Monday, September 30, 2013

"You can't be half zeugma"

One of the joys of parenthood is not just that each of my three kids has a different set of interests, but that I can share with enthusiasm each of those three different sets of interests. For my daughter that set consists of poetry, literature, movies, and religion.

Recently my daughter told me "You can't be half-zeugma", a comment so seemingly enigmatic as to require explanation. It started with a line from a Jeff Foxworthy show, in which he said that he did a show at casino in Mississippi which was "the only place in America where you can shoot craps and doves within ten feet of each other."

I said this was an example of zeugma, which is where where a single word is used with two other parts of a sentence but must be understood differently in relation to each. I first learned of zeugma years ago in one of Will Shortz's Sunday Morning puzzle segments on NPR's "Weekend Edition". Will used the example that his uncle went fishing and caught "five bass and a cold".

This brought to my daughter's mind a line she wrote in one of her stories, where a character was "wearing long, black gloves and a concerned expression." I opined that this was only "half-zeugma", my idea being that the verb "wearing" was used in somewhat the same sense for each object. This triggered my daughter's comment that "you can't be half zeugma".

The idea that something is one or the other, and cannot be some of each, is quite common in English in what are called "absolute adjectives". For example, something is either unique or not, it can't be a little unique, or very unique. One is either pregnant or not, you can't be a little of each.

This brought to my daughter's mind an exchange with a friend of hers, who had said he was "a little sorry". She told him, "Being a little sorry is like being mostly dead. You just can't do it."

Monday, September 23, 2013

On the Use (and frequent misuse) of "Community"

In an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", Larry David laments that a bald sex offender has moved into the neighborhood, saying it reflects badly on "the bald community". Now this may sound a bit odd, but when you think about it, the word "community" is used in a similar sense all the time these days. Hence we hear about how things affect "the African-American community", as if there is any such thing. In dealing with the Syrian situation, I have heard politicians and commentators refer to "the world community", as if there is any such thing.

And why is this important? It is the premise of this post, and of others like it to come, that the way we use words is important, because the way we use words shapes our ideas, and our ideas shape our public policy.  Consider how the Justice Department in the U.S. has proceeded under the Voting Rights Act. This law was enacted to remedy the problem of suppression of voting by Blacks in the South. In states which met the threshold test of voter suppression, the Justice Dept. has to approve any changes in voting laws.

What the Justice Dept. has done is to look at whether "communities" are represented, which sounds like an admirable goal but is fatally flawed in the execution. Take the Arizona situation in which Arizona sought to add two judges in each of two counties which needed them. The Justice Dept. sought to require the counties to discontinue county-wide voting, and break into judicial districts, so as to facilitate Native-American representation on the bench. Native-Americans opposed this, and there is no evidence there were even any Native-American members of the bar who could qualify to run. Many other problems existed with this hair-brained scheme. There was no indication that individual Native-Americans were being denied any voting rights, but because of a faulty interpretation of what a "community" is, the Justice Dept. decided to take action in a situation requiring none.

Similar Justice Dept. misinterpretations of the law have resulted in racially gerrymandered congressional districts, designed to ensure the election of Blacks, like the one which snaked for 160 miles along Interstate 85 in North Carolina. All such districts rest on the assumption that people of a particular race should think and act alike; i.e., that people of a particular race constitute a "community", regardless of whether any other aspects of community are present.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Alex Wagner vs. Ron Paul

Alex Wagner is the host of the noon show on MSNBC called "NOW". She usually does a great job, interviewing four guests at at time and intelligently and articulately discussing issues of current interest.

A word of background here. When I first got cable TV in the late '90's, it was common for cable news channels to have four guests at a time, two on each side of an issue. The four would all be put up on the screen, one quadrant for each, and inevitably they would all start talking at the same time. This was horrendous, ridiculous TV, and eventually the news channels realized this and started having hosts interview guests one-on-one, with the hosts taking the opposing view from the guest for the sake of balance.

Well, yesterday Alex Wagner tried this with Ron Pual. The problem was, she kept interrupting him and not letting him answer her questions. Now, it is OK for a host to interrupt if the guest is not answering the question. Chris Matthew is especiialy adept at this. But what Alex was doing was interrupting Paul even when he was trying to answer the question. This is rude and inconsiderate; if a public servant is kind enough to come on your show, the least you can do is show a modicum of graciousness and courtesy toward that public servant.

Slamming Paul because he had an upcoming speech before a group which Alex didn't like was especially unbecoming. Should we not talk with those with whom we disagree? Alex, you are better than this!