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Herb Hecsh

Orchestra (Philadelphia Inquirer 10/6/16)

Declaration (Philadelphia Inquirer 6/22/16)

Yet Popular (Philadelphia Inquirer 3/6/16)

The Issue Problem (Philadelphia Inquirer 10/5/15)

My Danny Boy Moment

Ted White -- An Appreciation

On the Gay Taboo

Skip Johnson -- An Appreciation

The Christian Right

The Cheese-steak Curse

Coaches, Media and Race

The (Gay) Marriage Debate

On Jazz Vespers

Quebec in Retrospect

Wondering Wyeth

Foreign Language in the USA

On Dress Codes



Coaches, Media and Race

      It is a pity that both head coaches heading to the Super Bowl this year are black because apart from making the racial theme seem less rather than more unusual, the media is now going to be forced to use up, by my reckoning, at least four First-Black-Coach-in-History stories in one day instead of stringing them out over another forty or fifty years as they might have done if fate hadn’t been so uncooperative.

      First Black Coach to Win the AFC!  First Black Coach to Win the NFC!  First Black Coach to Win a Superbowl!  First Black Coach to Lose a Superbowl!   Poof.  Gone forever on Monday.

     This can only impede the media’s efforts to promote and prolong the cause of African American exceptionalism in which whites congratulate their sense of virtue by patronizing blacks – which is to say by praising them for, well, being black – and in which young blacks get the subtle but constant message that accomplishment from their quarters is really quite something!       

       Neither Smith nor Dungy seemed interested in discussing the race angle after their victories. Like everyone else who is good at something, they preferred to talk about what they are good at.  And one suspects they wanted to be seen as champions among their peers, i.e. among NFL head coaches and not trotted out as prize racial tokens. But neither the immediate irrelevance of race nor the coaches’ clear lack of interest in it at the moment deterred the media from pursuing it from the outset.  Both post-game interviewers brought it up.  The Philadelphia Inquirer had two stories, first on the front page of the paper and then on the front page of the sports section.

     Of course, in the America we have made for ourselves we can’t help but bring it up.  But the question finally is not whether it should be mentioned at all, but what we communicate and what we say about ourselves by hurrying to make such a BIG DEAL of it.  It seems to me, especially in stories such as these where race’s relevance to the subject is tangential, that constantly underscoring it serves to strengthen the by now subconscious notion that African Americans must always be treated as some sort of species apart – first black and then astronauts, coaches whatever – and that this insidiously condescending idea retards rather than promotes black participation in the mainstream culture.  It seems especially stupid to underscore race when the point is gotten across just as well, and in fact with more poignancy, without commentary.  Here are the winning coaches. Here is their picture. It is hard to see how the press, either white or black, does any service to the idea of racial equality by jumping up and down and saying, in effect, “And look, they’re black!  Isn’t that extraordinary!?”

     But why is it extraordinary?  Well, ok, it’s the first time. Duly noted.  And maybe there is some interesting inside story about the institutional evolution of NFL management.  But it’s not particularly extraordinary that the NFL, having opened itself to minority participation as they were legally bound, would have black coaches.  Neither is it extraordinary that it would take some years for them to get the experience, reputation and network to become a head coach, then some more years to build a program capable of winning, nor that one day one of them (or alas, two) would win.

     I don’t see that Dungy or Smith overcame a lot of racial adversity to do what they did.  This isn’t Jackie Robinson or even Arthur Ashe.  They started in late 20th century America, and sports unlike politics and many other fields, is a ruthless meritocracy. Smith and Dungy got the job and did extremely well. Going on about their race when there’s none or little of the racial oppression that would make going on about it germane, finally detracts rather than adds to their accomplishment. They’re the first ones.  Ok, can we talk about football now?

     I understand that in a country as ethnically balkanized as America, we can’t help ourselves.&n bsp; Still, forty some years after the Civil Rights Act, a little soft pedaling might be in order.  A little neutrality on this, even if a little forced, would be less offensive and more beneficial than the empty and vicarious racial pride that has become the American reflex.  Gratification is no less pleasing when savored discreetly.  Everybody likes to see his or her own type succeed, but success would be more evenly distributed in America if we dwelt more on verbs than on adjectives, more on accomplishment than on race.

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The (Gay) Marriage Debate

              The debate about gay marriage is not made any less interesting, but in some ways is made simpler, by thinking of it as a problem of lexicography, that is, as a problem about marriage’s proper definition.  There was another definitional tussle in the news recently when scientists recently redefined the word “planet”.  The new definition excluded Pluto but it is worth noting that it was not the scientists’ purpose to exclude Pluto.  Their purpose was to better understand what makes a planet a planet.

              It would be nice if the inclusion or the exclusion of gays in marriage could flow from a similarly dispassionate agreement about the defining characteristics of marriage.  Too often, though, it flows from tradition, religious dogma, or bigotry on the excluding side of the question, or a simple notion of fairness on the including one. Of the two, fairness is clearly kinder, but neither the urge to be fair nor the determination to be dogmatic necessarily addresses marriage’s purposes.  Both sides tend to put their desired end ahead of a strict consideration of marriage’s institutional aims. Of course, institutional aims are mushier and infinitely more debatable than the physical characteristics of planets.  Still, there are tangible, sociological consequences of marriage.  To the extent that different definitions will yield different consequences, there is room for a more nuanced and rational debate.  

             Even Andrew Sullivan, perhaps gay marriage’s most eloquent advocate, has written:  “Surely, society can offer a hierarchy of choices, which, while preferencing one, does not necessarily denigrate the others, but accords them some degree of calibrated respect.”  Sullivan was writing about “waverers” here, people who are unsure of their orientation.  In this case, Sullivan was saying that society can “preference” heterosexuality, without denigrating what might be a waverer’s ultimate resolution to homosexuality.  And Sullivan is absolutely right here: a social “preference” and “calibrated respect” are precisely what’s in order!  It is just that Sullivan does not seem to grasp that “preferences” and “calibrations” preclude, by their very definitions, full equality. The real debate here on the marriage issue should be one about properly calibrating society’s interest in couples, gay or straight.

             In their defense, gays are being perfectly logical to claim marriage rights these days and the simple change that now rationally opens marriage up to them is one that was originated by straights. What has changed is this: heterosexuals over the last generation or two have rejected marriage as essentially an institution of procreation and re-imagined it as an institution of cohabitation.

             The post-Pill severing of procreation from marriage was so swift as to be almost imperceptible.  If you wonder just how far procreation has receded in the current culture of marriage, consider this: most Americans condone “civil unions” for gays and want to reserve the term “marriage” for a man and a woman, but then, when pressed, they can’t quite put their finger on what salient social difference there might be between the two.

              If you accept this new thinking, that is, if you accept that marriage’s social purpose is to promote committed cohabitation, or more vaguely, to celebrate monogamous love, and not primarily to insure a responsibly reared succeeding generation, then it is virtually impossible to reject – absent some a priori religious objection – the gay claim.

             But consider society’s purposes for a moment.  Society looks after our well-being in the present, obviously, what we might dub its “horizontal” concern.  But its greater concern is the “vertical” one, the succession of generations, or as biologists bluntly put it, reproductive success.  When you think about it, everything in the present, from laws and politics to traditions and even religions, is measured against its effect on “vertical” success.  Not simply does “vertical” trump “horizontal” as a social concern, but more subtly, social goodness or badness in the present has no real meaning except in its ultimate effect on survival.

             Culture is mostly horizontal; society is mostly vertical.  It is maybe impolitic to point it out, but in the strictest sense, society is only vertical.  That is to say that society, as an ongoing proposition, as a proposition with a future, is not the sum of present people, but the chain of parents.  To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, there is nobody on earth whose parents did not procreate. 

             Readers at this point may be thinking that I am about to castigate gays for not reproducing, but that is not at all where I am heading, for gays will point out that however obviously important is species survival, it is not, alas, their particular thing.  The point I wish to make is not one about gays but one about marriage and it is not a point of politics so much as a point of logic.  It is backwards to think that procreation could be a merely ancillary aim of marriage when it is the crucial mandate of life itself.  And by “backwards” here I mean that the horizontal concern is being put before the vertical one.  If reproductive success is the primary aim of society, it defies simple logic to claim that it could be a secondary aim of the very institution that evolved to ensure it.

             I don’t bring this up to end debate on gay marriage.  I bring this up rather to challenge the idea, however widely embraced, that society could ever be formally indifferent to procreation, or to put this more pointedly, that society’s interest in childless couples could rationally be equal to those with children.  Writers like E.J. Graf f and Stephanie Coontz have researched and written very interestingly about the various purposes and benefits of marriage and its modern transformation into a celebration of romantic love. Sullivan, for his part, dismisses procreation as having been long abandoned by Western society as intrinsic to the definition of marriage. When he and Graff argue that procreation is simply another option in the institutional design of marriage, and not its primary purpose, they are being understandably modern, but blindly horizontal.  Culture can abandon its interest in procreation but society, Western or otherwise, never can.

             I am not arguing that individuals cannot be married without procreating; I am arguing that the institution would not have evolved in the first place without an essentially procreative purpose.  You may own a car without driving it, so to speak, but that does not change what the car is essentially designed for.  Making marriage non-procreative is like making a car stationary.  It can happen in the individual case, but to sanction it as a general rule is to ignore something axiomatic. The secondary benefits of marriage may be satisfaction enough for any particular couple, but they are institutionally insufficient.

              I suspect that even if you grant me my logic, here, you will think the line overly alarmist.  Surely species survival is not jeopardized by marriage mores. No, not imminently.  But those like Graff, who take procreation for granted (conveniently by others), and who imagine that culture can’t affect birth rates, might look to Europeans. They have removed procreation, not only from marriage, but apparently from life, and were they properly speaking a species, they would be verging on endangered.  Culture affects society; the horizontal affects the vertical.

             But whether or not there is any urgency, the theoretical point remains solid and one that is largely ignored.  And the point is that society’s real interest in couples is not everywhere equal.  And the division here – the real fault line – is not between gays and straights but between couples with children and couples without children.

             The neatest and most socially coherent solution would be to reserve the term “marriage” for any union – gay or straight – with children and to call all other unions “civil unions.”  This is a nice solution because it does not denigrate homosexuality and neither does it attempt to make unequal things equal simply by yoking them under a common noun.  It is refreshingly not a polite compromise, but an honest calibration of the real social interest.

              As logical as this is, I suspect it is also politically unworkable because straights would tend to see it – wrongly – as a demotion.  But straights can’t have it both ways.  If they are not willing to revert to a procreative definition of marriage, then there are no grounds for a gay exclusion.  Straights can’t make exceptions of themselves if they are going to reject the very thing that indeed makes them exceptional.

             The liberationist line is, of course, that the intrinsic sterility of homosexuality should be no more of a barrier to marriage than the willed or unwilled sterility of heterosexuals. There are arguments to be made against this comparison, but frankly, it is probably pointless to do so because I suspect that in the end, it will be culturally easier to open “marriage” to gays than to convince both gays and straights alike that procreation is logically essential to marriage as a social institution, properly understood.

             Legally changing the definition of marriage to include gays would now only make official what the mainstream largely takes for granted, namely, that reproductive success is not marriage’s essential aim; marriage is, in effect, an instrument for the official sharing of assets and, of course, what the culture is very keen on, the public celebration of love.

             I am alone, apparently, but I think resolving the problem this way, i.e. by reducing marriage to a common denominator that pretends to ignore society’s axiomatic interest in progeny, is muddled and ill-thought out.  It might have been admirably liberal if the majority straight world had intentionally severed procreation from marriage in order to open it to gays as socially special case.  But straights did not set out altruistically to open marriage to gays.  What happened is that straights abandoned the procreative ethic for their own short-sighted purposes, and gays became ipso facto the logical beneficiaries of this new, narcissistic, and I think socially flawed understanding. 

             But ultimately the semantic debate is not the important one and this gets us back to lexicography and the relationship between labels and reality.  Definitions must, to be useful, reflect reality.  But changing a definition cannot, by itself, change certain realities.  The basic reality here is that agreeing to the new definition of “marriage” will not change society’s essential mandate to insure responsible procreation.    You can make marriage optionally procreative in order to include gays, but you cannot make society optionally procreative.  Somewhere along the line, some unequal, calibrated special privilege will attach to parents.  It just won’t be called marriage anymore.   Love is a many-splendored thing, but at the end of the day, what you need is breeding, actually.          

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On Jazz Vespers

     I was pleased to see singer Ms Justine smiling on the cover of a recent Weekly Press edition, but the accompanying article about a local church’s jazz vespers service only reminded me how I’ve never really agreed with the idea of jazz in church.

       I say this as someone who both makes his living – well, sort of – as a jazz musician and who finds himself in church more often than he cares to admit.  To underscore that I have no quarrel with the musicians here (nor with the clergy), I note that I have worked occasionally with Ms Justine, who is lovely, and I further confess, to keep this on the merest quibbling level, that I once impulsively played “Summertime” on a sultry Sunday during Communion.  Bless me, Father…

      My point is this: though there are many complimentary adjectives one can justifiably attach to jaz z, “sacred”, certainly, cannot be one of them.  To promote jazz as sacred misconstrues both “jazz” and “sacred”.  It is, to my mind, a blunt error of diction.

      My dictionary defines “sacred” as: 1 a: “set apart for the service or worship of the deity; b: devoted exclusively to one service or use; 2:  worthy of religious veneration: holy; b: entitled to reverence; 3: of or relating to religion”    I can’t see how jazz fits into any of these whatsoever.  I suppose, at a jazz vespers service, you could try to say that it’s “set apart for …worship”, but it’s not really set apart at all, but brought in for worship and then used otherwise afterwards.  Indeed, its popularity in church probably owes to its being not set apart for church, but is imported, so to speak, from the streets.

      The very etymology of  the word “jazz”, though somewhat obscure, is thought to derive from a slang term for sex, and this is not, if you have been listening to your lyrics, very often about the sort of sex that churches are inclined to champion.  I don’t mention this out of prudery, but only to note that the jazz culture tends to concern itself with another world of experience.  It is a real world and nothing to be ashamed of.  Still, as certain people are fond of saying with regard to religion and science, jazz is a different magisterium altogether, and its overlap with the sacred is, well, tiny.

      I suppose, with work, you could find some things that fit in plausibly.  Lucky Ol’ Sun, maybe, or God Bless the Child.  But let’s face it, most of the words of the repertoire are about the joy or melancholy of romantic love, doing people wrong or right, getting revenge, carrying torches, or brooding wistfully about very earthly things.  When you’re beginning to see the light in jazz, it’s because someone's turned the lamps down low; it ain’t the light of Christ.  And while the “soul” in jazz may be as ephemeral as the theological one, its aspirations, generally, are considerably less lofty and more immediate. In short, if jazz is not inveterately profane, then what is?  I think it is often wonderfully and beautifully profane, but wonder and beauty, in themselves, don't qualify it for sacrednesss.

      There is a whole beautiful body of Black Spirituals and some pieces written in the jazz idiom that are legitimately sacred because, unlike jazz, they are expressly intended and set apart for worship.  Interestingly, Louis Armstrong respected the distinction.  He would not play “When the Saints Go Marching In” in concert on the grounds that it was not a jazz tune but church music. There is a difference, in other words, between real sacred music and a jam session that pretends to the sacred by taking place in a sanctuary.   

      Of course you could claim that all music is somehow “spiritual” and that all work, honestly performed, is beloved of the deity.  To work is to pray, and all that.  But to do that is to say that everything which is somehow good and honest is also sacred.  You could do that, but by doing so you make “sacred” a meaningless word, or more accurately, you make its meaning the same as good and honest.  The result: a net loss for language, and no gain for jazz.  Put jazz in church if you want to, but don’t, by virtue of that, or of its mere sincerity, elevate it to sacred.

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Quebec in Retrospect

      I had never really much thought about French Canada even though, for us easterners, it is our nearest foreign neighbor.  My earliest brief visit, in winter on a lark with my college roommate, I remember chiefly as the first time I ever used French in a useful way.  We had just crossed the border and I asked a gas station attendant, “To get to Montreal, we follow route 7, right?”  He said “Oui!” and I remember thinking, “My gosh, this stuff they teach in school really works!”  As for the rest of that escapade, I mostly remember being cold.

     It wasn’t until almost thirty years later that I found myself in Montreal again, with my wife and my son on a college trip to visit McGill University.  This time, under beautiful summer weather, I could take in the city without distraction, and I found myself quietly amazed that there could exist on North American soil this francophone metropolis.  It was bilingual to be sure, but it was more French than I would have guessed.  Americans are by now used to hearing a lot of Spanish, but there is still something foreign and “overseas” about French.  To hear it in Canada, which to an American is the least foreign of any foreign place, and to find it on such an official footing, startled me, however much I knew in some abstract way that it had always been there.

     This sense of hemispheric displacement was even more pronounced when my wife and I recently spent a week in Quebec City and environs.  Walled and gated, the historic core exudes the cozy, enclosed feel of a medieval town, stone houses huddled on pristine narrow streets, the whole loomed over by the massive Frontenac hotel which acts as a sort of stand-in castle, and from whose ramparts are glorious views of the river valley.

     We felt transported by this.  So much so that at one point at a bookstall, Farley had in the back of her mind to buy something for the long flight back across the Atlantic and then remembered suddenly she was only two hours from home.

     But while we were charmed by Quebec City and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, I felt something I didn’t feel in Montreal, something sadder underneath, an unexpected hollowness.  To be sure, Quebec is, unlike Williamsburg or Disneyworld, the genuine article.  The walls are real walls, the fort a real fort, all historically authentic.  And Quebec, to be fair, is a much smaller city than Montreal. But in the old town one gets the sense that, apart from Quebec’s role as the capital of the province, there is little else for the city to do except to pose for pictures as an architecturally picturesque relic.  It is a city that seems to exist to be a museum of itself.

     I was finally relieved to notice that our hotel was actually next to a brokerage house, an enterprise that was not there expressly for our diversion.  It allowed me to think that Quebec was a real working city and that there must be at least some people who live in it, so to speak, for their own purposes, and who mundanely go about their business. Virtually all of the other buildings seemed devoted to the tourist trade: restaurants, gift shops, souvenir shops, and  I had begun to imagine a native population of cooks, servers, street musicians, and chalk artists, residents only to serve us itinerants, living there really only because we might be visiting.

     In his recent book, American Vertigo, the French writer Bernard-Henri Levy bemoaned Americans’ lack of historical connection to their cities.  There were a few exceptions, in his view, among them Savannah and Boston.  Interestingly, in Quebec, you have the opposite condition, a deep sense of its heritage as the cradle of New France, and alas, precious little else.

     The problem at bottom is that the baby in that cradle died in infancy.  You are reminded of your grammar school history lessons here, how in 1759 during the French and Indian War, the forces of British General Howe climbed the cliffs and defeated General Montcalm – in embarrassingly short order – on the Plains of Abraham.  There was always some teacher who would say “And this is why you speak English today and not French,” but I never much really pondered, as an adult, the political consequences within Canada itself.

     After this defeat, France effectively abandoned North America, leaving behind a French colony under British occupation.  It is wondrous to me, given the weight of both American and English influence on the North American continent over the next two centuries, that French Canada was not overwhelmed and gradually assimilated into the Anglophone monolith, or that, at least, it did not become a quaint linguistic remnant, historically interesting but unofficial, like our Louisiana Cajuns or the Amish.

     These are the paradoxes of French Canada, on the one hand how resilient it has been and on the other how hollow, how stubborn is its pride and yet how essentially retrospective, how a city so promising seems to have no greater mission than to lure and to charm.  One senses at times that too large a part of Quebecois vigor is spent on maintaining a nostalgia, a polite veil for a faint but chronic resentment.

     Perhaps I was more struck by this because I live in Philadelphia, another city with a palpable sense of the past and well-preserved neighborhoods from our colonial days. But though there is a tourist presence here and street entertainers and horse drawn carriages and so on, there seem to me two differences.  In addition to an authentic historicity, there is still a vital city with workaday interests, living in the present and looking toward the future.  And the second, if obvious, difference is that the story here is, finally, a triumph, a celebration of American victory.  In Quebec it remains, helas!, a brooding reminiscence of a failure.

     Their license plates sum it up: “Je me souviens”, they announce, “I remember”.  Sometimes though, standing in the middle of charming, picturesque Quebec City, you think that, sadly, they only remember, and that they cherish their past at the expense of their future.

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Wondering Wyeth

Or The Man Who Mistook His Bucket For A Hat

     Hanging outside my office is a painting that I’ve had since childhood that was done by my grandfather, Nelson.  It shows a frog poised at the edge of a pond, and another frog atop a toadstool in front of a fence.  I have an early memory of my father asking me if I could find a third frog in the picture.  When I finally gave up, he laconically told me that the third frog was on the other side of the fence.

     I am reminded of this because I have recently come back from the Andrew Wyeth exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I learned that a great deal of what is significant in his pictures is, so to speak, on the other side of the fence.  A pair of boots, or a coat hanging on a hook are – in Wyeth’s mind at any rate – “portraits” of their owners, the owners themselves apparently on the other side of the fence.

     Of course, what’s in Wyeth’s mind can’t be helped, but the show has got me wondering to what extent private motivations and symbols ought to be necessary to appreciate a work. However interesting the commentary is, it prevents a fresh view of the paintings head on, and to the extent that it reveals otherwise unfathomable meanings, it seems to compensate with words some failure of intentions.

     There is a painting of an old pair of boots of a lobsterman friend of Wyeth’s that reminded me of a van Gogh drawing of boots.  Is Wyeth’s effort somehow more poignant because with van Gogh, I just dumbly looked at the boots, whereas with Wyeth, I learned I am really contemplating a portrait in which the painter, upon reflection, thought the better of including the man’s thighs, torso, arms and head?

     In Groundhog Day, he set out to paint two people and a dog and ended up with a plate and a log.  I grant you this is biographically interesting, but it seems to be stretching things to an almost silly length to make this an example of composition or editing.  Editing is when you set out to do two people and a dog and cut out the dog.  If you set out to do two people and a dog and then cut out two people and a dog, then it seems to me, given the severity of things, that what’s going on here is not so much “less is more!” as it is just changing your mind. I don’t picture Wyeth thinking to himself “Simplify!”  I picture him admitting to himself: “The mammals aren’t working for me here, maybe a still-life, after all?”

      Mind you, I don’t begrudge Wyeth his own processes, doing or thinking what he must in order to paint what he feels.  It’s just that I feel alternately conned and stupid by all of this back story.  Stupid because I would have missed the symbolism of the teeth marks the dog left in the log, and conned because, after all, the dog is so to speak on the other side of the fence.  What am I, a mind reader?

     Wyeth’s paintings have a visceral narrative and emotional appeal even without commentary.  What perplexes me is how much more they have with commentary.  This leads me to think that the paintings have more power for Wyeth than for an outsider.  A lobster dory in a barn evokes feelings on its own, but it evokes a lot more for Wyeth who knew the whole sad story of its owner having to leave the water to tend the land for his parents and ailing sister and so on. 

     In “Wind from the Sea”, Wyeth talks of opening a long-closed window and having a little poetic frisson when the breeze slowly wafted to life the birds crocheted on the curtains.  I can imagine the moment, but I don’t picture it in the painting because I didn’t know the window hadn’t been open for months.  Wyeth wanted to paint the frisson, but he could only paint the window.

     The basic problem here, I think,  is a modern one where formal arts want to be narrative arts: architecture that wants to get something off its chest and music that wants to make statements, etc., art forms, in other words, that are not at home with what seem to be their intrinsic limitations.  Painting can be more easily narrative than music, for example, but neither beats, well, words.  So I’m wondering how much free commentary does a painter get, what’s the proper ratio of prose to paint before a painting starts losing points for inscrutability?

     I happily grant historic context.  And the title is fair game, I guess. But consider how much even the title can alter one’s sense of the visual.  In Wyeth’s painting Public Sale, there is a thick November gloom and a far- off crowd.  A brochure calls a pick-up truck a figurative vessel “waiting to carry away purchases from the sad event.”  But what if it were untitled, or better yet, titled “Mr. Yoder’s Annual Cider Fest”?  Would we still get sadness and gloom or just, well, November?

     Finally, I couldn’t tell whether I was at the summit of exegesis or its neighboring peak of academic spoofing when my audio guide said that, “at first glance”, I might not be able to tell that the stone tub with the bucket over it was Robin Hood dying.  The bucket, by the way, reminiscent of Robin Hood’s helmet; the draining water, Robin Hood’s blood.  My wife and I agreed that it would probably have taken us at least four more glances.  Later we came upon a house.  “Look!” I said, “Maid Marian!”

     A good guess, I think, under the circumstances.  But I was wrong.  It was just a house, albeit a very symbolic one.

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Foreign Language in the USA

     It was lucky that the original thirteen colonies were all English, so that when they eventually united and then rapidly multiplied as states, we (and our Canadian neighbors) could romp about a continent that, barring a few pockets, was entirely monolingual.

     The convenience and efficiency of a single language certainly contributed to our unprecedented growth and political stability over two centuries.

     But since most Americans have been happily unencumbered by foreign language, they tend to be naïve and sentimental about it. In our talk of melting pots and the desire to assimilate, we tend to forget that most 19th and 20th century immigrants learned English for the same reason most people outside of academe have ever learned a foreign language: not because they wanted to but because they had to. Against the vast American monolith, you and your children could never flourish without English.  There may be some virtue in this, but it is the sort of virtue that is motivated by the desire to eat.

     The more recent Spanish speaking immigrations are a little different.  Central and South America are a second continental land mass that, excepting Brazil and more prevalent native languages, is remarkably and unusually united by a common language.  Bracketing the issue of illegal immigration for now, it is hard not to imagine – viewed from Mars so to speak – that in an age of instant telecommunications and easy travel, there wouldn’t be a blurring of these two great language masses at the edges where they meet.

     What makes the Latino immigrant of today different from, say, a Lithuanian of yesteryear is that the Latino comes from a much larger and closer language bloc.  Commercial markets catch on to this quickly and without scrupling too much about the English roots of the American social contract.  This is why you see signs in Spanish at the Home Depot.  In addition, today’s immigrants now enjoy the benefits of modern technology – internet, cable TV, cell phones etc. – that tend to further lessen the isolation formerly felt by foreign speakers.  Spanish speakers are neither less virtuous nor more arrogant than their earlier counterparts, they are simply more numerous, more widespread and, with modern gadgetry, commensurately less desperate.

     At bottom, languages are currencies and, le ft to themselves, they float quite efficiently in the market.  In other words, people will speak the language they must in order to do what they want.  In any interaction, the more powerful or efficient language wins.  You can see this in miniature at any polyglot gathering.  In the end, it all works out.

     For efficiency and unity, governments try to rig this language economy in favor of their own national language, either by constraining immigration or forbidding foreign languages in internal affairs.  This is understandable; no country would rationally wish for itself the burdens of Babel. And governmental enforcement of a single language can reap a huge benefit. Say what you will about the English Empire, it did a huge service to dozens of tiny language blocs to leave them with a single language of worldwide currency.

      Large language blocs can have their way over small ones with relative ease.  But to the extent that the competing language is itself significant – Spanish, or French or Chinese –  and to the extent that government is democratic and markets are free, enforcement of a single language becomes hard and on some level quixotic.  As Andrew Cassell recently pointed out in the Inquirer, Quebe c did itself no favor by forcing French onto its Anglophone population.

     A language can be artificially bolstered by governmental fiat – they were speaking Latin in the Vatican not so long ago, after all – but no language will ever really flourish by fiat alone.  Demographic and market forces along with popular democratic power will eventually carry the day.  The mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, whose population is roughly 30% Latino, wants to make English the sole language of Hazelton government for very good and rational reasons.  But it will seem less rational when the day comes that a majority of city council and the mayor is Latino. You might as well let things be and see what happens.

      George Will recently wrote that bilingual ballots in the U.S. are ipso facto proof that the people who require them are not legally fit for citizenship.  His reasoning is impeccable, as usual, and it is based on the U.S. immigration law which requires proficiency in English.  By requiring a ballot in another language, you are admitting that you are not proficient in English.

     But granting him the legal point, I disagree with his assumption that the American experiment is necessarily, rather than just fortunately, monolingual, or even that it is necessarily, rather than just historically, Anglophone.  He writes:  “What makes Americans generally welcoming of immigrants, and what makes immigrants generally assimilable, is that this is a creedal nation, one dedicated to certain propositions, not one whose origins and identity are bound up with ethnicity.  But if you are to be welcomed…, then America has a few expectations of you.  One is tha t you can read the nation’s founding documents and laws, and can comprehend the political discourse that precedes the casting of ballots.”

      But one can read and understand the nation’s founding documents in any language.  I suspect Will has read Plato and Marx and Rousseau, but I doubt that he bothered to do so entirely in their original languages, or that he feels significantly more ignorant about them for not having done so.

      Then too, with Spanish-speaking radio, TV, newspapers, magazines and even legislators at their disposal, American Latinos can be perfectly well informed citizens, just as can the Anglophone citizens of Quebec.  Further, as millions of bilingual Canadians, Belgians, and S wiss can attest, to have a preferred language does not necessarily mean you are not capably conversant in the other.

      It seems to me that by being creedal and not ethnic, America is perhaps the one country where language is utilitarian and not definitional.  The French, for example, are in some very essential way defined by the fact that they speak French; ditto most every other nation.  But Americans don’t speak American; they speak English.  Even among English-stock Americans, there is little ethnic pride of language here.  (This might explain why Americans, when being interviewed in the street or accepting Oscar and Tony awards for example, never seem as glib or as articulate as  Britons.  But I digress.)

      I do not mean to suggest that anyone should prefer a multilingual society, or that the courts must bend to it, but only that it is a difficult thing to legislate – or even proclaim – in a free society and an open economy.  Since English is still the lingua franca of the entire world, and the unquestioned language of international science and technology, I don’t see that its pre-eminence is seriously endangered in the near future.  Still, in a shrinking world, English-s peaking Americans may find themselves here and there outnumbered in their own country, however fervent their appeals to our Yankee origins.  When some legislative body is 90 percent Hispanic or 90 percent Amish, they are going to speak the language they will whether English is “official” or not.  Ultimately, power wins this struggle, not appeals to tradition, or to some tacit social contract, or to monolingual efficiency.  English speakers in this country will only prevail by timeless methods:  a combination of political, commercial and reproductive success.  Here is how you keep your language alive: breed and be rich.

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On Dress Codes

     Walking in Paris, the writer Adam Gopnik spied at a distance some adults in a park and knew instantly they were Americans.  The reason, he wrote, is that they were dressed like four-year-olds.  I suppose the national taste for T-shirts, ball caps and sweat pants could be seen to flow from deep veins in the American character: Yankee practicality, frontier informality, Quaker egalitarianism.  But to a certain kind of sensibili ty, it seems juvenile – not just juvenile-looking – but juvenile in its obliviousness to context, its blithe simplemindedness, its self-centered naivete about the surrounding world.

      P.J. O’Rourke once wrote, after too much exposure to summer tourists in Washington D.C., that the country did not need tax reform nearly as much as it needed a dress code.  Congress has not come through (on either point).  The NBA though, for its part, has recently decreed that its players, while representing their teams, must dress as if they were, well, adults representing their teams.

      Much as one part of me wants to applaud this move, both aesthetically and as a refreshing  exercise of authority in an industry plagued with far too much acting out during recess, another part of me has long known that when it comes to dress codes a simple rule applies.  If you have to ask – or worse, enforce – then you have already lost.

      What you want really, is not an explicit dress code, but an implicit one.  What you want, in other words, is a society with a shared sense of propriety. You’ll recall that Cyd Charisse an d Fred Astaire danced in the dark in Central Park because Cyd wasn’t dressed appropriately for the night club. Bracket for the moment that she actually looked fairly presentable in the flowing white number she was wearing.  The point is she wasn’t bowing in oppressed obedience to some written house rule but complying voluntarily with a general notion of appropriateness.  Think too of TV’s Mr. Rodgers and what puts him, perhaps for the first time, in the same paragraph with Cyd Charisse, namely, a sense that nuances of seriousness are reflected by dress.  Fred knew the difference between play clothes and work clothes. 

     Once the implicit consensus is blown though, once clothes cease to be communal and become merely individual, then dress codes, however well-intentioned, however aesthetically to be wished, are pointless.  It is a sour nostalgia that must be so consciously engineered, and for those too young or simple to understand, a dress code will be nothing but an obsolete and fussy annoyance. As a musician playing piano at some of the remaining bourgeois holdouts, I have seen the futility of explicit codes.  The house looks petty and illiberal enforcing them; the enforced customers are more apt to be petulant than properly edified.  These places might have a better looking clientele tha n those with no code - the places where, ridiculously, I ply away in black tie for diners in T shirts and ball caps -  but underneath, it’s the same mess.  Both prove – one with instructions, one without - that society has no shared idea in the dress line.

      The boomers are to blame for this, of course, and it comes from their hippy instinct to view all hierarchies with horror.  In their minds, expressions of formality were seen as oppressive or exclusive designs by the powerful on the weak rather than as a natural and enriching reflection of the variety of human experience. In the hippy mind, a necktie was not something you put on to convey that what you were up to was special or serious such as a wedding or a funeral or professional work.  It was instead an arbitrary constraint on the individual by authoritarian forces, or depending, some sort of badge of class superiority.

     (I know a man who swore never to wear a tie after his retirement (balking even at his daughter’s wedding) on the boomer premise that the tie was primarily a token of corporate enslavement and not a mark of communal respect.)

     Never mind that before this sort o f thinking got widely about, every class subscrib ed to the notion that certain occasions warranted certain kinds of dress.  There have always been status symbols and will always be snobbery, but even poor people had their Sunday best, so to speak, and an idea of a gamut of formality.

     No one disputes that the former habits were entirely conventional and arbitrary.  It is only a shame that they should have disappeared not because of changes in a common propriety, but because of its collapse altogether.  It is one thing to have a change in the common rules or even a loosening of the common rules; it is another to have no common rules at all.  It is noble of the NBA to try to conserve some semblance of social unanimity, but in a world where bankers in Brooks Brothers suits can wear baseball caps without feeling silly, it is hard to think that anything gratifying or unifying will come of it.  We have saddled ourselves, alas, with diversity, which despite its supposed sanctity is fractious and destructive.  What I think we really wanted, but didn’t know, was simple variety.

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