Forget Political Correctness; Give Me Grammar

I’m devoted to the English language. I study it; I work with it; I teach others of its nuances. Indeed, among my friends, I am the resident editor—I like to think they put up with my highly opinionated comments and my propensity for bloodying their papers with red ink because they think I truly improve their writing. It goes both ways, though. I enjoy receiving criticism of my own writing, because—while I am confident in my style—I can always improve. Skillful writing is an invaluable tool for expression, for persuasion, for description. When employed correctly, language is perhaps the most important key to success in almost any field. Regardless of whether or not you love language as much as I do, you should approach it with the same precision. It’s just professional.

Now, a close friend of mine just posted an article that inflamed my passions more than usual (which is surprising, as I get fired up rather frequently). The piece, Troy Camplin’s “Microaggression and Neglect,” discusses a recent phenomenon that has progressed beyond the already-tragic lack of concern for clear, correct, proper English—we’ll call it Standard American English. Now, evidently, grammar correction is an attack on a student’s culture, a blatant attempt to quell the cultural idiosyncrasies that may distinguish that student from “Standard Americans.” Camplin describes a recent incident at UCLA as a case in point of the retaliation against grammar correction. Apparently, graduate students in a “Students of Color” class protested the correction of minority students’ grammar and spelling as microaggressions against their minority culture. To be completely honest, I was incredulous at the resistance of graduate students to academic improvement, but perhaps my standards are too high.

I am not initiating an academic discussion. Rather, I am expressing my anger at the hypersensitivity of the extremists of political correctness. I’m all about cultural relativism; language is an especially distinctive component of culture, and quelling linguistic distinctions would be to quell culture in turn. But it is unacceptable for minority students to cry racism when they face grammatical correction in an academic setting. Context is certainly an essential component of grammatical accuracy; were these students being corrected in casual conversation on the streets, their anger would be justified. Even this blog post, with its informal style, leaves aspects of grammar and syntax to be desired (passive voice, my apologies). When it comes to academic English, though—the language of American professionalism—students should welcome the enhancement of a skill that will ultimately ease their paths to success.

I firmly believe that we must know the rules before we break them. When I tutor younger students, I’m incredibly strict about rules of grammar and syntax; as they grow to understand and practice those rules, though, I encourage them to experiment with style, to play with language to tailor it to their own preferences. One thing I am careful to avoid—as is any good teacher, as is almost every teacher from whom I’ve had the pleasure of learning—is the restriction of ideas. Correcting grammar does not stifle freedom of expression; it merely provides a structure for that freedom, enhancing its clarity and effectiveness. I am frequently ashamed by others’ disregard for grammatical correctness. We must hold ourselves to the standards of professional English; to do anything else indicates an apathy towards professionalism. Trivial though it may seem, the distinction between semicolons and colons matters. The distinctions between academic and conversational language matter. There is no room for sensitivities to so-called microaggressions. If students are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for their linguistic skills, let grammatical Darwinism weed them out.

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Speaking Up: #NoKXL

I suppose the time has come for my first politically oriented post (it had to happen eventually, right?). I’ve held off because I don’t necessarily like broadcasting my views for the Internet to see; I prefer acting to talking in this regard. But the controversy surrounding the potential approval of the Keystone pipeline has fired up my environmentalist sensibilities, and I simply must speak up. As a leader of a campus social-activism group, I conveniently have the capacity to bring such concerns to the forefront of my campus community–which I did. As a student of the environment, an activist, and especially as a Texan, I devoutly hope that President Obama will decline to approve Keystone XL. My concerns include the environmental, of course–let’s preserve our groundwater, shall we? Innumerable Texas communities rely on aquifers to provide drinking water; these sources will be put at risk of contamination by a pipeline that is likely to leak, and the result would certainly be devastating. Texas already faces water shortages. This problem must not be compounded by a threat to the water we do have. Also, the nation’s willingness to throw itself behind a new source of oil only highlights its relative unwillingness to move to renewable energy. We need to expend resources on enhancing our access to sustainable energy sources, not on perpetuating old habits that are not only environmentally threatening, but are also unsustainable. This resource will run out; perhaps not in the short term, but certainly in the long term. I have a host of other concerns with the pipeline–not restricted to environmental fears, either–but these are my main worries.

Are we going to keep naively draining our resources, hurtling down a path of destruction thanks to a lack of foresight? Or are we going to assume responsibility for shifting our habits and improving not just our own nation, but the world? By this time, it is not enough to rely on policymakers to do the work for us. As a people, we must commit to shifting our habits; it’s the only way to successfully foment change. Enough with the complacency.

I voted for a president who promised change I could believe in. I did not think he promised climate change that I could believe in. This moment could define the future of our nation’s stance on the environment; kindly keep your promise, Mr. President, and help us change.

Members of Trinity Progressives and the San Antonio community at a candlelight vigil protesting Keystone XL

Members of Trinity Progressives and the San Antonio community at a candlelight vigil protesting Keystone XL. (photo credit: Anh-Viet Dinh)

“You Feel it in your Corazon”: The Soulful Sounds of The Cat Empire

This one’s for all you tricksters, hipsters, and prophets in the sky. As promised: my first music post. The artist is The Cat Empire; the album is Steal the Light, the band’s 2013 venture.

All credit goes to my dear brother for opening my ears to the magic that is Cat Empire; I never would have discovered these Australian geniuses on my own. Their sound is explosive, a wildly varied blend of ska, jazz, and funky rock with a distinctively Latin flavor. Delicious. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Latin; they had me at that first soulful cry of a trumpet. But this band writes the kind of music that only gets better the more you listen, the more you explore the lyrical intricacies and idiosyncrasies of sound. I’ve been listening to Steal the Light on repeat since August. It’s fantastic. It shifts seamlessly between mellow funk lines and thrilling brass fanfares, between railing against materialism and crooning words of love. The album has a palpable texture that leads me on new tangents of exploration every time I run through it. Sometimes the trumpet catches my ear; sometimes the percussion; sometimes the fantastically witty lyrics. It’s a delightfully intriguing blend of dance music with profoundly encouraging meanings, inspiring both body and mind through the course of the album. Now, let’s get into some tracks…

I shall begin at the beginning, with the song that introduced me to Cat Empire: “Prophets in the Sky.” God, this song is almost indescribable, but I’ll do my best. For one thing, the music is incredible—a quick Latin pulse, some bold brass, quick ear-catching interjections in Spanish. The initial thrilling fanfare hurls you into an impassioned mess of questions, one that intoxicates you with its sounds and intrigues you with its words. I honestly can’t tell you what those words might mean; they’re still a mystery to me, so the song continues to fascinate. Whatever it is, it evokes some sense of primitive questioning that can’t quite be explained. Trust me, it’s brilliant. I can’t do it justice here; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.

“Can you imagine a love like that?”

All of the fast tracks are amazing; to discuss all of them would take another solid thousand words, so I’ll spare you. One of my favorites, though, is “Go,” an inventive diatribe against materialism. It feels like an enormous release of madness—which works, considering their opinion on the folly of materialism. The music, though, is one of the most incredibly compelling components of the song. A steady scale progression of the low brass balances against the wild flourishes of the high brass, simultaneously creating senses of menace and frenzy that warn of chaos. That warning is clear: let go of materialism. It’s an impressively commanding song, with some of the most pointed subject matter of the album. Now, though, I’ll move on to the slower tracks, which are delightfully deep wells of interpretive opportunity.

“Every little viper’s not your friend—and a million dollars is not how this story ends.”

The mellower tracks introduce a deep, penetrating richness that sneaks into your soul and lodges there, using sound to carve out a vulnerable little open space, only to fill it with words. “Steal the Light” is the first slow track on the album, and it took awhile to grow on me—probably because it follows “Prophets in the Sky,” which doesn’t exactly leave you in the mood for mellow. But it still grabs your attention with the almost-immediate introduction of the song’s heartbeat, a rolling bass line that creates a smooth, rhythmic undertone throughout the piece. The lyrics, once you catch them, are simply exquisite. They evoke a sense of that constant internal questioning that digs at all of us, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you just decided to fuck it all and did whatever the hell you wanted to, if you would just “open your eyes / and run into the clear,” as they say. The song appeals to a certain existential loneliness within all of us (or at least me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, I suppose) that eats away at any manner of confidence; the triumphant trumpets and anthemic vocals of “Steal the Light” encourage you to aspire to spontaneity. Such subtle inspiration is compelling.

“What if I’m lonely? What if the sky should fall and disappear?”

One of the relatively few love songs on the record, “Open Up Your Face” isn’t your typical ballad. For one thing, the music begs the listener to take it easy after the intensity of the previous song in the track listing (“Like a Drum”). The brass croons sweetly, soothing the ear while bongos establish a steady, calming rhythm; later, that rhythm progresses into a slow march, equally calming. But in terms of content, it’s painfully realistic, wrought through with earthy metaphors and gritty honesty. It’s that realism that makes this such a deeply beautiful song. Love is neither a storybook romance nor a tale of destruction; it is pain and glory, despair and trust, anguish and delight, and somehow this song manages to capture these feelings without sounding quite so dramatic. The language is simply stunning. The opening lines:

“While the traffic hums

When the madness comes…

Like a flower that reaches out its fingers to the rain,

Like a bird that flies above the gutters and the graves,

Open up your face.”

How’re those for metaphors? So unassuming, yet so evocative, they simultaneously capture both the realization that love is, in fact, an everyday matter and the sense that it can still elevate you above the quotidian. And it suggests that you can get away from the occasional pain of the everyday by getting into love. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a love song until the chorus of “And I’ll know you want me, I’ll want you.” It’s really quite refreshing to be shown love rather than told about it, making this track yet another deliciously inventive song to tease the mind as well as the ear.

“Like a human cannonball that hears the match strike flame; like a prisoner listening to the rumble of the train…”

Finally, the last track in my long-winded discourse on Cat Empire. “Wild Animals” took awhile to grow on me. The vocals are a little strange, it’s a tad repetitive, and the lyrics progress a little too quickly to catch at first. But then I understood the lyrics. And they are astonishingly great. In a similar vein as “Steal the Light,” the track carries a theme of letting everything go and embracing the self. This song, though, directly questions the reasoning behind giving up intellectual and personal freedom, asking, “why’re you living your life behind bars? / Why’re you living your life in the past?” in its first compelling verse. It is a powerful reminder of what matters: nature, freedom, self-expression, authenticity of spirit. It pleads that we avoid living in bad faith—that state of self-deception in which we blame our social context for our actions rather than taking responsibility for ourselves—encouraging instead the choice to confront the conventions that limit our lives. It’s a beautiful message, really. And they make it impressively personal with this concluding verse, which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate to:

“Look out the tiny window frame that sits behind your desk—

Past the big computer screens and the jars of fountain pens.

What are you doing in this prison with your psychopathic boss,

With your brokenhearted mornings and your backstabbing friends?”

As such a deeply touching and inspiring song, you’d think it would sound serious as well. But the music practically scampers for four minutes with an easy, rolling, cheerful melody. It sounds like what it discusses, which makes it even more subtly powerful. It’s one hell of a song—certainly one of my favorites.

You may have noticed that I truly adore this group. Cat Empire is a refreshing departure from most music—whatever you listen to, there’s not much like these guys. The accessibility of their music and lyrics is a rarity; personally, I think they’re universally appealing, although I’m sure some disagree. But with this fascinating convergence of genre and content, it’s hard to be disappointed in Cat Empire–and let’s be honest, there’s nothing catchier than a good Latin beat. Check out Steal the Light; it’s on Spotify, but it’s also definitely worth buying. I promise you will be dancing halfway through “Prophets in the Sky,” and rest assured that your mind will dance as well.

And remember: “Don’t let them kill the wild animals inside of you!”