The Age of Euphemism

I’d like to do a bit here on language.  Primarily on how we have seen it distorted over the last few decades.  According to George Lakoff and Geoff Nunberg, the Right has seized the rhetorical high-ground and driven Liberals into defensive postures by altering or subverting the meanings of certain words and phrases.  I tend to think that, yes, they’ve done that, but that also the people who are swayed by such verbal gymnastics are by and large pre-sold on the message.  Many of us out here never did buy into it.

But the effect of making those the Democratic Party has fielded to oppose them look weak did happen, even for those of us who could see through the bull shit.  Once you get someone to start backing up and apologizing for what he or she believes in, the game is over.  This happened to Kerry.  It’s happened to many others.  Republicans have manage to turn “Liberal” into a dirty word, which is bad enough, but the fact that Liberals respond guiltily by admitting, well, yeah, I am, or used to be, but I’m not really anymore, I’m more of a Centrist…

Bull shit.

The problem is that people tolerate euphemism in place of truth and after long enough it gets difficult to cut through it.

For instance, when Obama becomes president, I would like to see a reinforced Truth In Advertising policy.  It has escaped no one’s attention that we are having a bit of a problem with the economy.  Have been a long time now, ever since we realized that consuming happens faster when things are cheaper and cheaper things usually aren’t made here.  We have gradually become more of a service economy than a manufacturing power and this has frankly hurt.  Look at the automobile industry.  Good heavens.  (Let’s not even talk about shipping!)

I think it would be useful to start calling certain things by what they really are.  Chiefly, I am tired of financial institutions referring to things like loans and so forth as Products.  You hear it all the time on television and radio.  “We at the First Institutional Savings and Loan have many new and exciting products for our customers.”

No, they don’t.  A product is something you make.  A refrigerator or a stove are products.  A car is a product.  The computer I’m writing this on is a product.  (You could stretch the point and argue that the words I’m writing are a product, but I think that’s stretching things too far.  My thoughts are not products insofar as they don’t actually do anything anyone else can buy and use until they are translated into an Object you can take home and use.  Ergo, a book is a product, but the ideas therein are not.  Maybe that, too, is stretch, but we’re talking about the economy here, not philosophy.)

Shuffling paper around in different arrangements is not a product.  All they do is take something that has already been “made”—other people’s money—and package it for other to people to spend.  They have not made anything that is intrinsically useful by itself in the way that a can opener or a television or a barbecue pit is useful.

I bring this up because by misusing the term Product in such a way, it kinda sorta looks like banks are on some level manufacturers.  Instead of a service.  You might ask what real difference is makes, and that would be a good question.  Here’s a good answer:  when enough people begin to think and act as if those shuffled bits of paper possess the same kind of intrinsic value that a real Product has, they start swapping them around as if they were cars or lawnmowers, as if profit were something attached to these pieces of paper in the same way.  It leads to an economy of pure motion of money with nothing to base the presumed value of the money on—i.e. Products—and at some point the emperor’s nakedness becomes too evident to ignore and we have an economic meltdown.

Hmm.  Sounds familiar.

So enough of that, already.

I would also like to strike the term “He/she failed to disclose/report/act etc.” from legal language.  It gives the wrong impression.  So we don’t want to say “The Senator lied” because that’s rude.  But altering the phrase to “The Senator failed to disclose his tax returns (or the new house a contributor gave him)” makes it sound like the Senator tried to do the right thing, but just somehow couldn’t manage to do it.  It makes it sounds like it wasn’t really his fault, just, well, he had a bad day.

Bull shit.  The Senator lied.  He didn’t fail to do anything except not get caught.  He tried to not get caught and, gosh, here he is testifying, so I guess he failed at that.  But what he is accused of?  No, he didn’t fail to do the right thing, he didn’t even try.

Such euphemism debases the public discourse.  That’s a fancy way of saying that it erodes public trust.  Gradually.  Slowly.  Which is worse than a quick shock, because slow erosion might not be noticeable until the whole system starts sliding into the swamp.

Centrist is another term I’d like to do away with.  By however one defines the issues, anyone can be tagged as a Centrist.  What does that mean?  It means you’re so afraid of pissing people off that you waffle on important issues.  It means that if a problem requires a fix that is either very rightwing or very leftwing, you won’t talk about it unless you can leach out all it’s vitality.

How does this hurt?  Just look at some of the big pieces of legislation passed in the last 20 years in, say, education.  The problem is that we abandoned (or never had) the ability to offer education to prepare students according to their abilities in favor of a system that slots everyone into a college track, whether it’s right for them or not, and rewarding those who get through college with job opportunites they may still be unprepared for and casting those who either didn’t go to college or didn’t get in to begin with into the neverland of dead-end service jobs.  (Essentially, it is a paper shuffle, like the aforementioned banking practice of offering “products”.) The entire system needs to be revamped and probably more federalized than it is now.  Certainly local school board have become in some cases nothing but ideological battlegrounds…it doesn’t work except for those who are already predisposed to learn and needs to be trashed.  What do we do instead of telling the parents of the land that, in at least half the cases, your darling son or daughter ain’t never gonna be no Einstein no matter what school we put them in and acknowledging that some students, no matter what their I.Q., just ain’t never gonna give a damn about certain curricula and might be better off in shop classes learning to (wait for it) Make Products!  (What? Blue collar education for my little genius?  How dare you!)?  We make the teachers give endless tests to try to get total average scores up and pretend that those scores actually reflect what the kids actually know.  (Paper shuffle!)
Centrist bull shit.

(Likewise I think we should do away with Right and Left in all such debates, because these labels do nothing.  Once we allow that labeling is somehow constructive, actual constructive discourse is in danger of fleeing.)

Also in advertising I would like to see the use of the claim that “You can save money by buying this today!”  This is one we’ve been living with since television came around and it has always annoyed me.  Let’s be clear—you do not “save money” when you buy something.  You may spend less this week on the same thing than you would have last week, but you’re still spending.  This is ad-speak nonsense that twists things around to convince you to part with your dollars.  You may get a good bargain, but you  haven’t saved anything, they didn’t deposit the difference in your bank account, and you probably didn’t put it in the bank either.  This is perhaps a minor quibble, but it is part and parcel of American’s lack of understanding about the dynamics of market-based economies.

Which leads me to…

I would like to see the phrase “Let the Market decide” stricken from the language entirely.  I know this will never happen, because language doesn’t work that way, but really, what a load of horse hockey.

The Market decides nothing.  Never did, never will.  The Market does not have an intellect.  The Market is an effect pool, wherein the decisions of individuals vying for competitive advantage cumulatively result in an outcome.  But like the weather, these outcomes are feral, sporadically predictable, and never—NEVER—altruistic.  Letting the Market decide is like letting your car go where it wants without putting your hands on the wheel or taking your foot off the gas.  Occasionally it actually might get somewhere you want to go without killing someone in the process.  No one bothers to ask where the Market got its education.  No one bothers to ask who pays for “adjustments.”

This is a phrase used by people who want very much to be allowed to screw over anyone they think they have to in order to secure their presumed slice of the pie.  The assumption is that such avarice will be checked by competitors who will stop them because that would limit the competitor’s ability to get his slice of the pie.

Few ever really triumph in this game, but that’s not really the point.  The point is that those few are the ones who decide what the Market will do—it is not a natural phenomenon, is very hands-on manipulation by private citizens for their own benefit and to the detriment of those who can’t compete.

I don’t actually have a problem with that as such.  It does drive many of the plus-direction economic benefits of our economy.

But it leads to excesses and abuses against people who have absolutely no way of defending themselves from the consequences of market collapses—which happen cyclically and occasionally catastrophically, like hurricanes.  It is absurd to argue that something that is essentially brainless has the right to be left alone by regulatory entities.

Damn, people, the government is part of the Market, if for no other reason than by virtue of being a Customer.  To argue that it should stay out of it and let it run free is absurd.  (The free enterprise fans don’t let it run free—they do everything they can to manipulate it.)  And since the government ostensibly represents us, then it follows that such regulations as it may apply to this wild and mindless beast in order to protect our interest are not only prudent but essential.  We don’t let wild tigers roam free in city streets, do we?  Why would we be so gullible as to believe the Market, left alone, will look after our interests?

But the phrase gives full voice to the nonsense notion that there is a master plan, an overmind, a naturalistic intelligence that we must not cage, that the Market is somehow alive and should have rights.  It dumbs us down with a false image and lulls us into a false state of helplessness.

Controlling the Market is not Socialism, it’s common sense.  People who make a lot of money do not have a right to so at everyone else’s expense.

In that vein, I would like to do away with the term “CEO Compensation Package.”  I have no problem with the older term “Bonus” because they imply different things.  A bonus is by definition a reward for success.  A compensation package is a negotiated arrangement that is completely independent of performance, and judging by the way things have been going for some time now, clearly there is no relation between reward and success anymore.  I would prefer to call it Pillage.  In many instances, it is simply theft.  Calling it a Compensation Package renders it innocuous, with no real causal links to the destruction of a company.  It is a lie of effect.

I’m looking forward to a change in the way things are talked about.  I would like to limit the attempts of the corrupt in politics and business to hide what they do behind phrases that have legalistic or pseudo scientific auras about them that make them somehow less nasty than what they really are.  We don’t fully appreciate what language does to us when we accept it uncritically.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone to have things called what they are.

Well, it would hurt some I suppose.

Some Thoughts On Our Next President

Maybe there’s something wrong with me.  I am not enthused about the coming election.  I hope Obama wins, but only because I have had enough of the Republicans and their wistful, “wish it were 1952 again” attitudes, and the ideological leech they’ve been carrying around since 1980 that wants to turn the United States into a theocracy.  The fact that the Constitution actually does permit us to successfully fight that possibility doesn’t mean we can’t grow very, very tired of the effort.

But I’m not a huge Obama supporter.  I like a lot of what I see and hear, but I’ve learned to discount that.  Politicians, even when they tell the truth, are seldom capable of delivering on promises—the system is too complex and fluid—and I’m never sure where the gravy will go anyway.  What I have admired is Obama’s refusal to be pinned to the wall.  He seems to know that the most important thing is to keep one’s options open, because as much as he thinks he knows now about what’s going on, it has been clear to me that once someone wins the election, the subsequent “orientation” sessions coming into the White House must be hair-raising.  They hear things they had no idea were going on, things which doubtless change whatever they thought they were going to do.

Whoever wins will have three big foreign policy problems to deal with, as well as the ones that have become fixtures.  Pakistan, Iran, and China.  (Yes yes yes, Palestine, Russia, and the chaos that is Africa—but those are constant, always there issues.)

Pakistan is a problem because, despite the fact that it is a democracy, the ruling class has never—NEVER—considered “the people” worth considering.  They act like most such quasi-dictatorships and relegate the public to some category of irritant that must from time to time be molified.  This had led to a severe gap in aspiration between the two elements, which is why Pakistan can’t do much about the Taliban camped out in its western provinces.  They have been on the brink of an Islamic revolution for 20 years and unless something is done to rectify the dysjunction between The People and The Government, it will happen and it will cause us no end of grief.  Never mind Iran, Pakistan already is a nuclear power.

Iran is the biggest bully in the Middle East right now, but they are fragile.  We keep paying attention to Akmadinijad (sp?) and his rants, but he actually doesn’t run the country.  It may be possible to cut a deal with those who do, but it must be done carefully because they had pushed their people to the brink of another revolution, albeit one which may be less volatile than Pakistan’s.  Iran has a very modern-thinking population of young people who chafe under the Islamic rules imposed from above.  With this global financial collapse, Iran is actually teetering on the brink of insolvency—despite having huge oil reserves, they have no refineries to speak of (they buy gasoline from abroad) and their budget is stretched thin on any number of fronts.  They depend a lot on China for revenue.

Speaking of China, they have been buying debt.  Which for a while made them look like they were poised to start gobbling up markets and becoming some sort of financial superpower.  The problem is, debt is solvency.  If the debtors can’t pay, you have nothing but a promise.  And if we can’t service our debt and cut back on imports, well, China will find itself in a very difficult position.

But they are also flexing their aspirational muscles in other directions.  China is building its first aircraft carrier.  Very expensive and one must ask Why?  They have never been able to sustain foreign military adventures.  They do not have the logistical know-how to extend themselves militarily past their own borders.  We’ve seen this time and time again.  Vietnam, Korea, Russia.  So why an aircraft carrier?  Prestige?  Who would they target?  Or defend?

Taiwan, of course.  Stay tuned.

But getting back to the financial issues for a moment.  China has been attempting to buy its way into international markets for a long time now and has been filling in the gaps left by other financial powers, especially in Africa, but also int he Middle East.  Given the way the markets have been going, we have to ask what happens to all those new money roads they’ve been building if they suffer a collapse.  Whole economies are becoming dependent on Chinese investiment.  Chinese fragility is coupled with an absolutist self-serving protectionist viewpoint (much more severe than ours) and in times of crisis, they’d just abandon their commitments.  Where does that leave those parts of the world?

I have no answers, but I believe these will be the biggies for whoever inherits the Presidency this time, and they will have to be dealt with sooner than later.

Domestically?  Well.  Health care is, I think, primary, for many reasons, and it’s clear that McCain wants to get the government out of the health care business.  It’s going to implode and he doesn’t want government involvement at any level.  But that’s not realistic.

The problem neither candidate has addressed yet is the shortage in G.P.s, which is accute.  It won’t matter what you do to shift payments around if the price keeps going up because doctors over-specialize.  So-called primary care physicians are getting scarce on the ground because (a) medical school debt is HUGE and general practitioners don’t make the coin to pay for it and (b) malpractice insurance is distorting all other costs.  Both factors need to be addressed before costs start coming down.  Preventative medicine is the way to go, but saying that doesn’t help anything if there aren’t enough consulting physicians  at the lowest level to counsel well care.

CEO compensation packages must be addressed.  I am loathe to see any kind of legislation limiting how much money a person can be paid, but it’s not the actual sums that are at issue.  It’s what those sums are paid out for.  If CEO pay was tied exclusively to improved performance, then the problem might correct itself, but if you pay someone that much just because the company didn’t do as badly as expected, then you have a fundamental disconnect.  That disconnect is exacerbated if while slowing the failure of a company is done while paying stockholders higher dividends from increased revenue from monkeying with the books, then you have a recipe for total collapse.  CEOs should only get bonuses while their companies are in the black and improving that way.

Alternative energy sources.  Another biggie and this one has probably the thorniest public relations problem.  The first thing we need to do is start telling people the truth about bio fuels and energy expectations—but that ties into education, which also needs reparing.  No Child Left Behind must be scrapped.

Just a few things that occurred to me while I was sitting here this morning.  And why I am not enthused about Obama.  He may well be the one to handle these issues, but I’m not going to put money on him being able to.  If anything, he has my sympathy.  No, I’m much more concerned about the congressional elections.  That’s where the power of this country really is.

Anyway, I just wanted to share some of these thoughts.  Have a good day.

MCB in D.C.

Below is a shot from the recently-completed National Book Festival, featuring Yours Truly at the Missouri table in the Pavilion of States.  The chaos behind us is typical of the day.  Seated is fellow board member Barri Bumgarner and the third person is from the Junior League (forgive me, I forget her name) without whom we would have been certifiably goofy by the end of the day. The one with the facial hair, of course, is me.
MCB in D.C.

Appearances Etc

I have been remiss.  I ought to be posting the things I’m doing publicly here (among other places) and it’s been just crazy enough that I keep forgetting to do this.  One of the reasons I need a publicist.  But that will have to wait till I have something new to publicize, like a book coming out or something writerly like that.

Meanwhile, I am doing things folks might be interested in.  So.

October 25th I will be at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, for the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers Guild annual conference. I will be the keynote speaker, plus I will be conducting a session on making the change from science fiction to historical writing.

On November 8th, the Missouri Center for the Book will be relaunching its annual Celebrations.  Again at Stephens College in Columbia.  There will be a link to the event as soon as it information is up on the web.I will be there with the rest of our board to conduct a day-long conference on Truth and Poetry.

Later in November will be a brand new event the MCB is co-sponsoring, which I am very excited about, with Cinema St. Louis and the St. Louis International Film Festival.

This will be a presentation of the film King of the Hill, which was based on the A.E. Hotchener memoir.  We’ll show the film, then have a panel discussion on the translation of book to film.  The producer will be there, people from the Missouri Historical Society, etc.  Go to the link and scroll down for the details (then view the rest of the SLIFF schedule; this is a very cool festival).  Our date is November 22nd.

Anyway, that’s what is happening relative to my schedule.  Still no word on a new book contract or anything like that, but fingers and toes are crossed (and recrossed) and hopefully something will break soon.

Yesterday was my birthday, a day I normally ignore.  Other people remember it for me, however, so I get reminded that I’ve gone through another year without being rich or famous.  But I am not bored.

Palin

She is rather insulting to the feminist ideal, isn’t she?  That said, look what she’s done so far.  She has served as a huge distraction from John McCain.  She’s been able to say things McCain now knows would be risky for him to say—all that stuff about Ayers and questioning Biden’s sincerity about running with someone he voted in opposition to in the Senate and so forth—and for a few weeks, everyone was talking about Sarah Palin and wondering just what was McCain thinking?

We have, of course, seen this before.  Spiro Agnew was the first I remember of second bananas who could fling turds at the opposition while the pres himself floated above the fray.  The question of qualifications and skeletons in closets was overlooked then, too.  The benefit of the distraction was enough.

Palin would be a terrible president, though, and this is worth thinking about.  Besides the obvious flaws, she’s an End Timer—a christian who believes the advent of rapture is right around the corner and we’ll all see Jesus in our lifetime.  (When people ask what is so dangerous about mixing religion and politics, this one is a deal killer for me.)  Bush has been advised by such people.  His cabinet has been advised by such people.  The Republican Party has been advised by such people.  But there has never been one actually in the White House.

What would prompt someone like this to actually do anything that looks to the future?  If you really believe the Rapture is that imminent, would you negotiate with people?  Would you bother with environmental stewardship?  Would you even concern yourself with Health Care issues?  Since we’ll all be about to go either to heaven or hell, who needs a secure national health care program?

I don’t actually have an answer to these questions.  I know what I think, but it’s an opinion.  But I do know I don’t want to find out.  Not through a road test.