Thursday, May 30, 2013


A Book Labyrinth by Brizillian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo in London in 2012

A Dictionary is an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view, and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered, or attempted to wander, may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has travelled as much may be learned, or nearly as much, from its failures as its successes, from its follies as from its wisdom.   ---Richard Chenevix Trench, On Some Deficioncies in Our English Dictionaries (1857)                                     

Friday, May 24, 2013

Boy Scouts of America Goes Gay

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America formally voted in secret ballot at the National Council's annual meeting, to open their ranks to openly gay boys for the first time. 61% of the Council's 1400 members supported the proposal, which will become policy on January 1st, 2014. 

Growing up in a small California town in the 1950's and 1960's, the people our family knew and socialized with could hardly have imagined that the Boy Scouts would one day become the battleground over Gay Rights. The organization, formed in 1910, has traditionally had religious affiliations, so the "moral" side of its charter has always been tinged with a religious unctuousness.

My parents forbade me from joining the Scouts, since as they interpreted it, it always involved at least as much time and bother for the parents (not to speak of the expense), as it did for the boys. In our family, we looked at Scouts as amusingly pretentious do-gooders who, rather than exhibiting any superior character, tended to be conventional, with a smarmy insincerity. 

The Boy Scouts has always seemed to me to have a questionable function. It's obviously designed around the concept of military service, with the cute little military school uniforms, medals and patches and awards ceremonies, and the emphasis on "training" (i.e., camping trips and wilderness "survival" trials etc.). The other obvious hypocrisy is the close connection to organized religious institutions, the "God and Country Award" as if the Scouts--and all they represent--had the official endorsement of God herself.    

It was always hard for me to take anything about Scouting seriously. Nevertheless, as I say, it would never have occurred to me to predict that the Boy Scouts would one day become the testing ground for sexual freedom. 

My beliefs regarding sexual behavior and regulation belong to an earlier generation, and I'm aware that clinging to old belief systems and habits is a sure sign of generational irrelevance. But I'm moved to question the application of sternly indignant challenges to traditional practices, especially when they seem opportunistic, and basically selfish in their intent.   

Do you suppose that the Boy Scouts got a nice little stipend for this commercial use?

My understanding of the moral imperatives regarding the sexual behavior of children, adolescents and young adults goes something like this: Sexual activity in our culture is forbidden among children, actively frustrated among adolescents, and tacitly permitted among "adults" (over the age of 18), provided that education is made available, and reasonable precautions are used against infection, pregnancy and other kinds of complication(s). What that means in practical terms is that our society still believes, publicly, that sex is not only something you aren't formally "allowed" to do under a certain age, but that it isn't the business of our institutions to encourage children or adolescents to obsess about sex, sexual practice, sexual "difference" or any of the adult issues having to do with sexual identity and behavior. 

It seems to me that the process of coming-of-age ought to be synonymous with growing up. I.e., it shouldn't be the business of the church, or the school, or clubs or societies, to get children or adolescents to "declare" their sexuality. It seems clear that human beings mature at different rates, but it's also perfectly clear that sexual "awareness" and reproductive capacity begin long before a commonly acknowledged "majority" age. Our notion of a responsible, prepared adult citizen capable of acting and behaving as a member of a civilized society assumes that sexual activity has a personal, ethical dimension. In other words, the official version we subscribe to is based on the assumption that sex, and sexual identity and practice, aren't things that one is "entitled" to until one has matured sufficiently to accept the responsibilities and probable consequences of engaging in it. 

We don't ask young boys of 9 or 11 or 14 to "declare" their sexuality, any more than we would openly inquire of them what kinds of sexual practice they might "prefer" or have found intriguing. Sexual identity, whatever kind of sexual identity, isn't something society believes should be addressed until a certain age. Just as we neither encourage nor expect boys and girls to explore sexual practices before they are technically adults, we shouldn't demand of our institutions that they formally encourage young boys and girls to figure out what kind of sex or sexuality they're drawn to. 

As children and adolescents, we become aware of our sexual nature, and are curious about it. But awareness and curiosity and interest aren't things upon which to base a principle of behavior. I'm not speaking here of any doctrinal or religious notion of "innocence," but the practical acknowledgement that children and adolescents aren't prepared emotionally or practically to address the meaning and power and consequence of their sexuality. Though sexual maturation may occur at different rates, it is not society's interest to encourage children to attempt to define their sexual nature in advance of an age when they can be expected to take full responsibility for that awareness, or--as in the case of sexual difference--for their "chosen" sexual role as adults. 

Demanding that the Boy Scouts openly acknowledge the presence of "gay" members, or "gay" scoutmasters, is not just to legitimate the whole sphere of sexual difference, but to force all members and leaders to declare, on record, their sexual preference. 

Sexuality is a private matter. That is to say, if I know I'm straight or gay or any other variation, it should not be required of me that I make a formal, public declaration of my sexuality, especially at an early age, an age in which I may not even understand who I am, or what the possible consequences of such a feeling or act might be. 

I could care less about the institutional integrity of the Boy Scouts of America, but I do think the attacks upon its charter, upon its tendency towards a "no-tell" policy, are selfish, self-serving attempts to legitimate alternate sexual behavior. No boy, at 9 or 11 or 14, should be encouraged to "see himself" as an actively sexual being, much less as an active gay one. Just as we don't encourage boys--in or out of the Boy Scouts--to "declare," much less to "explore" their sexuality, we should not be demanding that chartered organizations force their members to do so. 

Gay rights advocates want to force change by invoking sexual tolerance as a lawful "right" in public and private organizations. It's one thing to create organizations designed to promote behaviors or activities you believe in; it's another to force existing organizations to transform themselves into something they were never created to be. The Boy Scouts of America wasn't created to facilitate the sexual development and acknowledgement of gay men.

Since an organization like the Boy Scouts was created to build character and to prepare boys to become responsible citizens as adults, you would think that formally acknowledging and fostering Gay behavior in their midst might seem simply anachronistic. If an organization designed to build character were openly to acknowledge the likelihood of--or even to tacitly encourage--boys to engage in homosexual behavior as members of the Scouts, either in or out of club functions, you could say with justice that the Boy Scouts of America would be advocating Gay behavior. As much as I look with disdain upon it, this isn't something they should be required to do. 

Boys who decide, privately, at a certain age, that they're sexually different, are perfectly entitled to believe what they like about themselves. When they attain their majority, they're perfectly entitled to explore and pursue their sexuality within the limits of the law. But no organization, public or private, should be required  to encourage them to do this when they are still minors.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Decadence As Its Own Reward

I sometimes wonder what America will look like in 100, or 200 years. We're still a young nation compared to Europe. Humans didn't arrive in the Western Hemisphere until long after they'd settled in Africa, Europe and Asia; they'd been living on earth for at least thirty thousand years before they came here. Ironically, the first cultural development peaked in the Western Hemisphere just as Europe was experiencing its first decline (in the Middle Ages). Things didn't start hopping, though, until the arrival of the Europeans four centuries ago.

Technology has overtaken civilization so quickly that it's over-run the existing styles of life: Today we're commuting in jets while many people around the earth are still living in caves or leafy huts. 

In our modern high-tech world, society has even begun to be nostalgic for its pre-modern paradigms--to "get back" to something more basic, more genuine, less insulated from direct experience of life. 

Will the human population keep on exploding? Will humans increasingly inhabit huger and huger architectural structures, like ant-hills? Or will there be some catastrophic plagues and die-offs due to over-exploitation and scarcities? Barring the unexpected, it would seem that we are still living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, even though, given the disparities in distribution around the globe, this wealth is not universally shared. 

For my part, I believe that the human population, and its exploitation of available resource, must be moderated. As a species, we've expanded well beyond the planet's holding capacity, and we're threatening to push the vast majority of plant and animal varieties into extinction. And this has all happened in the comparative blink of any eye, along the biologic (not to speak of geologic) time-line. 

Is mankind's success--our greedy confiscation of resource--something for which we must be ashamed, or is it the occasion for celebration? 

Within the narrow compass of a private life, the effect of personal decisions about behavior is clearly insignificant to the course of history. The hungers and desires of vast populations dictate the larger developments of civilization. These lunges and distractions of may seem accidental, or "inevitable"depending upon your interpretation; but they're usually unpredictable. No one can say for sure what influences will change the course of history. 

Who could have foretold that early adding machines and abacuses and typewriters and electricity would one day be transformed into the personal computer, and the hand-held devices we see today? Who can say with any certainty what the "next big thing" will be that changes all the rules of the game, making everything that went before appear primitive? Utopian and dystopian visions of the future are like elaborate dreams of an alternate reality. 

Mind-altering drugs, for instance, which Huxley thought would become increasingly important, appear to be advancing inexorably. Today, we're legalizing marijuana; there are pills to increase sexual potency and excitability. Tomorrow, people may well be "experiencing trips" which rival mere ordinary living. Tomorrow, chemistry and genetic engineering may permit humankind to design its own existence, to live creatively in the literal sense of the word. Many see this as the ultimate evil temptation, but each iteration of technical advance alters our ethical point of view. The unimaginable of today, may become the ho-hum quotidian of the future.

In any event, we must still eat and drink and work and play and dream and speculate. Get and spend. Strive and measure. In the meantime, here's a luscious new accompaniment to the process. Call it [the] Decadence. A delight for the body, a lyric to the mind. A little recess in the round of duty and prescription. A little celebration. A bridge to somewhere. Or a reward at the end of a day. 

Swirled vigorously in crushed ice, and poured out "up" in the usual way. Recommended unreservedly.

3 parts dry white vermouth
2 parts vodka
1 1/2 parts St. Germaine liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice
3 squirts orange bitters

Perfect for tying up the day's cares into little bouquets of forgetfulness, or for solving the world's troubles, or for lubricating a good discussion on the future of the race. The human race. What is the race, and who's winning, and what is the prize? "We're alive today," as the Rolling Stones said. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Return of the Grammar Nazi

Perhaps the best evidence that a bad grammatical mistake is actually taking root in the language, is when you see people doing it on "bad grammar" discussion sites online. I noticed this not less than three times on separate links on the first page of a Google list this morning. When people who claim to care about good grammar have unconsciously taken up a mis-usage, you know we're in trouble.

Back in the 1950's, hip or beatnik speech included the over- and mis-use of the word like. "Like, man, it's cool, don't ya' know?" 

Valley Girl speech incorporated "like" as an insert, to a degree that almost every sentence had at least one "like" in it. "And then I was, you know, like, wow!, who does he think he is, like Genghis Khan, or something?!" Or "Then I was, like . . . ahhh . . . huh??"

Presently, everyone seems to be using the phrase "I feel like . . ."  or the even more offensive "I feel like that . . . " in place of the more correct "I feel that . . . . "  

But to feel like is not at all the same as to feel that. It's pretty clear that most people know that when you say you feel like something is so and so, you really mean that you feel that it's so. But it's an incorrect use of the word like. Like is not the same as as if. It is perfectly possible to feel as if something is the case, whereas it is entirely incorrect to state that you feel like something is the case. 

To be like something, is to resemble it. To feel like something is to share an identical emotion or sensation. To feel that something is the case means that you think or believe or deduce it to be so--which is what people really mean when they use feel like

To feel like doesn't mean you think or believe or deduce something to be the case; it means something else entirely. You could say "I feel ill" or "I feel it's getting chillier this morning" or even "I feel like a new man today." But you can't say that you feel like you know something is true, when what you're actually saying is that you know or believe something is true. 

The next time you're tempted to use the phrase "I feel like" stop yourself and consider saying "I feel that." Chances are you should be saying that instead of like.      


Remember that grammatical mistakes aren't necessarily evidence of the helpful growth of language. As often as not, they are simply the result of people being sloppy or lazy or just stupid. Stupidity, as an excuse for bad grammar, seems a poor justification for the abuse of our tongue. When we capitulate to ignorance, as if it were proof of our democratic tolerance, we're dumbing down the culture. Being happy or easy-going, or indulgent with other peoples' mistakes shouldn't include the use of bad grammar as a bridge to understanding. Deliberately doing so is a form of condescension.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

From the Annals of Abused Participles

From time to time, certain words are taken up by advocates or advertisers to function as mental or ethical triggers, in the forum of debate. Formal definitions are largely ignored in favor of a specific partisan "spin" or slant in usage. The meaning of the word is turned in context to suggest connotations or implications that are not really contained in the definition of the word itself.

One such word which is presently being (deliberately) misused is "broken." 

We hear a lot these days about our "broken immigration system," or our "broken legislative" branch, or the "broken" Mideast policy. 

What is meant by the use of the word broken in these contexts? 

If something is broken, that means, specifically, that whatever it is, it no longer is functioning properly, or that some part of its structure is damaged, or some part has dropped off, or that, due to some error in its design, it no longer serves its intended purpose.

We know that a bicycle no longer functions if its chain link from the pedal wheel gear is separated. We know that a broken piston head will cause an internal combustion engine to freeze up, and stop firing. We know that a leak in the coolant system will cause an engine to overheat, or worse. 

But describing a "broken" bureaucracy, or a "broken" system of laws, is more ambiguous. Internal inconsistencies in the law may cause society to prosecute regulations against its own interest, or to administer justice unequally.

Inconsistencies in the law are routinely addressed in our courts, and usually people can come to some common understanding about how they might be coordinated, or rendered less contradictory. Different levels of jurisdiction is a common area of consolidation in law and administration. 

Recently, people have begun to describe laws or systems they don't like, or which they disagree with, or want changed, as "broken." People who want our immigration laws changed, will assert that our Immigration and Naturalization System is "broken," and needs to be overhauled. Our immigration offices are overwhelmed with illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the country, or once here, attempting to adjust their status in various ways to facilitate their continued presence, or that of people related to them. 

Any machine can be broken, if enough stress is put upon it. If six people try to ride a bicycle at the same time, the bicycle's structure and moving parts will fail. The same can be said of the administration of any law. If too many people are committing too many crimes, the courts and prisons and parole and probation bureaucracies become overburdened. 

But the inherent intent of any law is tailored to its intended tolerances. If our immigration laws are intended to address a lawful quota, say, of a quarter of a million souls per year, an uninvited influx of 3 million will quite likely cause the system to stagnate and buckle under the weight.  

The problem, however, isn't with the design of the system, or of any failure of implementation. The failure lies in the excessive over-utilization of the system for which it was designed. 

We can design immigration laws and bureaucracies to handle the legal limit of foreign newcomers, plus a few marginal "cheaters." But no one would deliberately design a system to function with an uninvited population of illegals whose proportion is several times greater than an allowed limit.

What immigration rights advocates mean when they talk about our "broken immigration system" is that our immigration limits, and the laws and procedures designed to deal with the "excess," "illegal immigrants," are not tolerant enough of the degree of illegality (or crime) to warrant their approval. In their view, "broken" means that the system presently in place, no matter how well-intentioned, is not lenient enough towards the criminal elements of the immigration flow.

In other words, "broken" has been given an entirely new meaning. Broken now means "whatever doesn't work for us." Or, if we don't like something, we accuse if of being broken. If something is broken, then it must be fixed. But immigration advocates don't mean to suggest that the original intent of the I&NS laws needs to be more vigorously prosecuted; on the contrary.

What they mean is that the laws which constitute our immigration policy and authority need to be dismantled, and rendered impotent, in the face of an overwhelming flow of undocumented, illegal immigrants sneaking into the United States, hoping for an amnesty which will allow them to stay, and reap the benefits and rewards of citizenship by fiat. 

We also hear the phrase "broken Federal government." By which is meant, that respective partisan factions which are elected to serve the common good, no longer are willing to compromise to enact effective legislation. Those with whom one disagrees are acting as "ideologues" or "radicals" or "extremists." It is they who are preventing the smooth, reasonable progress which, according to some notion of consensus, can be expected to solve the problems which beset our society.

Accusations of extremity are as common as the ground on which any two people may stand. And such accusations are as idle as the breeze. Our representative system of government was designed to prevent action, except by common agreement. Our three-part system of branches was designed to prevent the wholesale domination of the electorate by any one of them, and to dampen the preponderance of the Federal power over the respective States. It's deliberately designed to make it hard to pass a law, with which a significant proportion of the people actually agree. And even then, as we have seen with the failure of the weapons regulation bill recently, it still may be thwarted. 

But the point here is that our system of governance, which has guided our nation for almost two and a half centuries, is not "broken." It's only "broken" if what you want isn't being done. 

We need to stop describing public policy, and the various systems designed to administer them, as "broken." We can say we would like to change them, that they function in ways that we dislike, or that we want them removed completely, because we disagree with them. But to claim casually, as so many lazy or conniving public commentators do these days, that they are "broken" and therefore must be fixed, is simply demagoguery. 

Whenever anyone starts talking about our "broken immigration system" I immediately stop listening, because I already know where the argument is headed. Someone representing the interests of those who are excluded by our lawful jurisdiction wants to sweep it aside, and put in its place a policy or procedure which serves their interests, rather than the interests of those who passed the law in the first place, and are doing their best to carry out its provisions.  


Death with Headphones

“No time like the present,”

my stepfather used to say,

as if
there actually were

an alternative,


as if
mortality were a compromise

with inconvenience,
instead of

the ultimatum

we know it is.


Wake up and smell the roses.

Wake up and smell the ocean.

Wake up and smell the bacon.

Wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up.