Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's In A Name?

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 21, 2011

What to write, what to write….. Oh, here’s something. Moammar Khaddafi is dead. I probably haven’t spelled the name like your local newspaper does, but that’s what suits me, and that seems to be the rule when it comes to spelling his name. You’ll find that people spell it every which way—with a "K" or a "G" or even a "Q," and variations in the number of lower case "d"s and "f"s, and a "y" at the end instead of an "i." Sometimes they throw the Arabic definite article "al" or "el" in front of it, too. Moammar Alkadafy. Muamer El-gadaffie. Like Murray the K, Dick the Bruiser, or Cedric the Entertainer. Well, not exactly, but that’s what it always puts me in mind of.

The AOL home page, for instance, spells it Gadaffi. The Los Angeles Times spells it Kadafi—short and sweet. I noticed this afternoon that ABC news spells it Khadafi. Some publications spell it Qaddafi. Nothing says Arab to a westerner like a "Q" without a "u" following it. So odd and foreign. And odd and foreign he was, that’s for sure. I imagine the true pronunciation of the intitial consonant sound is somewhere between the guttural "G" and the "K." But really, can the sound be that hard to approximate with a single agreed-upon letter from our alphabet?

One web site I saw alleges that there are no fewer than 112 English spellings of the name Khadaffi, all of which translate, as we know, to "the wacky Libyan strongman," or more formally, as now seems to be case, "the dead wacky Libyan strongman." Strongman, by the way, is what we in the English-speaking world call someone we consider to be a non-democratically elected leader of what we consider to be a third-world country. The term carries the taint of opprobrium along with the suggestion of relative powerlessness on the world stage, although not complete powerlessness. The leader of a completely powerless country would be known as a chieftain or a warlord, or something of that kind. The head of a really powerful country is almost always called by his chosen or legal title. If we really hate him we might refer to him as a dictator.

At any rate, the newspapers and the television stations of the western world seem to pick their spellings almost at random, though the pronunciation remains the same pretty much everywhere. It’s tempting to say that it really doesn’t matter how we spell Khaddafi using the Roman alphabet because he and the Libyans and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world spell it using an entirely different alphabet. I wonder how many variations there are in Arabic? My guess is not very many. But I really don’t know.

Here’s the thing, though. There are any number of Arab leaders whose names we spell absolutely the same way in English, every time. Saddam Hussein was one, and Hosni Mubarak is another. Or how about the guy everybody loved to hate, what’s-his-name--oh yeah, Osama bin Laden? What was so much less complicated about his name that everybody in the U.S. and U.K. managed to spell it the same way every damned time? For that matter, when it comes to spelling names transliterated from other alphabets, why did everybody get behind "Mao Tse-tung" for all those years, then, when the time came, switch universally and almost instantaneously to "Mao Zedong"? No confusion there.

I think there are a several things going on with the fact that no two sources seem to want to spell the name Khaddafi the same way. One is that nobody ever felt enough of a proprietary interest in him to "own" the spelling of his name, to say, "Look, this is how his name is gonna be spelled in the English-speaking press and in diplomatic circles." Sure, he did business with the Europeans, selling them oil, and he pissed everyone off by courting and giving aid to people we considered terrorists, and he kicked out thousands of Italians who felt they had sort of owned the country at one time, but in the end he just didn’t resonate with anybody. The U.S. tolerated him, then hated him and bombed him, then ignored him, then mellowed out on him, then when they saw which way the current wind was blowing started hating and bombing him again. But nobody took the guy all that seriously. He seemed to want to be too many things--leader, brother, good guy, bad guy, oil salesman, reformer, anti-colonialist, rich man, humble desert nomad, power broker, snappy dresser. Too many roles beget too many names.

Part of it was just his ineffably weird looks. He was known for camping out in a Bedouin tent at home and when he went to other countries. Also, he was only a colonel, for Christ's sake. He was in control of a country and an army, and he couldn't even promote himself to general, or generalissimo, or Divine Leader? Part of it was his generally lightweight stabs at political reforms and ideology. Part of it was just his inherent goofiness, the comic-opera-dictator mannerisms he most certainly learned from a guy like Mussolini. And like Il Duce his body is now on display like a big piece of meat. He isn't hanging upside down in a gas station, but he didn’t hang with the right people, that’s for sure. Maybe if he’d gone to Spago or partied with Princess Margaret or appeared on Larry King or Oprah things would have been different. If anybody has the power to regularize the spelling of somebody’s name, it should be Oprah.

Well, now his ass is dead, and we still can’t agree on how to spell his name. There’s more than a little ignominy in that fact. I don’t say he was a great guy or anything, but give him a single spelling for his name now that he’s gone. Show me another leader of a country where this has happened in the modern age. No one ever disagreed on how to spell Pol Pot’s name, or Kim Il Sung’s, or Ho Chi Minh’s, notwithstanding the fact that they were originally written in foreign alphabets. In the end, what remains of us after our good or bad is interred with our bones, is just our name. Or 112 of them, as the case may be.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Well And Truly Fooled

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 14, 2011

I’ve been reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, by neurologist Oliver Sacks. I’m sure many of you have read it, or at least heard of it. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time, and that time has finally come. (Crime and Punishment is another, but that’s a subject for a separate posting.)

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, and this is a collection of short case studies dealing with various intriguing and not-so-common neurological problems he encountered in the 70s and 80s in his practice. Most of them, like the one that afflicts the title character, are perceptual deficits, disorders that touch on some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and to see ourselves and others as parts of our essential surroundings. In fact, Sacks himself suffers from an inability to recognize faces, a condition called “prosopagnosia,” which I’m sure is part of the reason he undertook this area of study in the first place.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is elegantly written, filled with quotes from great thinkers and philosophers as well as frequent references to the work of his eminent colleagues and forbears in the study of neurology. Without affectation, Sacks makes constant use of dazzling polysyllabic words that showcase his own complex working vocabulary and reflect the perplexing nature of the subject matter. Some of the terms are reminiscent of the way the German language tends to spin out long words to express specific ideas. (Recall Fahrvergnugen, used in the Volkswagen ads of the last century, which conveyed, in a single word, the idea of the pleasure of driving an automobile.)

Sacks’s patients do not experience intellectual existential crises along the lines of Who am I and what’s it all about?; rather, they literally do not know who or what they are as physical beings. They have medical conditions caused more often than not by tumors and other pressures on the brain; but precisely because they are disorders of the body’s nerve and thought center they go to the crux of what it means to be a person. Some of these problems fall within the ambit of something called “proprioception,” the sense of knowing that our bodies, or parts of them, belong to us, a sense so taken for granted by most of us that we can scarcely imagine what it must be like, for example, not to recognize that one of our own legs, or even our entire body, belongs to us. In other cases the patients he describes have forms of amnesia familiar to those who have seen the movie "Memento," with Guy Pearce, where the protagonist was prevented from creating new memories.

Nestled in the midst of this intriguing and challenging book, almost hidden, is a little piece entitled "The President’s Speech." It’s about the reactions of certain patients in a facility where Sacks was working in the early 1980s to a televised speech by the President of the United States. Sacks does not name the chief executive in question, but in referring to him as "the old Charmer, the Actor," he makes sure we know he’s talking about Ronald Reagan. It seems that he and other staff members noticed a group of patients laughing at the TV one night, and went to investigate. He found that they were watching Reagan give a speech. The thing most of these patients had in common was a condition known as severe receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words as such. Nevertheless, since the mind tries to find ways around the roadblocks it encounters, they often could understand what was being said to them on the basis, as Sacks puts it, of "extra-verbal clues—tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual clues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture). . . ." These aphasiacs had developed the power of understanding, without words, what was being said to them.

The reason the patients were laughing was that they knew from all of his nonverbal clues that the President was lying and generally putting on an act. The words, otherwise incomprehensible to them, when delivered by the speaker himself, rang false, and they were thus able to understand an essential truth about both the man and the message.

This clinical observation would have been powerful enough, but Sacks takes it a step further by turning it inside out, as it were. It happens that certain people are afflicted with a different perceptual problem, called tonal agnosia, in which they understand words themselves but are unable to add meaning to them with any nonverbal clues of hearing, such as intonation and phrasing. For them, all words come out flat, as if they were written, and the way they discern true meaning from a speech is by watching the posture and movement of the speaker. One such patient with tonal agnosia, after also watching the President’s speech, had conclusions of her own: "'He is not cogent,' she said. 'He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.'" The observations of this woman and the others, taken together, don’t present a very flattering picture of the man the media has consistently called The Great Communicator.

So, what of the rest of us, supposedly not afflicted with any processing difficulties? Why did we elect and re-elect this man? Sacks concludes that we "normal" people, "aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled."

I had already read this piece and most of the rest of the book when, a day or two ago, I happened to see a photo in the newspaper of yet another of the interminable series of Republican candidate debates. In this one, a gigantic photo of Ronald Reagan was projected on a screen behind the debaters, making me think of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 and also making it crystal clear that the man whose "vision" for America the debaters most cherished was Ronald Reagan. What the photo said, wordlessly, as Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or someone stood at his podium in the foreground, was that the face in the gigantic photo stood for everything the American people, or at least the Republican people, think is great about America.

That photographic image, and that idea, helps me understand the true nature of the division in what might be termed our "national proprioception," that is, our sense of what it means to be Americans in this country--of what makes up our national identity. For many people, the old liar Reagan symbolized, and continues to symbolize, the greatness of America. Reagan, like Hitler with his German volk, cast his spell by telling Americans what he knew most of them wanted to hear, by spinning tales of a mythic past and by evoking the specter of evil, both from within and without the borders of the nation. As Oliver Sacks’s piece points out by the simplest of devices, Reagan told lies, lies, and more lies. Had he been Pinocchio, his nose would have stretched from sea to shining sea.

Why did a guy like that, whom a group of mental defectives could laugh at and spot for the bullshitter he was, get away with so much for so long? And more to the point, why does the Republican Party still hold him up as the apotheosis of the greatness of this country? Well, perception—or proprioception—is everything, isn’t it? The Republicans of today and their sympathizers, like the people who listened to Reagan before them, need to think that what makes this country worthwhile is its power, whether that takes the form of military strength, immense and enviable wealth, a carefully selected mishmash of unassailable religious "values" carrying the full force of God Almighty, or a larger-than-life mythic past filled with striving and taming and achieving and winning. Reagan seemed in control. He seemed powerful. He seemed to be running this great and perpetually victorious operation we thought of as America. He therefore represented greatness, real or imagined. That’s what was important and remains important today to many Americans. And these are the ones who, in a strictly neurological sense anyway, are considered “normal.”

Sometimes I'm amazed at how far out of the mainstream I feel. I must have a sort of aphasia or agnosia when it comes to our national rhetoric and vocabulary. The singing of patriotic songs, the display of flags, the pledging of allegiance, the constant repetition of the cheap buzzwords of the politicians, the incessant and meaningless "God Bless America"--they all make me suspicious, like Sacks's patients, of what I sense to be their pretension and falsehood. The only things I trust about this country are the Constitution and the rule of law, and the fact that we try, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to tolerate anyone who wishes to partake of them, regardless of how they come across our borders. The rest is laughable.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Victors

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 7, 2011

There’s nothing like sports to get the comments flowing again. And lacking much other serious grist for the blog mill, I’ll take what I can get.

First I must acknowledge the Yankees’ loss of the American League Division Series to Detroit last night. I hope the Tigers go on to win the World Series, for old times’ sake and the sake of the readers who support them. My team lost and theirs won. Congratulations to the victors.

When most teams take on the New York Yankees it is tempting to cast the conflict as a "David versus Goliath" fight. Goliath of course being the Yanks, and all the other teams (including the high payroll Boston Red Sox) thinking of themselves as the young future king of Israel, winning by cleverness and pluck and divine right. In the case of the Tigers, however, David is not the most precise analogue. True, Detroit’s payroll is only a little more than half of New York’s, but it is tenth overall, and greater than that of two-thirds of all the clubs in Major League baseball. Perhaps it would be more accurate to cast Detroit as Goliath’s little brother Darryl, only eight feet tall rather than nine-and-a-half. Tampa Bay, with the second-lowest payroll of the thirty teams in baseball, is much more of a David in that respect. And I guarantee that every one of those “small market” teams, if it could ask Santa Claus for anything at all for Christmas, would not ask if it could have Bill James (or Jonah Hill) on its payroll, or be filled with scrappy players with bullshit working-class tenacity, but instead would hop up on the lap of Jolly Old St. Nick and simply request lots more money.

Another word or two about the ALDS between Detroit and New York. I said I wish the Tigers well, and I do. But I don’t really believe they’ll win through. They’re good, but not good enough. You always like to think the team that just beat you is better, or else why would they have won? But the Yankees lost that series as much as the Tigers won it. Tuesday night New York made the same relievers who were last night’s heroes look pretty bad. Both Yankees victories were lopsided, whereas the Yanks pretty well stayed in contention in the three they lost, failing to get the clutch hits they needed. Everybody talks about how Curtis Granderson “saved” the Yankees on Tuesday with those two great catches of his, but really? They won 10 to 1, for God’s sake. If he’d missed both balls, would that have cinched it for the Tigers?

What happened last night that cost the Yankees the game (aside from big whiffs from our biggest player) was timidity on the base paths. The failure of runners on first to make it to third on base hits to right field cost them at least one run and probably two. One time I think it was Jeter and the next time it was ARod, and both times it was with less than two outs that they were held at second and the inning ended with the bases "loaded with Yankees" as Ernie Harwell would have said. The manager and coaches have to share some of the blame there, I think. I must say here that for such a great player, nobody looks as awkward and unsure of himself on the base paths as Alex Rodriguez does. Guess he's only comfortable when he's going into his home run trot. Well, as diehard fans everywhere say, there’s always next year. But before I leave baseball, a tip of the hat to Jorge Posada, probably on his way out for good. He was a sturdy journeyman during the past 15 years, and acquitted himself well during the series.

Let's switch gears. The blog creation site I use divides the comments into regular input and what it calls “spam.” Until this week I’d received nothing the site considered to be in the latter category. I think I mentioned that occasionally I’ll get a comment on an old posting, perhaps something someone found at random or by using a key word or phrase on Google or another search tool, such as the name of a town through which I passed on my walk. I was notified on Wednesday, for the first time, that I’d received two spam comments. One was rather general; something to the effect of how great the Internet is, in that it can help a person promote ideas or products. The other appeared to be in Russian, or at least a language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It was under blog posting number 163, entitled “Chiriaco,” which I wrote on January 20 of this year. At first I was going to say that if there’s anyone out there who reads Russian I’d be grateful for a translation of the comment. Then I realized I could highlight it and ask the computer for a translation (as another person astounded by the modern technology of his day once said, “What hath God wrought?”). So here’s the translation, as rendered by the computer:

“Was surprised and decided to share with you, I found an incredible offer to Ukraine! It was as follows – prowling in NETE housing and shew obraruzhil 2 bedroom flat in Kiev [/ url] with pictures. I was very surprised by the cost of the ads + became generally interested in your opinion about this accommodation.”

So it was spam after all (and remains isolated—quarantined—in that category, and therefore not part of the comments following posting number 163). Still, it’s neat to know that someone in Eastern Europe is reading the blog, however randomly and with whatever weird agenda. Wonder if I’m now infected with some Ukrainian computer virus that will steal my identity? It might be fun to have a new identity. Maybe a Ukrainian one, covered with tattoos acquired in the gulag archipelago. I could call myself Victor. Victor Obraruzhil.

And speaking of victors, there’s still Michigan football. Tomorrow it’s Northwestern, so that should be a win. Then they’ll have to prove they can play the decent teams. Boy does that Rich Rod seem like a quickly fading bad dream.

Lastly, how about those Lions? Off to a fairly impressive start, too, though it’s early. I’ve never been much of an NFL watcher, but I could be persuaded to pay more attention if, for the first time in my adult life, Detroit is actually good. So those of you who worry about such things can see that I still have some sentiments in favor of something out of southeastern Michigan, despite having abandoned the Tigers, never to return. I do have a cousin named Calvin Johnson, so maybe that's a subtle influence....

Which leads to the question, how do we really come by our sports allegiances? Is it primarily geography and parental influence? If so, does making a decision to change a sports team in adulthood show maturity and independence, or Freudian contrariness? Are we all supposed to live in the same house forever, like the Waltons, or wander the world in search of better things? And speaking of influences, what about the many seemingly more trivial things that inform our choices? The color of a uniform, the personality of a manager, the look of a letter on a jersey, the look of the jersey on a player. I know I'd have trouble backing a team that wore red uniforms (or socks) even if they only did it on their home field. And I couldn't ever take seriously a college football team whose capital "M" looks like an upside down "W." Or who wear gold helmets. And I don't do well with orange or purple as prominent team colors, either. I also struggle with green, but under certain circumstances I can stomach it. But hey, that's just me.