Archive | August, 2010

No pride, no re-election

30 Aug

photocredit: zenobia_joy

In a recent poll, 61% don’t think the economy has improved during Obama’s watch. Only 41% believe he is doing a good job on the economy. This is in spite of a stimulus bill and a full-court press partnership with the Federal Reserve that has, according to most economists, staved off a second Great Depression, and has turned devastating monthly job losses into meager, but encouraging, job gains. Who’s to blame for this public thumbs down? The administration, of course.

One of the most subtle tasks as president is setting the tone of public discourse. As the nation’s leader, and the most visible and powerful American alive, the president must not only manage his own message, but nudge the debate around him toward favorable lighting. One of the most effective communicators the campaign trail has ever seen has been unable to do either.

The problem for Democrats this fall is two-fold: a Republican party that has put a good-enough spin on the decrepit state of their political existence and turned it into an asset, opting for the “body in the hallway” approach to legislating (“We were sleeping in the hallway when this all happened–don’t blame us!”); and a Democratic party with phenomenal legislative successes that is unable to go past limping speed. Considering this situation it’s easy to understand why Congressman Anthony Weiner of NY lambasted Republicans for objecting to a bill providing health services to those affected by the 9/11 (Video here). He verbalized what many observers are thinking: Obstructionism is lazy and irresponsible, and Republicans are getting away with it.

The burden of proof is on the Democrats. They need to be their own best cheerleaders. They need to be proud enough of their achievements for us to believe they are doing something worth applauding.

Their achievements thus far are more substantial that any other Congress in recent memory in such a short amount of time. Yet, hearing them talk about those victories, and the election season they are in, you’d think they were ashamed of themselves, crossing their fingers that voters will still like them in November.

Democrats need to be more like Republicans: cheer twice for themselves, then cheer again for good measure! Democrats, in particular the president, cannot hide behind their accomplishments. They need to be in front of them, touting their horn and instilling pride in their sympathetics. The Iraq War is beginning it’s end. That is worth cheering about. The economy is stumbling, but not near the cliff’s edge anymore. That is worth cheering about. No one else will communicate that message for the Dems. And no one wants to vote for the sheepish guy.

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Word Play

6 Aug

photocredit: meddygarnet

Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer, was one of the most outspoken members of the third wave of feminism. She was often cast as an “outsider” within the small cadre of feminist writers, mainly because she added a racial component to women studies. She believed that to overlook the difference between the plight of white women and black women was another form of patriarchal oppression. A racial slave-master relationship within the gender slave-master relationship. She also believed feminism should derive its power from without, not within, since:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

These were powerful words then, and today. It not only speaks to the power of traditions and social structures, but to any social element.

The social power of something (be they institutions, parties, laws, or words) is mainly derived from its context and its history. Each of these elements have their own baggage, from the past and present.

There is an ongoing debate on where the power of words comes from. A simple string of words can be as influential in our society as a public demonstration or the passage of a law. They are bricks that build the house. Racial epithets, labels, curse words, categories, or even trend-setting words are like social dynamos that build and change our social web in real-time.

Racial slurs, for example, carry a lot of weight for most people. They not only embody the cutting word, but the history attached to its existence, the consequences of it being said in the past, and the “meaning” behind its utterance. Most of its power is related to its intention: “nigger”, which has a lot of negative racial history can be used by the African-American community as a term of endearment or familiarity; a gay man calling a gay friend a “queen” is different than when the word is uttered by a homophobic stranger. It’s the context, coupled with the history, that tells you what the word truly “means.” Because of this complexity, many believe those words should not be said at all, by anyone. Any word that has the potential of offending someone should be banned from our daily discourse.

Late comedian Lenny Bruce used to use racist labels in his shows all the time. He would start by pointing out the various minorities and white members in the audience, and calling them by their corresponding racist terms, sometimes to their face. Then he would stop, crack up, and shake hands with the audience members. According to Lenny, saying them out loud for no real reason removed the power behind those words. The context of uneasiness was gone; it was just another word. What we brought with us when we said the word is what made it a potent derisive.

Feminists and gays often try to “take back” a word: cunt, fag, bitch. It is their word, and they want to be able to use it on their terms, without outsiders using it against them. Sort of like the example above with the African-American community: they want the word to mean what they want it to mean.

The question that follows these lines of reasoning is: can these tools dismantle the house? Can these words, rejiggered, be used to mend problems like racism, sexism, and homophobia? Can words like “hick” or “ghetto” help fix classism in our society? Or are they all a part of the problem? Should we start anew with our vocabulary, or possibly cleanse it of the problem words in there already?

When consensus gives a word a positive connotation (“patriotism,” ” courage,”  “genius,”  “excellence”), these can be used for constructive or destructive aims, as well.

The label of “genius” is widely debated, and when given to someone there is no shortage of dissenters. What makes genius? Is it early shows of brilliance, or a capacity to adapt and evolve to unparalleled heights. Is Pablo Picasso a genius for emerging as a young and innovative painter, or is Paul Cezanne the genius as a late bloomer that learned progressively throughout many decades?

What we decide makes a genius or not matters, because then this is the yardstick we use for other members of our society. Knowing what makes someone spectacular (and thereby making them worthy of a “genius” title) can spread out into the fields of education, business, politics, and family life. Today, when we think of “attractive,” models on magazine covers come to mind: tall, skinny, thin lips. Fifty years ago, “attractive” was said of full figured, curvaceous, shorter women. The word made us all understand who was what, even though we didn’t know why.

What do we mean by “patriot” (supportive of the country/critical and looking for improvements)?

What is “safe” (doing what we know/learning the unknown)?

What does “liberal,” “conservative,” “religious” mean today?

The weight our words carry is then spread out throughout society. What is said is not static, but flows through our interaction with the rest of the world, and our understanding of what the world is.

The debate will go on as to who decides what a word truly means, the impact, and how we measure both, but one thing is not debatable: words matter.

They are tools, and they will either help us build, destroy, or modify our house. Using words as weapons will not fix anything. It will only destroy the house, and let the rubble take up the space indefinitely.

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