Janke Doodle Dandy

“The basketball court was full of Tyrones.”

“Look at the tight pants on Juanita.”

“All the milk Mustafa sells is past its expiration.”

“Can Shlomo fit any more kids in that minivans?!”

It’s an especially nasty kind of tribal slur some of us throw around, when we use a popular name, or a memorable and therefore a perceived common name, from another language, as placeholder for everybody in a community. I suppose it’s better than outright ethnic slurs, but it may cut deeper since it implies a familiarity: “I’ve got you people all sussed out.”

I was reading about U.S. colonial history (as one does on viral lockdown) when I came across this detail from the French and Indian War and the Revolution: British soldiers played “Yankee Doodle” as a taunt the colonials, and North Americans, once they put musket, fife, and drum together, played it back to them: “Who’s a yankee doodle dandy now, bitches?!”

It got me reading up on these odd words of a very catchy jingle:

‘…it began perhaps in the 1500’s, as part of a Dutch harvest song that began with words of no meaning: “Yanker dudel doodle down.” But a century later, English Cavaliers used the same tune to mock Oliver Cromwell, who ”stuck a feather in his cap/ And called it macaroni.” At the time, ”macaroni” was the term for young Englishmen who wore fashionable Italian clothes. Anyone who thought he could qualify as ”macaroni” because of a single feather had to be an unsophisticated nerd. By the 1750’s, Englishmen in America used the song to make similar fun of the disheveled, poorly trained Americans fighting in the French and Indian War. And it is said that in 1775, when British Col. Hugh Percy led a column of troops from Boston to Lexington and Concord, his men marched to the brisk cadence of ”Yankee Doodle.”’

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A feather in your hat doesn’t make you macaroni – THAT’S macaroni.

That’s a questionable use of the word “nerd,” but it was from 30 years ago, from a New Amsterdam Times – pardon me, New York Times article . See, the story of “Yankee” is closer to my point.

All around the Hudson valley, where I live, any time you see a stone farmhouse, there is a fair chance that the people who built it would not have spoken English. They spoke Dutch, which was common well into the early years of the U.S.A.  (Sojourner Truth, owned by Dutch-Americans, grew up speaking it; English was her second language.)

The leading theory about the origin of the word “Yankee” is that the second wave of Europeans – the English – had a derisive nickname for Dutch people based on their common first name Jan, pronounced “Yan,” with the diminutive -ke added. So “Janke” means “Johnny,” with all the hostile intentions of calling a Brooklyn Italian “Tony” before you know his name.

“The farmers in that valley are all jankes.” “Don’t buy a pony from that janke, he’ll rip you off.” “These jankes don’t even speak English.” “I have janke friends, but when a barn-raising is all jankes, I don’t know what they’re saying.” “My sister danced with a janke?!” Or, “A pregnant woman got on the subway and none of the jankes gave up their seats.”

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“Dutch, Quaker, Puritan, WHATEVER you are, Janke.”

Damn Yankees!

So when things got hot and the British started keeping troops here, they started calling all the colonials “Yankees” the way a modern American soldier might call a Turk or a Persian an “Arab” when they’re not actually Arabs: They’re all the same! And we North Americans became Y.W.A.

Add the ethnic origin of the word “Yankee” and the emasculating insult “doodle dandy,” implying, “You’re not a fop, you’re a fop wannabe!” The oldest song in our patriotic canon is … not nice, actually.

That was lost on me when I heard the song as a kid, of course. The tune is as fun to sing as it was when throwing turnips in the cart in the 1500s. And “stuck a feather in his hat and called it ‘macaroni'” was delightful nonsense. As usual with history, the closer you look, the weirder it gets.

The “Touch of Evil” Election Day

I thought I was sitting out Election Day when I slipped into a theater at 4:30 yesterday afternoon to watch the classic Touch of Evil, and then tried my best not to look at a web browser for the rest of the night. Turns out the film was absolutely relevant.

The Mexican-American border, the largest open border in the world, “1400 miles long and not a machine gun on it,” the hero brags. That that hero, Mexican Special Agent Michael Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston himself has made the film a bit of a joke over the years, but that’s actually not the hardest piece of miscasting it asks you to swallow. (Bronx accents in Texas, anyone?) As films go, it’s classic Welles. You appreciate it for its conception more than you’re actually moved by it. The script works so hard to make narrative constructs happen that you’re jarred out of the reality within the film. Instead of wondering what the hell is going to happen next, you marvel at the cinematic and pulp novel razzle-dazzle the story-teller is going to use to get you there.

The rad thing about Touch of Evil is that the bad guys are Americans. The hero is Mexican. It took the “white person having an ethical crisis by the hard choices he must face while across the border” template, which is still thriving, and turned it on its head, and this was 56 years ago.

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Which brings me to yesterday’s election, the top story of which, let’s face it, was racial paranoia. A lot of celebratory scotch and beer got swilled last night by Republican-affiliated ad people toasting the success of their message: Democrats want to leave the Mexican border unprotected; they’re soft on ISIS; they don’t do enough to stop ebola; and all kinds of stupid combinations of these three.

Time is still on the side of the Left, we’re just going to have to put up with a whole lot more stupidity for two more years. I could already sense this back in September during the People’s Climate March here in New York. The massive crowd felt like the American Left was finally moving past Obama, who himself represented the psychic antidote to Bush. Finally we were groping for a consensus about what the highest priority in our political future ought to be. And now that the dumbest guy from a country club full of oilmen in Oklahoma has the most powerful environmental position in government, except for the president, we have a perfect foil, and a perfect foil is what American politics are all about.

Other takeaways from Election Day:

1. As political beings we (Americans) are still hard-wired to resist elite authority from afar. The Alpha Ideological American is the Puritan who hated the crown and the official church, because he had his own, personal relationship with God, and that God put pretenders to divine authority on earth just to test his faith. And nothing makes him stand up and shout Hallelujah!” like a sign that says “Don’t tread on me.” Why God would be such a jerk, we are not allowed to ask, but this inheritance we carry makes us selectively reframe the stories we tell as “us, God’s chosen people” versus “them, elites whose earthly success is a sham.” And it’s rarely enough to say that the elites you’re mobilizing against are mistaken, or just plain greedy; it must be that they’re on the brink of perverting democracy itself.

2. Raising the stakes by making the villain nastier is the oldest narrative shortcut in the book (It’s also one of the most common screenplay notes.), but we have to do better! The breathlessness of the Democratic fundraising emails in the past few months such as this one from none other than Barbra Streisand just didn’t cut it, and actually turned us off:  “Dear Charles, Have you seen Congress lately? It’s a mess. And it’s only going to get worse if people like Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers continue to treat corporations better than people.” Nice alliteration, but it turns out people need to be for something too.

3. Citizens United is the new enemy. No wonder many liberals sat this election out. What are we supposed to do, get into a spending war against billionaires who have no legal limit?

4. The most brilliant Republican move of the last decade was the term “Obamacare.” Now we think of the president every time we think of our health insurance companies, who really are doing the devil’s work. Genius.

5. The American Right’s knee-jerk racism – Ebola quarantines? Come on! Like a hurricane before 2012 election, you can’t think up coincidences like that! – is sometimes just too much. They already have the Constitutional deck – which was very progressive in 1787, I might add – stacked in their favor, and the ease with which they achieve consensus when race is introduced creates historic anomalies like yesterday’s election.

6. We should never be satisfied with social media success. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a must-read op-ed earlier this year, social media “can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious,'” but those bonds are not as resilient as the real person-to-person movement-building of the pre-social media dark ages.

I’m a white male over 40 and I voted yesterday, because that’s what people like me do: boring stuff like get married, go to church (Well, it’s been a while in my case…), go to non-profit cinemas, and vote. I refuse to be an aging leftist, or an aging cinephile, who thinks young people can do nothing right. And yet I confess to some despair – not for the U.S. Senate this year, or for 2016. All that junk will come out in the wash, and the Democratic Party is only just barely worth fighting for. I despair because every political achievement last century happened because individuals joined groups, whether unions or the Civil Rights movement, co-operatives or antiwar groups. We’ve lost the habit of going out and joining unless we’re constantly soothed by the blanket of social media groupthink, and there may not be enough “like” buttons to click to compete with the crazy Evangelicals who are on an errand from the oil industry and think they’re on a mission from God.