Sunday, February 7, 2010

Boggles the Mind

Having my morning coffee, reading the news and up comes an item that just, well, kind of boggles the mind.

Two, actually, and they both fall under the category of, "Say WHAT??!!!"

Item No. 1:
Meetings were held in a school district in Riverside County, California recently to consider banning the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary because it contains a number of referenced words that were thought to be "age-inappropriate" and which some parents found highly offensive.[1]   After due deliberation, it was finally decided that said dictionary could remain on the shelves and those parents who objected, could  "opt to have their kids use an alternative dictionary...."[2]

Perhaps they should have slapped a warning sticker on that dictionary, saying "For college-age students only" (like the title says, it's a "collegiate" dictionary), alerting users under the age of 18 that:  "This book contains certain words that may be offensive and parental permission is required to consult it."  (I notice it didn't mention any of the offended parties offering to substitute an "alternative" dictionary that did not contain any offending words.)

If they want to ban a dictionary in a school library because it contains the words "oral sex", because those are not  "age-appropriate"  words for an elementary school child, why stop there?  Why not also ban the Bible, which contains words such as "sodomy", "lust" "naked", "whoremongers" "adulterer" and  "harlot", which terms are also not "age-appropriate" for a child? I'm just saying ...

And maybe, by extension, children should not be allowed to attend religious services in which the word "hell" and "damn" (as in, you will be damned to hell if you don't stop sinning) are shouted out from the pulpit.  But that was in context.  You must always take things in context.  A minister can say hell or damn in a sermon but if you're a kid and you try it, chances are you'll get your mouth washed out with soap.  (If you accidently hit your thumb with a hammer, for example, you still can't say hell or damn.  Only adults are allowed to do that.  You have to say heck or dang or gosh.) 

Today dictionaries, tomorrow school textbooks.  Wait, that's already happening ...  Don't like school textbooks teaching your kids about evolution?  Some parents have succeeded in getting those books replaced with 'alternative' ones, more in line with the creationist point of view.   There are alternative views on every subject.  Even documented history is revisable. You can sometimes influence which 'truth' gets promulgated; and you can control how a person--child or adult--perceives a thing, to a certain extent, by limiting access to information that supports or contradicts a particular point of view.  With young children, it's a pre-emptive thing:  in the good sense--you don't want to deliberately expose them to things that will frighten, upset or radically confuse them.  But there's a negative side:  too restrictive a control can also serve to squelch curiosity (or, conversely, fuel it, setting the stage for future rebellion).

Organizations sometimes attempt to control a member's reading choices so as not to lose their membership.  Several decades ago Roman Catholics were forbidden to read certain books appearing on an Index of banned books. Only those officially sanctioned with the nihil obstat (i.e., containing nothing damaging to their faith or morals) were safe to read. Voltaire, Descartes, Galileo, Rousseau, Gide, Pascal--were all on the Church's list of forbidden books. What the Church feared, of course, happened.  Scores of members eventually abandoned their unquestioning adherence to certain previously accepted dogmas and went swimming instead with the dreaded secular fishes. Censorship sometimes backfires.

Item No. 2:
South Carolina now requires 'subversives' to register (and pay a $5 fine) if they intend to overthrow the government.[3]   Failure to comply will result in a fine of up to $25,000 and up to ten years in prison.   (Say what?!!)  I kid you not.  The state's "Subversive Activities Registration Act," passed last year and now officially on the books, states that "every member of a subversive organization, or an organization subject to foreign control, every foreign agent and every person who advocates, teaches, advises or practices the duty, necessity or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States ... shall register with the Secretary of State." Good luck with that, guys. 

Take out the "or's" in the above quotation, condense it, and it now reads:   Every person who advocates the necessity of conducting the U.S. government has to register with the Secretary of State. 

Who do they consider subversives? Because they include persons who "reside" or "transact business"  in South Carolina who might, among other unspeakable deeds, "attempt to influence political action by unlawful means".   Somebody better tell the lobbyists and certain corporations and certain politicians used to taking bribes.

 The law here says this doesn't apply to free speech, by the way.   "The terms of this chapter do not apply to any labor union or religious, fraternal or patriotic organization, society or association, or their members, whose objectives and aims do not contemplate the overthrow of the government of the United States, of this State or of any political subdivision thereof by force or violence or other unlawful means" says section 23-29-40.   You're apparently okay if you "do NOT contemplate" overthrowing a political subdivision by unlawful means.   Wait, but are they saying that if you merely "contemplate" (i.e., ponder, think about, etc.) a regime change in the U.S. or South Carolina by "unlawful means" (like manipulation of electronic voting machines), that according to them you are a 'subversive' and must notify the Secretary of State of your contemplations? I mean, that's what the wording says.  (Diebold, are you listening?)

This is hilarious.  No terrorist planning a violent act is going to trot down to City Hall, fork over $5.00 and inform the Secretary of State of South Carolina of their intent.   And no lobbyist or corporation or politican bent on "influencing politics" is going to, either.  Get real.   How, one might ask, would such a law be even enforceable?  It would be interesting to know, since the law's been enacted, just how many subversive entities have actually registered.  Where would one find out that information--or is that, too, a "matter of national security"?


$5.00 fee required

Not to harp on this, but one should really pay attention to how a thing is worded, especially new laws that are enacted.  Lawyers do.  Just look at the number of criminals who never get prosecuted because of mere "technicalities." 

Now if you check that South Carolina state website you will find right away a disclaimer stating that the "Subversive Activities Registration Act", a copy of which they have provided there on the web page, is the "unannotated" version.  To read the "official", annotated version you have to go find and read the published volumes.  You probably have to make an appointment to do so.  What's the difference between the unannotated and the annotated version?  Well, just that the annotated version includes a brief summary of the law and demonstrates how it is interpreted and applied. The unannotated version on their web page, does not.  The legislative staff says it won't respond to any questions as to the application of this law to any facts, by the way.  They suggest you retain a lawyer for help with that.

Words are so important and people find them so boring sometimes, they barely notice them. Others obsess over them to the point of unbalanace.  And if there are too many of them--as in this absurdly long posting today on my blog--some readers will have left long before the article is concluded.

Words contained in dictionaries, words embedded in legalese, words that incite, titillate, confuse, threaten, or deceive. Words in tiny print and unfamiliar jargon are particularly uninviting--one barely manages a perfunctory skimming.  People routinely sign contracts without understanding the terms, the interpretation of which is assumed but not ever verified.

If one wants to include something in a contract that if spelled out and thoroughly described would invite further scrutiny and possibly result in cancellation, one might include the words "and for other purposes".  This particular phrase is especially useful if one is later required to justify certain expenses incurred when the contract doesn't specifically mention such items, such as millions of dollars earmarked for one program that finds its way instead into a senator's local pork project, the "other purpose" alluded to but not defined.  Despite attention continually being called to this deceptive practice, it remains alive and popular and well-exercised.

The inclusion--or absence--of a single word or phrase in an official document,  poem, or personal correspondence, can make all the difference in the world.

So these two news items above are making the rounds of the Internet this week, eliciting whoops of incredulity or howls of laughter.  People wanting to ban a dictionary because it contains a few words felt to be morally repugnant; a state enacting a bizarre, ambiguous law that appears ludicrous and unenforceable. I saw these stories in a slightly different light, more akin to the image of an old, familiar tapestry, slowly becoming unravelled, thread by tiny thread. Yeats came to mind:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold ...
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

Words bandied about, daily, that mean absolutely nothing to the hearers.  Legal loopholes met with a yawn and "business as usual."  "Falcons that cannot hear the falconer".  Maybe this blog posting was, in the end, less about two random news items that initially evoked a chuckle and more about the state of the times in which we live.  I don't know, sometimes it feels like a soap opera:  The Beastly, the Beautiful and the Bizarre.  Poets in chains, babies starving, billionnaire bankers, $700 designer shoes, War is Peace, silence about "the other purposes."

I'll take some peace and beautifuls, you can keep the beasties.  :)

Words! Gotta love 'em!

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