Saturday, December 03, 2016

Roll Over, Il Douche — Make Way For A REAL Vision Of National Greatness

The time has ended for political navel-gazing. It's time to get up and go to work for cleaning up the inevitable mess that Il Douche is creating and will create between now and 2016. If this is a (fair & balanced) challenge to every man, woman, and child who would call themselves patriotic, so be it.

[x RS]
Bernie Sanders Interview: Where We Go From Here!
By (Gonzo) Matt Taibbi

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It feels like a bomb went off in Washington. In less than a year, the leaders of both major parties have been crushed, fundamentally reshaping a political culture that for generations had seemed unalterable. The new order has belligerent outsider Donald Trump heading to the White House, ostensibly backed in Congress by a tamed and repentant majority of establishment Republicans. Hillary Clinton's devastating loss, meanwhile, has left the minority Democrats in disarray. A pitched battle for the soul of the opposition party has already been enjoined behind the scenes.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who won overwhelming youth support and 13 million votes during primary season, now sits on one side of that battle, in a position of enormous influence. The party has named him "outreach chair," and Minnesota congressman and Sanders political ally Keith Ellison is the favorite to be named head of the Democratic National Committee. This is a huge change from earlier this year, when the Sanders campaign was completely on the outs with the DNC, but many see Sanders' brand of politics as the Democrats' best shot at returning to prominence.

Sanders' rise is a remarkable story, obscured by the catastrophe of Trump's win. When I first visited with Sanders for Rolling Stone, 11 years ago, for a tour of the ins and outs of congressional procedure, he was a little-known Independent in the House from a tiny agrarian state, an eccentric toiler pushing arcane and unsexy amendments through Congress, usually on behalf of the working poor: expanded access to heating oil in the winter, more regional community health centers, prohibitions against regressive "cash-balance pension plans," etc.

His colleagues gently described Sanders as a hardworking quack, the root of his quackery apparently being that he was too earnest and never off-message, even in private. He had fans among Republicans (some called him an "honest liberal") and many detractors among Democrats, who often grew weary of his lectures about the perils of over-reliance on donations from big business and Wall Street.

In other words, Sanders was a political loner, making his recent journey to the top of the Democratic Party even more remarkable. He has been put in this position not by internal patronage but by voters who are using him to demand that Democrats change their priorities.

At his Washington office a week after the election, I sat down with Sanders and his wife, Jane, just after the release of his new book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In (2016). When he offered to get me a copy, I told him I'd already read the e-book, at which he frowned. "Does that have the pictures?" he asked. He was relieved when I told him it did, including black-and-whites from his youth in Brooklyn.

Sanders' experiences growing up in the hardscrabble Flatbush neighborhood still seem central to the way he looks at the world. All the adults in his neighborhood voted Democratic. The loss of the support of those kinds of people still eats at Sanders, like a childhood wrong not yet corrected. Thus the opportunity he has now to push the Democrats back in that direction is something he doesn't take lightly. He's spent his whole life getting to this point.

The senator and his staffers were obviously sorting through a variety of emotions, and it was hard not to wonder what might have been. But Sanders admonished himself once or twice not to look back. "It's not worth speculating about," he said.

Instead, Sanders laid out the dilemma facing the Democratic Party. The Democrats must find their way back to a connection with ordinary people, and this will require a complete change in the way they do business. He's convinced that the huge expenditure of time and mental effort the Democrats put in to raise more than $1 billion for the Clinton campaign in the past year ended up having enormous invisible costs. "Our future is not raising money from wealthy people, but mobilizing millions of working people and young people and people of color," he says.

On other issues, he was more careful. The senator's sweet spot as a politician has always been talking about the problems of the working poor: the economic struggles, the anomalous-across-the-industrialized-world story of a decline in life expectancy among rural Americans. But those same voters just lost any sympathy many Democrats might have had by electing the race-baiting lunatic Trump. Exactly how much courting of such a population is permissible? Is trying to recapture voters who've made a racist choice in itself racist?

Sanders believes it is a mistake to dismiss the Trump movement as a monolithic expression of racism and xenophobia. Trump's populist appeals, sincere or not, carried the day, and Democrats need to answer them. Trump pledged not to cut Medicare or Social Security, promised to support re-importation of prescription drugs from other countries, and said he'd reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act. Sanders insists he and his staff are going to try to hold him to all of these promises. How they'll manage that is only a guess, but as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders could easily force the Republicans into votes on all of these issues by introducing amendments during the budget resolution process, which begins in January. "Were those 100 percent lies that [Trump] was telling people in order to gain support?" he asks. "We'll find out soon enough."

Sanders seems anxious to communicate a sense of urgency to young people. No more being content with think-tank-generated 14-point plans that become 87-point plans in bipartisan negotiation, and end up scheduled to take effect in 2040. People want change right now. To survive Trump and turn the tide, Sanders says, he needs help. "You don't have to run for president," he says. "Just get people involved."

[MT] After the election, you called the anger Trump connected with "justified." When did you first recognize that sense of discontent and alienation was big enough to have the impact it did this past year?

[BS] I've seen it for years. I've seen a media, which has basically ignored the declining middle class, that doesn't talk about poverty at all, and has no sense of what is going on in the minds of millions of ordinary Americans. They live in a bubble, talk about their world, worry about who's going to be running 18 years from now for office. Meanwhile, people can't feed their kids. That's something I knew.

Talking about those issues, seeing that they resonated, that did not surprise me. How quickly they resonated did surprise me. How weak the Democratic establishment was, and how removed they were from the needs of ordinary people, that also surprised me.

[MT] President Obama talked after the election about winning Iowa by going into counties even if the demographics didn't "dictate" success there. This seemed to be a criticism that the party had decided to ignore big parts of the country.

[BS] I talked about that in the book. That's exactly what we did. We had 101 rallies in that small state. That's grassroots democracy. You speak to three-quarters of the people who end up voting for you. In New Hampshire, we had just a zillion meetings – far more people came out to our meetings. If you had the time to do that around the country, the world becomes different. The assessment has got to be that not only did we lose the White House to the least-popular candidate in perhaps the history of America, certainly in modern history, but we've lost the Senate, we've lost the House, we've lost two-thirds of the governors' chairs in this country. We've lost 900 seats in state legislatures throughout the country in the last eight years. Maybe it might be time to reassess?

[MT] Is there any way to read that except as a massive repudiation of Democrats?

[BS] No. I can't see how any objective person can. It speaks to what I just mentioned; we cannot spend our entire life — I didn't, but others do — raising money from wealthy people, listening to their needs. We've got to be out in union halls, we've got to be out in veterans' halls, and we've got to be talking to working people, and we've got to stand up and fight for them.

This is how screwed up we are now. When you have a Republican Party that wants to give huge tax breaks to billionaires, when many of their members want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, when they don't believe in climate change, when they've been fierce advocates of unfettered free trade — I'm talking about pre-Trump — why would any working person, when they want to cut programs for working people, support them?

I think we know the answer. We know what the Karl Roves of the world have been successful in doing. They're playing off working-class people against the gay community, or African-Americans, or Latinos. But that only works when you have not laid the foundation by making it clear to those workers that you are on their side on economic issues.
Look, you may not be pro-choice. But if you know that your congressman is fighting for you and delivering the goods in terms of education, health care and jobs, what you'll say is, "I disagree with him on that, but I'm going to vote for him." We've seen this in Vermont. We have seen the conservative parts of the state where there are many people who have disagreed with me. But they vote for me, because they know I'm fighting for their rights.

[MT] In your book, there are a lot of moments where you say things like, "Look at products like the iPhone. These are American inventions, but they're not made in America anymore." Some people will say, "This is nationalism. Why shouldn't liberal-minded people care about raising the standard of living for poor people in China, in India?"

[BS] I heard them. We ran into that big-time from corporate liberals. Two things here. I would say there are very few people in the United States Congress who have a more progressive outlook than I do in terms of global politics and international politics. I am deeply concerned about poverty in countries around the world, and I believe that the United States and other major countries have got to work to address those issues. But you do not have to sacrifice the American middle class in order to do that. I find it ironic that the billionaire class says, "We're worried about the poor people in Vietnam, and that's why we're sending your job to Vietnam." That's the billionaire class talking.

Clearly we know what that is about. And you have some "liberals" who echo that point of view. I would like to see the United States government and the rest of the industrialized world work harder, with sensible policy to improve the standard of living, to help people create jobs, and sustainable jobs, not wipe out agricultural sectors. In Mexico, for example, NAFTA devastated, as you know, family farms when people could not grow corn to compete with American corn manufacturers.

How you create a sustainable global economy that protects the poorest people in the world is a very important issue for me. But you surely do not have to do that by wiping out the middle class of this country. I think we have a right in this country to hold corporate America accountable for gaining the benefits of being an American corporation, while at the same time turning their backs on the American working class and the consumers who helped create their profits and their wealth.

[MT] What about the criticism you got a lot last year, including from former President Clinton, that this idea that we can do anything about these globalist trends is unrealistic, that all we can do is "harness the energy" of the change?

[BS] Donald Trump has rewritten the rules of politics. Let's give the guy credit where credit is due. No one thought . . . he started off as a joke, right?

[MT] Yes.

[BS] He took on the leadership of the Republican Party, absolutely took on, obviously, the Democratic Party, took on the corporate media, took on everybody, and he became the president of the United States. I think if there's a lesson to be learned from Trump's success, it is that timidity is no longer the path to success. The Democrats have got to start thinking big. During my campaign, that was one of our slogans: Think big, not small.

We have got to get the American people to understand that as citizens in a democratic society, they have rights. They have a right to make sure that their little children have decent care, and that their older kids can go to college. They have a right to breathe clean air, and to make sure that the planet we're leaving our kids is going to be a healthy planet.

They have a right to do that, and the only way you do that is to think big, not small. But implicit in that, thinking big, is [recognizing] that the brakes on all of this, the things that are holding us back, are the power of corporate America and Wall Street, the insurance companies and so on. If you're not prepared to challenge them, then you can't think big.

This is the word that I will use over and over and over again: economic and political oligarchy. It's where we're headed rapidly if we do not have a political revolution in this country.

[MT] You write, "You cannot take on the establishment when you take their money." Is the Democratic Party going to have to eschew those funding sources?

[BS] Two things. First, from a political point of view, Citizens United has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of undermining American democracy, and what we have to understand is that Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers think Citizens United did not go far enough. Their view is that right now, if you're a billionaire, the only thing you can do is spend as much as you want into independent expenditures. They don't want that. They want you to be able to say, "OK, you're our guy, you're going to run for president, here's your check for a billion dollars, there's your speechwriter and consultant. You work for us." We are moving, if Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers get their way, to a place where presidents and senators and congresspeople will be paid employees of the billionaire class, because they will literally give them a check to run their campaign.

That is just a huge problem. How do you address that problem? We fight it as hard as we can, and one of the things that I applauded Clinton about, we were in agreement, was that she was not going to appoint anybody to the Supreme Court who would not vote to overturn Citizens United, and she's right. But given the fact that we have Mr. Trump in power, how you deal with that issue is very, very tough.

The issue that you're raising is, how do you raise the money that you need in order to deal with the unlimited sums of money that your opponents will have? At the end of the day, I think for a variety of reasons, the way to do it is to primarily rely on small donors as we did, because if you contribute $27 to me, it's not just that 27 bucks — you are now part of our movement, in a sense. You have committed, and you're going to do other things as well.

[MT] I have to ask: Would you have won?

[BS] The answer I would give is "Who knows?" The argument is that polls before had me ahead of him. More recent polls have me ahead of him, too, but people who disagree with that analysis would say, "Oh, yeah, that's before three months with hundreds of millions of dollars in [negative] advertising. That might have had some impact on the race."

So the answer is, nobody knows. I think it is fair to say that in many of the states where I competed we did very, very well among working-class people, and we did well among young people. That was the level of enthusiasm that was very, very hot. But I'm not going to look back.

[MT] In a weird way, does the collapse of belief in traditional legacy media, and the absolute rage a lot of people feel toward us reporters, maybe facilitate change, since people are more open to alternative ideas?

[BS] The corporate media, if you read the last chapter of the book, they don't see it as their job to educate the American people. I just came from the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, and more than one question — they're literally worried today, before Trump is even inaugurated, who is going to be running in 2020. Literally!

Because those are easy things. It's a little bit harder to write about why the middle class is collapsing, the threat that climate change poses for the planet, and all the other important issues. They're not going to do it. It's not their job. CNN had a great campaign, right?

[MT] And CBS, according to Les Moonves.

[BS] They got great ratings. Thank you, Donald Trump. The American people hear virtually nothing about climate change, income and wealth inequality, why we're the only major country not to have health care. That's not what their thing is, so they're not going to do it. We have got to do it. We've got to be smart about it, and the Internet will play a very important role in that.

[MT] Was Trump's campaign really a genuine revolt against the system? Or will it turn out in the end to be exactly the opposite?

[BS] We will see. The answer is, I don't know. This man is totally unpredictable. The people surrounding him are trying to get him to be more predictable.

One of the reasons for Trump's success is that he campaigned on his understanding that millions of working people are in pain, are hurting, and that he, Donald Trump, is prepared to take on the Establishment.

Now, to what degree those were just totally, absolutely hollow lies remains to be seen, but if you look at the things he said, this guy talked about ending our disastrous trade policies, something I've been fighting for 30 years. He talked about taking on the drug companies, taking on Wall Street, taking on the overall political establishment — "draining the swamp." We will see to what degree there was any honesty in what he was saying, whether there was any sincerity in what he was saying.

I think what has to be recognized is there are millions of working people in this country who are in an enormous amount of pain and despair. These are 60-year-old workers, today, half of whom have nothing in the bank as they are approaching retirement. You're 60 years old and you've got nothing in the bank? You're going to live on $13,000 a year of Social Security? This is what you have to look forward to?

[MT] Trump voters in Wisconsin lectured me at one event: "Did you see that 65-year-old guy working at McDonald's up the road? What the hell kind of America is this?"

[BS] They're absolutely right! The thing is, it's not just the weakness of the Democratic Party and their dependency on the upper middle class, the wealthy, and living in a bubble. It is a media where people turn on the television, they do not see a reflection of their lives. When they do, it is a caricature. Some idiot. Or maybe some criminal, some white working-class guy who has just stabbed three people. Or some lunatic.

Then Trump comes along and says, "I don't believe the media. The media are all goddamned liars anyhow." He distorts, and the problem is he lies all the time. Media occasionally does its job and catches him lying. But people say, "Yeah, he's right. I watch the media. I don't believe the media."

[MT] Wasn't that theme of anger toward the intellectual class huge in this campaign?

[BS] What I would say to people who are feeling, as I am, frightened and unhappy about this situation: Do not believe that the vast majority of the people who voted for Trump are racist, sexist or homophobes. I don't believe that. Some are. I don't believe they all are. They have turned to Trump out of desperation and pain because the Democratic Party has not even acknowledged their reality, let alone addressed it.

[MT] You talked about giving Trump a chance to earn your support. What did you mean?

[BS] There are areas where people like me could work with him: rebuilding the infrastructure, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, re-establishing Glass-Steagall, raising the minimum wage. Those are ideas that we can work on. Now, was he being totally hypocritical and just saying whatever came to his mind that he thought could attract votes? Or does he believe that?

Where there will not be any compromise is in the areas of racism or sexism or xenophobia or Islamophobia. This country has struggled for too many centuries to try to become a less discriminatory society. We've made progress that we should be proud of, and we're not going back to an era of racism and sexism and discrimination. On that there will not be any compromise. But you're really asking, are there areas that we can perhaps work together? If he remains consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, we'll see.

[MT] With Trump, was there a moment during the past year when you went from thinking "This is a joke" to "This is real!" Or did you realize right away that it was serious?

[BS] I didn't realize right away. I didn't know much about him. What I believed and he believed is that the central part of your campaign should be rallies. Why is that? Because it's not only the ability to communicate with large numbers of people and get media attention as a result of that, but when 20,000 people sit in an arena or stadium and they look around and they say, "We're all on the same team together," that creates a kind of energy.

He understood that. When I started seeing him bring these large turnouts of working-class people, I knew that that was real, you know? What politics passes for now is somebody goes on "Meet the Press" and they do well: "Oh, this guy is brilliant, wonderful." No one cares about "Meet the Press." But that you can go out and bring out many, many thousands of people who are supporting your campaign — that is real stuff. When I began to see that, I said, "This guy is a real candidate." Who could do it? Jeb Bush couldn't do that. Marco Rubio couldn't do it. [Trump] was clearly striking a nerve and a chord that other candidates weren't.

[MT] So did you, though.

[BS] That is absolutely right. Surely did.

[MT] In your book, there is clearly a longing to recapture lost Democratic voters. How do you do that?

[BS] What I'd say to readers of Rolling Stone is: We have to understand that Trump, in a sense, revolutionized politics, and we have to respond to that. What does that mean? You start with 46 percent of the American people not even voting in this election. Of the 54 percent who do vote, how many are really engaged in politics, or just voting once every two years or four years? How many people really go to meetings? How many are involved in unions? Are involved in environmental works? Or anti-racism? Or anti-poverty work?

I think you're talking about, certainly, far less than five percent. A good chunk of those could be right-wing people, so you're down to maybe one or two percent of people in this country who are actively involved in progressive movements and ideas. If we can bring the number up to six or seven percent, you can transform America. Irrespective of Trump. Irrespective of Republicans. ###

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Most recently, he has written The Divide (2014). Taibbi received a BA (journalism) from Bard College.]

Copyright © 2016 Rolling Stone

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Let Them Eat Pork Chops: The REAL Hunger Games Await

This discussion of attitudes toward hunger and poverty held by the Stupid party devout brought to mind the ultimate in Stupid party insensitivity: flash backward to the early 1930s when Herbert Hoover POTUS 31) allowed newsreels appeared in the nation's theaters that showed him playing with the White House dog on the front lawn. Hoover was dangling a porkchop to entice the dog to "dance" on its hind feet. It was reported that the scene elicted snarls of anger from theater audiences who could afford the 5¢ for a ticket in those hard times. The common term for rats was "Hoover rabbits" that were the only protein available to vast numbers of hungry people. If this is a (fair & balanced) critique of historical amnesia, so be it.

[x The Baffler]
Starving In America
By Talia Lavin

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In the late seventeenth century, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather laid out a vision for America in a fiery sermon: “For those who indulge themselves in idleness,” he told his congregation, “the express command of God unto us is, that we should let them starve.” Nearly three hundred years since Mather’s death, this austere principle of his Calvinism has found a new expression in the top rungs of American government, where Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, has laid out a plan both to decrease idleness and increase starvation in the form of his “Better Way.”

Most public alarm has focused, justly, on the Trumpian chaos in our nation’s highest office, but with Republican control of both the executive and the legislative branch, some Democrats are readying defenses against what Ezra Klein, at Vox, has called “a war on the poor.” Ryan has already suggested extensive cuts to Medicare, advocating “letting market competition work” on the healthcare of seniors.

His “Better Way” plan is as ambitious as its blue-eyed messenger. In the name of a more “confident” and “bold” America, it constitutes a comprehensive restructuring—and dismantling—of benefits on a scale that dwarfs Clintonian welfare reform. A throughline in Ryan’s plan is a principle that Mather might have approved of: pervasive and draconian work requirements. These extend beyond those who receive direct cash assistance to other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], which aids twenty-eight million Americans yearly [PDF] to purchase nutritious food. In this fashion, the Speaker claims, he will aid Americans in poverty to “make the most of their lives.” A “Better Way” factsheet [PDF] implores supporters to “Reward Work,” informing us that “an increasing number of SNAP recipients are work-capable adults,” and lamenting, falsely, that “most welfare programs do not actually require or even encourage work.”

And yet the US Department of Agriculture states that “Among households that include someone who is able to work, more than 75 percent had a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP”; the program already levies “special work requirements” on able-bodied adults without dependents. A 2015 study from the University of California at Berkeley, which analyzed welfare recipients in all fifty states, found that low and stagnant wages were the primary cause of families turning to public assistance, concluding that “taxpayers bear a significant portion of the hidden costs of low-wage work in America.” Here, the American assumption that poverty is a condition solely of the idle shows both its cruelty and its flawed logic: if SNAP benefits are harshly cut, it is those who already work, but cannot make ends meet, who will suffer. Not only do the low wages of labor shift responsibility from corporate pockets to the public purse, they create an incentive to vilify the poor for economic conditions that are not of their own making.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan think tank on fiscal policy, estimates that cuts to SNAP under Ryan’s budget might surpass $100 billion. And despite the “Better Way” focus on work-capable adults, a U.S. Census report on poverty from 2014 indicated that without SNAP, poverty among Americans under eighteen would rise 21.3 percent. Which means, in less bureaucratic language, that the number of hungry children in America would rise dramatically under the “Way” we are encouraged to believe is “Better.” Ryan himself once famously deplored the school lunch program, which was initially developed during the Great Depression, saying that children without home-packed lunches are deficient in parental love.

To the food historian Andrew Coe, co-author with Jane Ziegelman of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (2016), the brittle, peppy ethos of the “Better Way” recalls another period in American history wherein Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency: the administration of Herbert Hoover. A Square Meal depicts with chilling precision Hoover’s decision to decline to give direct food aid to those starving in the early years of the Depression, under the principle, first articulated by President Grover Cleveland, that “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”

“The moral condemnation of idleness, which goes through the history of the US, you can still see it in today’s Republican Congress,” Coe said in a recent interview. “It’s a very hard-hearted, self-centered viewpoint, but it’s definitely part of the dark side of American culture.”

During the Hoover era, the president dined from gold-plated dishes while sharecroppers in the South starved in their shacks, and breadlines threaded through American streets. Coe and Ziegelman portray Hoover as a president caught in the grips of ideology, unwilling to change his policies in response to the dire needs of his citizens. While farmers in Arkansas rioted for food in 1931, Hoover recoiled at the prospect of a direct food aid bill, while a supporter of his in Congress, James Tilson, predicted that “the idle and shiftless will accept it as a gift, dismiss any attempt at repayment, and live off the Federal Government as long as the opportunity exists.”

The narrative that Ryan depicts is distinguishable from Tilson’s vociferous disgust for the “shiftless” only in its blander rhetoric. The “Better Way” offers a paper-thin veneer of narrative—the notion that work requirements are a form of necessary encouragement to the loafing indigent—to cover its essential harshness, what Coe describes as “the streak of cruelty” that stretches from Mather to Hoover to the current Republican party. What the welfare debate requires is a counter-narrative: one that posits, with more forceful, open, and accurate moral rhetoric, but the same urgency, that no one should starve in the wealthiest country in the world.

But this plainly obvious moral truth is not enough, since condemnation of poverty, and the attendant conflation of poverty with poor character, has deep roots in the American character, and therefore demands a deracination of great vigor. We must decouple poverty from moral failure, lack of work from shiftlessness, need from parasitism. The mealy-mouthed, Randian platitudes of the “Better Way” mask an extraordinary failure of compassion, and a willingness to ignore the reality of those who want to work yet suffer from starvation in homes from coast to coast.

One of the classic images of Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” painted in 1942, depicting a middle-class white family smiling broadly around a plump turkey. By then, the Depression had finally ebbed, and American manufacturing swelled thanks to the war effort. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had already smashed nineteenth-century ideas of what the government was good for, and prosperity was on the rise. In the midst of the Second World War, Rockwell posited that the right not to starve was a fundamental American value—one that our soldiers were fighting for.

But even in this time of plenty, when unemployment sank to 2 percent from its Depression height of twenty-five, there was still misfortune in a country of teeming millions, and still those who lacked that essential freedom from want. “The thing about hunger in America,” Coe told me, “is that there’s no magic bullet. There will always be hungry people in America, and there always have been.” We need to contend with this reality with ingenuity. ###

[Talia Lavin is a fact-checker at The New Yorker. In 2012, she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine. Lavin received a BA (comparative literature) from Harvard University.]

Copyright © 2016 The Baffler

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Roll Over, Ol' Hickory — Make Way For Ol' Tweety??

A number of forces brought this blogger to post this essay by NPR's Steve Inskeep. For one thing, Inskeep is a native of the Indianapolis suburb (Carmel, IN) that is the home of a family near and dear to this blogger. Another factor was this blogger's own schooling in the field of US antebellum history and its most compelling political figure prior to the Civil War — Andrew Jackson. Like the current POTUS-Elect, Jackson made his fortune in real estate and he was embroiled in a controversy over his marriage (albeit not 3 times). Jackson was unschooled and rarely spelled the same word the same way twice. If this is (fair & balanced) evidence that history does not repeat itself — but rhymes instead — so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
Donald Trump And The Legacy Of Andrew Jackson
By Steve Inskeep

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Steve Bannon, the media executive and soon-to-be White House strategist, has been describing Donald Trump’s victory as just the beginning. “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.”

Newt Gingrich has compared Trump to Jackson for some time. Rudolph Giuliani declared on election night that it was “like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment.” That may seem a comforting comparison, since it locates Donald Trump in the American experience and makes his election seem less of a departure.

Is Trump’s victory really like Jackson’s? On the surface, yes: In 1828, an “outsider” candidate appealed directly to the people against elites he called corrupt. A deeper look at Jackson’s victory complicates the comparison, but still says much about America then and now.

Jackson’s road to victory began with a defeat. He was a Tennessee politician and plantation owner turned soldier, a man who, unlike Trump, had deep experience in government. As a general, he became the greatest hero of the War of 1812, and capitalized on his fame by running for president in 1824. But the electoral votes were split between four candidates. The presidency was decided by the House of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams, the highly qualified secretary of state.

Jackson politely congratulated the winner, but was seething. He soon declared the system was rigged. The Jacksonians’ phrase was “bargain and corruption”—they said the House speaker, Henry Clay, had thrown the vote in exchange for being named secretary of state. This conspiracy theory added an element of rage to Jackson’s basic argument that he was simply owed the presidency. Although the House had voted in accordance with the Constitution, Jackson insisted that he should have automatically won because “the majority” of the people supported him. (He’d actually won a plurality of the popular vote, 40 percent, which was politically significant but had no legal bearing.)

With an eye to the next election, he set out to upend the political system, which had been running predictably for a generation. A party founded by Thomas Jefferson had installed four consecutive presidents. Most elections were not even close. Relatively few people voted, and many lacked voting rights. But the franchise was expanding to include all white men, and boisterous new political forces were sweeping the growing nation.

Jackson and his allies spent four years building a popular movement in favor of majority rule. They worked to delegitimize President Adams, promoting the “corrupt bargain” conspiracy theory and blocking his programs in Congress. In their 1828 rematch, Jackson defeated Adams in a landslide. His 1829 inauguration was recorded as a triumph of the people, who mobbed the White House in such numbers that they trashed it. It’s this moment to which Giuliani referred on election night 2016.

When Bannon spoke of founding a “new political movement,” though, he was referring to the period immediately afterward. Jackson and his allies created a new organization, the Democratic Party. His opponents were forced to up their own political game by founding a new opposition party, and American politics began growing into the two-party rivalry that we know today. The old, staid political order cracked up.

It’s too early to predict if 2016 will turn out to be another long-term inflection point. (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama also seemed to have changed the game when they took power.) But there are resonances between Jackson and Trump.

Jackson, like Trump, made innovative use of the media. He offered nothing like Trump’s running commentary on Twitter, nor did he even make formal campaign speeches, which were considered undignified for presidential candidates. But he did use newspapers, which were growing in number and importance. A subscriber to as many as 17 papers, he understood the changing media landscape better than his critics did. He personally involved himself in news coverage, once writing a letter urging that a friendly, but alcoholic, newspaperman must be kept sober long enough to “scorch” one of Jackson’s rivals. He counted newspaper editors among his close advisers, and made sure they established a pro-Jackson newspaper in Washington when he took office. (His famous “kitchen cabinet” included these newsmen.) Trump, of course, has made analogous moves by managing his own media relations, asking Sean Hannity for advice and inviting Bannon to serve as his strategist.

Jackson, like Trump, won over many white working-class voters, who brushed aside critics who warned that he was unstable and a would-be dictator. He maintained their loyalty even though, like Trump, he was of the elite. Though not born to wealth as Trump was, Jackson made his fortune on the early American frontier. He did not clear out Washington elites so much as bring a new coalition of elites to power: New York politicians and Pennsylvania businessmen allied with Southern slaveholders. Jackson tended to their special interests. He also used political patronage to stuff the government with Jackson loyalists. There is something Jacksonian both in Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington and his early moves to refill the swamp with wealthy friends, loyal supporters, and family members.

Jackson mixed his public duties and his business. As an Army general he took land from Indians, which he and his friends then purchased to build lucrative cotton plantations. Trump promoted his real-estate investments while campaigning for president, and acknowledges that he “might have” discussed his global business interests in his talks with overseas leaders since the election. But as president-elect, Jackson asked a friend to help settle his business affairs so he could focus on becoming president. President-elect Trump has yet to separate himself from his business.

Trump’s Jackson-style appointment of Bannon points to a particularly strange resonance. Bannon described his website as “the platform for the alt-right,” a tag for small groups of people who have promoted ideas such as a white ethnic state. Although Trump disavowed them, they remain among Trump’s vocal supporters. What they aspire to is a nation like the one Andrew Jackson knew. He lived in a time of exclusively white rule—government “on the white basis,” as Jackson’s political successor Stephen A. Douglas later put it. The Civil War and the civil-rights movement discredited that notion, but it’s apparently still attractive to a few.

For all the similarities, there’s a big difference between Jackson’s victory and Trump’s: Jackson’s greatest political achievement was the widening of democratic space. He brought new groups of voters into the political system. Expanding voting rights and a growing media perfectly coincided with his attention-grabbing campaigns, and the popular vote total tripled—tripled—between Jackson’s loss in 1824 and his victory in 1828.

Trump, too, aspired to widen the electorate, but with less success. It’s true that he attracted some former Democrats, and received more votes than any Republican candidate in history, slightly more than George W. Bush in 2004. But in key states his party made it harder to vote. Among those who did participate, as of this writing, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.3 million. While the national popular vote has no legal significance, it matters politically, as Jackson grasped in the 1820s. It matters enough to Trump that he volunteered a conspiracy theory to explain his failure to win it.

Trump’s victory in the Electoral College was not a repeat of Jackson’s 1828 popular landslide. It was a repeat of 1824, a transitional year when the president was determined by the mechanics of the Constitution. In this replay of the drama, the role of Andrew Jackson does not fit Donald Trump. Rather he plays the part of John Quincy Adams, the man who benefits from the elaborate American systems designed to filter the will of the people. If Trump intends to become a Jacksonian man of the people, he will have to do something to attract the majority who voted for candidates other than him. ###

[Steve Inskeep is one of the hosts of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and author of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (2015). Inskeep received a BA (history/communications) from Morehead State University; in 2009, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Communications degree from Morehead State.]

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Today, Professor John McWhorter Asks, "What's Not To Like?"

Today, we consider a four-letter word that is like obscene or profane, except to a some grumpy grammarians. Take a look at today's essay and see if you get the italicized joke. If this is (Fair & balanced) applied linguistics, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
The Evolution Of "Like"
By John McWhorter

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In our mouths or in print, in villages or in cities, in buildings or in caves, a language doesn’t sit still. It can’t. Language change has preceded apace even in places known for preserving a language in amber. You may have heard that Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas written almost a thousand years ago in Old Norse. It is true that written Icelandic is quite similar to Old Norse, but the spoken language is quite different—Old Norse speakers would sound a tad extraterrestrial to modern Icelanders. There have been assorted changes in the grammar, but language has moved on, on that distant isle as everywhere else.

It’s under this view of language—as something becoming rather than being, a film rather than a photo, in motion rather than at rest—that we should consider the way young people use (drum roll, please) like. So deeply reviled, so hard on the ears of so many, so new, and with such an air of the unfinished, of insecurity and even dimness, the new like is hard to, well, love. But it takes on a different aspect when you consider it within this context of language being ever-evolving.

First, let’s take like in just its traditional, accepted forms. Even in its dictionary definition, like is the product of stark changes in meaning that no one would ever guess. To an Old English speaker, the word that later became like was the word for, of all things, “body.” The word was lic, and lic was part of a word, gelic, that meant “with the body,” as in “with the body of,” which was a way of saying “similar to”—as in like. Gelic over time shortened to just lic, which became like. Of course, there were no days when these changes happened abruptly and became official. It was just that, step by step, the syllable lic, which to an Old English speaker meant “body,” came to mean, when uttered by people centuries later, “similar to”—and life went on.

Like has become a piece of grammar: It is the source of the suffix -ly. To the extent that slowly means “in a slow fashion,” as in “with the quality of slowness,” it is easy (and correct) to imagine that slowly began as “slow-like,” with like gradually wearing away into a -ly suffix. That historical process is especially clear in that there are still people who, colloquially, say slow-like, angry-like. Technically, like yielded two suffixes, because -ly is also used with adjectives, as in portly and saintly. Again, the pathway from saint-like to saint-ly is not hard to perceive.

Like has become a part of compounds. Likewise began as like plus a word, wise, which was different from the one meaning “smart when either a child or getting old.” This other wise meant “manner”: Likewise meant “similar in manner.” This wise disappeared as a word on its own, and so now we think of it as a suffix, as in clockwise and stepwise. But we still have likeminded, where we can easily perceive minded as having independent meaning. Dictionaries tell us it’s pronounced “like-MINE-did,” but I, for one, say “LIKE- minded” and have heard many others do so.

Therefore, like is ever so much more than some isolated thing clinically described in a dictionary with a definition like “(preposition) ‘having the same characteristics or qualities as; similar to.’” Think of a cold, limp, slimy squid splayed wet on a cutting board, its lifeless tentacles dribbling in coils, about to be sliced into calamari rings—in comparison to the brutally fleet, remorseless, dynamic creatures squid are when alive underwater—like as “(preposition) ...” is wet on a cutting board.

There is a lot more to it: It swims, as it were. What we are seeing in like’s transformations today are just the latest chapters in a story that began with an ancient word that was supposed to mean “body.”

Because we think of like as meaning “akin to” or “similar to,” kids decorating every sentence or two with it seems like overuse. After all, how often should a coherently minded person need to note that something is similar to something rather than just being that something? The new like, then, is associated with hesitation. It is common to label the newer generations as harboring a fear of venturing a definite statement.

That analysis seems especially appropriate in that this usage of like first reached the national consciousness with its usage by Beatniks in the 1950s, as in, “Like, wow!” We associate the Beatniks, as a prelude to the counterculture with their free-ranging aesthetic and recreational sensibilities, with relativism. Part of the essence of the Beatnik was a reluctance to be judgmental of anyone but those who would dare to (1) be judgmental themselves or (2) openly abuse others. However, the Beatniks were also associated with a certain griminess—why would others imitate them?— upon which it bears mentioning that the genealogy of the modern like traces farther back. Ordinary people, too, have long been using like as an appendage to indicate similarity with a trace of hesitation. The “slow-like” kind of usage is a continuation of this, and Saul Bellow has thoroughly un- Beatnik characters in his novels of the 1950s use like in a way we would expect a decade or two later. “That’s the right clue and may do me some good. Something very big. Truth, like,” says Tommy Wilhelm in 1956’s Seize the Day, a character raised in the 1910s and ’20s, long before anyone had ever heard of a Beatnik. Bellow also has Henderson in Henderson the Rain King use like this way. Both Wilhelm and Henderson are tortured, galumphing char-acters riddled with uncertainty, but hippies they are not.

So today’s like did not spring mysteriously from a crowd on the margins of unusual mind-set and then somehow jump the rails from them into the general population. The seeds of the modern like lay among ordinary people; the Beatniks may not even have played a significant role in what happened later. The point is that like transformed from something occasional into something more regular. Fade out, fade in: recently I heard a lad of roughly sixteen chatting with a friend about something that had happened the weekend before, and his utterance was—this is as close to verbatim as I can get: So we got there and we thought we were going to have the room to ourselves and it turned out that like a family had booked it already. So we’re standing there and there were like grandparents and like grandkids and aunts and uncles all over the place. Anyone who has listened to American English over the past several decades will agree that this is thoroughly typical like usage.

The problem with the hesitation analysis is that this was a thoroughly confident speaker. He told this story with zest, vividness, and joy. What, after all, would occasion hesitation in spelling out that a family was holding an event in a room? It’s real-life usage of this kind—to linguists it is data, just like climate patterns are to meteorologists—that suggests that the idea of like as the linguistic equivalent to slumped shoulders is off.

Understandably so, of course—the meaning of like suggests that people are claiming that everything is “like” itself rather than itself. But as we have seen, words’ meanings change, and not just because someone invents a portable listening device and gives it a name composed of words that used to be applied to something else (Walkman), but because even the language of people stranded in a cave where life never changed would be under constant transformation. Like is a word, and so we’d expect it to develop new meanings: the only question, as always, is which one? So is it that young people are strangely overusing the like from the dictionary, or might it be that like has birthed a child with a different function altogether? When one alternative involves saddling entire generations of people, of an awesome array of circumstances across a vast nation, with a mysteriously potent inferiority complex, the other possibility beckons as worthy of engagement.

In that light, what has happened to like is that it has morphed into a modal marker—actually, one that functions as a protean indicator of the human mind at work in conversation. There are actually two modal marker likes—that is, to be fluent in modern American English is to have subconsciously internalized not one but two instances of grammar involving like.

Let’s start with So we’re standing there and there were like grandparents and like grandkids and aunts and uncles all over the place. That sentence, upon examination, is more than just what the words mean in isolation plus a bizarre squirt of slouchy little likes. Like grandparents and like grandkids means, when we break down what this teenager was actually trying to communicate, that given the circumstances, you might think it strange that an entire family popped up in this space we expected to be empty for our use, but in fact, it really was a whole family. In that, we have, for one, factuality—“no, really, I mean a family.” The original meaning of like applies in that one is saying “You may think I mean something like a couple and their son, but I mean something like a whole brood.”

And in that, note that there is also at the same time an acknowledgment of counterexpectation. The new like acknowledges unspoken objection while underlining one’s own point (the factuality). Like grandparents translates here as “There were, despite what you might think, actually grandparents.” Another example: I opened the door and it was, like, her! certainly doesn’t mean “Duhhhh, I suppose it’s okay for me to identify the person as her . . .” Vagueness is hardly the issue here. That sentence is uttered to mean “As we all know, I would have expected her father, the next-door neighbor, or some other person, or maybe a phone call or e-mail from her, but instead it was, actually, her.” Factuality and counterexpectation in one package, again. It may seem that I am freighting the little word with a bit much, but consider: It was, like, her! That sentence has a very precise meaning, despite the fact that because of its sociological associations with the young, to many it carries a whiff of Bubble Yum, peanut butter, or marijuana.

We could call that version of like “reinforcing like.” Then there is a second new like, which is closer to what people tend to think of all its new uses: it is indeed a hedge. However, that alone doesn’t do it justice: we miss that the hedge is just plain nice, something that has further implications for how we place this like in a linguistic sense. This is, like, the only way to make it work does not mean “Duhhhh, I guess this seems like the way to make it work.” A person says this in a context in which the news is unwelcome to the hearer, and this was either mentioned before or, just as likely, is unstatedly obvious. The like acknowledges—imagine even a little curtsey—the discomfort. It softens the blow—that is, eases—by swathing the statement in the garb of hypotheticality that the basic meaning of like lends. Something “like” x is less threatening than x itself; to phrase things as if x were only “like,” x is thus like offering a glass of water, a compress, or a warm little blanket. An equivalent is “Let’s take our pill now,” said by someone who is not, themselves, about to take the pill along with the poor sick person. The sick one knows it, too, but the phrasing with “we” is a soothing action, acknowledging that taking pills can be a bit of a drag.

Note that while this new like cushions a blow, the blow does get delivered. Rather than being a weak gesture, the new like can be seen as gentle but firm. The main point is that it is part of the linguistic system, not something merely littering it up. It isn’t surprising that a word meaning “similar to” morphs into a word that quietly allows us to avoid being bumptious, via courteously addressing its likeness rather than the thing itself, via considering it rather than addressing it. Just as uptalk sounds like a question but isn’t, like sounds like a mere shirk of certainty but isn’t.

Like LOL, like, entrenched in all kinds of sentences, used subconsciously, and difficult to parse the real meaning of without careful consideration, has all the hallmarks of a piece of grammar—specifically, in the pragmatic department, modal wing. One thing making it especially clear that the new like is not just a tic of heedless, underconfident youth is that many of the people who started using it in the new way in the 1970s are now middle-aged. People’s sense of how they talk tends to differ from the reality, and the person of a certain age who claims never to use like “that way” as often as not, like, does—and often. As I write, a sentence such as There were like grandparents and like grandkids in there is as likely to be spoken by a forty-something as by a teenager or a college student. Just listen around the next time you’re standing in a line, watching a talk show, or possibly even listening to yourself.

Then, the two likes I have mentioned must be distinguished from yet a third usage, the quotative like—as in “And she was like, ‘I didn’t even invite him.’ ” This is yet another way that like has become grammar. The meaning “similar to” is as natural a source here as it was for -ly: mimicking people’s utterances is talking similarly to, as in “like,” them. Few of the like-haters distinguish this like from the other new usages, since all are associated with young people and verbal slackerdom. But the third new like doesn’t do the jobs the others do: there is nothing hesitational or even polite about quotative like, much less especially forceful à la the reinforcing like. It is a thoroughly straightforward way of quoting a person, often followed by a verbatim mimicry complete with gestures. That’s worlds away from This is, like, the only way to make it work or There were like grandkids in there. Thus the modern American English speaker has mastered not just two, but actually three different new usages of like. ###

[Today's essay was adapted from John McWhorter's latest book — Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally) [2016]. McWhorter is an Associate Professor in the English and Comparative Literature department of Columbia University and a contributing editor to The New Republic. McWhorter was educated at Rutgers University, BA (French).; New York University, MA (American Studies).; and Stanford University, PhD (Lingistics). See other works by John McWhorter here.]

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Today, This Blog Takes The Low Road

Unfortunately, this blogger must take issue with the loose conflation of obscenity and profanity in today's essay. The terms are NOT identical. One is not the other. Obscenity (a specialty of today's author) includes the subject of his recent book. Reference to male bovine excrement with the b-word is obscene, not profane. Profanity, as used in the essay, is the catch-all term for dirty words when profane speech actually is limited to words that are irreverent or not respectful of sacred matters, especially invoking a deity. To clarify: BS is obscene and GD is profane. End of lecture. If this is a (fair & balanced) impulse for proper usage, so be it.

[x Boston Fishwrap]
Slang — Language At Our Most Human
By Mark Peters

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Slang is probably as old as human language, though the first slang dictionaries only started popping up in the 16th century. But nothing has been a boon for slang lexicography like the digital age, as the searchability of newspaper databases has allowed the past to be explored like never before.

For fans of English at its rawest, the recent arrival of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a major event. It’s also a reminder that slang — for all its sleaze and attitude — is just as susceptible to careful research as anything else.

British lexicographer and author Jonathan Green’s GDoS is the largest slang dictionary in the world, collecting terms from the United States, England, Australia, and everywhere else English is the dominant language. GDoS, like the Oxford English Dictionary, is a historical dictionary. This type of dictionary provides a lot more than definitions, etymology, and pronunciation notes: Historical dictionaries trace the evolution of terms over time. Since the best fossil evidence of word change is quotations, historical dictionaries are full of them, allowing readers to see how words function in the wild. A regular dictionary is a little like snapshots taken of zoo animals. A historical dictionary is more like footage from a hidden camera in the jungle or ocean.

This example-based approach is also the opposite of user-generated dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary. All major dictionaries crowdsource. But when there’s no editing or fact-checking, you get an entertaining product that’s far from a reliable source on what words are actually being used. Dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary are a good source of nonce words — words coined for a single occasion that haven’t caught on — but one-offs aren’t the kind of lexical fish lexicographers usually want to catch.

Ironically, the biggest boon to cutting-edge lexical research is the existence of an older medium: the newspaper. Green, who has published numerous books about language and been working on GDoS since 1993, cites the increased availability of newspaper databases as the biggest transformation of his research in the past five years: “And what you find is . . . that things are older than we believed.” Just as a fossil discovered in Greenland this August pushed the earliest sign of life on Earth back to 3.7 billion years ago, lexicographers are constantly learning that words are older than they thought. In the word biz, finding a new earliest example is called antedating.

An extraordinary case involves the word “dis” in the sense of an insult: “He dissed me!” Green had assumed the term originated among African-Americans in the 1980s. However, that theory was disproved by an example from 1905 in Australia of all places. Green located this surprising use in the Perth Sun Times: “When a journalistic rival tries to ‘dis’ you / And to prejudice you in the public’s eyes.” Rather than suggesting a hidden Australian influence on African-American vernacular, this finding is more of a testament to the latent potential of “dis” to detach from words such as “disparage” and “disrespect.” Oddly, Australia is also the home of another surprising earliest use: “Selfie” was spotted there in an Australian message board in 2002, well before it became a ubiquitous part of the lexicon of narcissism.

Some discoveries are far quirkier, involving whole groups of words that, if not for extraordinary circumstances, would have been destined to be lost. Green explains, “In the UK, for instance, you’ll get some anonymous bloke (or so I assume) in, say, 1815 who has spotted tramps wandering through his small town, and has taken it upon himself not only to quiz them about their vocabulary — which is of course largely slang — but also persuaded the editor of the local paper to run one or even a series of pieces laying it all out. He’ll never publish a dictionary, never write again, but there it is, and half of the stuff has never been in print before. Stumbling upon a few of these has been a joy.”

That joy is well-known to Indiana University professor Michael Adams — author of Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009) and the recent In Praise of Profanity (2016) — who feels work such as GDoS, through its many discoveries, gives a fuller sense of our collective history: “I like to hear English represented by many voices. . . . GDoS introduces us to voices excluded in many cases from other dictionaries.”

Those voices are often a challenge to conventional values or even laws. The first slang dictionaries were collections of the language of criminals meant to inform the unwary, and slang topics still tend to be taboo or at least lowbrow. Good taste, manners, and other nonscientific ideas have often imposed censorship on dictionaries — even the OED didn’t publish an entry on the f-word until 1972. But slang dictionaries have a license to be naughty: Readers expect to read all the filth and slurs that lexical prudes would cover up and euphemize. Playing off counterculture, Green sees slang as an inevitable “counterlanguage” and says “that subversion can be achieved through shock — one cannot deny a streak of the gross for gross’s sake — but also through wit and inventiveness.”

Speaking of gross and inventive language, it’s hard not to notice that slang dictionaries, including GDoS, are full of profanity and plays on profanity such as the euphemisms “mother-hugger” and “mothersomething.” Adams, having written books on both profanity and slang, is an expert on the slippery difference between the two. For Adams, profanity is “the riskiest slang” and has a particular utility: “If suddenly it starts storming and your backpack falls into a puddle as you collide with a bicyclist while a bird poops on you, only profanity or a euphemism for profanity — which you can’t have without profanity — will express your existential frustration.” Damn it, he’s right.

Slang tied to social groups but untethered by convention is language at its most raw and real. That realness, full of rude creativity, is why so many delight in learning slang, which Green says catches us “at our most human.” We’re lucky to not be dog’s meat or fried bread (two older terms for “dead”) at a time when so much real language can be easily unearthed, shared, and enjoyed. ###

[Mark Peters is a columnist at McSweeney's with the "Best Joke Ever" column. He is the author of the Bullshit: A Lexicon (2015). Peters received a BA (English) from SUNY-Fredonia and a PhD (English) from SUNY-Buffalo.]

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