July 19, 2023


I occasionally write a comment in response to an opinion piece from The New York Times. My thoughts may have little influence, but it is satisfying to express a strong opinion or point out a fact or idea not considered in the original essay.

I was frustrated today that, after reading “Is ‘Yo’ the Gender-Neutral Pronoun We’re Looking For?” by linguistics professor John McWhorter, I was not given the opportunity to leave a comment. Was the essay so controversial that the Times didn’t want to encourage a fight among its readers? Is Professor McWhorter too busy to be bothered with reader feedback? I’m not sure how often opinion pieces in the Times do not support reader comments, but never before have I wanted to write a response but was not given the opportunity to do so.

McWhorter correctly notes that the lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun in English creates problems and that various neologisms have been offered to solve the problem. None has caught on. Actually, I don’t think “yo” is the solution. (Is there a declension for “yo” or is it the same in every case and number?) Actually, English has a gender-neutral pronoun: “it.” No one seems comfortable using that pronoun to refer to people, however. (There is no distinctive plural of “it,” of course, so this might be considered a problem.) I have often thought that we should refer to God as “It” if we truly believe that the deity is sexless. One could make a case for “They” to refer to the Trinity. But I digress.

McWhorter mentions the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, suggesting that this usage might have a bright future. Frankly, it drives me crazy. I have often encountered such a “they” without a trigger warning that it is intended to refer to a single person. I then search the preceding text to figure out who are the persons “they” refers to.

Well, the Times hasn’t let me rant, but there are other venues for comment.

July 6, 2023

CDs from the Library

Since I arrived in Clifton Springs, New York, I have been borrowing CDs from the local library. The collection is not great—there are hardly any classical recordings, and the collection has not been updated in quite a while—but I have been able to find recordings of artists I already like and have listened to CDs of other artists about which I knew little.

I am especially fond of library collections of recorded music. When I was young, I borrowed LPs from the New Orleans Public Library. At the time, my knowledge of classical music was pretty much limited to that found in the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia. I may also have been familiar with Peter and the Wolf. I don’t remember if Peter led me to check out a recording of the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto or whether I chose a recording of it at random. In any case, I listened to the concerto over and over and fell in love with Prokofiev’s music. I now own an extensive collection of Prokofiev recordings, sheet music, and biographies.

Perhaps you now understand why I was investigating the Clifton Springs Library CD collection as soon as I got a library card.

I can report on some of my experiences from doing so. My happiest discovery was the singing of Diana Krall. I may have encountered her once before on YouTube, but that hadn’t really registered. I plan to hear more of Ms. Krall. I borrowed a CD of Britney Spears to see what she is all about. I could not finish listening to it. I plan never to hear from her again. I took out a Taylor Swift CD. I actually listened to this several times without coming to hate her. She clearly has talent, but if I never hear her sing again, I will not regret it. 

I have checked out many recordings of singers I already knew and liked, among them Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Willie Nelson.

The jewel case and liner notes—do people still use that term—for Taylor Swift’s Red is on my desk right now. I like the fact that the lyrics for all the tracks appear in the accompanying booklet. It is introduced by a “PROLOGUE” written by the artist. I am somewhat mystified by that booklet, however. To begin with, all the body text is set in red 8-point sans serif font. It is very hard to read. Lyrics, rather than being presented in the usual fashion, is run in with virgules separating the lines. This increases the reading difficulty. But the really strange feature of the text is the occasional substitution of a capital letter for what should be a lowercase one. (See the image below of a sample page of the booklet.) What is this all about? Was the text input by an incompetent typist? Is there some hidden message here only understood by Swifties? Who knows?

I will not become a Swifty myself. Swift’s music and subject matter don’t appeal to me, though Ms. Swift is easy on the eyes.

Well, it’s time to go back to the library for a new set of disks.

July 4, 2023

An Independence Day Meditation

Today, we celebrate what we view as the birth of the United States of America. Colonists on these shores declared their independence from Great Britain on this day two hundred forty-seven years ago. Having asserted their independence as a country, they needed to fight a war to secure it and thirteen years—how poetically appropriate!—to craft the outlines of a viable system of governance. The history-making Constitution of 1789 was soon amended by the Bill of Rights in 1791. Thirteen years later two additional perfecting amendments had been added to the Constitution.

That Constitution of 1804 and its interpretation by the Supreme Court remained the law of the land until the unresolved issue of slavery led to civil war. The victory of Union forces over the insurrectionist slave-holding states in 1865 was followed by the adoption of Amendments Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen, which ushered in a more democratic American government. Additional amendments have been made to the Constitution to expand democracy or to improve governmental operations. (Amendments Eighteen and Twenty-one are exceptions, of course, representing a fit of insanity and a national recovery therefrom.)

This brings us to today, when we would like to celebrate the nation’s two-hundred-forty-seven-year run without ambivalence. There will, of course, be ceremonies, speeches, concerts, fireworks, and picnics this July Fourth. But the thoughtful among us cannot but see the United States of America as being at an inflection point. Whereas some are celebrating expanded rights for themselves and similarly situated citizens obtained at the expense of others, many view the historic expansion of American liberty as facing a decline that may be difficult to reverse.

Although it seems especially intense in 2023, the nation is no stranger to conflict. Fortunately, conflict only once led to organized armed conflict. In the best of times, we have managed to compromise and move forward, sometimes in very small steps. There have been reverses—one thinks of the paroxysms of McCarthyism, for example—but the country has tended to recover from its ill-conceived excesses. Now, however, compromise is often viewed as surrender, and we all too often approach public policy decisions with a take-no-prisoners attitude. In a country once known for citizens’ propensity to band together in organizations formed for the improvement of society, we now find organizations of whatever ilk, including those of government itself, viewed with suspicion, if not outright hatred.

Addressing the nation in a Labor Day poem I wrote more than a decade ago, I penned the line “Where oh where did you go wrong?” There is no single answer to my question. We went wrong when Milton Friedman asserted that the corporation’s only obligation is to its shareholders. We went wrong when Ronald Reagan declared war on public-sector unions. We went wrong when Phyllis Schlafy almost single-handedly torpedoed the Equal Rights Amendment. We went wrong when Christian pastors chose to pursue political power rather than spiritual power. We went wrong when we stopped using antitrust legislation to curtail corporate power. We went wrong when Rupert Murdoch created a “news” channel that belied its name. We went wrong when the Federalist Society was created to capture the judiciary for corporate America. We went wrong when Evangelicals were convinced that abortion was evil in order to win their political allegiance to a wider agenda not in their best interest. We went wrong when Bill Clinton abandoned the downtrodden for legislation supported by their enemies. We went wrong when we fought wars with vague objectives and poor prospects for success. We went wrong when we let a Republican senator deny a Supreme Court nomination to a Democratic president. We went wrong when we elected a sociopath as president and unleashed the worst impulses that had lay dormant in the populace. We went wrong when we confused our own rights with our ability to curtail the rights of others. We continue to go wrong in believing that the effects of racism are no longer with us, even as racism persists.

One could build a long list of societal changes that would move our country toward the ideals we used to espouse—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, respect for all human beings, freedom to use one’s body as one sees fit, valuing public education to benefit not only individuals but also society at large, freedom from want, decent housing for all, and freedom from oppression by the rich and powerful. That list could be expanded. Generally, we need a newfound concern for society and a more modest concern for the individual.

Fortunately, the laundry list of projects that might seem to imply need not dismay us. What is needed, on one hand, is our support of institutions and organizations that make positive contributions to society. We need to offer our money and our help in any way we can. Second, we need to support the Democratic Party, as the Republican Party has become an instrument of destruction of what is best about America. Vote Democrat. Support Democrats. Argue for Democrats. If possible, run for public office yourself. The elected school board member of today can become the member of Congress in future years. So much of the change needed in this country can only be effected by Democratic legislators in sufficient numbers that their legislative agenda cannot be blocked by Republicans. We can hope that Democratic success will either result in reform of the Republican Party or in its replacement by a new party committed to traditional American values.

Some will find my analysis here obscenely partisan. I offer it without embarrassment. The Republican Party, financed as it is by billionaires who hide behind innocuous-sounding lobbying groups, is the greatest threat to our democracy.

The Great Seal proclaims the United States to be a new order of the ages (Novus ordo seclorum). We should be proud of that aspiration, even though we sometimes seem to fall prey to the vices of other societies in other times. Let us celebrate this day what our nation has already accomplished and pledge to help it “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Happy Independence Day.

July 2, 2023

Discrimination and the Student Loan Forgiveness Program

I have mixed feelings about the Supreme Court’s having struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program in Biden v. Nebraska two days ago. Indeed, there were strong arguments both for and against the program. Democrats were especially disappointed because it fulfilled a campaign promise made to a small but important group of voters, and it was expected to have a positive effect on the economy. Nevertheless, it was not supported broadly, and the process by which the administration sought to forgive student loans was questionable.

One of the arguments advanced against the program, however, deserves special comment. It was asserted that the plan discriminated against people who didn’t go to college or didn’t have student loans. This complaint misunderstands how the government works. The Fourteenth Amendment assures that people in similar circumstances must be treated equally. It does not assure that everything the government does benefits everyone equally.

Arguing that the loan forgiveness program was discriminatory has interesting, though pernicious implications. By this reasoning, I should be able to question the legitimacy of government subsidies to agriculture, the fossil fuel industry, and big sugar. After all, since I do not grow corn, process petroleum, or refine sugar, I am being discriminated against, since I am not a beneficiary of those subsidies. I consider those subsidies unwise and undemocratic, but an argument that they discriminate against me personally is simply ludicrous.