On William Safire

New York Times columnist William Safire died Sunday at age 79.

I admired Safire, not for his conservative commentary, but because he belonged to an increasingly rare breed: those who know (and care) that “begs the question” and “raises the question” are not interchangeable phrases. For three decades, Safire used his Sunday column, “On Language,” to examine thousands of quirks, misuses, and perversions of American English.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

Safire was often a stickler in what he called “a world of toleration and permissiveness.”   I’m not quite the prescriptivist Safire was, but I appreciated his use of wit and mnemonics to nudge people toward the proper spelling of “bated breath” and the appropriate usage of the word “penultimate.” His columns were a pleasant respite from the lazy grammar and kewl txtspk rampant on the Internet.

Reasons to read The New York Times are evaporating rapidly.

Child Sex Trafficking Is Not A Partisan Issue

The sexual exploitation of children is intolerable.  This is a moral absolute from which there can be no deviation.  Right, left, and center, we know this to be true.

So when a pair of young muckrakers recorded several employees of the tax-subsidized organization ACORN offering advice to help facilitate child prostitution, it was clearly as newsworthy as it was despicable.  However, most national media outlets ignored this outrage when the story broke on September 10, 2009.

Posing as a pimp and prostitute trying to set up a child sex slavery operation, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles visited five ACORN offices.  During each encounter, they sought guidance on how to obtain financing for a brothel that would house a dozen or so underage girls smuggled in from El Salvador. On at least two or three occasions, Giles mentioned she was in danger from an abusive ex-pimp.

At all five offices, ACORN staff counseled the pair on a combination of tax evasion, money laundering, staying under law enforcement radar, welfare fraud, and human trafficking.  One employee in Baltimore even recommended they claim some of the child sex slaves as dependents.  “Honesty is not going to get you the house,” advised another in Brooklyn.

Yes, this is the story that most mainstream media outlets refused to cover as it unfolded over the past week.

If not for relentless airing on Fox News, promotion on the Drudge Report, and viral duplication on the right side of the blogosphere, the damning videos released by Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government might not have received wider circulation than any fleeting Internet meme. Fortunately politicians took notice and quickly moved to defund ACORN, the recipient of at least $53 million in federal funds since 1994.

The mainstream media was finally forced to acknowledge the story, but initially did so with headlines like “Census Bureau Drops Acorn From 2010 Effort” and my personal favorite from Reuters, “U.S. Senate Denies Funds For Poverty Group.”  To call that burying the lede would be fantastically inadequate.

Then the usual media suspects moved on to playing the blame game. Five days after the release of the first video, the New York Times published Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, its first original reporting on the scandal.  MSNBC ran a segment called “Nuts vs. ACORN.”

Eventually even network television had to admit there was a story.  Katie Couric led the national evening news anchors with her broadcast on Tuesday, September 15.  NBC’s Meredith Vieira reported the story on Wednesday morning, and after laughing the story off as something better left “to the cables,” ABC World News anchor Charlie Gibson finally aired the story Wednesday evening.  His broadcast followed a denouncement of the ACORN staffers by the White House.

Why the delay?  Simple. Liberal reporters and producers were unable to ferret out an angle that could exonerate ACORN from culpability.  They were stymied.  The established media narrative demands ACORN be portrayed as a group of valiant crusaders against poverty.  They’re to be hailed as noble community organizers under unfair scrutiny by a racist right wing attack machine.

Even the latest video of a San Diego ACORN employee offering assistance with smuggling child prostitutes into the country hasn’t derailed that narrative.  Because the ACORN sting was the brainchild of conservative activists it is considered inherently flawed, unworthy of serious investigation.

BigGovernment.com has released devastating videos of ACORN employees offering to abet child prostitution in five cities – Baltimore, New York, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. – and more are reportedly on the way.  The indecency in these videos is not a fluke.

ACORN doesn’t have just a few bad apples, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested. Incriminating videos have implicated nine employees. If ACORN Housing employs 250, as ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis attests, then we have at least 3.6 percent of the ACORN Housing workforce willing to help facilitate a child prostitution ring. Even if we include all 750 full- and part-time ACORN staffers, nine rotten apples would be a noteworthy 1.2 percent of the paid ACORN workforce.  And it may well be that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It is by the grace of public funding that ACORN’s doors stay open.  An estimated 40 percent of ACORN funding comes from government sources, enough that taxpayers have a right and an obligation to demand transparency, accountability, and rigorous oversight.  Both houses of Congress agree, and voted this week to bar ACORN from access to federal money.  Several states followed suit, withdrawing funds and launching investigations into the group’s practices.

At best, ACORN is an organization with a toxic corporate culture that attracts or fosters morally reprehensible behavior.  At worst, it is as corrupt and contemptible as ongoing allegations of widespread voter registration fraud, tax code violations, and contribution fraud would suggest.

Lashing out at everyone from the filmmakers to George Bush, Karl Rove, and the right in general will not make this scandal disappear.  And neither will shameful incidents of media malpractice, feminist silence, and false equivalencies from the liberal blogosphere.  Any degree of support for child sex slavery is indefensible. Period.

Perhaps I should have titled this piece, “Child Sex Trafficking Shouldn’t Be A Partisan Issue.”  It shouldn’t be, and yet, for some, it’s acceptable to look the other way when it threatens to undermine a liberal organization.

Norman Borlaug, International Hero

Via Reason comes the news that agronomist Norman Borlaug died yesterday at age 95.  Borlaug was a great humanitarian, a Nobel Prize winner whose work to reduce hunger and malnutrition was unparalleled.  And yet many have never heard of this man who developed high-yield agricultural techniques to save a billion people from the ravages of famine.

Just think about it for a moment.  One billion lives saved.

Borlaug’s innovations in the breeding of wheat, rice, and corn enabled countries like Pakistan and India to become agriculturally self-sufficient.  The Los Angeles Times reports:

In 1960, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug’s pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people — using only 1% more land.

But Borlaug faced stunning challenges in his efforts to address hunger in developing nations, particularly those in Africa.  For decades, full-bellied, misanthropic environmentalists have campaigned against Borlaug’s use of genetic modification, inorganic fertilizers, and controlled irrigation to improve crop productivity.  He responded to the criticism by saying, “It appears that many of the most rabid crop biotech opponents are driven more by a hate of capitalism and globalization than by the actual safety of transgenic plants.”

Environmentalists also condemned his work for allegedly poisoning the water supply, threatening biodiversity, and contributing to overpopulation of the planet.  In the 1980s, buckling under pressure from environmental lobbyists, the International Maize and Wheat Center where Borlaug conducted much of his groundbreaking work lost the support of the World Bank and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Borlaug observed:

Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Ultimately, Borlaug was able to return to his efforts to bring high-yield farming techniques to several African nations with the assistance of Ryoichi Sasakawa, Japanese fascist turned philanthropist, and former United States president Jimmy Carter.  Today, the fruits of his research can be seen in the prevalence of the high-yield dwarf wheat that helps much of the world’s population live beyond the grip of starvation.

There are still more than 800 million undernourished people in the world.  Norman Borlaug’s legacy can change that, but only if we make it a priority.

Update: Common ground for the left and right?  Far left commenter Eclectic Radical is also honoring Norman Borlaug. (Yes, he insists on throwing a “David Duke:conservatives as misanthropic environmentalists:liberals” analogy into the comments below, but, you know, baby steps.)

Remembering 9/11/2001


Photo credit: wallyg on Flickr

I have never written a personal account of my experience on September 11, 2001.

I’ve honored the sacrifices made by our troops and their families and I’ve addressed the war on terror, both on this blog and elsewhere.  But I’ve avoided committing my personal thoughts to paper and pixel, partly because those feelings are intensely personal and difficult to capture, but also because I feel guilty for feeling like my experience matters.

I was in New York City when the first plane hit, but I was 15 miles away from the World Trade Center. While I knew two people who perished, they were not close friends or family members.  And like so many Americans, especially those in their teens and 20s, I had my naïveté about the world stripped violently away that morning, my sense of security obliterated.  But what right did I have to feel pain and grief when so many others never had a last goodbye with loved ones?

When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. I was blow drying my hair, getting ready to teach a 9:30 a.m. class.  Running late, I had to forgo my usual morning pilgrimage to 7-11 and instead dashed across the street to the bodega to grab a cup of coffee-esque sludge as the second tower was hit.

“Everything’s gone to hell,” said the guy who handed me my paper cup.

I smiled politely and nodded as I paid, thinking the intended meaning had gotten lost in his thick Korean accent.

“You heard? You heard? The twin towers are on fire. Two planes hit the World Trade Center.”

Like a dolt, I replied, “Really?”  As if this man would have any reason to lie about something like that.

“Go, go. Put your radio on,” he said.

I ran to my car and flipped on 1010 WINS for the short ride to campus.  The broadcasters were using words like “unbelievable” and “disaster.”  They hadn’t moved on to “terrorism” yet.

I was struck by the grotesque contrast between what I was hearing and what I was seeing. The sky in New York had never been that fiercely blue, so clear it almost hurt to look up.  A slight breeze rustled the trees on the parkway, cooling the air to a perfect compromise between summer and fall. And yet reporters on the radio spoke of terrifying explosions and the thick plumes of smoke that seemed to carry shreds of paper over the East River.

Arriving at work, I caught my first glimpses of the burning towers on computer monitors as I walked past my colleagues’ offices.  I felt a growing tightness in my chest and stomach as I realized the likelihood of more casualties than I could imagine.  I wondered how many World Trade Center workers were running late like me.

A roomful of laughing, carefree 18-year-olds greeted me on the lower level of the library building. It was utterly surreal, these oblivious freshman faces expecting me to teach while Manhattan burned.

But I did.  Numbly, flatly, I made it through the longest 90 minutes of my life.  As we left the classroom, one student explained to her friend, “It’s totally karma, this World Trade Center thing. These bankers are just, like, getting what they have coming for being greedy.”

I still wonder, would she have said the same thing if she knew both towers had crumbled while we were cocooned in that classroom?

I spent the afternoon migrating from desk to quad, quad to desk, needing to be near people, but needing even more to get in touch with my parents, both of whom had meetings scheduled in Manhattan.  The phone lines were jammed and the volume of email being handled by our campus servers was delaying delivery by hours, so it was mid-afternoon when I heard from my mom. Like a little kid who’s been lost in a department store, hearing her voice made me cry.  It was 24 hours before I reached my boyfriend.  We wouldn’t hear from my father for two days.

Gathered outside in the afternoon with friends and coworkers, the eerie stillness of the sky was interrupted every so often by the high-pitched squeal of a fighter jet flying over the metro area.  I had never seen a plane traveling so low.  But even more chilling was the way all other aircraft had disappeared from the sky.  We didn’t know how many had been grounded and how many might have been repurposed as weapons of mass destruction.  Without any sense of the irrationality in what we were saying, we entertained fears that our campus could be the next target.  Planes were falling out of the sky – why not onto a college campus?

I wanted to do something – anything – but hospitals were turning away blood donors, and only those trained as first responders were being asked to report to Ground Zero. There was nothing to do but go home to the television.

I spent the night at my mom’s house glued to the television, realizing that our country was under attack yet not understanding how that could be.  We watched people escape the intense heat and smoke by plunging to their deaths on the rooftops and blacktop below.  We had no frame of reference, no point of comparison to cope with these scenes as they played on a seemingly endless loop.

Over the next few days was when I truly realized everything had fallen apart.

A dear friend of my mother’s spent night after night waiting for news of her brother-in-law, an NYPD Emergency Services Squad officer and volunteer firefighter.  His remains were never found.

A student who worked for me left campus to be with her family as they awaited news of her father that would never come.

Everywhere I went, the faces of the dead stared back at me from flyers posted by families looking for their lost loved ones.  I knew they were gone, and yet I couldn’t stop looking at the photos and other details, hoping beyond hope that just one of them might be walking the streets with amnesia.

I went to the Union Square vigil a day or two after the attacks.  The cloying scent of cheap candles and cheaper incense helped to mask the smell coming from Ground Zero as I walked among the photos, flowers, and prayer cards.  I saw heartfelt displays of patriotism, but by that point, there were also anti-American statements chalked onto the pavement.  There was one I’ll never forget: “The real cause of terrorism is U.S. foreign policy.” Another said, “Abolish religion to end terrorism.”

I made my way down to Washington Square Park that night and found my feet frozen in place across the street from the arch.  The iconic marble structure that had once framed the twin towers now framed nothing but the haze of acrid smoke and the blindingly bright floodlights at Ground Zero.  I stood there for a long time with my shirt pulled up over my face to filter out the worst of the filthy air, but I didn’t go any further.  I couldn’t.

As a kid, I spent countless hours in the PATH station below the World Trade Center, hanging out with my boyfriend (now husband) until it was time for him to catch the train.  A few months before the collapse of the towers, I had jury duty in lower Manhattan and had lunch on the concourse level.  And less than a week before the attacks, I drove past the towers with my sister, who was moving out of state the next day.  She looked up and with as much drama as she could muster said, “Goodbye twin towers.”

I’ve never been to Ground Zero, and I’m not sure I’ll ever go. I don’t want to see a hole in the ground.  What I want to see is a pair of ugly steel skyscrapers filled with people from all over the world living their lives in a free and secure United States of America.

Platitudes and Abstractions? Yes We Can!

President Obama will deliver his Indoctrination Speech™ to the nation’s schoolchildren today.  His silver-tongued litany of subversive communist rhetoric is expected to completely annihilate the morals and values of American students.  Complicit teachers trained in Saul Alinsky’s tactics will use Obama-approved socialist lesson plans to reinforce the president’s radical Marxist agenda.

Or something.

I know those are the right wing talking points on the president’s planned address, but I’m having trouble raising my conservative ire to the expected levels.  Here’s why:

1. The text of President Obama’s speech is innocuous.  Released by the White House on Monday, it looks a lot like a commencement address, sans the humorous one-liners and witty anecdotes. And at 2,540 words, this painfully long speech is almost 10 times longer than the Gettysburg Address.  Kids’ eyes will glaze over, their lids will grow heavy, and they will absorb nothing substantive from the president’s vapid string of platitudes and abstractions because it contains nothing substantive.

2. Varying degrees of indoctrination are rampant in American schools.  If you’re thinking of keeping your kids out of the classroom today, you might as well keep them home everyday.

I attended public elementary school in New York City in the 1980s. My second grade class was taken around the corner from our school to the gates of the USSR Mission compound to protest the incarceration of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. This was done without parental permission.

In 1984, after Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, my teacher excitedly handed students items from campaign headquarters. My classmates and I spent the remainder of the year with Mondale/Ferraro bumper stickers affixed to our canvas loose leaf notebooks.

From what I gather, partisan bias and philosophical indoctrination are just as flagrant in today’s schools.  That’s why conservatives are intuitively wary of a liberal president speaking directly to children.  So yes, I guarantee that in some classrooms there will be bias evident in the exercises and lessons that follow President Obama’s speech.  But I also assure you that there is informal indoctrination taking place in those classrooms all day, every day.  Shielding your children from political bias in the classroom is a laudable goal, but unfortunately, keeping your kids home today is like fixing a leaky pipe with a roll of Bounty.

3. President Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren is a distraction.  Conservatives need to remain focused on the health care debate and the far more important speech the president will make to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night.

In the interest of moving on from this particular distraction, I propose that President Obama cancel his speech to kids and instead run the following video with the same message trimmed down to a succinct 30 seconds or so:

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