Saturday, June 29, 2013

The US Flat Earth Society vs. A New Political Reality

The US Flat Earth Society vs. A New Political Reality

by Meg Curtis, PhD

When President Obama complains about the Flat Earth Society in America, he needs to check his rear view mirror. His speeches address race and sex. He refers to Edward Snowden as a "hacker." Obama is the creation of the 1960s. His most famous words yearn for "Dreams from My Father." Newsflash: This is the twenty-first century, and Obama's strategies have not even begun to acknowledge the real change in America's workforce.

First, with every development of technology, communications workers have upped their power ante. This group constitutes the "Communications Workers of America (CWA) ... the largest communications and media labor union in the United States," according to Wikipedia. The CWA, in turn, is "affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress, and Union Network International...and the worldwide membership of the AFL-CIO total[ed] 11,000,000, as of 2008." The CWA has its own connections, and those are not limited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in DC.

Second, while Obama agonizes over race and sex, the following developments have occurred:

"In October 2003, 77 million persons used a computer at work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor reported ....These workers accounted for 55.5 percent of total employment. About 2 of every 5 employed individuals connected to the Internet or used e-mail while on the job."

These statistics cut across racial and gender lines. They practically define "labor" now while the US President harps about the birds, the bees, and skin.

Third, we come to that elite group of high tech workers who, just like Snowden and Obama—we hope—have security clearances. Even in 2011, the Washington Post's research revealed that enough security clearances had been issued to cover nearly the entire population of Washington, DC. That report, described in "Checkpoint Washington," admitted: "The official count is so much greater than previous estimates that it caught security experts off-guard."

Across the board, this fall-out of the computer revolution seems to have occurred without America's leaders recognizing its consequences. Computer users should also now define the largest voting block in this country, and they are ripe for some smart politicians' plucking. Can America ever stop fighting the last war, and get onto current challenges? Technology unites, threatens, and characterizes our everyday life. The high tech wars have started, and America is right in the middle of them. Where oh where is Obama?

For further reading:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teachers and Terror Part 3

Teachers and Terror Part 3

by Meg Curtis, PhD

Fast forward that initial experience with German to the next year, when I studied Italian. Then, once again, I was lost without my GPS unit, which hadn't even been invented yet. Once again, my Italian professor outdid my linguistic knowledge, which is exactly the way it is supposed to be for students. He smiled because he knew his class was terrified to open their mouths and expose their ignorance.

This time around, my experience was more devastating to my ego, if such a calamity is possible—and it is. Now, with five years of Latin to my credit, I kept speaking Italian with a Latin accent, as if I were singing in a church choir, instead of ordering an elegant meal in Rome, where he took Italian majors, to test their mastery of the spoken language. The Italian majors smiled; I wanted to cry.

Of course, with a year of German under my achievement belt, my ego thought it was prepared to be decimated, as I struggled to announce my name, and utter, "Ciao!"--as if six years of foreign language study rendered me a veteran of the language wars. Instead, German had entered my subconscious with its reverse word order. I thought in Latin, reversed in German, and stuttered in Italian!

Somehow, the music of Italian entranced me, nevertheless. I began to take pride in developing the accent of Roman Italian. If I couldn't say much, I could say it right nonetheless! I began to dream of visiting the Sistine Chapel, of understanding what Michelangelo meant when he said: "Those who love do not sleep." I researched his art, and discovered that he wrote poetry, too!

By the end of that second year of modern foreign language study, I had not gotten German out of my head, but I had developed enough courage to risk saying, "Buongiorno!" I had even begun to imagine that my mind could indeed master more than one or even two code systems. What I had not even begun to guess was that I had laid the foundation for research across literature from Dante back to Beowulf.

I could even sit in an Italian opera without keeping my eyes glued to the translation screens. I could enter into the drama of the music, and experience the glory of Italian tenors, as if they were singing right to me! When I saw Placido Domingo in person years later at the Metropolitan Opera, I wanted to race right up to him and declare: "Buona sera!" Where had my terror gone?

My terror was gone with my assumption that the human mind is shackled to one language like a woolly mammoth frozen in ice. My mind had begun to dance! If my feet could cha-cha, rumba, and mambo, so my brain could follow any routine that a language system laid out. It was true, as one English professor said: "Newborns can speak all the languages in the world!" And there I was with every dictionary before me.

Teachers and Terror Part 2

Teachers and Terror Part 2

by Meg Curtis, PhD

No one in that German class was more confused than I was. After five years of Latin, I thought in Latin. I translated English into Latin and Latin into English with a confidence born of daily assignments and weekly memorization of passages from Virgil, starting with 12 lines and working up to 24 lines. I was a linguistic ace; I knew my Latin backwards and forwards, but I didn't know German worth spit.

When the semester started, I was so lost that I couldn't have found my ego with a GPS unit or the help of the NSA. I whined my way from my dormitory to that German class, and started talking to myself. Finally, I heard myself whining, and it actually sounded funny. There I was at a first-rate college, and all I could do was complain. Suddenly it dawned on me: Every language is a new code system.

Every language required me to realize that I was a beginner, no matter how smart or accomplished I was. Once my brain accepted that fact, I got down to business. Out came my 3" by 5" cards, every single one decorated with a word on the front, and a definition on the back. Those cards went with me wherever I went: to the dining hall, the shower, even into phone booths. German became my constant companion.

After a single year of German, I knew that I wasn't an ace yet, but I had absorbed the most important lesson I would ever learn as a student: The pursuit of knowledge turns all of us into beginners. The pursuit of truth is even more challenging. My German professor displayed rare wit when she evaluated my German essay: "You grasp literature, but your grammar is metaphysical," she said with a smile.

Truer words were never spoken. I had tortured and twisted German grammar to convey the meanings in a work of German literature which I could discern but barely explain. That professor not only read my German essay; she even read my mind. She knew I was a poet. She even probably knew that I would write this tribute to the German lioness who revealed to me the German base of the English language. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Teachers and Terror Part 1

Teachers and Terror Part 1

by Meg Curtis, PhD

My favorite German professor was a terror. She came at a class like a martial artist. We trembled in her classroom because we knew it was her dojun—her gymnasium, her kingdom. She always located our points of ignorance and struck intellectually like a hammer hand splitting a block of concrete.

We knew we were dumb as sticks, and that recognition was simply honest. This professor had left us bereft of her wisdom for six weeks while she buried her father in the Father Land. Until she returned, her replacements suffered by comparison. They were "nice." They were "pleasant." They were weak. We stayed dumb.

When she returned, she had six more weeks to whip us into shape. She began by forbidding us to speak any language except German in her hearing. We stumbled over our "der's" and "du's," but obeyed her orders because second semester followed first, and we could not proceed to writing without grammar.

She sounds ruthless and cruel, but her method worked. As she stalked back and forth before the class, we waited for her to initiate conversation with each one of us. One by one, we received her individual attention in the form of a question in German requiring an answer in German. If we failed to reply, she ridiculed us in German.

Can you see us sitting there, decreasing our self-esteem, and ramming our learning pedal to the floor? Can you see us passing our grammar tests after just six weeks? Can you see us writing a 500 word essay—all in German—the next semester? Then you can see what we learned: We feared being ignorant, for it really, really hurt.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Edward Snowden and English Classes for the DOS

Edward Snowden and English Classes for the DOS

by Meg Curtis, PhD

American rhetoric needs an upgrade in the Edward Snowden dilemma. The US continues to argue that foreign countries should return this man to his home country, like some runaway Huckleberry Finn. Too often, the American media refers to him as a high school drop-out, even though the best sources insist that Snowden completed his GED, took college courses, and studied foreign languages.

Does no one realize that attempts to downgrade Snowden's qualifications reveal the most superficial understanding of the modern technical workforce? This impression is reinforced by recommendations to have employees watch each other in the future, and report abberant behavior to superiors. All such suggestions underscore this fact: technical workers know more about the US security system than POTUS.

Meanwhile, the US insists that Snowden damaged US security, even while expecting countries--which it also insists benefited from Snowden's release of intelligence data--to return their accused benefactor to his home base. Do we have this straight? His beneficiaries should act contrary to their own interests, as described by the US government, and punish him for—according to the US--benefiting them?

This argument would not receive a passing grade in any competent freshman English class. First, it is circular, which is a major rhetorical fallacy, a flaw in logical thinking. Second, it violates the most basic relationship between a speaker and his/her audience. Memo to the DOS: Do NOT ask a foreign country to violate its own interests without a reward or benefit. Do NOT ask Americans to ignore ignorance.

So, who is the audience of the US position on Edward Snowden? The most obvious answer appears to be the media—if it chooses to repeat claims without questions. If journalists do ask thoughtful questions, will they end up like James Rosen, the Fox News Washington Correspondent harassed by the DOJ? Mindless repetition would be the safe choice, wouldn't it? So, is the poor quality of journalism here the result of fear? 

For further reading:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Doctors, Hands, and English Dreams

Doctors, Hands, and English Dreams

by Meg Curtis, PhD

The finest neurologist I ever met didn't major in Biology as an undergraduate. Why? I wondered. "Because healing depends on communication," he explained. "I can't treat patients successfully unless I know where they hurt—and why. My skill as a physician depends on my communication skills exceeding theirs, whoever they are, and I don't get to pick and choose who walks into my office. It might be a clerk, an engineer, or a writer."

As a writer, I didn't expect this tribute to my field coming from a scientist, but he assured me that he'd never regretted his academic foundation. In fact, he'd just sent his child off to Northern Ireland to study English there, too. She'd gone to study literature, and found a man on every street corner with a rifle. That's where language study leads: to every corner of culture, and, by traveling through language, she knew what to expect.

Since I am a writer, this physician had his hands full with me. Doctors have misdiagnosed me as a patient so many times that I introduce myself pointedly: "Hello, Doctor, I'm Doctor Curtis. I do appendices, instead of appendixes. How are you?" While the physician diagnoses me, I'm diagnosing him, too. If s/he laughs at my joke, I know the condition of his sense of humor, as well as his vocabulary and his susceptibility to defensive states of mind.

This one knew just what to say: "Oh, you're a doctor of English! How lucky! Then, I don't have to explain my treatment plans at great length. You're accustomed to looking for clues, and grasping quickly how significant the smallest details can be." We chatted along comfortably as he tested my hands for carpal tunnel syndrome. He stuck pins in my skin, but I barely noticed because he successfully distracted me with areodite references to poetry and drama.

He proved a quick learner, and didn't argue when I raised a point because he knew automatically that I'd argue right back: that's my training. He was the perfect doctor for me, and had come highly recommended by a co-worker whose grandfather was a PhD, too. The result was we agreed: surgery was the last remedy. If physical therapy proved successful, I would be on the road to recovery within weeks. It did. He is the reason I have my hands back today with no scars from his treatment.

So, he proved the essential lesson that every physician must learn first: Do no harm. He also impressed me with the wisdom of his practice. He chose to talk first, and knife a patient later—and only when necessary. He didn't knife me in either the front or back. He escorted me out of his office, and onto the life I wouldn't have discovered without him. This is what can happen when science and art collaborate. Maybe he was A Midsummer-Night's Dream. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lyrica Ad Captures US Nerve Pain

Lyrica Ad Captures US Nerve Pain

by Meg Curtis, PhD

An advertisement on TNT for Lyrica diabetic nerve pain medication proves how artful commercials can be. How did its creators time this masterpiece to coincide with the NERVE PAIN experienced by the US government? Edward Snowden had the nerve to report unlimited snooping by the NSA on both American friends and competitors for respect and power in the international arena. Immediately, the US experienced the pain described in the advertisement.

In this brief drama, a middle-aged woman announces her suffering with just the right pause before the critical phrase: "diabetic nerve pain." She is a familiar figure, who might be viewers' relative or neighbor. With her chubby cheeks and white sneakers, she implicity asks for our sympathy and reports the relief she experiences by taking Lyrica, as advised by her wonderful doctor. She pauses emphatically every time she speaks those lyrical words: "diabetic nerve pain."

Yes, the US government appears to have a problem adusting its sugar level, too. Does this suffering drive its leaders into a coma, where they claim they can't remember what they did or when they did it? Will their suffering be alleviated by dragging some Clinton or another out to claim: "What does it matter?" or "I feel your pain"? Dump all the sugar you want on the Edward Snowden catastrophe, and America still has one awful headache.

The worse part is that, simultaneously, viewers can't wait for the next dump of sugar into the media, claiming US intentions were only for the safety of their citizens when they intruded on every kingdom in the world—and US citizens find themselves experiencing new stress, for which Lyrica is the wrong medication. Will Obamacare provide the solution for this deeply internal conflict? Do its adminstrative categories include "Headache" and "Sugar, Sugar"?

That R and B classic might inspire exercise, like practice walking to the ballot box with too much on our minds. The happy woman in the advertisement describes the symptom we should watch for: "the buzzing of bees" in the feet. Unfortunately, she's not the only one to suffer initially from some disaster or other during the current siege of scandals in the US. Too many bees are still turning up dead. Song-and-dance routines didn't help them either, but exercise remains free and cheap. 

The Edward Snowden Affair: A PR Disaster

The Edward Snowden Affair: A PR Disaster

by Meg Curtis, PhD

Why does the US bother pursuing Edward Snowden? Do American officials really expect any country besides the UK to turn him over for providing proof of their nightmares? He's even causing paranoia in the states for verifying that it isn't enough for the IRS to grab all US citizens' medical data under Obamacare. Now, the NSA won't be satisfied unless it has access to all our communications, too.

Is it clear at last why the US Congress gets absolutely nothing done? Maybe they just can't wait to consult with security agents about our calling patterns? Were we calling democrats or republicans? Did we buy products from democrats or republicans? Did our children ever contact Tea Party members to complain about Mom and Dad's nonconformist ideas? Worse yet, did we ever invite Tea Party members over for Tea and Sympathy?

If you could catch Edward right now for raising these concerns to public attention, would you incarcerate him forever? Well, consider China's and Russia's dilemma. Are they likely to turn Edward in either for revealing that while Obama sat there with heads of state, expecting them to apologize for intruding upon US security, all along his administration had the drop on all of them? And maybe the UK would like to explain why it's so hot to catch the boy, too?

In the current environment of Snooping and Subterfuge, the only reason that comes to mind for the UK's enthusiasm for this game of Catch and Carry is that they must have more to lose than gain, too, from exposure. Do we wish that this embarrassment had never happened? From the point of view of respect for the US, sure. But what is left of respect when the only thing that American citizens can do without government intrusion is to confess: I swear, I had nothing to do with this.

If they make this confession on Facebook, of course it will be recorded, for future reference. If they make this confession in an email, will The Watchers feel obliged to report that somebody's showing unpatriotic leanings? How do we serve a government that's more concerned with our business than its own? And how does any country ally with the US when the US insists on knowing more about it than its own government does? It's hard being friends with anyone who doesn't trust YOU. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is This A Drone?

Is This A Drone?

By Meg Curtis, PhD

The question never occurred to me until I saw this:  
Photo by Meg Curtis, PhD

Now, my experience of the American Fantasia will never be the same. Is it a plane? It cannot be Superman; he doesn't wear white, and he was a comic book character. No photos of whiteflies or mayflies match this image, which I captured with my cell phone camera in Dunkirk, New York, in early June. The creature was tiny; I had to be almost on top of it to record its presence on a window pane.

My mind was swarming with buttercups and dandelions. Indian paint brush and mushroom fairy circles were sprouting in every lawn. Red-winged blackbirds were jousting with crows for real estate rights. Fat chick-a-dees were hustling me for food with loud songs carrying throughout my residence. The avian version of Planned Parenthood was extremely busy. Housing and Biology consumed Nature.

Suddenly, this creature appeared, just weeks before the latest announcement of scientific simulations. The title apparently describes a creation much like the one on the window: "Newly developed micro robot bird able to perform reconnaissance, surveillance." The curious can follow the full details of the "robot bird" here: A surveillance mechanism would be likely to pose on windows, too.

As if that announcement were not sufficient to make me wonder what I was seeing, "The FBI has admitted it sometimes uses aerial surveillance drones over US soil, and suggested further political debate and legislation to govern their domestic use may be necessary," as reported by the UK Guardian at Well, one way or another, some white-winged creature is observing humans inside their dwellings, and nobody that I know gave permission for it to sit on windows here.

Paranoia may seem funny until it's you and an unidentified flying object perching where it has no warrant to be. Once upon a time—yesterday, maybe!-- dragonflies were clearly not after me. The flapping bread-and-butterflies of Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland were looking for flowers, not Alice, and Alice was not suspected of Un-American activities. Wasn't she a British citizen, after all? Uh-Oh! The UK has not escaped US surveillance, either, if Edward Snowden is to be believed. 

Now, do you know if that famous rabbit-hole is bugged? You can't shrink a white rabbit to the size of a mayfly, can you? Is this the American Dream now—a cartoon with creatures who once knew where they belonged? 

How to Fuel Fascism

How to Fuel Fascism

by Meg Curtis. PhD

     The intense cinematic masterpiece Keeper of the 

Flame came out in 1943, two years after the United 

States entered World War II. The quality of the acting 

and directing may distract viewers from the startling 

timeline which research inspired by this movie launches 

upon contemporary developments.

     One website remedies this oversight: 

A time-line of World War II at http://www.scaruffi. 

com/politics/wwii.html. Immediately, it becomes 

apparent that WWII crept upon the world like a 

centipede, crawling mercilessly over people's minds. 

Before they knew it, it seemed, Japan had bombed Pearl 

Harbor, and Britain and the US had returned the favor, 

declaring war together on 8/12/1941. Then, both sides 

engaged: On 11/12/1941, Germany and Italy declared war 

on the USA.

     This timeline reveals more, though, than the 

onslaught of creeping military machines. Lo and behold! 

The very same countries and locations keep appearing 

like that infamous phrase "de ja vue." Read it carefully. 

Not only do the US and Britain keep popping up along 

with Germany and Japan, but also Hong Kong, Syria, the 

Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, Greece, and Africa. Like 

forgetful tourists, why do we not recognize the scenery 

and the long hard trek so many nations made before?

     While the media have been blabbing about 

celebrities, plastic surgery, sex changes, drugs, and 

marriages of various kinds, history has been teaching us 

a lesson we apparently skipped while American leaders 

demonstrate again that they don't like war. Is that news? 

Meanwhile, that ferocious timeline keeps crawling 

forward like the machines described so lyrically in The 

Red Badge of Courage, America's monument to its own 

brutal Civil War.

     Read the timeline. Then, read it again. It begins with 

these immortal words: "1933: Students of the University 

of Berlin burn thousands of books by Jewish authors." 

So, where did we ever get the idea that students were 

heroes for being anti-war activists? Where did we get 

the idea that Jews constituted only a race despised by 

Hitler? Those ideas come from propaganda which erases 


     The famous Three R's may be outdated. Maybe it's 

time for the Three S's: Sit down, Shut up, and Study. 

When we get the facts right, maybe we can recognize the 

forces whirling us around like flotsam and jetsam on the 

currents of power—which misuse the ignorant every 

time they can. As the wounded accumulate, it is too late 

to say: "I'm sorry. I overslept that day when the teacher 

covered World War II—and I really had to send a text 

message to my friends." 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Three Green Ones, Red Herrings, and Fascist Rhetoric ((0) (0))*

by Meg Curtis, PhD

In undergraduate student government meetings, the future club women of America always loved to play their jokes. To control discussions, they always yelled: "Three green ones!" This strategy served as a prank, and those attending broke out laughing. "Three green ones" served as the classic demonstration of the red herring fallacy, defined as follows to this day in Wikipedia:

"Red herring– argument given in response to another argument, which is irrelevant and draws attention away from the subject of argument"

Now, on the national stage, we see this strategy playing out every day. While the US budget, deficit, and jobs demand solutions, politicians keep harping on a single subject, known to trigger lock-step reactions, even though 2013 is not 1963, and the nation has gone from laughing to growing frustration because "three green ones"--no matter the trigger word—distract citizens from TCB.

The original prank caused laughter since it provided a sure test of who had mastered English Composition and who had not. The A caliber students hooted at the hoodwinkers who tried to control discussion with irrelevancies. Their purpose was just to interrupt, if they could, and drive the D students, who never recognized what was happening, out of their blinking minds.

This strategy, requiring recognition of rhetorical errors, becomes a game of tag when the population takes the study of English seriously. When they don't, absolutely nothing is accomplished in government or anywhere else. So, we are left to inquire: Why are politicians harping on computers and body parts when the national debate proves that English Studies are critical to democracy?

The latest prank of this kind occurred on June 18 when an Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania threw "whiteness" into the fray. Deficits accumulate, and the clock is running down. Voters need to grab their English Composition texts. English professors know how to use red herrings. Do voters know how to get budgets moving?

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* A New Rolling Eyes Column!