Monthly Archives: June 2014

Inexpensive Trash Rhetoric

luxurious bedroom

So who’s winning the war?

“Their desperation is to play the class warfare card” [Herman Cain, on Fox News]

“Class warfare has been a potent campaign tactic in the Obama era” [Salena Zito, from Real Clear Politics]

“Quinn Unloads with Class Warfare Rhetoric” [Representative Joe Walsh, page title on his website, Walsh Freedom]

What if I said that a woman earning $9 an hour, who is responsible and works hard but struggles to live on her salary, should be paid enough to actually live, and that it is immoral not to pay her a decent wage? There are people out there right now who would line up to scream “class warfare!” at me.

The few quotes I’ve used above represent a tidal wave of rhetoric in current American politics referring to “class warfare”. In the last few years, this phrase has been used often, sometimes, perhaps, as a lazy summary of a valid point, but most of the time as a diversion from a valid point.

In rhetoric, using such a phrase is called a “red herring”. The metaphor originates as a reference to hunting, in which a dog following a trail can be distracted from what it is actually after into something irrelevant by someone throwing a smelly fish to one side. To translate this metaphor, if we are following a logical path of an argument, a red herring is intended to distract us to an irrelevant point by something that has a stronger emotional smell.

Technically, rhetoric is not about logic, it is about persuasion, and if it works, it works. And politics, as God almighty sitting on his throne knows, is not about logic. It is about power and winning.

The phrase “class warfare” literally would mean that people of one social class, normally defined by wealth, are engaging in physical fighting with members of another social class. Obviously, there is no actual war going on here, no acquisition of weapons (not by the poor, anyway), but the word “war” is such a powerful term, isn’t it? If you can make it sound like your opponents even consider starting a war, that makes them sound pretty bad, that they would stoop to destruction and violence.

If we were to use logic, we might say that in a war, people get hurt. So if a war is going on in America between rich and poor, who’s getting hurt?

Here in America, where we so loudly and so often pretend that even though, yeah, we sort of have social classes, it’s not like England, is it?, because here anybody can go from poor to rich just like whatever rare example I have on hand. So if you criticize the rich, you’re criticizing yourself! In a really, really abstract, theoretical way, criticizing who you could be, even though you’re not.

In addition, the phrase “class warfare” sounds like it might refer to Russia or some place that tried communism for a while. Or even worse, socialism! (If you have education, you probably see the stupidity in saying that socialism is worse, but this is rhetoric, not logic, and we’re talking about American politics.)

The next time you hear someone in America use the phrase “class warfare”, even if that person is wearing a suit and tie, even if they are sitting at a polished desk on TV, even if they speak in a calm voice—rhetorically, they are screaming and waving their arms in the air. They are saying, in effect, one of two things: (1) “Even though I have a real point, I don’t respect you enough to rationally explain it”; or, much more likely, (2) “I can’t discuss this topic logically, because I know I’ll lose.”

And I bet whoever says it is getting paid more than $9 an hour. Because a woman waiting on the bus to go home after working her low-paid job is too tired to start a war.

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I Don’t Actually Need to Break Your Bones

people-in-boxesSticks and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me

 

 

If you grew up speaking English on this planet, you must know that little rhyme. Isn’t it remarkable that something so well known could be so incredibly wrong? Though considering what often passes for knowledge, maybe it’s not so incredible.

A label of only one word can carry such enormous consequences that it’s stunning to contemplate such power in a word. Take the United States in 1970: faggot; here in Georgia in 1950: Negro; Germany in 1940: Jew.

We face a world of such complexity that making sense of the mighty deluge around us can be a strain, and often, we don’t even bother with thinking about the complications. So we shut down or take shortcuts. One of the pernicious shortcuts we’ve figured out is that with a single word we can—supposedly—summarize another person into useful information. There’s so much less to think about that way. The examples above are fairly obvious, but more subtle labels can impede your life and stop you from attaining your full potential. It might be something you don’t even notice.

What if you have a chemical change in your body, something you can’t see, that gives you a defect in processing sugar? Then suppose we forget about the fact that you sing solos in the church choir, that when you were in the Girl Scouts you discovered you like reading to children, that you like to water ski, and that you grow better orchids than anyone has ever seen? Instead, in answer to the question “who are you” we just say: a diabetic. That’s your identity. Notice the article “a” there, creating a noun. You are not a person who has diabetes and who does many things that have nothing to do with the disease—no, what you are is a diabetic.

Even as an adjective, a label reduces a person to a simple idea, gets rid of the annoying complexity, and makes it easy to know how to treat that person, based on our attitude toward the label. Gay? Yeah, I know you. As soon as I know your label, I don’t have to work to figure out who you are. Muslim? Republican? I know your type.

While labels help to make the maelstrom of reality simpler, they do not express reality, and by using them, we are creating mental walls against reality. It’s understandable why we want to make life easier. Life is hard. There’s nothing reprehensible in the desire to simplify (often described as a virtue), but in simplifying life by putting labels on other humans, we create problems as vast as slavery or genocide.

Or as intimately traumatic as a quick spoken insult to a boy in high school. Autistic freak.

[I’m going to end this blog entry with a little personal note. This week I learned that I’ve been hired for a job as a Manuscript Editor (basically, a copy editor) for the medical journal Arthritis Care and Research here in Atlanta. Other than about six months in Asbestos Funland, I’ve been seriously looking for a job for four years. That’s 1, 2, 3, 4. This job also takes me to a goal I started back in New Jersey ten years ago, to make the transition from English professor to medical writer or editor. When I started I didn’t know much science, so I thought I should start with the basics. I was getting up at 6:00 a.m. to read a chemistry textbook, and—I’m not making this up—I was making models of molecules with gumdrops and toothpicks. I figured that with enough time, I could acquire the knowledge and experience to reach this goal. I had no idea that “enough time” was going to be 10 years.]

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Birds Betwittering Between the Bushes

limesWhile we speak of birds, I’ve heard that crows like things that glitter. I somewhat like things that glitter myself. Plus I dress all in black sometimes. Humans have something else in common with crows (besides me). We like audio glitter, little sparkles of sound that catch the attention. Repetition does this, and that repetition is so popular we’ve even made up special words to describe different varieties.

When the repetition is at the end of words, for instance “dumbo” and “jumbo” (and I don’t mean you), obviously we call that “rhyme”. The repetition of sound can also occur at the beginning of a word, which we call “alliteration”. It’s very popular, but these days in America alliteration seems to be used mostly for naming businesses: Dunkin Donuts, Kwik Kopy, Krispy Kreme, Best Buy, Circuit City.

In the artistic revolution of the 20th century, when the rules for pretty much everything went to hell, form in poetry (in English, at least) was abandoned, and yes, I know, not everyone followed the rule to have no rules. Robert Frost held out. Still, one of the mainstays of English poetry for hundreds of years—rhyme—was generally thrown away.

Long before rhyme ruled, the alternative audio glitter of alliteration was the popular technique in English poetry. I’m talking about Old English poetry, not Shakespeare (who is considered modern), but waaaay old English, the time of Beowulf. More than 1,000 years ago. At that time it was popular to create poetry in which individual lines used as much alliterative repetition as possible.

A couple of months ago I began a poem while sitting in a meeting, bored to death, and the first line came out with alliteration. That gave me the idea to try it on the whole poem. (Note: it’s hard as hell to write like this.) Here it is.

Two Margaritas

A lonely amber light lies on the rolling land.
Outside the airplane window, wind blows the clouds away.
Silent, sitting thinking, Sam sees sunlight on a lake.
Far above, he feels the weight of his forsaken heart.

With a drink on her deck as the dusk falls,
Susannah sees the swallows swoop above the lake.
Glancing up, she gazes at the glimmer from the plane.
Somber-eyed, she sighs, and slowly takes a drink.

A cup of coffee in the air, the cart comes down the aisle.
Two more hours to Tucson, to an empty hotel room.
Back behind in Boston, no beloved waits, none calls.
Whether home or hotel room, he hates the hollow hours.

For Susannah, love felt safe, so satisfied, so sure,
until Ray taught her otherwise and told her he was tired.
Now she knows, and knows too well, that nothing’s guaranteed.
Belief betrayed her, broke her heart, brought empty, sleepless nights.

Sam throws his thoughts ahead, thinks about the evening.
He wants to walk into his room, abandon work and worry,
find a Mexican restaurant, maybe make it to a movie.
While streetlights glow, like stars below, across the sweep of land.

Susannah rises to the rail, where watery rays of light reflect.
She doesn’t like the demons here, she thinks she’ll drive downtown.
She’s in the mood for Mexican food, she might take in a movie.
While streetlights glow, like stars in a row, across the sweep of land.

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These Provide the Basis for Diagnosis Indeed

English languageDon’t you think the title on this blog sounds like Sherlock Holmes talking to Dr. Watson? Well, I do. But in fact, it’s a slightly varied version of a real sentence I found in a journal article I was editing this week. This article was on engineering research, some work that shows up in my email a couple of times a year, written by a scientist whose native language is not English. I removed the word “indeed”, which merely indicates enthusiasm, in addition to sounding weird in science writing.

That article got me to thinking about the use of English hither and yon, that is to say, on the planet earth. Did English soldiers sailing off from England in 1760, heading for America or India, have any notion they were helping to create a world language? Did writers in Hollywood in the 1930s, coming up with lines for Humphrey Bogart, suspect they were doing this? Or kids on the streets of Philadelphia in the 1960s, singing harmony in groups and hoping to get a record contract, could they have imagined they were helping to turn that doowop language into a world force?

So now we have it. Scientists from China, from Portugal, from Egypt—everywhere, in fact—publish articles in English. Every international flight in the world requires that flight crews and control towers be able to speak to each other in English. Years ago, when I was a wee tyke (1979), I went off to Russia, and for some reason went into a bank. I could not have had much money, but apparently enough to go to a bank. There was a man in front of me who I recall as being German, no doubt from his accent. He struggled along a minute in Russian with the Russian teller, then he said, “Do you speak English?” The teller said yes, and they finished up easily in English.

English is very obviously the international language, and according to Wikipedia it is the most widely used language in the world, perhaps in terms of number of speakers (1.8 billion) or perhaps in terms of widespread use. Some people will say that English might be replaced someday. After all, look at other widespread languages from the past: Latin—Pretty much dead. Aramaic—Have you even heard of it? It was extremely common and is believed to be the language Jesus spoke. Greek—Greek was common? (Yes) French—Yeah, well, that’s over.

These examples are misleading, however. In reality, if we think of international as meaning the entire earth, there has never actually been an international language before English. There has even been talk recently proposing English as a general European language, at least for the European Parliament. The premier of China once estimated that 300 million Chinese were studying English (hint: that’s almost equal to the total population of the United States). If something else replaces English, the entire earth will have to participate in doing that, as the entire earth uses English.

I once knew a woman planning to go work abroad, and I asked if she was going to teach English. She became offended and said she was not going to go impose her language on other people. I respect her respect for other languages, but it’s not exactly imposing when people are clamoring for it.

You can feel how you will, that English as an international language is wonderful, and now you don’t have to study some godawful foreign language, or you can consider it terrible that one language is dominating all the others, but the facts of usage are clear. I want to say here that much as I love the British, it’s frustrating to hear them come so close to speaking correctly and then get it wrong. (It’s not a spanner, mate, it’s a wrench.)

And more and more people are speaking English, yall know what I’m saying? That’s how it is, amigo. You want to be a citizen of the world, you gotta speak English. Moi? I say “indeed”.

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