Thursday, September 16, 2010

EDWIN NEWMAN AND PROPER GRAMMAR


A brief Post.

It was revealed that Edwin Newman had died on August 13; his family wanted time to grieve privately.

One of the generation of American newscasters who lived through World War 2, he trailed clouds of the glory of journalism in those times. Provided with the perfect foil of a truly and rather totally evil Third Reich and the seemingly-triumphant onrush of the Axis Powers, journalists – Ed Murrow comes most vividly to mind – rose to the occasion by telling it the way it was in real time; Murrow did broadcasts from London in the midst of the Blitz, on an overseas hookup with Americans huddled by their radios in the living room.

It didn’t really do American journalism much good when, once the Cold War settled into something of an established rhythm, and the genuine evil of Jim Crow had had the legal foundations knocked out from under it by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, American journalism started to create its own ‘truly and totally evil enemies’ to keep things going, accepting pretty much whole-hog the claims of this or that Identity of the newly-raised-up Identity Politics; each needed its own ‘evil enemy’ and each needed the media to amplify that claim in order to lubricate this or that demand and this or that agenda.

Herbert Marcuse (see immediately previous Post) and Saul Alinsky (Post forthcoming) were two of the ‘intellectual’ influences who helped this unhappy dynamic along. Marcuse, building upon his own experience of the Third Reich (from which he prudently escaped to America in 1933), joined the French postwar intellectuals in mistrusting ‘majorities’ and sanctifying the opposition by ‘minorities’ – which was a fine elegy on the underappreciated native German opposition to Nazism back in the day, but did not translate well to a working democratic Republic (for all its incompleteness and faults) like the U.S.

Alinsky – not to steal my own thunder here – tried to ‘baptize’ European ‘revolutionary’ methodology by simply setting it forth as merely a ‘Technique’ that could be translated, along with its presumptions (anything ‘established’ is probably baaad, and it’s a Machiavellian world deep down so ‘ethics’ get in the way of doing a Great and Good Thing) to any country – an established and working democratic Republic, say – without any ill consequences. After all, since the Established Thing is baaad anyway, then ill consequences are merely going to hasten its demise.

Which, alas, proved to be too, too true. And here We are today, trying to keep Our balance on the increasingly tilting deck of Our once great Vessel. Such is Our Modern American Reality and will be, now, for a long, long time. If not for the rest of America’s time as an existing entity on the planet.

Anyhoo, Newman had a thing for the English language – not only its beauties and nuances and tremendous capacities, but also – in an Orwellian sense – as a conveyor of truth. A language developed its rule of grammar for no less a reason than to achieve reliability and clarity in the conveyance of truth – perhaps, if you want to get ontological about it, Truth.

This sterling and – as it turns out – indispensable maxim was always annoying to kids: Grammar seemed to a school-child in the pre-1970 era as nothing less than or more than an arbitrary punishment cooked up by souless and ‘no-life’ old teachers to ruin an otherwise groovin’ afternoon.

And to impatient ‘revolutionaries’ Grammar was simply one more level of an oppressive and deceitful civilization’s layered fraudulence designed to distract, derail, obstruct and in divers other ways oppress everyone who didn’t belong to the Club. Crush the infamous thing!

And the Seventies - that queasy decade – were trying hard to get beyond the ‘uptight’ Fifties while also getting beyond the un-showered, unwashed denims and beads of the Flower Children of ’67 and the in-your-face combat-clothed Yippies of ’68. Enter polyester and Disco, and ‘loose’ – about everything.

Grammar clearly had to go.

It was not only ‘oppressive’ but ‘elitist’, requiring folks not used to employing it to jump through Honky’s hoops. And, of course, it was indubitably a sinister oppression designed by ‘mehnnnnn’ purely for that gender’s world-historic and sempiternal project of keeping non-white, non-male, youthy plants from running free along the Garden floor. Happy-face, Grammar surely was NOT.

Well – that was then. But since the U.S. is still – as of this writing – a going concern, then Grammar must still have a role to play. To the extent, anyway, that truth needs to be conveyed. (And I leave it to you to consider just how vital a priority that has become nowadays.)

I want to give just one example of the importance of Grammar.

The Framers – for whatever else you may have against them – were classically educated and a number of them were lawyers who had been trained in working in the fields of the Law. Then, as now, they knew the value of Grammar: a single comma could mean the difference between a very good and a very bad outcome, for the clients if they were in civil practice, or for a nation if they were engaged in the task of ‘nation-building’ or – more specifically – ‘government- building – which is precisely what they were up to at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

In the Fifth Amendment (part of the first ten Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights) they took up the question of criminal liability and process. Just how much scope should the government have in deploying its sovereign punitive power against its own Citizens if a Citizen were accused of a crime?

They answered with the careful text of the Amendment: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger …”

Note that comma there after “forces” and its mate after “Militia”. They serve a huge purpose: they add “Militia” to the main thought that the only time a Citizen in uniform can be held to answer for a serious crime without the assessment of a Gran Jury is if he is in the land or naval forces – or in the Militia – when those forces are operating in time of War.

It follows that if a Citizen is even in the military, he still has to be indicted by a Grand Jury – an independent jury of Citizens called from their usual daily occupations to assess whether the government’s attorney has enough of a case to warrant an actual indictment; and if not, not.

If you think about it for a minute, this is huge. The Framers were so cautious about the government – and the military – wielding the sovereign criminal power that unless there was an actual declared War going on, they didn’t even allow uniformed service-members to be put on trial unless a Grand Jury approved the merit of the government’s case.

That is quite a bit of fencing-in that the Framers did.

Throughout the 19th century the military chafed at this stricture. It did not wish to share judicial authority with ‘civilians’ – either civilian members of a Grand Jury or civilian judges. It wanted its court-marital authority to extend over all military personnel regardless of whether there was a War on or not.

It got so bad that in the 1890s the Supreme Court, which had to keep dealing with ‘military justice’ cases throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, finally opined that there were two ways of ‘interpreting’ that troublesome set of commas.*

The military understanding of the Grammar was that the phrase “when those forces are operating in time of War” only applied to the Militia. Although the rules of Grammar would have then required that there be no comma at all after “Militia” – but even THEN the “when those forces” phrase would STILL have applied to both the “land and naval forces” and “the Militia”. And, of course, the word “forces” in the “when those forces” phrase precisely repeats the use of the word “forces” in the first phrase about “the land or naval forces” … so it sure looked clear as a bell that the Framers didn’t want the military and its drumhead-courtsmartial afflicting Citizens, even servicemen, any more than was absolutely and minimally necessary.

Acquiescing to the government’s urging in 1895, the Court decided that there were two ways of ‘interpreting’ that pesky comma: it could, as clearly indicated in the general understanding of the rules of grammar, apply in such a way that the “in time of War” stricture applied to the army, navy, AND the Militia.

Or, the Court invented, there was an alternative – non-conventional interpretation: which, by the by, was exactly the opposite: despite the established rules of Grammar deployed by the oh-so-careful Framers, a reasonable person might opt for the alternative explanation that the commas were there merely for decoration and, anyway, applied only to “the Militia” and not to “the land or naval forces”.

In other words, the word ‘horse’ might be taken to mean any member and only any member of that group of living entities classified in the Linnean system as Equus caballus. OR the word ‘horse’ might be taken to mean anything NOT a horse. And the Court – giving some harrumphy thought to the matter – decided to opt for the second ‘non-conventional interpretation’. (A quick brush-up on Linnean classification is here.)

And so, based on that jaw-droppingly whackulent ‘interpretation’, the Court tried to solve the problem of just how much authority and scope the Constitution permitted to the ‘military justice’ system by claiming that Grammar was soooo flexible that it could mean either ‘A’ or ‘not-A’ with equal ease.

After a performance like that, it was only an afterthought when, after hearing the innumerable complaints of the Greatest Generation about ‘military justice’ as they came back from World War 2, Harry Truman told the Pentagon to get a Constitutional system of justice and – after waiting to see if he would lose the 1948 election (he didn’t) – the Pentagoons came up with what is now known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

If you are ready to believe a number of impossible things before breakfast, then you are ready for the military’s gambit: borrowing Stalin’s shrewd idea about courts and trials that if you control all the players and thus can be assured of the outcome, you can then make all the grand and glorious guarantees and assurances you need to (Stalin's mid-1930s Soviet Constitution actually provided on paper more guarantees of civil rights and liberty to Soviet citizens than the U.S. Constitution provided to Americans).

Thus – to this day – the military equivalent of the Constitution’s independent, multi-membered ‘Grand Jury’ is a single officer, subordinate to the general or admiral who decides to bring the court-martial proceeding in the first place. And if the Boss doesn’t like the recommendation of the underling (assuming any military subordinate would risk promotion and career to give any other recommendation than the one the Boss wanted) then the Boss can change it.

Which pretty much guarantees that the accused will go through the court-martial mill: where, by the by, the military owns, employs, and operates the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the cops, and most of the witnesses. Oh, and the defense counsel. On top of owning the defendant, of course.

All on the basis of a couple of commas in the Constitution, the established rules of Grammar, and a Supreme Court that was looking to get on the national bandwagon and defer to the military.

You can see where things can go, once Grammar and the value of ‘words’ is rendered fungible and turned into the conceptual equivalent of play-dough.

When the Executive and Legislative and Judicial Branches can play a game like that, AND the Pentagon to boot, then not only Grammar but Democracy and the Republic are in biiiiiig trubble.

Upon Edwin Newman be peace.

I hope he has better luck working for Grammar from ‘the Other Side’ than he did when he was struggling down here in this increasingly dark Vale of Tears.

NOTES

*See my Posts here and here.

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