Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Been Here Before

Forty-four years ago today — July 17, 1974 — I emerged from the wilderness of the Uintah Mountains of Utah after completing a six-week wilderness course through the National Outdoor Leadership School.  I had not heard a news broadcast or read a paper since June 10, and the first thing I read was that the Watergate scandal was reaching its peak with the House Judiciary Committee about to release its evidence against President Nixon.

My timing was exquisite.  Things had been pretty much on hold while I was in the wilderness, but within two weeks the committee would vote out the articles of impeachment, and within three weeks the smoking gun takes would be released and Nixon would resign.  It was like they waited for me to get back to watch this moment of history.

Back then all we had were three national TV networks and dead-tree press, but events moved along swiftly, frantically, and it all coalesced into the end of one era and the wistful start of another where we all believed The System Worked and American democracy and our Constitution could withstand the assault of criminal activity on the part of the president.

Since yesterday I’ve had this sense that we’re approaching the same kind of peak in the arch of this drama.  Evidence is piling up, the outrage meter is pegged, and while there are the defenders of Trump who, by the way, are fully confident that they won’t be held accountable for defending him, the drip of the eroding facts against the wall of ignorance and denial is becoming a stream, and the stream will become a flow, and like soon it will begin to take things down and wash them away, leaving little behind but exposed truths.

It’s not going to happen suddenly like it did in July and August of 1974.  For one thing, Richard Nixon had a sense of history and awareness of what his actions could do to the nation.  Not that he really cared, but at least he knew.  Trump has no such awareness.  He couldn’t name his predecessors beyond the black guy he’s trying to erase from history, and he doesn’t give a shit about what he’s done or is doing to the office he holds.  His supporters and defenders are in it purely for their own benefit and his coattails, and if going on Fox and saying nice things about him improves their standing with the base, they’d do it if they are standing next to Satan himself.  (The same was true of the Republicans who finally marched to the White House in 1974 to tell Nixon to quit.  They didn’t care about him; they were staring down the barrel of the mid-terms and saw their future in peril.)  Trump is in this purely for his own gain, his own ego, his own sense of avenging for having been mocked and scorned by people he desperately wants to like him and who never will.  What we saw yesterday in Helsinki was nothing surprising.  It was the outward exposure of the inside of what really drives him.  It was raw, it was ugly, but it was real.  Finally.

What happens now is up to us.  That will be the real test.  Will we allow this to continue, letting what happened yesterday become a part of the news cycle, a remember-when moment like mass shootings that give us a momentary pause and then get back to whatever it was we were paying attention to before?  Or is this like July 1974 when, at long last, it began to come apart so we could put it back together again?

We got it right the last time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Now THAT’S Collusion

Via the Washington Post:

Trump on Monday refused to support the collective conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin had given him an “extremely strong and powerful” denial during their private talks here.

Trump would not challenge Putin’s claim at their Helsinki summit that the Russian government played no role in trying to sabotage the U.S. election, even as the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers last Friday for hacking Democratic emails as part of a broad subterfuge operation to help Trump win the election.

Trump went on to condemn the expansive federal investigation of Russian interference as “a disaster for our country” and “a total witch hunt,” arguing that the probe, along with “foolish” America policies, had severely impaired relations between the two countries.

Putin must have the pee tape on Blu-Ray and ready to stream on YouTube.

This Isn’t “Summer Camp”

From the front page of the New York Times yesterday:

Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nicknames. Also, it is best not to cry. Doing so might hurt your case.

Lights out by 9 p.m. and lights on at dawn, after which make your bed according to the step-by-step instructions posted on the wall. Wash and mop the bathroom, scrubbing the sinks and toilets. Then it is time to form a line for the walk to breakfast.

“You had to get in line for everything,” recalled Leticia, a girl from Guatemala.

Small, slight and with long black hair, Leticia was separated from her mother after they illegally crossed the border in late May. She was sent to a shelter in South Texas — one of more than 100 government-contracted detention facilities for migrant children around the country that are a rough blend of boarding school, day care center and medium security lockup. They are reserved for the likes of Leticia, 12, and her brother, Walter, 10.

The facility’s list of no-no’s also included this: Do not touch another child, even if that child is your hermanito or hermanita — your little brother or sister.

Leticia had hoped to give her little brother a reassuring hug. But “they told me I couldn’t touch him,” she recalled.

In response to an international outcry, President Trump recently issued an executive order to end his administration’s practice, first widely put into effect in May, of forcibly removing children from migrant parents who had entered the country illegally. Under that “zero-tolerance” policy for border enforcement, thousands of children were sent to holding facilities, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from where their parents were being held for criminal prosecution.

Last week, in trying to comply with a court order, the government returned slightly more than half of the 103 children under the age of 5 to their migrant parents.

But more than 2,800 children — some of them separated from their parents, some of them classified at the border as “unaccompanied minors” — remain in these facilities, where the environments range from impersonally austere to nearly bucolic, save for the fact that the children are formidably discouraged from leaving and their parents or guardians are nowhere in sight.

Depending on several variables, including happenstance, a child might be sent to a 33-acre youth shelter in Yonkers that features picnic tables, sports fields and even an outdoor pool. “Like summer camp,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat of New York who recently visited the campus.

Or that child could wind up at a converted motel along a tired Tucson strip of discount stores, gas stations and budget motels. Recreation takes place in a grassless compound, and the old motel’s damaged swimming pool is covered up.

This is a national shame that will scar both the children and our country for generations, physically, mentally, and morally.

Photo by Victor J. Blue for the New York Times.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Reading

Everybody Has An Accent — Roberto Rey Agudo in the New York Times.

I have an accent. So do you.

I am an immigrant who has spent nearly as much time in the United States as I have in my home country, Spain. I am also the director of Dartmouth’s language programs in Spanish and Portuguese. Both facts explain, but only partly, why I feel a special fondness for the FX drama “The Americans,” in which Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife team of undercover K.G.B. agents living in suburban Washington. I can’t be the only one who nodded approvingly when they were both nominated for Emmys last week.

What interests me as a linguist is that the Jenningses are, as the pilot tells us, “supersecret spies living next door” who “speak better English than we do.” Even their neighbor, an F.B.I. agent on the counterintelligence beat, suspects nothing.

Living as I do, deeply immersed in the work of teaching and learning second languages, it was fun to watch a TV series in which the main characters’ aptitude for them was so central to the plot. Nonetheless, the premise that you can speak a language without any accent at all is a loaded one. You can’t actually do this.

Worse, when we fetishize certain accents and disdain others, it can lead to real discrimination in job interviews, performance evaluations and access to housing, to name just a few of the areas where having or not having a certain accent has profound consequences. Too often, at the hospital or the bank, in the office or at a restaurant — even in the classroom — we embrace the idea that there is a right way for our words to sound and that the perfect accent is one that is not just inaudible, but also invisible.

If you look at the question from a sociolinguistic point of view, having no accent is plainly impossible. An accent is simply a way of speaking shaped by a combination of geography, social class, education, ethnicity and first language. I have one; you have one; everybody has one. There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English — or Spanish, for that matter, or any other language. To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.

We know this, but even so, at a time when the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States is at its highest point in a century, the distinction between “native” and “nonnative” has grown vicious, and it is worth reminding ourselves of it again and again: No one speaks without an accent.

When we say that someone speaks with an accent, we generally mean one of two things: a nonnative accent or a so-called nonstandard accent. Both can have consequences for their speakers. In other words, it is worth acknowledging that people discriminate on the basis of accent within their own language group, as well as against those perceived as language outsiders. The privileged status of the standard accent is, of course, rooted in education and socioeconomic power.

The standard accent is not necessarily the same as the highest-status accent. It is simply the dominant accent, the one you are most likely to hear in the media, the one that is considered neutral. Nonstandard native accents are also underrepresented in the media, and like nonnative accents, are likely to be stereotyped and mocked. Terms like Southern drawl, Midwestern twang or Valley Girl upspeak underscore the layered status attached to particular ways of speaking.

Such judgments are purely social — to linguists, the distinctions are arbitrary. However, the notion of the neutral, perfect accent is so pervasive that speakers with stigmatized accents often internalize the prejudice they face. The recent re-evaluation of the “Simpsons” character Apu provides an important example of how the media and popular culture use accents to make easy — and uneasy — jokes.

When you are learning a language, a marked accent is usually also accompanied by other features, like limited vocabulary or grammatical mistakes. In the classroom, we understand that this is a normal stage in the development of proficiency. My family back in Madrid would have a hard time understanding the Spanish of my English-speaking students in my first-semester classroom.

Later, these same students study abroad in Barcelona or Cuzco or Buenos Aires, and often struggle to make themselves understood. But such is the privilege of English — and this is key — that nobody hearing their American accents presumes that they are less capable, less ambitious or less honest than if their R’s had a nicer trill. Yet this is exactly the kind of assumption that a Spanish accent — and many, many others — is likely to trigger within the United States.

It’s certainly true that a marked accent can get in the way of making yourself understood. E.S.L. learners and others are well advised to work on their pronunciation. As a teacher, I do try to lead my students toward some version of that flawed ideal, the native accent. One of the ironies in this is that I — along with most of my fellow teachers from the 20 countries (not counting Puerto Rico) where Spanish is an official language — long ago shed the specific regional, class-shaped intonations and vocabulary that are, or once were, our native accents. My point is not that we need to forget the aim of easily comprehensible communication — obviously, that remains the goal. But we do need to set aside the illusion that there is a single true and authentic way to speak.

English is a global language with many native and nonnative varieties. Worldwide, nonnative speakers of English outnumber natives by a ratio of three to one. Even in the United States, which has the largest population of native English speakers, there are, according to one estimate, nearly 50 million speakers of English as a second language. What does it even mean to sound native when so many English speakers are second-language speakers? Unless you are an embedded spy like the Jenningses, it is counterproductive to hold nativelike pronunciation as the bar you have to clear.

Accent by itself is a shallow measure of language proficiency, the linguistic equivalent of judging people by their looks. Instead, we should become aware of our linguistic biases and learn to listen more deeply before forming judgments. How large and how varied is the person’s vocabulary? Can she participate in most daily interactions? How much detail can he provide when retelling something? Can she hold her own in an argument?

Language discrimination based on accent is not merely an academic idea. Experiments show that people tend to make negative stereotypical assumptions about speakers with a nonnative accent. The effect extends all the way to bias against native speakers whose name or ethnicity reads as foreign. Studies show that when nonnative speakers respond to advertisements for housing, their conversations with prospective landlords are more likely to be unsuccessful, on average, than those of callers “without accents.”

So I hope you like my accent as much as I like yours.

Doonesbury — Brain cramps.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Confederacy Of Dunces

If you turned on MSNBC yesterday, you probably saw the live testimony of Peter Strzok before the congressional committee made up of a majority of Trump lickspittles and GOP weirdos.  I saw some of it, but I leave it to Charles P. Pierce to wrap it up and deliver the verdict.

There’s no real point in recapping the highlights. The videos are going to be in regular rotation for quite a while now. It was, as it was called at various points in the hearing, a kangaroo court, a show trial, and a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a sham of two mockeries. But it was designed to be that. It was a performance piece. It was not a very well-cast one, and several of the lead actors fell into the orchestra pit, but it managed to run from curtain-up to curtain-down.

Have you ever seen those videos of fist-fights breaking out in parliaments of third-world countries where they really go at it with furniture and farm implements?  I wish we had that kind of decorum.

(HT to the memory of John Kennedy Toole.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Time To Wake Up

David Corn in Mother Jones on how Trump and Putin basically stole America while we slept through it.

In 1938, Winston Churchill published a collection of his speeches warning that his homeland was not adequately contending with the threat posed by Nazi Germany. The title: “While England Slept.” Eighty years later, a similar observation can be rendered concerning the United States. Much of the political and media elite and the citizenry seem to be sleepwalking past a horrific and fundamental fact: The current president of the United States has helped to cover up a serious attack on the nation. This profound act of betrayal has gone unpunished and, in many quarters, unnoticed, even as it continues. With Donald Trump about to meet Vladimir Putin on Monday—rewarding the thuggish authoritarian Russian leader with a grand summit in Helsinki—this is an appropriate moment to remember that their dark bromance involves a mutual stonewalling of wrongdoing.

Apparently if it doesn’t involve a missing white woman or a kitten down a well, the attention of America cannot be drawn. It’s no surprise that the Russians figured this out; they’ve had that number for a very long time.  Far longer than Trump’s been on the scene; even far longer than the time of the Red Scare, which I think they must have come up with on their own just to see how easy it was to provoke us into doing truly horrific things to ourselves.

The goal isn’t, as we were warned in the 1950’s by McCarthy and his commie-hunters, to take over America.  This isn’t some kind of “Red Dawn” invasion plan.  That’s way too expensive and besides, once they’ve conquered us, they’d have to run the place and that’s just too much trouble.  What they want — what any adversary would want — is to get us to be compliant, or at least uninterested, in what they want.  I’m pretty sure they don’t want global domination; again, too much responsibility.  They just want to be able to do whatever they want without interference from the U.S. or NATO or any other collection of busybodies.  And they know they have to be subtle about it, using methods that appear harmless but actually get their mark to play along until they have them locked up.  It’s like e-mail scams; it all seems perfectly innocent: click on this link to update your banking information; click here to see free porn; “I’m a widow of a Nigerian general; help me hide my millions$.”  Those things work; if they didn’t we still wouldn’t be getting them.

So Trump is probably right when he claims there was NO COLLUSION between the Russians and his campaign.  At least none that he was aware of.  The Russians, just like the guy betting you $20 for a friendly game of three-card monte, aren’t going to walk up and say, “Hey, I’ll get you elected president.”  They already know how to work this pigeon: make him look elsewhere.

Trump with the rest of NATO leaders, 7/11/18

Corn concludes:

So as Trump prepares (yeah, right) for his sit-down with Putin—which is expected to include a private one-on-one with no aides present—much of the nation has lost sight of the big story. With Trump’s repeated cries of “witch hunt” and his lapdog Republicans slavishly concocting false narratives to cover for the boss, they have managed to convince Trump’s tribalized Fox-fed followers there is nothing to see here. And for many others, the scandal is not presented or viewed as the original sin and paramount controversy of the scandal-ridden Trump presidency.

It may be ineffective or counterproductive to shout out each day, “Where’s the outrage?” Yet the public record remains: Trump and Putin have jointly worked to disappear perhaps the greatest crime ever committed against American democracy and their respective complicity in this villainy. And it is crucial for the Republic that they not succeed.

We can’t hit the snooze button on this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Shoring Up His Base

The only reason I can think of for Trump to give clemency to the gang that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 (the gang that tried to send out for snacks in the middle of their rebellion) is because he’s got some idea that they still support him even after it dawns on them that the Trumpistas are using them and stealing their Doritos.

Either that or he’s counting on the fact that they’ll never wise up.

A Race To Watch

There’s a good piece in The Hill on the importance of the Senate race in Florida, and it could all come down to how Puerto Ricans feel about Rick Scott and Bill Nelson.

About 1.3 million Puerto Ricans are now estimated to live in Florida, overtaking the number of GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans who were once the largest Hispanic group there. After Maria, an estimated 40,000 Puerto Ricans resettled in Florida, according to Stefan Rayer, who’s director of a population program at the University of Florida.

Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico in the spotlight in September, as thousands continued to live without power for months after the storm struck and the death toll rose to more than 5,000 people. Trump endured heavy criticism for his tepid recovery efforts compared to his response to hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida.

Now it’s becoming a key campaign issue for both candidates, and it appears the crucial voter bloc is still up for grabs.

And if the Democrats lose this seat they could very well miss the chance to take over the Senate.

Florida has already played a crucial role in the nation’s electoral history, and while Bill Nelson may not be the most exciting candidate out there, he could be the one that could hobble or even end the GOP running roughshod over the Constitution.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

They’re Out

The rescue of the kids and their soccer coach from the cave in Thailand has been completed successfully.  Let it be remembered that former Thai Navy diver Saman Gunan died in the attempt to bring them out.

Now that they’re safe, let’s turn our attention to the more than 2,000 children that are still being held hostage by the Trump administration.

Too Late Now

I knew the moment I got up this morning to check my e-mail that I would be getting “BREAKING” and URGENT messages about the nomination of the next white Christian guy nominated to the Supreme Court, along with appeals to send money to defeat the nomination.

Not that I’m in favor of putting Brett Kavanaugh on the bench or that I don’t think that he won’t be the one to find a way to overturn Roe vs. Wade or uphold the corporation-as-person or find new ways to extend “religious liberty” into outright bigotry in terms of marriage equality or let the 2nd Amendment be the absolute law of the land, the time to have worked to keep him or any other like-minded 19th century-precedented jurist off the bench was in 2010, 2012, and 2016 when people who should care about those issues and keeping them safe from Mike Pence decided not to vote.

Thanks a lot, you lazy jerks or you purists who thought Jill Stein could make a “statement.”  Well, here’s a statement for you: my great-nephew George will be well into his forties before the seat becomes available again, and time and the actuarial tables don’t make it look good for those who stand against the onslaught of Jesus-shouters and corporate greed.  So you owe him and his generation and those to follow something more than, “Sorry, but I didn’t think it mattered.”