Every year my friend Bill, who runs Armadillo Willy's down in Silicon Valley, goes up to Sparks, Nevada for a big barbeque cookoff. Apparently, the folks at Sparks' city hall have banned Willy. No problems. The barbeque is still there.
SPARKS, NV - The Nugget Rib Cook-Off's biggest fanisn't being allowed to attend the festival this year. Big Willie, a 12-foot-tall inflatable armadillo, was deflated Wednesday because it posed a significant risk to public safety. Organizers think this gentle giant could become a horrible hazard.
The city of Sparks is enforcing a ban on inflatables. You'll recall last month an inflatable slide lifted off the ground and flew hundreds of feet in the air. If that happened at the rib cook-off, organizers worry Big Willy would cause big problems.
He usually sits right on top of the Armadillo Willy's booth. "His name is Willy. We call him Big Willy," said Tim Ford, Director of Operations at Armadillo Willy's.
Big Willy has been shuttered. Organizers decided he was too dangerous. "The fire chief came by and said there was a ban on inflatables and we had to take him down," said Ford.
That ban on inflatables has actually been city policysince January. The plan was to start enforcing it in 2015, but on July Fourth a dust devil hit Star Spangled Sparks, launching an inflatable slide hundreds of feet in the air.
"It went higher than a lot of the buildings and then just landed way over there," said Nicc Thompson, who saw the slide go airborne on the 4th of July.
No one was seriously injured, but Sparks doesn't want to take that risk with the armadillo.
"Ultimately for us, it is a significant public safetyissue," said Adam Mayberry with the city of Sparks.
It's the city's policy, but ultimately it was the Nugget that asked Armadillo Willie's to remove its display.
"I think the crowds and everything will still probably be okay and I doubt that they will stay away, so we hope that it does not affect them much," said Randy Kennedy, spokesman for JA Nugget.
The armadillo has been such a draw in the past, the barbecue manager thought losing it would mean 20 grand in lost revenue. But sales appear to be keeping up.
"The weekend will be the tell. The place gets packed and we kinda stand out; you can see us from both ends when the Armadillo is up in the air. Now we are kinda mixed in the crowd," said Ford.
Armadillo Willy's says it has never had a problem with the inflatable, even in high winds. It's always tied down in several places. That was the same story for the inflatable slide on Fourth of July and that still managed to fly away.
I'm getting old. There are drugs being abused I've never heard of. For example, Methphedrone3Dan, which is apparently what is in khat, a weed in Eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula that natives chew to get a little talkative. From what I've heard, khat is something between a cup of coffee and lots of coffee. I don't know what the manufactured version is like, but I presume it's a lot stronger.
But that's not why I posted about it. I just love these .gif files which are kind of like mini-micro movies. Since I couldn't find another dog with his gums flapping I put up a .gif of the methphedrone molecule rotating. Cool, eh?
Did you see that great documentary on linguistics the other night? What about that terrific series on Radio 4 about the Indo-European languagefamily tree? Or that news report on language extinction? It is strange that none of those programmes happened, or has ever happened: it's not as if language is an arcane subject. Just as puzzling is the conspicuous lack of a properly informed book about language – either our own or language in general.
There is, of course, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct – a bestseller that seems to have ticked the box for publishers and public alike as the book on linguistics. But The Language Instinct has a very specific agenda – to support Noam Chomsky's theories about our language skills being innate; other areas of linguistics are glimpsed, if at all, fuzzily in the background.
I'm not blaming Pinker. He ultimately failed to justify his title, but he did reach a keen, large audience with a well-written book fizzing with ideas and examples. I'm blaming someone else, the person who, inexplicably, doesn't exist – who should have written the book revealing how Pinker was so wrong and had a ding-dong with him on Newsnight; the ambitious, good-looking academic, who possibly had a spell in an indie band, with his or her own 13-part series about language on BBC2.
I began to appreciate how little we know about our own language when I studied grammar to teach English as a foreign language. I looked for a linguistically informed grammar guide, but couldn't find one. Finally, I gave up on waiting and decided to have a go myself. As a layman with an amateur's adoration for his subject, I find it astonishing that hardly anyone outside university linguistics departments knows the slightest thing about it. Whether it is the new discoveries of neurolinguistics or the 150-year-old revelations of the scholars who traced the Indo-European language family tree, linguistics can offer zap-kapow findings that trump those of archaeology and even astronomy.
Take the Proto-Indo-Europeans, that mysterious tribe whose homeland was recently located north of the Caspian Sea in about 3,300 BC. Their language somehow obliterated the hundreds of others then spoken in Europe and northern India, so that almost every language currently spoken, from Iceland to the Himalayas, is descended from one tongue. Dramatic enough, but, even more sensationally, much of that language has been reconstructed, so that we know, for example, their words for sky (dyeu) and father (pihter), and their chief god the Sky Father (Dyeu Pihter). Thanks to language, we know a great deal about the tribe – its kinship system, its beliefs, the feasts it held at which bards declaimed the long praise-poems that may well be the forerunners of the Sanskrit Vedic epics and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer. We even know that the tribe had two words for different sorts of farting.
That few people have heard of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, or know about language evolution, children's language acquisition or the current process of language extinction, seems to me to be a crying shame. But the insights of linguistics are of social and political as well as intellectual importance.
The modern study of language has shown that all native speakers are experts in their language. Almost all judgments about someone's language – the laziness of a glottal stop, the slowness of rural speech, the supposed ugliness of a particular urban accent – have no linguistic justification and reflect only the prejudice of the judger. However, very few people are aware of these basic findings.
Linguistics has discovered that a language is created by a democratic collective of magnificently gifted experts – but has told nobody else about it. Frustrating as it is to hear discussions about the heinous abuse of "hopefully" or "disinterested", this public ignorance about language gets properly serious with the continuing discrimination against non-standard English.
Non-standard English is linguistically the equal of the standard version – in fact, dialects tend to be more sophisticated grammatically than standard (as in the plural "youse" of many non-standard dialects where standard has just one confusing form). Yet standard continues – even now – to be prized as the "correct" form, and any deviation is considered to be wrong, lazy, corrupt or ignorant.
This is most obviously the case in the education system. If a non-standard-speaking child persists in using non‑standard English, particularly non-standard grammar, that child will rarely progress. This is, of course, a class issue, standard English being the only dialect defined by socioeconomics rather than geography, and spoken by only 15% of the British population (the richest 15%). It is working-class children whose language is still marked as incorrect and who have to intuit the need to switch dialects – or fail..
In any formal, written context, only standard English is accepted. And in any informal, middle-class context, from office email to pub chat, non-standard usage will be noticed by standard speakers, who will judge that non-standard user to be at least unsophisticated, probably uneducated and very possibly a bit thick.
Let me quote a letter-writer to the Scotsman newspaper last year, complaining about declining linguistic standards. "I remember one candidate in a job interview," the letter-writer reminisced, "saying, 'Oh, we done that in media studies.' End of interview," he finished, approvingly.
Why has linguistics failed to counteract this discrimination? I put it down to the strange way that the discipline developed under the aegis of the man who has dominated and defined it since the late 50s, the father of modern linguistics, Chomsky.
Chomsky's theories were based on his ingenious explanation for the phenomenon that is children's language acquisition. Toddlers, who are surrounded by the broken babble of ordinary speech and who can do little else for themselves, somehow master many, or even most, grammatical constructions – because, Chomsky reasoned, there has to be innate software providing babies and toddlers with the equipment to get them up and talking. This means, he concluded, that human languages have to be organised according to universal constraints and rules, "principles and parameters". These constitute a "deep structure", converted into the individual operations of a particular language by a series of "transformations". Chomsky first outlined this idea in 1967 and has spent his non-political career since hunting for the universal features provided by our innate programming.
Brilliant – but wrong. Recent evidence from neurology, genetics and linguistics all points to there being no innate programming. Children learn language just as they learn all their other skills, by experience. The case against Chomsky is conclusive. The new empirical "connectionist" school and the various branches of cognitive linguistics have brought the subject back to scientific principles. Linguistics has undergone a revolution in the last 20 years, and Chomsky has been dethroned.
However, the wholesale acceptance of Chomsky's rationalist assumptions has meant that the discipline has been hunting for unicorns while neglecting many key areas of language. There is still little research being carried out on, for example, environmental influences on children's language acquisition.
Most pressingly of all, too little work is being done to record the languages currently facing extinction. By one estimate, 95% of the 7,000 languages now spoken in the world are in danger of dying out. Recording these should have been a priority.
Chomksy also played a significant part in creating a subject that managed to avoid engagement with culture and society. He turned grammar into an technical subject full of jargon and algebra studied on whiteboards by men with beards, leaving everyone prey to the pernicious drivel of the traditional grammar guardians, who belong to the 15%. It is crazy that such an unfair social-exclusion system should go on operating, and still without censure.
Linguistics has taught me many wonderful things, but it has also neglected many tasks, including telling the world about its discoveries. So if there is an academic linguist out there with good bone structure and a past career as a rhythm guitarist, please, for the love of God, get yourself a decent agent.
If you follow the NFL closely, you've heard the story about Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Martin left the team, claiming that Incognito was bullying him. In the last couple of days stories have been surfacing from the Miami players that, no, Richie isn't a bully.
This is what we know: Martin was a two-time All-American lineman in college. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins last year to play left tackle. We also know that ever since high school Incognito, for whatever reasons, has been kicked off a number of teams he's played on. Incognito is now indefinitely suspended pending (apparently) a team investigation.
One figures that it men who are six and a half feet tall and weigh over 300 pounds just can't be bullied. Maybe "bully" is the wrong term.
We have phone calls where Incognito left phone messages for Martin, calling him an n[word], telling him he was going to [defecate] in Martin's mouth, and threatening to kill Martin's mother. The counter story is that Incognito was merely trying to motivate his teammate.
In most of the world this kind of motivation doesn't work. Martin, whose parents are lawyers and who graduated from Stanford, apparently didn't get motivated by this. When Bill Walsh was a coach he didn't abide hazing or bullying. Jim Harbaugh, the current Niners coach and Martin's coach in Stanford, doesn't allow for it. This is his second year with the team. At some point, if as some rumors have it, coaches on the team wanted to "toughen up" Martin perhaps they might have noticed that their strategy wasn't working. If they were completely unaware of Incognito's motivational speeches over the course of two seasons, then maybe there is a problem with communications skills of the coaching staff.
Some defenders of Incognito say, "Hey, everyone uses the n[word] in locker rooms. Richie was an honorary brother." He apparently wasn't Jonathan Martin's honorary brother. I've never had an honorary brother threaten to kill my mother and s[word] in my mouth. If I did I don't think I'd get all warm and cuddly and brotherly.
Granted, I got cut from my high school freshman football team because I wasn't aggressive enough, so I haven't had lots of experience in towel-slapping locker room antics.
But I think that the big point here is the simple "different strokes for different folks" and when you find that something isn't working then you try something else.
Now it sounds like a lawsuit of some sort may be coming. Incognito, who's bounced from team to team because of his effervescent personality quirks, may be nearing the end of career. Maybe, despite his bona fides in college, Martin isn't cut out to be a pro football player. Or maybe he'll end up playing on a team where the coaches have better human relations skills.
I wouldn't bet on the health of Miami quarterbacks with two starting linemen off the team.
When I have described the well-considered, coherent political and economic strategies of the conservative white South, as I have done here, here and here, I am sometimes been accused of being a “conspiracy theorist.” But one need not believe that white-hooded Dragons and Wizards are secretly coordinating the actions of Southern conservative politicians from a bunker underneath Stone Mountain in Georgia to believe that a number of contemporary policies — from race-to-the-bottom economic policies to voter disfranchisement and attempts to decentralize or privatize federal social insurance entitlements — serve the interests of those who promote them, who tend to be white Southern conservatives.
Just as a strategy is not a conspiracy, so it is not insanity. Ironically, American progressives, centrists and some Northern conservatives are only deluding themselves, when they insist that the kind of right-wing Southerners behind the government shutdown are “crazy.” Crazy, yes — crazy like a fox.
Another mistake is the failure to recognize that the Southern elite strategy, though bound up with white supremacy throughout history, is primarily about cheap and powerless labor, not about race. If the South and the U.S. as a whole through some magical transformation became racially homogeneous tomorrow, there is no reason to believe that the Southern business and political class would suddenly embrace a new model of political economy based on high wages, high taxes and centralized government, rather than pursue its historical model of a low-wage, low-tax, decentralized system, even though all workers, employers and investors now shared a common skin color.
So the struggle is not one to convert Southern Baptists to Darwinism or to get racists to celebrate diversity. The on-going power struggle between the local elites of the former Confederacy and their allies in other regions and the rest of the United States is not primarily about personal attitudes. It is about power and wealth.
For some time, the initiative has rested with the Southern power elite, which knows what it wants and has a plan to get it. The strategy of the conservative South, as a nation-within-a nation and in the global economy, combines an economic strategy and a political strategy.
The economic strategy is to maximize the attractiveness of the former Confederacy to external investors, by allowing Southern states to out-compete other states in the U.S., as well as other countries if possible, in a race to the bottom by means of low wages, stingy government welfare (which if generous increases the bargaining power of poor workers by decreasing their desperation) and low levels of environmental regulation.
The political strategy of the Southern elite is to prevent the Southern victims of these local economic policies from teaming up with allies in other parts of the U.S. to impose federal-level reforms on the Southern states. Voter suppression seeks to prevent voting by lower-income Southerners of all races who are hostile to the Southern power elite. Partisan gerrymandering of the U.S. House of Representatives by conservatives in Southern state legislatures weakens the votes of anti-conservative Southerners, if they are allowed to vote.
If voter suppression and vote dilution strategies fail, the Southern conservatives can still try to ward off unwelcome federally-imposed reforms that might weaken control of the Southern workforce by Southern employers and their political agents, by policies of devolving federal programs to the states, privatizing federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, blocking the implementation of new federal entitlements like Obamacare or a combination of these strategies.
To date the response of progressives and centrists, as well as moderate conservatives in the North (who have a quite different tradition) to what might be called the Southern Autonomy Project has been feeble and reactive. The South acts, the rest of the country reacts.
Here Midwestern Republican legislatures or governors try to copy the South’s anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation, and labor activists and liberals react. The legislatures in the South and their allies elsewhere pass voter suppression laws, and civil rights groups scramble to counteract them. Now the Southern-dominated Tea Party in the House shuts down the government and threatens to force the federal government into default. In this game of “Whack-a-mole,” the Southern right and its neo-Jacksonian allies in other parts of the country always has the initiative.
Instead of waiting for the next Southern conservative outrage, and treating it as a single, isolated example of inexplicable craziness, the rest of America from center-left to center-right should recognize that it is dealing with different aspects of a single strategy by a regional elite — the Southern Autonomy Project. It is time for the non-Southern American majority, in alliance with many non-elite Southerners of all races, to target and attack every element of the Southern Autonomy Project simultaneously. If the neo-Confederates want to wage political and economic war, their fellow Americans should choose to respond with political and economic war on all fronts, not on the terms and in the places the Southern conservatives choose.
Setting political difficulty aside, it is intellectually easy to set forth a grand national strategy that consists of coordinated federal policies to defeat the Southern Autonomy Project.
A federal living wage. At one blow, a much higher federal minimum wage would cripple the ability of Southern states to lure companies from more generous states which supplement the too-low present federal minimum wage with higher local state or urban minimum wages. (Strong national unions could do the same, but that is not a realistic option at present.)
Nationalization of social insurance. Social insurance programs with both federal and state components, like Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), allow Southern states to be stingier than many other states, creating more desperate workers who are more dependent on the mercy of employers and elite-dominated charities. Completely federalizing Medicaid (as President Ronald Reagan suggested!) and other hybrid federal-state social insurance programs would cripple the Southern Autonomy Project further.
Real voting rights. Using the authority of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Congress should completely federalize voting requirements for all federal, state and local elections, making it as easy as possible for U.S. citizens to vote — over the objections of kicking and screaming neo-Confederates.
Nonpartisan redistricting. Partisan redistricting by majorities in state legislatures should be replaced by nonpartisan redistricting commissions, as in California, New Jersey and other states. The redistricting commissions should be truly nonpartisan, not “bipartisan” arrangements in which incumbent Republicans and incumbent Democrats cut deals to protect their safe seats from competition. (Electoral reforms like instant run-off voting and proportional representation are struggles for a more distant future).
Abolish the Senate filibuster. The filibuster is not part of the U.S. constitution. It has been used by Southern white conservatives from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first to preserve Southern white power and economic privilege. This relic of premodern British parliamentary politics should be abolished. Democracy means majority rule. If the Southern Right loses a battle in Congress, it can try to round up allies and win next time. It should no longer be able to paralyze the Senate, the Congress or the federal government as a whole.
Abolish the federal debt ceiling completely. The federal debt ceiling is another institution like the filibuster which has now been ruined by being abused by Southern conservatives. Now that the Southern right is trying to turn it into a recurrent tool of hostage-taking when it loses votes in Congress, the federal debt ceiling should be abolished. The federal government should be authorized to borrow any amount necessary to fund spending appropriated or authorized by Congress, if there is any shortfall in tax revenues.
Put all these policies and perhaps others together, and you have a National Majority Rule Project capable of thwarting the Southern Autonomy Project. The best defense is a good offense.
Does saying this make me, a white Southerner, a traitor to the South? Among the beneficiaries of a National Majority Rule Project, if it succeeded, would be middle- and low-income white Southerners, whose interests have never been identical with those of the local oligarchs. Particularly among the Scots-Irish of Appalachia and the Ozarks, there have always been many Southern white populists and radicals — from the West Virginian and Kentucky Unionists of the Civil War to New Deal liberals in Texas — who have understood the need to ally ourselves with non-Southerners in national politics to defeat the local Nabobs, Bourbons and Big Mules. The true Southern patriots are those of us who want to liberate the diverse population of the South from being exploited as wage earners and from being disfranchised or manipulated as voters. Another term for the National Majority Rule Project might be the Southern Liberation Movement.
Will the initiative remain with aggressive Southern reactionaries, as their fellow Americans try to appease them or react on a case-by-case basis against a feint here or a diversion there? Or will an aroused national majority, tired of being pushed around by a selfish Southern minority of the shrinking American white majority, finally fight back?