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Thursday, February 26, 2004

Another Perspective from Someone Who was There
My dad sent me some poignant recollections of his two tours in Viet Nam that I think fit very well with my last rant. I've invited him to share his memories on my rant page.

First some background. Dad spent 25 years in the Navy, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 around the time I was in college. I'm very proud of his Naval career, he enlisted in 1956, went through boot camp at Great Lakes, where he so excelled to be put into the high tech rating of Sonarman. He made chief in seven years and did two tours in Viet Nam. His later career is of great merit, but that's a story for another day. Today's rant is from his time aboard the USS Brownson, DD-868 while it was with Destroyer Squadron 20, and with the Seventh Fleet. She provided naval gunfire support for allied ground operations, and also provided plane guard escort duty for carrier operation in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ship spent the first 20 days of February 1967 on the "Gunline" off the coast of South Viet Nam. She fired over 3200 rounds of ammunition in support of allied troops and the harassment of the enemy, in the area around the mouth of the Saigon River. Dad was the Sonar Chief, and here are his stories.
Dad writes: I probably told you this before, but here goes again. 

My first encounter with this type of “action” was on my first tour to Viet Nam on the Brownson. After “plane guarding” for a carrier for weeks on end we finally got a chance to go in for “H & I” in the northern part of South Viet Nam. H & I is “Harassment and Interdictment”, firing the 5-inch guns for a few minutes every hour around the clock. We did it sporadically, never on a schedule. We were anchored off the inlet of some small river and would go to a modified General Quarters and fire either the forward 5-inch or the aft 5-inch to give both crews “training”. During this phase of the tour, I was assigned to Combat Information Center where we decided what time that hour to fire and where in our assigned area we were to aim. This type of action was meant to keep the enemy sleepless and terrified. The Modified GQ meant only the gun crews, fire control crews (computerized gun aimers) and CIC would be involved in the task while the rest of the crew continued doing whatever, sleeping at night, sunbathing during the day, etc. Of course for safety the vicinity of the gun mount being used would be off-limits to the rest of the crew.  When I wasn’t on duty I would be sleeping or sunbathing also. In the early morning hours, the single or double occupant bumboats would come out and do their net fishing all around us and we didn’t bother them and they went on about their business. Also at this time the Navy swift boats would come alongside and get ice cream and fresh baked bread before going upriver. The Army helos would come and hover over the Helodeck to give us their itinerary and swap daily radio codes so we could converse with them. Most of the time the radios were not compatible because we didn’t have the same frequencies as the Army so we couldn’t communicate with them anyway. One morning while I was coming off watch and setting up for sunbathing, the Army helo departed from us and went skimming off toward shore. The cocky gunner hanging out the side would usually fire a few rounds from his machine gun to insure it worked before going “feet dry” as we called it when an aircraft went over land. This time he was shooting at the bumboats and sinking them as he went along. No reason for it that I could see. We did nothing about the incident that I know of. Possibly the CO did something, but what would that be? I thought of those men and women in those bumboats a lot. 

But I had my own problems. I didn’t have time to think about some ignorant fishermen. One morning after firing the aft gun mount all night I was told that the cable for lowering the Bathysphere used for acquiring the water temperature for sonar was overboard and may have fouled the ship's propellers. The firing of the aft gun had broken off the framework that held the cable about 3 feet away from the ship when we lowered and retrieved the BT. When it went overboard it took the cable with it because the winch had not been locked. As the senior Sonarman aboard, this was my responsibility. I was in deep doodoo. The cable was all tangled up, so we couldn’t just winch it in, we had to pull it in by hand. We are talking about hundreds of feet of cable. Fortunately, when we got to the point where the wire finally got taut, up came the framework and we were in the clear. The ships welders welded the framework back onto the ship and all was okay except for the kinked cable that we had to replace. The ships welders then went back to their daily job of welding up the cracks in the ships main deck after firing the guns all night.  That’s another story. When it got dark, no lights were allowed “on” in the spaces below the main deck in the vicinity of the gun mounts, because they would shine up through the deck and hamper the vision of the lookouts who were supposed to be watching for approaching boats and swimmers. Our ship was 23 years old.

On another day a couple swift boats got their ice cream and such and headed up river. It just so happened that the Skipper of one of the boats was a young LTjg. that used to be on the Brownson and we knew him well. Just as they disappeared around the bend we heard a lot of gunfire and then smoke rose up in puffs, reminding me of the old western movies when the Indians sent their smoke signals. Only this was black smoke from an oil fed fire and we were told it was one of the swift boats that just left. Weeks later we got word that Ken Norton had been killed when his boat was fired upon and sunk. I never did find out if that was the incident we observed, but it really didn’t matter “when”. 

At night, our air search radar would occasionally pick up the Air Force B52’s approaching. Some nights they flew right over us and several minutes later the mountainous jungle lit up and the ship shook from the bombs that they dropped. 

Almost every night we would observe a trio of Army helos fly inland. One of them would be separated slightly and somewhat higher than the others and would have a red beacon on for a few seconds and fire off a bunch of tracers. Then tracers would fly up from the jungle towards the helo and the other helos would then zero in on the area and really tear up the place. It was like the Fourth of July every night.

War was hell in more ways than one could relate. When we returned to Newport after seven months of war duty we were shunned and did not wear our uniforms outside the Newport area. Life for a military man was now different from the time I joined in 56 when the people were proud to know a serviceman and a young sailor was proud to wear the uniform of his country.  I am still proud I wore that uniform and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I only Know What I Know, too.

I ramble too much. 

Dick Rentner, a.k.a. Skyler's Dad

No, Dad, you don't. Thanks.

I Only Know What I Know
I hear a lot of indignant protests from Viet Nam veterans nowadays that John Kerry's claims of American brutality during their war is a complete fiction. I have nothing but disgust for Senator Kerry, and truth be told I suspect he is a tool, if not a member, of the International Communist movement and formerly influenced if not controlled by the Soviets, but I have to confess that I think these protests from these veterans are misguided.

I've seen what I've seen, I know what I know, and I'm here to relate what little I know, and it's not pretty. Those of delicate natures should not continue (that's you mom).
The military was a much different animal when I joined my NROTC unit in 1981 than it is today. We didn't have any sensitivity training. Graphic, violent language was accepted, expected, and not quite encouraged. In 1984 our platoon at Officer Candidates School in Quantico took on the name "Skull Fucking 3rd Platoon" and very creative and somewhat humorous ditties were created to explain what this name meant. I think I won't go into details because it really is pretty gross. We were polite enough to publicly call ourselves S.F. 3rd, and two platoon members were ridiculed for objecting to even that much in our skull and crossbones logo. I won't pretend that this was a good name, or that our attitude was widely encouraged, but it was certainly tolerated or winked at by all levels of the school.

The war in Viet Nam was long over, so far as I was aware, and events in that war were as far removed from my perspective as World War II or even World War I. I marveled that the rifle I used at OCS was the same type used in that war "so long ago." Heck, my helmet was the same type used in WWII. Both were changed (M-16A2 and Kevlar helmets) by 1985 when I was commissioned, removing my perspective even further from my father's war.

So I wasn't in Viet Nam, by a long shot, and it seemed a long time ago. But graphic, violent imagery was common among us and stories were told, usually complete fiction, of what happened to "gooks" that had the misfortune of meeting up with Marines. For instance, everybody knew from our songs that "Napalm sticks to kids." Most of this was silly gallows humor, but I always wondered whether there was any basis in reality for the creation of these songs, or whether it was intended just to shock people in the lingering peace movement and the nuclear disarmament crowd which was very strong on campus.

So what does all this have to do with Senator Kerry and his claims of atrocities? I'm not entirely sure. I only know what I know. What I know is that there was a culture in our training that encouraged, at least in a humorous way, the very things that Kerry claimed happened. I can't say whether this was a reaction to the charges of atrocities that he made after returning from Viet Nam, or if it was like that already. I only know what I lived through.

The final element I'll submit is my experiences with Viet Nam vets that I ran into over the years. In particular, when I joined my first unit, Marine Aircraft Group 13 in El Toro, California, my initial duties for a few weeks were to bounce around the various sections of Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron and learn how things worked. This always sounds like an enlightened way to train new people, but in reality the new trainee is typically shunted off to pair up with the weakest leaders. One master sergeant, for example, saw me as a clerk to do extremely mundane paperwork for him while he stood around pompously telling stories. I finally told him that I was moving on, whether he cared or not, because filing his paperwork for days on end may have been helping him catch up, but was not helping me learn anything.

In my travels through this squadron's bowels in these first weeks, many of the older losers were intrigued by a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed second lieutenant and saw it as their own misguided mission to indoctrinate me into their little sordid circles. One in particular, whose name I can't recall, was a Sergeant who had been swept into the squadron training department with the other trash that can't do their real jobs. And this is the man I think of whenever I think of the war in Viet Nam.

He had been in the Marine Corps for quite some time, long enough to have all the Viet Nam campaign ribbons. You could tell who was in that war because they always had three rows of ribbons and everyone else only had one row or part of a second row at most. He was slovenly, not very bright, but bright enough to be an avionics technician that couldn't do his job very well and that's why he was helping run the training section. He must have been quite a screw up to still be a sergeant. In his first years in the Corps, he was in the infantry and caught the tail end of action in Viet Nam.

This sergeant was one of those guys who thought it important to share his love of the Marine Corps. I still have a 16" sticker of the Marine Corps Emblem that he gave me. Among the benefits of being a Marine that he relished was his collection of teeth and ears.

Yes, you read that correctly. I never saw the ears in person, but he had lots of photographs of disembodied ears strung together. I vaguely recall pictures of corpses, dead and mutilated, with missing ears and other items of anatomy. I think he may have had a string of teeth physically on hand. He was very proud of these things. I wonder if my nonchalant reaction disappointed him. He didn't display these things openly, he kept them in his desk drawer.

Looking back, I guess I might have questioned how he got these things, but I vaguely recall that these were collected by ARVN he served with, not Marines. In any case it wasn't clear to me that collecting ears from corpses was wrong, for all I knew it was how they were doing body counts. Frankly, to me it was all ancient history and the guy was creepy and I wanted to keep my interactions with him as short as possible. Besides, these things were only slightly discouraged by all the training I had gone through.

So, after hearing first hand accounts of helicopter door gunners shooting people in rice paddies (exactly as it was portrayed in the movie "Platoon") and seeing these ears, I think that Viet Nam veterans are protesting a bit much at Kerry's accounts of atrocities occurring. Perhaps Kerry is a liar on this issue, heck, he lies about everything else so why not this? But that distasteful and atrocious acts were committed in that war is hardly disputable. I can't say that it's more or less than any other war, we've all read similar accounts by Marines in the Pacific War, and by soldiers in the war against Germany.

It's just politically popular to posture that American fighting men are pure and noble. Kerry is a despicable man, but we should attack him on real issues, it's easy enough to do. Attacking him for reporting that atrocities were committed in a war is not going to work, because it will destroy the credibility of his detractors.

Kerry is a communist, a traitor to his country, and he did his awful worst to undermine our nation in a time of war. His testimony was inappropriate and intended to support the efforts of the Soviets in the Cold War. But the claims of others that everyone in the military are boy scouts is a losing argument. I only know what I know, and what I know is that many in that war like all wars do things that shouldn't have been done. It is a byproduct of encouraging them to kill ruthlessly.

Monday, February 23, 2004

The Second Amendment is About to Die
The Right to Keep and Bear Arms, at one time protected by the Second Amendment is about to die . And you know who is going to kill it? Gun owners and gun manufacturers.
It's all quite simple really. By creating a temporary ban on "assault" weapons several years ago, combined with the patently unconstitutional Gun Control Act of 1968, the price of automatic weapons and now "assault" weapons has skyrocketed far beyond what they would have been worth otherwise. Letting the "assault" weapon ban expire will mean that those who sell guns for a living will immediately lose a lot of money.

You won't hear them speaking of supporting an extension of the ban, but then it's only natural for them to roll over like a whimpering puppy if it's extended.

For example, a friend of mine is a class III weapons dealer and I mentioned to him that I have always regretted not buying a M-60 machine gun I once saw for sale in 1985 for $6000. I was a young lieutenant with more money than I could spend, but I decided it would be too frivolous. My friend told me that that same weapon, because of the ban, is now worth well over $30,000. If the ban expires, its worth plummets immediately back to one fifth of its current value.

Now imagine that you have a large revolving inventory. This could bankrupt your business.

No, there are probably very few weapons dealers looking to get this repealed, but they know better than to say it in front of their customers.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Institutional Lies
Okay, maybe "lies" is a bit strong. The thing is that I don't understand why they can be so persistent.

My rant now is about the Porsche Club in particular, but it could be any other human endeavor. Many organizations develop a story that may or may not have had any basis in reality in the past, but clearly is no longer true. Nonetheless the story is told, sometimes with a tenacity that is laced with overwrought emotion.

In this case, the people in the Porsche club insist that you are less likely to wreck on the race track than you are in daily driving. I have no idea where this comes from, but if you point out obvious facts, no matter how politely, you can be confronted with extremely hostile reactions. I'm not sure why that is, because all (well, almost all) of the people involved are some of the nicest I've ever met.


Institutional lies are a hint as to how religions thrive.
I'd been through this topic with club members before and it was very ugly, but tonight while at our monthly happy hour, a new instructor brought it up again in front of me not realizing how much hatred it caused in the past. Strangely, even though he didn't know of the animosity it caused before, he had the same hostile reaction to a polite objection to his claims.

Okay, here's the scenario: We're there talking about our cars, and a new member is present and being encouraged to take her brand new boxster out on the track. So far so good. The track is not only more fun than most other things I've ever done, but you learn some very valuable skills. Personally, I think anyone with a sports car needs to get this training.


But this new instructor has transferred to Austin from the Northeast and is by all accounts an accomplished driver and has recently been certified in our region as an instructor. Joining our conversation, he volunteered to the new member that the track is the safest place you could ever drive. This is nonsense on its face, but this is the institutional lie, and people believe it despite all evidence to the contrary.

I politely suggested that you can certainly wreck your car on the track and it happens often. In fact, I have not yet witnessed a weekend at the track where at least one car wasn't damaged, sometimes quite severely. And here's where the institutional lie gets its force. Even though he is new to the group and didn't know of past conversations and hate mail locally on this topic, he quickly raised his voice and used the "I'm right because I'm talking louder" method of reasoning. Then he quoted some non-existent statistics that more accidents per mile occur on the highway than on the track. Raising his voice further, he makes the oft repeated claim that accidents are "rare" on the track. I decided that I didn't want any part of the conversation any more and went to chat with others.

Okay, I don't mean to pick on this guy, he really is a nice guy. But his response is typical. A belief that is held strongly is not lightly cast aside, no matter the evidence.


After I left that little circle, a very nice and reasonable man whom I much admire joined me and we talked about this. He is much more open minded, yet even with him, he suggested that accidents that occur are only because the driver is a student who ignored his instructor's advice, or the instructor failed to give the right advice. It seemed obvious to me that if the driver doesn't make a mistake, he's less likely to have an accident, but the reason we're there is to push our skill level. It's inevitable that some one will exceed their ability at some time. Usually it results in a spin with no damage, other times aren't so lucky.

Oh, and the first thing everyone does is accuse me of being resentful for wrecking my car on the track. My objections are dismissed only because they accuse me of being a bad driver. I don't claim to be a good driver, but this classic ad hominem attack does nothing to change the argument except to encourage them to ignore any claims from me because of it. I could point out that some of our best drivers have totaled their cars on the track, but I don't like to dignify this deflection of the facts.


So, let me present my case briefly: My interest in this issue is only to promote a better attitude towards safety. From my experience in Marine aviation, I've learned that very dangerous activities can be done safely, but only by understanding the dangers involved. Pretending that everything is safe is a recipe for creating the conditions for someone to stop paying attention to that danger and have a mishap.

Every time I have gone to the track, either as a driver or just to watch, I have seen at least one car each weekend receive some structural damage. Sometimes it was major, sometimes just a fender bender, and once there was a high speed car-on-car collision. Sometimes it was a new driver, but most times it was a driver in the higher levels.

So why do people argue that accidents are rare, and that being on the track is safer than being on the public roads? I'm not really sure, but it's devoutly believed by many, and they react with anger and shock if anyone suggests otherwise.

And here we're talking about driving cars. It's not an earth shattering topic. What if we were to discuss something more important, like someone's most fundamental understanding of how they conceive of reality and the structure of the universe they live in. If you think arguing about car wrecks causes illogical and emotional responses, you can be assured that challenging someone's religious ideas could be down right dangerous to your health. For this reason, I never do this to someone's face or even in personal correspondence without extreme trepidation. I pretty much know better than to do it at all except in mostly impersonal writing such as this.


The history of man is filled with people killing each other over this topic. Politics is filled with religious bigotry, with people insisting that their god tells them what is best for us all. Despite that there is no evidence for the existence of a god, despite that most definitions of a god, especially the Christian god, are down right illogical, people believe. It doesn't have to make sense, they just believe. They structure their lives around the institutional lie of their deity, and any challenge to that lie is a danger to their immediate lives.

The good and well-meaning people of the Porsche Club of America seem to believe that if they acknowledged the danger of driving on a race track, that newcomers would be deterred from joining in. They value newcomers because they keep the club alive and growing, and make it more fun. Perhaps they are concerned that a more sober look at safety issues will reveal that it is indeed too dangerous and may result in someone calling for an end to it. I have no idea. I never want to discourage anyone from driving on the track. It's fun. But it is dangerous and cars get destroyed and people can get hurt -- or why else do we always have tow trucks and ambulances present?

The good and well-meaning people of the Christian churches, and all other religions, believe that questioning their beliefs could be dangerous to our entire society, and indeed those who don't accept their make-believe are menaces to good order and civil behavior. Without our modern recognition of civil rights, non-believers would be burned at the stake just as they have been in most societies throughout the entirety of history, all based on a stubborn and non-rational insistence on institutional lies.


Hirohito and Islam
Many people object to my characterization of Islamic clerics, and say that their recent Fatwa that I criticized in my last rant is evidence that progress is being made. Their objection is that if they came out and announced full support of the United States in combating terrorism that they would cause unrest and risk getting killed by Muslim extremists.

This is the same immoral rationale used to excuse Hirohito from his complicity in waging war on China and trying to create the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. Sadly, MacArthur saw fit to exonerate him despite evidence to the contrary.
I think a rant about Hirohito would be very interesting, but I don't have time for the research right now (happy hour with the Porsche Club is soon!), so I'll restrict myself to a simple comparison of his actions to these Islamic clerics.

The basic outline of the defense of Hirohito (or should I call him by his post mortem name of Showa?) is that he really isn't very smart and being a simpleton he didn't really know what was being done in his name. Hard to believe. The other, contradictory excuse given is that if he had spoken up against the barbarous executions and rapine behavior in the nations he conquered, then the real power in the Imperial Japanese government would have executed him. So, at one time he is an imbecile, but also clever enough to know to not speak out against clear evil.

The evidence that Hirohito knew what was going on, directing what was going on, and relishing what was going on is fairly clear, but I'll go over that later. For now, I'll just submit that any imbecile should know that invading other countries to take over their raw materials and governments is wrong. All 6 year olds can understand this. So, imbecility is no excuse.

The second argument is just as bad as the imbecile argument. Hirohito, or Showa to be polite, was a living and mortal deity, the latest member in a purportedly 3000 year old dynasty. The legitimacy of that claim is debatable, but it was believed by his followers. The argument goes that he was a puppet used by the army to give them the authority they needed to rule the nation. They needed him to control the population and give them the authority to create a fascist state where each individual subordinated himself to the will of the Emperor. Yet suddenly when it came to a need to speak out against evil, Showa suddenly became powerless and unable to speak against those relying on his authority (despite that he dissolved several parliaments).

The reality is that as the leader of Japan, puppet or not, his name was used in the commission of unspeakable acts with his knowledge. That he didn't speak against these acts, even at the risk of his own life makes him equally guilty. Note that when he wanted to end the war he broke precedent and jumped on the radio to tell everyone to stop fighting. How lovely for him to only get this newfound courage at so late a date. Morality required him to speak out long beforehand, before they invaded Manchuria and began the Asian component of WWII.

So likewise we are now faced with a worldwide religion led by a loose body of scholars who define the religion. Just like Hirohito, they have an absolute obligation to speak loudly and forcefully against using their religion to kill Americans, Jews, or anyone else, and to condemn clearly and unambiguously anyone taking part in terrorist activity. They are obliged to fight against this evil even at the cost of their own lives. When their names are used to justify murder, then they must speak against it or they are just as guilty of murder.

And just like with Showa, if such actions in favor of morality result in their own death, then that is the price of leadership. If they wish to remain leaders, they must take the consequences of leading evil people.

And equally as with Showa, the reality is that if they speak up, the evil is likely to stop much sooner. The only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. When good men do nothing in the face of evil, they cease to be good men any longer.

Let history remember Showa as the man named Hirohito who was responsible for the murder and enslavement of people in numerous nations and the eventual destruction of his own nation. And unless something changes soon, history will remember Islamic clerics as responsible for the rise of international terrorism the past thirty years or so, and the eventual destruction of their religion and culture.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Those Murderous Muslims
Several Islamic wise men in Iraq issued a Fatwa today. A Fatwa is a binding pronouncement made by a recognized scholar or scholars. This Fatwa might appear positive at first blush, but if you examine it for more than a minute you should feel the same revulsion that I felt.

Basically the Fatwa is critical of the attacks on Muslims that have been occuring in recent weeks. The Fatwa declares it anathema for a Muslim to kill another Muslim. Do you see a glaring piece missing from this announcement?
Let's put it in a different perspective. Let's say that here in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan issued a press release saying that they denounce anyone who persecutes Catholics and Jews, and condemns anyone who lynches either. Would you notice anything missing from their newfound piety?

I suspect that black people would howl in protest. The Klan would be justly observed to be saying in effect that lynching Catholics and Jews are distracting from their larger goal of lynching Blacks. Their press release would be recognized as a cynical ploy to gain recognition for turning a new leaf, while at the same time they can renew their persecution and violence towards their principle victims.

So why is anyone impressed with these Muslim scholars just because they call for an end to violence against other Muslims? What about violence towards Americans, or others? They still insist on waging Jihad against us and against all Jews everywhere. Nice guys.

We will not be safe until Islamic clerics renounce all violence against us, or until they are dead. I'm expecting that the latter will occur first.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Splitting Infinitives and Ending with Prepositions
Another blogger caught my attention today and made some comments about grammar, curiously remarking that a split infinitive would be an example of improper English.

But of course, this is all a silly myth. Splitting infinitives is one of the wonderful advantages of our language. The reason that many teachers say otherwise is a very curious relic of the 18th century.
I'm going to quote at length from "The Mother Tongue, English and How it Got that Way" by Bill Bryson.

Consider the curiously persistent notion that sentences should not end with a preposition. The source of this stricture, and several other equally dubious ones, was one Robert Lowth , an eighteenth century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad. It is to Lowth that we can trace many a pedant's most treasured notions: the belief that you must say different from rather than different to or different than, the idea that two negatives make a positive, the rule that you must not say "the heaviest of two objects," but rather "the heavier," the distinction between shall and will, and the clearly nonsensical belief that between can apply only to two things and among to more than two. (By this reasoning, it would not be possible to say that St. Louis is between New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but rather that it is among them, which would impart a quite different sense.) Perhaps the most remarkable and curiously enduring of Lowth's many beliefs was the conviction that sentences ought not to end with a preposition. But even he was not didactic about it. He recognized that ending a sentence with a preposition was idiomatic and common in both speech and informal writing. He suggested only that he thought it generally better and more graceful, not crucial, to place the preposition before its relative "in solemn and elevated" writing. Within a hundred years this had been converted from a piece of questionable advice into an immutable rule. In a remarkable outburst of literal-mindedness, nineteenth-century academics took it as read that the very name pre-position meant it must come before something – anything.

But then this was a period of the most resplendent silliness, when grammarians and scholars seemed to be climbing over one another (or each other; it doesn't really matter) in a mad scramble to come up with fresh absurdities. This was the age when, it was gravely insisted, Shakespeare's laughable ought to be changed to laugh-at-able and reliable should be made into relionable.

Bryson then goes on to point out how these pedants of the 19th century objected to combining words from different sources to create other words, for instance using the Latin petro and the Greek oleum to form the word petroleum. He continues,

It is one of the felicities of English that we can take pieces of words from all over and fuse them into new constructions – like trusteeship, which consists of a Nordic stem (trust), combined with a French affix (ee), married to an Old English root (ship). Other languages cannot do this. We should be proud of ourselves for our ingenuity and yet even now authorities commonly attack almost any new construction as ugly or barbaric.

I'm having fun quoting this book, I hope Bill Bryson considers this fair use.

Here's a paragraph showing how some things just make no sense about language.

Considerations of what makes for good English of bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say "you was" if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer – surprise, surprise – is that Robert Lowth didn't like it. "I'm hurrying, are I not?" is hopelessly ungrammatical, but "I'm hurrying, aren't I?" – merely a contraction of the same words – is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in "Many people were there"), but not when it is followed by a as in "Many a man was there." There's no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are.

It just amazes me that this one guy named Lowth, acting completely by himself, had such a big impact on changing the perceived rules of our language. He made these new rules up out of thin air out of a desire to make English conform to Latin. It just goes to show how much bluster and hubris can influence people.

Now, I'm finally getting to the issue of split infinitives. Again Bryson,

English grammar is so complex and confusing for the one very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin – a language with which it has precious little in common. In Latin, to take one example, it is not possible to split an infinitive. So in English, the early authorities decided, it should not be possible to split an infinitive either. But there is no reason why we shouldn't, any more than we should forsake instant coffee and air travel because they weren't available to the Romans. . . . But once this insane notion became established grammarians found themselves having to draw up ever more complicated and circular arguments to accommodate the inconsistencies.

Nothing illustrates the scope for prejudice in English better than the issue of the split infinitive. Some people feel ridiculously strongly about it. When the British Conservative politician Jock Bruce-Gardyne was economic secretary to the Treasury in the early 1980's, he returned unread any departmental correspondence containing a split infinitive. (It should perhaps be pointed out that a split infinitive is one in which an adverb comes between to and a verb, as in to quickly look.) I can think of two very good reasons for not splitting an infinitive.

1. Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago.

2. Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted.

It is exceedingly difficult to find any authority who condemns the split infinitive – Theodore Bernstein, H. W. Fowler, Ernest Gowers, Eric Partridge, Rudolph Flesch, Wilson Follett, Roy H. Copperud, and others too tedious to enumerate here all agree that there is no logical reason not to split an infinitive. Otto Jespersen even suggests that, strictly speaking, it isn't actually possible to split an infinitive. As he puts it: " 'To' . . . is no more an essential part of an infinitive than the definite article in an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling 'the good man' a split nominative."

It's a fascinating book. One of the other things I most appreciated learning from this book and others is that we speakers of English are fortunate that we have never found sufficient accord to form an academy (despite many attempts, including one by John Adams and another by John Quincy Adams) for the standardization of the English language. Had we done so, we would likely have language cops like the French and the French Canadians do.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Another Reason to Hate the FCC
As if there weren't enough reasons to despise the Extralegal, unconstitutional Federal Communications Commission, our favorite squeamish general's son, Michael Powell, is giving us new cause.

It's all about the recent Janet Jackson bared breast. Have no fear, no pictures of that hag's anatomy will ever grace my website. Janet and her singing partner on stage showed that the idiocy in the Jackson family is not reserved to her pervert brother, and her stunt lacked class, decency and subjected us not only to her ungracefully aging face, but also her right breast. I think the fact that she is hideous is responsible for much of the angry reactions as anything else.
There's a time and a place for everything. There is nothing wrong with nudity, and I like naked women in general, but the Superbowl is not meant to be a burlesque show, and it is inconsiderate of CBS and the NFL to corrupt a pleasant game of football that all can enjoy with their families, no matter their beliefs. Is Janet immoral? Yes, but not because of this stunt. That's just evidence of her stupidity and her bad manners.

But what has my ire up is the comments of the FCC chairman, squeamish Colin Powell's son, Michael. Here he is, in a position of public trust, making statements like this:

"I am outraged at what I saw during the halftime show of the Super Bowl. Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation's children, parents and citizens deserve better."

He then went on to promise a swift and thorough investigation.

You know, here he has already publicly concluded that this was intentional before the investigation has even started. I guess I should commend his honesty, but personally I like keeping some appearances up. He should at least pretend that he is withholding judgement until after an investigation is complete.

Powell is a pure, statist thug politician. He seems to revel in drawing attention to himself for making hard policy decisions based on little more than his personal whims. That he is that way is not too surprising or disturbing, A postion like his will eventually attract power mongers, he just happens to be the one to magnify and publicize the power mongering.

The thing is that no one disagrees with him. There is no need for the government to get involved, the outrage has been clear from all quarters. I have yet to read of anyone speak in favor of seeing a naked forty-something year old woman on television during the biggest family show of the year. The people of the country are showing every sign of taking care of this without a government boot stamping on us.

What Squeamish's son has done is now put a government face on this incident, and as a partisan politician he has pretty much guaranteed that now there will be a schism in opinions where until now there has been universal condemnation.

The FCC should have no power to regulate content of broadcasts. We are free people, we can take care of this ourselves without being oppressed.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Two and a Half Years Late
For the first time I am aware of, a noteworthy Islamic cleric has condemned terrorism. What took so long? His statements were made yesterday during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Sadly it only applies to terrorism conducted against Muslims, but it's a start. I'm still waiting for a Muslim cleric to be in favor of being peaceful towards Americans, but maybe I'm expecting too much until we finish killing a lot more of those clerics and their followers.

During the pilgrimage the annual crushing to death of pilgrims occurred, this year 244 people were stampeded. This is the natural result of having hundreds of thousands of people each collecting twenty-one stones and throwing seven each at three pillars which represent evil. Despite that it is intrinsically emotional, involves physical exertion by hundreds of thousands trying to get within a stone's throw of these pillars, and that every year for more than a thousand years people get stampeded, these not-so-brilliant people don't seem to have developed very good crowd control. I guess stampeding 244 people (which is only a little higher than usual) is worth the silly ritual of throwing pebbles. Oh, and then they go off and sacrifice a goat. Yeah, that's a culture that's going somewhere.

Apparently, this rite is not officially condoned, but is very, very popular. Now back to the statements of the Saudi Sheik.
From an AP report found on Fox News online:

Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Sheik said in his sermon there were those who claim to be holy warriors, but were shedding Muslim blood and destabilizing the nation.

"Is it holy war to shed Muslim blood? Is it holy war to shed the blood of non-Muslims given sanctuary in Muslim lands? Is it holy war to destroy the possession of Muslims," he said, adding that their actions gave enemies an excuse to criticize Muslim nations.

A large number of the victims of suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere have been Muslims.

Al-Sheik, who is widely respected in the Arab world as the foremost cleric in the country considered the birthplace of Islam, spoke at Namira Mosque in a televised sermon watched by millions of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The mosque is close to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon in A.D. 632.

In speaking about terrorists who killed fellow Muslims, al-Sheik was clearly referring to the prophet's final sermon, which contained the line: "Know that every Muslim is a Muslim's brother, and the Muslims are brethren. Fighting between them should be avoided."

But lest we get too hopeful that these primitives are learning to be civilized, his sentiments do not seem to be shared by most. In the same article, we learn

Calling America "the greatest Satan," Egyptian pilgrim Youssef Omar threw pebbles at one pillar on which someone had scrawled "USA."

Unfortunately, the Sheik stopped short of criticizing acts of terror that aren't against Muslims, but instead against Americans. He then went on to protest those who criticize Wahabbism, the exact sect of Islam that hates the US most and does its best to foment the attitudes of the terrorists. But perhaps his statement is an attempt to reform their evil hatred. My rational mind thinks that this is really just a call for Muslims to stop attacking each other and to concentrate on attacking us instead.

I think there is still only very little hope for them. Our war must continue until these ideas and the heads that contain them are wiped out.