Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Being an expert, sort of

One of the weirder aspects of this job is that sometimes you get called from out of the blue and asked to offer “expert” commentary on topics that—more often than not—you have just a passing familiarity with. This happens because the university keeps a list of professors and the various topics they might pronounce upon in the event that a journalist wants an “expert” opinion for a feature he or she is writing.

I’ve been called a few times on a variety of things, but this is the first time someone was routed to me this way. I was interviewed by the TV show Books into Film two and a half years ago about Nick Hornby novels (I think because someone doing an internet search found that I taught High Fidelity on a popular culture course at Western), and a blog entry ranting about potholes prompted a call from the St. John’s Telegram by someone doing a story about potholes. But this was the first call I got based on my stated areas of expertise here at Memorial.

This time, the subject was Facebook—specifically, a feature about Facebook on the occasion of its fifth anniversary. Seeing as how we don’t yet have a Media Studies or Communications program at MUN, I guess an English professor with a secondary interest in media (or who has, at least, taught media studies courses in the past) will have to do.

I am, of course, hardly an expert on digital technologies of communication, unless you count the final chapter of my undergraduate thesis in which I talk briefly about the internet as a postmodern labyrinth apropos of cyberpunk novels. My entire expertise vis a vis Facebook is that I'm a subscriber. That being pointed out to the reporter however, I did gamely offer intellectual-esque commentary. The article is here, but if you just want to read my sound byte:

“One of the greatest appeals is being in contact,” said Chris Lockett, English professor at Memorial University in St. John’s. “One of the appeals about Facebook specifically, too, is that it does sort of cross issues of time and space, so what a lot of people talk about, both positively and negatively, is once they go on Facebook they find themselves quite suddenly in contact with people they hadn’t spoken to or thought about in years. You don’t necessarily talk to them on a regular basis over Facebook, but you do get this constant stream of information in the news feed over what they’re doing and what’s going on. You get a sense of other people’s stories in a very passive way — you don’t have to go out and look for them.”

I don’t know why the reporter needed to have a professor to say something that is essentially common sense, but then I guess that’s what I do—give my “expert” imprimatur to stuff you already knew.

I’m thinking of having that put on my business cards.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Puttering about on a stormy Wednesday

Well, we're being hit with our first major storm of the winter, and the Avalon Penninsula is closed. Everything! I've been listening to the CBC all day so far, and they keep reading off these ridiculously long lists of closures. I suppose they are obliged to be specific, otherwise it would make more sense to simply say what isn't closed. Which is, apparently, nothing. The airport is effectively shut down, all our ferry services are suspended, and they've been clocking gusts of up to 100km/hr.

So, I have had the pleasure of a snow day mitigated by the looming task of digging my car out. That, I will be addressing once I complete this blog post. I've been putting it off in the hope that the wind dies down a little ... which doesn't seem about to happen. Sigh.

In the meantime, I've been puttering around the house. After a year and a half of living here, I finally got itchy to start improving my new place. I don't have the capital to take on the tasks I really want to do (i.e. hire a contractor to gut my kitchen and put in an island and tile floors, or remake my sunroom--currently essentially a storage space--into an actual pleasant breakfast nook).

Hence, I'm starting modestly. Of the three upstairs bedrooms, the rear two have been unused space--mostly, I've just been storing my books in boxes, lacking the shelf space for them. Shortly after Christmas, I retasked the middle bedroom as a workout room and invested in weights and a bench (moving all the boxes into the rear bedroom).

And then, after several frustrating visits to Home Depot in which their panel saw was out of order and therefore unable to provide me with the cut plywood I needed, I finally was able to buy my supplies and build the shelves that will help turn the rear bedroom into a study / reading room / guest room.

Now, I should point out that to say I'm not particularly handy is like saying that Dick Cheney bears a mild antipathy to liberals. So I'm quite pleased with what I've managed to assemble:

These do not, it should be noted, bear a close inspection--I lack as a carpenter the kind of eerie perfection that someone like my father brings to these kind of projects, where every line is plumb and the entire thing knocks together almost without a need for glue or nails. There was a lot of spackling and cutting little shims to plug of the shortfalls in my measurements (measure one, cut twice is my motto). Fortunately, my time working as a painter through summers in my undergrad gave me, if nothing else, a talent for making imperfections if not go away, at least hide pretty well.

In addition to now having an upper floor of my house that I am quite pleased with, and will use now for more than sleeping, this process was quite fun. It took place in increments, a couple of hours after work over about two weeks. Plus, it gives me the confidence this summer to rip up my grotty deck and rebuild it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Red Dawn was a conservative film? Who knew?

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one: The National Review has come out with a list of the best “conservative” films of the last twenty-five years. I leave “conservative” in scare quotes, because it is unclear how they’re defining it. Most of the films listed (though not all) seem to be there because of a single aspect of plot or theme that exemplifies a conservative preoccupation—so Juno makes the list because its title character decides against having an abortion, Ghostbusters makes the list because of William Atherton’s depiction of a “regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA,” and The Lives of Others seems to be there because it was enthusiastically endorsed by William F. Buckley.

Anyway, here’s the list in descending order:

25. Gran Torino
24. Team America: World Police (seriously)
23. United 93
22. Brazil
21. Heartbreak Ridge
20. Gattaca
19. We Were Soldiers
18. The Edge
17. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
16. Master and Commander
15. Red Dawn
14. A Simple Plan
13. Braveheart
12. The Dark Knight
11. The Lord of the Rings
10. Ghostbusters
9. Blast from the Past
8. Juno
7. The Pursuit of Happyness
6. Groundhog Day
5. 300
4. Forrest Gump
3. Metropolitan
2. The Incredibles
1. The Lives of Others

Again, not even sure where to begin, though I’m tempted to say that if these are the best conservative films of the last 25 years, then conservatives obviously don’t make very good films. Certainly, the most unequivocally conservative entries here—300, Red Dawn, We Were Soldiers, Heartbreak Ridge and Blast from the Past—unequivocally suck. The one possible exception to this statement is Forrest Gump, a film that makes me gag but one I’m willing to grant has redeeming features (a good soundtrack, if nothing else). That 300 is on a list of supposedly “good” films at all (and at #5, no less!) brings the entire endeavour into question. That the film is described as “a stylized story about the ancient battle of Thermopylae and the Spartan defense of the West’s fledgling institutions” makes it even more laughable, considering the fact that Sparta was as dictatorial as any despotic regime of the 20th century, exercising absolute control over its citizenry, and ultimately responsible in the Peloponnesian War for the destruction of Athens’ “fledgling” democracy.

Some of the rationales offered for defining the above films as somehow inherently conservative are similarly hilarious, and occasionally baffling. Take, for example, the description of United 93:

“Minutes after terrorists struck on 9/11, Americans launched their first counterattack in the War on Terror. Director Paul Greengrass pays tribute to the passengers of United 93 by refusing to turn their story into a wimpy Hollywood melodrama. Instead, United 93 unfolds as a real-time docudrama. Just as significantly, Greengrass provides a clear depiction of our enemies. United 93 opens as four Muslim terrorists pray in a hotel room. Several hours later, the hijackers’ frenzied shrieks to Allah mingle with the prayerful supplications of United 93’s passengers as they crash through the cockpit door and strike a blow against those who would terrorize our country.”

That, incidentally, is the entire entry—I’m not leaving anything out. Someone explain to me please how this qualifies as de facto conservatism?

Team America: World Police, to my mind the most bizarre choice, is there because it mocks left-wing Hollywood types. Someone forgot to mention to the list compilers that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal-opportunity satirists, and if Alec Baldwin et al come in for mockery, heavy-handed American foreign policy (it’s there in the title, people) takes the brunt of the film’s derision.

Here’s what was said about Braveheart: “Braveheart taught that freedom is not just worth dying for, but also worth killing for, in defense of hearth and homeland. Six years later, amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Gibson’s message resonated with a generation of American youth who signed up to fight terrorists, instead of inviting them to join a ‘constructive dialogue.’ Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since.” Oh, right—that’s why Mel Gibson no longer gets a fair shake from liberal Hollywood. It’s all about Braveheart. I remember the left-wing rage upon seeing stalwart American youths in the recruiting lineups shouting “FREEDOM!” in bad Scottish accents …

What I think irks me most about this list is the simple fact that the vast majority of what gets produced by Hollywood is conservative—by which I mean, not that we see a lot of films with overt conservative agendas, but that popular film, like popular television, is inherently conservative in its general themes and stories. Good people and good acts are rewarded, transgressors punished, law and order function as transcendent principles, the overriding ethic is individualist rather than collective, America (or its Spartan proxies) always wins, and the obvious end-point of every romantic comedy is marriage literal or symbolic. Representations of sex, violence, and alternative lifestyles (ranging from single parenthood to homosexuality) have of course become more pervasive—but that conservative deep structure persists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic slasher film: it may be filled with explicit sex and gory violence, but the killer—be he Jason or Michael Myers—ultimately acts as the moral absolutist, only sparing those who abstain from immoral behaviour.

It gets to the point where it’s the films substantively deviating from this deep structure that prove most disturbing and, often, the most compelling. But even to say this is a bit disingenuous, for if this list demonstrates anything at all, it is the fallacy of this kind of classification. The best films, like the best art of any kind, cannot be classified so simply as merely “liberal” or “conservative.” Based on the jumbled criteria cited in the list, I would have to say that, for example, No Country for Old Men is certainly not a conservative film. Does that make it liberal? Of course not. What it is, is a film that raises a lot of questions about morality and the nature of evil, of the consequences of our actions, and the possible futility of taking up arms against a sea of troubles. As I’ve blogged before, many conservatives have seen in The Dark Knight’s depiction of the Batman’s vigilantism a vindication of the Bush Administration’s choices to operate outside domestic and international law. While that element is undeniably present, to see it as the sum total of The Dark Knight’s message is to miss the point of the film, which poses the Batman’s vigilantism not as an absolute good but a vexed ethical and moral dilemma for which there are no easy answers.

I suggested to my students this morning that one of the ways we know great art—or even just good art—when we see it is that it changes the terms of our discussion with it, and forces us to expand our vocabulary to engage with it. The problem with this list is that it tries so very hard to reduce our vocabulary. Incidentally, this irks me on behalf of the intelligent and principled conservatives I have known in my life. To reduce The Lord of the Rings to something like “The debates over what to do about Sauron and Saruman echoed our own disputes over the Iraq War” or Juno to a straightforward pro-life message, or Narnia’s White Witch to someone who “runs a godless, oppressive, paranoid regime that hates Santa Claus … a cross between Burgermeister Meisterburger and Kim Jong Il,” bespeaks a reductive and simplistic brand of conservatism that rejects nuance as waffling and ambiguity as weakness.

And, seriously—300?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner

Watching the news these days is a daunting prospect, so dire are the forecasts on practically every single front.

If we as a species have any one great redeeming feature, I think it’s a sense of humour, and an ability to laugh in the face of disaster … or at the very least, to poke fun at doomsaying. To do it musically is even more of an accomplishment.

A number of years ago, I found in a sale bin of CDs an album titled Twentieth Century Blues, a collection of Noel Coward songs covered by contemporary musicians. This is a brilliant collection, not least for Sting doing “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” Space’s version of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” and Vic Reeves singing “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” Listening to these songs, one is reminded of Noel Coward’s rather singular wit, a subtle combination of pathos, cynicism, and antipathy toward the snobby British upper-crust of which he was eminently a member.

My hands-down favourite song in the collection is Robbie Williams singing “There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner.” Unfortunately, this is the only video I can find for it, but it’s a decent rendition. And I’ve included the lyrics below, which are exemplary of Coward’s particular brand of humour. Listen, read, and enjoy …

There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner
Noel Coward

They're out of sorts in Sunderland
And terribly cross in Kent,
They're dull in Hull
And the Isle of Mull
Is seething with discontent.
They're nervous in Northumberland
And Devon is down the drain,
They're filled with wrath
On the firth of Forth
And sullen on Salisbury Plain,
In Dublin they're depressed, lads,
Maybe because they're Celts
For Drake is going West, lads,
And so is everyone else.
Misery's here to stay.

There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon's gloomy as can be,
There are Home Fires smoking
From Windermere to Woking
And we're not going to tighten our belts and smile, smile, smile,
With a scowl and a frown
We'll keep our peckers down
When reminded of something that Nelson said.
While the press and the politicians nag nag nag
We'll wait until we drop down dead.

They're nervous in Nigeria
And terribly cross in Crete,
In Bucharest They are so depressed
They're frightened to cross the street,
In Maine the melancholia
Is deeper than tongue can tell,
In Monaco
All the croupiers know
They haven't a hope in Hell.
In far away Australia
Each wallaby's well aware
The world's a total failure
Without any time to spare.
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Suffering and dismay.

There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon's gloomy as can be,
There are black birds over
The grayish cliffs of Dover
And the rats are preparing to leave the B.B.C.
We're an unhappy breed
And very bored indeed
When reminded of something that Nelson said.
While the press and the politicians nag nag nag
We'll wait until we drop down dead.

There are bad times just around the corner
And the outlook's absolutely vile,
There are Home Fires smoking From Windermere to Woking
And we're not going to tighten our belts and smile, smile, smile,
At the sound of a shot
We'd just as soon as not
Take a hot water bottle and go to bed,
We're going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.
Land of Hope and Glory!
Wait until we drop down dead.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Happy birthday, Papa Darwin

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced from the same laws acting around us."
--Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species

It’s Darwin week: Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth, and a host of radio shows, newspaper columns, television specials, and yes, even blog postings, celebrate, ruminate and mull over his contribution to the world today and the always-ongoing controversy that the theory of evolution inspires.

Freud famously observed that there had been three great blows to the human ego, delivered by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud himself (a modest one was Sigmund). I find it interesting that of these three, Darwin is really the only one who still gets up people’s noses. A handful of flat-earthers aside, there’s really no one out there suggesting we continue to teach the Ptolemaic system; and while Freud has been more or less jettisoned by psychology, he nevertheless lives on in the thriving therapy trade (I like to tell my students that Freud’s greatest sin wasn’t the appalling gender politics of theories like penis envy or the Oedipal Complex, so much as the fact that he effectively made Dr. Phil possible).

But Darwin still stokes the fires of controversy. I find this interesting because of the three, he is the one whose theories seem to me the most intuitive and unremarkable. I imagine that this is because I grew up on books about dinosaurs and paleontology, about the sudden extinction of the great reptiles and rise of the mammals; my geological time line has always been on the scale of hundreds of millions of years, and human beings have for me always been relatively recent arrivals. The Copernican Revolution, on the other hand, has always fired my imagination, especially in terms of such books as John Banville’s novels Dr. Copernicus and Kepler or popular histories like Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers—outer space has, in other words, always been site of discovery, whereas evolution always just seemed like common sense.

All of which is why, on occasions like this week, I regret my otherwise wonderful circumstances as a professor at a Canadian university. Why, do you ask? In a word, because I never have occasion to run into people who want to argue with me that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, much less people who advocate Creationism. Though universities can foster a special breed of wingnuttery all their own, I never find myself in the vanguard of the culture war arguing with religious fundamentalists or people convinced that Obama is a secret Muslim.

(The exception to this last example was when my friend Jen, who has a great TV blog called Nik at Nite, was talking a lot about Sarah Palin in the run-up to the U.S. election—in the context of Tina Fey’s brilliant portrayal of her—and had a stunning flood of comments attacking her for attacking Palin, and a great deal of the “you’re a Canadian and therefore have no right to talk about our politics” kind of thing. I commented in a few of the back-and forths, but when someone made the Obama-is-Muslim accusation, I jumped in with both feet-- because really, where was I going to have that opportunity again?).

I would like to have those arguments. I honestly have no objection to people believing in Creationism or Intelligent Design, but I do object rather emphatically to the suggestion that to be fair and equitable we need to teach one or both in schools alongside the Theory of Evolution. I won’t rehearse the usual arguments against Darwinism; suffice to say they tend toward the facile and disingenuous. My perspective is more of a disciplinary one. Were I confronted with someone asking me if I thought Intelligent Design should be taught, I would say yes—absolutely. Just not in Biology class. Teach it to your heart’s content in Religious Studies, in Sunday school. What the advocates of ID argue is that it is a perfectly acceptable alternative theory to Evolution and should therefore be taught in tandem.

This is where their suggestion is disingenuous. The fact of the matter is, if you are religious with any degree of devoutness, you have a de facto belief in Intelligent Design. That is to say, if you believe in an absolute divinity or omnipotent being at all seriously, it follows that He, She, or It had a hand in the creation of the universe and all of its denizens. There is of course a range of beliefs within this proposition, from the notion that God wound it all up like a clock five billion years ago and has left it to run its course, to a sense of immediate and constant divine intervention. But the point is: if you believe in God, you believe (or at least accept) the premise of Intelligent Design.

Nor is this at all problematic or reprehensible, but is a matter of religious faith and personal belief. To suggest however that what is essentially a matter of faith has a place in science class is simply ludicrous—and it is ludicrous because it fails spectacularly to meet the criteria defining academic disciplines.

Every discipline is more or less in a state of flux; not a huge or visible state of flux (in fact, most disciplines appear static or even stagnant), but in a constant state of negotiation as new work, new research, new ideas are tested out within a community of experts. What defines a discipline at any given moment is a critical mass of accepted practices, knowledge, and standards, and the criteria for determining them. Now, fields like Philosophy and Literature are not subject to the kind of empirical testing that is standard in the sciences, but we nevertheless proceed along similar lines by way of peer-review and accepted standards for how we do research and produce scholarship.

The issue of empirical testing is fundamental to the scientific method, and effectively has been since Galileo. Much remains in the realm of theory—relativity remained just an interesting idea for some dozen years until a comet passing through the solar system provided an opportunity to observe concrete evidence. And Evolution as a theory has undergone massive changes, and no biologist worth his salt will claim it has been worked out to the last detail. It remains however, as far as the balance of experts in the field declare, the best theory explaining how we biologically arrived where we are—and evolutionary biologists work to arrive at the point where what remains in the realm of theory can be empirically verified.

It is this last point that is the rub, for that kind of empiricism is fundamentally at odds with religious faith. Faith is just that, and proof positive that your belief is true sort of obviates the need for faith. Hence, unless the fundamental principles underwriting scientific inquiry are overturned, Intelligent Design is perfect for religion or theology classes but is antithetical to science. Which is why all the ostensibly reasonable arguments for introducing ID into science curricula is rather transparently a sort of back-door Creationism.

Anyway, in lieu of ever getting to make this argument with a bona fide Creationist, there’s my tribute to Papa Darwin.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The pothole season, she come early this year

I always get asked about the Newfoundland winter, and whether it’s as difficult to endure as people assume. To which I always respond that yes, the winters can be arduous—but not really substantially more than any other Canadian city that isn’t Vancouver. We have a bit of a trade-off: we certainly get massive dumps of snow, and it is with something approaching abject despair that I look outside and see three feet of the white stuff covering my car. On the other hand, we don’t often get the lung-freezing -20 degree stretches of cold that occur in Ontario and are pretty much de rigueur on the Prairies. Our winter temperatures tend to keep close to zero, migrating above and below it with almost daily frequency.

The downside to this constant freeze/thaw, combined with regular dumps of snow, is that come spring our roads have proportionally more potholes than asphalt. Water gets into the cracks in the road, expands when it freezes, and over several of these cycles, ruptures chunks of the street. Add to that the snow ploughs that scoop out these ruptures along with the snow, and you’ve got quite the potent combination.

Hence, driving in St. John’s starting around the end of March and through April is kind of like a random slalom. I’m particularly keen to avoid the potholes since blowing out a tire hitting one two years ago; and while the worst ones get flagged with traffic warning signs, you’re otherwise reliant on the sharpness of your eyes and reflexes to avoid them.

I’m not a particularly observant person—I can stare at my bookcase for ten minutes looking for a volume, only to suddenly realize it’s immediately before my eyes—but I’ve developed a pretty acute pothole-avoidance instinct. It’s as if I can sense them, and my normally sluggish reflexes acquire an almost ninja-like speed. This is not, I have been told, uncommon in this city. While I was giving my friend and colleague Danine a lift home from work last year, she laughed at the blasé way I was sharply avoiding the potholes while carrying on an animated conversation.

While this amused Danine, I know it freaked the hell out of my mother a few times during her visit last spring. My mom’s a nervous driver to begin with, so to be jerked around seemingly randomly as I navigated the streets of my adopted city left her rather pale; fortunately in St. John’s there are few times you have to drive for any longer than a few minutes. A good thing, too—an extended slalom might have induced a massive coronary.

This year, I don’t know if it’s been the particularly violent temperature swings we’ve been having (we’ve had a few atypically cold days, down to -14 on at least one occasion, followed by extremely mild days nearly reaching double digit temperature), but pothole season seems to have arrived early, and in force. This does not bode well for the spring—then, the weather is good enough for a pretty regular filling of the holes, but you don’t see it much in the winter. Which makes me concerned that come April, the proportion of asphalt to pothole is going to be rather skewed.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stephen Harper, political judo master

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Stephen Harper. He may be petty and vindictive, but no one plays the game of political chess in this country like him. He blundered in December, but was back in true form with the Federal Budget that didn’t give anyone anything to complain about … except for conservatives and Newfoundland.

So you’re Stephen Harper, having just squeaked out of the confrontation with the coalition, and looking at the shiny new Liberal leader who seems set to rejuvenate his party and build momentum that could seriously hurt you in a year or two. What is the best way to sabotage this prospect? Why, to make Ignatieff look weak, of course. And what better way to do that than to stick some of his MPs with an impossible choice of loyalties? And while we’re at it, why not stick it to Danny Williams?

Talk about two birds with one stone.

You almost have to admire the elegance of it. In choking off $1.5B over three years to Newfoundland and Labrador, Harper gets his revenge for Williams’ ABC campaign and presents Ignatieff with a handful of Liberal MPs who really have no choice but to vote against the budget. It’s lose-lose for Ignatieff: if he lets them vote their conscience, he’s a weak leader; if he punishes them for dissenting, he’s petty, and still weak in the bargain for not having brought his party into line to begin with. Either way, in the first major political drama of 2009, Ignatieff loses much of that shiny newness. And Harper comes out of it with nary a scratch: his ruthlessness is now such a commonplace that it doesn’t bear remarking; what’s more, political retribution for Newfoundland and Labrador’s rejection of the Conservatives was more or less to be expected. And Danny Williams’ rants about Harper’s petty vindictiveness tend to elicit more eye-rolls here in Newfoundland than emphatic nods of agreement (for those unfamiliar with Danny Williams’ political style, he is the king of petty vindictiveness when it comes to those who cross him here on the Rock—his accusations of the same against Harper are seen very much as throwing black kettles in a glass house).

It’s a political judo hold, and deftly done. That doesn’t change the fact however that it was petty and vindictive, politically cynical, and an act of partisan maneuvering at a time when the country really needs a leader who can, if not rise above this sort of adolescent squabbling, then at least put it aside in a time of crisis. Even as the country looks to the Prime Minister for solutions to intractable problems, Stephen Harper is using the very Budget designed to help Canadians to give his political opponents the shaft.

Does this put Ignatieff in a difficult position? Yes. But I think the best response at this point is to call it what it is: to call out Stephen Harper for his political scheming and outline explicitly the way in which he’s playing Liberals against each other, province against province for his own cynical ends; and if I were Michael Ignatieff, after saying all that, I would continue: “I will be voting for this budget, because I need to think federally. This country does not want another election now; it has made it clear it is at best ambivalent about a coalition government, and so for the time being those options are off the table. I need to consider the good of Canadians as a whole. That is the job of a party leader. But the job of MPs is to speak for their ridings, and for that reason I will not be either forcing the Liberal members of Newfoundland and Labrador to vote my way, nor will I punish them when they don’t. In fact, on this issue, I will be freeing all Liberals to vote their conscience, to vote the way their constituents wish for them to vote. Stephen Harper has included this measure in the budget to punish Newfoundland and Labrador for rejecting his party and to weaken the Opposition. It is a cynical and petty move at a time when this country needs leadership. And I think the Canadian people are not nearly as stupid as Mr. Harper believes them to be. I think the Canadian people recognize a con job when they see it. And I think the Canadian people are going to remember that, at a time when they looked to their Prime Minister to rise above political expediency, he failed spectacularly.”

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Apostrophalypse Now

Apparently, Birmingham has decided to remove all apostrophes from its street signs.

Yes. You read that correctly: Birmingham—Birmingham, England that is, in case you were wondering if this was a non-English Birmingham with therefore a more casual relationship to the English language—is banishing the apostrophe. From its street signs. So “King’s Heath” becomes “Kings Heath” … which is a pretty significant semantic shift, when you think about it, changing it from a heath owned by the king to a heath where kings congregate to do … I don’t know, whatever kings do when they gather in large numbers.

Why have they done this? Principally, because this has apparently been a bone of contention for years. “We keep debating apostrophes in meetings,” a city councilor declared, “and we have other things to do.” Well, speaking as a veteran of English department meetings, I can understand the frustration of debating grammatical minutiae, but … seriously? You spend your council meetings debating apostrophes?

The anti-apostrophe advocates claim that apostrophes are “confusing and old-fashioned.” The same city councilor said “They confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don't want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

Again … seriously? Just how easily confused do you have to be in order to get turned around by an apostrophe?

Actually, I think navigation will be a lot more difficult without the apostrophe. Just think of all the people looking for a building on King’s Heath, who wind up going to the wrong end of the city and wandering confusedly among the kings gathered at Kings Heath. It will be chaos.