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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Politics, the English Language, the New York Senate coup and The New York Times's copy editing.

I am trying to figure out whether the New York Times misquoted New York Assemblyman Peter Rivera as saying "toe the line.” when he actually said "tow the line."

I claim that this is a very difficult linguistic question.

One thing is clear, George Orwell is spinning in his grave doubts about the prospects for reasoned debate in New York.

The European Elections weren't very inspiring, but at least the European Parliament isn't like the New York state Senate where if I understand correctly

1) in 1980 the Republicans and Democrats in New York decided to divide the pie and gerrymander so Democrats get the house and Republicans get the Senate (note former New Yorker Matthew Yglesias's outspoken enthusiasm for unicameral state legislatures).

2) Elbridge Gerry himself would have trouble maintaining this deal, because there are now so few Republicans in New York state that no matter how you slice and dice the Republican majority in the state senate is vulnerable.

3) Eminent billionaire Tom Golisano donated tons of money to the New York Democratic party which enabled them to win a majority in the senate.

4) then the economy tanked and the ungrateful Democrats facing a budget deficit decided to tax, among others, the hand that fed them.

5) Standing up for American Values, Mr Golisano therefore replaced the Democratic majority by a majority of 30 Republicans plus two Democrats both of whom are alleged criminals and one of whom is now alleged to be President of the New York senate.

6) Al Sharpton demonstrated in favor of party loyalty and against egoistical egotistical self centered personal ambition and willingness to do anything to get ahead.

7) I repeat "Al Sharpton demonstrated for party loyalty and against egoistical egotistical self centered personal ambition and willingness to do anything to get ahead."

8) yes that Al Sharpton

9) no as far as I can tell the end of days has not arrived yet.

10)NICHOLAS CONFESSORE and DANNY HAKIM wrote in the New York Times

Viewing Mr. Sharpton’s comments as presumptuous, Assemblyman Peter Rivera said, “It’s kind of disappointing to see race being used to toe the line.”

If forced, I'm sure Orwell would choose Peter over Primo de Rivera, but I doubt he would be pleased. Rivera's statement uses one of Orwell's least favorite dying metaphors in a way which illustrates everything a metaphor should not be. Orwell noted that people had so thoroughly forgotten that to toe the line was to keep one's toe on a line that they often carelessly write "tow the line."

(The Wikipedia asserts that it was based on the excessive vehemence of partisan conflict in the mother of parliaments "The term has disputed origins. Perhaps its longest-running use is from the British House of Commons where sword-strapped members were instructed to stand behind lines that were better than a sword’s length from their political rivals in order to restore decorum." OK decorum in a legislature. We sure can't have that).

From the context of Mr Rivera's statement, I think it is clear that he said "tow the line." The sentence as transcribed doesn't make any sense. It would make sense to say : It’s kind of disappointing to see race being used to try to force others to toe the line.

It would make parseable non sense to say (as I think Mr Rivera did)
: It’s kind of disappointing to see race being used to tow the line.

The sentence has no clear meaning but at least Sharpton would be allegedly using race to exert some sort of pull on others rather than using race in order to be meek and obedient himself.

The New York Times' version makes even less sense than mine. Those who toe the line are those who obey not those who make others obey or attempt to make others obey
In days of sail, "toe the line" was used as a command for crewmen to line up along a crack in deck planking, similar to the modern "Attention!"

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