Immortels (a poem)

  1. Aux ancêtres

 

I do not know all your tongues

But I know I am your tongue

Centuries of work

Of love

Of colonies

Of war

Lead to me.

 

Je ne connais pas toutes vos langues

Mais je suis votre langue

Une fière descendante

De mariage

De formation

De voyage

De diverses nations

Jusqu’à moi.

 

But with me

Ça arrête

I am America

And I am the last.

 

There will be no next

Sauf mes écrits

No memory

Sauf les photos

Le colonisateur meurt avec moi

But your work

Your love

Your learning

Your courage

Burn in me.

 

I do not know all your tongues

But my tongue is yours

Ma langue est la vôtre

Whisper

Whisper

 

Whisper.

 

  1. To my children, who will never be born

 

If I had two lives-

One for the body, one for the mind-

I would choose you.

 

I would carry you on my hip

Count your tiny fingers

Walk you through the world

 

If I had two lives,

I would remark

Whether you had my smile,

My ears

My eyes

I would prepare you for your journey

 

If I had two lives-

One for the body, one for the mind-

I would be your fierce protector

 

But I do not.

In my one life you would have be born

Into insecurity

Into violence

Into Mommy has to work

 

In my one life,

I count data points

Walk my fingers across a page

 

In my one life- one for my mind-

I remark on what makes me smile

What I hear

What I see

 

In my one life- one for my mind-

I embark on my own journey

For your never-named sake.

 

© 2017, The Participle Dangler

 

Advertisements

Resurrection into Solitude

image

I am sitting in a cemetery, on the root of a tree that has toppled a gravestone, now illegible from time. This Easter Sunday, I brought daffodils to this place, placing them on the graves of unnamed children, of people whose markers are worn and broken. I remember those who have been forgotten, wondering what they were like in life, who loved them, how many generations it took for their graves to become neglected. We are all nameless in the silence of earthly time, flesh waiting to rot and bones waiting to crumble away, and yet we will all be made whole again in everlasting Life. We are all known by our Creator.

I have done this personal ritual another Easter, years ago, but this time, it has an additional, personal meaning. If all goes as scheduled (and it hasn’t yet, so I’m trying not to hold my breath), I will be divorced tomorrow. It is a needed and very much justified transition, but there is still grief.

So I put another flower in a tree for the losses that have no stone to mark them. I say goodbye to the future I thought I would have, to the children who will never be born, even as I am eager for a new and brighter life ahead. I let regret and fear sink back into the dirt. For a long time now, I’ve had an invisible shroud over me, as though waiting in a tomb. Healing hands surround me; yet, I know that I have to let myself hurt before I can truly heal. You can only get to the joy of the Resurrection through the agony of the Cross.

I am reminded of this part of the poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” by Mary Oliver:

“[E]verything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

A doe watches me from the edge of the clearing, a blackbird sings, and I wait to be born again.

image

© The Participle Dangler, 2016

Quintessence of Dust: A Cosmic Reflection on Ash Wednesday

I’ve been meaning to write about this for literally years, and now that I am able to connect to a faith community again, it seems as good a time as any.

Eric Idle (in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) quips:

“What have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
– you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing.”

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite holidays because I feel the most connected to the rest of the universe. When the priest or pastor puts the ashes on your forehead, he or she says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I don’t find this to be a negative or macabre thought at all. On the contrary, I am delighted because I remember how awesome (in the original sense of the word) it is to be here and alive.

On a larger scale, most of time, we are not alive. We are unborn, or we are dead, depending on the time point of your perspective. For a tiny cosmic blink, we are alive and conscious, an ethereal speck of matter that happens to be aware of itself, fearfully and wonderfully made of the same elements found in distant galaxies. And we have the privilege and blessing of knowing about it, for an amazing and improbable moment.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet says:

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Carl Sagan responds: “We are made of starstuff.”

This, to me, is a fundamentally optimistic viewpoint. We are mortal only in this warm, breathing, temporary form, and then our physical bodies return to the Earth from which we came. Our souls go wherever souls go. We only imagine that we are separate because we are nearsighted.

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” –Job 1:21

I leave you with this beautiful video that inspires me, particularly when I reflect on Ash Wednesday.

Remember that you are starstuff, and to starstuff you will return.

© The Participle Dangler, 2016

Green, growing thing (a poem)

Green, growing thing

by The Participle Dangler

 

I am a green growing thing

Stillness and thick, soft moss

While underneath the pillbugs and the little mice

Eat the dirt and prepare for winter

 

I am the place where the dead trees

Become the saplings

And the past is drawn through roots

Up into bright needles

Reaching for specks of light

 

I am the tiny drops of clouds

That mist their way down

Over birds and squirrels

Painting thin puddles on trunks and leaves

Feeding the moss

And the pillbugs

And the fragrant, living earth

 

I am of the sage everything

And pulsing nothing

Yet nothing

 

© The Participle Dangler, 2015

Don’t feed the false equivalencies

(First of all, this is NOT a post about any of the issues I’m using to illustrate the problematic behavior. Don’t bother commenting about them. Feel free to use “the University of Google” to look up the sources I mention.)

Every time there is an extended public conversation about a controversial topic, self-congratulatory statuses proclaiming neutrality start popping up on my Facebook feed, often from people I respect and admire:

“Both sides are so emotional and angry that there has to be truth on both sides.”

“I’m staying out of it because everybody is too emotionally invested in it.”

“Please do not talk about X or I will unfriend you.”

There are many topics where this is a valid and understandable response because nobody will be seriously hurt because of the disagreement. For example, the play that led the Seahawks to lose the Superbowl. Whether or not you like Kim Kardashian’s business model. Whether you prefer Mozart or Beethoven. There are no objectively correct or incorrect opinions for these topics.

But then there are topics where one “side” is objectively wrong, and their error can hurt or kill people by obstructing progress that is necessary for the survival of the community. These are often minority arguments, which will attract the sympathies of those whose natural reaction is to want to protect the underdog. However, in some of these cases, proclaiming your high-minded neutrality is giving credibility to shoddy, paranoid arguments and placing them on equal footing with legitimate scientific inquiry. Merely having a “philosophical” reason for a belief does not make that belief true, and you are not doing anybody any favors by treating single-issue “beliefs” as if they were victimized religions. I completely understand the compulsion: most of us don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

How do you know if this is a case of false equivalency? Look at the sources. Think of their qualifications for coming to a given conclusion and their motivations for talking about it. Here are some examples of emotionally-charged statements, followed by examples of groups or individuals who agree and disagree with the statements. Do they really merit equal air time?

Human activities are causing catastrophic climate change.

For: 97% of climate scientists

Against: Oil lobbyists, it is cold at my house today

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

For: Obama’s birth certificates, birth announcement, the state of Hawaii

Against: Donald Trump

Vaccines are essential for public health and present minimal risk for most people.

For: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization

Against: A discredited doctor who lost his license, an actress, health food bloggers

The Earth is round.

For: Astronomers, cartographers, anybody who has traveled more than a few miles from home and hasn’t fallen off

Against: I can see the horizon!

Violence against women and girls is a widespread problem.

For: United Nations Development Fund for Women, the US Department of Justice

Against: Rush Limbaugh, MRA’s on Twitter

Racism exists in the United States, and Black men are disproportionately killed by police.

For: Department of Justice Statistics, the Southern Poverty Law Center

Against: Fox News

The moon landing was real.

For: NASA, Mythbusters, the astronauts who were there

Against: Conspiracy theorists

Refusing to engage with issues like these by vocally claiming neutrality is not high-minded. It implicitly communicates that you believe there are two valid sides to the story, when there may not be. Rather than being brave by risking the wrath of one side or the other, it is intellectually lazy. Being a special snowflake with feelings does not make you an expert on every possible topic. It is simply not possible to know everything, and that is why we have actual experts.

©2015 The Participle Dangler

What’s Your Excuse?

There has been a lot of discussion about Maria Kang’s viral image of herself in a bikini surrounded by her three young children with the caption, “What’s Your Excuse?”

Rather than rehash what others have said, I’ll direct you to this blog: “What’s Wrong with This Picture? Why Maria Kang Can’t Tell People What to Do.”  Consider it background reading for the photos to come.

TL;DR:
There are two main criticisms of the original photo and its accusatory tone:

1) that not everybody has the time and resources it takes to look like her, and for many it is physically impossible; and

2) that not everybody has looking like her as a goal in the first place, so it’s irrelevant to ask for an “excuse” why they haven’t done it. An inherent assumption of “fitspiration” images is that everybody should want to look like the people in the photos.

The collection I’m putting together here is primarily addressing criticism #2. People put their hearts and souls into many great efforts that don’t have the same unquestioned social appeal of having a perfect bikini body, and I think it’s valuable to have a space to recognize those things too. Not everybody has, or should have, the same aspirations.

So here are some of us achieving goals that aren’t based on looks!  In spite of difficulty, naysayers, and hard work, these are people who have persevered in achieving something that is important to them.  You won’t see them on magazine covers, and I, personally, find them much more inspiring.  Good for you for staying fit, Mrs. Kang, but that isn’t the only worthy goal people can have.

“I’ve done something awesome unrelated to vanity. What’s your excuse for not doing it too?”

Nota bene: Comments that show a lack of reading the source material, or that are hateful or vulgar, will be deleted.  This is a space for celebrating personal victories.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Bonnie-WYE Watermark

 

Hugo- WYE watermark

 

THANK YOU to everyone who has contributed so far!  (If you would like to contribute, tell me in the comments!)

© The Participle Dangler, 2013-2014

God and Science

I’m trying to write a thoughtful blog here, and it’s annoying that I have to preface this whole thing with a disclaimer, but here you go:

I’m sure that I’ll have many people who look at the title of this entry and go yammer on about their own opinions in the comments without reading any further.  Don’t even bother.

I can predict some of them already, based on repeated trends I’ve seen from Facebook pages and blogs I read on these two supposedly opposing subjects.

From militant atheists:  Christians are feebleminded and/or not sane. Trololololo!

From Christians:  There are things that I personally do not understand, therefore it’s God! Here’s a quote from the Bible that I have taken out of context.

From either: I’ve noticed a subtle disconnect between two sentences you’ve written.  Therefore you are a hypocrite.

Bonus points for misspellings, profanity, personal insults, and emoticons.

COMMENTS LIKE THESE ARE WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.

Image

Oh, and fair warning: I’ll be using masculine pronouns to refer to God, not because I believe them to be accurate, but because that’s the convention and I’ll confuse fewer readers that way.  (Haha, fewer of my approximately five readers, one of whom is my mother.)

This is not a shouting match about who has read and can parrot back the most secondary sources.  This is my own personal experience, and that’s all I have to give.  However, I know more about the history of Christianity AND about science than most Americans, and although I’m willing to give recommended readings if asked, I’m not going to include citations here because I don’t feel like digging out all the books.  My grandmother, father, and husband are all medical professionals; my mother is a historian.  I have more higher education than most people on the planet, working toward a doctorate in a social science.  I am also a pretty enthusiastic Christian, married to an Atheist, and I don’t consider my faith and my love for science to be in any way contradictory.  I am not trying to convince anybody in this blog entry, but I’m not stupid and this is what works for me.

In the past few months, I have had two friends ask me how I reconcile the two “opposing sides” of science and faith.  The short answer is that I didn’t know until junior high at the earliest that anybody considered them to be in conflict, and I still don’t really get it.

This blog post is the long answer.

It’s all about ego.

One of the hallmarks of a person who practices critical thinking is the ability to change your mind when you receive new information. My concepts of myself and my faith are not attached to having the absolute most correct answer at any given moment.  It won’t hurt my ego (more than temporarily, anyway) if new information contradicts what I previously believed, and I am perfectly comfortable not knowing everything.  I try to live my life in such a way that, even if I get to the Pearly Gates and find out I should have been worshipping the Lizard Queen or something this whole time, I’ll still be at peace with myself and with how my life has affected the world around me.

The Evolution Thing

I’ll use the never-ending disagreement about the origins of our species as an example, because everybody knows something about that one.

I used to believe the fallacy that God was in the details I couldn’t understand.  I carefully tucked away a quote about how a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, and I devoured books and articles using scientific-sounding terminology and elementary statistics to “prove” that some details of evolution were false and could only be explained by spontaneous creation.   I enjoyed my fair share of Lee Strobel and Rupert Sheldrake.  After I took a biology class as an undergrad and learned what the actual, empirical, real-world evidence showed about evolution, I adjusted my opinion.  I realized then that I was defining my God in an unsustainable way.  Francis Collins (and he may have borrowed the term; I don’t remember) calls this “God of the Gaps” thinking.

If God is just another word for something you don’t understand, then new information is threatening to how you see the universe and your place in it, rather than inspiring increased awe at its complexity.  People used to not understand about comets or gravity, so they assumed it was God.  They thought the sun went around the Earth and that God meant it to be that way.  Even a dyed-in-the-wool Christian today would recognize that God survived even major revelations like these.  God can handle it when humans learn more about their own evolution.  God is too big to fit into your ignorance.

Now comes the part where I quote me some Gospel:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

–          Matthew 22:36-40

Note here that we are called as believers to love God with all our MINDS.  Do you see anywhere here where it says to stop learning because God finds new information threatening?  Absolutely not!  If you can keep your ego out of it, this is much easier to receive.

My personal belief is probably more similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”:  Science gives us the “how;” religion (for those who choose it) gives us the “why.”  I also don’t believe that God routinely messes around with the laws of nature, because God invented them in the first place.  (It’s akin to the Deism of the Enlightenment in that way.)  I’m more of a Holy Spirit sort of believer, where my conception of the Divine is as the spark that makes things alive, as a presence outside of the physical world that can move people in spirit.  I do not pray for physical miracles, but rather for psychological things like changes of heart, sufficient attentiveness, mind-body connection, mental clarity, that sort of thing, because that’s the domain where I think God typically hangs out.

The Predestination Thing

“Everything happens for a reason.”  In addition to being a terrible thing to say to somebody who is suffering from a tragedy, this would make God a real jerk.  A common theme I hear when talking to friends who have lost their faith is that God failed to prevent a bad thing from happening.  This is also a frequent source of insults that Atheists like to throw around: “If God is so good, and also omnipotent, why is there suffering?”

If storytelling was good enough for… well, for every religious leader and teacher ever… then it’s good enough for me!  Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

In my favorite book of all time (which will probably get its own blog entry later), The Once and Future King by T. H. White, there is a parable about two angels who are traveling.  One is an experienced angel and the other is an angel in training.  They come upon a poor farming couple who are very generous and offer to let them stay the night.  During the night, their cow- their source of income- dies.  Then the angels go to a rich family’s house, and the family is rude and lets them sleep there, but not inside the house.  There is a broken wall on the property, which the senior angel repairs.  The younger angel gets mad that the older angel would allow such injustice, with results so disproportionate to the merits of the two families.  The older angel replies that, when they were staying with the poor family, the Angel of Death had come for the wife.  Seeing how much the couple loved each other, the senior angel had Death take the cow instead.  Then, when they were staying with the snobby rich family, the senior angel fixed the broken wall to conceal a secret treasure buried inside it.  The point is that, even though you may not get the results you want, God can still be there, unseen.

One of my other favorite books of all time is The Plague by Albert Camus.  The population of a plague-devastated city tries to cope with their quarantine and wrap their heads around the effects of the disease on their loved ones.  Children and good people die in horrible ways.  An influential priest says that it is a punishment from God, and then the plague kills him.  The Existentialist, or more precisely, the Absurdist in me really appreciates this story.

Both of these stories appeal to me (especially “The Plague”) because I don’t believe God is in the business of tinkering.  More like nudging, which people can choose to ignore.  I also believe with some certainty that the natural world does not give a crap about any of us.  God might have created the idea of energy or light or self-replicating cells, but that doesn’t mean that storms and diseases are guided by a consciousness, let alone a consciousness whose purpose is to hand out rewards and punishments.  I do believe that living things are holy and precious, but they exist that way on their own, not in orbit around humans.  There are little sparks of the Divine all around us, just doing their thing.  Annoyingly smiley people like to say, “Just believe, and wonderful things will happen!”  No.  Wonderful things are already happening.  Our job is to notice them.

My main point here is that God gave us free will and consciousness so that we would use it, not just so we would sit back placidly and wait for miracles, and then blame God when those miracles don’t materialize.  Free will kicks in when you decide how to move forward, and God is there, quietly waiting to hold your hand.   I envision God more as a loving, animating force than as a BFF who intervenes on behalf of the most prayerful football team.

For years, I had a Time Magazine editorial taped to my wall, entitled, “God is not on my side.  Or yours.”  That pretty much sums it up.

Imagined comment: “I am an Atheist and the burden of proof is on you!  CHECKMATE!”

This sentiment and its brethren would confine the entirety of human experience to spreadsheets.  I bet you think literature and music are wastes of time, too!  Just as countries whose citizens live in misery and servitude can be held up as worldwide examples of development because they have high GDPs (recommended reading: do a search for “Capabilities Approach”), the facts that we know how to measure right now are not going to provide you with satisfaction.  Do people fall in love just because of oxytocin?  Do people laugh just because of endorphins?

I believe that, since God exists outside the physical world, his existence cannot be proven, nor should it be.  Human beings have felt compelled to communicate their feelings with each other and create works of art for tens of thousands of years.  There is a sense of awe and yearning and connection that is pretty universal in our species and gets fulfilled in different ways depending on the surrounding culture.  And, based on how some other species treat their dead, humans might not even be alone in this!

(Just as a side note, I know Richard Dawkins has published things about similar topics, but I find him to be more abrasive than convincing.)

Some of the most amazing and life-changing experiences I’ve had were not attributable to physical stimuli.  I know that on the surface this looks like a “God of the Gaps” fallacy, but equally shortsighted is the assertion that those “gaps” in understanding don’t exist in the first place.

I’m not going to address all possible arguments here because this thing is already really long.  The bottom line is: if God is acting like God, you’re never going to trick him into appearing in a test tube.  But, for all you know, he’s been whispering to you in the background, unnoticed.

Very short answers to questions that I might elaborate on later

Q: Ghosts/angels?

A: Probably, but not as often as people claim.  Brains can be weird.

Q: Why Christianity in particular?

A: 1) The culture I was raised in, and, 2) even if he turns out not to be God in the Flesh, Jesus was still a revolutionary teacher with some radical lessons about how to treat people.

In Conclusion:

There needs to be more respect in general around here.  Science and religion are all part of the same system.  Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and don’t dismiss the bits of truth in someone else’s entire worldview just because the person’s behavior rubs you the wrong way.

I’ll close with another Bible quote, this time from the Book of Job.  (Fun fact: The part about God and the Devil betting on Job’s piety was added later so the story would make more sense.)

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

–          Job 1:21

Thank you for reading.

© The Participle Dangler, 2013

On the Wifely Scourge of Lukewarm Food

I like to think of myself as a modern woman, a self-assured third-wave (for now) feminist.  I also happen to be married to a feminist man.  Neither of us fits the stereotypes of our respective genders: I have much more formal education and am more entrepreneurial. He feels compelled to care for sick people; I prefer to avoid sick people like the contagion they are.   I like going to parties and meeting new people; he would rather stay home and play a quiet game with one or two friends.  I’m a workaholic; he enjoys his leisure time.  He wants the décor to match; I want each individual item to be awesome on its own and I don’t care if they go together.  I like to be on stage; he feels self-conscious just sitting in the audience.  We often joke that, between the two of us, we probably have enough components to make one stereotypical man and one stereotypical woman.

One place the feminine/masculine divide is more apparent is in the food ritual.  When we were planning our wedding and our cross-country move, I read a lot of advice about marriage because I think it’s unwise to focus on the event and not pay attention to the life change it symbolizes.  I felt somewhat prepared for some of the changes in our dynamic as a couple.  What I was NOT prepared for is that, operating in a womanly role, you will almost never eat food that is the right temperature unless you plan for it specifically.  Nobody talked about this part.  I lived alone for the better part of seven years before we moved in together, and it never occurred to me that one of the essential patterns of womanhood is that, when you serve other people first, it necessarily means that you are last.

It started at our wedding.  We had fantastic cheesecake martinis, where there was cheesecake served in martini glasses and you could add whatever toppings you wanted.  I looked forward to this more than to the cake.  As the bride, they had me go through the buffet first, but I waited for everyone at my table to get their food before I started to eat mine.  I chatted with people and had a bunch of pictures taken.  Then speeches started, and since I was right at the front, I didn’t want to be rude by eating while people were talking.  Then there were the first dances, bouquet toss, singing.  I munched on some veggies in between because that was more subtle than going at the cheesecake.  When I finally got a chance where I felt like I wasn’t the center of attention, I hurriedly ate my cheesecake martini.  It had melted to a creamy lukewarm soup.

Maybe every bride should have an experience like this to introduce them to what will be expected of them as married ladies.  By the time I’ve wrangled my husband away from his computer game, served up all the courses, provided all the condiments and various accoutrements to everybody present, that steaming hot turkey casserole I just spent an hour making would no longer pass health department inspection.  Maybe this is preparing me for motherhood, when I’ll probably be like every other mom and feel lucky if I eat a graham cracker I found between the couch cushions.

But this isn’t really a post complaining about the temperature of food; this is a post about self-care.  If you have a tendency toward service, as many women do, you need to think ahead about how you will meet your own needs while in a committed relationship.  Once there is somebody living with you (or- as you probably believe at some level- under your care), he will be there all the time instead of just as an occasional visitor.  Unless you make explicit plans to the contrary, you will pretty much always tend to him first and forget that you have a body and a mind that also need nourishment.  Then, if you’re like me, you will quietly resent your husband until you realize the discomfort is your own doing, and nothing that he is asking of you.  So keep the casserole warm in the oven until he gets there, and eat the damn cheesecake while it’s still cold.

© The Participle Dangler, 2013

This is America! We speak English- and Spanish, and French, and Chinese, and…

In spite of what you might have seen on the Internet, the United States does not have an official language.  Some states have chosen official languages for themselves, but English has never been the official language in this country, because it has never been the only language in this country.

Even at the time of the Founding Fathers, there were other languages being spoken in and around the 13 colonies.  The Founding Fathers themselves were well-educated and multilingual.  People have come- and continue to come- from all over the world to participate in this grand, messy experiment that is the United States of America.  We conduct our business in English out of convenience and habit, not because there is something innately superior about English.

In spite of this multilingual and culturally-blended background, there is a virulent movement to eliminate other languages from the United States.  There is a Facebook page dedicated to it, many organizations dedicated to it, including some- not coincidentally- that are associated with known hate groups.  Their rhetoric may hide behind a support of English, but it is really about being against other languages and, more importantly, against the people who speak them.  It’s treated as a zero-sum game where any diversity or enrichment is considered a threat.  This is why pedagogically-sound, research-based bilingual education meets so much resistance.  Language is considered dangerous because its speakers are scary.

If we were to decide English should be our official language, we would have to codify it somehow.  Which version of English would it be?  There is incredible linguistic diversity just in the dialects of American English.  Imagine what it would be like if the government picked a new official variety of English, and it turned out to be dramatically different from your own.  What would it be like to have to learn to talk like, say, someone from New York or Chicago or Hunstville, Alabama?  What if you were turned down for jobs or social status because you didn’t speak the new standard?  I don’t imagine many people would be too enthusiastic about this, considering that even the most vocal “English Only” proponents are unwilling to master the prescriptive written standard as it is, as evidenced by the well-circulated images below (source):

Protest signs advocating for speaking English only, all of which are misspelled

“English Only” movement supporters have tapped into something that is very true: language is a vital part of every community, and sometimes communities don’t like change.  At least, they don’t like to be aware of it.

In 2011, the American Community Survey estimated that only 79% of the United States population (over the age of five) spoke only English.  This means that 21% of US the population speaks another language, either exclusively or along with English.  In places where languages other than English are restricted in public life, people are restricted in accessing basic human rights services such as education, justice, and emergency health services.  Contrary to the fear that (particularly Hispanic) immigrants are trying to take over “America,” through the use of their native languages, the majority of these immigrants report that they believe it is important to learn English to integrate into US culture.

Linguists have been saying for decades that there is no such thing as an objectively illogical or inferior language or language variety.  Languages have political ideologies because of their association with the groups of people who speak them.  In this case, the minority languages under attack are targets because they are spoken by people who are feared and hated by members of the majority group.  Language is increasingly being recognized not only as a civil right, but as a basic human right, so any attempt to ban particular languages will eventually need to address this.

So let’s cut to the chase: this is not about language.  This is about power and fear.  The “English Only” branch of the anti-immigrant movement is an exercise in hypocrisy because it depends on English-speakers having an innate superiority by virtue of the fact that they were here first.  They’re the “real” Americans.

If we examine the logic of this, it quickly falls apart.  If the first person to call “dibs” on a spot of land got to dictate the language of everyone who came later, we would all be speaking hundreds of indigenous American languages based on our region of settlement.  If you are a white person whose family came to the United States within the past 200 years, you have no business telling other recent immigrants what language to speak under the guise of your native language, English, having been here first.  African-Americans were here before your ancestors.  Mexican-Americans were here before your ancestors.  The French and Louisiana’s Cajuns were here before your ancestors.  The Dutch were here before your ancestors.  You don’t get to call “dibs” because you were here first, because you were not here first.

Instead, let’s call this what it is.  It is about xenophobia: a fear of the new and the unknown.  It is okay to be uncomfortable when confronted with cultural changes you don’t understand.  It is NOT okay to use that as an excuse to fight against the rights of other human beings.

© The Participle Dangler, 2013

(This piece originally appeared in The Progressive Press.)

Broad Brushes and the Gap that Unites Mental Illness and Firearms

This article has been making the rounds since the Sandy Hook tragedy: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

Regardless of whether you believe everything in the story is 100% true, this is a situation faced by many families.  This is not about autism spectrum disorders, since there is no evidence for a link between them and violent behavior.  This is about people with violent tendencies and uncontrollable aggression who have not yet committed a crime.

By law, nobody can be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for more than 72 hours without a court order.  Imagine a teenager with a temper who has, say, threatened to kill people in his school or in his family.  He hasn’t done it yet or made any tangible preparations.   His psychiatrist and his parents take him to a mental hospital for his own safety and that of those around him.  Three days later, he forces a discharge.  He’s not actively hallucinating and he hasn’t committed a crime, so they can’t keep him any longer.  Has he been cured?  No.  Is he no longer a threat?  No.  And now he’s angry at his parents for the confinement, and they still sleep under the same roof.  This cycle could be repeated two or three times with no real progress.

This is where the weapons permits come in: many states use the length or circumstances of involuntary commitment as their criterion for whether somebody counts as mentally ill when they apply for concealed weapons permits.  Imagine the kid in the above story at age 21.  He has a known history of mental illness and aggression.  He has saved several hundred dollars.  Since his hospitalization did not meet the arbitrary time limit that would be required to disqualify him, he can legally purchase a handgun and carry it in public.  Even if he lives with his parents because he’s incapable of caring for himself due to his mental illness, his parents have no say over whether or not the State will allow him to acquire a gun and bring it into their home.

Of course I believe in the right of patients and students not to be punished for things they haven’t done or confined against their will.  I don’t think someone should be able to maliciously accuse another with a blanket statement of being mentally ill just to restrict their activity.  That’s not the point. The problem is that when an arbitrary loophole in the law is based on an arbitrary loophole in another law, the guidelines no longer have a basis in reality.  There are certainly other Adam Lanzas, Jared Loughners and James Holmeses out there, with parents and professionals struggling to do what is right for their kids while trying to keep themselves safe.  These three young men were known threats before they made material preparations for their attacks.

Still, when we consider the broad umbrella of mental illness, we need to be mindful of where we draw the line of who should or should not be given access to firearms.  Very few of this country’s 57.7 million mentally ill people are dangerous.  This is obvious.  And it is also obvious that not all mental disturbances pose the same level of threat to the community.  For example, someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is probably not as likely to commit murder as someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, and they’re likely to be perfectly capable of responsible gun ownership.  However, they both fall under the category of “mental illness” and are subject to the same counterproductive societal stigma.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  In this case, when we say we want assault rifles out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” we need to be careful in how we define it and whether professionals or bureaucrats are allowed to make the final call.