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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 1, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


The Far Right, "Than," and "Aren't I?"

Never has the two-party system looked worse than it does today, when government sucks so much out of the economy -- pretending to give it back to us in the ways we should desire to use it -- that the only difference between Republicans and Democrats seems to be that whenever Democrats take power they spend most of their time proving that they are even worse than Republicans.

So we have tea parties that voice the frustration of people who feel that neither party is doing what the country needs or what these individuals want.

Naturally, both parties have to choose whether to try to co-opt the tea party movement or kill it. Democrats are trying the latter, Republicans the former. But it's worth remembering that neither party deserves a single tea-party vote; and, if the tea party "movement" becomes a political party in its own turn, it won't deserve any of its own members' votes!

Why? Because the tea party movement began with the common sense idea that surely there's got to be a better way than this! What are these parties for, really? In the old days, when they stood for nothing but the will to win political power, they were useless in helping us decide how to vote. Now, when they stand for whatever extreme wing will fund them most exuberantly, they are still useless in helping us decide how to vote -- because choosing either party will lead us to be ruled by the absurd collection of the extremist views of those who fund them.

Any idiot can think of a dozen different systems before breakfast -- though whether they're better or possible is another question.

And no matter what better way we might envision, we have to get there from where we are. Breaking down the present system is a no-brainer -- our federal government has proven itself nearly incapable of anything except for the economic bloodletting of deficit spending on things that government has no business doing because it does them so badly and inefficiently.

So it can be attractive for us to wish to go back to first principles, wake up our sleeping Constitution, and wave it in the faces of dictator judges and power-grabbing politicians, who seem to regard the Constitution as whatever will advance their own agenda -- instead of what it originally was, an actual contract between the people, the states, and the government.

But what does the Constitution mean?

W. Cleon Skousen was a mentor of mine on when I was growing up -- except on politics. However, politics was where he made his name and put his heart (he wrote The Naked Communist, which was like the Common Sense of the Right Wing in the 1960s). When Glenn Beck called attention to it, Skousen's later book, The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas that Changed the World, started flying off the shelves. Not bad for a book that was first published in 1981, and whose author died in 2006.

What Skousen intended with Five Thousand Year Leap was a close examination of the values and principles that lie behind the Constitution, or were supported by those who created it. And for that purpose, I highly recommend the book.

Unfortunately, I also have to say that if every idea of Skousen's had prevailed through American history, this country would not be a very good place to live.

The original intent of the founders is worth examining, but we also have to recognize that the world has changed. For instance, Skousen embraces Washington's (and others') idea that for us to intervene in European wars would do nothing but waste America's treasure and the lives of our people.

In Washington's time, the wars that Europeans fought with each other were meaningless to us and we had no business getting involved with them. Even the War of 1812, really just a sideshow in the Napoleonic Wars, where Britain's provocations matched those of France (with whom we nearly went to war not long before), largely demonstrated the correctness of the stay-away-from-European-Wars view.

We gained a tiny bit of territory and got the Brits to stop interfering with us by stirring up Indian rebellion in the Northwest Territories (modern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). But we accomplished a lot more with Jefferson's peaceful (and unconstitutional) purchase of the Louisiana territory.

But would you like to live in the world that would have resulted if we had stayed out of World War I and World War II? Those were also European wars -- the direct descendants of such wars as the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War. The trouble is that by that time, the world had shrunk. Between steamships and telegraphs, Europe was now closer to any point in America than Boston was to Philadelphia when Washington was President.

Our economies intertwined. And if Germany had prevailed in either war, it would be a German international order that ruled the world, instead of an American one. Hitler's was worse than the Kaiser's, but either way, a Germany-dominated world would not have been as relatively benign as the Pax Americana has been.

My point is simply this: Skousen's analysis ranges from brilliant to weird to dangerously wrong (in my opinion).

If you read his book with the idea in mind that you will think about the issues that he raises and reach your own conclusions after consulting other sources, you'll be fine. Skeptical inquiry is always rewarded, as long as you don't become a disciple.

Time after time in reading Skousen's Five Thousand Year Leap, I wanted to say to him, "Cleon, would you really want to live in the country you're describing?" If I ever knew the man, I think his answer would often be, "No. But we should have amended the Constitution in order to do this." Of course, just as often the answer would be, "Yes," to which I would say, "Well, I don't want to live in that country. I think it would be a terrible, destructive mistake."

But time after time in reading his book I also wanted to shake his hand. That needed to be said! That idea needs to be part of our public discussion!

Are you interested? I suggest you go to the PowerThink website -- http://www.PowerThinkPublishing.com/. They're the publisher of Skousen's book and other conservative materials -- they have, for instance, a US Constitution Coach Kit on DVD -- including a special edition with some speeches by Ronald Reagan.

Now, I'm not a worshiper of Ronald Reagan -- I think his foreign policy was often deeply wrong, as when he negotiated with terrorists -- and when he signed a law banning the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. (He should have vetoed it, instead of finding illegal ways to fund them.) I have little patience with the political and economic dogmas of those who do worship him.

And yet I think our country would be in better hands right now if the Reaganites were running things than the current walking foreign policy disaster who thinks that his job is to subvert American interests everywhere, while sucking all the life out of the American economy and remake it in the image of the European countries that can't even afford to defend themselves, let alone fund the future demands of socialism on their economies.

Since the extreme Left controls Congress, the Presidency, the universities, the lower federal courts, and the media, then it's a good idea for even the extreme Right -- and don't be mistaken, Cleon Skousen writes from a place that is as far to the Right as Nancy Pelosi would be to the Left, if she actually knew how to think -- to become part of the discussion, if only so that we can remember where the middle actually is.

I do not endorse the views of Cleon Skousen -- but you will never find the views of the Far Right more charmingly and lucidly explained.

*

After my last column, I got a grammar question from a reader:

"You used 'older than me' in your fifth paragraph; I would use 'older than I.' Which is preferable (correct)?"

The word than is in transition. It was a comparative conjunction, so that "smarter than I" was taken as an elision of "smarter than I [am]." But today this is felt as wrong by most English speakers today, who may be processing "than" as a preposition, so that it needs the objective case. This may not make grammatical sense (though half of grammar does not make grammatical sense, anyway -- look at "aren't I?" and tell me what's going on there!), but when you think about it, treating "than me" as a prepositional phrase is no more or less "right" than treating "than I" as a clause with a missing or imaginary verb.

What's really going on may be part of the process of attaching particles to verbs. Just as we have combined verb and following particle to create "keep on," "keep up," "keep away," "keep out," "keep out of," "keep up with" and "keep down," all of them completely different verbs with little of the original sense of "keep" as "hold fast" (which is why we can end sentences with prepositions, precisely because they are not prepositions at all, but the final particles of multi-part verbs), so also we may be in the process of creating a new version of "to be": "to be ... than" (insert comparative word between "be" and "than").

In fact, so strong is this new verb, "to be ... than," that we have begun inserting the word "different" into that slot, as well as comparative adjectives. When I was growing up, "different" took "from" in America, "to" in England, as in:

"Her taste in clothes is different from mine" (America)

"Her taste in clothing is different to mine" (England)

But in recent decades another form has become dominant:

"Her taste in clothes is different than mine."

The compound verb "to be ... than" seems to be staking out its territory and winning the contest with its rivals.

Yet if "than" has become another "be" verb (as "become" long since did), isn't the use of "me" still wrong? Isn't it violating another rule?

It is, if you still believe the old nonsense about "it is I" being better than "it is me." But Middle English used "it is me," and it shows up in the work of nearly every great writer until the Victorians came up with a rule that had never existed. There is no particular reason why "be" should not take the direct object form just like any other verb, and the "it is I" form sounds hopelessly old-fashioned and elitist in conversation -- except when it's sarcastic!

Most English speakers say "it's me" and "is it them?" and "it was him" without a qualm, so why not "They are older than me" in conversation instead of the snooty- or pedantic-sounding "They are older than I"?

That missing "am" at the end is just that: missing. It isn't there. So why should we choose our pronouns as if it were?

You are certainly not wrong to say "older than I," but in speech it carries with it a sense of pedantry or snobbery or even foreignness (i.e., English as opposed to American). In writing, however, it is far less strange -- so it's really one of the tools you can use to control how formal or informal your writing sounds. In my columns, I aim for a conversational formality, punctuated now and then with bursts of overwhelming erudition. Like that one.

By the way, in case you wondered, here is my explanation of the common use of "aren't I?" in a language where we would never dream of answering "aren't you?" with "yes, I are."

We front the verbs in our questions: Did you? Are you? Am I? But we have gradually come to use the contractables only: Not: "Ate you the sandwich?" but "Did you eat the sandwich?" Not "Come you at eleven" but "Are you coming at eleven?" The confirming questions take the negative -- "Ate you not the sandwich" becomes "Did you not eat the sandwich?"

But that isn't where the "not" was originally placed. It was tied to the first verb in the sentence. Jane Austen regularly writes oddities like "Did not you speak to him?" However, no one in her time would actually have said that. She was merely writing "correctly." Just as we usually write "going to" when everyone actually says "gonna," she wrote "did not you speak to him?" when the person would actually have said -- and the reader would probably have read aloud -- "Didn't you?"

All the "be" verbs had their contractions: aren't, isn't, weren't, wasn't. And the negative (confirming) question ("wasn't it?" as opposed to "was it?") absolutely required them, so these forms were used constantly.

But there was a weird one: "am not," as in "I'm too fat, am not I?"

Most other contractables end with closing consonants -- didn't, wouldn't, hadn't, hasn't, haven't. With a closing consonant, the "not" shrinks into a grunt -- "nt" -- but it constitutes an entire syllable in which the "vowel" is the sound of N.

There were also some contractables that ended with liquids -- Shall, will -- and there the consonant disappears completely -- shan't, won't. Why? Just try saying "shalln't" or "willn't." You can't turn the "not" into a grunt after the L -- you have to put a vowel into it or drop the L. You can say "shallent" and "willent," but then, in rapid speech, the L sound still wants to disappear completely. It's just too hard to combine the liquid with the nasal at the end of the word -- "LNT" -- and so the liquid is quickly gone, and "shan't" and "won't" are now monosyllables.

Then there's "can't," which alone of the contractions survives with a rapid single-word alternative: "cannot." It's obvious why "can't" became a monosyllable -- the N of "can" and the N of "not" became the same N, and the O disappeared in pronunciation. The trouble is that in rapid speech, as we all know, it is hard to distinguish "can" from "can't." "I can't take it" and "I can take it," or "I can't do it" and "I can do it," sound so much alike that to make your meaning clear, you need to have the choice of using "I cannot take it," "I cannot do it."

At last we come to the last contractable: "am not." In the natural progress of a spoken language, a phrase used so often would drift into "amn't," but unlike the case with "can't," these aren't two Ns, which merge into a single one; instead we have an M and an N. Being nasals, the difference between "amn't" and a version of "an't" with the A held a little extra time cannot be distinguished by the hearer. The effort of closing the lips to make the M is going to get dropped, while the lengthening of the A remains.

Along comes the great vowel shift during the Wars of the Roses, and long A (A held for a little extra time) became the sound we have today in "fate" -- the A that "says its name." Long A used to be "faat," or "faht" with the A held longer. Along with all the other long As, the vowel shift happened to the already common "aan't I," so that in many English dialects it became "ain't." This was perfectly correct where it replaced "am not," so that if you said, "I'm coming too, ain't I," you were using good grammar and contemporary pronunciation.

But the retroflex R in "are" is also a liquid, and it also has a tendency to make "aren't" migrate to "aan't" and then to "ain't." (This did not happen in dialects which tapped their Rs instead of using the pure liquid retroflex. In those cases, "are" ended with a closing consonant, not a liquid, and remained a two-syllable word, "aren't.")

Wherever R was a liquid, the natural movement of English would have been to use "ain"t" in both positions -- for "aren't you" and for "amn't I." These are completely natural movements in the rushing of speech. They were never "wrong," though some dialects used "aren't" for "are not" and some used "ain't," depending on how they pronounced R.

Then these contractions happened to run up against orthography: Jane Austen and others were still writing "are not they?" and "am not I?" which everybody knew was wrong because no one actually talked that way. So writers started writing dialogue in a way that reflected natural speech, and the written contractions were introduced, complete with their little apostrophes to show us what was being left out. (Though it left us with absurdities like "won't," as if the original phrase were "wo not," and "shan't," when accurate apostrophizing would require "sha'n't," which is indeed how it was written by some.)

The pedants of the 19th century insisted that it was wrong to say "ain't" when you meant "aren't," though it wasn't wrong, just not the dialect they preferred. The trouble was, they taught it like a rule: "There's no such word as 'ain't'; you mean 'aren't.'" This despite the fact that there obviously was such a word as "ain't," which most people used frequently.

Well, if you decide that the dialect with liquid R should not prevail, then you could replace most instances of "ain't" with "aren't" and no harm done. Except where "ain't" did not mean "are not" at all, but "am not." Then you were doing something very strange -- forcing people who would never say "are I not" to say "aren't I?" The foolish rule tossed out the baby with the bathwater.

We make negative statements in the first person as often as in any other person -- I am not, he is not, they are not -- but we don't ask first-person confirming questions anywhere near as often as questions that require "aren't" -- how many times do we ask "am not I?" compared to "are not you?" or "are not they?"

All that kids were told was, "Don't say 'ain't,' say 'aren't,'" so they replaced it in all cases, even where it was replacing "amn't I" rather than "aren't you." As a result, "aren't I" was said so often that it became the first choice. We learn it (as an idiom) from the cradle, while "ain't' survives among the educated -- which is most of us -- only as a sarcastic hickism.

This is the nonsense that results when people try to impose a rule to expunge some natural part of the existing language. For instance, in the effort to expunge the language of "Me and John are having lunch today," people were taught, "No, it's 'John and I,'" which has resulted in the absurd "Between John and I, we know everything."

There was nothing wrong with using the objective case in declarative subjects: "Me and John," "him and Joan," "them and the Jacksons." The rule in English used to be that the objective pronoun was used when it did not immediately precede the verb. Thus these sentences were all correct in spoken English for centuries, and still are in informal speech:

Me and Joan are going out tomorrow night.

Joan and me, we're going out tomorrow night.

Joan and I are going out tomorrow night.

That was the rule. But somebody decided that instead we should follow Latin rules, and so we "corrected" our language -- to be just as wrong as ever. Now we have the rule that we always use "I" and always place it last when creating a first-person compound, regardless of its position and use in the sentence. The result is sentences like this: "That's what happened to Joan and I on our date." It's every bit as "illogical" as the original, native English way. Oddly, they both often coexist in the speech of the same person!

Anyway, that's the history of why we say "aren't I" -- it's a former pedantry that led to an illiteracy that has now become the rule. That's one way that languages change over time: Idiots, armed with college degrees and a puritanical attitude toward people they think are less smart than them, force a stupid change on the language in order to "improve" it, and end up with no more logic than the language started with.


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