Donald Trump’s odd discourse markers

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the US presidency will provide countless writers and academics — linguists, sociologists, political scientists, journalistic ethicists — with material for years to come. Mark Liberman on Language Log, of course, has been digging into Mr. Trump’s speech, the most obvious feature of which is its repetitive quality. In Trump’s first debate performance, this trait led to what could be called a certain sponginess of his discourse: even though he said more words (“tokens”) than Ms. Clinton, he actually employed fewer unique words (“types”). If we simplistically equate a distinct word with a concept, his delivery was less dense, less concise, than what Clinton had to say.

What I’m finding interesting are some of the expressions he keeps repeating, which seem convey a judgement or attitude, somewhat like a discourse marker in the shape of a cliché. For example, in his first debate he used the word “unbelievable” four times, and always with the same connotation: Twice modifying “company”, and once as an adverb in the description of his company’s employees (“unbelievably happy”), boasting about the organization he runs; and once (“It’s unbelievable.”) when bragging about his young son’s computer skills.

Others are “believe me”, as mocked by Tim Kaine — a marker of deflection for statements that won’t stand up to scruitiny? — and the one that I want to talk about here: “not even close”. It was in Trump’s first reaction to the 2005 tape containing his disastrous gloating about how he, as a rich celebrity, gets to assault women on a whim. (The excellent Sorrywatch blog has a full discussion of his calamitous attempts at a justification.) Here’s the text:

This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.

Obviously, neither the sexual transgressions nor any hypothetical lewd remarks (or worse) of the Democratic candidate’s husband are in any way germane to the situation at hand. (Though I should point out that what Trump verifiably said is not in actual fact less serious than what has been alleged about Mr. Clinton’s behaviour).

But what is the role of that “not even close” qualifier? I believe Trump uses it a lot, but have no time to do any kind of exhaustive search. Here are some examples:

  • “The conditions facing real estate developers in that early-’90s period were almost as bad as the Great Depression of 1929 and far worse than the Great Recession of 2008 — not even close,” he said. (source)
  • (The model) Heidi Klum “is not even close to a 10” (source)
  • He also criticized a recent decision by the Obama administration to pay Iran $400 million in cash, calling Iran the “top funder of terror. It’s not even close.” (source)
  • Fed Chair Janet Yellen and central bank policymakers are very political, and Yellen should be “ashamed” of what she’s doing to the country, Trump said, adding the Fed is not even close to being independent. (source)
  • Even after the White House released Obama’s birth certificate, Trump told then-NBC Today host Meredith Vieira, “a birth certificate is not even close. A certificate of live birth is not even signed by anybody. I read it. It doesn’t have a serial number. It doesn’t have a signature. (source)

These are pretty much the first Google hits I got for examples of “not even close” being pronounced by Trump, except for the most recent one above. There’s something these examples have in common. I very much doubt that the early 90s economic conditions were as severe as the 2008 recession or the great depression, except in the most specialized, contrived sense; however one may “rank” Heidi Klum, she’s a successful businesswoman after being a successful model; Iran is nowhere near the top of terrorism funders; for all its failings, the Federal Reserve actually has quite reasonable safeguards to ensure independence at least from the presidential election cycle; and Obama’s birth certificate can of course be assumed to be genuine. And

So what function does the formulaic “not even close” have? Maybe, I suggest, its role is that of a marker of untruth.

Edit: I initially interpreted the 10 as a clothing size (as I’ve seen), but it is likely to refer to some sort of arbitrary ranking (of women by men). I changed that point.

The saddest part is that there isn’t much we can do about it at this point

1. I am finding myself in the middle of the first complete presidential campaign, with no incumbent in the running, since I came to the US. Of course, a lot of it feels unfamiliar. First and foremost the mind-boggling realisation that the contest would be taking more than 1.5 years to play out rather than a more efficient and sanity-preserving 2-4 months. There’s the ubiquitous rule of money, and of quite advanced techniques of manipulation; the veritable hate-fests, when the supporters of primary candidates turn on each other. Well, the last bit may not be so different from Europe, but everything takes place quite out in the open here, so it feels harsher than in the previous three countries where I’ve lived and, to the extent I was allowed to, voted.

Here, of course, I am a non-citizen with no rights. Maybe this lack of agency makes it harder to cope. But I can write.

And then we had the extraordinary weakness of the Republican slate, which was in tune with the pretty remarkable approach the party’s elected representatives at the federal level have been taking: to practice near-complete obstruction of the political process and then point to the result as proof that government doesn’t work. (It seems like cheating to me…) My niggling suspicion is that even a disaffected, conservative electorate that is sceptical of government does, indeed, want something to get done.

So, an opening appeared, and in this opening moved Donald Trump. A rich man who inherited millions, a reality TV star and entrepreneur with mixed successes and a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled business partners, turned political dilettante. A “strong man” type, too, and an authoritarian nationalist with no consideration for principle. A guy who pestered president Obama for weeks over his birth certificate but won’t release his own tax forms.

And, of course, a man whose interests are completely opposed to those who now follow him: a representative of the very class whose good fortunes have been achieved on the backs of those who experience the stagnation of their families’ life chances. The only thing he’s going to do for their well-being is to remove psychological barriers, give them permission to cast themselves as victims of a rigged system and of the more recent groups of immigrants in a country founded on immigration. Oh, and white supremacists are celebrating.

2. This kind of opening is nothing new of course. We’ve seen a few of these in Europe. Berlusconi. Le Pen. Successive xenophobic law-and-order parties in Germany, which are hoovering up the latent neo-Nazis to varying degrees. The Brexit vote in the UK.

It isn’t hard to recognise the signs of a modern fascist gaining traction. The ingredients are: a real, diffuse, reasonably widespread feeling of disaffection and powerlessness on the part a good swath of the electorate; and on the side of the candidate, a cynical willingness to lie baldly, to double down on criticism instead of responding to it, to stoke — even invent — fears, to push the buttons of law-and-order sentiments, to paint your opponent as the enemy, to find and relentlessly exploit scapegoats.

3. Every democratic system has at its core an area of consensus. It’s not set in stone and can, bit by bit, be changed, but the debate about the contours of the consensus is itself part of democratic culture: can we still be who we are without, say, freedom of speech? without the due process of law? can we be who want to be if we have a death penalty? mass surveillance? This is healthy stuff, and it’s the healthier the more citizens are participating in the debate.

And it’s a debate that can get pretty bruising. So there must be opportunities to heal. Shared cultural experiences. Rites of passage. In the US, displays of patriotism. In Europe, displays of allegiance to a national sports team (or, by golly, a singing competition). As bulwarks of democracies go, these look woefully weak. But they are what we have.

And candidates who throw this consensus overboard tear deep down into the fabric that holds together a democracy.

Trump was scary  when he first showed up, but he really moved up when it became clear he could win. If citizens vote the way polls look right now, a majority of white voters will vote for him. As will either a majority or a large plurality, close to 50%, of male voters. It’s pretty hard to believe.

4. The saddest part is that there isn’t much we can do about it at this point.

Faced with this situation, the level threat to our social contract, my friends’ and my reactions have taken on a quasi-feverish urgency. We have a need to analyse and understand, so we read and share and comment. We also have a need to bond, and reassure each other that, no, we aren’t crazy and something extraordinary is going on. So we point out lies and shake our heads over transgressions of what we thought were part of the core consensus.

These things must be said of course. If we don’t, the vacuum will be filled, and  hate and discrimination will become more acceptable. At a minimum, our texts will be read by the teenagers who can’t vote yet and those few who are currently in search of ethical and intellectual guidelines for how to evaluate what politicians do. And maybe we can give our Trump-supporting relatives a small pause.

But as far as stopping the train in motion is concerned, these things don’t really make much of a dent. Many good people with principles will not vote for him anyway. If they are leaning towards conservatism, they may abstain, or vote for the Libertarian candidate, maybe. Some Republicans will hold their nose and vote for Clinton, like the French Socialists, Centrists and many Communists did in 2002, when Le Pen made it into the presidential run-off round against Chirac. (Chirac ended up getting elected with 82% of the vote. Back then, we thought 18%  for the fascist was a disgrace.)

All of these are merely stop-gap measures, though. I know of only one way the build-up of persistent right-wing populist movements has ever been toppled: by going into a catastrophe and coming out at the other end. The UK is facing the Brexit vote fallout right now. And even that path doesn’t guarantee the problem won’t reappear forthwith.

5. What really needs to happen isn’t something Clinton will achieve. Nor would Sanders have been able to, though I’m glad he ran a sufficiently effective campaign to have some of his ideas enter the mainstream. It’s also not something that can be done before the election.

As I see it, there are two things that need to happen. One is an economic turnabout. The fruit of economic growth, or even simply of economic activity, of productivity, automation etc. have increasingly been moved away from salaries into profits. Away from the the people as a whole, into the pockets of a very small number of very rich people. Who can stop this? I don’t know. (Here is some food for thought, in the meantime.).

The other one is to reanimate the  political culture, and that means to talk with the fascists. Not Trump and his operatives, but those who are voting for him, or at least some of them. Where there’s common ground, and real problems to solve, it can be done. But that won’t cover all of it: some of our neighbours are saying ugly and harmful things right now. The ideas that have now become acceptable again are, truly, objectionable. I know why I think xenophobia is wrong. I know that my co-workers who are Muslim or black or members of other minorities-under-suspicion don’t deserve any less than anyone else.

Changing people’s attitudes isn’t easy, but possible. There are precedents. When I was a child, there was a moment when I realised that for my grandmother’s generation, France was “the hereditary enemy”. What a silly idea, a hereditary enemy, I thought. I was maybe 10. France, for me, was where kids from richer families than mine got to go on vacation. A country with sun and elegant clothes and good food. And hey, my home town was twinned with one from there, so there were opportunities for exchange trips and summer vacation encounters.

This change of minds was, of course, the fruit of the cataclysm of WWII, plus some very deliberate policy choices. Someone paid for and managed all those twinned towns, and language classes and exhibitions. It was worth it, a hundred times over. (Hereditary enemy! Just imagine…)

Similarly, in less than a generation, gays and lesbians, through coming out and being visible, have in a very short time made remarkable progress in the degree to which our lives are deemed acceptable by the straight mainstream. Some of my neighbours may still not be sure whether they “approve of homosexuality” in the abstract — probably… not? — but they know me, they know my partner and me, and we’re part of the community. It’s good enough. We got heaps of congratulations when we got married. (I admit, I was surprised by some.)

How to pull people back from xenophobia, from brash rejection of anything that isn’t “real America”, from a string-them-up attitude: I don’t know. It’s maybe not possible until the poisonous yelling has cooled down somewhat. But what I do know is that we have to be firm in our values, in sticking to the democratic core consensus, justice, anti-racism, equality and so on. I saw a word cloud of the Twitter feed directed at Mr. Trump’s wife, and it was mostly made up of slurs that are derogatory synonyms of “prostitute”. Misogyny is wrong, whoever the target. It’s in the fascists’ interest to operate a race to the bottom, and I’m not going to comply.

Satire, cartoons, pointed formulations have their function, but it is mostly to keep ourselves sane. They also can have a price.

6. And in the long run? Could we rebuild those democratic cultures? Could we commit to the idea that education — at all levels — is something we as a society want to pay for, and not only because it improves an individual student’s chances of getting a better job (though it does that too), but for the tools for thinking the student is getting access to? And that we fund the arts and sciences (and legal and social services and…), and not only because it’s something that generates job growth (though it does that too), but because it’s something a society, a culture does?

I’d like to see a time when someone who finishes required schooling can be expected to have thought about how the components of their government work and complement each other; has written essays or given presentations about what sentences are appropriate for what crime; knows how to check the truth of a claim, and can distinguish an ideological from a factual statement; understands how rhetorics works for persuasion and marketing. Not to favour any particular opinion: as far as I’m concerned they can come down on the side of the death penalty (which I abhor) and get an A+, but they must have grappled with a variety of mutually contradicting arguments and appreciated the difficulty of coming down for any one particular side.

7. So if Americans ask the question “how could so many X support Y?”, they should now know. And X and Y don’t have to be “Germans” and “Hitler”, though of course it does apply precisely. It happens in many places, and it’s not an easy thing to overcome. I hope we all make it through this.

The credibility of science news: how to find out if a newspaper article is trustworthy

Last week a piece of science news popped up: The jet stream had apparently crossed the equator and thus created a “climate emergency” that announced a catastrophic collapse of the food supply. It sounded preposterous, but as what little climate expertise I have is limited to the northern latitudes (I’m not an atmospheric scientist), I didn’t think I could do more than make skeptical noises against the many quotes and re-tweets the articles received on social media. The claims were invalidated a day later in, eg. “Claim that jet stream crossing equator is ‘climate emergency’ is utter nonsense” in the Washington Post or “No, the Earth’s jet streams are not spinning out of control” in Ars Technica.

Meanwhile the original piece made its way, substantially unaltered, from relatively niche media into mainstream outlets such as the Independent. Nonetheless, it is possible to spot junk science a little earlier on, if we give some thought to how to assess how much trust we should place into a piece of science reporting. Here are, roughly, the steps that I follow.

Step 1: Who is reporting, and more importantly, what are their sources? Yes, I usually look at the context before I look at the content. Unfortunately, you will find junk science reported in the most reputable papers, and reliable facts in niche magazines, even in magazines with a political slant. Still, overall there is a small credibility bonus on news that is reported by a variety of outlets, including big mainstream ones.

The real reason I look at the source first, though, is to figure out two things: a) is it from a peer-reviewed journal, and if the not, what else? b) did the journalist rely on a single source or get multiple statements to elucidate the topic?

The first point is less meaningful than many think. Unreliable results are published in peer-reviewed journals every day (and that’s not even necessarily a bad thing), while a huge amount of great science news comes from non-peer-reviewed sources: a volcano is erupting; a new particle accelerator just started service; a rare bird was spotted; a spacecraft is flying by a comet; the previous month broke weather records. It doesn’t even have to be a professional source to be credible, but one thing to keep in mind is whether the source and the content are compatible: amateur astronomy or zoology is a thing, but amateur particle physics really isn’t; and a lab result that would question everything we know about the chemistry of life should come from a peer-reviewed source, and not be published via press release.

The second test, however, is a pretty clear-cut one. Good news has corroborating voices from other members of the discipline. In the “jet stream crossing the equator” case, the original reports relied on blog posts and videos from an instructor at the University of Ottawa who has yet to get his PhD in climatology, and from an author of, it seems, climate catastrophe fiction. Far be it from me to belittle the expertise of PhD candidates — being one myself — but no corroborating voices were cited in the piece, even though the discipline is chock-full with established scientists who are only too ready to be interviewed.

Step 2: Does it pass the smell test? That is, does it, just overall, feel plausible? Another news item I saw last week reported on a skeleton found on the shores of Loch Ness. In the accompanying picture, the pile of bones didn’t look like any wild animal carcass I’ve ever seen, but like something form a butcher’s shop. The rib cage was about cow-sized, probably two or three individual animals’ worth. So… probably not Nessie, right?

This test, however, must be wielded with care. We all have a tendency to nod along with news that reinforce what we already believe — either from what we were taught about the world, or from our general philosophy — and to be skeptical about what contradicts it. This is called confirmation bias, and it’s strong and insidious. So we first need to take a hard look at the contours and limits of our expertise.

One reason the “jet stream” news went mildly viral is, I think, that it lay barely outside the knowledge of reasonably educated people and was playing into their confirmation bias caused by perfectly reasonable worry about the impact of human-caused climate change. At the same time, my own — relative — expertise did trigger my bullshit detector. What the images (from Cameron Beccario’s excellent visualization of global meteorology) showed was a stream of air that crossed the equator north-south. It seemed implausible to me that you cannot ever have northerly wind when you stand on the equator. Furthermore, while the impact of climate change on the jet stream has been in the news lately, those reports were about the polar jet, not the much weaker mid-latitude jets.

Step 3: What is the tone of the report? Two types of science reports make my senses tingle: horror stories and feel-good news. Reliable science reporting isn’t out to speak first and foremost to our emotions, but to help us understand something about the physical world. Of course, once we have understood it, we’re perfectly at liberty to attach an emotional value to it. Some things are genuinely frightening (or hopeful). But an article about, say, landslide hazard in some area of the world needs to talk facts and rules and laws and models and model uncertainty. Even if the outcome is “shit, someone needs to get these people out of there ASAP”. Climate change and food supply are a huge, and scary, problems, but fear is at best a motivator to work harder at a solution, not a helpful contribution.

A different red flag goes up if the article’s tone is mocking or dripping with scientific superiority. For news from some disciplines, like agricultural bio, it has become rare to find news that aren’t trying to influence your attitude to further a political goal. More generally, the attitude is annoying and unhelpful. Yes, I, too, share the opinion that anti-vaccination attitudes are harmful, but a text that excoriates them, will not — not any longer — teach anyone anything new.

Step 4: Do I have people with more expertise in my social network? So let’s say you’ve gone through steps 1 to 3 and are still not sure what to think. Maybe you know someone else who does! I’m frequently astonished about the breadth and depth of expertise among my Facebook friends and Twitter network. Instead of re-posting the article with the caption “OMG the food supply is going to hell”, why not try “Hmm, this would be pretty bad if it’s true. Does anyone have some insight?”

Step 5: Maybe just… wait a little while?  It’s a humbling thought, but if the jet streams are going to crap, chances are neither you nor I will be the ones whose social media post is going to save the world. If the report is true, it would with near certainty be picked it up. NOAA or the UK Met Office or the German weather service (DWD). The major science writers would dig into it. Within a few days, we’ll all have a much more complete account of what’s going on. And then we can panic. (And if they don’t, it’s still ample time to find out why not.)

So the bottom line is: If the report is from a single unconfirmed source, and sensational (be it positive or negative!), it’s time to send it out for a second opinion.

Chanukkah 5692 (1932), Kiel, Germany

Kiel, 1932. Rachel Posner
Kiel, Hanukkah 1932. Rachel Posner

Several of my friends posted this picture over the last week, this year’s Hanukkah holiday; typically with a caption similar to the one I used. The photograph pretty much stands on its own. My thought was that with a date and author so precisely known, its story was likely to be easy to find and quite possibly interesting in itself, as a complement to this strong photograph.

And indeed, a web search for the caption quickly returns a number of sites in English which place the picture in its proper place in the history of the Shoah. Following the trail of texts in German, though, adds some extra historical texture and density. This is the story the way I figured it out. It clears up a small number of contradictions you may find in the most popular links in English, but otherwise claims no superiority to other ways of looking at it. I’ve relegated all references (mostly in German) to the end, if you care to read/watch further.

Kiel is a city on the coast of the Baltic sea. It’s the capital of Schleswig-Holstein, now a federal state (Land), then a province in the state of Prussia. It has a university, founded in 1665. Back in the 1930s, it had a large prosperous middle class — civil servants, professors, lawyers, doctors, people of trade and commerce — as well as a large working class due to its ship yards.

1932 is the year before Hitler came to power. The first day of Hanukkah 1932 was December 24, so the scene is about a month before Hitler is appointed chancellor, and three months until his organisation has dismantled the core of the democratic institution, and the totalitarian repression begins in earnest.

When thinking about the image, I first wondered about the large NSDAP flag on the building on the other side of the road. There had been municipal elections in Kiel that year. Did the Nazis already capture city hall? Turns out, no, that’s not quite how it went.

The building was the seat of the Nazi party (NSDAP) district organization. And across the road happened to live the photographer, Rachel Posner, who was the wife of Dr. Akiva Posner, rabbi of Kiel from 1924 to 1933, and their family. During Hanukkah 1932, her thoughts on the worrisome deterioration of the political situation, Rachel Posner took her camera and captured the image. There’s actually a little more to her creation: The back of the picture contains the time and place, in the spelling I used in the title of this post, as well as a short poem:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 20.51.01


“Death to Judah,” says the flag –
“Judah will live forever,” replies the light.

(It rhymes in German, and is very much in the tone of the classical German poetry that would permeate upper secondary schooling then.)

1932 was a brutal year. One of the multiple elections, the July legislative vote, was the one where Hitler’s party jumped from a manageable 16% two years earlier to 37.3%, ahead of social democrats and communists combined, and far ahead of the republican conservatives. The SS and SA, which had been banned for a short while, terrorized the land. The violence was at this stage mainly between SA/SS on the one hand and KPD (communist) activists on the other. Nearly 100 people were killed in such clashes during a few short weeks in July. Public intellectuals, including such diverse personalities as Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz and Thomas Mann, wrote a letter entreating the SPD and KPD to work together, but to no avail. The pro-republican conservatives weren’t any more able to overcome the divisions between each other, and between the political center and the SPD. This is the moment that the Weimar Republic failed. The brand new government breaks down pretty much immediately, and in yet another election in November 1932 the Nazi party is down to 33%. Yet another bourgeois-conservative minority government is formed.

Germany in 1932 was of course in the throes of the economic crisis. People were incensed, too, about the reparation demands following the defeat in World War I, and whipped up further by the nationalist extreme of the political spectrum. In Kiel, there was an additional disaster: The Navy training ship Niobe, manned mostly by naval officers-in-training, sank in July, in a storm off the coast. 69 people died, and much of the city participated in recovery and relief.

Anti-Semitic violence was somewhat secondary to the Nazis at that particular point in time:  Hitler’s priority was to influence an election, trying (and failing) to obtain a majority. (Jews made up less than a percent of the population in Germany in the post-WW1 borders.) Nonetheless it was never far away. Dr. Posner’s synagogue was attacked with a small explosive device at one point in 1932. His reaction appears to have been based on outreach and reason: he led guided tours through the synagogue, gave public talks explaining some basics about Judaism, and even participated in a public debate with people close to the NSDAP on the other side.

So much for the context in late 1932. And then the events accelerated. In January 1933, the last pro-republic (bourgeois right-wing) government fails, and Hitler is appointed chancellor. He immediately passes emergency legislation that suspends democratic rights, calls new elections in early March and starts to persecute socialist and communist politicians. In March, despite the incipient totalitarian terror, the NSDAP still remains short of a majority (at 47% of the vote). So coups are staged at the state and local level, proceeding via arrests of communist and some socialist politicians, voiding of the seats held by the KPD, and then a take-over. This is the beginning of the process called Gleichschaltung (“synchronization” or “bringing into line”) — a replacement of the democratic and societal institutions by Nazi-party equivalents. The Dachau concentration camp is opened on March 22, to be filled first with left-wing political opponents. Starting April 1, Hitler calls for acts of discrimination, boycott and violence against Jewish citizens and businesses. On a psychological level, this transparent appeal to the basest instincts of the German majority population was scarily masterful.

Back in Kiel, the key events are these: In the days following the legislative elections, the Kiel Nazis kick out the communist town assembly members as well as the (conservative) mayor and take over city hall. The next day, March 12, the first of two murders takes place that would particularly shake the Jewish community. The victim was the lawyer Dr. Wilhelm Spiegel, a social democrat, board president of the Jewish community, board member of the local community college, and a civil rights lawyer who in 1932 had defended a regional workers’ paper (the Volkszeitung) against libel claims by Hitler personally. The paper had accused him to pursue the objective of civil war. The newspaper lost the trial, and by March 1933 the paper was banned and dissolved. That evening, Dr. Spiegel is visited by two men (one in SA uniform), who claim to be police. He ushers them into his study, where he is killed with a shot to the back of the head. The murderers flee. The police (and local Nazi spokesmen) direct the suspicion towards the KPD. The funeral was a huge peaceful demonstration of anti-Nazi feeling. Spiegel’s eulogy is given by his long-term political friend, the SPD member of parliament Otto Eggerstedt. Eggerstedt himself was arrested soon after and died in a concentration camp in October 1933, shot under the pretext that he was attempting to flee.

The second murder follows soon after. On April 1, another Jewish lawyer, Dr. Friedrich Schumm, returns to Kiel for a family event. He visits the furniture store owned by his parents, but is stopped by an SS guard at the entrance, with a command  not to buy from Jewish businesses. Annoyed, he enters from the back, and comes out to the front together with his father. He draws a hand gun. One of the SS falls into his arm, and in the scuffle that follows an SS man is shot. Schumm flees at first, but later turns himself in. Even though there’s an order to move him to a different jail for his protection, the local police dawdle and ultimately let a lynch mob of 30-40 SS and other Nazis into the building. They shoot him and leave with no trouble.

The Jewish community of Kiel pretty much draws the correct conclusions from these events. It starts out numbering about 1000 people, about half (my estimate — sources vary) in Dr. Akiva Posner’s congregation. Many of them get out during the year of 1933. Overall, the Jewish population of Germany decreased by about 10% between 1925 and 1933, partly because of demographics but mostly because of emigration. The Posner family – with Rachel, two daughters and a son, travel first to Amsterdam and then the year after to Palestine under British mandate. Their grandchildren now live in Israel, as do the descendants of the widow of Dr. Schumm. Some didn’t want to leave, though. And the less affluent half of the Kiel Jewish community fared worse. These were Polish and Yiddish speaking “Ostjuden”, who were kicked out of formerly German areas that became Polish again after World War I, and who often didn’t even have German citizenship. They were much less able to flee and find countries to welcome them. Estimates put the number of Kiel Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps at about 250.

Here’s a picture of the Posner family at the Kiel railway station when they were leaving in 1933. The pictures are available in many places, but a good one is here. Also, see the references below. The NDR report shows the Posners’ grandson, in Israel, retrieving the Hanukkia for the holiday. It also shows footage of the  cantor of today’s newly-formed Kiel Jewish community at the sites of the picture. There still is no new rabbi in Kiel.


NOTE, 2015-12-15: Michael Palmer, who is an eagle-eyed archivist, wrote to me on Facebook pointing out that the Jewish year 5692 ran from September 12, 1931 to September 30, 1932. Hanukkah in 1932 was therefore in 5693. Conversely, the first day of Hanukkah 5692 was on December 5, 1931. So the date is, after all, not quite as certain as it seemed, and my account in the fourth paragraph of how the picture integrates with the wider events in Kiel and Germany may be wrong. However, I still think it’s unlikely that Rachel Posner got the year 1932 wrong – she likely functioned at least as much on the Gregorian calendar as on the Jewish calendar. Possibly a lot more, and especially so after fleeing from their home in 1933. Also, it’s easier to get a year wrong towards the beginning of a new year rather than at the end. There’s also a chance she got the Hanukkia/menorah out in early 1932, specifically to take the picture, though that would have been nearly three weeks after the end of Hanukkah. The NSDAP would have been less strong in 1931, but the hated flag was probably already up in display. Be that as it may, the rest of the story still stands.


Kiel in Nazi Germany, general history (Stadtarchiv – city archives):
Niobe sinking 1932
Banning/censorship of the Volkszeitung newspaper 1933
November pogrom 1938

Kiel “power grab” of city hall and repercussions on Jewish community
by the Arbeitskreis Nationalsozialismus in deutsch/dänischer Grenzregion

Murder Dr. Wilhelm Spiegel:
at the city archives
at the virtual museum on the history of the Danish/German border region
in the SHZ newspaper

Murder Dr. Friedrich Schumm:
at the virtual museum on the history of the Danish/German border region
in the SHZ newspaper

The Posner Hanukkia
at Yad Vashem
NDR (North German public broadcasting) report text & video

Jewish population in Germany
at the Federal Archives 

It’s not about avoiding to offend…

Women in STEM, diversity in the workplace, problematic sexual or racial imagery at tech conferences: Not a week goes by without a discussion along these lines. There’s an aspect to the conversations for which I’d like to have a handy reference, because it often gets lost in the heat of the situation. This post is intended to fill the role.

Here’s a sample situation. Let’s say I’m looking over someone’s presentation slides and I’m seeing a male pronoun where both sexes apply (“the researcher then saves his data on his thumb drive…”), or an image of a female body used merely to create drama. I would point it out and suggest to reformulate or rethink. And often enough, since my interlocutor is more likely to be clueless than a raging misogynist (after all, they’re asking me for advice!), the reaction is embarrassment: “I didn’t know this is offensive,” or even “I didn’t mean to offend you, sorry!”

There are two things I want to say at this juncture. The first is that I’m unlikely to be actually offended. Certainly not about a thoughtless pronoun, and believe me, I’ve seen erotic images before. These days it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Sure, it does happen, a few times a year, when some idiocy feels like a punch to the stomach. It would be more frequent if I hung out more in certain corners of the tech world (keyword “gamergate”). But my personal threshold is irrelevant here, and in any event, don’t presume you know someone else’s feelings.

Second, your goal shouldn’t be to avoid offence under all circumstances: it should be to consider what signals you’re setting, and what these signals say about you and the community you’re addressing. Do they say “my peers may be male or female, and my pronoun choice reflects that” and “stereotyping and objectification do not reflect an acceptable way of relating to each other in this community”? Or do they say “people from underrepresented groups will occasionally have to put up with being the butt of jokes or be forgotten in our planning, because we historically didn’t have to think of such trivial matters”?

I would even go so far as to say giving offence is sometimes inevitable. The racist reader of Houstonia Magazine who called in to complain about an ad because he “just can’t go for racial mixing” quite likely feels genuinely offended at the sight of a picture of a mixed-race family. Similarly, the homophobe may feel sincere discomfort at the sight of two men kissing. And I remember discussions during my youth when it was considered quite reasonable for a man to feel uncomfortable about reporting to a female boss, and an unfortunate fact of life that women who want careers would have the extra task of dealing with such obstacles. In all three cases my attitude, and surely not just mine, is to put the onus firmly back onto the racist reader, homophobic neighbour or sexist employee to a) put up with it and b) use it as an opportunity to examine their prejudices and biases.

I’m not making the moral relativist’s argument here: quite on the contrary. Feeling offended at sexist jokes is not equivalent to being offended about women having access to roles of authority. The hurt feelings of the racist don’t have the same weight as as the hurt feelings of a non-white person who has to prove their competence multiple times all over. As for our professional (or recreational) communities, we cannot resolve an ethical problem (equality of opportunity) without making a commitment to a set of values about diversity and inclusiveness, even if it means the traditionalists have to adapt.

The problem I’m interested here is offending someone or making someone uncomfortable merely for not being part of the majority group, in a situation where they could reasonably expect to be free of discomfort and treated with professional courtesy. When I say “ugh, this is really offensive” this is usually what is meant.

You might think I’m stating something that everyone implicitly understands. But I still think it’s important to be clear and precise about the distinction, for a number of reasons.

1. To counter a dismissive “she just takes offence easily”. Sure, some people take offence more easily than others. People vary. Some even take offence based on a misunderstanding. It happens. But it’s irrelevant. A point stands whether the person highlighting it speaks with perfect calm and detachment or with visible pain and anger.

2. Because otherwise the problem may be relegated to an inter-personal matter even though it is about systems and communities. It’s not about avoiding to step on someone’s toes, but about who is made feel welcome and who is being excluded or pushed to the margins.

3. Because the focus on offence seeks simple formulaic solutions to ethical problems. We can’t make our communities inclusive by box-ticking. Removing some symbols of discrimination (such as sexualized images) doesn’t automatically make peers consider each other’s contributions fairly.

4. Because offence and discomfort cut many ways. Already we’re seeing attempts to borrow the language of diversity and inclusion to remove challenging literature from school curricula or material about sex and sexuality from youth sections of libraries, or to justify restrictive dress codes. There is no contradiction between rejecting eroticised images on presentation slides and wanting libraries to offer factual, complete information about the anatomy of human bodies and the biological, social and psychological aspects of sex.

To finish, lest it seem I’m slamming the use “offensive” without further qualification: Even though there’s no right not to be offended, offence and discomfort are still symptoms of a problem. It’s not hypocritical to complain about it. Simply, when examining one’s own values and biases, or when writing, say, a code of conduct for a community, it’s a good idea to figure out what exactly is the kind of inclusiveness and freedom of offence we want to achieve.

Things that are relative

Melinda and I just had differing intuitions about whether +6 °F / -14.5 °C can be properly referred to as “still warm out”. To my excuse, the context was my car, which really is overdue a service, and therefore gets plugged in even though that’s indeed mild for early January  in interior Alaska.

The naming of deer (EN, DE, FR)

Because Melinda and I just had a conversation about this:

  • Alces alces — AmE: moose; BrE: elk (mostly); DE: Elch; FR: élan or orignal.  The word moose seems to be borrowed from an Algonquian language, while elk is a cognate of alces and many other names in Germanic, Slavic languages as well as Greek. The etymology of the French words is surprisingly complicated (I’m reading about Basque for orignal and Lithuanian for élan — to be confirmed!).
  • Cervus canadensis — AmE: elk or wapiti; BrE, FR: wapiti; DE: Wapiti or Wapitihirsch. _Wapiti_ is from a Shawnee or Cree word. German speakers who don’t know the correct name would sort this one under Rothirsch.
  • Cervus elaphus — EN: red deer; FR: cerf élaphe; DE: Rothirsch. This is the animal European German speakers think of when they say Hirsch, or the French when they say cerf — the prototypical deer of the continental European forests. The American elk (wapiti) was believed to be a sub-species of this (apparently incorrectly), and would be naively considered as a large red deer by Europeans.
  • Dama dama — EN: fallow deer; FR: daim; DE: Damhirsch. Apparently introduced to Europe from the Middle East/Western Asia as a huntable deer species by the Romans.
  • Capreolus capreolus — EN: roe deer; FR: chevreuil; DE: Reh. The Latin/scientific and French words make me think that for some time the animal was grouped with goats.

In German, the general term for a member of the deer family (Cervidae), of which all of the above are members, is _Hirsch_. Colloquially, a red or fallow deer, or a member of a non-native species such as a Sitka deer, wapiti or white-tailed deer would be referred to as a generic Hirsch, but a roe deer would be a Reh and a moose/elk an Elk. I’ve heard young Germans refer to an image of a Chinese water deer as _Säbelzahnreh_ (saber-toothed roe deer).

When I was a child, seeing roe deer on a drive through the countryside was a moderately rare treat. Very very occasionally you might spot a red deer. The question “War das ein Reh oder ein Hirsch?” was common, and it’s hard to translate because English has no word for deer that excludes the roe deer. So you might go for something indirect (“Was this a roe deer or some other kind of deer?”) or, better, for something more specific depending on what other kinds of deer would be around (“Was this a roe deer or a white-tail? a roe deer or an elk? a roe deer or a moose [um, these two are hard to confuse]?).

Of frapes and other misadventures

On his blog, Arnold Zwicky takes on the portmanteau frapea word that blends Facebook with rape to mean something along the lines of take over someone’s unattended Facebook account to post disparaging or embarrassing updates. Arnold’s text includes a discussion of the problem of trivialising rape and other violent actions and ends with this paragraph:

So you can agree that our culture trivialises rape but still not see every use of the word rape as literal (and trivialising of the experience of being raped).

Serene Vannoy disagreed with that last bit, and a somewhat acerbic exchange ensued that on Serene’s side didn’t completely stay within the conventions of friendly, polite discourse. Then Steven Levine, who originally supplied the example to Arnold by reporting some of his younger friends’ usage, felt that Serene had accused those friends of trivialising rape and rode to their defense in a lengthy comment. Following that, a few friends and I had conversations about this out-of-band, and I don’t think I’m overstepping any bounds by saying we were unhappy with the thread. Personally, I’m not ready to side with anyone completely; neither Arnold nor Steven seem to be seeing what Serene’s exactly objecting to. But at this stage, I’m not convinced that all original comments are still in place, so rather than re-hashing the arguments, I’ll attempt to go back and lay down three points.

But first, an anecdote. The first time I heard someone use the verb nuke to mean warm up in a microwave oven, I was quite shaken. I had heard rumours about such a usage, but didn’t expect it from a thoughtful and mild-mannered acquaintance — an American to boot. You say “nuke” and I think of people dying terrible deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of those maps of my hometown I had as a teenager that drew concentric circles around city hall, marking off probabilities of survival should a Pershing II warhead hit. At the same time, I wasn’t hypocritical enough to condemn my friend. First of all because their culpability-by-association for dropping nuclear warheads surely paled to mine for the entire Hitler and WWII thing (I’m German). But more to the point, for all I knew you might have peace activists who nuke their popcorn and lentil soup, maybe using the word out of habit, maybe as dark humour. There’s no direct line from a usage to a personal attitude. (What did I do at the time? In my recollection, I mildly said something like “You really use such a violent term for warming up food? Huh.”)

I still don’t use nuke in the kitchen. I still think it would trivialise one of the most terrible things humans have invented.

Which leads to my first point: Just because a usage of a word trivialises some important phenomenon it doesn’t mean that the person using the word intends to trivialise the phenomenon. And if, dependent on the moral framework we function under, we judge other people by their intentions (which I largely do) we can say that some words or metaphors have negative (disparaging, racist, sexist) connotations without at the same time accusing the speaker to be a racist, sexist, scumbag or otherwise bad person who callously disregards dead children in Nagasaki or rape survivors.

I make this distinction all the time. For example, I am completely convinced by Geoff Nunberg‘s claim, regarding the trademark invalidation dispute around the Washington Redskins (some kind of professional sports team of high prominence), “that redskin was a disparaging term when the mark was originally registered and remained so afterward”. The team has a racist name that deliberately taps into and appropriates the stereotypes associated with Native Americans. Does that mean that everyone who declares themselves to be a Redskins fan is terrible person with racist intentions? Obviously not. Does it mean they participate in the perpetuation of the stereotyping? Hell, yeah. And so do we all, for one thing or another, I’m afraid. It’s part of the human condition.

Similarly, the relatively new use of rape to refer to mildly to moderately unpleasant events that happen against one’s will (such as hard exams or friends fooling around with one’s unattended Facebook account) participates in the trivialisation of rape (the literal, actual act). It doesn’t make the speaker a bad person. It doesn’t represent an attack on them to say so, and how to act towards them is a question I’m not particularly interested in for the case at hand.

Second point: The degree to which a metaphorical use trivialises what the literal use refers to isn’t constant, but depends on a range of variables.

  • [Elaborated on by Arnold] Metaphors of violence are extremely common. Some (like asking for someone’s head on a stick) are intentionally chosen to underline disagreement and opposition, others are completely conventionalized and appear to be used mostly with no particular thought behind them (someone made a killing in the stock market, and Arsenal beat Manchester United 3:1).
  • [Also covered by Arnold] The degree of conventionality of a metaphor doesn’t only impact my judgement of someone’s intention, but also the degree to which a metaphor is able to carry a connotation about (or, trivialise) its literal meaning. The two highly conventionalized metaphors at the end of the previous point aren’t very good examples of trivialisation. Someone who is concerned about interpersonal violence would surely find better targets than to police commonplace use by (we hope) well-intentioned people.
  • My American friends are frequently surprised by the casualness with which German or French uses lynchen/lyncher . The actual context of killings of African-Americans during the civil rights struggles (and later) is too present in their mind to use the term for a messy shouting match or an internet shitstorm. Germans and French people, who are farther removed from the historical context, lack such an inhibition.
  • As pointed out by my partner Melinda Shore, it also depends on who applies a term to whom. “Oh, crap, I got fraped again” has a self-deprecating overtone; “hey, let’s frape mommy!” is a bit nastier.
  • Similarly, I find myself a lot more lenient with the dark humour of, say, emergency responders rather than having the arrogance to police their language from the high horse of theoretical considerations. And I see the value of hyperbole, even of the biting, sarcastic, challenging sort, in satire and art. (Which doesn’t mean I’m not judging case-by-case.)

As a recent innovation, frape and the metaphorical uses of rape can’t really claim the excuse of a high degree of conventionality. It may acquire it in the future.

So what’s the deal? Looking back at Arnold’s quote above, and the post/thread as a whole, I admit I’m not clear whether he holds that in order to function as trivialising rape, the word would have to refer to literal rape (or the speakers intend to refer to literal rape). This seems wrong to me — on the contrary, it’s specifically the metaphorical use of rape for something utterly trivial that, to me, makes this an example of trivialisation. I’d be a lot happier if the rape metaphor was used to underline some violent act on a non-consenting partner (though obviously some would disagree with me and never accept rape metaphors at all). If I use Endlösung/final solution to refer to a method of using up extra zucchini, I’m trivialising the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Whether that’s offensive or not depends who’s there when I do it, but frankly I would advise against this word choice in a gardening column.

Last point: The linguist records and analyses; but every language user makes judgements of quality and preference, and may defend them. These two modes are potentially at odds.  Arnold’s post is part of a long (nearly daily) series that deal with neologisms, often portmanteaus. And distasteful as I personally may find it, the innovative use of rape (which I’ve been hearing first-hand from undergraduates at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I work) requires noting down and belongs in the dictionary. Linguists often deal with prescriptivist pronouncements that are based on faulty reasoning and freely invented rules. Here we have something different: The rejection of a usage on ethical grounds. We all have them — words we would teach a child to avoid, and explain why. One  reason to disfavour this particular usage is to account for people who’ve had the experience of rape in our audience. Another grows out of the observation that a number of young people appear to have rather fuzzy notions of sexual consent, and rape imagery or even threats have become a commonplace response to women stating an even mildly controversial idea with feminist overtones: it’s already being trivialised quite enough, thankyouverymuch, as Arnold recognises.

It is debatable whether there is causal connection between metaphors of violence and attitudes or actions. I doubt matters are anywhere as clear as that, but still keep a niggling question about the cognitive tools that such metaphors provide. All this war on drugs, cancer, terror — does this terminology really not implicitly help to justify the use of extraordinary, drastic means where cool rational analysis might lead to a more nuanced approach? Meanwhile some are working on nicer violent metaphors (and failing).



Yinglish four hands, for fun and instruction

The Daily Mail, even though far from my favourite British paper, regularly posts very beautiful and interesting photo series. One example is this stunning selection from the New York municipal archives, which several friends of mine reposted on Facebook tonight. My partner Melinda, who is Jewish (and has ancestors on one side of her family who were merchants in NYC), was captivated  but also amused by this street scene from July 1908, from the Lower East Side:




Her amusement was directed at the large piece of bilingual signage in the right hand side of the photo. After she posted, she came by my desk and asked “Can you see why it’s funny?” Ok, a challenge!

Now my Yiddish is close to non-existent, and I still need to have an alphabet chart next to me to decipher Yiddish text, while she can read the Hebrew alphabet just fine. However, I’m often able to extrapolate some more complicated words from German. That is, together we make an irresistible Yiddish task force. But here I first refused her help and set off with my transliteration. Luckily, it didn’t take more than a few letters of the large text to figure out what had happened here.

After having a good laugh, we joined forces to transliterate the entire lower sign from Hebrew to Latin script so that I could blog its extraordinary oddness. Please forgive me — I’m not very good at spelling Yiddish with Latin letters, either, so the following is just my own best guess at how to write what’s on the sign. I take full responsibility for all crimes against the Yiddish language committed in it, other than what the original writers did.

extra news in die East Side!
ein groser bankratsil fon 15000 vare
mit ausferkauft veren[??] 15 tag
komt [xx] kauft grose bargain
vare vird ferkauft [xx]  halbe preise. komt [xx] [xxxx]

([xx] marks words that are too small to decipher – they can usually be guessed from context.) I could take a guess at the last word (clearly something like German “überzeugt euch”), and sorry again for the non-standard Yiddish transliteration. The gist of it all is this: The author of the sign didn’t know either how to say bankruptcy, news, men’s furnishings or bargain in Yiddish, and didn’t have a word for East Side. Anglicisms borrowed over directly into one’s target language are manifestly not a late 20th century invention.

Now if we could figure out what the small sign behind the Jewish boy in the middle of the image says.

Harmful (over-)abstraction

[I nearly titled this post “Abstraction considered harmful”, but then thought better of it.]

The other day, my partner Melinda reported the following text that came with a video about fly fishing in Hampshire: “Highlighting the beauty of southern England’s chalk streams, the birth place of modern fly fishing. Threatened by abstraction and polution, [ … ]”. What kind of error could “threatened by abstraction and pollution” be? I was leaning towards a Cupertino for obstruction, or maybe the problem was construction?

There was a bit of banter of Facebook, until a friend from Scotland set us right: no error. Abstraction, she reminded us, is simply a term for the removal of water from a source. The OED has under abstraction, sense 2a:

2.a. The action of taking something away; the action or process of withdrawing or removing something from a larger quantity or whole; (now) esp. the extraction of water from a river or other source for domestic or industrial use.

It’s a little bit closer to industry jargon than the more commonly used extraction. The dictionary doesn’t say if the term is more common in British English. The people more familiar with it in general use were indeed British.

And yes, the ecosystems of the Avon, Test, Allen and other chalk streams, that is, rivers set in the southern English chalk formation and influenced by its specific geology and geochemistry, are under pressure. Quote from the WWF, previous link (boldface in the original):

Since Roman times, chalk stream channels have been progressively modified, for navigation, transport, agriculture, landscaping and milling.

In the 20th century a sprawling suburbia demanded more and more water. Drilling technology improved and deep boreholes were sunk.

The effects of abstraction have spread, and today there’s barely a chalk stream left that doesn’t feel its impact – in some cases a deadly impact.

All the rivers identified in the Rivers on the Edge project supply millions of litres of water per day – and all are officially classed as “over-abstracted” by the Environment Agency.

By 2020, increasing population will mean total demand for water is likely to be around 5% higher than today – that’s an extra 800 million litres of water per day.

And of course climate change scenarios suggest river flows in late summer and early autumn may reduce by as much as 80% by 2050, with a 15% reduction in total annual average flow.

There are currently efforts afoot to get a handle on the problem.

Edit: As John Lawler pointed out on Facebook, and I should probably have noted, the sense 2a above is pretty much the etymologically literal sense of abstraction: The action of pulling/taking something away. The problem here is that we aren’t used to the literal, non-abstract, use of the word.