Monday, March 31, 2014

The Gay Marriage thing

Most people in the West are tolerant – if that’s the word – of same-sex sexual relationships, but half of us draw the line at same-sex marriages. Why is that? Most people in the world probably couldn’t care less if siblings live together, but very few approve of sexual goings-on between or among them. Almost all of them would draw the line at sibling marriages. Why is that?

What is so special about marriage? It can’t be all about children, surely, in these sophisticated times. At least, not in the West. Promiscuity is blatant, adoptions are easy, artificial insemination is routine, divorces are simple, surgical sex-changes abound, birth control is everywhere, and serial monogamy is the norm. The old ideal of “the nuclear family” has gone out the window.

Why should we (society) draw the line anywhere, as long as there are no children involved or envisioned? What would be lost, if we scrapped the idea that society needs to formally approve every marriage? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The law governing civil contracts can take care of any children.

Is it about taxes, pensions or other entitlements? It may be. The last surviving widow of a US Civil War veteran died in 2003, and the last surviving son of a US Civil War Veteran was still alive just last year. (I would want a DNA test for him, but the relevant US Government agency was still paying his pension of $70 a week.)

It was the custom for young girls to be married off to ancient Veterans specifically in order to inherit their lifetime pensions. Sex was not always required of them. Deathbed marriages were just a way for old codgers to do their friends’ families a favour. Sometimes the favours would be reciprocal. Today’s marriages of convenience are following some fine precedents.

Some private companies will not pay spouses’ lifetime benefits (pension and medical) if the age gap is greater than a designated number of years. It’s a good idea. Why don’t national governments introduce a similar measure? Or, why don’t they simply get out of the marriage-approval business altogether? (Or, busybody-ness, which is what it really is.)

The original purpose of community-approved marriage was to give tribal elders the power to ensure the stability of the ruling classes. In the earliest civilisations, marriages within the nobility had to be carefully monitored to mimimise the likelihood of factional rebellions. Marriages were designed to cement alliances of families, clans and factions.

The serfs were generally left alone to arrange their own marriages, though rulers kept a weather eye out for suspicious alliances. Slave families were deliberately split up in order to remove any temptation to plot against their masters. It happened to the Africans in the Americas, and the provenance is an old one.

The difference with same-sex relationships was the absence of children, but in actuality the ruling classes were less against homosexual marriages than for the traditional form. Long ago, empires in China were largely governed by eunuchs, whose value to emperors was that they could not produce lineages to which they might owe their primary loyalties.

National histories are cluttered with examples of military dynasties jostling for political power. As individual rights have gradually superseded community rights, the reason for the official licensing of marriages has lessened. There is no point in the custom any more, and if it were scrapped altogether, it would be no loss.

Even today, there is occasional deep suspicion by hereditary rulers of a “Pink Mafia” whose members, like Masonic lodges, might be loyal to each other at the expense of loyalty to the community as a whole or to the ruling classes. That kind of loyalty might indeed exist here and there, but formal marriage doesn’t and wouldn’t frustrate it. Some state, somewhere, ought to have the courage to give up on marriage altogether. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose any more.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

“The death of Lady Mondegreen”

Things aren’t always what they seem, in the English language. They say (“They”!) that English is the easiest language in the world to be understood in, but one of the hardest to speak well. With only 800 words (They say), a total stranger can get by, but years of practice will usually leave him a bit short of perfection. (Surely German is fifty times more difficult. It’s a wonder anybody speaks it well. And actually, when you think about it, we only have their word for it that anybody does speak it well.)

English spelling is a hodge-podge of folk-etymology and class eccentricities. Who else but the English upper class would identify one’s nightly sleep as a dietary “fast” to the point of calling the first meal of the day “break-fast”, while abbreviating it to “brekkie”? Well, until recent Centuries only upper-class clerics were literate, and claimed to know everything there was to know about the language.

An infinitely more plausible speculation is that the word we pronounce brekfust is but a dialectal variant of Scandinavian frukost, which means a meal comprising fruit (fruk) and cheese (ost). That might be folk-etymology too, but who knows? Fruit and cheese is a man’s brekkie. When we break our “fast” is when we get up in the middle of the night for a pee and raid the fridge on the way back. I know, the Vikings didn’t have fridges, but they would have shared the same nocturnal habits. ***
*** A friend has pointed out that the Scandinavian word may have originated in the German word frueh-kost meaning "early food". This seems a more likely explanation than mine; but, either way, English "break-fast" is nonsense.

It was, reportedly, an 18th-Century Earl of Sandwich who introduced his handy snack to his aristocratic chums at the roulette wheel, but his serfs had been munching pieces of bread with bacon + a wedge of cheese for many generations before. One can picture the chums laughing at his adoption of such peasant fare: “A sarney-wedge, my lord? More of a Sand-wich, what, what? Hahaha!”

Next: why is “cupboard” spelt the way it is? A cupboard is a cubby-hole with a door, and a cubby is simply a variant of a cabi-net. All cupboards have doors. A cupboard without a door is a pantry. A board that you keep cups on is a shelf. Sheesh! The bizarre spelling “cupboard” is folk-etymology deriving from upper-class eccentricity.

My personal term for this sort of rot is “muster-bin”. The imagined origins of English surnames present a long list of muster-bin falsehoods. The first person bearing the surname Smith must ha’ bin a smith by trade. The first Mr Brown must ha’ bin brown in skin or hair or eyes. The first Jones and Johnson were the sons of men named John. And so on. They simply must have been. Actually, as we say in the Caribbean, “they don’t must.” There are more plausible alternative explanations for those names. But plausibility finds it hard to beat out facile assumptions.

To Lady Mondegreen, now. Not quite a folk-etymology, because it was invented by a child who grew up to be a writer – one Sylvia Wright. In 1954, she published an essay on a verse her mother used to read to her from an 18th-Century collection of ballads:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, 
Oh, where have ye been? 
They have slain the Earl o' Moray, 
And Lady Mondegreen.

The little girl felt desperately sad for the poor lady who died with one of Scotland’s famous martyrs, and resented the poet’s failure to mention her again in his story. Decades passed before the adult Sylvia Wright actually read the poem for herself, and learned that the killers of the Earl o’ Moray had in fact laid him on the green. Unaccompanied.

Wikipedia tells the story, and gives other examples of what are today called Mondegreens. We all have our favourites. Bob Dylan sang “the ants are my friends”, Creedence in Bad Moon Rising sang “there’s a bathroom on the right”. And, at Number One, for me, the last verse of Psalm 23, which begins “Surely good Mrs Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life”.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In memory of Rachel Corrie

March 16th is the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, a young American girl (aged 23) run down by an Israeli Army bulldozer in occupied Palestine while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes.

All those of us who care about human rights should make a point of remembering her, and of respecting her physical bravery in defence of those rights. It takes a special degree of bravery to step outside the protection of one’s tribal and ethnic loyalties, in defence of members of some foreign community.

Often, there is a large element of naivety to physical bravery. Victoria Cross winners in war zones aren’t usually the sharpest knives in the drawer. Mostly, they seem to have the same mind-set as suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots – prepared to die for the sake of their fellows.

Military personnel in hospitals and ambulances, and individual medics who retrieve wounded soldiers from free-fire zones, often (usually?) presume “the enemy” won’t target them. Amazingly brave, and naïve. That describes young Rachel to a T. She seems to have believed that she would be protected by both her US citizenship and Israel’s notional human-rights ideals. Instead, a Los Angeles gang would have given her as much help.

I tend to bracket her name with that of Bradley Manning, the naïve young US Army clerk who blew the whistle on a war-crime committed in occupied Iraq by an Army helicopter crew. The killers were deemed to be acting in the best interests of the USA and were let off with a caution. Bradley was jailed for 35 years without parole, for putting a higher value on the lives of defenceless foreign civilians than on the gratification of his tribal fellows. How dare he!

During the US occupation of Vietnam, the unarmed civilian villagers of My Lai – mostly old folk and children – were hacked down en masse by an Army platoon, in the perceived best interests of the American people. Those killers, too, were let off with a caution. (I don’t know what happened to the whistle-blower of that atrocity; he probably fell out of a tall building somewhere…)

The theme common to all three incidents is the easy victory of tribal solidarity over universal human rights. One has to wonder why national leaders who condone such blatant flouting of the human-rights ideal even bother to pretend they care about the ideal. Is anybody ever taken in by the hypocrisy?

Western MSM (main-stream media) organs are currently reporting the US President’s hesitation in ordering the assassination of some obscure US citizen in Yemen. Hey, come on, man! The CIA has promised that the victim is a terrorist, a traitor, a Muslim, and a jobless layabout who picks his nose at the dinner-table. Is that not enough? Anyway, when sustained physical torture is such an everyday occurrence in the American gulag, why hesitate for an instant?

Perhaps there exists a skerrick of tribal solidarity in the President’s mind and the minds of his advisors. There certainly isn’t any sense of mercy there, or compassion. They will gladly order the slaughter of housefuls of innocents, as long as they are not fellow-citizens. I wonder how long that exemption will survive, though.

A blog of mine back in October 2012 (The war on women) speculated that those veteran soldiers and drone pilots who are not kept awake every night by their guilty consciences are well suited to become the torturers and executioners of our children and grandchildren, in a dystopian Big Brother society. Those who are kept awake by their memories are, by default, the hope of mankind. At least for as long as they manage not to kill themselves out of remorse. Ain’t that the truth?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Turning left at Galveston

Everybody’s life has turning-points, and it’s a fascinating study. If one had taken a different bus, or visited a different house, or met a different person, one’s life today might have been quite, quite, different. Turning-points galore! But there is usually only one incident that actually defines one’s life, and it can be fun searching for it.

In my blog called Turning Point in November last year, I reported that the famous American author Mark Twain identified his personal turning point as when he contracted measles (deliberately) at the age of twelve. The incident changed the entire course of his life.

I identified my own personal turning point as having occurred at age 26, when I baulked at the prospect of a long wait to be interviewed by the US Immigration Office in London. With a long time to wait until my number would be called, I hurried around to the Canadian Consulate to see whether Canada’s queue was more manageable. They saw me right away, and I never went back.

Leaving Australia to “see the world” was always my ambition, from when I was a boy. It never occurred to me not to go, so my eventual departure can’t be claimed as a turning point. Catching a boat to London was one of Linda’s turning points, although it was the thing to do for young Aussies in those days, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Actually, she was all set to marry a stolid chap from her home town, until a domestic tiff persuaded her to put the wedding on hold. She went off on a cruise to Fiji, came back and planned the wedding again, had second thoughts (or was it third thoughts?), cancelled it altogether, and booked her passage.

In London she answered Louise’s ad on an Earl’s Court notice-board for a travelling companion in Europe. That deal lasted until a blazing row one night in Greece prompted her to storm out and hitch a ride to the nearest Youth Hostel. That was her life’s true turning-point. There happened to be an English-language movie playing at the local cinema, and – well, I wrote about that in Zorba the Greek in January 2012. It wasn’t love at first sight for us, but I was a more compatible travelling companion than Louise, apparently.

Our son Ross’s turning point has been harder to identify. There was never a chance that he would stay in Cayman. Local success is much too easy to achieve. There are no challenges to win, only money to be made, and he is even less interested in money than I am. We both feel a compulsion to do things the hard way.  

A Scuba instructor, a submarine pilot taking tourists 800 feet down into the local trench, a mechanic on the bigger submarine… boring, boring! Bumming around Australia for a couple of years… unfulfilling. So back home in Cayman, aged 24, he hitched a ride with some American yachties to Galveston, Texas, and that was his turning point. That was the re-set button.

Turning left at Galveston, he drifted along the Gulf Coast, working odd jobs in exchange for bed and board. While cleaning car engines for a dollar an hour in Mexico City, he lucked into a career modelling clothes and doing TV commercials for a hundred dollars an hour. Pride of place in my bedroom today hangs Coca Cola’s calendar for the year 2000, with Ross on the page for July. But easy money couldn’t compete with the lure of a hippies’ life in Guatemala and points south. 

One of the hippy communes in the region had attracted an adventurous Norwegian girl and her toddler, and they attracted Ross. Another child was conceived in Ecuador, and the tender trap sprang shut. 

At age 38, his life is still a work in progress. Fatherhood has slowed him down and focused his attention, but it would be rash to conclude it has stopped him. I don’t know where he’ll go from here, or if there will be another major turning-point. In theory, he still owns a tree-house in Guatemala [Not the Swiss Family Robinson, August 2013], so who knows?