Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ebonics, Nu?

Lately I’ve been contemplating the language…dialect…whatever…that has been the bane of many “well-spoken”, “articulate”, and well-educated African-Americans for years. I’m talking about Ebonics.

I, like many of my African-American classmates when I was a kid, grew up in a house where we were not allowed to talk like that, and where “proper” grammar and pronunciation were insisted upon; because we didn’t want to sound like “those people.” In fact, I knew blessed few other African-Americans personally who spoke like that. Everyone I knew…in my extended family and elsewhere…pretty much spoke something very close to the Queen’s English.

So to us, what what has been called either Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AVE), was simply poor grammar and poor pronunciation. Both signs that you were “one of them.” As a result, I looked upon Ebonics/AVE with contempt; and so when, a number of years ago, someone suggested actually teaching in this dialect, in order to reach more kids for whom that was their “first language”, I thought this was the most incredibly stupid thing I’d ever heard.

And then my daughter, the linguist, pointed out something that I hadn’t considered. She said that while it might sound like bad English, what we call AVE actually has its own internally consistent grammar and syntax. The problem is that what makes perfect sense grammatically in AVE sounds a whole lot like bad grammar in standard English.

Take for example the verb form “to be.” When you hear someone say “He be staying at his grandma’s house”, you’re probably thinking that they meant to say “He is staying at his grandma’s house”, but chose the wrong verb form. However, “He be staying” means something totally different from “He is staying.” The “be” implies a state of constant happening…as in “He is always staying at his grandma’s house” or “He is staying at his grandma’s house for the foreseeable future.”

And this got me thinking…suppose there was another language whose proper grammar and syntax sounded like a corrupted version of a closely related one? I didn’t have to go very far to come up with an example…I knew two of them personally: German and Yiddish.

Depending on who you talk to, Yiddish is either a dialect of German or a language in its own right. Yiddish has slightly different grammar and syntax than German, and uses some of the same words differently. As a result, it’s entirely possible that many speakers of standard German look upon Yiddish with the same disdain that many of us hold Ebonics in.

And yet, I love Yiddish. And while I love Yiddish, Ebonics don’t get no respect from me. As they might’ve said on the Lower East Side 100 years ago, “Farvosh ist das?” or “Why is that?”

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that for centuries Yiddish was spoken all over the Jewish world, and not just in Germany. As a result, there was a thriving Yiddish literary tradition. And the fact that there was a thriving Yiddish literary tradition, with books and newspapers being written in it, means that this was the language of the educated as well as the uneducated. A second important reason is that Yiddish has its own alphabet. Well not quite…it uses Hebrew characters, but still…the fact that it’s written with a different character set makes it a totally different language that’s similar, and not simply a case of bad grammar in the mainstream one. Perhaps if Ebonics had a similar literary tradition and used a different alphabet, it would get a little more respect?

So where does this leave me? It leaves me having to cut Ebonics a little slack. After all, if I can appreciate Yiddish for what it is, I should be able to appreciate Ebonics for what it is…grudgingly.

And this brings me to my other daughter…my daughter the smart-ass. She understands from her older sister that Ebonics has its own internally consistent grammar, and even understands how that grammar works. One day, at school, she heard one of her African-American friends speak a poorly-formed sentence, and said to him, “That’s not how you say it! You can’t even speak wrong right!”

The girl has chutzpah, that’s for sure!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Whose Business is It Anyway?

A few weeks ago my daughter and I were talking about one of her favorite movies…and musicals. We were talking about Legally Blonde. I’ve seen both, and as the grandson of a hairdresser, my favorite scene was in the courtroom when…oh wait…some of you haven’t seen it yet, and far be it from me to spoil it for you by telling you that Rosebud is the sled.

Anyway, we were talking about Legally Blonde, and my thoughts turned to the relationship between the recently murdered billionaire Hayworth Windham, his much younger wife Brooke, and his adult daughter Chutney (from a previous marriage).

There was a lot of cynicism about the marriage between Brooke and Hayworth, with the usual snarky comments about the gold-digging younger woman only going after the rich guy for one thing. And yet, we find out in a private conversation that his money wasn’t the attribute she found most impressive about him.

Still, though, many people who weren’t privy to what actually went on in the relationship…and couldn’t possibly be inside either of their heads…ascribed the worst motives to the behaviors of each of them. She couldn’t possibly love him; after all he was so old. And him…what could he possibly see in someone that young…besides a hot body? Shame on him! She was obviously using him for his money and/or he was obviously only using her for sex.

There was also no love lost between Chutney and Brooke. Chutney felt the same about Brooke as most of the cynics, and hated seeing her father with someone who was roughly her own age.

But here’s the important question: Was it really anyone’s business but Brooke and Hayworth’s?

Really…was it?

Say what you will about what it may have looked like to you; if Brooke made Hayworth happy, was it any of Chutney’s business? Is it even any of our business?

Some people might argue that Brooke didn’t really love him, and was just pretending, in order to get at his money. But folks, if she acted like she loved him, and if that pretense made him happy, shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t it be enough that she made him happy?

Oh, but some people might argue that if he was happy, he was happy for the “wrong reasons”, and that he should know “the truth.” But despite what the Bible says, the truth doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes it makes you miserable.

Besides…maybe what you think is “the truth” isn’t quite so true after all.

But getting back to the point, even if Brooke was using him, and putting up a pretty good act; if that “act” made him happy, shouldn’t that be enough?

Even if Chutney found their relationship embarrassing and distasteful; if Brooke made her father happy, shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t she want him to be happy? Aside from possibly having to split the inheritance, if Brooke wasn’t mistreating him, what business of it was hers, really?

Yes, the story of Hayworth, Brooke, and Chutney has me wondering why so many of us tend to stick our noses into other people’s relationships because we don’t like it, or because we find it distasteful. And let me say right now that relationships where there’s abuse, or other serious problems, are totally different situations. But if the other person is simply the “wrong” age, ethnic group, religion, sex, height, hair color, whatever…as long as he or she makes our friend or family member happy, shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t we be glad that our friend or family member has this person in their lives?

Or are we so selfish and closed-minded that we’d rather have our friend or family member be lonely?

Even when there’s no billion-dollar inheritance involved.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Most Segregated Hour?

I’ve heard it over and over again…that the hour between 11.00 Sunday morning and 12.00 noon is the most segregated hour in America. Why? Because it’s when we all go to our separate, racially-divided, churches.

Except that I don’t buy it.


Because sometimes something that clearly looks like one thing on the surface is actually something else.

Imagine walking into a college dining hall and seeing three tables: one has nine black students and one white; one has eight white students, one black, and one Asian; and the other has eight Asians and two Hispanics. It would be easy to assume that for the most part, these tables are intentionally divided up by race or ethnicity.

Until you did a little digging…and found that the 10 students at the first table are all from Buffalo, the 10 at the second table are all in the choir; and the 10 at the third table all live on the same floor of the same dorm. People do like to hang out with people who they have some sort of connection with, whether or not it’s one that’s obvious to others.

Now let’s take another look at that “most segregated hour.”

I’ll grant you that some denominations were created from rifts over racial issues. Many denominations split in the run-up to the Civil War over the issue of slavery. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 as the result of a dispute within the greater Baptist church over whether or not slave owners could serve as missionaries. The Presbyterians split in 1861 over the issue of slavery, but for the most part rejoined in 1983. The African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were created when African-Americans left certain Methodist congregations in the 1800s to form their own, as a result of discrimination against them.

But they don’t tell the whole story. Some denominations exist because of the traditions that different ethnic groups brought with them when they came to this country. Despite their goal to see themselves as a more inclusive and representative denomination, my own Evangelical Lutheran Churchin America (often referred to as the ELCA) is still a largely ethnic church, having large numbers of people of German and Scandinavian descent; those people having brought the Lutheran tradition with them from their home countries. And as Scandinavians and Germans are to the Lutheran Church, Italians, Irish, and Hispanics are to Roman Catholicism.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in a congregation with a growing number of African-American members; and I had a fair number of friends who were African-American and Roman Catholic.

Of course there are theological differences; while both being Christians, the largely white Roman Catholic Church and the largely black AME Church have slightly different slants on Christianity, and that’s a very important thing to consider. In addition there are just plain stylistic differences. Many people wouldn’t know a theological difference if it bit them on the nose, but change the music, and you’ve got issues. I’ve often said that given a choice between a black church that did Bach and a white church that did Gospel, many African-Americans would choose the white church…not even thinking about the theology.

And what is Gospel music anyway? To a black audience it means one thing, and to a white audience it means something else. So when a large enough number of African-Americans join a certain congregation that the musical style starts to change, are the white people who leave doing so because they’re racist or simply because the style has changed? And if it’s the latter, haven’t a lot of us done that, no matter who we are or what church we’re in?

So…is the hour from 11.00 Sunday morning until noon the most segregated one or the most diverse one? I say it depends on how you define diversity. If you look at the cereal aisle in the supermarket, the question is “are we looking at the aisle or at the box?” If we’re looking at what’s inside of individual boxes, then a box of Corn Flakes is all Corn Flakes, a box of Wheaties is all Wheaties and a box of Cheerios is all Cheerios. Seems pretty segregated to me. But if you look at the aisle, and all the choices you have, from Corn Flakes to Wheaties, to Trix, to Apple Jacks, to Cinnamon Harvest, and who knows what all else; that’s a pretty diverse selection. And it’s a selection that gives everyone something to choose from.

Calling it the most segregated hour implies that people have no choice as to where they worship, and are forced to worship along ethnic lines. But the fact that I grew up in the Episcopal Church and am now a Lutheran, the fact that I knew black kids who were Catholics, and the fact that I know Italians who belong to traditionally black churches, prove that that’s not the case.

Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper than what you see on the surface, and find out more about the kids at those tables in the dining hall.

And what kind of cereal they eat.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Primary Elections, General Elections, and Heart and Head Votes

As we officially enter the 2016 Presidential election season (and it can’t be over soon enough for many of us), there are a few things that need to be addressed.

Someone once said…and it might even have been me…I can’t remember, that what we really need are two elections: a heart election and a head election. Either that or the ballot should have spots for your heart choice and your head choice. This way people could still vote for their heart choice without feeling that they wasted a vote on someone who wouldn’t win anyway. Perhaps if people were able to make a heart choice without feeling that they’d wasted a vote, more people would vote for their heart choice, and the heart choice would actually have a chance of winning (or maybe that person still wouldn’t have a chance). Because, you see, in the heart/head system, whoever won between heart and head would be the overall winner.

And then I realized that we already have heart and head elections, but don’t realize it. They’re called the primary and general elections.

Let me explain.

The primary elections are all about voting with your heart. They’re all about voting for your ideals. Which candidate in the crowded field of your party best fits your beliefs? It doesn’t matter whether or not that person has a snowball’s chance of winning; you vote for them in the hope that they’ll win your party’s nomination for the big one in November.

Let me say this again: A vote cast for your ideal candidate in the primaries is not a vote wasted…not even if your candidate gets trounced. And that’s because all that was at stake was who got to run in the big one.

The national general election in November, on the other hand, is most definitely about voting with your head. You are given two, and only two viable choices. And the key word here is viable. There are only two people who have any chance of winning. Third parties have never won an election, write-in candidates have never won an election. The best (or worst) they can do is siphon off votes from the viable candidate that you actually would’ve have preferred to win in a close election.

Case in point, Ralph Nader in 2000. Had the people who voted with their hearts for Nader then, voted for Gore, Bush II wouldn’t have been president.

And this is the mistake that many people make when it comes to the general election. They still think that it’s about voting with their heart. They still think it’s about voting for what they believe in. They still think it’s about making a “principled stand.”

Let me break it down for you. In a theoretical election there are three candidates. Candidates A and B each have a 47% chance of winning, while Candidate C has only a 6% chance. On the other hand, you agree with 95% of what Candidate C stands for, you only agree with 60% of what Candidate B stands for, and you totally disagree with a whopping 95% of what Candidate A stands for.

What do you do?

Believe it or not, there are people who still believe that they should vote for Candidate C, because Candidate C most perfectly represents what they believe in.

Even though they would absolutely hate to see Candidate A win.

They can’t let go of their ideals enough to realize that throwing their votes to Candidate B would give them most of what they wanted. And so, instead Candidate A wins by a hair, and the “Six Percent Club” starts immediately complaining about the election results and the “broken system”, instead of admitting that by being pigheadedly idealistic, they handed the election over to Candidate A.

So let me repeat this, because I have friends who voted for Nader in 2000: You get to vote with your heart in the primaries, but when it comes to the general election, you only have two viable choices. Don’t waste you vote and end up giving the advantage to the candidate you absolutely hate, because you couldn’t bring yourself to vote for the one who wasn’t perfect. Don’t waste your vote and give the advantage to the candidate you hate by writing in the name of your “perfect” candidate who can’t win. Look at your two viable choices, and vote for the one that you’d prefer.

Because if you write in the name of, or otherwise vote for, a candidate who absolutely cannot win, and the person you totally despise wins…

You have no one to blame but yourself.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pointing Out the Speck in Their Eye

Back in September I wrote a little piece called The Girder in Our Own Eye, which I had intended as a preemptive strike against “ourselves” for the piece that was to follow in the next week or two.

And then a few other things came up, I wrote about other things, and I never got around to it.

Well, now is the acceptable time…even though I have a stack of other things to write about; and having taken a look at the girder in our own eyes, it’s now time to take a look at the speck in theirs.

While I accept the fact that the goals of many in the anti-abortion camp come from the best of intentions, I absolutely hate how they seem to “cook the books” in order to try to reach their goal; and I hate how while using their own religious arguments to demonstrate why abortion is wrong, they don’t take into account other religious arguments that might say that it’s not quite an open and shut case.

I hate their scare tactics. There’s a billboard that crops up on a regular basis that says that “abortion increases breast cancer risk.” Now I’m an open-minded person. When faced with information that I’d never heard before, I don’t immediately dismiss it out of hand…I do a little research. And where best to go for information about breast cancer than the website of the American Cancer Society? What did I find there? I found that in the huge majority of tests, they’ve found neither causality nor correlation between abortions and breast cancer. However, in a very small minority of cases, a correlation was found (not the same thing as causality), and this is the “fact” that this billboard, and others like it, are based on.

Then there’s that famous Planned Parenthood video about them selling fetal body parts. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard from people who have, that it’s a really terrible editing job, spliced and cobbled together to make it look like people are saying things that they’re probably not. The only real way to tell for sure would be to have the original “frame codes” showing at the bottom of the screen. Then we’d know when a few important seconds from the conversation were left out, or moved around, in order to change what was said.

But wait, there’s more. When this whole controversy first hit, a friend of mine said, “The same thing happens to fertilized eggs left over from in-vitro fertilization, so where’s the outrage over that?”

Good question.

And a week or two ago, a friend of mine posted a pie chart that purported to compare all the abortion deaths since Roe vs Wade to all the American war deaths since 1776. That includes The American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and our various conflicts in the Middle East. According to this chart, abortion deaths were something like 90% of the pie.

But while this may be true, I believe that the case was severely overstated by comparing abortions over a 40-year period to wars that each lasted a limited amount of time. Compare apples to apples. Compare, say abortions during any four-year period from 1973 to now to the total American war deaths during World War II, and then we can talk. It may still be more, but at least the overstatement of the case wouldn’t be stretching the credibility of the chart.

I wrote four years ago about how what may be a good cause suffers in my eyes when they stoop to tactics that either lie outright or distort the truth. I was talking about anti-smoking campaigns at the time, but I think the same can be said about the anti-abortion movement. This is the speck in their eye.

And if we could all stop treating this as a zero-sum game, and instead agree that we’re all going to have to live with a half-loaf, we could work together to reduce the number of abortions without infringing on anyone’s rights.

Or lying.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Of Cancer and Conspiracies

I was in a conversation with a some friends last week who claimed that the reason we don’t have a cure for cancer is because it would work against the interests of the medical and pharmaceutical industries to come up with one. They said that if they make so much money treating people for it, why would they want to cure it, and kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

I didn’t have an immediate answer for them then. It’s hard to come up with good answers for conspiracy theorists, but I do now, and it’s one word.


The medical profession did a full court press to prevent and eradicate polio back in the 50s and 60s, when they obviously could’ve salivated over the prospect of selling more braces and iron lungs.

And if it’s in their best financial interests to have more people get the disease so that they can treat it, wouldn’t they see the anti-vax community as their biggest ally?

But they didn’t salivate over those potential profits in the 50s and 60s. And today they’re strenuously fighting against the anti-vax community. Why? Because despite what my conspiracy theorist friends think, as much money as there unfortunately is to be made in treating diseases, they do actually want to cure them. This treatment thing is seen as a short-term not-quite solution to the problem.

Do pharmaceutical companies make a mint from the products they make? There’s absolutely no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean that they want more people to suffer so that they can sell more of the product (you’re thinking of the tobacco industry). And to be honest, developing new drugs isn’t cheap…the costs have to be recouped somehow, otherwise the company goes bankrupt, and there goes any further research.

But the other issue is that too many people don’t understand that cancer isn’t like polio or the measles or smallpox. It’s not one disease that can be treated with one magic bullet. It’s more like a group of thousands of different diseases that behave similarly, but very differently; and have a seemingly infinite number of triggers and causes. Something that might cause cancer A to go into remission in Fred might not have any effect on cancer B in Sally. For that matter, what works on cancer A in Fred might not have any effect on that same cancer in Sue.

It’s not that simple. There are just way too many variables involved in the different forms of cancer for there to be a “one size fits all” solution. But if you don’t understand that, if you don’t understand how simple it’s not, you might think that there’s a conspiracy against finding a cure…despite the progress we’ve made in the last 70 years.

But I’ll tell you who we do need to worry about making a mint off of people’s suffering: those who offer false hopes through “alternative remedies” that prevent people from seeing real doctors for real treatments. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a special place in Hell for people who peddle those remedies, and set up websites providing “information” on them. Even worse are those who peddle this information and then falsely attach the American Cancer Society’s name to it, knowing that the average person won’t go to their website, Quackwatch, or Snopes to double-check it.

So no…there is no conspiracy to prevent a cure for cancer from being discovered.

And by the way…for a much better explanation of everything I’ve just said, check out Is There Really a Conspiracy to Suppress Cancer Cures?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Spin Cycle

A few months ago, in the wake of the shootings at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I wrote a piece on the Confederate Flag Conundrum, and in this piece I suggested that treating the victims of that shooting as fallen heroes of the South, with the Confederate flag flown at half staff for them, might make certain people’s ancestors spin like turbines. I also suggested that those same ancestors might actually be beyond caring by now.

It’s that second point that I want to examine more closely today.

So often, when faced with doing something now that might not have been acceptable to our long-dead parents, grandparents, or other ancestors, we refer to the idea that they’d be “spinning in their graves.” In fact, often, the fact that those ancestors might be spinning with disapproval is given as reason enough not to do things differently…whether that be something as momentous as marriage equality or as trivial as changing the color of the living room in the old family homestead. We consider that the opinions they held while they were with us are still the opinions we should be concerned with, and the opinions we should be trying to honor.

And yet, for those of us who believe in some sort of afterlife, there’s something else to consider…

Perhaps where they are now, they see things from a different vantage point.

Perhaps, where they are now, the color of the living room is seen as something so trivial as to not even be worth considering.

And perhaps those social changes that they fought so hard against while they were among the living, are seen now as changes that can’t happen fast enough. Perhaps with what they know now, they find themselves lamenting all that they did to try to prevent those social changes from occurring. Perhaps if they care about anything at all, it’s about rectifying the many grievous wrongs that they played a part in trying to prolong.

And perhaps, from where they sit now, if they’re doing any spinning at all, it’s because we’re not making the changes that they now know need to be made, because we’re foolishly trying to “honor their memories” by continuing to prolong those injustices.

But what of those who don’t believe in any sort of afterlife? Well, in that case it’s really quite simple…those who have gone before are beyond caring anyway, and have no reason to spin at all.

But quite frankly, I much prefer to look at the situation as being one in which our ancestors, who we hate to think might have been on the wrong side of an issue, are finally in a position to see that change needs to occur…and are urging us to make those changes with all deliberate speed.