American Bigotry: 1832, 2018

Just a note, in case you’re interested: On this date in 1832, virulently racist President Andrew Jackson named Elbert Herring the first commissioner of the recently reorganized Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Freshly incorporated into the War Department, this newly emboldened agency soon enacted, at Jackson’s specific request, the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from their rightful land, leading to the Trail of Tears. This wasn’t the first time Indians would be kicked off their land, nor would it be the last, but it was the largest such event of its kind, and the most brutal: an estimated 2,500-6,000 died as they were shoved west and involuntarily settled on reservations.

On a related note: Donald Trump cites Jackson as an inspiration. Could Jackson’s anti-Indian attitudes be inspiring the current president’s use of ICE to round up and detain Mexican immigrants, even those who are already naturalized citizens?

“Join, or Die:” America’s First Meme

Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 version of the iconic reptile.

The “Join, or Die” snake is one of America’s most recognizable, beloved and replicated icons. Emblazoned on flags and t-shirts, pillow cases and iPhone cases, and even on tv show title cards and in comic books, the image is upheld today as a both specifically as an emblem of American independence, and generally as bid for unity against a common oppression. But the world’s most adored reptile didn’t start this way.

Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the “Join, or Die” snake originally signified loyalty to the English empire. It wasn’t a call to action, but an order to fall into line. It was only later that “Join, or Die” evolved into a revolutionary rallying cry — and when it did, it became America’s first meme, too.

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Fun with Words: Feckless is So Hot Right Now

The word “feckless” has been cropping up a lot as of late.

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt deployed it in a recent denouncement of the Republican Party’s devolution into a Trumpian cult: “[The GOP] is filled with feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonor the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.” Kathy Griffin used the f-word when taking Melania Trump to task for not standing up more to her bully bigot husband: “You know damn well your husband can end this [child separation] immediately… you feckless, complicit piece of shit.”  And Samantha Bee employed “feckless” with aplomb when she famously and controversially called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” *

That said, today’s Fun with Words explores the etymological origins of “feckless,” which today is primarily used to mean “weak” or “worthless,” “ineffective” and “impotent.” And that’s pretty much what it’s always meant, ever since its arrival on the linguistic scene in the 1590s, when Scottish vernacular truncated “effect” to form “feck,” meaning, “vigor, effect or value.” Used in a sentence: “Ivanka Trump is a valueless [noun of choice here].”

“Feckless” should not be confused with Irish “feck,” a milder form of “fuck.”

It’s worth noting: The Online Etymology Dictionary says that though the term’s been around since the late-sixteenth century, it was popularized in the mid-nineteenth, due to Thomas Carlyle’s penchant for using it. He wrote in 1823, for example, “I am so feckless at present that I have never yet had the heart to commence it.” He was also apparently quite fond of “feckless’” opposite, “feckful,” which has since fallen out of use.

*Also, as an aside The Etymology Dictionary entry on “cunt” is one of the longest I’ve ever seen. The first usage apparently dates back to 1230, and referred to a prostitution track called gropecuntlane, a location name that speaks volumes about how women have been treated throughout history. (It’s also very Trumpian…)

Cunt subsequently used to varying degrees throughout Europe, often with different apparent origins — wedge, hollow place, just woman — but always with the same rough meaning. It wasn’t until the 1600s that people started taking offense to it. And clearly opinion remains divided today: obviously some really don’t like it, as seen in outrage of Bee’s usage, while others are firmly in Sally Field’s camp:

Here, here!

Fun with Words: Trump and Obstruction

This semi-regular feature, Fun with Words (aka Etymological Adventures), has previously explored the linguistic roots of collusion, a word with which we’re all familiar due to – well, you know: Donald Trump and his constellation of cronies’ shady dealings. Today we’ll briefly explore another once-rarish term that Trump’s thrust into our everyday usage, collusion’s cousin by association: obstruction.

Born from the Latin word, obstructionem, itself the offspring of Ob, Latin for “in front of,” and the verb strurer, for “to pile or build,” the term “obstruction” emerged in English around the 1530s, and translated literally into “building up” or “creating a barrier” – a barrier like a wall, which, as we all know, real estate mogul Trump wants to make literal at the Mexican border.

In the meantime, Trump’s busying himself building a rhetorical wall against justice, a barrier built through lies and coercion, through acts like intervening in the Michael Flynn case; firing James Comey over his refusal to intervene in said case; drafting a faux narrative for Donald Trump Jr. to regurgitate vis a vis his meeting with Russians; Trump’s recent politicized demands that the DOJ investigate the FBI; and let’s not forget the barriers created by Trump’s unsubtle attacks on people involved in these investigations, not least of all against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has tried to influence by warning him not to nose around his personal finances…. All of this and more builds up a wall of lies and obfuscation that is the very definition of obstruction.

Perhaps one day truth, justice and karma will tear down that wall, burying Trump in a mess of his own making.

(For more Fun with Words, click here!)

Meghan Markle Tops Donald Trump

An estimated 29 million Americans tuned in early Saturday morning to watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry. That’s about 5 million more than in England itself, and about six million more Americans than who watched Will and Kate Middleton marry seven years ago.

Why did so many more viewers tune in to this wedding versus the last? Are there more televisions now than there were then? Is it that we love Harry more than Will; because we’re all fans of Suits, the show on which Markle starred; or is it because Meghan’s biracial and her entry into the British royal family is a watershed historical moment?

Sure, all of that makes sense, but it seems to me that so many Americans are enthusiastic about Meghan Markle becoming the Duchess of Sussex because we like seeing a polished and seemingly empathetic American representing us on the international stage. With the buffoon president’s steady stream of racist, hateful rhetoric, general dishonesty and pungent nastiness sullying our national name, it’s nice to have an American standing with/for dignity and grace —and not just an American, but a biracial woman whose path — and the once-stodgy royal family’s embrace of — is the emotional and sociopolitical opposite of all President Trump represents.

Meghan Markle is the face of America’s future; Donald Trump and his reactionary racism are its past.

(PS: I was going to have a photo of Trump next to fresh-faced Markle for juxtaposition purposes, but it just didn’t feel right having his ugly mug next to such beauty.)

Third Time a Charm for Selma March, 1965

On this date in 1965, 53 years ago, 8,000 people set out from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to protest ongoing suppression of the black vote, violence against black people and the general racism of American society. This was their third attempt at such a march.

The first planned launch, led by current Congressman John Lewis, on March 7, came to a horrifying end when horse-mounted police and regular old racists blocked their path at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, beating 600 or so protesters with nightsticks, fists and boots, an attack that left dozens injured, including a young woman named Amelia Boynton, whose unconscious body became emblematic of the injustice happening down south. The event was immediately dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”

The second go, two days later, on March 9, was truncated due to a court order: a judge was still considering the protesters’ routes and the organizing organizations, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King Jr., agreed to stop short of the county line, turning back right before the spot where previous incident unfolded. This event became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”

Yet even this small show of black resistance to overwhelming racism enraged hateful white folk, including a mob that beat Jacob Reeb to death, an incident that only drew more attention to the terror in the Heart of Dixie.

Thus, even more people, about 8,000, turned out at the start of the next planned march, on the 21st, gathering as a powerful mass as they took off behind Lewis, Dr. King, and others from Selma on their four-day journey to Montgomery, by which point their numbers had swelled to 25,000. And no longer were these just student and religious protesters — they now had President Johnson’s blessing. Supportive before, Johnson was appalled by Bloody Sunday and vowed not only to get a Voting Rights Act passed, but sent personal representatives to Alabama to make sure the next Selma march went off without a hitch.

Today, with a president who pals around with white supremacists, defends neo-Nazis and who has exhibited time and time again he has no respect for people of color, it’s important to remember that even in the face of state-sponsored violence and terroristic threats, Americans who believe in equality will keep coming back, fighting and marching, raising fists and holding placards, until the injustice is undone.

Remember that, Donald Trump: no matter how much fear and loathing you try to churn, Americans who support truth and justice will always win. It may take some time, but the end result will be the same: hateful people such as you and your allies will end up on the wrong side of history. How “Sad!” for you.

Freedom of Information Day, Now and Forever

Today marks the 267th birthday of James Madison, the Founding Father who wrote the Bill of Rights, including provisions for free speech, assembly and press. And Madison included these democratic essentials because he knew the free flow of information was integral to the nascent nation’s success. “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” said Madison. And it’s for that reason that Madison’s birthday’s celebrated coast-to-coast as Freedom of Information Day.

Not incidentally, yesterday was the 105th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson holding the first press conference at the White House, on March 15, 1913. It wasn’t meant to be a press conference: Wilson invited the press over so he could meet them individually, but more reporters showed up than he anticipated, so the president ended up giving general remarks.

“I want an opportunity  to open part of my mind to you,” Wilson said that day. But this and future meetings were about more than Wilson sharing his perspective. He wanted the nation’s input, too: as he said a few days later, “Please do not tell the country what Washington’s thinking, for that does not make any difference. Tell Washington what the country’s thinking.”

Though the relationship between Wilson and journalists wasn’t always so chummy, especially after the Great War began, the president knew then what Madison knew so many years before: the flow of information between people and leaders, and vice versa, was the bedrock for a more perfect union. The exchange of ideas and experiences is what keeps a nation, and its leadership, fresh and responsive.

Now, in these Trumpian times, with a chief executive who smears the press as enemies of the people, who slams “fake news” and whose communications team obfuscates, obscures and outright lies to the media, all to keep information flowing one way, if at all, let’s hold Wilson and Madison close to our collective hearts, reminding ourselves both of what makes a great leader, one who respects our national institutions and people in general, and of the need to edit out any pernicious elements that hinder such exchanges.

Only 962 days until we get our chance.