Friday, November 30, 2007

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

On November 15th, 2001, I was in Washington attending a conference celebrating the life of progressive 1930s folklorist Benjamin Botkin. In addition to the usual panels and talks, the organizers had included in the program a musical session with Pete Seeger, his brother Mike and sister Peggy. Together they performed some of the folk standards in their repertoire. Then each Seeger did one solo number. Mike and Peggy sang more old favorites. Then it was Pete's turn. I wondered which of his iconic songs he would choose. This Land is Your Land? Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

On stage, he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a creased sheet of paper and unfolded it. I felt a little sorry for him. "He's old," I thought, "it's not surprising that some of his verses have escaped his memory." As he propped the lyric sheet on his banjo case, he apologized to the audience: This song had just been written; he wasn't confident he'd memorized the lyrics yet. Then he sang Tom Paxton's tribute to the firefighters who had died on 9/11. As is his habit, he taught the audience to join in on the chorus: "Now every time I try to sleep I'm haunted by the sound / Of firemen pounding up the stairs / While we were running down."

It's hard to sing when you've given yourself over to weeping, but I tried.

I was reminded of this experience recently when I went to see "The Power of Song," a loving documentary about Seeger's life. He wrote or co-wrote songs that formed the sound track to the social change movements of the last 60 years. From the struggles for unions and civil rights to the protests against the Vietnam War, Seeger's anthems like We Shall Overcome and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy rallied support for the cause. In his late 80s when the film was made, Seeger has become a living monument. Yet there's not a backward looking moment. He's still using his music to tell the story of his times, as he sees it. In reviewing "The Power of Song," the New York Times wrote about Seeger: "He's still busy, still angry, still hopeful, still singing."

For me, the hopeful part is what came through most strongly. Forty years ago Pete Seeger did something so quixotic, so idealistic, so impractical, that its failure was virtually guaranteed. He wanted to help end pollution of New York's Hudson River, which had become a dumping ground for PCBs and other industrial waste. His vision was to build a replica of a 19th century sailing sloop and use it as a floating classroom to educate children and adults about the importance of the river. Since then the Clearwater has been the centerpiece of an environmental education program that has inspired generations of New York residents to advocate for the Hudson. The cleanup is far from complete, but pollution has been steadily declining, the fish have come back, and in some places the river is swimmable again.

Partly because of Pete Seeger's stubborn belief that all is not already lost.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mistakes Were Made. Again.

I opened my newspaper the other day and learned that, once again, "Mistakes were made." In this case, the mistakes involved Bernie Kerik, a associate of Rudy Giuliani who is under investigation for suspected entanglements with organized crime. You will notice that the subject of the previous sentence is "mistakes." The former mayor used the same construction in his non-admission of what was a serious lapse in judgment. "There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik," Giuliani told a reporter.

Who made these mistakes? What spectral being or elusive force could have been responsible? Thanks to his adroit use of the passive voice, we are left guessing. If I were Rhetoric Czar – oh, and by the way, I am – I would impose a fine on this affront to candor. When sentences have no subjects – no human ones, anyway – no one is ever accountable for anything. Along with George Orwell, I believe that creeping passive voice is a sign of moral bankruptcy. He wrote in his classic essay, The Politics of the English Language, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

It is as true in our time as it was 60 years ago that political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Language dictates thought, and the diabolical part is that language that is intended to mislead and manipulate works—even when we are fully aware it's a con.

Our newspapers parrot Administration phraseology that tries to "name things without calling up mental pictures of them," as Orwell wrote. This is why we read about "the Special Removal Unit" (kidnappers) tasked to perform "extraordinary rendition" (outsourcing torture, also know as "enhanced interrogation"). "Political language," according to Orwell, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable... "

And if there are lies, there must also be liars, right? But not Condeleeza Rice, who merely "misspoke herself," when she testified before the 9/11 Commission that she'd received no warnings about Al Quada's plans.

Then there is "opposite talk," an attempt to legitimize a policy by giving it a name that is directly contrary to its actual aims. The Administration's Clear Skies Initiative, for example, was anything but; it substantially weakened pollution controls. And of course there is the Protect America Act. If there were truth in naming, would be called the Police America Act, as it broadly expands the government's power to spy on Americans.

So who will police the policers? Who will point out to the public the discrepancies between language and reality? Journalism should have a "rhetoric beat," according to an essay by Brent Cunningham in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. He argues that people ought to be following and reporting on the ways that political language is twisted to influence thinking.

Sign me up. As Rhetoric Czar, I will do my best to identify the latest linguistic offenses against clarity and truth as they occur. (With the presidential campaign heating up, I expect an avalanche.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ready, Aim, Divorce

A friend received a card last week, featuring a picture of a noose. This was not meant as a threat to my friend or as a macabre Halloween greeting (though it was Halloween.) It was a divorce announcement. The noose was fashioned out of a belt, apparently the only thing left behind in the departing husband's closet. With symbolism inspired by the season, the card also featured a tombstone inscribed with the letters R.I.P., and the start and end dates of the marriage.

I confess I was taken aback when I heard about the card. In fact, I was taken aback when I first heard about divorce announcements at all, which was just last week, when the New York Times published an article on the subject in their "Weddings/Celebrations" section. []

According to the article, divorce announcements do herald a celebration of sorts, as many of the senders interviewed talked about the importance of reclaiming their lives. The card my friend received was created by the divorcing wife, but when inspiration fails, there are also printed divorce announcements. These seem to divide along gender lines. The home page of Divorce Cards [] seems aimed a bitter guys, with cards saying things like, "My wife left with my house, my car, my money and my best friend... and I miss him." And a postcard with the message, "I lost half of everything I own in my recent divorce, including envelopes. So I am sending you this lousy postcard . . . ."

If this sounds hostile, I found cards intended for the distaff side (as they say in divorce proceedings) that threaten outright mayhem. (Of course these are from Texas.)* Cowgirl Divorce Cards proclaim that husbands are like guns. "Keep one around long enough and you're gonna want to shoot it"Jus' letting you know I got a divorce instead." And "I still miss my ex. . . . But my aim is getting much better."

Some of these divorce cards strike me as pretty over-the-top, yet I realize that strong feelings come with the territory. Catharsis is the purpose of rituals, and if the cards' black humor helps I'm all for it. Because when you are of a mind to inflict bodily harm on your new ex, it's much better to "use your words." As they say in pre-school.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

How to Raise a Perfect Child

Helicopter parents? Us? Guilty as charged, I suppose. Or at least half-guilty. Raising our only child, my husband and I traded off the hovering duty, actually. First I would hover over her while he cautioned against it, and then we would swap.

It's annoying when you are following what you believe to be your own unique bent, and some lifestyle journalist comes along and identifies it as a generational trend and gives it a catchy name. I'm sure we baby boomers are more protective than our parents, but that's not necessarily bad. It sometimes seems to me that the post-war approach to parenting was laissez-faire to the point of negligence. I mean it's a miracle we're alive considering some of the things we got up to unsupervised.

What is going on here is a case of generational dialectic. One extreme begets its opposite. I was sure I was doing the right thing when I was being, as my father once cautioned, "too nice" to my daughter. We were visiting the zoo at the time and he got tired of watching me cater to any and all of her whims. I remember feeling indignant over his remark and I failed to consider that there might be a point beneath the provocation.

I still don't want to consider it. Parenting style is made up of hundreds of minute, seemingly insignificant choices every single day. It's hard to imagine that you might have made many of them differently -- might have said no to a second souvenir or soda; might have let your child take the tumble instead of preventing it. You do what you do and things turn out the way they turn out.

Following expert advice does not guarantee that you'll be free of second thoughts. My mother often spoke to me of her regret that she heeded the dictum of a briefly popular childrearing authority who believed that babies should be fed and cuddled on a strict schedule. It didn't matter if they were screaming their heads off and all you wanted to do was pick them up. It was important not to for the sake of their future characters.

Hearing this story, I promised myself to avoid any such regrets. When I became a parent, I would read the current advice books, but I would follow my own heart in child-raising matters. And that is what I did. Until the Zeitgeist shifted, and someone came up with a pejorative term for it.

We boomer parents are now charged with having been narcissistically over-involved with our kids, and having coddled them to the point of undermining their independence. On one level I understand that this is just another swing of the pendulum. On another, I worry that the description fits. In any case, by the time a child leaves for college, the job is done. The choices are adding up as they will. You do what you do, things turn out the way they turn out. You might just as well regret that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.