to appreciate how truly radical and influential the Beatles were as far as the English language is concerned. After they hit the big time and refused to conform to the accepted standards by changing their accents to RP, others followed suit. If you listen to the BBC today, you'll find a healthy variety of British regional accents that would have been unthinkable before the Fabs came on the scene. 

Across the big pond at the same time in the US, the Civil Rights movement was gaining full steam and with it came the another debate on the language of a group far more marginalized than the British working class, Black Americans. 

Black American English is a profoundly complex subject so I'll let someone who knows what he's talking about, American linguist and social commentator John McWhorter deal with it in this interview from 2018:

If you don't get a chance to watch all 54 minutes of this interview, one of Dr. McWhorter's main themes that he has written about often, and which he states succinctly toward the end of the video, is that ways of speaking outside the realm of standard languages such as RP British or General American English, are not by any means degraded forms of the mother tongue, but bona fide dialects in their own right, with their own complicated vocabulary, syntax and grammar. He emphasizes that people like the interviewer who can easily navigate between the languages they grew up with at home, in their community, and the standard language of the country where they live, are actually the norm around the world. People like me who learned the standard language from the start, are the exception. And as I pointed out in my penultimate post, multi-lingual people have a distinct advantage over monolingual people.

However I would challenge the opinion expressed by some of the questioners in the Q&A portion, who imply that disdain toward black English (which certainly exists) is purely racist. Some lament for example that it is unfair that full-blown black English, (vocabulary, syntax, grammar,etc), would not be acceptable in a job interview. After all, why can't people talk the way they want, whenever and wherever they like?

The truth is, regional accents and dialects exist all over the world including in this country, the most extreme of which are found in rural and working class areas where there is not a great deal of mobility and contact with outsiders. The full-blown version of these dialects are often unintelligible to those who are not a part of the community, not making them very useful for communicating with the rest of the world. 

Probably the most familiar American regional dialects are the rich variety of those found in the American South. It's no secret that among many people, there is a bias against people speaking with a Southern accent, even among Southerners. But just about every large Northern American city has an accent/dialect associated with it as well, from Boston to New York, Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee to yes, Chicago

The linked video is a good indication of the distinct accent heard in parts of  this city, but like black English, it's more than just an accent. Full-blown Chicagoese consists of its own vocabulary, syntax and grammar as well. 

Like any good regional dialect, Chicago has slang that wouldn't be understood elsewhere. For example, we have a popular local supermarket chain called simply, Jewel. But most people here refer to it (as I do) as "the Jewel", or even "the Jewels". Jewel is so tied into our local culture that the word has become a generic term for grocery store, just as "Coke" has become the generic word for soda in the South. By the way, we call soda, soda pop, or more commonly just "pop" around these parts. 
And while Standard English does not provide a plural form of the second person pronoun, Chicagoese does: "yous."

Now if you were to ask some friends to accompany you to a grocery store in Chicago to purchase some beverages, you might say something like this:

Ey dere, I'm goin' over by da Jewels t'get me some pop, j'yous wanna come wit?     

My guess is that type of speech wouldn't fly too well at a job interview either. 

So we adapt our language to fit the situation. We all do it, well maybe not my mother, but just about everybody else. And you don't even have to give up your local accent. Think of Anthony Fauci and his strong Brooklyn accent. Or the greatest former president we ever had, Jimmy Carter and his Georgia drawl. Or Martin Luther King who had as great a command of standard American English as anyone, but no one would ever question judging by  his voice, that he was black.
In that sense, language is like fashion where we adjust what we wear to the time and the occasion, but maintain our sense of style (or lack of it) just the same. You wouldn't wear a tank top and shorts to a job interview, or at least I hope you wouldn't. Nor would you wear a top hat, white tie and tails or an evening gown. The same goes with language, you wouldn't speak at an interview the same way you speak to your close friends, nor would you speak as if you were delivering the eulogy at a funeral. 

That shouldn't be too hard to figure out.

The idea of commonly understood languages being separate from local dialects has been around for thousands of years. The more languages one knows the better, better still to know at least one language spoken by a plurality of the people you're likely to come in contact with. 

In a perfect world, no one would ever judge another person by the way they speak, period.  It' is all about communication after all. Folks would if they wanted, speak the language they learned as children at home with their families, the language they learned on the playground with their friends, and at least enough of the standard language of their country to get by (to the extent they desire) in the society in which they live. The cherry on top of all that would be to learn lots of other languages as well. Except for the judging other people part, this is how the world has worked for millennia.

It's true that the language of the masses (take your pick) came to be that way because of power and influence, it might even be the language of oppression.  But it doesn't have to remain that way. Language doesn't belong to the establishment, or to the people who write the grammar books and the dictionaries, and especially not to the colonizers. A language belongs to the people who speak it.

Not only does contemporary English have roots in Old German and Norse, the languages of the Celts, and Latin, much of that via French, but it also strongly influenced by the languages and cultures (from the minuet to hip hop and everything in between), of the people of all races and ethnic backgrounds who live anywhere English is spoken. 

As such the English language changes every day, as it always has.

And dat my friend, is a beautiful ting. 

If you don't like that, if you think your language should never change, remaining eternally immutable, well to paraphrase Rick Blaine from Casa Blanca
"We'll always have Latin."

Sunday, October 24, 2021

QUID EGO FACEO?: A Case for Latin

If you read my previous post, you can tell I've been thinking a lot about languages lately. 

You have no idea. 

About three years ago I began studying Spanish, or rather picked it up again after decades. Then almost exactly one year ago, I decided on top of that, to take up Italian. And just recently I added a third language to the mix, Latin.

There is a method to my madness, the three languages I'm learning are closely related, the siblings Spanish and Italian both being the children of the mother tongue, Latin. My previous knowledge of Spanish made learning Italian easier, especially the grammar, and taking wobbly beginner's steps in Italian made me a little more confident with my Spanish, While I do from time to time confuse the two, I'd say it's worked out pretty well. 

But why Latin? Who after all would want to learn a dead language?* There's a question that's been pondered about, especially in academic circles for at least a couple generations. 

Here are the standard answers you get from Latinophiles:

  • Latin is the mother tongue of the Romance languages so gaining a knowledge of it, makes learning French, Portuguese, the two languages mentioned above, and a host of other languages much easier.
  • Almost sixty percent of the words in English have Latin origins so leaning Latin helps improve one's English vocabulary. 
  • Learning Latin's complex case structure helps in learning other languages as well such as German and the Slavic languages. 
  • Many terms used in science, medicine and law come directly from Latin so a prior knowledge of the language gives people a heads up when entering those fields.  
  • Much of the collected wisdom of Western Civilization put down in writing from the time of Julius Caesar to the nineteenth century was written in Latin, so knowing the language enables one to come in direct contact with those works as they were written, rather than through the lens of a third party interpreter. 
  • Learning Latin makes you smarter.  

These are all good reasons to learn Latin and there are a host of others. But as many folks point out, quite reasonably I might add, all of these, except the second to the last, are fringe benefits of learning the language, and can all be achieved in other ways without going to the trouble of learning Latin. 

For example:

  • If you're interested in learning Spanish, Italian, German, Czech (as I am), or any other language, just learn those. The truth is, learning a foreign language is a skill and learning ANY foreign language greatly improves your ability to learn others. 
  • If you're looking to improve your vocabulary through Latin, you can simply study the Latin root words relevant to your language, again without learning Latin. I did just that in my high school etymology class which improved my English vocabulary as well as gave me an interest in learning other languages. Yes it took forty years to address that but hey, better late than never.
  • You don't need to take Latin to learn terms used in the profession of your choice, just learn the terms. 
  • And finally studying lots of things can make you smarter, it doesn't have to be Latin. 

But here's the thing, only by learning Latin can you accomplish ALL of those things, and much much more!

OK I know, it's a hard sell, especially in this day and age.

There are a few things going against Latin. For starters, our contemporary values, at least from those who call themselves "progressive" (not sure why that's become such a pejorative term), place an emphasis on learning from a vast array of cultures, not just the culture of Europe and the colonial expansion that culture inspired. 

I get that and champion it. After all let's face it, our culture has been inundated with education focused on Eurocentric themes at the exclusion of all others. It's time for a change. Latin, the paradigm of the "dead white man's language", represents all that. 

On the other hand, I don't believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Over two thousand years of history and wisdom that has greatly influenced our culture and the way we think, both for the better and the worse, should not be discounted. 

Then there's the notion that we should concentrate on teaching our children practical things that will help them get jobs and get through the daily routine of life. If I had a quarter for every time I've been subjected to a meme that said something like "Wouldn't it be better to teach our children how to balance their check book rather than teaching them how factor a quadratic equation?" I'd be, well a lot richer than I am today. 

My ideas on the subject jibe perfectly with those of advocates of liberal education, best expressed by the president of the college my son is currently attending. He said essentially this: "We don't know what the jobs of the next decade or so will be, so instead of teaching your children how to do a job that already exists, we each them how they can learn to do a job that doesn't exist yet, but certainly will."

Learn of course is the key word there, hence the emphasis. I'm a strong believer that schools, especially at the elementary and secondary levels, exist not just to teach our kids stuff, but much more important, to teach and inspire them to learn things on their own, kind of like the biblical passage that says give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for life.  

So I believe there's a good reason to think that the experience we gain from the mental exercises of learning something like Latin  can be applied to a whole range of other things we do in our lives. And it makes us more rounded individuals to boot.

Take speaking our own language. As I recall, my high school etymology class consisted of receiving a new list of root words at the start of every week, the first half of the class, Greek, the second, Latin. We memorized the roots and their English counterparts, then learned the English words that were formed by putting those roots together. Fascinating stuff but here's the deal, one of the least inspiring ways to learn a language, including your own, is to memorize random lists of words. And in this case, it wasn't even words, but parts of words.

For most language learners, it's much better to learn words in context, preferably through sentences, articles and stories geared to the students' level. Not only is it a vastly more interesting process, but it's a way more effective teaching device. 

Consider this passage from the Roman poet of the 1st Century BCE, Horace. I found it in one of the classic Latin textbooks, Wheelock's Latin and it has been edited and adapted into prose for the sake of clarity for newbies such as myself:

Agricola et vitam et fortunam nautae saepe laudat; nauta magnum fortunam et vitam poetae saepe laudat; et poeta vitam et agros agricolae laudat. Sine philosophia avari viri de pecunia semper cogitant: multum pecuniam habent, sed nihil virum avarum satiat. 

Like all the passages in the Wheelock book, it's up to the reader to translate it so I'll do my best:

The farmer often praises both the life and fortune of the sailor; the sailor often praises both the great fortune and life of the poet, and the poet praises the life and the land of the farmer. Without philosophy, greedy men always think of money, they have a lot of money, but no greedy man is satisfied.   

I know this translation leaves a little to be desired (in fact they all do as we'll see in a moment), however it's the best I can do after only about a month. But the moral of the story, which is as old as the ages, is as Dr. Wheelock points out: "The Grass is Always Greener." 

That passage not only transmits wisdom across the millennia, it's also a great lesson in etymology:

  • For starters, the word Philosophia was "borrowed" from the Greeks and is composed of two roots, phil (love) and sophia (wisdom). 
  • Agricola and agros come from the same stem, agr (land). Lots of English words come from that stem, the most obvious being agriculture. 
  • From vitam, and its stem vit (life) we get vital, vitality, vitamin, etc. 
  • From nautam, naut (sailor) we get nautical, etc.
  • From cogitant, cog (think) we get cogent, cognizant, etc. 
  • From pecunia, pecun (money) we get pecuniary, pecunious, etc. 
  • From viri, vir (men) we get virile, virtue, etc. 
  • Fortunam, poeta, laudat and a few others should be self-explanitory. 
  • Oh yes and from et cetera (and the rest), we get etc.        

Maybe it's just me but I think it's vastly more interesting learning these stems in the context of actual words in action, rather than simply as a random list of stems. 

As I mentioned, the one unequivocal reason to learn Latin is to be able to read over two thousand year's worth of thought and expression in its original form. 

Here is another piece by Horace, this time in its unedited form in verse. If you're not already familiar with it, you may recognize a couple of words in the last line: 

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi

finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios

temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!

Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,

quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare              

Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi

spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida

aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

My Latin isn't nearly good enough to translate all of that but here's a link to a page with four, count 'em four different translations.

But did you catch it? "Carpe diem" and the philosophy that inspired those words, have become a pop culture phenomenon since the movie Dead Poets' Society was released in 1989. Here's a link to the scene where an English professor named John Keating, encourages his students to "seize the day." 

In addition to making me realize how much I miss Robin Williams, it is truly a wonderful, dare I say inspiring scene with no stop going un-pulled in the emotive department. 

Like the message of the earlier quote from Horace, I believe the message of this stanza is very clear, life is short, so make the most of every day. 

But according to the Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric, carpe dium has been "hijacked" by a society which has turned it into little more than a marketing gimmick. Krznaric sites the Nike slogan "Just Do It" which in itself is more or less in the spirit of the ancient mantra. However according to Krznaric:

the spirit of "Seize the day" has been surreptitiously hijacked by consumer culture, which has recast it as Black Friday shopping sprees and one-click buying: Just Do It has come to mean Just Buy It.

Writing in JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu takes Krznaric's observations one step further:

Even life experiences have become commodities, in a world where people can no longer afford to buy a place to live. We’re encouraged instead to buy into precarious economic lifestyles celebrated by ad campaigns like freelance startup Fiverr’s “You eat a coffee for lunch… Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” This is the “carpe diem” aesthetic of a modern world of aggressive action, not all that different from the “work till you drop” mentality of industrialism.

My guess is that "working until you drop" isn't exactly what Horace had in mind when he wrote his poem.

Part of the problem, according to Kznaric and Luu lies in the translation. Luu puts it bluntly when she says that "carpe dium" is a mistranslation because "carpe" does not mean "seize" but rather "pluck", as you might pluck a flower. Obviously according to her, the two English words convey a quite different meaning. 

It's true that had Horace wanted to use an explicitly more forceful metaphor, he could have chosen the very similar word "cape", from which our word "capture" comes. 

But he didn't.

Luu suggests that using the metaphor "seize" rather than "pluck" is... example of one of the more telling ways that we mistranslate metaphors from one language to another, revealing in the process our hidden assumptions about what we really value. Metaphors may map to similar meanings across languages, but their subtle differences can have a profound effect on our understanding of the world.

As Luu suggests, we are a society who values action over passivity, and our metaphors reflect that. So it's only natural that we would choose the aggressive metaphor "seize", over the more passive "pluck".

But wait a minute. Ancient Rome wasn't exactly "pink tea for mollycoddles" either. They meant serious business as we all know, look at what they did to Jesus. So it seems a little silly to assume that an ancient Roman would be any more averse to using a forceful metaphor than we would.

It has to be remembered that except for most nouns, there is rarely a perfect one to one correspondence between words in different languages. An adage I've heard over and over again in my adventures in language learning is that words don't mean words, words evoke ideas. And different languages have different ways to express those ideas. From its appearances in a great variety of texts that survive, it turns out the word carpere (the infinite form of the verb from which the imperative carpe comes) is very flexible, that is, in different contexts it can mean a great deal of things. Indeed, many English words including "pluck", "harvest", "seize", and dozens more can be appropriately used to stand in for it. English has many similar words. 

Take the word "take":

  • We can take a nap.
  • We can take no prisoners.
  • We can take the bus.
  • We can take the car to the garage.
  • We can tell someone to take a hike.
  • We can take off our clothes.
  • We can take off in an airplane.
  • We can take some time off.
  • We can take on a project.
  • We can take the spaghetti.
  • We can take credit cards.
  • We can take something that doesn't belong to us. 
  • We can "take it easy but take it." (Woody Guthrie)
  • We can even take the day.

In each of those examples, the verb "take" performs a different action, and each sentence conveys a different feeling, some mundane, some passive, some defiant, and some aggressive. But even though we're using the same verb, there is no ambiguity in any of those sentences for someone who is fluent in the English language, because it's all about the context. But if we were to translate those sentences into another language, we'd most likely have to use a different verb for each one.  

Of course, Horace didn't write seize the day or pluck the day, he wrote carpe dium. And just the same as those examples of take, anyone with a good knowledge of Latin can understand what Horace meant.

Could it be though, that Horace was being intentionally a little ambiguous in his choice of carpe over cape? 

Much like ourselves, people in Ancient Rome would have had their own interpretation of what it meant for themselves to carpe dium. For some it may have meant stop and smell the roses, for others it may have meant to screw it and spend their life savings on that snazzy new chariot. After all, vita brevis est. 

Given that, it's possible that a long lost ancient Roman version of Roman Kznaric, or maybe even Horace himself might have bemoaned the fact that carpe dium was being hijacked 2,000 years ago, just as it is today.

Because as we learned from the first writing of Horace I mentioned, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For what it's worth, as a translation I prefer "seize the day" by a mile. 

Pluck in my opinion is a terrible word. For starters it rhymes with a common English four-letter word. Imagine someone listening to that passage from Horace being read in English and mishearing the phrase as "fuck the day." Furthermore, every old comic will tell you that words with the letter "K" in them are inherently funny. Had Robin Williams used the line "pluck the day boys" in the movie, people would have thought he was making a joke. 

Most of all, when I think of pluck, I don't think of flowers, I pick those. No, I think "pluck the banjo" or "pluck the chicken".   

Shall I pluck the day like I would pluck a chicken? I don't think so.

Long story short, no matter how good the translation, it's always better in the original.

Of course as Horace reminds us, life is short and most of us mere mortals don't have the time to study the language of every piece of writing that interests us. I'll probably never get around to reading the Old Testament in its original Ancient Hebrew, the Quran in Arabic, or the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, not to mention the classic works of Chinese literature in their original Ancient Chinese, or modern Chinese for that matter. I started to read the Gospel of St. John in Latin, (In principio erat Verbum...) but had to remind myself that it too is a translation from the original Greek. 

All of these ancient languages are well worth learning, especially if you have an interest in the particular culture they are associated with. But since life is short, I'm not going to get too carried away with my bucket list. 

On the other hand:

Τα ελληνικά μπορεί να μην είναι και τόσο κακή ιδέα.

* A "dead" language is defined by linguists as a language that currently has no native speakers. That distinguishes it from an "extinct" language which is lost. Currently, Latin, a dead language by that definition, is still widely studied around the world, but it's difficult to get a reliable number of how many people actually know it, tougher still to get an accurate number of people who speak it fluently. That number ranges from about 200 (ridiculously low I think) to the tens of thousands. That's understandable as most folks study the language purely as an academic exercise, not as one to communicate verbally with other people.  

Here's a guy who definitely speaks Latin fluently. His name is Luke Ranieri and he's a strong advocate not only of learning Latin, oh yes and Ancient Greek as well, but speaking them, truly bringing those ancient languages to life. In the video below, he goes to the Vatican, where the official language is still technically Latin, and tries to find people who actually speak it. He found only a handful and as you can tell, the three priests who agreed to go on camera, speak it quite hesitantly.  

But I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a resurgence of Latin, Ancient Greek and other ancient languages in the future, thanks to of all things, the internet, and guys like Ranieri.

By the way I kind of cringe whenever I hear Latin described as being a dead language. I think eternal is more like it.