On What’s Right

I think it’s time for someone to speak out in favor of the right wing.  I’m talking about true conservatism.  I’m talking about grammar.

My mother used to have fits when one of her sons said, “I’m done,” meaning that he’d finished eating.

“You sound as if you have no breeding,” she’d say.  ‘I’m done’ means you’ve been left in the oven long enough to be well cooked.  What you mean to say is, ‘I’m finished.’ ”

This is false conservatism.  Mom believed it simply because it was what her mother had taught her.  (In fact, she boasted that she believed everything her mother had taught her.)  I say, that’s blind faith in the old way, just because it’s the old way.

True conservatism, I say, is more principled.  And that’s why “I’m finished” is no more correct than “I’m done.” 

“I’m finished’ is what Al Capone said when Eliot Ness hauled him off to the federal pen.  It’s what Wile E. Coyote thought every time he was outwitted by the Road Runner. The correctness of the idea doesn’t depend on the main verb – “to do” being essentially equivalent to “to finish” – the difference depends on the choice between the two auxiliary verbs, ‘have’ versus ‘am.’  Specifically, the first is active, the second passive. 

There’s reason behind such principle.  If you “have done” your work, you “have finished” it.  (Active. You’re talking about what you have done to the work.)

Whereas, if the work “is” done, then it “is” finished.  (Passive. You’re talking about what has happened to the work.)

I told Mom a thousand times that the correct way to disavow the intention of further eating is to say “I have finished” or “I have done.”  It got me nowhere. It wasn’t what her mother had taught her.

I also pointed out to Mom that language changes over time.  (If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Even further back, the Tower of Babel would still be standing.)   But doggone it, recognizing that language changes over time doesn’t make me a liberal. I recognize the inevitability of change.  I just insist that conservatism, at its best, is not tradition for the sake of tradition, any more than it’s just rich people being greedy.  When there are good reasons for things to mean what they mean, then conservatism is more than greed, more than blind obedience to tradition.  It’s about being right!

That’s why, despite my liberal education, I’m comfortable  on the grammatical right wing.  That’s why I go into spasms when I hear people give the now prevalent answer to the question, “Do you mind?” 

The question essentially means: “Do you object?”  Yet people these days almost exclusively answer the question the wrong way, not just on the street, but even in otherwise high brow movies and books:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

“Sure.  Go ahead,” they say!

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

“Sure.  Go ahead.”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Yes, please do.”

What are these people saying?  Do they want their money to be taken?  People, please!  What they mean to say is:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

No. (I don’t mind at all.) Go right ahead.”

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

Yes.  I certainly would.  It would hurt!”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Heck yes!  Someone call a cop!”

True conservatives believe that some things are right, and others wrong, not because their mothers told them so, but because there are good reasons things are the way they are.

(That’s why they call them “right.”)

My granddaughter refers to having done things “on accident.”  When her mother doesn’t flinch, I’m not surprised, because her mother was the one who first made me flinch upon presenting me with the offensive phrase some thirty years ago.  But after thirty years of arguing unsuccessfully that “on accident” is wrong, must I now watch the abomination get passed on to yet another generation? 

I decided I should consult authority.  (After all, “authority” is the preferred weapon of liberals and conservatives alike, even if choice of authority varies.) And so I went to the indisputable source of all modern authority, the Internet, and googling on ‘by accident, versus on purpose,’ I came across a near unanimity of authority.  With nary an exception, these sites treated the problem as if nothing but the opinions of the masses mattered.

To a website, they agreed that “by accident” is correct in written English, and “on accident” incorrect, because “on accident” is hardly ever seen in ‘serious’ writing.  (‘Serious’ was conveniently not defined.) But when it comes to spoken English, all the authorities were on the infinitely tolerant left wing, agreeing that “on accident” has overtaken “by accident” among younger Americans.  Therefore, they conclude, when it comes to correctness, “it all depends on what sounds right to you.”

Egads! Even the esteemed Chicago Manual of Style seems to treat the question as a matter of popularity!

Hogwash, I say!  Someone please call the Queen! Rightness should remain rightness for reasons other than popularity! 

The authorities agree that “on accident” appears to have arisen by analogy to ‘on purpose.’  But uniformly, these authorities fail to address WHY there is a difference.  They fail to appreciate why things should always happen “on” purpose, but “by” accident.  

As with “I’m done,”  the problem is a failure to account for agency.  A failure to distinguish between the thing that is doing and the thing that’s getting done.

“By” is a preposition that speaks directly to agency.  If a ball was hit “by” you, then you were the one that hit the ball.  In contrast, if the ball hit you in the face while you weren’t looking, it was surely thrown by someone else – which is to say (from your perspective) by accident.  “By accident” means that whatever happened was done by someone, or something – some agent of causation – other than you yourself having willed it to be so..

“On” has many meanings, but one of them is to express alignment with purpose.  We say that the arrow we shot was “on” target if we shot it where we wanted to.  We do something “on” principle when we do it in accordance with our guiding philosophies.  We do something “on” faith when it is in alignment with what we hope to be true.  We do something “on” a hunch if our action is in alignment with our guess.  A rest stop is convenient if it is “on” the route we’re traveling.  This use of “on” is all about staying focused “on” our goal, remaining “on” our intended path.

So when we do something designed to achieve an intended result, and we do it successfully, it only makes sense to say we did it “on” purpose, i.e., in alignment with our purpose.  But when we fail – when, despite our own plans, some alien force intervenes, when some freak happening produces an unintended consequence – it only makes sense to say that it happened “by” the influence of something else – i.e., “by” accident. 

This is not by accident.  At least when it comes to language, .being right is all about being on the right. And if anything else makes sense to you, you can be sure it’s a part of whatever’s left.

Right?

Wrong Parking Space

Fifteen years ago, I quit taking statins for high cholesterol; I’ve been resisting doctors’ pleas to resume them ever since. For several years now, the doctors have been recommending high blood pressure medication too. Dutifully, I added that recommendation to the list of those I respectfully decline to follow.

But this spring, a series of developments finally reduced (wore down?) my resistance. I’d felt some minor chest pains (more like muscle strain than anything serious) but after that, I began to notice that my blood pressure was way up. My wind was also down. Anyway, last week, I succumbed to an appointment with a cardiologist. The cardiologist insisted I come back for a nuclear stress test. The test was scheduled for this morning.

So I drive to the hospital. I pull into the parking garage and begin searching for an empty spot. The first level is full, so when I find an empty space on the second level, I start pulling into it – only to see a sign informing me that the space is reserved for the elderly. Dutifully, respectfully, I start to pull out of the space, until I happen to glance back at the sign.

“RESERVED – FOR SENIORS, AGE 65 AND UP.”

After a lifetime of being young, I know that reserved spaces are for other people, not me. Right?

But I’ll be 69 next month.

Humbled yet again, I pulled back into the space – apparently, the space where I belong.

– Joe

Sweatshirt Photo

Now you can judge for yourselves.

My last post recounted our domestic controversy about the color of my wife’s sweatshirt. It all began when I made a casual comment that, based on our “matching” sneakers, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, she and I were dressed alike. When she replied that my sweatshirt was gray and hers was green, I readily acknowledged that the match was not exact, and I’ll now happily submit to a judgment that Karen’s is sand, or tan, or mushroom, or any other label that simply proves I was wrong ever to think of it as being “gray” like mine.

But admitting I’m wrong is one thing. Admitting my spouse is right? That’s far, far harder. Can I manage it? Well.. NO! I’ll DIE before I call it green!!!

Still, with so much controversy, I thought it only fair to post a photograph 0f the two. My gray shirt is on the right. Karen’s shirt — call it what you will — is on the left.

P.S. If anyone else says its green, I’ll — I’ll — well, I guess I’ll just have to count it as one more proof that there’s no such thing as objective reality.

The Militia

I promise, this will be as short as a snub-nosed revolver — maybe even shorter.

The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Now, I’ve never cared much about gun rights or gun control, one way or the other. I’ve never owned a gun (unless the B.B. gun I bought to scare rabbits out of the vegetable garden counts).  While I have no problem with my friends who hunt larger game, I cried the last time I shot a rabbit myself.  (He was just a little bunny, and I shot him in the eye by mistake, and he…  Well, you get the picture.)  So my support for  gun rights has had nothing to do with deer hunting season, or even of defending my home against a burglar.  Rather, I’m a constitutional geek, a strict constructionist, and I’m intent on honoring the wisdom of the founding fathers.  And back when I was studying constitutional law, I thought a lot about the importance of militias.  Ever since, my support for the Second Amendment has always been based on the idea that having a militia is pretty doggone important to protect us (the people) against a standing army controlled by a tyrannical government.

I was surprised recently to hear a liberal friend of mine agree.  With our current President obviously in mind, she opined that having a militia is a very important safeguard against tyrannical government.  (You never know.  Maybe, if my belief in the importance of the militia catches on, the Trump presidency will convince more liberals  that having an effective milita is important .)

Anyway, in District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held (5-4) that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms regardless of the individual’s connection to any organized militia.  Ouch.  That decision was a blow to my strict constructionist roots, since the Court acknowledged that the ability to field a militia was a major part of the purpose of the Second Amendment.  As a strict constructionist, that, for me, is what the Amendment has always been about.

So here’s my question: to the extent that anyone, left or right, thinks militias are important to protect us from the possibility of a tyrannical government in Washington, what impact has two hundred years of military spending had on the issue?

I mean, back in the 1780’s when the founding fathers were cooking all this stuff up, the average homeowner owned a musket and a fishing knife – essentially the same weapons used by General Washington’s federal army.  True, Washington’s army also had a few small cannon here and there, but clearly, if the federal army had fallen under the spell of a hated tyrant, a crowd of angry citizens, armed with muskets and fishing knives, could have taken on that army.  And they would have stood a pretty decent chance of preserving their rights.  For me, the Second Amendment is all about achieving that same ability today.

But today, our standing federal army has more than rifles and fishing knives.  Now, it has not only automatic weapons, but tanks, aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, ICBM’s and of course nuclear bombs.  So the current debate about gun control has me thinking again about what it will take to have an effective militia.  (Always a dangerous undertaking, especially now that I’ve grown tired of being wrong all the time.) It occurs to me that what’s important, from a constitutional perspective, hasn’t changed since the 1780’s.  I mean, it doesn’t matter whether we have advanced weapons or old-fashioned ones, as long as the people themselves have firepower roughly similar to that of the standing army.  To achieve that, it seems to me, one option would be to give school crossing guards RPG’s.  Every qualified Neighborhood Watch Association could be assigned a tank.  Local yacht clubs could share entitlement to battleships or aircraft carriers, and local flying clubs could be equipped with fully armed B-52’s.  Of course, they’d all be well trained.  I should think that would give the people a fighting chance against a tyrannical government.

You may think I’m kidding, but seriously, I think I may finally be right about something.  Having an effective militia is important, and to have one, we the people need to have as much firepower as the Pentagon.  So: either we can equip our selves like the Pentagon does, OR, we could get the Feds to limit their own armaments to what homeowners are allowed to have.  Maybe everybody could be limited to a handgun — teachers, students, homeowners, and the Joint Chiefs themselves — handguns,   flintlocks, fishing knives, whatever — as long as  the standing army is no better equipped than the average homeowner.  To have an effective Second Amendment, the standing army could be required to get rid of all those M1 Abrams  tanks, guided missiles, and other unfair advantages that would put down a popular insurrection in the bat of an eye.  From a constitutional perspective, I’m convinced that rough parity is all that’s essential.

So. Am I the only one left who champions the Second Amendment on the basis of the need for an effective militia?  I mean, I know there are some who claim to , but those I’ve met also support a stronger federal military.  Given that such a huge imbalance between the parties already exists, I don’t see how such people can really claim to support the Second Amendment and an increase in federal military spending at the same time — not if having an effective militia is really important to them.

Anyway, thinking about this effective militia idea, and pondering the fact that it’s really about keeping  parity between the citizens and their army, I started to wonder how much money could be saved if we restored parity with everyone having smaller weapons, rather than bigger ones.  I mean, it would probably be expensive if I had to have my own launch pad in the attic; and an Abrams tank would probably do serious damage to my front yard.  So I was pleased to discover that the always sensible Swiss may have the answer.  They’ve come up with a real handgun that’s only two inches long.

They’re available for only a little over $6,000 each — far less than the cost of an M1 Abrams, for example — and if we made sure that everybody had one, the demand would probably drive the price down to the truly affordable.  See http://www.zdnet.com/article/worlds-smallest-gun-is-highly-concealable-triggers-fears/

Seriously, I’m still not sure where I stand on gun control and the right to bear arms, but as a strict constructionist, I think I’ve finally found a principled basis for addressing the issue.  We clearly need to choose between one of the solutions I’ve mentioned if weapons parity and an effective militia are to be maintained.  Otherwise, I’m thinking that having an effective militia is a battle we’ve already lost, and we’re soon to be chum for the tyrants.

Thoughts?  Help from any quarter would be appreciated.

— Joe