Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Solution to the Problem of Feisty Reporters

FEMA followed up its disastrous response to Katrina -- disastrous to the citizens of New Orleans and to the vanishing image of the Bush administration -- to holding a completely fake news conference in response to the California fires. It was fake in that there was insufficient time to alert news organizations as to their holding the news conference so they used their own employees as reporters. Not surprisingly these "reporters" "asked questions many described as soft and gratuitous."

Even funnier than that a representative of Homeland Security said
"We have made it clear that stunts such as this will not be tolerated or repeated," Laura Keehner said, adding that the department was considering whether or not to reprimand those responsible.
So, they are considering whether or not to reprimand the persons responsible. I am wondering why they are not considering whether or not to fire those responsible for this violation of our fast eroding democratic values.

I am not sure whether or not it was common practice in the Soviet Union to hold press conferences like this one but it does sound like what they might have done. FEMA even made sure to provide the normal structure of a press conference by calling for a "last question" the report says. I'm quite sure the Soviets would have done the same thing. Appearances are as good as reality to some.

What is most puzzling about this is why FEMA just didn't provide a live TV feed of someone detailing their plans for dealing with this disaster in California and, in the process, announce that a press conference would be held in, say, two hours. This would have been reasonable given that they didn't have time to gather real reporters and it would have accomplished all of their goals -- providing information and, a bit later, making sure that reporters had an opportunity to grill them.

FEMA just can't seem to get anything right. To me, this is simply a sign that George Bush doesn't give a damn about the American people -- especially Black people, as his response to Katrina made quite clear. If he did, he wouldn't have appointed a crony for the job of heading up FEMA early on who was the father of the lack of a response to the Katrina disaster. And he would be replacing incompetents every time one raised his or her head.

Another sign that the administration has little regard for the American people is the abuse of the National Guard -- ostensibly citizen soldiers but actually not different than the active military in how they are treated. These people have families and civilian careers. They made the mistake of enlisting. People will not make that mistake in the future.

Still another sign that the Administration has no regard for the people is that, in the words of a BBC web news story
The US state department has said it may have to force some diplomats to work in Iraq to fill vacancies at the embassy in Baghdad.
So, the administration is now forcing people to work in a very dangerous environment. It is interesting that the BBC picked out the Orwellian feature of the language used to announce this action.
About 250 foreign service staff are to be told they are "prime candidates" for nearly 50 jobs, state department human resources director Harry Thomas said.
Who could resist being thought of as a "prime candidate." I suspect that the main criterion for being a prime canidate is stupidity.

If not enough volunteer (many carrots will be offered), some will be ordered to go. And if they refuse, they will be sent to the guillotine in the basement of the State Department and their heads will be lopped off. There will be no TV of this and so no need for fake reporters.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Confusing Grammar and Meaning

James J. Kilpatrick has a syndicated article on the subjunctive in my morning Dispatch that has as its title,"If subjunctive tense were dying, would we care?" Calling the subjunctive a "tense" would be a significant blunder but it seems that either the syndicator or the local paper wrote the headline and the error is theirs, not his.

Kilpatrick's article starts off with
Farewell, subjunctive mood. Nice to have known you.
Here Patrick betrays his own confusion of grammar and meaning. Insofar as meaning is concerned, we will never lose the subjunctive. What we have been losing are the traditional linguistic forms for expressing the subjunctive.

Kilpatrick cites this phrase from the New York Times
"a price that might well rise if there was no competition."
He takes the Washington Post to task for saying
"As if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Nagin slipped on the mantle of political martyr.
He goes on to say
There was a time when both editors would have opted instinctively for the subjunctive -- if there were no competition and if that weren't bad enough. The rule used to be to trot out the subjunctive to express conditions contrary to fact:
First, we need to discuss the curious locution that the editors of these papers would have "instinctively" chosen a different linguistic form for counterfactuals. There has manifestly been some linguistic change afoot across the land according to which traditional ways of expressing the subjunctive have been replaced. The current editors no less "instinctively" chose to express the subjunctive the way they did than did editors in the past.

The idea that we have an instinct that leads us to express ourselves in one way rather than another is patently ridiculous. The notion of an instinct is muddled by a confusion between innate behaviors, innate behaviors that have undergone some sort of modification due to learning, and automatic behaviors. Many genuinely instinctive behaviors have to do with issues of survival. Animals have an instinct to flee from danger. What they see as a danger would, I imagine, often be learned from adults. We also use the notion of an "instinct" to refer to purely automatic actions. It is pretty clear that this is what Kilpatrick had in mind. I'm not sure how Kilpatrick advances our knowledge by suggesting that choosing to express the subjunctive one way versus another is due to our instincts. He should write an article berating himself for using the language in that way.

The suggestion that the subjunctive is dying betrays a fundamental confusion in Kilpatrick's mind between grammar and meaning. The subjunctive meaning is going nowhere since we will always have a need to talk about counterfactual states. Sentences like
If you would come to the party, I would too.
If you were to come to the party, I would too.
are logically equivalent -- they say exactly the same thing. What is lost is the use of what are now old fashioned ways of expressing counterfactual states. Now, I happen to be old fashioned and would likely choose the latter way of expressing myself but I have no trouble understanding those who use the other form.

I have a bit more sympathy with Kilpatrick's concern with preserving modes of writing than with the efforts of others to chastise how persons who speak nonstandard versions of the language. The reason is that the less that our written language changes the more likely it will be that people of different times and in different places can understand each other. We can still read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to some degree but understanding how persons in Chaucer's day spoke would have been a great deal more difficult. Since Chaucer's time, our vowels have undergone the Great Vowel Shift and this would have wreaked havoc with our understanding of how they spoke. The fact remains that how we write is also undergoing change whether we like it or not.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Chris Mathew's New Book Ripped by Jon Stewart

Chris Mathews is a very powerful, well-connected pol (worked for Tip O'Neal when he was Majority Leader of the House) turned broadcaster with two or more TV shows. I have seen him time after time harass guests by interrupting answers to his questions or putting wholly new questions to guests while the poor slob being interviewed is trying to finish an answer to the previous question. It is not how hosts ought to act in my opinion. Matthews got a taste of what being on his show is like when he appeared recently on Jon Stewart's Daily Report to promote his new book Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success. He made a serious blunder by equating success in political campaigns and achieving our goals and then coming on Jon Stewart's show. He could have picked another word besides 'campaign."

Stewart eviscerated him right in front of my eyes. Matthews' book seems to be about what we can learn from how politicians manage to rise to the top. One of the most important things, he says, is that politicians, to be successful, must listen to others. He cited Bill Clinton as an exemplar of that. He then went on to say that Clinton said that it worked for him in school in gettinbg girls. You can imagine what Stewart did with that. Think, "Monica."

When Matthews asked Stewart what he thought of the book, he replied that it seemed like a recipe for sadness, not success. He was also distressed that Mathews didn't mention being honest as a way toward being successful. Matthews replied that a book has already been written on that sort of thing, namely the Bible. At this point Steward said that Chris's book has also been written already, namely The Prince.

There is still another book that has been written that, along with The Prince, covers the content of Matthews' book, namely How to Win Friends and Influence People. Right now I don't have time to take another look Dale Carnegie's and Machiavelli's books or Matthews' book to see if the former cover the material in the latter. So, maybe Stewart and I are a bit off base. Still, Stewart performed a public service I hope he has learned from. Namely, hosts should be polite to guests and let them speak.

I wonder if Stewart was as annoyed as I am with Mathews' “interrogation” style of interviewing where his agenda rather than the guest's is promoted or that Mathews simply has laid himself open to the best comedian in the country, at least insofar is intelligence, knowledge, wit, and quickness of thought are concerned. What was funny was seeing Mathews, who is seen by many as a big mover and shaker, turned into a totally flustered, helpless man. Mathews got what he deserved to have the chutzpah to write a “self help” book predicated on how politicians, some of the least admired people in the country, behave in order to be selected to run for office. If I write a book like that you are allowed to put me in the stocks for a day. Check out the Comedy Central site.

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