Why “Literally” Normally Means “Not Literally”

Not LiterallyIf there is one “misuse” of a word that is likely to make a grammar pedant go crazy, it is the use of “literally” to mean “not literally”: figuratively or metaphorically. But like with most things about pedants, they are wrong. For the millionth time, grammar is a way to understand how language works. It is not a way of constraining it. Grammar snobs are ridiculous in the same way that physicists would be who complain that relativistic mechanics doesn’t act the way that Newton’s theory does. But grammar snobs can get away with this because most people don’t understand that grammar is a model and not a definition.

But if you were to click over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and look at the entry for “literally,” you would notice something interesting. The first definition of the word is, “in a literal sense or manner: actually.” But the second definition of the word is, “in effect: virtually.” Now I should be clear: I try very hard to never use “literally” in the second sense. I like words to be clean. And I definitely don’t like to get into arguments (or cabs, elevators, or even really city blocks) with grammar pedants. They’re just exhausting.

There is something weird about the word “literally,” though. It’s kind of useless. Is it ever necessary to say, “He was standing literally in front of me?” About the only time the word is useful is as in, “He took my exaggeration literally.” And it just isn’t used that way very much. So there’s another reason not to use word. It is very rarely necessary. It just stands in the way of communicating what you want to say. But there is a reason that people use the word so much, and it isn’t unjustified.

“Literally” is mostly used as an intensifier: a word meant to add force to whatever is near it. So just as someone might say, “He was really big,” they might also say, “He was literally a giant.” Used in this way, those who “misuse” the word are actually right. Because if the man was André the Giant, it would be redundant to say that he was literally a giant; he was just a giant — it’s in the name. It’s little wrinkles like this that the grammar snobs almost never think about. But I don’t suppose it greatly matters.

But this explains why it is that the second definition of “literally” is the more common one. It isn’t a very useful word in its “correct” form. People love intensifiers — especially in spoken form. Note the extreme popularity of “fucking” used in this context. In fact, with minor syntactical changes, it can generally be used to replace “literally” in a sentence when it is used this way. But what the grammar pedants need to understand is that most of the time when they use literally “correctly” they are being redundant. And that is an even bigger sin than using literally in a way that literally everyone understands.

The Scandalization of Bravery

Paul GlastrisWhy are conservatives so obsessed with Benghazi? The conventional view is that they see it as a great weapon against Hillary Clinton, and that’s certainly true. Seven bipartisan inquiries, including one by the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee, have together debunked every single accusation that there was some kind of scandal associated with the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US staff members in Libya in 2012 — for instance, that the administration issued a “stand down” order that kept US military from sending in a rescue team. Yet an eighth investigation, by the Select Committee on Benghazi, grinds on.

In June, the committee spent a day grilling the journalist and former Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. The purported subject of the hearing was a series of emails about Benghazi that Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton, a personal friend, when she was secretary of state. The committee session quickly devolved into a political fishing expedition, with Republicans posing more than 160 questions about Blumenthal’s relationship and communications with the Clintons, more than fifty about the Clinton Foundation, and only four about security in Benghazi. The committee looks also to be the source behind The New York Times’ catastrophically inaccurate front-page story in July alleging a criminal referral to the Department of Justice about Clinton and her emails. The committee’s leader, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, has said that the committee’s report won’t be completed until (surprise, surprise) 2016, in the middle of the presidential race. In the rich history of Washington scandal mongering, we have seen few investigations more cynical and nihilistic than this one.

Still, I don’t think naked political expediency sufficiently explains the bottomless well of outrage that Benghazi has stirred up among base Republican voters. To understand that, I think you have to go back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Those who lived through that era can recall not just the nail-biting drama of those 444 days but also the sense of national effrontery — Ted Koppel’s famous nightly ABC News show about the crisis was tellingly entitled America Held Hostage.

The hostage crisis had three lasting effects. First, because it happened on Jimmy Carter’s watch, in the midst of a presidential race, and ended at the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, the crisis validated Republicans’ inner sense that they and only they could be trusted to protect America’s security. Second, the crisis turned the general subject of the safety of US diplomats into a political and ideological issue in a way it never had been. In the eleven years prior to the hostage crisis, five US ambassadors were murdered by militants and terrorists in places like Lebanon, Guatemala, and the Sudan. None of those losses, which occurred under presidents of both parties, was seen by the public or in Washington as a grievous insult to America generally, or through a partisan filter, or as evidence of systematic failure by the US government requiring root-to-branch investigations with presumptions of perfidy at the top. Rather, they were treated the same way Chris Stevens’s murder (the first of a US ambassador since 1979) should be seen: as brave diplomats killed in the line of duty.

The third effect of the hostage crisis was to make politicians and the State Department so paranoid about security that they turned US embassies into fortresses and put tight restrictions on the movement of staff. This has certainly saved American lives. But it’s also made it much harder for our diplomats to do their jobs — a point that the foreign correspondent and former Washington Monthly editor Robert Worth made in The New York Times Magazine in 2012. As a foreign correspondent myself in the mid-1990s I remember senior US foreign service officers expressing envy at my ability to travel to wherever the action was and interview people — an absolutely vital way of learning what’s happening on the ground that they could no longer do without heavy security, or, in many cases, at all. A reporter friend of mine in Sarajevo in 1995 who later served as a USAID officer in Pakistan used to complain to me that he felt like a prisoner in the embassy in Islamabad, unable, really, to do his job effectively.

Ambassadors make the calls on diplomatic security matters in their domains, so they have more leeway to decide where, when, and how they travel. But the pressure on them from their staffs and Washington not to take chances is intense.

Chris Stevens famously pushed back against that pressure in 2011 when, as US envoy to Libya, he was the US government’s main interlocutor to the rebels who ultimately overthrew Moammar Ghadhafi. Stevens, who spoke the Libyan dialect of Arabic, lived openly in Benghazi with minimal security. His actions during that period became legendary among US diplomats. It was an act of patriotic bravery, repeated a year later when, as ambassador, he returned to Benghazi, knowing as well as anyone the poor security situation there. We need more Chris Stevenses in our diplomatic corps. The Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to make sure we have fewer, even if that isn’t their intention.

—Paul Glastris
The Scandalization of Bravery…

Labor Day 2015

[I wrote this last year for Labor Day. And I think it is great. If you didn’t read it then, you really should read it now. It tells the history of the holiday and about the people who suffered so we could all enjoy it. -FM]

Happy Labor Day!Happy labor day, comrades! Do you know why labor day is today and not on May Day — International Workers’ Day? Well, it’s because of the commies and anarchists. President Grover Cleveland was afraid of associating the international worker movements with the American movements. Of course, Cleveland wasn’t all that keen on the labor movement. But he made Labor Day a national holiday! Why? Because he was trying to make nice after totally screwing up in the government’s response to the Pullman Strike.

This is an interesting but totally typical story. The Pullman Company made railroad cars. Following the Panic of 1893, Pullman lowered worker wages. There is nothing especially wrong with this. It can be much better than laying workers off. Of course, Pullman did lay off workers. It probably only lowered wages because it had an excuse. But all that was probably okay.

The problem was that the workers lived in a company town. They paid the company for rent and food and more. But when the company lowered wages, it did not lower the cost it was charging workers for their necessities. The workers were, not surprisingly, unhappy about this situation. But George Pullman refused to lower his company town prices and refused to even arbitrate the matter.

Eugene DebsNotice the situation here: Pullman thought that his workers should suffer because of the bad economic conditions. But he didn’t think he should suffer at all. During the first years following our financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, there was endless repetition that what the country needed was “shared sacrifice.” But if you dug down even a little into these pleas, you saw that it was all sacrifice by the lower classes — none by the upper. For example: we heard constantly that we had to cut Social Security, but we couldn’t even mention raising the payroll tax cap. (That would be class warfare!) The bankers were bailed out without much fuss but homeowners were just left to their foreclosures. And there were large cuts to social programs but only a tiny increase in the very top marginal tax rate and only because it was going up anyway.

More desperate than we are today, many of the workers joined Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union (ARU). And they went on strike. It got ugly. Union members eventually stopped railroad service in a number of places. Then Grover Cleveland used the interruption of mail delivery to justify sending in federal troops. This did eventually end the strike — at a loss of 30 striker lives and almost twice as many wounded. This is generally the way it goes.

The government does not like organized labor. It is too much of a threat to the status quo. When organized, workers have enormous power. That was why, in 1947, we got the Taft–Hartley Act, which outlawed “jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, closed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns.” And after that, Reagan savaged unions and basically made the remaining union rights void through lack of enforcement.

Grover ClevelandIn 1894, of course, the government was scared. Grover Cleveland and the rest of the government wanted to make nice with organized labor. They probably had Louis XVI of France in mind and were trying to hedge their bets. So only six days after the strike ended, Cleveland signed the legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday.

As for old George Pullman, well, a national commission was appointed to look into the causes of the strike. It found Pullman culpable and said his company town was “un-American.” In 1898, the company was forced to sell off the land, which became part of Chicago. It didn’t matter to George Pullman, however; he died the year before.

After the strike, Debs was arrested and charged with conspiracy to obstruct the mail. You know: it wasn’t enough to have your strike crushed; Debs was a little man and so the government needed to crush him too. But Debs was represented by one of the great heroes of that period: Clarence Darrow. Darrow argued that Debs didn’t conspire to do anything and that it was the railroad that conspired against the workers. This is something that doesn’t seem to be understood by my libertarian enemies who almost to a man hate unions: if workers aren’t able to organize, it isn’t fair; the company management is very organized.

The prosecutors saw they were going to lose the case, so they dropped the conspiracy charge. Debs was later convicted on the lesser charge of violating a Supreme Court injunction and was given six months in jail. Although he entered jail what we might call a liberal, he left a socialist. While in prison he read a whole bunch of Marx and that changed his outlook. He was also influenced by visits from Victor L Berger. Along with him and others, Debs founded the Social Democratic Party of America. He went on to run for president as a socialist five times — the last time in 1920, he did from prison. He was serving a ten year sentence for violating Obama’s favorite law, the Espionage Act of 1917. He violated it by giving a speech that “obstructed recruiting” for World War I.

In 1921, The Bridgemen’s Magazine wrote:

Labor Day evolved from the aspiration of the labor movement; it was not handed down as a present. Its recognition as a legal holiday was won by labor: it was not given as a present.

So enjoy your Labor Day. But don’t forget the suffering and loss that it represents. And don’t stand for people like Eric Cantor showing such great disrespect to it. We know conservatives hate the labor movement. We know that many so called liberals are at best apathetic towards the labor movement. But the least we can demand is that they all show a modicum of respect one day of the year. Now go enjoy your barbecue or whatever.

Morning Music: Head and Heart

Bless the Weather - John MartynAs we explore the music of John Martyn, I figure we should skip past his fine work with his wife Beverley Martyn to what is kind of the real beginning of his career, Bless the Weather. He really expanded on this album. For one thing, he has a full French jazz kind of band. It is still focused on his amazing guitar work. But his singing became more jazzy too.

This is how I discovered Martyn. Off the second America album, Homecoming, they did his song “Head and Heart.” And even at the time, I thought it by far the best thing on the album. So in later years, I looked into him. Sadly, all I have is another album cut for this one. But I promise you a live performance tomorrow. In addition to everything else, check out the amazing guitar work at the end of the song:

Anniversary Post: Pope Boniface VIII’s Arrest

Pope Boniface VIIIOn this day in 1303, Pope Boniface VIII was taken prisoner by King Philip IV of France. There, he was beaten almost to death. He died three days after his release just a month later.

So what was up with that? Well, Boniface had this theory that since everyone’s salvation depended upon the Catholic Church, everyone needed to be subordinate to it — and thus him. And this wasn’t some “kingdom of God” sort of thing. He was actively involved in foreign affairs. So Philip had him arrested for sodomy. That was pretty much Philip’s default charge against his enemies. He probably thought it was something that everyone was guilty of anyway. The truth is that under some definitions of sodomy, masturbation and sex with condoms qualify.

What’s more interesting is that Dante threw Boniface into hell in The Divine Comedy. Since it was set in 1300 — three years before Boniface died. We simply learn that, yeah, the old bastard is coming to the eighth circle of hell for the sin of simony. That’s the selling of church titles. There is no doubt that Boniface was guilty of that charge. It would be damned hard to find a pope of that time who didn’t.

Still, was Boniface a terrible pope? By the standards of the time? Well, he did massacre the entire town of Palestrina just because he was pissed off at one family. But it is important to remember that this isn’t what got him in trouble. What can I say? It was a time when being a pope meant something!