Does American Sign Language (ASL) Have a Future?

We all have hobbies or special interests. Mine has been studying languages. As a child, it literally became an obsession. I’d buy paperbacks with my meager allowance, seemingly offering a pathway to fluency in German, a language I desperately wanted to learn given my brother’s return from post-war Europe with a German bride.

On one occasion, I made the long trudge, several miles, to the voluminous Philadelphia Library on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, checking out several books in Russian. When I got home, I must have somehow fantasized that this new tongue in Cyrillic would instantly dissolve into comprehension. No such luck!

In subsequent years, I pursued some thirteen languages more or less, but several very seriously. I took Latin, French, and German in high school; had to read Beowulf in Old English as part of my Ph. D., took language courses in France and Mexico, and traveled much of the world.

For all this, I still don’t speak any of these languages with any fluency, not because they’re difficult, or I lack discipline, or due to inadequate exposure, but simply because I don’t hear well, never really have, and it’s gotten worse, forcing me to resort to hearing aids a decade ago.

Only recently did I figure things out why I wasn’t mastering these languages orally. Years ago, a colleague, who was a professional speech therapist, gave me a hearing test. It showed significant hearing loss.

Sometimes this happens to a great many of us as part of the aging process, but it happened to me a lot earlier. I know genetics can play a role and that my mother became totally deaf later in life.

If I underwent an illness of some sort when I was little, I don’t have any family members around to tell me.

It’s not fun being hearing impaired, which makes me aware, compassionately so, of the lot of those born that way.

As is, my tendency to not hear, mishear, and sometimes invent can border on the edge of absurdity, softened on occasion by the confused, tolerant silence of my listeners, mostly my long-suffering spouse who, like other females, save maybe for a low voiced Lauren Bacall, I cannot comprehend in their high pitch lanes.

Writing in The New York Review of Books (December 7, 2017), Jerome Groopman spells out my dilemma, as well as for many others with diminished hearing:

Several years ago, I noticed difficulty hearing: testing showed diminished perception of high frequencies, a common consequence of aging. Hearing aids were prescribed, which helped to amplify sounds but weren’t a complete remedy. Background noise in restaurants made it difficult to discern the conversation of dinner partners, and I often missed muttered dialog in movies. Most vexing was what Oliver Sacks termed  “mishearing”—I thought I heard certain words, but they were distortions of what was actually said, and my response corresponded to the distortions. For example, recently a scientific colleague told me he was going to a conference in Milan. I heard “Iran” and replied that he was sure to be harassed at US Customs given Trump’s travel ban. He looked confused.  “Since when is Italy on the list?” 

My hearing has gotten so bad that I recently explored getting a cochlear implant, but then surprised the university staff, including my otolaryngologist, when tested with a hearing aid in separate ears, I scored 93 in the left ear; 89 in the really bad ear. I thought maybe I’d somehow outwitted the test, but they told me they’d recently toughed it up. My accompanying MRI brain scan showed no evidence of any tumor.

In a Mexican restaurant a short time later with my wife, the same damn problem, a tsunami of background noise drowning out any semblance of meaningful conversation.

Recently, I’ve been combing the Web to find available ASL classes, either on site, or online, feeling that a deadline is nearing when I’ll not hear anything at all. Sign language works for the deaf. Maybe it can work for me.

But American Sign Language, what’s taught in North American, can be a formidable challenge in itself, requiring lots of practice and finger dexterity. You also need a partner, so my wife would also need to learn it.

I didn’t know until Gerald Shea’s recent insightful book, The Sounds of Silence, that Sign Language, that nearly universal fixture of communication among the deaf, or so I thought, faces its own imminent demise, given the rise of cochlear implants and the increasing dominance of the oral approach, which seeks to encourage the deaf to acquire spoken language. I think this is wrong and a revival of a sort of the historical cruelties imposed upon the deaf in past eras, sometimes torture.

Until Shea’s book, I hadn’t any knowledge of these cruelties. The Byzantine Justinian Code, for example, disallowed the deaf from inheriting property.

Thirteenth-century bishop Guilaume Durand de Mende believed the deaf were unwilling to hear the word of God.

At times, the deaf were tortured, with hot coals pushed into their throats to force them to speak, or catheters twisted into the nasal cavity and shoved down into the Eustachian tubes, or burning liquids poured into drilled holes in the skull.

Sign language began in earnest in mid-18th century France with a priest, Michel de l’Épée who believed that seeing could replace hearing in learning concepts.

In the early 19th century, Roche-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, who had normal hearing, mastered French Sign Language and did much to emancipate the deaf.

Bébian’s methodology spread to America, and the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford in 1817, arousing disdain from oralists from the very beginning, who associated sign language with primitive people.  Oralists believe that the deaf can learn to hear and speak.

Unfortunately, I only recently learned that oralists have won the debate, as only a minority of the deaf learn sign language today. With the exception of Gallaudet University, the vast majority are mainstreamed, with classroom interpreters employing coded systems.

Additionally, cochlear implants have abetted the oralist approach, with 80% of those born deaf now fitted in the West with these devices. Implants, unlike the hearing aids I use, which merely amplify sounds, transmit sounds directly to the auditory nerve. In the U. S., cochlear implants is a $5 billion annual industry.

Research indicates cochlear implants, while beneficial to those with impaired hearing, are substantially less so for those born deaf.   Those favoring the implants, however, have predicted that within a few decades, signing will be gone.

Shea argues that cochlear implants are measured in labs, which don’t mirror life in the outside world. A British test found that children fitted with the devices were no more educationally advanced than those with hearing aids. Likewise, a University of Toronto study found that children fitted with cochlear implants didn’t fare any better than children with hearing aids. And with both, background noise made things worse.

The sad truth, as a French study shows, few children fitted with the cochlear develop “intelligible” speech. As those children grow older, they frequently resort to sign language, avoiding the strain to hear with the devices.  Sign language, on the other hand, affords them both fluency and dignity.

As Shea concludes, depriving an individual of his or her language denigrates their identity.

—rj

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Does the Qur’an Preach Violence?

Yesterday came news of the slaughter of up to 300 Sufi worshippers exiting a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai at the close of prayer, among them, twenty-seven children. It isn’t the first time such a murderous attack on unarmed civilians, even fellow Muslims, has occurred in Egypt and elsewhere.

Increasingly, Islamic violence has spread to Europe and North America as well. Thanks to Carnegie Mellon’s interactive platform, EarthTimeLapse, drawing on the Global Terrorism Database, we can even precisely map both its locale and frequency over the last 20-years.

Last year, 2016, Islamic extremists killed 269 people across Europe. In America, we’ve largely escaped since 9/11, apart from several sporadic incidents, the latest occurring in NYC when Uzbekistan immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a rented truck into a crowded bike lane in lower Manhattan, killing eight on October 31, 2017.

All of this pales, however, when we include the Middle East and Africa, where 19,121 died last year, according to the Global Terrorist Data project, nearly all of them Muslim, which we’re likely to miss in our frequent ethnocentrism.

Consequently, it’s not unreasonable that many have come to associate Islam, “the religion of peace,” with violence. Critics call it Islamophobia.

Feeding into the public’s unease have been the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who have vociferously argued that Islam is intrinsically disposed to violence, both in its long history and the present, posing an insidious threat to our nation’s future, given their rising immigration numbers, high birth levels, and alleged intolerance.

And, of course, there’s President Trump who has seemingly bought into the nation’s anxiety, perhaps for political advantage.

I would personally like to defuse my own unease that erupts with almost daily news bulletins announcing some new, malicious violence somewhere on our troubled planet. Hopefully, its source isn’t Islam, but almost always it is.

I studied in France at the University of Dijon in the summer of 1985 and my best memories are of the friendships I shared with Muslims from Morocco, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Israel. What won their affection was my sympathy for the Palestinians in their pursuit of nationhood, something they found incongruous, what with the stereotype Muslims often have of Americans, given our country’s traditional support for Israel.

We never quarreled. In fact, religion never came up at all.

At home, while I haven’t had much contact with Muslims, I’ve met several who treated me with kindness when I’ve met them in stores, allowing me to precede them in a line or fetching me a grocery cart.

My experience of Muslim reciprocal kindness tells me that like most human beings, their heart is good and wants to share its goodness, and that their faith has been grievously  maligned.

Now comes Gary Will’s new book, What the Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters (Viking,2017). This a crucial book, since Muslim proponents of terrorism trace what we now know as jihad back to the Qur’an, which they interpret literally, devoid of context or cultural antecedents, doing what fundamentalists generally do whatever their proclaimed religion.

Taken out of context, the Qur’an can indeed be disturbing reading, but so can the Old Testament with its advocacy of genocide towards those of different faith and culture like the Moabites. Wills, on the other hand, persuasively argues that the Qur’an is utterly incompatible with the barbaric atrocities committed in its name by Isis, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al-shabaab.

Wills points out, for example, that the Qur’an’s employment of  jihad “striving,” i.e.,”zeal,” and sharia don’t resonate their original nuance for these groups, and that jihad, for example, can suggest “holy war” in modern Arabic.

As for “sharia” with its modern association with complex religious laws, it occurs only once in the Qur’an (Q.45:18) and simply means “the right path.” In fact, no complex system of religious laws even existed in the Prophet’s lifetime.

In Wills’ view, the Qur’an has been grossly abused by militant Muslims, its text supporting peaceable co-existence with Judaism and Christianity and recognizing Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as antecedent prophets to the preeminent  prophet, Mohammed.

The Qur’an does allow for defensive warfare against militant aggressors opposed to monotheism: “If God did not refuel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed (Q. 22:40).

The one liability for Wills is the Qur’an’s seeming denigration of women as in Q. 4:34: “If you fear bad conduct from your wives, advise them, then ignore them in bed, then strike them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them.”

By the same token, the Qur’an doesn’t assign blame to Eve, who is unnamed, for the transgression in the garden, unlike the Old Testament.

While Wills’ scholarship seems impeccable in its fairness and exactitude, the problem of the Qur’an’s grievously distorted message and misappropriation by radical Islamic extremists and many Western critics, remains. Good as Wills’ book is, it will prove no more effectual in promoting reconciliation with all faiths than a seed by itelf can produce a harvest.

Islam needs to undergo theological and cultural reform, as occurred with Judaism and Christianity to curtail radical extremism.  Though there are reformers trying to do just that such as Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, and Irshad Manji, they’re all too few and face vehement opposition, if not enmity, among purists and entrenched theocracies like Iran. Islam isn’t merely a faith but a total way of life in which change, if any occurs, will only come grudgingly.

What this book can do for those who read it is expurgate the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims, whether Sunni or Shiite, from the shibboleth of violence and intolerance so often impugning both the Qur’an and its practice as a consequence of an extremist minority. After all, Muslims have been by far, terrorism’s victims as yesterday’s Sufi massacre attests.

—rj

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Elegy for Iris: A Review

“We can only learn to love by loving.” —Iris Murdoch

I’ve just read John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, his moving memoir of his wife, renowned British novelist Iris Murdoch—26 novels in addition to nonfiction—who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1999 at 79.

How does something like this happen? We’re told that we may ward off Alzheimer’s scourge by exercising our brains via mental pursuits like puzzles, word games, picking-up a language, trolling in math, yet here’s this woman of scintillating brilliance, winner of the Booker Prize, working omnivorously at her craft, yet ultimately pummeled by this dread disease. The truth is that the cards were virtually stacked against her, given her mother’s earlier Alzheimer’s.

Lasting forty-three years, their marriage was unconventional. Iris was bi-sexual and had liaisons throughout their marriage. Age or gender didn’t matter. She was attracted to robust intellectuals, not least, her distinguished husband highly regarded for his literary criticism and as an academic at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

But does it matter anyway? That eccentricity often goes hand-in-glove with artistry is a given. Besides, an author’s sexual life ranks in the lower tier when it comes to our reading choices. Think Dickens, George Eliot, Sartre, and others.

For some of us, however, we retain curiosity about the life behind the work when it comes to those who seemingly “hook” us with their artistry. In this, we’re probably no different from those devotees of Hollywood celebs, rampaging People magazine and the like in fervent quest for intimacy. We even have our dedicated websites.

My own practice when I come upon an established writer that I really like is one of saturation.   Generally, I’ll read maybe three novels and two biographies. This helps me see writers in context and provides a ground-base for properly appreciating their work. I had just read Murdoch’s Booker Award novel, The Sea, O the Sea (1984).

Bayley received sharp criticism in some quarters for publishing his memoir in 1998. Iris was still alive, yet Bayley proved unsparing in disclosing Murdoch’s private life without her consent or ability for rebuttal. Muriel Spark described the elegy as “sordid.”

On the contrary, Bayley felt that the Elegy honored Iris and the vast majority of readers seem to agree. We learn something about marriage, in this case, an anomaly that worked for Iris and John as opposed to the traditional axiom of not taking your partner for granted. For John and Iris, taking each other for granted took on a quotidian staple, emerging as a refrain in the Elegy.

By this, the couple meant not clinging to one’s partner or controlling, but allowing them independence to embrace the effulgence of their identity: “Apartness in marriage is a state of love and not a function of difference or preference or practicality,” Bayley writes.

As columnist Graeme Archer perceptively observes in the Telegraph (2015), “Only when you know without question that you are wanted, no matter how you behave, no matter what you say; that you’ll be together till death, etc – this is when you know it’s love.”

The Elegy tells of their early romance, their shared living habits, common interests, and writing practices. What sets the book apart is its honest wrestlings in living with someone you love, in this instance, a woman of cerebral brilliance now unable to remember her friends, achievements, and their life experiences as a couple, reduced to minimal articulation, daily angst, and ubiquitous dependence by chronic illness. Bayley fed, clothed, and “hosed her down.”

A forthright narrator, Bayley castigates himself for his sometimes loss of patience and scolding, the Elegy emerging as a testimony of love’s transcendence over the vagaries that time with its contingencies imposes on us mortal creatures, fallible in our humanity, yet graced with the capacity to not merely endure, but to overcome and love steadfastly.

An international best seller, it would provide along with Bayley’s subsequent book, Iris and her friends, the basis for the 2001 film, Iris, garnering three academy award nominations.

Writing in the Providence Sunday Observer, critic Tom D’Evelyn wrote, “Elegy for Iris has already become a classic memoir and a remedy for modern love. Read it and, if you dare, give, it to someone you love.”

—rj

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My hummingbird friends

My hummingbird friends descend upon my garden landscape each spring, or like clockwork with the advent of April, having journeyed more than a thousand miles from their winter feeding grounds to the south or in Mexico.

They stay with me, these ruby throated aerial acrobats, until the first week of October when days of shortened light signal them to begin their return journey.

Often less than 6 inches in length, they’re among the most intrepid of birds, aggressive even among their own, and quite capable of speeds up to 60 mph.

Occasionally, I sometimes think of them as analogous to helicopters, able to both hover and fly backwards.

While they’re with me, I try to help them find food by providing a red feeder for them filled with my home brew of four parts water to one part sugar.

I last saw my sojourners on October 2, darting their bills vehemently into their liquid brew fattening themselves for their exodus to warmer feeding grounds.

Like the falling leaves, their departure is one of nature’s ritual markers of coming frost and winter’s inevitability.

I worry about them.

Climate change has resulted in flowering plants now often blooming up to three weeks before their arrival to rest and feed in an area, before resuming their spring journey north, meaning a loss of nectar and the risk of starvation.

And then there’s that constant of diminishing habitat, pesticides, and invasive species.

Although Spring brings joy with its warming temperatures and a regenerating landscape, our world around us is rapidly entering into a new phase and perhaps some future spring they, like butterflies and bees, will no longer be part of that spring, inflicting a hovering silence with their absence..

Meanwhile, I hope to supplement their well-being while they’re with me, adding plants like penstemon, cardinal flower, bee balm, coralbell, and scarlet sage to next year’s garden.

Their departure always saddens me, not helped by increasing somber gray skies, brisk temperatures, and a waning landscape.

But then, such are nature’s rhythms, and even our own, that every beginning has its ending, with wisdom teaching us to value each moment in a cosmos of impermanence.

 

 

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NFL Hypocrisy

The media has been all over this story of Sunday’s NFL response to Trump’s
provocative tweet that NFL team owners should fire players who don’t stand proud when the national anthem is played: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.”

Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got in his licks at Trump, responding that “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”

All fine and good, but the NFL’s last minute conversion to players’ right to freedom of speech reeks with blatant hypocrisy. In July 2016, six Dallas police officers were killed in a sniper ambush. As a symbol of community support for police officers, the Dallas Cowboys asked permission from the NFL to wear a helmet “Arm in Arm” decal. The NFL refused. Where was the “unity” then?

Meanwhile, NFL teams continue to discriminate against free agent Colin Kaepernick, who started the take-a-knee protests during the anthem. Quarterbacks have been subsequently signed without ever having thrown a football in an NFL game.

Now’s the time for NFL teams to walk the talk and return this former Super Bowl quarterback with a 90.3 rating to the playing field. Sooner of later, some team’s going to suffer an injured quarterback. Voila!

–rj

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Love for All Seasons

 

I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crime.” Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017)

China isn’t usually a quotidian staple of the Westerner’s mindset. Let’s face it: our culture operates in Eurocentric mode, which may ultimately hint of a latent bias unrecognized in ourselves, a sense of smugness that they’ve little to offer us, save maybe for bargain-priced goods at your local box store.

Sadly, the death of leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo, on July 13 of this year from liver cancer was inevitably passed over by most Westerners and the media, which is a pity, for he graced our earth with a loving compassion, championing basic values promoting human dignity and the sanctity of individual lives.

A writer, poet and literary critic, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010. Unfortunately, his chair at the reward ceremony in Oslo would be empty. A year before, he had just begun serving an 11-year sentence for sedition against the People’s Republic of China. An outspoken critic of the Communist government, he campaigned for freedom of speech, free elections, and basic human rights.

If you google his name, you’ll find numerous links to salient quotations that speak to the decency of this man, who lived life courageously, and at ultimate cost, for his outspoken criticism of Beijing’s ubiquitous hegemony.

Among his quotations, I like this one best for its vibrant reiteration of one of humanity’s most requisite needs and fundamental rights:

Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.

We live in a time of understandable exasperation with a new Washington regime, with many calling for shutting down views they find untenable, if not despicable. We find truth, promote dignity, and enhance human freedom, however, when we allow discussion in the market place of free exchange.

I don’t want to be under the aegis of thought police, whether Right or Left, and I don’t think you do either. I’m suspicious of all peripheries.

Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, is also a remarkable denizen in the portals of courage. Gifted poet and photographer, she married Liu in 1996 at the time of his incarceration in a reeducation labor camp for having urged peaceful diplomacy toward Taiwan.

Inveterate in her love and loyalty for her husband, she paid him a prison visit shortly after the Nobel Prize. Subsequently placed under house arrest, the government denied her access to cell phone and Internet use, while permitting only a handful of approved visitors.

Presently, we don’t know her whereabouts, although the government says that she’s free.

Two poems presented here pulsate with the salient love they shared as husband and wife and are especially moving in that they were written in contexts of extreme duress.

The first is “Morning,” which Liu penned before 2000 and dedicated to his wife; the second, “Road to Darkness,” Lia wrote shortly before her husband’s death. Both poems have been translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and appear in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (September 28, 2017).

The poignant irony is that these two stalwarts of freedom are unknown in China, all mention of them having been scrubbed from social media.

                 Morning
–For Zia

Between the gray walls
and a burst of chopping sounds,
morning comes, bundled and sliced,
and vanishes with the paralyzed souls
of the chopped vegetables.

Light and darkness pass through my pupils.
How do I know the difference? 
Sitting in the rust, I can’t tell 
if it’s the shine on the shackles in the jail
or the natural light of Nature
from outside the walls.
Daylight betrays everything, the splendid sun
stunned.

Morning stretches and stretches in vain.
You are far away__
But not to far to collect the love
of my night.

            Road to Darkness
For Xiaobo

Sooner or later you will leave me, one day
and take the road to darkness
alone.

I pray for the moment to reappear
so I can see it better,
as if from memory.
I wish that I, astonished, could glow, my body
in full bloom of light for you.

But I can’t make it except
clenching my fists, not letting
the strength,
not even a little bit of it, slip
through my fingers.

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Baseball’s Decline

Last night, the Cleveland Indians won their twentieth straight game, tying the 2000 Oakland A’s, an American League record. Win one more, and they’ll have tied the 1935 Chicago Cubs. Still, they have a ways to go for the all time record, depending on how you count: the 2016 New York Giants won 26 straight games, although there was a tie that wasn’t counted against that streak.

You’d think Cleveland fans would turn out in droves to see their sizzling team, but not so. Last night, just 24,624 fans witnessed their historic blitz behind ace pitcher Corey Kluber at Progressive Field.

Seems they’d rather invest in their perennially dismal Cleveland Browns, who drew 67, 431 for their NFL opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which, not surprisingly, they lost. How bad is it? The Browns have lost 13 of their last 17 home openers.

Despite MLB’s aggressive, multifarious marketing efforts, let’s face it, baseball faces an evolving slide into a pastime of only marginal interest, or something like used to be true of lacrosse or soccer, the latter increasingly shoveling baseball aside as a draw for young people. As baseball aficionado C. J. Kelly observes in reminiscing his old neighborhood,

the baseball fields near my house lay empty on hot summer days except for the occasional Church softball games. The park that surrounds them is even devoid of kids most of the year. The fast-flowing river is all you can hear. The sound of a ball hitting a bat whether it be wood, aluminum and even Whiffle, that was so much a part of my childhood, is missing. You’re more likely to hear skateboards rumbling down the hill leading to the park. I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid walking anywhere with a baseball glove.

By the way, the average age of those tuning into a MLB TV game is now 55+.

I  remember being a kid in Philadelphia in 1950 when the Phillies won their first pennant since 1915. The excitement was palpable. Believe or not, the World Series had a tradition then of playing day games. In factories, workers turned on their radios, our teachers routinely filled us in on what was happening, city newspapers screamed the team’s fortunes in bold black front page headlines.

Changed, all utterly changed.

The 80s inaugurated the era of performance enhancing drugs. Maris, who had legitimately broken the Babe’s record of 60 homers in 154 games way back in 1961 would ultimately fade into stellar darkness as Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa eclipsed his accomplishment in the 90’s. Now we know how they did it. How many others did it too we’ll never know, since the MLB only inaugurated PED testing in 2003.

Ticket prices have soared. After all, players have to feed their families. Today, the average ball player makes $4 million a year. Draftees sign bonuses in the millions, never having played a single game in the Majors.

And for what? Take a relief pitcher, for example; maybe he pitches two or three times a week to just one or two batters each time, yet he can earn a huge payday, say like a million at the very least. The aces, of course, make much more. Arolis Chapman of the Yankees gets a cool $21 million a year. Pity Craig Kimbrel. He lags far behind at $13,250,000.

And then there’s the DH or designated hitter, kind of a built-in pinch hitter who can bat multiple times in a game and never take the field. Again, a lot of big bucks seldom proportionate to their actual contribution.

There’s no team or fan loyalty anymore. Today’s credo–meet my bottomline or I’ll take my glove elsewhere. Players often end their career having played for four or more teams;

The game’s lost much of its finesse like bunting. And when players do bunt, some pitchers get angry, taking it personally.

Ridiculously, you see a shift on nearly every player these days, even the low 200 hitters.

Strikeouts don’t matter either as batters swing for the fences rather than the base hit. This year, homers rival New Mexico hot air balloons in their celestial ascent, while batting averages remain earthbound.

At the heart of baseball’s decline is game length, usually at least three hours, often more. We’re living in the age of the clock and speed, but baseball hasn’t gotten the message. Pitchers taking thirty seconds each time to throw the ball can can drive you into dementia. And then there’s the frequent catcher-pitcher confabs.

Meanwhile, young people are turning away from the game in droves, and even Little League participation is declining.

What’s especially disheartening to me is the increasing scarcity of African-Americans playing the game, opting out for football or basketball. I think of Jackie Robinson who pioneered their inclusion in Major League Baseball and the long tradition of Black prowess contributing so much to making the game appealing and a gateway for disenfranchised Black youth.

The truth is, baseball is dangerously close to regressing to a white man’s game again, apart from the rich contribution of Caribbean ball players.

History used to matter in baseball, but they tore down Yankee Stadium anyway and built another, which they frequently can’t fill. Is Wrigley Field or Fenway next?

Back to when I was a Philly kid, I’d listen to radio broadcasts while on the floor playing with my toys. Soon I knew every player by name. If I had any pocket change, I’d be up at Shibe Park watching the hapless A’s. Summers, not a day, but I’d rush out the flat, joining the neighborhood kids playing stick ball against the factory walls.

I wish the old game were back. Today, it’s about money.

–rj

PS:  My wife just told me the Indians played this afternoon, winning their 21st straight game, a new American League record.  I don’t know about you, but I find that exciting.

 

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The Left’s War on Free Speech

But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. –from Orwell’s 1984.

Thank goodness for the First Amendment that grants us the right to free speech in America, and yet each year books are banned, censored or challenged simply because they express views contrary to usually a political, religious or ethnic constituency.

Just today comes news that Muslim news website The Muslim Vibe is demanding that Amazon pull Raheem Kassam’s pending book, No Go Zones: How Sharia Law is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You from its inventory, calling it “Islamophobic hate.”

If you tell me not to read a book I promise you I’ll read it. That’s why I just read conservative media troll Milo Yiannopoulis’ best selling Dangerous, a book he had to self publish because Simon and Schuster cowered after a $250,000 advance, withdrawing its publication following vociferous threats of the Chicago Review of Books not to review any more of their books, then bullied by a pile-on of 100 writers who said they’d find another publisher if Simon and Schuster followed through.

Normally, we’d associate book banning and repressions of free speech with the extreme right. Think Hitler and the infamous public conflagration of books on May 10, 1933 shortly after his election to Chancelor.

Or Chile in 1973 when the fascist Pinochet government burned hundreds of books.

Unfortunately, limitations on free speech have taken a ubiquitous turn in America, with the Left and many progressives championing repression of conservatives whom they’re fond of labeling as hate mongers. Ironically, the arena for their incendiary assaults are college campuses, supposedly citadels of free inquiry.

On February 1, 2017, Milo had been scheduled for an interview by conservative political commentator Anne Coulter on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, when the university reneged following a gathering of 1500 protestors outside the Student Union building, some dressed in black and wearing masks, throwing rocks at police, smashing windows, and physically assaulting people before moving on to vandalize downtown Berkeley, resulting an estimated $300,000 damage.

How weird for a campus famous for the genesis of the Leftist free speech movement of the 1960s.

Today, the tables have turned and it’s conservatism that’s the counter-culture, the Left its pursuers, given to violence, censorship, ridicule, and ostracism. Media has lent a helping hand, often by sheer omission of news events counter to liberals and progressives, or pursuing advocacy journalism.

Nowadays, even moderate conservative intellectual columnists such as George Will find themselves banned from print or college campuses.

Banning extends even to Berkeley radio station KPFA, which cancelled its planned event with distinguished Oxford scientist and fervent atheist, Richard Dawkins, after receiving complaints alleging hate speech targeting Muslims.

But as Dawkins subsequently explained afterwards, “I have indeed strongly condemned the misogyny, homophobia, and violence of Islamism, of which Muslim–particularly Muslim women–are the prime victims. I make no apologies for denouncing those oppressive cruelties, and I will continue to do so. Why do you give Islam a free pass?  Why is it fine to criticize Christianity but not Islam?”  Thus far, KPFA hasn’t responded.

I won’t go into what happened to Charles Monk, author of the controversial The Bell Curve, when he was met with violence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

I can’t say I’m a devotee of Milo; for example, he adores Donald Trump, who’s anathema to me. I’m for environmentalism, women’s rights, gay rights, single payer health care, increased taxation of the wealthy, etc., none of which Milo’s keen about.

Truth be told, however, Milo’s iniquities have been grossly exaggerated. He’s been wrongly, and repeatedly associated with the nationalist alt.right which media outlets like CNN just can’t seem to get right.  Funny, but both Left and right political wings find him odious.

He’s been called a Nazi and Fascist, deemed Islamophobic, transphobic, white supremacist, and even a pedophile advocate, but better read his book first, since politics can be a very dirty game, but then I don’t think I have to tell you that.

Anyway, we do have the First Amendment with its affirmation of five fundamental freedoms, among them, free speech.

Me, I’m sympathetic when Milo writes that “one day, while attending Manchester I was told I couldn’t read Atlas Shrugged, I thought, this is poppycock. Fuck anyone who tells me what I can and cannot read. I finished it three days later.”

Milo’s early experience with would-be censorship brought back a painful memory of how as a 16-year old, I had been reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only to be told by my adult evangelical cousin and guardian that I was indulging in trash. Two weeks later, I was shipped back to my violent, alcoholic father.

Maybe why the Left really doesn’t want you to read or hear Milo is they fear his persuasive verbiage, and just maybe they should. I think Milo’s scores when he says Democrats forfeited victory in 2016 because they focused more on identity politics than everyday workers in flyover America, forgetting their traditional blue collar ties.

You can’t simply drive him off the stage as some kind of dimwit. Nimble in his velocity, delivering repeated right uppercuts, he grievously shreds stereotypical notions of the politics of a man with a Jewish mother and out-of-the closet gay with a black lover. The bottomline is that Milo jars you into awareness there’s another viewpoint to be had.

I taught argumentative writing on college campuses for more than three decades, always endeavoring to inculcate in my students the rudiments of sound persuasion, listening to the opposition’s point of view, subsequently refuting it point by point with both sound reasoning and empirical evidence. You don’t win a boxing bout by refusing to exchange punches.

I bring this up because I want to practice what I’ve preached to my students. In 2012, Jeremy Waldron, a distinguished scholar and professor of law and philosophy at NYU, penned his landmark book for the Left, The Limits of Hate Speech, arguing that it’s wrong to allow speech that denigrates the dignity of minorities. It’s after all, contributory to social alienation, or tool to ostracism.

But though this view is obviously humane, what often falls under the canopy of Leftist notions of hate speech is simply a refusal to acknowledge the shibboleths of identity politics, better known as political correctness. I’ve already noted its predilection to insult and violence, ostracism and shaming. Are conservatives less deserving of dignified assessment? It’s not a one way street.

In 2015, a guest speaker at a Des Moines high school told his audience, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view…You shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.”  The speaker was President Obama.

I tire of preachments about being a white male, as though being a white male confers privilege.

Or that white males are the seminal source of systemic evil.

Or Yale students moaning that they have to read the literary works of dead white men. Take care, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens!

Why isn’t this racism, seeing race has been brought into the equation?

Ask the impoverished white miners in my state of Kentucky or unemployed steelworkers in Ohio or drought-stricken farmers in Kansas about white privilege!

And you wonder how Democrats lost the election?

Waldron says we shouldn’t get hung up on the First Amendment. Well, he’s a New Zealander. I think the First Amendment encapsulates what ideally America is all about. I shudder to think of an America without it.

And then there’s the horrid history of banning hugely associated with totalitarian regimes like today’s Republic of China, with their self-appointed oligarchy prescribed tenets, and harsh penalization of violators.

You and I aren’t bugs on the ground, but individuals endowed with reasoning capacity. Treat us as such. Respect our right to think for ourselves. There’s your human dignity!

Historically, oppressed minorities haven’t found emancipation through banning the raucous, despicable sentiments of their oppressors, but through reasoned discourse and legislative enactment.

But as I’ve said, many universities have become increasingly radicalized and intolerant of conservatives, reneging on liberal values that encourage intellectual freedom and toleration.

As I write, the exemplar of professor Jordan Peterson sweeps into my purview. Seems he’s been refusing to buckle before the identity politics crowd in not using gender neutral pronouns. It’s his way of protesting Bill C-16 introduced in the Canadian parliament last May as an amendment to the Human Rights Act, calling for the prohibition of language specifying “gender identity” and “gender expression” and a human resource initiative by the university. For Peterson, it all comes down to a freedom of speech issue.

Here at home, GPS host Fared Zakakria recently commented that “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely. Freedom of speech is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”

Among American universities, the University of Chicago gets it right:

The University of Chicago is an institution fully committed to the creation of knowledge across the spectrum of disciplines and professions, firm in its belief that a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas, and that the members of its community have a responsibility both to challenge and to listen (Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former Provost of the University).

If you really think about it, people like Milo serve democracy well. As one of my favorites, John Stuart Mill, often called ‘the saint of rationalism,” pointed out in On Liberty,

In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable. That is, few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.

I won’t apologize for reading Milo. Like so many in the true liberal tradition, I am opposed to the banning of books.

–rj

MILO SAMPLINGS

I’m no hypocrite. I tell the truth, always. That’s my whole fucking problem.

The Left is filled with hypocrites who choose their targets of outrage based solely on their politics.

Young conservatives respond and libertarians respond to me because I say the things they wish they could.

Social taboos for the past fifteen years have all come from the progressive left. They’ re a ridiculously ugly army of scolds who wish to tell you how to behave. Libertarians and conservatives are the new counter-culture.

For the New Left, white men are the cultural counterpart to the economic bourgeoisie in classicist Marxist theory.

I’d prefer a world with no identity politics. I’d prefer we judged people according to reason, logic, and evidence instead of barmy left-wing theories about “oppressors.

Feminism describes itself merely as a movement for female equality. But it behaves like something quite different: a vindictive, spiteful, mean-spirited festival of man-hating.

In the two months following the election, social media analytics discovered more than 12,000 tweets calling for the death of Donald Trump–tweets that remain on the platform.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on the 2017 Philip Larkin Exhibition at Hull

The Guardian (July 4, 2017) features a review of a favorite poet of mine, Philip Larkin, in connection with a current exhibit of Larkin artifacts at Hull’s Brynmore Jones Library, where he was a librarian for many years.

It notes his tortured sexual life, indulgence in pornography, racist asides, and complex relationships the writer terms “despicable” with several women, whom he allegedly treated unfairly, particularly Monica Jones, his lifelong lover and collaborator.

The show includes a small Hitler bust given him by his father, a Nazi sympathizer, who had once taken his son to a Nuremberg rally.

Beyond announcing the exhibit, about which there’s very little, not even its running dates, columnist Hannah Ellis Petersen tells us Larkin was obsessed with his appearance, weighing himself twice daily on two different scales, fastidious about his clothes, etc.

A good portion of the article paraphrases or quotes the exhibit’s curator Anna Farthing, who ironically seems apologetic for the exhibition, perhaps thrown on the defensive by a rehearsed biased protocol: “The challenge is alway to not judge, and present the story in a way with lots of perspectives and hooks so people can make their own minds up. I’ve had lots of different reactions to him as I’ve started to get to know him, from complete respect to being appalled.”

I find the article, spirited perhaps by feminist indulgence, a blatant dismissal of Larkin’s perfected artistry as a poet. Larkin may well be Britain’s best poet since Auden. Unfortunately, literary criticism has taken on a contemporary intrusion of sexual politics.  I side with Terry Eagleton in his contention  that we appear “less interested in ideas than in the sexual habits of those who had them.”

Her take isn’t anything new. As Stephen Walsh recalls (The Guardian, May 30, 2017), during “the 2015 premiere of a BBC documentary about the poet, a female audience member disrupted the generally cosy atmosphere by asking why Hull people should be so proud of Larkin. He was a misogynist and racist, she said, and he didn’t do anything for the image of the city.”

Aside from this, what concerns me more are those who would shun an artist on the basis of alleged moral incongruities or ideology. Ellis-Petersen dubs the exhibit “a morally complex minefield.”

Do we stop reading Voltaire or Gide because they were anti-Semitic; or more famously, D. H. Lawrence, who exhibits a considerable misogynist vein in his work? And what about Hemingway caught up in his male chauvinism? Or the writer I know best, James Joyce with his notorious kinkiness that once got Ulysses banned? Is there a new Index in town?  A moral or political registry to which artists must do obeisance?

My interest in Larkin, or any artist for that matter, isn’t foregrounded in his life. Artists, after all, are human beings, each with their flotsam of inertia or indulgence and dark secrets shaped by the interweave of parental, cultural, economic and social phenomena often imprinting them psychologically, as any reading of Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) should remind us.

Truth is, though a brilliant student at Oxford, Larkin was nonetheless self-deprecating. As a youth, he stuttered and all his life suffered from bad vision. He sought validation from women, but even that couldn’t suffice for low self-esteem.

He shied from interviews and readings. The current exhibit, virtually underwear and all, would undoubtedly have violated his sensibility and his privacy, as much, maybe more, than his inclusion in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Flashback to my student days in a modern poetry course at Exeter College, Oxford, summer of 1979:

I know nothing of Larkin. My tutor, one of the best ever, steeped in bibliography and intertextual nuance, introduces us to the idiomatic, conversational cadence of poems like “Church Going,” “Toads,” and “Whitsun Weddings”.

He knows Larkin personally and has invited him to our class for a reading, but Larkin cancels at the last moment, pleading illness. It’s a let down.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter, for Larkin would become a poetic staple in my life.

Larkin bravely translated the anxieties of modern life into verse. A leading candidate for Poet Laureate in 1984, the withdrawn Larkin wasn’t interested. He died the following year.

Larkin had become librarian at the University of Hull in 1955, beginning a thirty year association. He’s still remembered for his modernization and expansion of its facilities, though this gets omitted in the article.

Biographer Alan Brownjohn notes that Larkin quietly achieved “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”

George Dekker, in Agenda, comments that no living poet “can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England.”

Even curator Farthing finally gets it right in exclaiming “to have achieved work that is so human and engaging and continually relevant, it seems that he did it despite his demons, not because of them.”

And, of course, this is what matters.

–rj

 

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Perhaps Someday We Will Learn How to Live

Every morning I awaken to a country bristling with hate, intolerance, and violence. 

Trump bullied his way to the presidency, exploiting public anxieties, e. g., steel belt resentment of jobs sent abroad, latent fears of a changing demographic replacing White homogeneity, evangelical rancor against abortion, and Islamaphobia, which sees every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

Trump pledged he’d limit Muslim immigration and reduce refugee numbers.   Shortly into his tenure, he attempted a 90-day immigration ban on seven Muslim nations, fortunately curtailed by the courts, though the recent SCOTUS decision suggests he may now have the upper hand.

One of his gallery of appointed rogues includes top advisor Stephen Bannon, known for his misogynist views on women and feminism that plague our nation.

Early on, Trump appointed the now disgraced retired general Mike Flynn as national security advisor, who’d previously depicted Islam as a “malignant cancer.”

Since his election, hate crimes have risen sharply.   Think Progress has mapped their occurrence from the election through February, 2017, recording 261 hate crimes, 41% of which have been linked to Trump’s rhetoric.

But I want to be fair. Much as I dislike Trump, hate in our country has many sources and targets.

Violence comes from the Left as well as the Right. 13% of the 261 incidents included attacks on Trump supporters.

Now comes the June 14 shooting of four Republican congressmen, one of them critically, while practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in Alexandria, VA by a disgruntled Bernie supporter.

There’s also Black violence, targeting Whites, often police, the abused becoming the abuser, the most notorious being the Dallas sniper ambush of twelve policemen, five of them killed (June 8, 2016).

Even liberals can become intolerant, as one of my favorites, simply because he’s so even-handed, Fareed Zakaria, reminds us: “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely….Freedom of speech is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”

Alarmingly, the number of hate groups in The USA has proliferated, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, increasing from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year. This number doesn’t track, however, widespread cyperspace hate raconteurs, whose venom sometimes seeps into social violence such as Dylan Roof’s heinous murder of nine Black church members:

ACTIVE HATE GROUPS 2016

KU KLUX KLAN ……………….130                  

NEO-NAZI…………… ………… 99

WHITE NATIONALISTS……..100

RACIST SKINHEAD. …………..79             

CHRISTIAN IDENTITY……… ..21

NEO-CONFEDERATE…………..43

BLACK SEPARATIST…………..193

ANTI-LGBT……………………….52

ANTI-MUSLIM………………….101

GENERAL HATE………………..101

Total:   917 Active Hate Groups (“The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Intelligence Report, SPLC, Spring 2017, Issue 162.)

Top five states for hate groups?   This may surprise you!

1.  California……….79
2.  Florida…………..63
3.  Texas…………….55
4.  New York……….47
5.  Pennsylvania…..40

It’s not any better abroad.  Britain’s decision to exit the European Community, which requires open borders of its members, parallels the upset victory of Donald Trump, many of the pro-exit voters older, working class Whites. France has its Le Pen; the Netherlands, its Geert Wilder; Germany its AFD (Alternative for Germany).

All of this comes down to the age old problem of the Other. Unfortunately, for all our supposed sophistication in today’s world of technological prowess, we’re still engulfed in the tribalism of our ancient progenitors, hostile to the outsider. And it’s not likely to get better, given the increasing anachronism of national borders that same technology makes possible.

Still, I am not without hope that the good side of humanity will ultimately prevail.  Or as   gifted Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it,

My father’s hopes travel with me
years after he died.  Someday
we will learn how to live. All of us
surviving without violence
never stop dreaming how to cure it.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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