Sunday, November 12

Language for Sale

Here's what I don't get. I don't get why we (whoever that is, could be almost anyone in this case) allow ownership of words when, in reality, words belong either to all of us or to none of us (I lean toward the latter). But in this case, (as in so many other cases) reality just doesn't matter. We give words away all the time, and I think the worst offenders are those on the political left.

And we don't just let 'em slip away. Oh, no, that would be so passive. Here's how I think we really do it.

It seems like we go to a lot of trouble, actually. Someone takes the time to gather up the words (i.e. into a phrase), usually throw in a few weapons for good measure, wrap 'em up in celebratory yet serious wrapping paper (with pretty bows), and send them priority overnight to our friends at the Heritage Foundation. They receive them with glee (even right wing zealots love to get mail), open them up, get on the intercom and, with great excitement, call their compatriots to join them in the conference room, and-I-mean-now. WE GOT NEW WORDS!!! They do a little right wing dance, put their hairdos and suits back in place and sit down in their leather chairs at their 20 foot polished mahogany conference table, and get ready for business. First task, an age-old ritual called "Pass the Mirror". The person--oh, who am I kidding--the Man at the head of the table takes out of a special locked case a simple yet elegant hand-held mirror. For the next hour or so, the mirror is passed to the attendees one at a time, with great solemnity, and each, awed to be senior enough to be present at the Unveiling of the Words, takes it with the appropriate reverence. They don't need any instructions. Anyone who has made it this far knows the drill.

Look directly into the mirror. Do not shift gaze, do not glance at others to gauge their response.
Practice looking outraged, shocked, or disgusted (any of these are acceptable).
And then, slowly at first, but gaining in speed as comfort increases, say the Words.
Say the words again.
Pause between each utterance. Get the feel of the words in your mouth.
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
Repeat until they sound natural, like they emanated from your own heart and mind, or most ideally, like your grandmother used to say them to you as you sat on her knee.
[This last step can take up to five minutes, but gets much quicker over time]
Pass the mirror to the participant on your right. NEVER, and I repeat, NEVER pass to the left.
Congratulations. The Words are now yours.

Okay, okay. so I don't know that this is exactly the way it happens (I can hear my daughter berating me: "How do you know that's what happens?" She's a stickler for details). It is how I imagine it, and if it isn't like this, it's gotta be close. Maybe they get them in a memo: "Words of the Day" or "Words that Now Belong To Us - Today's Edition". Or maybe they come by Lemming Express. One thing I know for sure--by the next morning, those words are theirs. Theirs to define, theirs to use, theirs to stand by, theirs to announce to the press, which in nearly all of its forms immediately adapts to this designated usage. And this is where it falls so clearly into the category of things I don't get.

Where are the word police? Where are the protesters at the door with the placards reminding us of other potential definitions? Where are the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Homeland Security (which makes my mouth feel dirty even to just say its name), who are supposed to protect the public from delivery of dangerous packages? Where are the librarians who, with the best of dictionaries close at hand, can offer independent verification of definition? Where are the historians to remind us of the era in which the words had, in fact, a definition that differed by 180 degrees? Where are the high school English teachers and Rhetoric coaches to emphasize the importance of originality and specificity? Where are the moms with their ardent admonition: "So if Joey jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge [Empire State Building, insert regional landmark as appropriate] that means you have to do it too?"

I know. To the academic mind, it is a simple reminder that words do not exist in absolute terms, but only in the context of social institutions (yeah, I can write that way, but only do so under duress). Well, sure. But it still makes me burn. And the increase in heat that comes from rarely hearing anyone else yelling about it is damn near excruciating.

The right is really good at this. Ownership. And the Democrats (who do not particularly represent the left, but are the largest organized force that even pretends to sort of kind of partially speak for the interest of, shall we say, the more liberal element of society) don't do a darn thing about it. And neither do we. Yup, I mean you and me.

They say homosexual agenda. We (when we're not laughing) say okay. Or maybe we don't say okay, but we say we can't do anything about the words that they use or the silly ideas that they have. Bullshit.

They say activist judges. We let it go, as if there are no historical or current examples of judicial activism that stand in direct contrast to their definition (which we all understand, of course). Like, oh....say....the 2000 presidential election?

They say partial-birth abortion (a term coined by pro-life groups, not the name of a procedure, just in case you didn't know). Now this one, I will admit we haven't just "let go". Many people have really tried (The proper term is "D & X" or even "Late-term abortion") but none have been really had much effect on the usage of that term by the mainstream press, even those with editorial or production staff who heartily disagree with the phrase.

They say "family values" (my personal favorite). Don't even get me started on that one. You don't have enough time.

They say "special rights". They say "fringe element" (they're obviously not talking about themselves). They say "special interest groups" They say "creation science" (give me a break) They say "moral values". They say "God". They say "liberal media". They say "cloning". They say "parents rights" They say "no child left behind". Don't make me choke.

I don't get it. What is it? Are we afraid of words? Are we afraid to go over and snatch those words right back and yell NO! in our best Model Mugging voices? Do we lack the power of numbers that would allow us to redefine words and phrases (I don't think so, not even close). Do we imagine that we're not harmed by letting a small but powerful segment of the political landscape define our cultural and media vocabulary?

I know, I can hear you. The left has its words too. Okay, let's hear 'em. "Radical religious right". Okay. Ouch, that one hurts (isn't it kinda just descriptive?) you notice how few of these are right on the tip of the tongue?)...."culture of corruption" (?) "progressive politics" (?) "common good" (do you know what that means?), "social security lockbox" (ooh, that one's catchy). Do you see what I mean?

I take some umbrage (not much, but I'll take what I can get) that others are talking about this subject (not that you've heard of them, which is kinda my point, but still....). Check this out...pretty interesting, even if he is from Berkeley and so is potentially completely dismissable (just kidding!) You know, he's an academic, and probably says what I mean better (or longer, at the very least) than I can say it. So take a look and see what you think.

A quick excerpt from this book's introduction, published in July of this year (one of his other books is called "Going Nucular"--don't ya love it?):

"Talk to most people about "political language" and they're likely to think of the language that politicians and pundits use when they're trying to rouse public support for particular candidates and policies. Most of the books and articles on political rhetoric concentrate on the language of speeches and public pronouncements, rather than the language that ordinary people use when they are talking about political topics—not surprising, since until recently those were the only records of political language available, and scholars naturally congregate where the light is. But while the language of politicians and pundits is ultimately aimed at persuading people to act in certain ways, it can only get there by first persuading them to talk in certain ways. As John Dewey observed, it's only in private conversation that political opinion crystallizes, as people absorb the words they read or hear from on high and incorporate the ideas they stand for into the stories they tell about politics and their lives. Language is a kind of informal plebiscite: when we adopt a new word or alter the usage of an old one, we're casting a voice vote for a particular point of view......
.....And it doesn't take much longer than that to track the way class warfare waxes and wanes in the press and the online discussion groups according to the political climate, or to determine whether conservative or liberal writers are more likely to use the word redneck. As a window on public opinion, language can hardly take the place of polls and surveys. Language comes at the world from a different angle, more oblique but in its own way just as telling, if you read it right. The appearance of new phrases like "the liberal mindset" and "hidden agenda"; the shifting meanings of elite, liberal, government, or patriot; or even the fact that conservatives tend to say "you liberals" a lot more than liberals say "you conservatives"—all these things testify to the way political attitudes are embedded in the words that people use to express them. It's only when you look at those patterns of usage that you discover how deep the Democrats' linguistic problems go. Over recent decades, the left has lost the battle for the language itself. When we talk about politics nowadays—and by "we" I mean progressives and liberals as well as conservatives and people in the center—we can't help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.

Wow. I'm such a trend setter. Oh. Wait. He wrote the book before I wrote this. So maybe he's the trend setter, and I'm just a blind follower. Ick. But wait again. I didn't know about the book until just now when I did a google search (I searched under "language of the political left", just so's you know) as I was writing this entry. Well, in any case, I know there's at least one other person in the world (and probably a few who bought the book) who thinks as much about these things as I do (and here you are thinking I have too much time on my hands--someone wrote a WHOLE BOOK about this! Bet you'll never say THAT again! Ha!)

Not to leave this whole thing on a downer...we have made strides. The feminist movement was apparently powerful enough (imagine) to change (for many) "chairman" to "chair" (or chairperson, though I think that's a kind of silly word), to change (sometimes) "men" to "people"....

Side almost 7 year old noticed that on TV yesterday. She was watching one of her favorite science shows, this one about human evolution (the topic of choice for the last 8 or 9 months) or, as she puts it "hominids", and suddenly, she looks up and says "Why do they always say 'man' to mean men AND women"? (love that kid) I said "Well, language is funny like that. A lot of times, people use "man" to mean all people, men and women. Maybe they just think it's easier to say that one word, and it does technically MEAN all people" (or something kind of like that, I can't exactly remember). She looked at me in silence for a couple of minutes. Then she said "I think they say it becuase they don't think that women and girls are as important as men and boys". I couldn't help but smile, and say "Well, you might be right about that" (trying as hard as I can to be an even-handed parent, but geez....) [insert mental picture here of me doing a happy dance]

...and now back to our regularly scheduled programming....

Like I was saying, there have been some words or phrases that have been contributed to the general public discourse by the left. Global warming (though again, that's kind of just descriptive of a scientific phenomenon) came from the left. Actually, though it's kind of the ultimate irony, "Leave no Child Behind" came from the left, and stood in good stead for a pretty long time until it was co-opted by the Bush administration. I still think that was stolen, but it wouldn't be the first thing that was stolen, so at least it's consistent.

I guess what I've been trying to say is that I don't get why this happens, but we've got to do something about it. Remember Take Back the Night? Powerful, wasn't it? And sad that it has faded from its original intensity. We need do whatever it takes to Take Back the Language. Sign me up for the march.

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains unone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything."

This morning, I was in the newspaper! (sorta)

Well, would you looky here (is that how you spell looky? or is it lookie?) I couldn't resist, after that first entry, putting this up on the blog. As you may (or may not!) have noticed (or maybe you just thought I was a tease), I have had no time or energy to write (it can be exhausting to cogitate excessively on what you don't get, ya know), so I thought I'd pass this on, and write more later on the many events of the week. You would think I would have been typing my not-so-little fingers off with the change in power, the Rumsfeld demise, the defeat of the anti-gay movement in Massachusetts, the election of an African-American Democrat to the governorship of Massachusetts, the departure of Rick Santorum, and, of course, the Britney/Kevin split.

Think again.

I'm no pundit. This is no place too look for savvy political commentary. I know, I know, you thought I was so well-informed. Nah, I'm just opinionated. I could write for hours on how I don't get why no one makes home fries as good as the Brick Hut (sob) in Berkeley used to make them, and why no one else (that I've ever encountered) has ever seemed to catch on to their idea of making them with somewhat burnt and largely unrecognizable but delicious green bell peppers and onions and serving them with a little dollop (I love that word--don't you love that word...dollop dollop dollop) of sour cream on top. It's really really good that way--why doesn't anyone else do that? And if you ask for sour cream, boy they look at you weird (and I'm not so into being looked at weird). And don't be telling me it's because it's fattening and we're in a new health-conscious mode. Not where I go. Have you seen what else is on those plates? A little sour cream wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. What would it take? Scoop. Flick. Yum. Three steps. How hard is that?

See? These are the things that strike me as important. I don't know the ins and outs of why Rick Santorum lost, why George Allen almost won, whether it's the war that changed people's leanings, whether this is just a swing of a natural pendulum, or what. And aside from learning (for future reference, doncha know) what factors help to sway an election to a more liberal (not afraid of that word 'round these parts) stance (if that's indeed what happened, which I wouldn't swear by), I don't really care (gasp!). I'm glad that the Democrats are in the majority, I'm glad some bad-hearted people are out, and I'm really glad that lots and lots of people showed up to vote (which is always good for the Democrats, which says something right there). I'm not dancing in the streets (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I'm glad. Now slap some sour cream on those home fries and I'll be all set.

Oh, and I'm really really really glad that the referendum to outlaw excessive use of parentheses didn't pass. If you voted no, I thank you.

"Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind--even if your voice shakes"
--Maggie Kuhn

Tuesday, November 7


Welcome to my blog.

I've been thinking about doing this for a long time, but have fallen into doubt over whether I have enough tenacity to keep it up. God knows I have enough things to say--give the girl a soapbox--but writing them all down, and putting them out there for somone else to see, now that's a different story.

In any case, welcome. You probably are here because you already know me and I told you to come here (and in that case, thank you, and you are very good at following directions!). However, if this project were limited only to people I know, well, that would just be like having dinner and chatting (assuming you leave comments), which, now that I think of it, would be kind of nice, so never mind. What I meant to say is that if you find the writing interesting, that is, if it prompts you to think or actually say something (leave a comment, pass a thought on to someone else, plant yourself in a chair at anywhere-but-starbucks and gaze out at the vast expanse of sky and wonder at the profundity of it all--you get the idea), then PLEASE pass this blog address on to someone else. Who knows, maybe that person will be the hundredth monkey, the tipping point, the straw that broke the camel's back, or even the one who will lead the movement to ban trite catch phrases! So, spread the word.

I bet you want to know why I am calling this blog "Here's What I Don't Get" Humor me, say you wanted to know. Tell you what. Just nod your head at the computer screen, that'll be fine.
Oh, I'm so glad you asked. I am calling it "Here's What I Don't Get" because I am terminally confused. I am confused at why people are so rude, I am confused about how people can ignore the way that our country is sliding ever-so-stealthily into facsism (although check back with me later, it's election day today, I might be moved to a brief moment of slight optimism).

On that note, did you vote? If you didn't, well, I hate to be so off-putting, but I think you should leave this blog right now. And don't come back. Even if you are one of my friends (to think that one of my friends wouldn't seems completely impossible). I mean it. You have to vote. It seems pointless sometimes, I'll give you that. And yup, it may be actually pointless if the election is rigged or stolen through the perversion of technology and the profileration of evil minds (which is entirely possible). Do it anyway. Do it only so that you can meet the standard that my parents set for me (I know, but this was one of the good ones): If you don't vote, you can't bitch. Okay they didn't say bitch, they would never say that. They said "If you don't vote, you can't complain". But bitch has such a better bite to it, so I use it. Deal with it. I mean, come on, you want to complain. You want to speak up about what you think is right and wrong with our society, our government, our laws.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. The first amendment and all that--a guy I had this conversation with reminded me emphatically that he could still bitch, complain, whine, work for justice, whatever, whether or not he voted--that that's our right as Americans. So, in the interest of fair reporting and full disclosure (or whatever)--YES, of course, you can still complain if you don't vote. YES, it's your constitutional right to speak out no matter what. YES, those rights can not be taken away (well...actually....never mind, let's not go there). You're right. You can do whatever you please.

But it lacks integrity. It lacks oomph. It lacks style. It lacks courage. It lacks accountability. Your vote is your voice, at least one way of shouting it out. It's not the only way. It better not be the only voice you express. But it's part of the package. So get off your duff and go do it.

Good. I thank you, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, and your country....well, never mind. Good job.

I was talking about the name of the blog..remember the name? You know, I really agree with the idea that being smart is about knowing what you don't know, knowing that you don't know, always looking for answers and understanding. I strive for that. And at least one of those parts I've got down cold. There is so much I don't get. So so much. More than you, I bet. But let's not get competitive. Here's the list, just as it occurs to me this morning..

I don't get why people don't smile at each other, what harm it would do them.
I don't get why people follow leaders blindly.
I don't get why people let huge and obvious blunders just pass without comment (like, let's say, weapons of mass destruction as the reason for invading Iraq)
I don't get why people let their two year old children drink coca-cola.
I don't get why people laugh at other people.
I don't get why people think it's fun to drink too much.
I don't get why people don't get the separation of church and state. It just seems so simple.
I don't get why anyone would spend $800 on a baby stroller--are the wheels rounder?(did you know that those strollers you see everyone pushing around these days cost $800 plus? Well, they do)
I don't get why people who have lots of money get expensive things free and why people who have no money have to pay more for everything (I know, I'm the daughter of an economist, I should understand that, but I don't. So there)
I don't get why such a huge section of America is so interested in what brand of jeans movie stars wear, and worse yet, why they go out and spend money that they don't have to have the same ones)
I don't get why extraordinarly violent movies and video games are fun.
I don't get why people let their six year old girls walk around with shorts that say "darling" across the butt, while professing to be disturbed that kids are are not allowed to be kids anymore.
I don't get why people wear uncomfortable shoes. For that matter, I don't get why people wear shoes at all. Maybe it's so they don't cut their feet on the detritus left from careless littering, which I don't get either (ah...a subject for a future blog!)
I don't get why people defend gun ownership when our children are dying every day.
I don't get why Daylight Savings Time is in the summer, when it's the winter when we need to save daylight. There's plenty of it in the summer, isn't there? For that matter, why do we need to change our clocks at all--are we so unable to deal with the reality of nature's clock?
I don't get why people don't believe in evolution, and I don't get why it's incompatible with religious belief. Have they never visited the zoo and noticed the vague similarities between us and gorillas or chimpanzees?
I don't get why, when people don't believe in evolution, they say it's a "theory", as if all of science is not based on theory (like, say, gravity).
I don't get why cashiers get so confused when my bill is $5.76 and I give them $11 and a penny.
I don't get it why people talk out loud on their cell phones everywhere, and I definitely don't get how to stop that from happening.
I don't get it why our national policy seems to be "Close the Barn Door After The Horse is Out"
I don't get it why it's unthinkable (and worthy of war) for any country in the world to have nuclear weapons, but great for us to have them.
I don't get why baseball players and actresses make millions of dollars and teachers make almost nothing. And I don't get why we smile in gratitude when those baseball players and actresses talk on TV about how important our teachers are without really doing anything to change that imbalance.
I don't get why taking care of children isn't "real" work.
I don't get the concept of having "enough friends" and so being unavailable to do things with potential new friends.
I don't get why being smart is a bad thing, and being popular is a good thing.
I don't get why people think that standardized testing will improve education.
I don't get why parents sit and chat while their children treat other children (or adults)with disrespect.
I don't get why so many boys (and sometimes men) continue (i.e. past toddlerhood) to hold their forks in their fists. (if you haven't noticed this,'ll see)
I don't get why nearly everyone thinks that it's natural and normal for people to vote for policy that benefits themselves, rather than that which benefits people who may need the government far more than they do.
I don't get why people fall for negative campaigning, why it changes polling and voting numbers at the same time as people condemn it.
I don't get why people don't pick up after their dogs.
I don't get why people don't talk to their neighbors. Or listen to them.
I don't get why people can't understand that poverty is a source of violence.
I don't get why they don't make cute footy pajamas for adults.
I don't get why people honk excessively (okay, the people don't honk, their cars do)
I don't get it why parents buy little boys camouflage clothing.
I don't get why there are "boys" toy and "girls" toy aisles at Toys R Us and I really don't get why people freak out at the suggestion that that is not a good idea.
I don't get why so many young women are so quick to say they're not feminists while they benefit daily from the work of feminism.
I don't get why good teaching is so underrated, and why children pay the price for bad teaching, rather than teachers.
I don't get why people value sports more than the arts in our schools.

As you can see, there is plenty to write about under the title of "Here's What I Don't Get".

So, you ask, is there anything you do get? Well, my answers might just surprise you. There are some things that I think I do get, which is not to say that I agree with them, just that I think I have some insight into them. Of course, I don't completely get anything, so you can rest easy.

I get why people hit their children and pets. I hate it, but I get it.
I get why people find it so hard to get out of poverty.
I get why baby clothes often have feet attached.
I get why people sometimes kill themselves (I do not get why, if they're going to do that anyway, they sometimes kill other people first)
I get why children need immunizations.
I get (on some level) why critical thinking is so threatening.
I get why history is a really important subject (I didn't get this when I was in school)
I get why there's a full moon once a month (approximately)

You can see that this list, at least as I can generate it off the top of my head, is much shorter. I told you. There's a lot I don't get. (Hey, do me a favor...If you know something that I get that I don't know that I get, will you let me know? Thanks). So that's what I'm here for. Maybe you can respond with your comments or your own blog about what you don't get, what you do get, or help me to understand what I don't get. That way, we all grow. Peace, man.

And one more thing....whenever possible, I'm going to put a quote or phrase that I like at the bottom of this blog. Do with it what you will.

Tomorrow (or the next day), I start in on the hard stuff. This was just an introduction...can you imagine?


"If going to church makes you a Christian, does going to the garage make you a car?"