The Story of America: Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic Convention

“I love this country with all my heart.”

Michelle Obama’s speech communicates the urgency of this moment, and the depth of the crisis facing America. I want to analyse how beautifully constructed her speech is, the soaring rhetoric which carries us along, reminding us of all that is good in America and in its people. Continue reading

Trans pronouns and the US Constitution

Can a professor use male pronouns and the title “sir” for a student who is a trans woman, because he claims his religion requires it and he has a right to Freedom of Speech under the United States Constitution, and that “forcing” him to use people’s pronouns violates his right to exercise his Presbyterian religion? Jordan Peterson first achieved notoriety by refusing to use the pronouns courtesy requires, and Nicholas K Meriwether, an otherwise unremarkable academic, sought to follow in his footsteps supported by an anti-LGBT+ hate group called “Alliance Defending Freedom”. He has failed at the US District court, and I hope that’s an end of it.

Meriwether questioned students during lectures, addressing them as “Sir”, “Ma’am”, or by the titles Mr or Miss and their surname. Treat a student as an adult, and they might behave like one. He addressed Jane Doe, a trans woman in his class,  as “Sir”, and refused to address her as “Miss Doe”. So he differentiated her, by addressing her as “Doe”. According to Meriwether Jane Doe “became belligerent, circling around [plaintiff] and getting in his face in a threatening fashion” while telling plaintiff, “Then I guess this means I can call you a cunt”- but the evidence has not been heard in court, and Meriwether’s exaggerated whining about the complete impossibility of treating students the same or the claimed effects on him of the university’s response makes me doubt his credibility. The judge says at least one of Meriwether’s claims is “not entirely accurate”.

The university suggested Meriwether could address all students by their first name, or surname, but Meriwether refused. In August 2016 the university emailed all academics to require them to use students’ pronouns. On 9 January 2018 Meriwether called Jane Doe “Sir”. After repeated meetings and discussions, on 22 June 2018 the university gave Meriwether a written warning, which Meriwether claims unmanned him completely: he could not discuss gender identity, fearing dismissal, so he sought an injunction preventing the university from enforcing the discrimination policy on him.

The policy for reporting discrimination prohibits Negative or adverse treatment based on… gender identity, [where] the treatment denies or limits the individual’s ability to obtain the benefits of Shawnee State’s programs or activities. It defines gender identity as A person’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Calling Jane Doe “Doe” and all the other students Sir, Ma’am, Mr or Miss is plainly disrespectful and would make the class needlessly unpleasant for her.

Meriwether said he would respect Jane Doe’s gender identity if he could include a disclaimer in his syllabus that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity. He was teaching a political philosophy class, not otherwise relating to gender identity, and as his student I might find that disclaimer more offensive than his refusal to use a title for me.

The judge said any reasonable person would discern the difference between refusing to acknowledge the gender by which an individual student identifies and a discussion of substantive issues surrounding the topic of gender identity.

The judge found use of pronouns was speech, but not protected speech. He was addressing his student as part of his duties as an employee. He might have been entitled to state his beliefs about gender identity in class, but his refusal to call Miss Doe “Miss” did not by itself convey any belief, state facts or make arguments about gender identity. Even if people hearing knew that he did that to express his belief on gender identity rather than to insult Miss Doe for some other reason, the judge said he was not sharing ideas or inviting discussion but was directing his personal beliefs toward Doe, who objected to his speech, and other members of a captive audience who were not free to leave his class or decline to participate in class. The speech did not take place in the context or a broader discussion, and there was no admitted academic purpose or justification. In the speech of an employee the court distinguishes self-expression from the expression of ideas or opinions [which is] participation in the intellectual marketplace. So whenever law or rules protect us from discrimination, we can insist others use our pronouns.

Meriwether’s religious beliefs are repulsive. He believes in Hell for those who fail to declare faith in Jesus Christ- that’s eternal conscious torment for most people, imposed by a “loving” God. The chair of his department, of English and Humanities, expressed her revulsion. He claims his religious beliefs are extremely limiting: they constrain him from calling a trans woman “Miss”. I think his religious beliefs do not limit him at all. Rather they permit him to do what he likes, including insulting and bullying a student, and imagine he is acting morally. However, public authorities may enforce neutral and generally applicable rules and may do so even if they burden faith-based conduct in the process- including a rule to use preferred titles, or, say, a rule against bigamy though it affect some Mormons. Religious beliefs, even if sincerely held, don’t allow you to break any rule you choose.

God save us from what Neil Gorsuch might make of this case, but for the moment in the US our pronouns are safe. Meriwether v. Trustees of Shawnee State University may be found here.


What does the lying, hate-mongering fantasist say?

It has no relation to reality. I said Osama bin Laden is going to come and do damage to us. And nobody believed it. In The America We Deserve (2000) Drumpf’s chapter on terrorism warned that a weapon of mass destruction such as a “biobomb” might be carried in to an American city, and detonated. One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jet fighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan…He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis. Bin Laden was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives.

This is not speaking with intent to deceive so much as imperfect recollection, such as many people exhibit: bigging themselves up, so being less trustworthy, because they do not care about truth. And Mr. Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information.

Pointing this out will not harm his ratings.

-Who’ll pay for the Wall?

shout his supporters. They are happy. They won’t listen to the naysayers, who show the same disdain for them as for Drumpf. He calls for torture- waterboarding isn’t enough- even if it does not work. The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use…He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other. He calls himself smart, and others dumb, and they love it. He boasts of his Ivy League degree and talks at the level of high school, in a relaxed, joky, winsome tone.
New York Times.

Time shows the five parts of a Drumpf speech. He starts by saying how great he is. He and his supporters are Winners, and America needs winners. Then the Issues- mainly immigration from Mexico: They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. Then the “bad guys”, Islamic State and the liberal media. Then he insults his opponents: These insults are a key part of Trump’s mojo, essential to the construction of the winners versus losers mentality, and also part of his appeal: supporters often say they like that he is plainspoken, and he will say what no one else will in the face of political correctness movement. Then he riles the crowd against any protestors.

How authoritarian is the US? How despairing are its voters, to be shilled by this man?

Civil War in Oregon

-This is a call-out, an alert, to all patriots and constitutionalists in Oregon… We are doing a patriot convoy in Burns Oregon…
-A marine veteran calls on other veterans to “protect the constitution”
-The US Government is charging a rancher with terrorism for burning grass.

A group of men with guns has occupied the headquarters of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a Federal building, after calling for armed “Militia” to support them. Three hundred people, militia from several US States and local people, marched to protest, then between 15, as journalists say, and 150, as the occupiers claim, took over the building, which includes a museum and offices for the Malheur Lake migratory bird habitat. Some Militia members have denounced the occupation. The occupiers claim Federal land ownership in the county is illegal, and demand the land be returned to local ranchers and loggers.

Al-Jazeera claims there is a double standard: the National Guard put down protests in Ferguson while the whole country watched- as did we, in the UK- but the Federal authorities are not acting on this occupation yet. I found D. Raven’s comments there intriguing: he comments from an extreme right wing position against the occupation. But those h’icks are in violation of our laws and against the people of the US. It is time we put them down and end their bulls’hit. If they don’t like it, then get the f uc k out, they should return to s’hithole ireland or germany cuz none are of Anglo roots, fact I am a patriot, Vet too, and I despise motherf uc kers like that with misguided ideas about freedom. Sorry, s’hitheads, but they are recipients of govt. funding, they are people on welfare on a larger scale.

News has reached Britain, where one of the hicks claims you have no free speech unless you carry a gun- he said something about the US Constitution, I think. Comments like The American Revolution began with a single shot. Will history repeat itself? and Commenters like TrumpsMilitia, St Louis Combat Team show the fantasy level. This Ferguson allusion revolted me: Wait… you can protest and show civil disobedience WITHOUT looting and torching everything to the ground?!

Here’s the Sydney Morning Herald, where I read the fearless Revolutionaries want to shut down the bird sanctuary, established in 1908.

Obergefell v Hodges: dissenting judgment

The compelling personal accounts of petitioners and others like them are likely a primary reason why many Americans have changed their minds about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Chief Justice Roberts, while opposing the court’s judgment that laws preventing equal marriage are unconstitutional, indicates that they are undesirable. So why does he not strike them down?

Because of conservatism: it has always been this way. Opposite sex only marriage is an unvarying social institution enduring over all of recorded history. Whereas there have been many changes in it, such as the right to divorce, married women’s property reforms- married women are now permitted to own and manage property- and going back to the Bible, the end of polygamy and concubinage.

Oh, and homophobia. The marriage laws at issue here do not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because distinguishing between opposite-sex and same-sex couples is rationally related to the States’ “legitimate state interest” in “preserving the traditional institution of marriage.” Some arguments are plainly silly: he says marriage is for procreation, as if the marriages of the infertile or old were worth less. For the good of children and society, sexual relations that can lead to procreation should occur only between a man and a woman committed to a lasting bond. Society has recognized that bond as marriage. Perhaps he would make extra-marital fornication illegal. Perhaps he has not heard of assisted fertility.

He is not afraid of tired old slippery slope arguments: One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.

He states that the constitution protects the exercise of religion, and worries about homophobes who imagine that homophobia is part of their religion. He and they should read the Bible.

His strongest argument is that the Court should be reluctant to strike down laws created through the democratic process. He argues that the due process clause- nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws– does not apply.

This is disingenuous. James Obergefell and Ijpe deKoe were married. Then they crossed state lines and by homophobic law were not married- with no due process. The case is not just about the right to marry, but about the right to have a marriage recognised.

Roberts is right to argue against judicial activism. Wittily, he cites discredited cases of judicial activism, such as Dred Scott v Sandford, where the court struck down a law restricting slavery, on the grounds that it violated the rights of slave-holders. Few would stand up for that case now. He did not mention the Citizens United case, where he said “there is a difference between judicial restraint and judicial abdication”.

It is good to see that the arguments against equal marriage are so poor.

Robert Macqueen, Lord Justice-Clerk

Into darkness

El Salvador, Puerto del Diablo, a place for executions in 1982There were 6,909 “reported” political murders in El Salvador in the year 1980/81, according to a US embassy memo, which stated that 922 were “believed committed by security forces” and 4889 “committed by unknown assailants”. The local press usually announced the killers were “unknown men”, too discreet to suggest the government had anything to do with the matter. One Wikipedia note said that the Rightist government pursued a strategy of mass-murder to cow the population, but Leftist rebels also carried out operations.

In June 1982, President Reagan spoke to the combined Houses of Parliament, claiming that the election installing the government of Roberto D’Aubuisson was a free election and a “Vote for freedom”.

I am writing a slightly different article now than the one I had thought of. I had read the New York Review of Books article from 1982 by Joan Didion, republished in The New York Review Abroad: fifty years of international reportage. Ian Buruma writing last year to introduce the article was unequivocal: D’Aubuisson was just one of many killers able to run around shooting, maiming, and terrorizing their own people in the name of anti-communism. I would have written of how in 1982, aged 14 and taking an interest in politics I would have simply accepted Reagan’s word, and now I see American oppression and the Liberation struggle of the Left: neatly reversing the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, but still quite clear on who the Good Guys are.

The opposition was fragmented, with five guerrilla groups including the People’s Revolutionary Army and the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers. A “high-placed Salvadoran” told Didion that “There are no issues here. There are only ambitions.” My article has changed: I am no longer sure there were any Good Guys, though the US File:Nduarte.jpgadministration clearly were not, in supporting murderers. Though my 14-year old self would then ask, what was the alternative?

What made me want to write about this was Didion saying I did not forget the sensation of having been in a single instant demoralized undone, humiliated by fear, which is what I meant when I said that I came to understand in El Salvador the mechanism of terror. She had been to the shopping mall, for a bit of local colour to illuminate the story- young prosperous matrons in tight jeans, trailing maids and babies. As she returned to the hotel she noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.

So the “local colour” she provided was of learning about bodies, how hair decays more slowly than flesh so one might see a skull with a full halo of hair, and how the vultures behave.


File:Portrait of a girl with gun and hound.jpgSometimes the US seems almost civilised- Rome to our Greece, as Macmillan said. Sometimes it seems insane, though the insanity of this story is apparent to my blogging buddy who comes from Texas and lives in Ohio, so perhaps not all is lost. Michelle shared this on facebook: a five year old accidentally shot and killed his two year old sister in Kentucky. His mother had only gone out for a few minutes.

Kentucky state police trooper Billy Gregory said, It’s just one of those nightmares, a quick thing that happens when you turn your back. County coroner Gary White said, It’s just a tragic situation. Grandmother Linda Riddle said, It was God’s will. It was her time to go, I guess. I just know she’s in heaven right now and I know she’s in good hands with the Lord. The gun was the child’s own, from Crickett, slogan, Quality firearms for America’s youth. A testimonial on their website says, My 4 1/2 year old daughter thought the “pink one” was far superior to a black synthetic stock,who am i to argue? I never would have thought that a pink rifle would be sitting in the rack in the gun room. The gun was somewhere the parents had thought was safe.

I would say the parents were criminally negligent, though have no idea what punishment, if any, is appropriate. Over here they would get support from social workers if their son stayed with them. It is likely the guilt will permanently damage him.

On CNN, a commenter said The gun was loaded because 678px-Schlossmuseum_DA_03these people were stupid. Safe gun management is lesson number one with the NRA. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. That’s all right then. It’s a Dar-win. Another said You can’t legislate people out of being stupid. An anonymous commenter said areas like Kentucky, West Virgina, Arkansas, etc, are seen as being populated by barbaric throwbacks whose gene pool has the depth and variety of a mud puddle. I do not feel this blanket contempt helps.

Alana Brown commented, Yet auto accidents remain the number one cause of death for children. We should really stop selling cars (the killing machines that kill way more kids.) Well, cars are useful. This analogy only holds if people think guns are as useful as cars- for defending The People from the evil communist Obama, perhaps.

Michelle’s facebook thread had nineteen comments, mostly sad head-shaking, though one said as a native Kentuckian, it was not usual for a five year old to own a gun. On my own share, the reaction was WTF. America really is that alien.

Over here, I recall two mass shootings, in Dunblane and in Hungerford, though Wikipedia reminded me of twelve shot in Cumbria in 2010. Our law restricts guns. We don’t have school shootings now, whether “real” or otherwise.


I have been playing among the variations in our common language.

Fall/ Autumn is fascinating. Wikipedia says Fall was, originally, the English word in England, and “Autumn” superseded it. It is the time the leaves fall from the trees. “Autumn” is clearly related to the French “automne”, so our linguistic nationalism may be misdirected: we have abandoned our Anglo-Saxon heritage. But The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) dates “Autumn” to late middle English, before 1500, and “fall” in this sense to the middle 16th century. So, perhaps, the US stuck with its linguistic nationalism, but the English reverted to our beautiful French word. Why should we not decorate our language with French? There is no shame in it, now, because we are no longer forced to.

Pavement/ Sidewalk. “Sidewalk”, the place where you walk down the side of the street, is etymologically more sensible. The “pavement” was that part of the street at the side paved with stone, or concrete, or tarmac, different from the middle of the street, which was bare mud for the carts. Now the whole road is “paved”. But our word preserves the link to the past, and no-one has difficulty understanding it.

Fortnight. 14 days, a useful word rarely used in the US. Like “Septante” in Français canadien rather than soixante-dix. We could learn from each other.

Elevator/ Lift. But, you know what a lift is- don’t you? More serious for failure of communication is the difference between the ground floor and the first floor, which may or may not be the same thing.

Butt, Ass/ Bum, Arse, the more embarrassing something is the more euphemisms and dysphemisms we create for it. Both butt and bum are late middle English- used here first; ass and arse are both Old English, before 1066. Being linguistically nationalist- oh, yes- I cling to “arse” and “bum” and would deride and object to someoneFile:Andrew Stevovich oil painting, Bus Stop, 2001, 24" x 24" .jpg here using the alternative. And “Fanny” is something else entirely, talking of a man’s fanny is just weird. But for this word, the Army Rumour Service might have a different name.

Durex- in the US, a roll of cellophane and adhesive, like Sellotape; in the UK, a brand of condom. Leave a comment if you knew that. Still, better to keep repeating it, to avoid embarrassment.

Bangs/ fringe. I heard the word “bangs” and had no idea what it meant. Fall/ Autumn everyone knows, “bangs” is a word which may fail to communicate meaning. That is a problem.

On the trains, I understand Americans go to “track 1” rather than “platform 1”. I would not want to wait for a train on the track, I might get run over.

Period/ full stop. This was one of the fifty most objectionable to the British, according to the BBC. Either might fail to communicate on the other side of the pond, but why “Objectionable”? Time magazine says Americans could not care less. Or could care less. Or something. Objectionable, because we feel weaker, and we wish to maintain our independence. Indeed. Some of the objectionable words seem to be neologisms rather than Americanisms- “the old is better”, people say. Er, why?

What is the best word? The word which communicates an idea most clearly and elegantly. It is probably better to avoid using an americanism if it will cause apoplexy in the hearer and divert the discussion to the proper manner of communicating rather than the idea expressed, or if it will be misunderstood- which is a shame, if it really is the most expressive word.

Second picture copyright Andrew Stevovich.

Denying reality

Here is the North Carolina General Assembly’s Bill to Study and Modify Certain Coastal Management Policies. Forbes notes that the State’s

delicate barrier islands protect extensive lowlands vulnerable to both hurricane storm surges and flooding from heavy rains

and therefore it needs the infrastructure to protect those lowlands. So what would the Bill do?

Coastal counties nominate members to the Coastal Resources Commission, which is the only State body authorised to adopt a policy on sea-level rise. It is not mandated to do so, but if it does so it must instruct the Division of Coastal Management to calculate the rates of rise. Section 2(e) needs to be quoted:

These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

That is not something I want a lawyer or legislator to decide. If I am under threat of flooding, I want the best prediction of the rates of rise, demonstrated by the scientific method, with the use of all available information. Let the scientists debate the issue, they are the ones with the knowledge.

The result could be that the future sea level is clearly known, but the Coastal Resources Commission is legally bound to make plans as if it will be lower, and the Division of Coastal Management is bound to make predictions of rise which most people admit are false.

I do not know the science of sea-level rise, but I do know that accelerated rates of rise cannot be ruled out.  

Ocracoke Lighthouse, North CarolinaUntil this year, I self-identified as a Conservative. This legislation is in no way Conservative. Conservatives know that public goods need to be publicly funded. There may be a decision that the costs of a particular public good are too great, but that decision should be made on the facts. It may even be argued that man-made global warming is a reasonable price to pay for economic growth: that decision, too, should be made on the facts.

If it is possible that this Bill might require someone by law to make a statement he knows to be false, then I do not have words strong enough. It is Wicked. Refute accelerated rates of rise by evidence, not by fiat.

Thank you to 2 Girls Getting Married for informing me of this. Picture credit. I hope that those websites will tolerate me using their pictures, and linking to them. I hope that the website owners will not be too scared. Go, tourist North Carolina! See Roanoke Island- before it is too late!