Friday, December 28, 2012

It depends on what the meaning of his is

Even though I make my living as a writer and editor, discussions about fine points of grammar and syntax usually make me want to go take a nap. English is a mongrel language whose rules, such as they are, often make no logical sense. 

Certain so-called rules like not splitting infinitives are pointless. Some professional editors need to be placed in an oxygen tent when they read towards instead of toward, but I discreetly roll my eyes. You find towards in books going back at least to the early years of the last century, when general literacy was in far better fettle than it is now, so why the fuss? It's false precision, like people who write 'til thinking it's short for until. But till is perfectly good English, accepted in every dictionary.

In some quarters, however, fanatics think the third-person pronoun needs to be whipped, punched, and put in its place. This does matter.

Until perhaps 30 years ago it was practically a non-issue. He and his were understood to refer to people of both sexes (not "genders," which is a grammatical term). We can argue till (or even 'til) the cows come home about whether that was "sexist," but it was how the language was constructed. 

In Latin-derived languages it never causes any problem because the pronoun takes the masculine or feminine form depending on the noun it modifies. But you also have to know the gender of every noun, easy enough if you grow up speaking the language, sometimes tough if you learn it as a second language; I still have to look up some French words to know whether to use le or la as the article, son or sa as the possessive. German is worse, with its masculine, feminine, and neuter.

So the politically correct "solution" prevalent nowadays is to write his or her. Awkward but tolerable ... if you use it once in a sentence. But that's often difficult unless you write Dick-and-Jane style. (Do schools still use Dick and Jane textbooks? I doubt it.)

Consider even a relatively simple example, from G.N.M. Tyrrell's Grades of Significance:
The world in which a man really lives depends upon the values which he has made his own; and these are not static, but change as life goes on. Call this faculty of absorbing values what you will, it is of fundamental importance in life and always has the same character. Revisit the scenes of childhood, and you will be conscious that childhood's world has vanished. Trees, houses, streets may stand in physical outline much as they did, but all are completely emptied of their one-time significance. This has vanished, and they have become filled with another. For how much does the identity of the physical framework count when the values it once bore for you have changed?

It matters far less to a cultured man that he should leave his physical surroundings and carry on his accustomed social and intellectual life elsewhere, than that he should live a totally different kind of life amongst familiar surroundings.
This isn't my idea of stylish prose. Upon is more formal but not more correct than on. Of fundamental importance would be better written fundamentally important. And bore as the past tense of bear is accurate, but has a quaint aura. (Some editors would insist which be struck out and replaced with that, a practice known in the trade as which hunting. There is a technical distinction between which and that, but to me it's a distinction without a difference.)
I would be uncomfortable writing a man in a universal sense, although in 1930 when Tyrrell cast the sentence it was conventional. Substituting a person creates no turbulence. But now apply the gender-inclusive standard and you get
The world in which a person really lives depends on the values which he or she has made his or her own ...
It matters far less to a cultured person that he or she should leave his or her physical surroundings and carry on his or her accustomed social and intellectual life elsewhere, than that he or she should live a totally different kind of life amongst familiar surroundings.
In these two examples, especially the second, the sentence flow is disturbed by speed bumps, he or she and his or her. Yes, it's comprehensible, but clumsy -- anyone with a feeling for the elegance that English is capable of has to wince a little.

The popular trend is to see off he or she in favor of their, as in, "He or she is entitled to choose, as long as their choice doesn't harm anyone else." The switch in one sentence from singular to plural is perhaps no more illogical than using he and his to mean he or she and his or her, but the former seems to me grating, especially in written language.

Many people, even those who've bothered to read this far, would probably say we have more serious problems on our hands than linguistic gender usage. I'd probably agree. But everything is related: when language is constantly twisted into grotesque shapes to suit political fashion, it is less fit for purpose as an instrument for advancing discussion, sifting ideas, or urging action. A culture can't think better than it can speak or write.

Monday, December 24, 2012

U.K. to monitor unemployed via their computers

The British social welfare establishment has an unofficial motto: "Support everybody, monitor everybody."

So we are to gather from a piece in the Telegraph.
From the beginning of next year, the unemployed will have to look for work through the Coalition's new Universal Jobmatch website or potentially risk losing their benefits.
The tracking element of the programme will not be compulsory as monitoring people's behaviour online without their consent would not be allowed under EU law.

But job advisers are able to impose sanctions such as compulsory work placements or ultimately losing benefits if they feel the unemployed are not searching hard enough.
Assuming the article is accurate -- and I wonder about a reporter who can write "potentially risk," which is redundant -- we have a typical bureaucratic diktat whose left hand is unacquainted with its right hand. Claimants must look for work through the Universal Jobmatch site (what if they don't own a computer?); their job foraging cannot be monitored "without their consent" (do they lose their benefits if they don't consent?); but "job advisers" can impose sanctions anyway.

While this social engineering scheme is far from the craziest aspect of life in soft-totalitarian U.K., it's worth noting as a typical symptom.

To begin with, The State ought not to be monitoring the actions of its citizens who have not been convicted of a crime or shown to have violated the terms of their unemployment benefits. There's no doubt that plenty of benefits collectors are fiddling the government -- taking in dole money while forgetting what work is, or even while working off the books in the underground economy. But this kind of Big Brother scrutiny is far too extreme for what in any individual case is an a priori assumption of guilt.

What makes it more egregious is that the British welfare state has created most of the behavior it seeks to prevent through prying. This is the country where any "asylum seeker" is immediately set up with benefits. Mad imams preaching death to infidels are paid to exist in more comfort than the average working Briton enjoys. A sub-working class in which no one in a family has held a job for three generations can be found throughout Her Majesty's realm.

As in overextended governments everywhere, departments and agencies and administrators can only think in terms of their designated powers, which is probably a good thing in itself, but the trouble is no one is looking at the big picture -- at least, not realistically. All bureaucratic paper shufflers can do is come up with more regulations designed to curb individuals.

Does anyone think this plan will actually be enforced on a large scale? It has all the usual hallmarks of a bone thrown to critics of the welfare system, aimed at reducing the heat on politicians. If any jobless person is actually called on the carpet to account for his lack of initiative, it will be purely as a demonstration for the press or because he has committed a thought crime, like joining the English Defence League. I would bet money no Muslim or black will ever be bothered by the authorities. That would be "racist."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jane Monheit and the art of taking a chance on love

I saw a concert video of Jane Monheit for the first time. It was a 2004 performance at a jazz festival in Wales, of all places, released under the title Taking a Chance on Love and presumably meant as a tie-in with her album of the same name.

Monheit, in case you aren't aware of her, is a superlative singer who works in a range between jazz and old standards. I've never heard her do a single number (and I have four of her albums) that she failed to illuminate with vocal wizardry, intelligent coloration, and respect for the material she's performing. Even when she's at top volume, her voice doesn't go hard and glassy but retains a thrilling intimacy.

So I was a little taken aback to watch her do a couple of sets. If I had just listened to this concert with the picture dark, the effect would have been pretty much the same as on her albums. But someone apparently coached her into "projecting" with a lot of Broadway-ish mannerisms: her hands fluttering like a pupeteer, facial expressions ranging from A to ZZZ, roaming the stage, exhibitionistically "appreciating" the contributions of her band members, &c.

At moments I thought she was channeling Liza Minelli (although Monheit is a far superior artist).

Part of the trouble is down to the nature of videotaped concerts. Like actors, vocalists must make their gestures larger than life so that they register even on audience members far from the stage. But the camera gets in close -- in this video, often too close, I thought. Must we see tight head shots? What do they add to our enjoyment? Directors these days believe they have to "contribute" by constantly cutting from one camera angle to another, and unless you do close-ups, sometimes extreme close-ups, you soon run out of different viewpoints. You might want an ECU of a pianist's hands on the keyboard or a guitarist's on the frets, but need we count Jane Monheit's eyelashes?

I'd love to see and hear her in a small club setting, where I'll bet she knocks off the histrionics and does what she does best. And that's plenty.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The past has a new look

... on the Web.

Most people except those raised in state schools have at least some interest in history. Not to know what happened before you were born, said Cicero, is to remain forever a child. Curiosity about the past is usually satisfied, more or less, by reading books about whatever period or event interests you.

Whether written by professional historians or journalists, such accounts usually have several advantages for the reader. The author has presumably read from many sources of information. He has weighed the value of various descriptions of what happened. He has the big picture in mind and is able to put specifics into a larger whole. (All this is of course the ideal, not necessarily the reality.)

Inevitably, though, the person writing later, often long after the events, finds it hard not to inject the present into the past. Other times are seen through a contemporary sensibility -- the modern interpreter, even if she is aware of the problem, may get the facts right but have trouble understanding them as people in the past did, even when quoting or using original records.

The point is not that people who were present at historical events or lived in other times were more "correct" in their perceptions. They were just as likely biased or saw complicated situations from only one viewpoint among many. Historical writing has always had to face the problem of balancing first-hand observation with reasoned, and after-the-fact, synthesis.

But it can be intriguing to read how people described things at the time, especially in journalism, those "first drafts of history." Such accounts often include details that struck the writer as worth mentioning, but which have long since evaporated from memory.

Google Books has led the way, reproducing out-of-copyright books as well as a number of magazines that gave them permission. Google Books deserves credit for not sticking to popular or even "respectable" publications. The magazines they've made available, issue-by-issue, sometimes for decades, include not only mass market titles like Life and Popular Science, but a wonderfully bizarre selection of specialized publications: Indianapolis Monthly, American Woodworker, Vegetarian Times, Negro Digest, and Kiplinger's Personal Finance (be sure you're up to date with all the hot mutual funds of 1992!), etc.

Lately Google has been put in the shade by another site specializing in old magazines and journals, with a far wider selection. The newcomer is called simply All Periodicals, and it's a hoot. The index of titles runs from The Abolitionist (no, not from the slavery era, but March 1970 to September 1971) to Yank (1942-1945). You can search by date, from pre-1850 on.

Its proprietor Ron Unz, I learn from Wikipedia, ran for California governor in 1994 and later became publisher of The American Conservative.

Despite Unz's rare (for California) conservative leanings, his site's selection of historic magazines ranges all over the political map, from The New Masses ("Meet Some Jew-Baiters," Jan. 9, 1945) to The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty ("Seventeen Arguments Against Socialized Medicine," November 1960). You can dissolve yourself in Double Action Western (1952-1953), New Love Magazine (1949-1951), Scrutiny (1932-1963), Unknown (1939-1948), Munsey's Magazine (1894-1929 [ending ominously in October]), The Anglo-Soviet Journal (1940-1974), and many other publications luminous and obscure.

They are all PDFs, avoiding the typos caused by optical character readers, plus you can see the original typefaces, design, cartoons, and fillers.

Returning to our theme of the strange fascination of reading how subjects were treated contemporaneously: consider, for example, a piece titled "Norfolk -- Our Worst War Town" in the February 1943 American Mercury. It says:
We rode through the narrow streets of Norfolk's old red light district in a scout car. As we passed block after block of decaying two-story houses, our host, the cop, talked honestly of the headaches in handling forty thousand sailors and multiplied thousands of new shipbuilding war workers.

"Norfolk’s always been a sailor town," he explained, "and here’s how we took care of the boys up until a year ago. Wehad about four hundred prostitutes in here. They kept up the property and paid taxes on it. They weren’t allowed out of the district at night. Each
girl had to get a health certificate every week, and when a sailor came up with a disease, the Navy told us where he got it and we took the rotten apple out of the barrel. In that way we kept things under control.

"The sailors liked it that way. They could get stewed, yell and dance, then get out in the street and fight to their heart’s content. All we had to do was pick ’em up in the Navy wagons and take ’em back down to the base. If a sailor had been rolled, he gave us the address and we went back and got his money for him. It was a good system. The Navy liked it because it kept the disease rate down.The sailors liked it. And we officers liked it because we could control it that way. ...

Women,"wine," and the galloping dominoes, of course, are the principal law enforcement problems. Fashions in wars may change, but the nocturnal objectives of a twenty-year-old boy in a sailor suit remain pretty constant. Every night is Saturday night in Norfolk, because about twelve thousand sailors come to town every night.
We stood with the cop and watched them start piling out of staggering buses about five o’clock. We followed the bobbing whitecaps to the liquor store. The line was already two blocks long and the fellows up front were doing a land-office commission business on purchases they agreed to make for mates not in line.
I doubt you will become acquainted with this side of wartime Norfolk, Virginia, in any history book. Although as the man said, fashions in wars may change but not the freely detonating hormones of young sailors. I've heard from old timers that San Diego too was a wide-open town in World War II, as I suspect more than a few other military-linked cities and towns were.

Of course the article might be sensationalism or mostly fantasy. American Mercury's reputation declined by a long shout in the post-Mencken era. But it sure gives you a slightly different glance at the Greatest Generation.

Thursday, December 06, 2012


I had almost decided I would never again be inspired to write anything (except for money). But some subjects stand up and insist.

Jazz pianist and (more important, I think) group leader Dave Brubeck passed over this week at the age of 91.

I haven't had time to read the obits, but probably most will concentrate on his '50s and early '60s best-selling albums (Time Out, Time Further Out, the Carnegie Hall live set, etc.) in which Brubeck and his fellow musicians explored oddball time signatures. It's been a while since I've heard them, but I expect they would retain their fascination today. He continued to produce "out there" albums such as Jazz Impressions of Japan, exploratory without descending into mere quirkiness.

He still recorded until recently, and those discs I know are highly satisfying. Brubeck wasn't an extraordinarily virtuosic pianist, but he seemed to be the cause of greatness in others. He had superb judgment about musicians he collaborated with -- his groups were more than a sum-of-parts. Not only the best-known player, alto sax artist Paul Desmond, but less celebrated names seemed to have an instinctive rapport with Brubeck. When you can get that from people as individualistic as jazz musicians, you have accomplished something.

His career had its ups and downs over more than 50 years, but he began a great "Indian summer" period when he signed with the audiophile Telarc label in the '90s. Once again, he gathered top -- if not particularly famous -- talent. Check out, for instance, the knockout playing of altoist Bobby Militello on Late Night Brubeck and London Flat, London Sharp.

Brubeck began jazz composing in 1945, in the army in occupied Germany. His career took off during what was by any reckoning a good time for America ... another reason I will miss him, I suppose. As we approach the Abyss (not the "fiscal cliff," but a political, cultural, and moral sinkhole of darkness), Brubeck reminds us of what it was like to live in a time of alluring, not fearful, prospects.