Thursday, January 11, 2018

Co-opting and Controlling

The Emotional Violence of the Words We Use 

In last week’s New Yorker Comment, Louis Menand decries the Word of the Year choices by various dictionary publishers. (Decries. Now there’s a word. Have you ever heard anyone speak that word out loud? What’s the word for “written-text-only words”? Anyway, if I ever heard anyone speak decries out loud, not only would I disagree with the sentence, that person would not be my friend. But I digress…)

Louis Menand’s point is not only that words like youthquake, feminism, and populism are lame choices for Word of the Year, but that 2017, an abysmal year for the English language, just wasn’t a year for choosing a Word of the Year. As Menand explains,
In national politics, you no longer need evidence or reason. You no longer need to make an argument. You need only to assert. If your assertion is questioned, you need only to repeat it. 
I’m optimistic enough to believe—for now, anyway—that this may be true, but not a truism (if that makes any sense); the Trump-monkeys will tire and return to their couches (there are, after all, Kardashians to keep up with), and the latest wave of American willful ignorance will recede. But it is instructive, I think, to explore some of the emotional violence, both direct and insidious, that we do to each other with the words we use. I experience this violence constantly these days, as I expect many of you do, too.

Fake News 

Menand actually touches on this term in his comment, saying “’Fake’ and ‘hoax’ are the ‘abracadabra’s of the Trump world, words recited to make inconvenient facts disappear.” Others have pointed this out, of course, but very few mention the modern origin of the term, fake news. It was Jon Stewart, of all people, who popularized the term to describe his own TV program, “The Daily Show.” Fifteen years ago, researchers discovered that millions of people, particularly young people, were getting their daily dose of news from “The Daily Show.” This prompted supposedly real-news pundits like Tucker Carlson, then on CNN, to criticize the quality and objectivity of “Daily Show” interviews and field pieces, which left Stewart understandably incensed. (He’s a comedian, after all.) He countered, most memorably in a 2004 appearance with Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire,” “We’re fake news! The lead-in to my show is puppets making crank phone calls!” And now, of course, we can only long for the innocent days when fake news referred to intentionally comedic reporting that somehow managed to deliver more truth than all the CNNs, MSNBCs, and Fox News’s on the planet. Donald Trump and his soiled minions have now co-opted a perfectly good term that encapsulated a perfectly good element of a perfectly good and pleasant era in American popular culture, and they’ve turned it into an infantile trigger warning to their willfully ignorant base—people who do not give and have never given a hoot about the actual “news” (not too many copies of the New York Times or even the Wall Street Journal flying off the racks in Podunk, Oklahoma these days), but are downright Pavlovian when it comes to juice-flowing responses to their Idiot-in-Chief, or anyone else who professes hatred of Obama, hatred of Liberals, and hatred of big government. The statement “You’re fake news” has zero credibility. The statement “We’re fake news” is overflowing with it.

Gold Star Families 

Okay, this one, strangely, does not inflict emotional violence, but is intended to capture the emotional violence of losing a family member in war. But my comment/question on this one is, has there ever been a more reductive popular term devised? “I’m here to inform you that your child/spouse/parent/sibling has been killed in the war. Here’s your gold star. Hope you feel better.”

A little Googling tells me the term dates back to World War I, when it became customary for families of deployed servicemembers to post a blue star in their front windows while their family members were overseas. These were replaced with gold stars if the family member was killed, and it is believed that Woodrow Wilson coined the term Gold Star Mother. The blue/gold star practice fell out favor during the Vietnam era, but was restored when an all-volunteer army began fighting the perpetual wars of today. And of course, the term Gold Star Family popped up everywhere in 2016 thanks to the Idiot-in-Chief’s prototypically kneejerk reaction to the Democratic Convention speech by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq in 2004. It’s no surprise that a family’s loss became a political football, particularly in the corrosive era we find ourselves in now, and the term Gold Star Family certainly came in handy as everyone from the VFW to John McCain were condemning the Drumpführer for his inane and insensitive tirade. But how about, instead of handing out gold stars, we make the investments truly needed to provide for the health and welfare of both veterans and active servicemembers and their families? How about we finance war out of the military budget instead of supplemental spending bills? How about we share the burden of perpetual war more broadly, instead of leaving it to the 1% of us with the courage and fortitude to actually step up and serve? Orwellian symbols that do little more than distract us aren't helping our bravest citizens recover and resume their lives. Real action and investments can.

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