Monday, November 22, 2010

word of the day: hootch

“’Hootchenoo’ was as close as the first whites in Alaska could come to a proper pronunciation of Hutsnuwu – a village famous for its home brew and stills. Corrupted, the name of the village was shortened to ‘Hootch,’ and a new word signaling powerful, poor-quality liquor was introduced into American slang by traders and sailors returning home from the Inside Passage.”

source: The Blue Bear by Lynn Schooler

Sunday, November 21, 2010

obey freely

After railing at the notion that ordinary killers in a genocide are forced into it, that they act against their will, it being inconceivable that your average person would so easily throw aside the belief that murder was wrong and grab a machete, Daniel Goldhagen quotes one of the Rwandan Hutu who did just that. Goldhagen says, these are “words that could serve as a motto for our age’s willing executioners, whether ordinary Germans, ordinary Serbs, or ordinary Hutu, ‘you obey freely.’”

Whole societies buy into the idea that some class of persons needs to be eliminated in order to avoid disaster (or to make way for some wondrous transformation). In societies that have perpetrated mass slaughter it is not difficult to find people who have killed their neighbors, even the children of their neighbors, and taunted and tortured them while doing it. These killers are often protected from legal retribution (if such becomes likely) because even those who did not actively wield a murder weapon agree something had to be done, something permanent, because things just couldn’t go on the way they were.

Is it easy to create the kind of animosity that explodes, when the circumstances are right, into an orgy of bloodletting? Probably not. It probably takes years of effort and persuasion, peer pressure, repetition. But that sort of effort and persuasion, that sort of mindnumbing repetition of irrational blaming, is not hard to find, even today, and probably in your neighborhood.

source: Worse Than War: genocide, eliminationism, and the ongoing assault on humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Saturday, November 20, 2010

scattering the ashes

“The sun was shining and the sky was blue with a few white clouds as I paddled closer toward the center of the lake. … Suddenly, out of nowhere, the sky got dark and big gusts of wind were blowing. … What I thought would be a touching ceremony between me and my mother turned into a hurried, workmanlike task as I pulled the plastic bag out of the box, opened it, and poured the contents into the lake, the wind blowing much of the ashes back in my face.”

Mark Oliver Everett was scattering his mother’s ashes in a lake that held fond memories of family outings. I’ve read a number of accounts of the scattering of ashes; when the ashes are spread upon the waters there often seem to be mischievous breezes lurking nearby. Everett’s is only the latest I’ve read in which a wind pops up and hurls the cremains irreverently back into mourners’ faces.

Should I find myself tasked with scattering I will know what to expect.

source: Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

Friday, November 19, 2010

you should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, darn it!

“I was getting used to just pulling up my bootstraps (whatever that means) and taking care of the task at hand …”

A friend at work asked me about idioms. It reminded me of the other workmate who asked me what slang was. In neither case was I able to offer a great definition. For idiom I like this from Wikipedia, “an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply.” Although I would change that “imply” to “describe.” The point of saying you should “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” isn’t to say anything about boots or literally getting up off the floor by tugging on them but (as has it) “to exemplify the achievement in getting out of a difficult situation by [your] own efforts.” Nobody needed to give me a hand up, I was able to get off the floor completely through my own efforts!

Is it possible to get yourself up off the floor by pulling at your bootstraps, shoelaces, nose, penis, or hair? Well. Maybe. One of the origins of the metaphor, I suspect, was the respect it gave to the inherent difficulty. If you could do it, you were due a lot of credit. But metaphors are pernicious. Unlike pulling yourself up by bootstraps metaphors are easy. You can throw them at people, cover up reasoned arguments with them, and create seductive irrelevancies. Too often we argue about the metaphor rather than the problem. This redounds to the benefit of the dishonest debater.

The quote that heads my post is ripped from Mark Oliver Everett’s memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett is the creative force behind EELS, a rock band. He’s no dummy but it’s weird he doesn’t even get the idiom right. In this age of easy internet research – I googled “bootstraps” and found the explanation in under five seconds – getting shit wrong should be harder.