Friday, March 30, 2007

The "Occupation" of Iraq

The Saudi King seems to think that the US is "occupying" Iraq. The New York Times writes:
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Arab leaders on Wednesday that the American occupation of Iraq is “illegal,” and he warned that unless Arab governments settle their differences, foreign powers like the United States would continue to dictate the region’s politics.
Like the Democrats in Congress, I want the US out of Iraq. However, no part of our involvement in Iraq constitutes the occupation of that country in any useful sense of the word. Back in the day, Brittan, France, Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands occupied various countries in the world, using military force to maintain control of these countries so that they could gain exclusive access to the natural resources of these countries. The US too has occupied a few countries, often liberating them from control by one foreign government and installing ourselves as the dominant force. This was true of Cuba, for instance, which we liberated from Spain. We installed a permanent military base there but do not control the politics of the country as a whole. We also have bases in other countries in the world usually either at the invitation of the government or by leasing the space from the government of both. But as far as I know, we do not have the kind of political control over any country that rises to the level of an occupation of that country.

Contrary to the Saudi King's claim, the US does not have political control over Iraq and I am not even sure how much political influence we have. Moreover, I see no evidence that the Iraqi government wants us out. If it said it did, it is difficult for me to see how Bush could not withdraw our troops.

Bush's "surge" depends for its success on the willingness and ability of the Iraqi government to continue to build up its military and police forces (and to rid them of sectarian thugs) and to join with American forces in suppressing violence in Baghdad and environs. One ofBush's major problems has been to get the Shiite-dominated government to suppress the Sadr Army. Never before has the Iraqi government done what it said it would do to share the burden of stopping the insurgents as well as squash the various militias and street gangs who are killing perfectly peaceful Iraqis. This inability of Bush to get the Iraqis to protect themselves demonstrates to me that Bush's influence over the government is quite limited. This is the real shame of Bush's war. Under Saddam, these people were safe so long as they behaved in ways Saddam wanted. Now that they are under our "protection," the citizens of Baghdad aren't safe.

It distresses me when people use terms like "occupy" as inaccurately as the King has when there are so many criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy that are true and very difficult to refute. All Bush has to do to counter this silly claim is point out that there is nothing about our presence in Iraq that is reminiscent of how Germany operated in Occupied Europe or reminiscent of the occupation of the Middle East, Africa, India, and elsewhere by European nations, nor of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Philippines, and China. The King's claim is a distraction from the real job of demonstrating to a sufficient number of Americans that they should support the Democrats in removing Bush from Iraq. Saying that we are occupying Iraq and that the occupation is illegal is counterproductive.

There is one thing the Saudi King could do that would be useful and that would be to try to persuade Iran to join with them in attempting to persuade Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis to stop killing each other. If they accomplished that, then I think Bush would have to leave. There would be little for our military to do.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

At Our Earliest Convenience

A year or more ago, we bought a recliner for my tired old bones to use from one of the local Macy owned department stores which came with a fabulous 7 year guarantee. The guarantee is held by an independent company which I believe likely farms out its work to some local area firm. What it's exact name is I'm not sure but "911" is part of its name.

The recliner is wonderful. Thanks to back surgery involving fusion of L3, L4, L5, and S1 and fixation with titanium rods and screws there is literally no position I can be in in a bed and not hurt. However, I can comfortably sit in all three recliner positions. Sadly, recently a spring broke. I called the guarantee company and they said someone would call me within two weeks and arrange a service call. Unfortunately, they wrote down our house phone number incorrectly so the call came in on my cell phone, which, unfortunately, I had turned off.

I called this local company back as they said to do and twice got their voice mail and twice it said they would call me back "at their earliest convenience." I was shocked. Try telling your significant other that you will do the dishes or call her or him back at your earliest convenience. See how far that gets you.

So far, their earliest convenience hasn't been even remotely close to my earliest convenience for a return call. So far, it has been three days and the earliest their earliest convenience can be will be Monday. However, given my smart ass response on my second exposure to this "earliest convenience" stuff it would probably be a mistake for me to expect a call on Monday. Since I am not sure I want someone repairing my recliner who, surely trying to be polite, doesn't realize that "at our earliest convenience" is not more polite than "at our earliest opportunity." So, I went to Home Depot and found a passable substitute for this broken spring and will try repairing the chair myself. Then I can wait comfortably for their earliest convenient access to a telephone to come about.

One thing can be said on the behalf of the "911" people. Most people who say that they will return your call at their earliest opportunity are probably lying. They probably mean that they will return the call at their earliest convenience. Perhaps, these are the only honest service people in town and I am just too snoty to realize it.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

What does "take responsibility for" mean?

"Passing the buck" is what people like to try to do when they get in trouble. Normally, in any vertical organization, the "buck" is passed downward until it lands on someone incapable of defending himself by passing it further downward. A very recent instance of this involved the firing of eight federal prosecutors for what seems to have been purely political reasons.

The federal government has 93 prosecutors, all of whom hold appointed positions. It is understood by all that a President has the right to fire all 93 of them if he likes, especially if he does so at the beginning of his term, as President Clinton did. This is an instance of firing the existing prosecutors for a political reason -- they were Republicans in Clinton's case -- but not for acting or failing to act in some way that is politically displeasing to the President. The idea here is that Presidents get to put anyone he or she wants in these positions but after doing so, these prosecutors are expected to treat everyone in the same way, whether they are Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, of this or that ethnic group, etc. The integrity of our federal system of justice depends on their independence among other things.

Two problems have emerged. The first is that some of the fired prosecutors claim they were fired for specific political reasons which is a very bad thing. The other is that it seems that the explanation given to Congress by the Department of Justice for these firings was false or misleading. This is even worse. Cover ups are always worse than the thing being covered up, something you would think all political people will have learned by now. As with other cases with this Administration, the issue is how far up the chain of command does responsibility actually lie. We saw this with the Abu Ghraib prison prisoner abuse scandal (who made the policies and who gave the orders involving how prisoners should be interrogated) and the Plame affair (was it Cheney or Rove or just Libby who is responsible for the "outing" of Plame). Of course, it is not just this Administration that likes to pass the buck downward until it lands comfortably on someone.

What interests me is the phenomenon of people taking responsibility for actions but not suffering any consequences for what it is they are taking responsibility for. In the current case, the Attorney General acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the way the department handled and explained the firings and he said
"I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said during a press conference. "And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur in the future."
So, Mr. Gonzales accepts the responsibility for this mess but apparently not the blame for it.

There is a very important distinction to be made here If you accept the blame for something, then you will normally suffer real consequences. You may go to prison, as with the enlisted people who worked at Abu Ghraib or Scooter Libby, or be forced to resign from your position, as with Kyle Sampson in the current case. But in many cases, it seems to be possible to get away with accepting responsibility for an action without suffering any consequences. So far, Mr. Gonzales has managed to pass the buck down to Mr. Sampson. There are elements of Congress, including especially Democrats, who want Mr. Gonzales to resign.

The young are told over and over that they must accept responsibility for their actions. They are told that they must be accountable for their actions. In the current Administration, what they are teaching us is that there is a real distinction between accepting responsibility and being accountable. You can do the one without doing the other. Bush fired Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was held accountable for the failures of American policy in Iraq. President Bush merely accepted responsibility. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying "The Buck Stops Here." George Bush ought to put one on his desk. And put one on the desk of the new Attorney General once Gonzales is gone.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Medical Mumbo Jumbo

One of the first things we usually ask a doctor after he or she exams us or performs a battery of tests is some variant of, "What do I have?," where we mean to be asking what disease we are suffering from. We are not asking for what symptom we have. We already know that at least to some degree. But what we get will often be a Greek or Latin name for the symptom we have just told the doctor we are suffering.

My podiatrist told me the other day that he had once been diagnosed with "metatarsalgia." This is a morphologically complex term crafted out of foreign language morphemes that mean "pain in the ball of your foot." So, the answer to his question of what he had when he said he had a pain in the ball of his foot was that he had a pain in the ball of his foot. An even more obvious example of the use of a name of a symptom counting as the answer to the question, "What do I have?," also from podiatry, is "Haglund's deformity," which is said to consist of "a bony enlargement on the back of the heel that most often leads to painful bursitis." In neither case, matatarsalgia or Haglund's deformity, do we get any more than the name of a symptom (consequence) of something. What we really want to know is what this "something" is. Even the term "bursitis" in the definition of Haglund's deformity doesn't really help. This term itself just names a symptom, not a disease. It means that one of the many bursa sacs have become inflamed.

Early in my grade school years, I developed the functional equivalent of hay fever though it was clear that I didn't have hay fever. My eyes watered and my nose became very leaky as in hay fever but attacks of this didn't coincide with hay fever season. Since it wasn't hay fever, the natural next best guess would be that I had some sort of allergy. So, I underwent a wide battery of allergy tests but came up allergy free. Only when I was in my 60's did I luck out and have an attack of this disease that coincided with a doctor's visit. My doctor checked out the nasal fluids and exclaimed that I had "nonallergic rhinitis." I was overjoyed until it registered with me that she had not told me what I had but what I didn't have. She was saying that I had rhinitis (but I already knew that since all that means is that I had a leaky nose) and that it wasn't due to an allergy. However, it turns out that there is a prophylactic treatment for my unknown malady and that made me a lot happier than finding out what disease I have.

In fact, there are many disease names like that that tell us not what we have but what we don't have. I asked my podiatrist if he knew of any medical diagnoses that began with "nonspecific," for I was pretty sure there were some. He said he had once been diagnosed with "nonspecific hypertension." What a relief that must have been! He was being told he had high blood pressure but no one knew what kind of high blood pressure he had.

Even "hypertension," is not itself a disease name but rather, is a name for a symptom of some unnamed disease for it tells you that you have high blood pressure. If you Google "types of hypertension" you will discover that there an array of types beginning with "primary" or "essential" hypertension. This is the most common kind of hypertension but at one web site, it is claimed that medical people don't know its cause.

In addition to that sort of hypertension we also have "secondary hypertension." This sort of hypertension can be "cured" by life style changes -- lose weight, exercise, avoid salt when possible, etc. Then there are malignant hypertension (you are in deep trouble), isolated systolic hypertension (the higher number gets too high but not the lower number), white coat hypertension (going to the doctor elevates your blood pressure), and "resistant" hypertension. As you will have guessed, this last type of high blood pressure is not easily treatable. I haven't found "nonspecific hypertension" on the web yet but all it could possibly mean is that you have high blood pressure and it is not one of the kinds I have already listed.

In the case of hypertension, there must be a multiplicity of possible causes for there are a multiplicity of different kinds of drugs for treating it. I take relatively small doses of four drugs, each allegedly doing something different from what the others do. This combination has worked beautifully (knock on wood) and I resist all suggestions by doctors that I might lower the doses of one or the other of these drugs. One reason I resist is that they disagree about which one I should lower. The other is that my blood pressure falls within the normal range and I am a firm believer in not fixing what ain't broke.

I must seem to be suggesting that doctors are running some sort of linguistic con game with us but that would actually not be fair. There are really two questions we want answered. The first may be "What do I have?" but the most important is "Can it be fixed?" right now I am dealing with exactly this situation and on Monday I will see my " Pain Guy" about a crippling sharp pain in my upper leg when I walk. There are, in my case, at least two possible analyzes -- some lower back spinal issue (I have had two surgeries in that region) or some pulled or badly strained muscle or tendon. I suppose I want to know what the origin is but I am much more interested in whether it can be treated.

I don' t know why exactly medical people started creating technical terms out of Greek and Latin linguistic elements but one reason may have been that Western medicine grew out of Greek and Roman medicine and that the use of Greek and Latin terminology is partially due to that. There is also the fact that early Western science and philosophy was written in the scholarly languages of the day including especially Latin rather than the local vernaculars. This too could have resulted in the use of "scholarly" terms. What I am pretty sure of is that doctors today do not use their arcane linguistic terms just to confuse us.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Criticising Israel

Some months ago, a friend of mine wrote an op-ed piece for the Columbus Dispatch that was very critical of American policy toward Israel. I knew that some of what he said would likely draw the ire of supporters of Israel. What I didn't expect was how irrational and vitriolic the responses would be. The first response was from a rabbi whose writing was shockingly intemperate. I only have access now to the openings of my friend's piece and the rabbi's letter to the editor but they are enough to give you a taste of what they had to say.

My friend's piece began:
In C.P. Snow's 1958 novel The Conscience of the Rich, set in England between the two World Wars, a wealthy, Jewish man says, "I wish the Jews would stop being news," and is embarrassed by it sounding like a jingle.

The defeat of Adolf Hitler and the end of the Holocaust seemed the right time for the Jews to stop being news. After 2,000 years of persecution by Romans, medieval Christians and Cossacks, the defeat of the Nazis seemed as if it could and should mark the end of all this.

The Rabbi's response began:

To paraphrase a friend of mine, Andrew Oldenquist proves the fact that intelligence and the acquisition of a Ph.D. are not mutually inclusive. What Oldenquist lacks in moral and historical rectitude, he compensates with stereotypic bigotry and whimsical thinking. How can any reader not be offended by one who opines that, "The defeat of Adolf Hitler and the end of the Holocaust seemed the right time for the Jews to stop being news"?

I wouldn't have expected a rabbi to write in so irrational and vitriolic a manner. However, I have come to recognize since that such attacks by supporters of Israel are not uncommon. Indeed, shortly after reading the rabbi's response I ran across a full page criticism of my friend's position in The Standard, a local Jewish newspaper. It too was vitriolic in tone.

A few days ago, I received a call by someone who had read my blog Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, and the Death of Language.and wanted to pick my brain concerning what a linguist might contribute to an effort on his part to explores how one might elevate the level of the discourse concerning Israel and American support of Israel. This provided indirect confirmation that the kind of response Andy got is not untypical for critics of America's policy toward Israel for if such responses weren't commonplace there would be no need for a book of the sort he hoped to write. I'm not sure that a linguist per se has much to contribute to this problem for there are no substantive linguistic issues involved that only a linguist could address. There is, in fact, a simple answer to my caller's question: he should encourage those who wish to criticize or defend Israel or America's policy toward Israel simply to restrict himself or herself to employing rational arguments. That combined with a little civility would take care of the problem.

Personally, I don't think a rational debate on the merits of Israel's actions in any given case or America's policy toward Israel is possible. Being human and being fully rationally at all times are mutually exclusive in my experience. We do have emotions and I, for one, don't believe that how we feel about an issue can ever be fully separated from what we think about it no matter how objective we try to be. To expect an American Jew to forget the Holocaust when he or she thinks about issues involving Israel is unrealistic. I'm not Jewish but I know enough about the Holocaust that what I learned about it will always inform how I react to what Israel does. I suppose this is because I have always seen Israel as providing a last line of defense against anti-Semitism. This doesn't mean I approve of everything Israel does. I don't.

A linguist can contribute a few things that would help elevate the discourse concerning Israel and her neighbors. One is the understanding that there is usually a difference between what we mean to be saying in saying something and how what we say will be interpreted by others. The reason is that what anyone says will have both a conventional meaning and a meaning in context. The problem is that the speaker and the hearer cannot be expected always to assign the same contextual significances to what is said. How we interpret what each other says or writes depends on the beliefs we bring to the enterprise. To expect American Jews and American Muslims to interpret events such as the military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel in similar ways would be quite unrealistic. And this fact alone makes civil discourse about the confrontation difficult if not impossible. There may be neutral observers capable of such a discourse but they are hard to find.

In addition to recognizing that what is said may be interpreted differently by speaker and hearer in any context, much less emotionally charged ones, I would have one other contribution and that is that participants of an elevated discourse about Israel must avoid "hot button" locutions. Critics of American policy toward Israel often employ the locution "Israeli Lobby" to refer to vocal supporters of Israel. I believe my friend used this phase in his piece. There are two problems with use of this phrase. The first is that the word "lobby" has quite negative connotations in American politics. I've never heard anyone use "Tobacco Lobby" in an approving fashion. "Isreali Lobby" has a similar knee-jerk negative connotation. The second is that those who advocate strong ties between the US and Israel can have very different reasons for taking such a position. One group consists of Jews, of course. But another consists of Evangelical Christians. There are surely people who support Israel because they fear Muslim fundamentalism and see Israel as an ally in our effort to keep extremists from blowing up our buildings and our people. These and other groups of people hardly constitute a single voice, as is suggested by the locution "Israeli Lobby."

The other major hot button expression is the use of "anti-semitic" to tar critics of Israel or the American policy toward Israel. Playing the "race card" is something quite familiar to Americans, for other groups, especially African-Americans have made regular use of it when it suits their political purposes. Calling critics of Israel or American policy toward Israel "anti-semitic" is an especially evil verbal action, one that should not be done lightly. Better yet, it shouldn't be used at all.

One of the reasons I don't think that discourse on issues involving Israel in the United States is likely to be conducted in a civil manner is that it seems that Americans are incapable of civil debate on any serious political question. Andy has written a new futuristic op-ed piece that notes that developments in genetics could lead to parents chosing their children's genetic make up. Perhaps we could find the genes responsible for control of our emotions and engineer versions of these genes that provide us the ability to control our emotions and engage in civil discourse on all issues.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Nonapology Apologies

This will be short and sweet. Time after time after time, after someone has insulted some group of people -- blacks, gays, Hispanics, etc. -- and discovers that this has gotten himself into hot water, his publicist will craft an apology that contains neither an admission of guilt nor even an admission that what he (almost invariably the offender is a male) said was offensive.

The most recent incidence of this involves the radio broadcaster for the Boston Celtics NBA games. During a broadcast, he said of one of the fairly rare female basketball referees that she should "go back to the kitchen" upon objecting to one of her calls. This got him in trouble. The way out when caught with one's foot in one's mouth is to apologize immediately. Such people very frequently come up with a nonapoligy apology like
"If I said anything that might have been insensitive or sexist in any way, then I apologize because she worked extremely hard to get where she is now, end of quote."
This nonapology contains no admission of wrong-doing. In fact it doesn't even acknowledge that he said anything at all, much less anything that was offensive.

Note that the following sentence is perfectly self-consistent:
If I said anything that might have been insensitive or sexist in any way, then I apologize, but I said nothing at all so I have nothing at all to apologize for.
So, he hasn't admitted he said anything at all. Suppose though that someone replays his remark and proves he talked. He might then say the self-consistent sentence:
If I said anything that might have been insensitive or sexist in any way, then I apologize, but I said nothing at all that was insensitive or sexist in any way
The people who do this are usually male athletes, male broadcasters of sports events (who can forget Jimmy the Greek?, and politicians. President Nixon's post-resignation apology that wasn't one was
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
Notice that "any injuries that may have been done" does not concede that any injuries were done. If none were not done, why would he need to resign? Nixon did a little better in the section in which he said:
I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
This does at least admit that some of his judgments were wrong after first having cast doubt on their having been any. However, his claim that he was always acting in what he took to be the best interests of the nation to some degree takes back his apology.

In an interview with David Frost, Nixon claimed that if a President believes that some action that would normally be illegal is not illegal if it is done in the interests of the nation or is done to preserve the safety of the nation then that action would be legal. Nixon in that interview suggests that President Lincoln once said
"Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation."
So Nixon thinks that Lincoln believed the position that sometimes one must violate the constitution in order to save it.This will remind older folks of the famous statement by a US general during the Vietnam War that we had to destroy a village in order to save it. George Bush must like this way of looking at things given how often he has violated the law.

Well, it seems I can't write short blogs. I hope, however, that this one was at least sweet.

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