Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't shop on Thanksgiving

You've probably heard that many big retailers will be open on Thanksgiving. Not just late Thursday night, as in the past few years, but all day.

I'm generally a live-and-let-live type. This business of retailers opening on Thanksgiving, though, crosses a line.

Consider the holidays typically observed in the United States. Per Wikipedia, the most common are:

  • New Year's Day
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday
  • President's Day (which used to be separate days honoring Washington and Lincoln)
  • Easter
  • Memorial Day
  • The 4th of July
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas Day
Of these, five — New Year's Day, MLK's birthday, President's Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day — commemorate a person or a symbol (labor) but have no universally observed rituals associated with them: they are, in the main, days most people don't have to work or attend school. Easter, despite the best efforts of retailers, remains a religious holiday and is not officially observed by government at any level (nor privately observed by many non-Christians). Memorial Day and Veterans Day are intended to honor those who served in the armed forces; however, since so few Americans have a personal connection to the armed forces today, in practice these days are, like the first five, mostly just days off from work or school. Christmas, though highly secularized, remains technically a religious holiday.

Only the 4th of July and Thanksgiving are genuinely non-sectarian holidays with defined rituals that almost everyone observes. (Native Americans, for obvious reasons, may be exceptions.) They arose from the nation's shared history. But while shooting off fireworks is a fine old time (provided you aren't highly strung), it's neither terribly solemn nor ennobling. Sharing a meal with those close to you to give thanks for the good in one's life, on the other hand, is both.

Thanksgiving, in other words, is a holiday that everyone can observe and that encourages us to be better people. It's one of the only holidays that can be said to unite us as a country.

Making people work on Thanksgiving shreds that unity. It elevates shopping above our noblest instincts.

This country of over 300 million people lacks the kind of ethnic or religious identity that binds other countries together. We, more than any other nation, identify ourselves by our shared ideals. Some of them, of course, are laid out in the Declaration of Independence and other important documents, but ironically, those ideals are the ones that often cause the most strife when we have to think about how they should be put into practice.

We need Thanksgiving. It celebrates and refreshes our national spirit. It brings us together. And in these troubled times, when we are so viciously split by contentious issues, we need all the reminders we can get that we're one country.

Sacrificing all that Thanksgiving represents for the sake of consumerism is not just crass, it's destructive to our national unity.

But in spite of the holding by the Supreme Court that corporations are people (a holding that looks more and more dubious over time), corporations, unlike actual people, lack moral compasses. We're never going to guilt-trip them into remaining closed so their employees can celebrate the day. We can't pass laws forbidding them to open, either.

That leaves us only the much-vaunted hand of the market.

Send a message to Walmart and the other retailers forcing their employees to work that day. If you care about the well-being of the country, not to mention your family, friends and neighbors, don't shop on Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene", Roy Scranton

I must admit I barely skimmed this longish essay in the New York Times. So why am I bringing it up? Because there's one short phrase that brought me up short, utterly subverting my expectations.

I'm so tempted to lay out the phrase directly, but I think doing so would rob it of its impact: you really should read the whole piece (even though I didn't). Like the payoff in any good story, it needs to be earned. I'll say only that it's part of the third-to-last paragraph.

The essay is a meditation, and I suppose a call to action, on humanity's future in light of climate change.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rand Paul and citation

You might have heard that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has been taking heat for unattributed quotations in his speeches and writings from, among other sources, Wikipedia. Jim Rutenberg and Ashley Parker of the New York Times have (more or less) the latest news in their piece, "Though Defiant, Senator Accused of Plagiarism Admits Errors". The headline gives the gist, but what's striking to me are Paul's tone and his obsession with footnotes.
“What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers,” he said. “We’re going to try to put out footnotes.” He said that “we have made mistakes,” but that they had “never been intentional.”
If he wants to include footnotes in his books, great; it's a fine old tradition, although one that's more common in works by more scholarly authors. The Times article isn't clear on whether Paul is going to apply this new emphasis on footnotes in his periodical pieces or speeches, but it certainly sounds like he will: that would certainly make sense considering that the criticism he has faced surrounds his speeches and magazine articles. And that makes me wonder where his head is.

You see, this article isn't the first time Paul has brought up footnotes. He has blithered about them incessantly since MSNBC's Rachel Maddow first started hammering him about "plagiarism" a week ago. Consider his remarks from this ABC News piece from last week:

“It’s a disagreement of how you footnote things and I think people footnote things differently in an academic paper than they do in a public speech,” Paul told Ramos. “But a lot of time in speeches people don’t take the time to footnote things.”
What's your hangup with footnotes, Rand?

Nobody expects footnotes in periodical articles or speeches. The time-honored way to attribute something in a newspaper article or speech is, "As So-and-So said", or "To quote from such-and-such-book", or ... well, you get the idea. It's not a big deal. If you have a decent education, it's common sense and common courtesy: you give credit where credit is due.

Rand Paul is a medical doctor. We can assume he got a decent education. So what's with the obsession with footnotes in places they don't belong?

I think there's a sneer implicit in offering to source his utterances like a college student. He's saying his critics are those fusty, moldy, disdainful college professors who represent the elitist ivory tower.

He's hoping his sneering will obscure the very basic question of fairness that underlies the charge of plagiarism. Using other people's words isn't wrong in itself. It's when you don't give them the credit for those words that you err. You're stealing from them.

A charitable observer might believe Rand Paul genuinely does not understand what plagiarism is.

On Tuesday, Mr. Paul argued that that did not technically represent plagiarism. “Trying to say someone commits plagiarism, you’re saying that someone is dishonest,” he said. “And, well, it would be dishonest if I tried to say, ‘Oh, I had this great idea for a movie, and this is my idea, and this is a story I wrote in college called ‘Gattaca.’ ”
A couple of problems here:
  • If you quote someone else without crediting them, you are being dishonest. You are plagiarizing. And the intention to deceive — the slur on his character that seems to incense Paul most — is an inescapable conclusion when as many unattributed quotations are found as have been found in Paul's speeches and writings. One or two phrases could be an honest mistake. Not so whole paragraphs.
  • No one said Paul pretended to have written Gattaca. What Maddow said from the beginning was that long passages from Paul's speech were uncannily similar to passages in the Wikipedia entry. (Maddow did herself no favors in the teasers for the story the first night, though: those teasers did imply that Paul was trying to take credit for the movie. It was only in the story itself that Maddow made clear the alleged plagiarism was of Wikipedia, not of the movie.)
Paul, in all likelihood, knows what plagiarism is. I took his blustering as a particularly clumsy effort to muddy the waters. He knew he plagiarized but he hoped low-information voters wouldn't notice.

What if I'm wrong, though? What if he didn't know?

He might honestly not have known his speeches and writings included lengthy unattributed quotations. Many politicians, after all, rely on speechwriters. However, if Paul was ignorant of the plagiarism, that makes one wonder what kind of behavior his staff thought was acceptable? That, in turn, reflects on Paul himself because the boss sets the tone.

The bottom line is, if he knew he was plagiarizing, he lied to us all (twice: once by plagiarizing, once in his denials when confronted with the truth). If he didn't know, he doesn't have an ethical staff — and that reflects badly on his judgment and leadership.

Any way you look at it, Paul doesn't come out of the plagiarism crisis looking good. And all the footnotes in the world can't help him.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Sochi Welcomes Gays"

The headline to the article is, "Russia: Putin Says Sochi Welcomes Gays".


See, Vlad, this is the problem with you ex-KGB types: lacking a sense of humor, you don't know when you're being freaking hilarious.