Monday, November 28, 2016

Glass Half Full or Glass Brimming with Fetid Slime?



Two schools of thought have emerged in reference to the looming Trump presidency. One school is represented by President Obama who, in his usual classy and open-minded way, recommends that we defer to the hope that Trump will prove a reasonably competent and decent president.


This might be called the “Clothes Make the Man” approach, after the Henri Duvernois short story of that name. In this story a petty thief dresses as a cop in order to take part in a heist, but is so overcome with pride when the people he meets treat him as an officer of the law, that he switches sides and actually starts acting like a cop. Spoiler alert: Bad news for the pseudo-cop’s henchmen when he tries to arrest them.


This approach hangs on the idea that Donald Trump, who has spent almost two years acting like a thoroughly dishonest, crude and self-centered bully, will, upon reaching the Oval Office, start acting presidential.


But no, I don’t think so. I belong to the other school of thought, the one that doesn’t believe someone so steeped in dishonesty and corruption can be reformed by the dignity of his surroundings. I’m afraid that our beloved White House, this architectural emblem of American democracy, this former residence of Abraham Lincoln, this site where Franklin Roosevelt hosted Winston Churchill as they worked out their strategy for victory in World War II, this elegant mansion -- will, for the next few years, be filled with a skunkish stink.


Trump’s crudeness and vulgarity are the least of our worries now. More serious is his penchant for corruption. Though he promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC, he cannot do this because, as one source has pointed out, “he himself is the slimiest varmint in the swamp.”*


Let’s face it, a man who would surround himself with thuggish characters like Stephen Bannon, Roger Ailes, and Rudy Giuliani, is not someone we can expect to suddenly discover the virtues of dignity and decency.


Admittedly it isn’t fair to refer to all three of these advisors as actual thugs. Only Bannon and Ailes have been charged with such crimes as witness intimidation, domestic violence with traumatic injury, battery and sexual harassment. But even Rudy, though as yet unindicted, does have his own special air of creepiness. The fact that he is being considered for secretary of state is enough to disillusion anyone who thought Trump was going to rise to a higher ethical plane once in office.


Just as frightening as a Secretary of State Giuliani would be an Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. As Douglas N. Harris wrote in the New York Times last Friday, “…of all the candidates the transition team was apparently considering, Ms. DeVos has easily the worst record.”


Born into one right-wing fanatic family (the Princes) and married into another (the DeVoses), Betsy is the kind of person who believes that evidence can be ignored when it clashes with conservative ideology. Harris points out, for example, that she is one of the main proponents of a school choice system in Detroit that is generally regarded as “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”


Furthermore: “Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far…The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit.”


Why would Trump consider such a person to be secretary of education? Well, if you want to be cynical, or if you are merely willing to face the facts presented by our rapidly deteriorating real world, you might point out that Betsy DeVos has been a very, very generous financial contributor to Republican causes.


Call me crazy, but I thought “draining the swamp” meant appointing competent, qualified people to the cabinet, not rewarding people whose inherited wealth made them worth sucking up to.


And there are so many other reasons to see Trump as mired in corruption. His refusal to reveal his tax records, for one. Beyond this are the investments in countries around the world that he claims won’t affect his presidential decisions since his children (and heirs) will be running them. And note how he pointed out that by becoming president he has made his brand “hotter.”


We Americans are in for some interesting sights and stories over these next four years. But for now, let’s fix our gaze on the Donald and his glistening oily flanks as he eases his massive frame into the dank and murky waters of his newfound Washington world.







*That source was me!


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What the Hell Happened?



First of all, screw you, Nate Silver.


In 2012, every state that you identified as leaning or likely Obama actually DID vote for Obama. What the hell happened this time?!!


Thanks a lot for the false reassurance.


Secondly, on a completely different track, I’d like to pose a question: how is Hillary Clinton like the Dalai Lama?


No, she is not a beloved Buddhist pacifist, but she is a person who is widely admired around the world yet disliked at home. Because of her political skills and her work on behalf of children and families, she is one of America’s most well regarded figures on the international stage. The Washington Post, for example, published the results of a survey showing that she would win anywhere from 73 to 97 per cent of the votes if people from countries like Mexico, Canada, Germany and Australia could vote for her. But in the U.S. she is unpopular. And she is unpopular because the Republican Party, supported by Fox News and right-wing talk radio have spent decades portraying her as a hideously evil and conniving liar.


Same thing happened to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government has spent decades smearing him to the point where he, like Hillary Clinton, is admired around the world, but despised in his own country. (The Chinese government, by the way, had its reasons for trashing the Dalai Lama’s reputation, but I won’t go into them here.)


My point is that you can destroy a public figure through gross misrepresentations if you control the media (as in China), or you control a huge chunk of the media (as conservative Republicans control Fox News and talk radio) and if you don’t mind making stuff up.


Hillary Clinton, like all politicians, can be criticized for some of her actions, but she is nothing like the bizarre caricature of a villainous monster that the right-wingers have succeeded in conjuring up; and our allies in countries like Germany, the UK, France, etc., know this.


Unfortunately, enough Americans have bought the evil Hillary story that her presidential bid was doomed. I promise you that were the Dalai Lama to run for president in China, he would do far worse there than Hillary did here. Character assassination works.


My third and final point is that racism continues to be a useful political tool. We have been repeatedly warned that many voters are enraged and they want change. This is true, but why would a longing for change result in votes for a man who opposes raising the minimum wage and wants to give more tax cuts to the wealthy - the very individuals, in other words, whose control of the economy has made life hard for the working class?


One answer to this, I believe, can be found in Arlie Hochshild’s recent study of working class Louisianans, Strangers in Their Own Land. An important point that Hochschild makes is that though the economic and environmental problems these folks face are a result of corporate policies, their inclination is to blame their troubles on people from other countries or of different races. This, of course, is one key to Trump’s victory: he encouraged people to direct blame at “those who are not like us” and thereby inspired a turbulent uprising.


But if Trump’s policies don’t help these troubled Americans (and I don’t see how they can), what then? Don’t ask me. I don’t know any more than Nate Silver does.


But, in the meantime, I suppose the best advice I’ve seen lately is that offered by David Leonhardt of the New York Times. He says that whatever else happens over the next four years, we need to concentrate on working with Republicans who believe in global warming to advance policies that can thwart this looming disaster. So…back to work, everybody.





       And, oh all right. I forgive you, Nate.


               (Thanks for the image, New Yorker)

Friday, October 21, 2016

When You Think of Bullshit...



Some people are saying I wrote an “important article” on a topic in sociolinguistics. The modesty for which I am so well known prevents me from making this claim myself, but I can’t help what other people are saying, right? To be specific, linguist Michael Adams, in his recent book, In Praise of Profanity, wrote this: “In an important article, ‘On Swearwords and Slang,’ Robert L. Moore (2012) attempts to distinguish slang from profanity.”


Admittedly, the issues that linguists consider important might be different from those that the linguistically benighted deem worthy. Some people want to end world hunger, others want to distinguish slang from swearwords. Chacun à son goût.


My interest in this topic was provoked when an anonymous reviewer of an earlier article admonished me for putting slang and swearwords into a single lexemic category. So, looking at these two kinds of words closely, I was struck by the way they were so often linked but also by the fact that they were clearly not exactly the same thing. So, I sought the help of a number of Rollins students who dutifully filled out questionnaires asking them to categorize some of the words and phrases found in expressions like these:


“Who boogerbooing?...Jig, I don’t have to. Talking about me with a beat chick scoffing a hot dog! You must not of seen me…”


And, in a more poetical vein,


“He banked the six and seven cross-side

He took the motherfucking eight for a goddamn ride”


Based on what my students indicated, and backed up by what a similar sample of Chinese responses from Beijing students showed, I came to the conclusion that slang and swearwords are universal categories that serve separate universal social/psychological functions. The latter is prototypically used to express intense, often negative, emotion, while the former is prototypically used to inspire an ethos of egalitarian informality. These linguistic categories overlap in usage, largely because they share an emphasis on informality and the expression of affect. But they are prototypically separable and linked to specific design features of human sociality.


Anyway, it is nice to know that somebody has read one’s work and approved of it. Also, it occurs to me that if I write another 10 or 20 “important” articles on swearwords, I could become an academic big shot in linguistics; a kind of Jane Goodall of dirty words. If that happens, I intend to assume a cool slangy nickname like Badass Bob. Actually better than a slangy nickname would be a catch phrase. I’m open to suggestions, but right now I’m toying with this one: “When you think of bullshit, think of me.”




       Family Tree of Indo-European Languages