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Strictly Speaking

Crimes Against Humanity

CRIMES (against humanity)

It is strange – and sad, too – to reflect on the United States at the end of World War II, where it convened the Nuremberg trials to hold accountable Nazis who ordered, directed or participated in the execution of six million other human beings. The reason that it is strange and sad is not that this reckoning shouldn’t have been made. It should have, and probably more broadly. The reason that the phrase, "crimes against humanity," applied against Hosni Mubarak, is that the United States allowed its own petty tyrant, invoking fear and threats, to torture prisoner of war held in foreign countries, a process that continued for more than six horrific years, and no one was held accountable.

This campaign of unregulated sadisticstorture was done by a man who professed a belief that he was an agent of a just God. Now what would have happened to an unelected person who captured and held his alleged enemies in his basement, ignoring the sanctions of the laws, or international conventions, torturing, humiliating and perhaps even killing individuals against whom no legal charges were ever brought.

And how can we Americans ever hold out head up, how can we ever recover the moral high ground, after something like that? Here’s something to think about, and its likely to take your breath away. It has taken Germany more than half a century to shed the stigma of its Nazi past.

Immediately post-War, the country was in denial. Many insisted that they were just fighting for their survival. But eventually, via Nuremberg, the enormity of their crimes settle on them. On the side of a building near the Führer bunker in shattered Berlin, one brave individual has splashed in black pain, “I am ashamed to be a German.”

I wonder if America has, even yet, begun to see how similar its conduct during the second Iraq war was to the one supported by a strident little man with a square mustache.  Read More 
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Politically Correct?

CORRECT (politically – )

The most academically objectionable connotation of a word now in use, a distinction harder to achieve than pulling Excaliber from the stone. The niggle about political rectitude (maybe I shouldn’t have used niggle, although it’s a perfectly respectable word, despite its suspicious phonetic garb)... As I started to say, the difficulty with applying the censorship of political rectitude to common usage is that there is no arbitrating body, no high court or universal agreement of what is speakable or not.

Worse than that, as an attribute to raise hackles and rankle sensibilities, it is hard imagine a less promising way to impose guidelines to linguistic use than to bound them with the word, “politically.” Immediately come the questions of whose politics and to what end, and what measures should be exercised against whom and by whom, within what boundaries?

Forgetting the entire constitutional issue of Freedom of Speech, which constitutional lawyers will in no way let you do, you don’t have to peer very far down the dark tunnel of time to see Senator Joe McCarthy’s Congressional witch hunt, fast on the heels of one Adolf Hitler, who was very politically certain about what you could and could not say in his Third Reich, an what happened to you if you dared defy authority.

The saddest aspect of yet another attempt by one like-minded group to control all others is that, yes, there is a better way, even if you are dogmatically certain the political rectitude has a place. Practice it, or preach it (something that might be denied under somebody else’s vision of political correctness), but don’t attempt to impose it on others.

Even my nine-year-old daughter was smart enough to figure this out when, while she was young, we drove by the Avalon Theater on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, headed home. Starting out at the gang of protestors silently circling with signs, she read the movie’s name, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and wondered out loud. “If they don’t like it, why not just no see it? Nobody else has to think like them.” Yeah, this is the kind of kid that you might except would eventually go to the University of Chicago, where she double majored with honors.

Here’s the point. Difference is inevitable. It is the grinding wheel that sharpens the cutting edge of science, indeed of all knowledge. And to hamper the process of free expression with what are admitted to be political constraints is not only anti-intellectual, it is tyrannical.

We already have enough laws about what can’t be said, and in context a lot of them even make sense. You don’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater where no fire exists. You don’t unjustifiably defame another’s reputation, unless you can prove your accusations true. You do not incite to riot, for the common good. But there is a delicate balance about freedom of expression in a country that was born in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and where freedom of assembly is precious. Strange, then, that America has no equivalent of England’s Hyde Park, where anyone can step onto a box and say anything he or she wants, even regarding the queen. Hyde Park is Freedom Central as far as expression goes.

It is almost de rigueur in Hyde Park to be blasphemous, or obscene, or traitorous, or inciting, or sexist, or bigoted, or crazy as a loon. The idea there is that in a democracy the average man or woman has enough common sense to figure out what works, or is right, at least for them. Isn’t this the basis for getting twelve of them together in a box to determine whether an accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt?  Read More 
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In science, a demonstration of a final, unalterable truth that is theoretically unattainable. Evidence and parsimonious interpretation and Occam’s razor and cutting edge technologies stretch inductively for the Theory of Everything, but as in any process aiming at wisdom by honesty, the quest never ends.

The unavoidable implication for the legal process is fatal, because twelve minds are asked for a finding of “proof beyond reasonable doubt” on the basis of evidence that is, by its nature, incomplete, presented in a process where experts contradict one another, in a forum where the objective is not justice, but the pursuit of public confidence, restoration of the illusion of a safety, advancing the political careers of prosecutors, and the concealment or falsification of evidence by the prosecution is not determined by a search for truth.

If jurors were all skeptical and fulfilled their duties correctly, a guilty verdict would never result. In reasoning people there can always be a reasonable doubt. Seeking to prove otherwise requires a willing suspension of disbelief. One innocent wrongly convicted would establish this verity. Project Innocence has produced many hundreds Read More 
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If, as he did in his Oscar-wnning role as Sam Garrard, Tommy Lee Jones didn’t want his detectives using words that weren’t words, certainly he would have forbidden the upstart proactive, which by agreement has escaped the scorn of spell checking programs simply because the sound is so common. But having no generally agreed-upon definition, it becomes a view of an elephant as felt by seven (and more) different blind men. Everyone says, ah, proactive as the blind men say, ah, elephant, and everyone has a different idea of what it means.

In context it always sounds good, even when decoupled from specific proposals. Perhaps it means not sleeping at the switch, or behaving as the State Department did in allowing a visa to remain valid for a suicide bomber who boards an airliner bound for the United States, due to arrive in Detroit on Christmas Day, which should have flagged a higher level of alert than simply being a Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Going back to figuring out what is being said as it relates to other words, it decomposes to pro = for and active = of or relating to action. Arguably the German Wehrmacht was entirely proactive when it stormed into Poland on September 1, 1939, but more important than wanting or favoring action, it took action and, militarily it was an effective action.

Is a proactive person better than an active person? Is a proactive person the opposite of a reactive person, or can being proactive in a reactionary way, as in waging war against a country in no way responsible for 9/11, at the expense of credibility in a global perspective? If there is an opposite of proactive, shouldn’t there be antiactive, and isn’t this passive? If so proactive would be nonpassive. Or would it?

The use of the word, simply mentioning it in a press conference, seems to endow the speaker with a fortitude uncommitted to any subsequent action, or of any accountability per the intended proactivity. It is magic, a spell that makes listeners relax and nod their heads, feeling better for hearing it even if it is not clear what is meant, or how the condition of proactivity is linked to any advantages as measured by traditional cost-to-benefit analysis.

Proactivity went off the meter when one Republican senator, without any derivative power as commander-in-chief, claimed America would do anything to defend itself. Perhaps he was proposing a balance between imports and exports, arguable a good start. But perhaps he was proposing a kind of pre-emptive nuclear scorched earth policy on anyone suspected of being linked to al Qaida and weapons of mass destruction, this objective advancing on the attack agenda, all at once and proactively, Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, even without becoming hysterically overimaginative.

If and only if proactivity were examined for a common meaning agreed upon by all listeners should audiences begin nodding their heads and whispering amen. Until that time it will be necessary to do more than simply breaking the silence with noise, and to communicate what, exactly, is meant.

Until then bureaucratic and military speakers, corporate heads and political candidates will continue to make cheap capital with this word, because it is all things to all people while requiring nothing in particular to follow. Read More 
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Applying National Policy


Whether national or corporate or episcopal or municipal, a policy is a set of fixed guidelines often determined by political preference or ideology or legal precedent by which major emerging decisions are made, often based on the specific doctrines that are in turn formulated by those currently in power. Consider former President George W. Bush’s – well, okay, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s – policy of pre-emptive invasion of nations representing threats: (1) with ties to al Qaeda; (2) weapons of mass destruction; (2) to free the Iraqi people for democracy and freedom.

If these were, as they should be, the fixed analytical points for interventionist military action – leaving entirely aside the issues of international law and moral justification – the Bush administration should have sat down at the table and scratched their heads while considering the number of candidates for military action, as directed purely by those three policy objectives: Iran, with its terrorist training ground, radical Islamic government, bankrolling of Hamas; Bush’s good buddies in Saudi Arabia, who donated most of the suicide pilots and terrorist passengers for 9/11's triple whammy; Egypt, with its seething prophets of anticapitalism and death-to-Americans; North Korea, with its psychotic megalomaniac, missile-launching, nuclear-weapons-detonating, nuclear-bombs-for-sale leader with a name like an animated Japanese cartoon; Pakistan, riddled with dissident, crackling with internal explosions like a firecracker, with charismatic regional terrorists pouring at will into Afghanistan, sheltering Osama bin Laden, brimming with nuclear missiles, and Sudan, staunchly antiAmerican, allegedly a brewer of chemical weapons of death, actively genocidal against its own people (this being one of the reasons why Saddam Hussein was a bad man) but compared to Iraq (pronounced ear-RAK, not EYE-rak). depleted of useful oil unless your name is China

Then if one discounts the ties to al Qaeda because in Iraq, with a secular monomanical dictator with no love for religious zealots, there never were such ties, the real questions for applying the policy were for the decider: (1) who has the oil? (2) who might not give us the oil? (3) who have we invaded before and the other towelheads supported it? (4) who tried to kill my daddy? and (5) where in the love of Jesus can I go to war?

Because God knows that only war presidents have gone down in history as great presidents. But please. Invading Iraq, however you pronounce it, was not the decision driven by policy. Ergo, national policy becomes a propaganda smokescreen behind which all kinds of hidden agendas are lost in the resulting fog of war. Read More 
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Please Report to the Podium?


Podium means literally footing, or step up and corresponds to a slightly raised platform giving speakers, an advantage in being heard while projecting their voices over the heads of the crowd. It comes from the same root word as podiatrist, or foot doctor. Properly applied it does not mean counter, as those in airline lounges, where passengers are asked to report to the podium, and looking around, find no podium.

The counters passing themselves off as podiums (or podia) are not set on a slightly raised platform. Nor can a speaker on a stage be asked to take the podium, as he or she is already on the podium, left only the opportunity of advancing to the lectern, or speaker’s stand,. This is usually a rectilinear stand with a titled top for papers and a microphone for audio pick-up. Even modern speakers, afraid to seem overly educated, might prefer asking a speaker to come to the microphone, in that the microphone is actually still unconfusingly a microphone.

The problem with the expansion of meanings in words like podium is that they gradually eliminate previously common and more distinctive words from use. Pity, that. Only words that are narrowly distinctive facilitate clear understanding immediately. If, per the trend, the core vocabulary continues to shrink, the end point will be the time when one size fits all. So any noun will be called a “thing” and another object in the same space will be “the other thing,” even when there are many things to be confused. The sole benefit would be to improve consensus. All could agree on a thing that is unbounded by denotation.  Read More 
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Patriotism Revisited

A patriot is an individual loyal to the founding documents, principles or traditional practices of a national government. If there is a breadth of interpretation regarding the interpretation of the meaning of charter documents, then there is a breadth of what can be called patriotism. Thomas Jefferson said that dissent is the first duty of a patriot, which means that any side requiring loyalty to their view or their leader is tyrannical. Very often the cry of patriotism is used for unsavory purposes. Ironically Adolf Hitler was superpatriotic in demanding an overthrow of the democratic Weimar government that was installed by the victorious allied coalition after World War I. Historically Germany had favored a monarchy, as Frederick the Great, or an emperor, or Caesar, as with Kaiser Wilhelm, their leader during the First World War. Traditional patriotism became the justification for Hitler’s takeover Read More 
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Unnecessary Redundancy


The verb to obviate means to eliminate the necessity of, followed by an object. And so the usage “obviate the necessity of” is redundant. More eloquent, compressed and exact is, “The watering moat obviated a fence; the cattle had no interest in drowning to reach greener pastures.”
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Nude Photos

( as an adjective for photos)

This should always be expressed as photos of nudes or photos of nudity. A nude photo would be a picture of an unexposed emulsion or photographic paper developed and fixed with no negative image projected onto it. A nude photo would be wearing nothing, hence without any image. The effort spent to look at a nude photo might have less socially redeeming value than looking at a photo of nudes. As the global intensity (or photon flux) of ultraviolet irradiation increases with a shrinking ozone layer, the advisability of outdoor nudity will decrease, as will the number of photographs, by paparazzi or family friends, of nudes. Indoor nudity as practiced for different reasons by exhibitionists and bathers will continue with photographs of nudity. Like it or not, that's the naked truth.  Read More 
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Being members of a linguistic species, words provide ample opportunity to trip over one’s tongue, particularly if an individual is caught in the unblinking public eye of the media while providing a seemingly glib response that becomes an instantaneously and universally embarrassing faux pas. The first rule is always think before you speak. Second to this is to be certain that you understand that meaning or meanings of the words that you speak.

Winston Churchill memorably recommended that it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. It is perhaps his second wittiest saying. Wittiest by far is when Churchill was approached by a liberal adversary in seemingly indemnifying female form, who said, “If you were my husband, sir, I would give you poison,” to which Churchill instantly responded (without as much as exhaling from his execrable cigar), “If you were my wife, madam, I would take it.”

Proving that where great wit has been cultivated by class, education and repartee, even excusing Churchill being half American, leaves the conclusion that with practiced tongues, gaffes are rare and trips rarer yet.

Pity the poor instantly famous astronaut and future President of American Airlines when asked, “Mr. Borman, how do you see the future of NASA.” Blinded by Klieg lights and unaware that he was playing out a Warholian moment, Borman responded, “I see the future of NASA as extremely nebulous.”

Star-crossed with words, Borman was probably alluding to nebulae, which as interstellar objects are brilliant clouds of gas, often remnants of supernovae, hatching places and nurseries of new stars, many of which will form solar systems, and – known only recently with great confidence – many of which will have earth-like planets circling them in orbits known as the Goldilocks zone, far enough from their star to resist incinerating radiation, close enough to keep water liquid, a condition most favorable to life as we know it. And so, Borman the star-seeker, seeking Earthly stardom like any normal person thrust into the blaze of fame, burned up after re-entry, thinking that a word meant one thing, while failing to know that it was another: a zone or place of confusion and disorder, a place sometimes brilliant but on deeper contemplation, a source of bafflement as to its origins, purpose and ultimate destiny. The kind of organization that would push on after Challenger and Columbia is, arguably, producing lots of confusion and hot gas in Congressional hearings.

And you wonder how American Airlines got into its tailspin. Houston, we have a problem. It’s not just a southern accent and you can’t solve it with an ap on your i-phone, because it deals with words and their meanings, and precious few people use words corresponding to their meanings any more. As words once familiar and correctly applied in former ages become recycled, often they are reduced to no more than noises.

Sometimes a flash of misuse creates a brilliant and unforgettable linguistic blooper. The reason why this phenomenon continues to increase in frequency as we boldly go where no one has gone before may come down to Captain Kirk’s message to Scottie after the Enterprise has warped forward in time to see what planet Earth has become in the 23rd century: “Beam me up, Scottie. There’s no intelligent life down here.” Read More 
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