An American Editor

January 6, 2016

Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings?

I was catching up with some reading of magazines I haven’t had time to get to (for months), when I came across an article on trigger warnings at the university level (“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, September 2015, pp. 42-52). I am surprised at how different the expectations are today on a college campus than when I attended college 50 years ago.

One example given in the article was a demand by some law school students that “professors at Harvard not […] teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in ‘that violates the law’) lest it cause students distress” (p. 44). Having gone to law school myself, I wondered how that would work. How could a professor ignore the subject of rape or abuse (spousal or child) in a class on, for example, criminal law, criminal procedure, or constitutional law? How will these future attorneys make it in the real-world practice of law where “violates” is a commonly used word? And what about their clients? How well would a rape victim (or a rapist) be served by a lawyer who doesn’t acknowledge the word rape?

But that got me thinking about editing. Not once in my 32 years of editing have I given a warning at the beginning of a manuscript. Have I been remiss? Have I neglected to take into account the sensibilities or sensitivities of my client or my client’s author?

Of course, I also have never received a warning that the manuscript contains explicit descriptions of things that would not make for everyday conversation in “polite” society. Have my clients or my clients’ authors been remiss by not warning me of the horrors to come should I proceed with editing their manuscript?

I am currently editing a book that requires a heavy editing hand, just the opposite of what I was told when I was hired (“It only needs a very light edit.”). Should I put a warning at the beginning of each chapter, one that says:

WARNING! Read the edited version of this chapter with caution. You may be offended by the number and type of queries added and corrections made to your manuscript. They might cause you undue stress, especially if you perceive it as an attack on your language skills rather than an attempt to help you improve your manuscript.

Okay, perhaps the warning needs a little work but the idea is conveyed. What if a person needs to be warned about literature?

WARNING: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains blatant anti-Semitic text that may offend you. As this text is foundational to this course on works by Shakespeare, perhaps you should consider taking a different, potentially less-offending course.

Or a about a book that focuses on a genre of literature?

WARNING: In this book on 19th-century American literature of the South, words that are politically incorrect today and that might remind you of slavery and/or second-class status are common. If such words deeply offend you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Or about the contents of a book discussing history?

WARNING: Since the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been a prominent part of history. Consequently, slavery is discussed in this book. If a discussion of slavery deeply offends you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Perhaps, then, editors need to warn clients that the perfect manuscript the client submitted was found to be imperfect, so the client should be prepared to deal with the stress that the discovered imperfections may cause.

Then, again, perhaps clients owe editors a warning that editing a manuscript may be stressful.

I understand that the traumas some people have experienced are such that reliving those traumas can be exceedingly painful and that some subjects trigger that reexperiencing. The goal of trigger warnings is commendable; I just wonder how well those who require trigger warnings to deal with life on the college campus will be able to deal with work life after college, when the shelter college affords is no longer available.

I also wonder where the line is drawn. Are we not to talk about the Holocaust because it may trigger anxiety in someone who lost much of their family in the concentration camps? Do we not mention the Vietnam War because it may trigger posttraumatic stress disorder in a Vietnam veteran? Do we not discuss the march on Selma because it may trigger severe stress in someone by reminding them of the Ferguson events? Are we not to mention President Obama because it may cause severe stress in an ultraconservative Republican?

I know there are defenders of trigger warnings (see the comments to Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance), but no one has yet defined the boundary beyond which trigger warnings need not be given. In addition, the argument always seems to be one-sided and focused on offering protection to the person that might be offended and ignoring everyone else. Yet the movement grows.

An article by Rani Neutill, “My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong,” (Salon, October 28, 2015), and the video of a HuffPost Live discussion at the end of the article are worth reading and watching.

In the end, however, the question remains: Should I offer the trigger warning about the editing or not? For now my answer is no, but if the trigger-warning movement keeps its momentum, the trigger warning will become a necessary tool in the editor’s toolkit because the future generation of authors will have grown up in an academic environment where such warnings were routinely given and so they will expect them everywhere, including on edited versions of their manuscript.

The question will be this: Will these new authors give warnings to editors that their manuscript might be poorly written and stressful to edit, or that it contains such potentially distasteful and stress-causing things as putting milk and sugar in tea or an allusion to sex between bees?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

July 6, 2015

Thinking About Charleston

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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It’s July 4, Independence Day, and I am still thinking about Charleston. It isn’t as if Charleston hasn’t happened before; it has. I guess I am wondering why it still happens.

Part of what keeps Charleston in my mind is that I recently watched the Kevin Costner movie, “Black or White.” The movie was well acted, but could have been better written. The movie’s topic is important, but it fails to resonate because the neither the black nor the white families that are the focus are representative.

But the courtroom scene does contain something very important. Costner’s character is asked about his racial prejudice, and he replies that yes, when he sees a black person the very first thing he sees is that they are black, just as the very first thing a black person sees when looking at a white person is that the person is white. What matters, Costner’s character says, is not that first thought but the second and third thoughts and how fleeting the first thought is. I think Costner’s character has it right.

No matter what we look at, our first thought is to characterize/classify it; when it comes to people, as opposed to objects,what matters is the fleetingness of that characterization/classification and what our second and third thoughts are.

Perhaps I am an oddity in today’s America. I do not understand why so many of us get stuck on that first thought, that characterization/classification. I live in what is perhaps the best neighborhood in all of America. The street is U-shaped, which means no through traffic, which also means that the neighborhood is readily identifiable, and residents have a sense of community.

In my neighborhood live all sorts of people. We have single, cohabiting, and married;  blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Indians; young, old, and elderly; blue collar and white collar; furniture movers, physicians, lawyers, college professors, school teachers, stay-at-home mothers, real estate agents, plumbers, stone masons, laborers, government employees, truck drivers, and more. We also have military, nurses, police, and LGTB. We have Sikhs, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, and probably some other religions in the mix. The list goes on.

The point is that I live in what I consider to be the ideal neighborhood — a mix of all that makes America great. We speak to each other; we visit each others’ homes and share meals; when we walk our dogs, the pack gets larger as additional neighbors join the walk and the camaraderie. My wife, who walks the neighborhood more than I, knows all but the newest members, and it is difficult to walk the 1-mile circuit in less than 90 minutes because people always want to stop and chat. We even exchange house keys so that access is readily achieved in case of emergency.

I look at my neighborhood and think this is the type of neighborhood that every child should grow up in because it is the kind of neighborhood that teaches we are all the same.

Perhaps that is what is missing in America’s Charlestons — that opportunity to learn that we are all the same. To learn that the first thought should be a fleeting thought; to learn that it is the second and third thoughts that really matter. I guess that is what bothers me — the need to constantly fight the Civil War and the war against racism and the war against segregation and the war against poverty. We seem to not be gaining ground; we seem to be refighting the same battles that we were fighting decades and generations ago.

Why do we need, in the 21st century, to refight the battles of the 20th century? It is because we have yet to digest the idea that the first thought should be fleeting.

I mourn for the victims of Charleston and I mourn for the America that cannot move forward when it comes to civil rights. On my block, in my neighborhood, in my world, we are one, we are Americans.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 21, 2015

On Politics: Thinking About Charlie

On January 7 terrorists attacked the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. At the same time and in support of the Hebdo murders, people were murdered at a Jewish grocery in Paris.

The attacks and the killings were unjustified and unjustifiable. But then, I think, so were the deliberate taunts of Muslims by Hebdo unjustified and unjustifiable. We give credence to the slogan “freedom of speech,” yet seem incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly react as the terrorists did or justify that reaction to the publication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo.

What I found disturbing in the aftermath of the murders is the narrowness of the protests and the one-sided assigning of blame. I also find the hypocrisy of the protestors disheartening and not understandable. In addition, I find reprehensible Hebdo’s followup “response” (the cover of the aftermath issue of Charlie Hebdo) and Hebdo’s unwillingness to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for what occurred — both in its own offices and in the Jewish grocery — as well as the unwillingness of society to say that Hebdo shares responsibility.

Responsibility

On the forums on which Hebdo was discussed and of which I am a member, the near universal spoken belief was that Hebdo had no responsibility for what occurred. I think that is simply a reflection of prejudice against, in this instance, Islam. Hebdo knew or should have known that publishing cartoons that insult the Prophet Mohammed will incite some Muslims to violence. It does not matter whether such a reaction is justified, just that any reasonably intelligent person would have predicted/expected such a reaction. It is not as if this has not occurred before. And when Hebdo had done similar “satire” in the past, it was attacked, resulting in some staffers being given police protection (one of the Hebdo dead was a bodyguard).

Does someone who deliberately and knowingly provokes another person to violence have any responsibility for the violence? I think in a world that claims to value freedom the answer has to be yes. Otherwise, the only one for whom we value freedom is ourselves. (Wasn’t that the view of slave owners throughout history?)

Living in a society involves reciprocal obligations. That is the basis for our interrelationships. We have simply delegated responsibility for enforcing those reciprocal obligations to a judicial system, but that does not change the underlying obligations. Yet in the Hebdo instance, it appears as if most people and Hebdo itself believe that Hebdo had no obligation to Muslims (not to insult), only that Muslims had an obligation to Hebdo (not to react, especially violently, to any insult).

Without in any way approving of the terrorists’ reaction, I am of the belief that Hebdo acted knowingly recklessly. I think Hebdo expected a reaction like what occurred except that it expected the reaction to occur somewhere else and to someone else. It is not as if Hebdo had not previously made whatever point it was trying to make; it had mocked Islam before.

This lack of willingness to accept responsibility is shored up in my view by the cover cartoon of the first issue after the massacre and the publication run size — 100 times the normal print run. The response to the followup cover was to be expected — the threat of more attacks to come.

I am not Charlie because I cannot endorse reckless behavior for which the consequences are known yet the perpetrator is unwilling to acknowledge or accept any responsibility. With freedom of speech comes the obligation to accept responsibility for the consequences of its use.

Hypocrisy

The march in support of Hebdo was interesting. It was led by government leaders who claim to march in support of freedom of speech as they and their governments limit it. If the German government doesn’t agree with your politics, they close down your political party. If the French government thinks your speech isn’t following the official line as regards terrorism, they have you arrested — apparently more than 100 people were arrested in France for speaking freely within days of the march. Many of the marching governments have laws that permit the arrest and detention on unproven suspicion of possible terrorism activity or laws that permit arrest and detention of people for simply expressing verbal support for “terrorism.”

And isn’t it interesting that the march was for Hebdo’s right to publish insults, but there was no similar march protesting the anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in France or the Islamophobia that has gained currency, including the attacks on mosques, in France. Many French have painted all Muslims with the same broad strokes, even though the vast majority of Muslims do not condone the terrorist acts.

Perhaps even more interesting, at least to me, was how Charlie Hebdo came into being. It seems that it came into being partly as a response to its predecessor title having been shut down by a French government ban. Where were the marches in protest then?

News media have reported that Jews are thinking of emigrating from France because of the anti-Semitism (and let us not forget that the Jews who were killed in the kosher grocery were buried in Israel, not in their French homeland). Where was the solidarity with the Jews? Where was the outrage for those who were murdered in the kosher grocery as part of the Hebdo attack? Or the outrage for the attacks on synagogues?

Much of the hypocrisy lies in the idea that freedom of speech for those who are favored is different than the freedom of speech that is for those who are disfavored. Hebdo is lauded for insulting Islam and is under no obligation to accept any responsibility for its provocations. But the insulted Muslims are expected to accept the insults quietly, just brush them off as one commentator suggested.

The Failure of the Social Compact

To my thinking, what Hebdo really illustrates is a failure of the social compact. The social compact has always been that of reciprocity: I respect you and you respect me. But that is not the Hebdo compact. The Hebdo compact is: You respect me and I disrespect you. There is no reciprocal obligation.

Society survives only when there is reciprocity. When people are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions, chaos ensues. A simple illustration is driving: When we all abide by the rules of the road, such as stopping for a red light, society thrives. But if just a small percent of people take the view that I have to follow those rules but they do not, chaos on the roads ensues.

Religion has always been a harbinger of social chaos because every religion is based on the core idea that it is the one true religion and all others are blasphemous. And where the fundamental rule of reciprocity fails, religious wars — covert or overt — persist. Those wars may not always be overtly violent, but they are suppressive. In the West, we have made, since World War II, the maintenance of society a core value. Consequently, following World War II, until recent years, reciprocal religious respect has been the rule. Hebdo is evidence of the breakdown of that rule because the “I am Charlie” movement supports the “freedom” to disrespect others without any responsibility for the results of that disrespect.

This is not to say that Hebdo should not have been permitted to publish what it wanted. Rather, it is to say that Hebdo should be obligated to accept responsibility for the consequences of its decision to do so. It is also to say that we should not accept “freedom of speech” that is freedom only for those with whom we agree; the real test of freedom of speech — or of any freedom — is whether we give it to those with whom we disagree.

To be free ourselves, we must give others the
freedom we desire. To be free ourselves, we must give
others the respect we want given us.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 10, 2014

Worth Reading: On Work

Occasionally, I read an article that I think is particularly enlightening. Today’s recommendation is such an article. It is a review of two books on the role of equity finance (or what we used to call LBO [leveraged buyout]) in the debasing of labor. It provides the first cogent explanation for the change that has occurred in the workplace from using/hiring employees to outsourcing to freelancers. More importantly, from my perspective, it provides an explanation of why I have been uncomfortable with Republican Party economic and government theories (not that the Democrat Party theories are exponentially better albeit they are better) and generally tend to vote Democrat.

The books and review also provide at least one explanation why freelance editor rates have stagnated since the mid 1990s, why offshoring became (and continues to be) the first choice among publishers, and why, for publishing, these phenomena are easily traced back to the consolidation by merger and/or acquisition of publishing houses that occurred in the late 1980s to mid 1990s.

The article is “Why Work is More and More Debased” by Robert Kuttner (alas, the article is locked and only a small portion is available for free online; if The New York Review of Books is available at your local library or bookstore, this issue — October 23, 2014 — has many articles that are is well worth reading); the books are The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It by David Weil and Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 14, 2014

Politics: Just Say No!

Filed under: Politics — americaneditor @ 4:13 am
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During the Reagan administration, the Republican answer to drugs and sex outside marriage was to “Just say no!” Abstinence was the mantra, which resulted in the pursuit of policies that simply did not work in the real world.

Little has apparently changed, as the following video report attests:

Third World Healthcare

except that this time the Republicans think the way to resolve healthcare issues is to “just say no” to poverty. This video is quite an insight into Republican thinking about people in general and about anyone but the top 1% in particular.

With all of the misinformation being spread about Obamacare, one would think that a viable alternative would be lurking in the background. Instead, we have the new “just say no” campaign. Strikingly, Republicans seem to be unwilling or unable to grasp just how important access to healthcare is for breaking the poverty cycle and making the American dream of upward mobility a reality.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 15, 2014

American Education and the Future of American Editors

Public education and its cost are on the agenda of nearly every state government in the United States. Americans spend a lot of money on education and the return is not as good as it should be. There are myriad reasons for this, not least of which has been the politicization of the teaching profession and the war on government by Republicans.

Every state constitution includes a public education clause. These clauses were included to ensure that America could grow and compete. It was also a recognition that an educated populace could keep America from falling into a dictatorship.

In today’s global economy, the most successful competitors are those who have emphasized educating their populations. Companies also are looking for better-educated new hires, especially as increases in profit are so strongly connected to a better-educated workforce.

In the United States, individual states compete to lure new or existing businesses to their state. This is done, among other ways, by offering tax incentives and by reducing the tax burden. The problem is that a significant portion of a state’s budget is tied up in funding education and other social welfare programs, and because state budgets must be balanced, funding of these programs has to decline to offset the tax “relief” being given to companies.

Kansas is leading the way. It has slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the level it was at in 2008 in order to pay for a $1.1 billion tax break that primarily benefited the wealthy. California slashed school aid because of budget imbalance. New York slashed aid and increased mandates.

The companies and wealthy individuals who benefit from the tax incentives and breaks fail to see beyond the short-term. What happens to these companies in 5 years when they can no longer hire new high school and college graduates who have the basic skills needed by the companies to grow and expand? For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its members have complained about how poorly prepared high school graduates are to work. They want the education system to do better. Yet they never come forward and insist that a government increase education funding; instead, they want taxes reduced without looking at what benefits they would also be reducing.

When I went to college many decades ago, there was no such thing as a “remedial” course. To get admitted, you had to already be at a certain skill and knowledge level and have the necessary skills to succeed. Then college began to morph into a competitive business, which meant increasing the number of attendees. Consequently, the need for “remedial” courses grew. Today, remedial instruction is considered part of the “college experience.”

This all bodes ill for the future of American editors. Editing requires mastery of certain language-related and business-related skills. Most editors in the past were taught the language-related skills and were expected to be well-enough educated to learn the business-related skills on their own. But that began to change in the late 1990s and continues today.

Increasingly, I see editors who have not been taught the basic language-related skills that are fundamental to a successful editing career. And when I see the tests and resumes submitted by recent college graduates who are looking to be hired as editors, I see people without those basic skills. Neither the language-related nor the business-related skills are taught today. It is hard to focus on those skills when remedial education is the starting point.

The war on education funding creates its own never-ending circle of degradation. As people move from the education system into the editing profession without mastery of basic language-related skills, they apply their limited skills to the material that will become the teaching material of the next group of students. That next group of students will receive an education that is no better than, and likely worse than, that of the author and editor who has already come to the task with a decreased skill level.

The never-ending circle ensures that with each new class entry into the world of authors and editors, the skills that are passed on are less than the skills of the previous group.

Much of it boils down to funding. In Kansas, class sizes have increased greatly, which means that students cannot be given individual attention. To make oversized classrooms work, there comes a push toward the least rather than a pull toward the most. The slowest learners cannot be left behind so the fastest learners have to be throttled. It does not take long before the skills of the fastest learners begin to match those of the slowest learners, rather than vice versa.

Of course, there is also the problem of the teachers who have graduated from such a system and thus perpetuate the problem. A teacher who hasn’t been taught the difference between a noun and a verb cannot be expected to teach children the difference.

The education of future editors is important because of the role that editors play in the dissemination of knowledge. Editors are an integral and very important part of maintaining language standards. As an editor’s education diminishes, so does the editor’s ability to help facilitate communication — it is hard to facilitate the understanding of something you yourself do not understand.

At some point, if education funding keeps declining and with it learning continues to decline, there will be no need for editors as no one will know what contributions an editor can make to communication because editors won’t be able to make that contribution. It is difficult to edit a book at a high language level when your language skills revolve around twit feeds.

The saddest part of the education funding fiasco is that the Republicans who are pushing it see it as a way to lure businesses to their low-tax state. What they lose sight of is that at best such moves are temporary because even more important than tax savings to a business is finding workers with the education and skills to do the jobs that are required for the business to continue in existence and to grow.

When education and skills were fairly uniform across the United States, low taxes were alluring. But as those manufacturers who offshored in the 1990s and who now are onshoring learned, low wages and taxes can only carry a company just so far — the prime mover for company profitability and growth is a properly educated and trained work force.

Editing as a skilled profession and viable career path is reliant on a good education system. The demise of a good education system as a deliberate policy decision is not only a threat to the future of editing, but also to the future of the country. I’m not sure what can be done to halt the tide, but I’ve made it a point to let the politicians who claim to represent me know that defunding education is not the answer to a bright future; instead, it is the path to a very bleak future.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 18, 2013

Worth Noting: Republican Fears of Democracy

Filed under: Politics,Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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I realize that everything in Washington, DC is done with politics in mind, but this ploy by the Republicans seems to me to strike at the very heart of democracy. Although I disapprove of the Republican tactics to defund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), I was at least willing to say that the basis was a philosophical disagreement. But after seeing this video, from the floor of the House of Representatives, and thinking about what it means, I wonder if the problem is less about health care and more about Republicans wanting to move our country away from democracy and toward authoritarianism.

September 30, 2013

The Illogical Republican

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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I know this blog is an editorially focused one, but sometimes there is a need to stray a bit, especially into the world of politics. If there ever was a subject or profession (aside from religion) that was designed to be the slaughterhouse of language, it is politics — especially current American politics.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a difference between irrational and illogical behavior and speech. Unfortunately for America, GOP (Republican) politics smacks a lot of both when it comes to healthcare, especially Obamacare. It is clear to me that none of the pundits are having their pronouncements vetted by a professional editor; they seem to be the ultimate self-editors who are so blinded by their love for their own words that they are unable to see the problems with their word choices.

The GOP and its conservative allies are now running ads asking Americans if they really want their healthcare decisions made by “faceless Washington bureaucrats.” It’s a good question that is made a terrible question by the inclusion of “Washington”. I have asked several GOP politicians what the difference is between a faceless bureaucrat who sits in Washington and works for the U.S. government and a faceless bureaucrat who sits in an office in a large insurance company or in a state capitol? I have gotten no response other than “one cannot trust Washington bureaucrats,” which strikes me as clear avoidance.

Most Americans who have health insurance have health insurance provided by an insurance company or a state government. Very few individuals who actually pay for health care are self-insured. The insurance company tells us what it will pay for and won’t pay for and how much it will pay; no one is simply given an insurance card and told to “buy” whatever healthcare and drugs you think you need and don’t worry, someone else will pay for it.

No, the real difference between Obamacare and the current system of health insurance is that Obamacare will provide insurance to more people at a lower cost, which does not fit well with the GOP’s preferred plan of health insurance only for the well-to-do.

Yet the irrationality and illogicality of the “faceless bureaucrat” argument doesn’t halt the GOP tirade. If it can’t convince you by the bureaucrat argument, it is ready to hit below the belt and scream “socialism”. What could be more frightening to an American than socialism?

When I talk with senior citizens about healthcare, they are unanimous that they do not want the government interfering with their Medicare. Being a Medicare recipient myself, I fully understand that thinking. But when I point out to those who oppose Obamacare that the Medicare (and Medicaid) they praise and do not want touched by government is in fact run by a “faceless” government bureaucracy in Washington, they often seem stunned.

And when I point out that Medicare (and Medicaid) are socialist programs similar to Canada and Britain’s national healthcare plans, with the only difference being that in Canada and Britain the healthcare is for all, whereas Medicare is only for older Americans and disabled Americans, I see surprised expressions. But I also am told, “I don’t care. I don’t want Obamacare because it is creeping socialism.”

Some of the most strident anti-Obamacare Americans are military veterans. A local congressman is a retired veteran and an ardent opponent of Obamacare because it is socialized medicine. I have asked his office to explain how he justifies opposing Obamacare, which makes health insurance affordable and available to more Americans, while supporting expanded Veteran’s Administration healthcare, which is socialized medicine for veterans and which he enjoys at taxpayer expense. I await the answer and suspect I will celebrate my 100th birthday long before I get a rational, logical response (or perhaps any response) from him or his similar-thinking colleagues.

The problem with the message is the lack of understanding of the terms used. To Obamacare opponents, socialism is bad except when they benefit (“Don’t you dare touch my Medicare!”), and faceless bureaucrats are okay except if they can be found in Washington, DC (I wonder where congresspersons can be found?).

The GOP is winning the word battle because those who support Obamacare and national health insurance seem to be incapable of defining and framing the argument. They certainly are incapable of showing the fallacies in the arguments the GOP presents. I am almost (but not quite) convinced that the problem lies in word usage, not in meanness; that is, proponents find it difficult to distort word meanings and thus cannot fight back, whereas the opponents, like the GOP, have no problem assigning alternate meanings to common words in the expectation that people will hear the alternate meaning, not the standard meaning.

The GOP claims (falsely, but that doesn’t seem to matter) that Obamacare includes “death panels.” What the GOP doesn’t point out is that its “plan” is just death itself — no panel whose decision can be challenged and no health insurance to stave off disease, illness, and death.

The irrationality and Illogicality of GOP thinking and advertising strikes me as proof of why editors are needed — no one else seems willing to challenge the misuse of language. The sad part is that America has become a land of me rather than we.

January 9, 2013

On Words: Politics and Alice-in-Wonderland Speak

I have repeatedly written that word choice and grammar are important because words chosen and how they are used (i.e., the grammar rules applied to the words) communicate a message, and both an author and an editor want that message to be communicated without misunderstanding by the reader. No matter how many times I have written that mantra, no one has come forward to tell me I am wrong; ergo, I must be right.

For months I have been pondering what word choices put in sentence form could prove me wrong. I thought about statements that protest gays and non-Christians because they will rot in hell for not having been saved. Afterall, how many of us have experienced and survived hell so that we can know with certainty (as opposed to with belief)  that hell exists and that the unsaved will rot there forever. (I have also wondered how anyone knows that one rots in hell as opposed to having endless, wonderful 24-hour parties that fulfill every fantasy we ever had before we went to hell. Alas, it is just a matter of belief rather than knowledge. But I digress.)

The answer to my pondering came from the mouth of Congressperson Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) who said, in justification of her vote against House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B, which would have made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers earning less than $1 million, “I am here to represent my constituents.” If this isn’t the biggest falsehood of the century, it certainly has to be the biggest falsehood of the year.

I don’t mean for Congressperson Blackburn to be singled out; rather, this statement, perhaps not so succinctly put by other politicians, when made by any politician to justify a vote that shoves us over the “fiscal cliff” is the biggest lie. The reason is that words, although they carry the firmness of a religious sermon demonizing sin, simply can mean neither what they are intended to mean nor the message they are intended to convey. If words could be sins, these words would rank near the top of sins and those who spoke them at the top of the sinners’ honor roll.

If nothing else, these words raise at least this matter of implausibility:

To be true, at least 50.1% of Representative Blackburn’s congressional district must be persons earning $1 million a year or more and against having their taxes raised.

Fewer than 1% of Americans have an annual income of $1 million or more. I suppose it is possible that most of America’s millionaires live in Tennessee in Representative Blackburn’s district, but if that is true, then how can any other Republican congressperson justify voting against making permanent the lower tax rates for the 99%-plus of Americans who do not earn $1 million a year? Someone (or many someones) are simply spreading the big lie!

The words “I am here to represent my constituents” raise other plausibility issues. It hasn’t been asked and answered, but I wonder who Representative Blackburn (and the other naysaying Republicans) really represents. Are the “people” who she claims to represent real or imaginary? I recognize that one of the things Americans are really great at is voting against their own interests and/or letting peripheral, minor issues sway them for or against a candidate, but the one thing no American I know has voted against is giving him-/herself a tax cut. So explain to me how the Republican naysayers’ vote against permanent tax cuts for 99% of Americans is something that “my constituents” want.

Perhaps the problem with the House of Representatives is that it has become a wealthy-person club. Many, if not most, of the “representatives of the people” would themselves — or their family — see their taxes rise and so are really representing themselves, not their constituents.

I’m one of those foolish Americans who thinks the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (starring Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic new senator) is what Congress should be about. Such idealism today on the part of a politician would simply be fodder for the lobby gristmill that is Washington politics.

Anyway, the point is that the words “I am here to represent my constituents” fail to fulfill the concept of words and grammar that I have been advocating for 30 years: they are closer to Humpty Dumpty’s view of words —

     “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

As the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse put it:

     The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Hmmm, perhaps being in Congress is like being at a Mad Hatter tea party. Certainly it is hard to differentiate a congressperson saying “I am here to represent my constituents” from an Alice-in-Wonderland conversation. I know that what I understand the words to mean clearly has no resemblance to what the speaker of the words intends the words to mean, as evidenced by the use of those words to justify voting against extending the tax cuts to 99% of Americans. It is evident that words spoken by Representative Blackburn — and mimicked by other congresspersons on a regular basis in multiple legislative areas — fail the test by which authors and editors live:

The words chosen clearly and precisely convey the author’s intended meaning so that there is no miscommunication between the author and the reader.

How refreshing it would be if that was the litmus test for political speech and failure of the test were grounds for recall.

January 2, 2013

On Guns: A Modest Proposal

Filed under: Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Americans can be pretty indifferent, perhaps even callous, when tragedy strikes a small group or fewer of adults. Although we were moved by Columbine and Aurora, our concern lasted at most a few weeks and nothing was done to change America. But, perhaps, Newtown, will be different because the massacre of the very young truly does tug at the heart of most Americans, the National Rifle Association (NRA) being a notable exception.

It is the massacre at Newtown that really started me thinking. I admit I have always been opposed to guns. I think Americans are too quick to embrace the OK Corral mentality and too slow to embrace peaceful resolution of disputes. But I recognize, also, that gun ownership in America is a right, so confiscation of guns and their banning simply will never work here. The question becomes, what can and should we do? What small step can we take that can appeal to all sides of the debate?

I struggled to find the answers until I realized that I was looking for a short-term solution rather than a long-term solution. As soon as I shifted thinking gears, I began to realize the answer really lies in changing how we Americans deal with each other and the need to culturally become a society on a single level.

I consider it unnatural for a parent to outlive their child. I realize that it happens and will always happen from causes over which none of us will ever have control. But some causes we can control, guns being one of them. With that in mind, and looking for a long-term solution that will ultimately level “the playing field” for American society, I have come to my modest proposal.

The NRA’s solution to put a gunman in every school as a deterrent, simply won’t work for many reasons. First, is the question of cost. Not only the cost of salaries and benefits, but of insurance. Americans are already grumbling about their taxes, how many will voluntarily pay even more in taxes to fund this idea? And who knows — today’s sane gunman can become tomorrow’s crazed killer. Perhaps more importantly, one or two armed guards have already proven ineffective, witness Columbine.

So the NRA’s idea is no idea at all — what else would you expect from an organization that would prefer to cuddle with a gun than with another person! But equally untenable is the antigun lobby’s vision of a gun-free America. Until people like Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, begin to think and accept that America has changed since 1783, America can never be gun-free.

Yet I want my children to be safe in school. What to do?

My modest and humble proposal is this: Before any child can be registered to attend school for the first time, require that child to learn to use a gun and earn a license to carry a gun. That’s right — arm every 5-year-old and keep them armed as they progress through school. Of course we would need exceptions for pacifists, mentally and physically disabled, and perhaps a few others, but we should view this just as we view vaccinations.

The first few years would remain uncertain, but by the time every kindergartener through sixth grader were attending school carrying a gun, American society would change. Sure we might have an angry first grader or two start shooting but we could control the damage because every other first grader could fire back. We all know that bullies succeed only when the bullied are afraid of them.

I think arming the students would also help improve our education process. Teachers would become more aware of the needs of their students, perhaps there would be fewer slouchers among them who are only trying to bide their time to collect their pension.

This could also be a way to discover the students who will become mentally unstable. When we find them preferring their pistols to their teddy bears we can focus a sharper eye on them. When we see that they prefer to play cowboys and indians with live ammunition rather than with water balloons or cap pistols, we will know that we need to reassess having giving them a license and consider starting therapy. Arming children would be our early warning system for mental deviation.

Because this would create a whole new future market for gunmakers, we could keep costs of the program low by requiring gunmakers to provide every student with their very first pistol and 250 rounds of ammunition. It would be like what was originally done with razor blades by King Gillette — give away the razor because users would then have to buy the razor blades.

This proposal would be good for everyone. The NRA would fulfill its dream of having a gun in everyone’s hand. Liberals would instill confidence in their children, eliminate bullying, cut down on rape and sexual molestation of their children (if I were a predator, I’d think twice before trying to molest a pistol packer — wouldn’t you?). Conservatives would no longer feel obligated to sit through boring church sermons because preachers would be afraid of triggering a negative response in a parishoner.

Arming incoming students will change the social dynamic in America. We may continue to be divided by money classes but otherwise we would all be part of the same social class. We could reduce unemployment because we would now have a need for many more firing ranges and instructors. Unemployed veterans could more easily find work. There simply is no end to the positive that could and would come from arming kindergarteners. (I dare that abusive father or mother to be abusive to a pistol-packing kindergartener!)

And think what this could do for the safety of our country. Within a decade, we would be nearly invasionproof and if we had to raise an army of millions, we could do so more effectively and quickly because we could avoid having to waste time trying to teach new soldiers how to shoot and kill — they’d already know from the good education they got in schools, which would assure us parents that our children at least learned something while in school.

The only negative is bars and liquor. But by starting early, maybe we could do away with drunk guntoters. If not, well, it would be no different from drunk driving — just ask the NRA.

On the other hand, perhaps it would be better to ban all guns and require peace and love courses.

(In case someone misses it, the above is intended to be in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and not taken as the author’s view of what really should be.)

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