Sunday, March 20, 2005

Another silly quiz from Leila

This is supposed to be a blog about language, dammit! But I broke down and took the silly quiz that Leila told me about in the "sapphire" comments below. I guess i missed the Sufi bar by a question or two (the one I was hoping for) and I was a "Progressive Muslim."

You are a Progressive
You are a PROGRESSIVE Muslim. You could be from
any sect, religious or not, and may have
leftist/activist tendencies. Anything goes
with you. Everyone else is some sort of

Sigh...I have started hating the very word "progressive," as it has recently been used by so many different kidns of people to mean so many different things, and has now become one of those emotional type cue-words devoid of meaning like "freedom," "democracy," and "terrorism." Well, it was a cute quiz, thanks, Leila. The issue of the word "progressive" is for another, more serious, post.

Torture- is it ever OK? What about for white collar crime?

So I note that this guy named Volokh, who I hardly ever read, except when he is linked to by someone else, came out in favor of torture carried out by victims of some heinous murderer (which apparently is actually a form of punishment employed in Iran - who knew?).

Now I sort of know what he means; there is a sort of visceral "Yesssss!" in the deepest parts of the lizard-brain ID section of the psyche when you hear this sort of idea. The same feeling you have when the lead character in one of those revenge action movies kills or hurts someone who killed or hurt his wife or daughter.

In fact I had a conversation about torture with my husband yesterday, in which we both thought of a good example of a person we'd like to see tortured - without having heard anything about this particular article:

Husband who is watching TV: (He is Egyptian by the way, in case anyone finds that relevant): They gave the guy only 15 years. The Enron guy.
Me: (Who has not been following the story and who is in the kitchen not near the TV): What Enron guy? Ken Lay?
Husband: No, he got life. (short conversation on how nice the prisons are that these guys get to stay in) This other accountant who was responsible who only got 15 years.
Me: (linking to lizard portion of brain) Never mind all those guys who lost their life savings. Boy, you know, I am usually against torture, but...
Husband: Yeah! And let the employees who lost all their retirement, inflict it!
Me: Starting with the fingernails....
Husband: You are not nearly creative enough.
(pause, in which we remember that we are humans, not lizards)
Me: Well, if we believe in God's eventual justice, I suppose they'll be bad off enough when they eventually die.
Husband: What about the guys who, because of them, and because they lost everything, committed suicide?
Me: Are you saying God would punish those people or something? (I sometimes don't understand the point he leapt to)
Husband: No, I was being sarcastic. (Me to myself: Whatever...) I do think that a deep part of Hell is reserved for those Enron accountants. (Conversation veers off into how they deceived people and other details)

What I notice about the whole torture debate, which started actually before the Abu Ghraib thing but has become more and more normal to bring up, is the same point I brought up in an article I wrote after the looting of the Baghdad Museum. It's not original (few well-said points are - you'll always find that someone else said it better, earlier). The gist is that the veneer of civilization is very, very thin. And underneath is that animal base.

Even those of us who do, really, truly, believe torture is a *bad* thing and not to be carried out under any circumstances, can have a half-joking, half-ashamed discussion with our significant others about people who really outrage us and how nice it would be to do unspeakable things to them.

The key, for me, is that the "half-ashamed" should be the half that always stays on top.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I spent the last couple of days studying the Wannsee meeting. Why on earth does one do these things? Periodically, living in the Middle East and getting a lot of weirdness about Jews and their ills, I go and do some study on Nazism to get myself some clarity. Now I have a wonderful new supervisor who, finding that I was a Kenneth Branagh fan, got out her copy of the HBO dramatization of Wannsee, "Conspiracy," starring him as Heydrich. I watched the movie first, and then read Mark Roseman's book (also from my supervisor), The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting, which described Wannsee and its import to the Nazi genocide decisions and ended with the text of the Wannsee Protocol.

One of the things that interested me about this well-known document is its use of euphemism even though its language made it absolutely clear that the euphemism was, in fact, a euphemism. What was the point? The document referred to the "final solution" for the "Jewish Question" as "evacuation to the East." But it also mentioned such things as that Jews were expected to prefer sterilization to "evacuation," and used "evacuation" in contexts where it made very little sense, so that it was chillingly clear that you could read "killing" or "murder" for "evacuation." When they seemed to get bored with the "evacuation" euphemism, they used the "final solution" euphemism in its place.

In the dramatization, all members of the meeting were very clear on what they were talking about and Eichmann even described the gassing methodologies - with "figures" on how many had been gassed in trucks and what he thought would be the capacity of ovens. There is nothing in the document to back this up and the parties minimized Wannsee's importance (not surprising, since they were testifying at their own trials). Eichmann himself gave contradictory testimony and said he could not remember a lot of specifics. But it did seem to me that in order to issue this document, they had to have discussed the issue with a bit more clarity than the document's murky terminology.

I can imagine such a meeting taking place today, being recorded for posterity, and the people using hand gestures to denote "scare quotes" around the word "evacuation" as they discuss the issue, winking at each other.

I've always been bothered by euphemisms - they seem to draw a curtain across things we would rather not know about ourselves. If people were always forced to use the clearest possible words for what they in fact mean, might some perpetrators of crimes against humanity drawn back? Did the euphemism help them to commit the crime? Or was it merely an automatic impulse to avoid being too clear about such an action?

Silly quizzes and their appeal

Sometimes I think that procrastinators like myself should not be allowed any access to the Internet and its infinite products for wasting yet more time. Like, for example, the silly quizzes at Quizilla and other sites asking such irrelevant yet fascinating questions as "Which LOTR character are you?" Today I did one called "Which Precious Gem are You?" and the answer was:

(Now let's see if this coding works)

! You are most Like A Sapphire !Dark, mysterious - but unforgettable. You have a
deepbeauty. Delicate, and shy you try to stay away from
thelimelight but often your intelligence puts you in
at thedeep end. You're like a Sapphire, because, your
beauty is priceless.You're intelligent, full of opinions, and not
big-headed about it all.Sometimes you need to put yourself out there, as
you can be a bit shy.Congratulations ... You're the mysterious gem
everybody wants to have and learn more about.

?? Which Precious Gem Are You ??
brought to you by

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Caught in a Lie

In Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, the main character discusses a friend, saying of him that if he were caught in a lie, this person would be low on his list of people he'd rather have been caught by. It struck me that this was a more honest statement than many I have seen, as implicit in his statement is the idea that he does, indeed, lie at times. If we are truly honest we know that we have -- at one time or another, and probably countless times -- lied. Yet we are eager to catch others in lies or to show others up, particularly if we already disagree with them in other areas than that of truth.

I started thinking about the many people I know and respect and who I would rather be caught out by in a lie. I can't think of anyone who I would like to be caught by - but by and large I think that the person I'd least like to be caught by would be the person who, through long experience, I have learned to respect for honesty in particular, apart from other virtues.

One of the reasons I lie to people is that these are people who themselves lie to me. Most of my lies are about things like how I spend my time or who I talk to and what about. They are hardly ever about matters of belief or thought. Therefore I don't often lie to the most honest people I know. In fact I don't think I can remember an instance. Perhaps this is because I know to be true, what this person in the book said, deep inside me; even though I can't remember having thought about it consciously until now. Associating with honest people keeps us honest - it makes us strive to be honest, in fact.

An associated truth is that honesty is bound up very closely with use of language. This is one of the reasons I so love the writings of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. He made this point over and over, and attacked bad academic and bureaucratic writing, not for its mistakes (like spelling), but the intentional lack of clarity that made it, at its core, deeply dishonest.

Of the many people I have known only through their own writing, or the writings about them, I could probably say that he and Socrates are the two people who I would least like to catch me out in a lie.

Who would you shrink the most from lying to? Tell me in the comments.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A name with a (well, mostly) rich heritage....

So you know if you have discovered this website from my posting name that I probably live in the Middle East (assuming I am not talking about Cairo, Illinois). I do indeed live here in Cairo, Egypt. And judging from my post on Locke I am probably American. Right again. Well, I also am the proud mother of two sons. One is 14 and one is turning 13 in April. They are tall, strong, healthy (thank God) and reasonably intelligent (however did that happen) and of course they are a main focus of my life. This summer, for the first time in seven years (financial constraints) they are accompanying me to the U.S. to visit our relatives.

What has this to do with anything? Well, the fact of the matter is, my sons are Egyptian as well as American, and they happen to have Arabic, Muslim names. The 14 year old is named Omar Yasser. The 13-year-old-to-be is named Osama.

My youngest son was born in 1992 in Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. As you can tell from the ages, my kids were very close. Given that I have this illogical habit of listening to old wives' tales, I had assumed he'd be a girl because my pregnant form was so different than it had been with my older child. While I was in labor the doctor told me that based on the heartbeat pattern, he was a boy. Oh dear. We had no name prepared.

My husband started suggesting a bunch of names that all happened to rhyme with our last name, so I ruled them all out. We spent a good half hour brainstorming. So many Arabic/Muslim names are hard for English speakers to pronounce or spell. So many others are, sadly, associated with negative stereotypes in the minds of Westerners and we knew enough to avoid them (which is why my first son had a double name instead of being just plain Yasser, actually).

Then my husband came up with the name Osama. This name is one of the seven Arabic words for "lion". (Two others are "Asad" and "Leith" - trust me there are four more.) It is easy to spell, easy to say, and could be shortened to "Sam" among friends. In 1992, it was not associated with anything or anyone with any sort of negative connotation.

Some other fun facts abuot the name Osama: It is also the name of a famous youth who fought in the early Muslim army, who wished to fight under the Prophet but was told he was too young, Osama Bin Zaid.

A modern Osama that had been in the news was the savvy and clever foreign policy advisor to President Mubarak, Osama El Baz, whose relative Farouk El Baz was a scientist at NASA.

Apropos of really nothing at all, but just to see how normal this name is: At the same time my son was born, Osama was a fad name in Egypt (you know how in certain time periods people all name their kids certain names -- when I was a kid, e.g., everyone in my class was named Sean or Michelle - well, Osama seems to have been one of the 5 top boys' names of the early 90s here in Egypt). In KG, he had 3 other Osamas in his class. His best friend from KG until now is named Osama Amr.

All in all, we felt that this was a beautiful, lyrical and perfect name for our son, who was born with a shock of mane-like hair and a very lion-like roar.

Our son has lived most of his life outside of his country of birth. He has lived in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia (VERY briefly) and Nigeria, and for the past eight years he has lived in his other country of citizenship, Egypt. He does not remember the US, as we left with the Foreign Service when he was two and made one short visit when he was seven. But he sure wants to visit. After all, it is his country as much as Egypt is. He plans to go to college there and wants to major in biology or astronomy. He speaks English with no accent, he loves to read, is a huge Harry Potter fan, and loves Mozart. His favorite movie is "Braveheart."

I don't know what to do about the fact that his name may cause people to look at him funny while in the US. In fact, I don't know what to do about the fact that I am worried about this at all. Should I go there on the assumption that people will be polite and not put ideas into his head that this may be a problem? Or should I raise the issue with him before we go? Are many Americans stupid enough to think that a kid his age could have been named after OBL (who no one heard of until his Fatwa against foreigners in 1996)? Will people actually be rude enough to bring the association up with him?

What really bothers me about this whole issue, is that we love this name so much. It is a beautiful name. He is personally quite proud of it, as he loves to identify with lions and what they represent (bravery, etc.). He also had to read a book about Osama Bin Zaid for school and is proud of that namesake, too. He does not know much about Osama Bin Laden nor does he really connect this strange, foreign person to himself.

It still, at the end, seems odd to me that a name could be the cause of such a painful inner debate. After all, it is just a name.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Simplification - of Locke?

I recently heard about a project to modernize classical political philosophers (Hume and Locke were two of the names on the list). The reason given was that the "archaic" language usage in the originals, as well as the fact that they referred to other philosophers that the student "may not have heard of" created "obstacles" for students. It was funny to me, because I do not frankly remember reading Hume, but I know that I read the specific Locke text mentioned, the 2nd Treatise on Government. I had no problem understanding it. In fact, I thought that although Locke was English, the American student should, in particular, find his thought rather familiar, given his influence on the Founding Fathers who authored our source texts (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, e.g.).

I mentioned this on the Crooked Timber blog, where the subject was being discussed, and got the response from another poster, "well, not everyone has high verbal abilities" - and that got me to thinking. Why, indeed, do I HAVE high verbal abilities? Because I am a natural genius? Or because I was exposed to writing that was truly too hard for me and had to work to understand it? And it occurred to me that although genetics may have played a minor role (both of my parents having been college English teachers), the main reason that I am "good at" reading comprehension is that, from the age I started reading (3 - my mother used Montessori methods on me) I have always been reading things above my ability or grade level, that I did NOT totally understand, had to work at, or that required the use of a dictionary.

The difficulty of a given text, in fact, I do not see as a burden to the student. Rather, it is a valuable opportunity for the student to gain reading comprehension skills. In fact, the more difficult stuff the student has to read, the more chance the student will become a good reader capable of understanding complex ideas expressed in no-longer-standard (but still beautiful and eloquent) English (such as the writings of Locke).

However, I do understand that philosophy or political theory teachers are less interested in their students' overall reading skills than in their ability to grasp the teachings of Locke or Hume by whatever means necessary (Sorry, Malcolm). I believe this is really shortsighted. Perhaps English faculties should cooperate with the other disciplines in bringing students' reading comprehension up, if it is really that pervasive a problem in universities today.

I realize the last sentence is probably not much of a solution. I am better at defining problems than solving them, and I don't work in academia so don't have an idea of how these disciplines get along. Probably, knowing what little I do about the hallowed halls of learning, expecting the faculties to work together would create more problems than it would solve.

Next: (God Willing...) I will learn how to do links and do a separate post pointing to the sources for this - both the original website describing the "modernization" project and the discussion I took part in.

Something the World (Probably) Does Not Need

Another blog. About language, like there are not several great ones such as Witnit, Language Log, the Underground Grammarian archives, etcetera. But this one is MINE. Why do I think I should write about language? I am not a linguist and have no higher degree. I just love language, reading and writing, and pontificating on educational topics, so decided to give myself a platform. (That is the great thing about the Internet.)