An American Editor

January 11, 2013

Humor Interlude: British Commentary on American Politics

The following video, although not directed at our increasingly dysfunctional Congress, might well have been so aimed. Anyway, it is short, worth enjoying, and captures the sentiment of a lot of Americans —


February 1, 2011

Do Words Matter?

I know this is an odd question to ask of editors, but the recent hullabaloo regarding the vituperative exchanges from the far right and the far left and their influence in the recent Tucson massacre brings this question to the fore yet again: Do words matter?

To listen to the pundits, the Tucson incident and statements by people like Sarah Palin have little to no connection. I suspect that there is no direct connection, but I’m not sure that one can so easily dismiss responsibility for incitement or for creating the conditions under which deranged minds would think such actions are expected and normal.

Let’s go back in time — not very far — to the summer of the debate over the health care reform bill. Sarah Palin declared that the health care bill would create “death panels.” Forgetting about the falsity of her charge, consider only the import of her description. The name was chosen because of the image it would send: of doctors deliberately withholding treatment from grandma in order to kill her and save taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, go back a few more years and consider how conservatives described the estate tax as the “death tax.” The implication was that every citizen’s estate and family would have to pay a tax at death, yet the reality was (and is) that it would apply only to multimillionaire estates or less than 3% of U.S. citizens.

And consider what we do as editors and authors. Do we not evaluate words and try to choose words that convey the message we want to send clearly and directly? Do we not try to minimize obfuscation? Isn’t the difference between a great author and all other authors how the author has used words to craft a “spell” over the reader?

If words do not matter, then why mischaracterize end-of-life options as death panels intended to kill grandma or estate taxes as death taxes applicable to all Americans rather than to the wealthiest few? What these slogans demonstrate — and demonstrate forcefully — is that words do matter. That the choice of words has consequences, both intended and unintended.

Which brings us to the question of responsibility. Should we not hold those who utter the words responsible for the consequences of their words, even if the consequence was unintended? I’m not talking about criminal-law-type responsibility; I’m talking about a moral responsibility. I don’t doubt that Sarah Palin didn’t intend for someone to murder a congressperson when she put up the map with crosshairs, but should she not have thought about the people with access to guns who would look at that as an invitation to justifiable murder?

If words do not matter, then why is the right-wing so upset with being charged with complicity in the Tucson shooting as a result of their incendiary invective? The answer, of course, is that words do matter, just as tone matters, and the one thing that every American can say without contradiction is that the political discourse in the United States has become a bitter lake of violent, hateful words.

Every time I read or hear someone say we need to return to our original founders for guidance, to original intent, I think “nice words that are being spouted by someone who doesn’t understand what they mean.” Our original founders founded the United States by political compromise, not by diktat. Yet those who seek to implement original intent pronounce that our founders were united in single beliefs.

We need look no further than the question of whether we are a Christian nation. Note that none of the founding documents call us a Christian nation or refer to Christianity. In fact, the original constitution was barely passed and was passed only after it was agreed that the first 10 amendments would be added, of which the first amendment talks of religious freedom, not of Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not Christians as current people would have us believe. Franklin was an atheist, Thomas Paine was an atheist, Alexander Hamilton was an atheist, Jefferson and Washington were deists — not one of these founders insisted on America being a Christian nation.

So does it matter that the constitution doesn’t call us a Christian nation? Yes, it does matter, because words do matter. The choice of words that our founding fathers made had consequences — then and now. John Hancock made it clear that he endorsed the word choices — and the consequences that flowed therefrom — made in the Declaration of Independence by boldly signing his name. His is the most legible of all signatures. Hancock understood that by signing the Declaration it was tantamount to a declaration of war and he stood by his word choice.

Yet politicians of all stripes today, but even more so on the right than on the left, dismiss responsibility for their word choices and the consequences that follow. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility. It sure would be nice if those who wish to lead us today could show the leadership skills of our founders, rediscovering both the art of compromise that enabled the United States of America to become a single, independent nation, and the willingness to take responsibility for their words and actions. Alas, I fear that today’s “leaders” really have no vision grander or broader than their own wealth and well being and that the lessons they should have learned from our founding fathers will be left on the ashes of Tucson.

September 28, 2010

Rationing: An American Conundrum

The election season is now in full swing with the primaries over and only a few weeks to a shorter-than-usual campaign season. I guess there are still some things one can be thankful for.

But this campaign season differs from past seasons in one major respect — not since the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s can I recall a campaign in which so many candidates are running on the vote-for-me-to-repeal issue, which, in today’s case, means repeal of the recently enacted healthcare legislation.

An underpinning argument made by opponents to healthcare is that it will result in Xyz-style (substitute country of your choice for Xyz) rationing of medical resources. I guess I must live on a different planet because of all the possible arguments against the healthcare legislation and of all the possible reasons to support its repeal or modification, this is the weakest argument. But, then, we need to consider the circumstances of those who are making the argument of rationing — it is hard to see millionaires like Mitch McConnell who also happen to have gold-plated medical insurance at someone else’s expense (yes, I know he pays a monthly contribution, but that is all it is — a contribution; the bulk of the cost is borne by those of us who do not have access to that gold-plated plan, and often have no access to any plan, gold-plated or lead-plated) even knowing what medical rationing really means.

What brings this to mind is a story in yesterday’s newspaper titled “$93,000 cancer drug: How much is a life worth?” This article demonstrates the conundrum of medical rationing in America.

Provenge is a new, unique cancer drug. A patient receives it once and that one-time treatment costs $93,000. In return, a patient, on average, gains 4 months of life. The patient interviewed in the article who received the treatment put the issue out front: “Bob Svenson is honest about why he got it: Insurance paid. ‘I would not spend that money’ because the benefit doesn’t seem worth it, [said] Svenson, 80,….” The insurance that is paying for it is his supplemental Medicare plan — until Medicare itself decides whether the drug will be paid for and for whom.

Provenge has several problems as regards rationing: (1) the drug is in short supply because it has to be made uniquely for each patient; it can’t be mass produced, and (2) it is an all-or-nothing $93,000 gamble because it can only be given once and there is no assurance it will work in a particular patient. As regards the short supply, doctors at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center plan a lottery to see who of the otherwise eligible patients will receive the treatment (there are approximately 150 eligible patients at the Center but only 2 can receive treatment).

None of this rationing is brought about by the new health legislation; in fact, if anything, the new health legislation has broadened the pool of people who will be eligible for such treatment because it will broaden the number of insured. So exactly how does the healthcare legislation cause rationing?

The usual focus once one gets past drugs is on access to doctors. You might have to wait to see your doctor. Hmmm — I believe we already see that. Try getting in to see a specialist, or even your primary care doctor immediately. Except in an emergency (and then they usually tell you to go to the emergency room at the hospital), appointments are made 2 to 4 weeks or even longer down the road. I suffer this wait, my neighbors suffer this wait, my friends suffer this wait. Maybe the problem is that I don’t have Republican branded on my forehead because if I listen to the Republicans, I don’t have to wait unlike in Britain or Canada. Again, I think the problem is that they have immediate access to Walter Reed Hospital as VIPs, something I can’t get.

I’m also told that part of the rationing will be a loss of choice of doctors. Huh? The only way such a statement makes any sense whatsoever is this: Either the government-sponsored and taxpayer-funded health plans they have will pay for treatment given by any doctor or hospital on the planet or they are paying the full cost out of pocket. I know in my case, my plan limits me to doctors who participate in the plan. Doesn’t matter if another doctor is better or less expensive, if the doctor isn’t in the plan, my insurance doesn’t cover any visits. As for paying out of pocket, well I’m already paying out of pocket $1500 a month between insurance premiums, doctor copays, and drug copays, which stretches my budget; I just don’t have the resources our elected representatives seem to have.

The rationing is being done by the “private” marketplace — the insurance company who tells me who I can see based on whether or not the insurance company was able to cut a financial agreement with a doctor and by how much money I can earn and devote towards medical treatment and bills. And before the new healthcare legislation, if I found that my financial circumstances had changed and I could no longer afford insurance premiums, I could have been excluded from ever getting insurance again because of preexisting conditions. Seems to me that that is much more egregious form of rationing than what is done in the more level playing fields of Britain and Canada and what is feared by healthcare opponents in the United States.

When really analyzed, the rationing argument boils down to this: The people trying to convince us of the evils of government legislation on healthcare are the people who will always walk outside the restrictions of any such legislation because of wealth and connections. They are the people who stand to gain personally from the failure to provide the majority of citizens with decent healthcare. Why is it alright for the private marketplace to ration Provenge but not for the government?

I don’t mind their being opposed to healthcare legislation; I just want them to be honest about why. Treat us more like equals than like sheep; give up their perks and privileges so that they have to deal with the situation as ordinary folk do. Take us back to our founding roots — “All men are created equal” except those that have and those that have not.

July 29, 2010

November’s Around the Corner, Yet Here We Go Again

The campaign season has gotten into gear. Here in New York State, we are still in budget crisis yet our politicians want us to reelect them. The irony is that most of them will be reelected even though most voters think the politicians should be kicked out.

What really gripes me is that yesterday the state legislators were called into special session, costing us taxpayers $100,000, and what did they do? They pledged their allegiance to the U.S. flag, had the call into special session read to them, and then adjourned. Nothing was discussed, nothing debated, but we taxpayers owe them another $100,000.

To top that off, I was annoyed last evening with a “research” telephone call regarding the state senate race in my district. The caller identified themselves as a pollster and asked if I would participate. So far, so good. Then the questions came. Only an idiot wouldn’t have seen through the smokescreen. It wasn’t really a poll; it was a fake poll designed to boost the incumbent and deflate his challenger. The questions were so biased toward the incumbent, I finally asked for the pollster’s complete contact information, at which point the polling stopped and the pollster hung up.

Politics has always been a dirty game. When I read about the election contests at the birth of our nation, it is clear they were as riddled with fabrications as today’s campaigns, and equally as dirty. Subsequent campaigns were no better.

The fault is that of the voter, so I stand up and accept my share of the blame. First, we allowed politics to become a permanent occupation. Why should any officeholder be allowed to be elected to an office more than a couple of times? We talk about the Kennedy seat, the Rangel seat, the XYZ seat, but never about the people’s seat. Was Ted Kennedy entitled to the seat? Or how about Robert Byrd? Charlie Rangel’s ethical problems are a result of his character and his district’s constantly reelecting him without question.

Second, we always believe that the politicians are doing us dirty as citizens — not necessarily a wrong belief — but then reelect our politicians. It is always someone else’s politician who is doing us dirty. It’s pretty hard to thrown stones when you live in a glass house yourself. It was recently reported that 70% of Americans think Congress is doing a horrendous job and all those up for reelection this November should be voted out of office. Then they were asked whether they intended to vote for their current incumbent, and slightly more than half said yes. What it means is that 434 Representatives and 98 Senators are ruining America but our 3 aren’t. Mr. Smith went to Washington in fantasyland, not in real America!

Third, we have created a culture in which our politicians believe they are entitled to everything they can get. How many of us have health insurance plans that equal or surpass that of our Congressperson, both in coverage and in cost? How about our retirements? And no need to go that far — what about our incomes. If it is true that fewer than 5% of American households have incomes greater than $250,000, why is it that so many congressional households are in that plateau? Perhaps if Mitch McConnell had to stand in an unemployment line he would understand the need to extend unemployment benefits. Perhaps if congresspersons had no health insurance coverage at taxpayer expense, they would better understand the need to do something about the problem; maybe they would recognize that it is a problem.

Which brings me to my last frustration with politicians (well, the last for this article; I’ve got a whole list more): Why is it we can afford billions upon billions of dollars for foreign wars, unusable/unwanted weapons systems, aid to foreign countries, pork-barrel projects, and tax cuts and special tax legislation that do not demonstrably bring jobs to Americans, but we cannot afford better healthcare, better education, and to feed, clothe, and shelter every American reasonably? I’m not suggesting, for example, that our military doesn’t deserve a lot of its budget or that a congressperson’s pork for a local children’s museum isn’t a good thing; rather, I want to understand the underlying thinking that rarely ever addresses budgetary deficit resolution with these things in mind. Yet, we voters tolerate that thinking, if not outright endorse it.

Which brings me to my voter frustration. We voters tend to focus on a specific, narrow issue when deciding for whom to cast our vote. A neighbor who is significantly underemployed and has had to put his house up for sale is solely focused on the candidates’ Second Amendment positions. He will vote for the candidate who he thinks will best promote his right to own and use guns without restrictions. I don’t dispute that to him it is an important issue, but THE issue? He doesn’t care about any other issue, just that one issue. It is more important to him than issues about funding schools for his children to attend, supporting the food pantry where he occasionally goes to supplement his larder, healthcare in light of his loss of coverage because of his sporadic work in this economy, and matters of his retirement, which isn’t many years away, and future employment prospects.

I guess politicians are simply a reflection of the voters — neither seem to be able to look at the big picture and act on it for the benefit of all. I get so tired of hearing a politician say it is good for her constituents even if it is a disaster for all the rest of the country so she is supporting it. I’m not sure America isn’t more divided today than it was in 1861; I am sure that politicians and voters haven’t evolved any since then.

May 19, 2010

On Words: Politics, Political, and Their Progeny

Okay, I know this is dangerous territory, but I heard a speech by Robert Reich recently in which he amused his audience by defining the origins of politics. Professor Reich noted that poli is from the Greek polis and polites, or city and citizen, respectively, and that tics are blood-sucking insects. Although I found his definition amusing, and perhaps a bit accurate in our current state of political partisanship, I began to think about politics, political, and their various progeny. So here goes a look at the words and a political rant.

One source says politic is a late Middle English word derived from the Old French politique, via Latin from the Greek politikos. A different source traces its roots to a borrowing in 1427 from the Middle French politique. In the end, the birth is the same — from the Latin politicus and the Greek politikos.

But deviant forms also appeared. Politician appears to have been coined in 1588 and meant a shrewd person (and today we might mean a shrew person). One year later the meaning had morphed to a person skilled in politics. And today, when we say someone is a political animal, we can thank Aristotle and a translation from the Greek of his words politikon zoon, whose literal meaning was “an animal intended to live in a city.” Interestingly, polecat, a possible term of endearment for a politician, doesn’t have the same roots as politics.

Politics as the science and art of government dates from the 16th century. Political science first appeared in 1779 in the writings of David Hume. Political appeared in 1551 and was the English formation, believed to have its roots, again, in the Latin politicus with the addition of the English al. Politics is one of those few words that is both singular and plural, depending on context and usage.

In American English, politician originally was a noun that referred to the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). In Wilson’s American Ornithology (v. II, p. 166) published 1804, the vireo was described as: “This bird builds a very neat little nest…of…bits of rotten wood,…pieces of paper, commonly newspapers,…so that some of my friends have given it the name of the Politician.” Could this have been the first linking of rotten and politician? (Okay, perhaps a bit harsh.) In 1844, Natural History repeated Wilson’s association. And it was repeated again in 1917 in Birds of America.

In 1914 the Cyclopedia of American Government defined political bargain as “an agreement, usually corrupt, between contending political factions or individuals….” Seems like nothing has changed in 100 years.

Today, politician and political are simply synonyms for stalemate, for corruption, and for abuse. Alright, that’s cynical, but I’m tired of politics and politicians as usual because that is what it generally amounts to — the grinding to a halt of the country’s business to satisfy the egos of those who wield the political power and those who can buy it — especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given license to unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns. I can see it now: Goldman Sachs will spend $500 million — probably 1 day’s profits — to buy the next Congress, against which my paltry $500 contribution will be like a single grain of sand thrown at the Rock of Gibraltar as my attempt to influence the crumbling of the Rock.

America is quickly becoming the land of the extremes, a place where centrists, which is what most of us are, wield little to no influence, and a land where doublespeak is the language of the day. (I’m still waiting for my Tea Party neighbors who rail against socialized medicine to give up their Medicare [can I suggest a Burn Your Medicare Card rally?]. The day I see that happen will be the first day I really believe that the Tea Party is a semi-honest political movement. Until then it looks like a “me first and only” movement.)

Group greed is what seems to move America today. In my local school budget vote, my city’s school budget was soundly defeated by a 3:1 margin. I admit that for the first time in my life I voted against a school budget — and that’s a lot of votes cast over many years. The final straw was when the teachers refused to make any sacrifice whatsoever, claiming that they needed their raises and continued free benefits because their living costs have been rising. Are they so naive as to think no one else’s living costs have also been rising, that they are unique?

I know that in reality nothing has changed. Today’s group greed is the same as yesterday’s, only the groups have changed. But somewhere someone besides me must recognize the lack of equilibrium between lower taxes and maintaining or increasing government services. Something has to give. It’s like the demand for electricity to power our summer air conditioners — we want more without brownouts but we don’t want to build the infrastructure to provide more; we want less reliance on foreign oil but we want ever larger and powerful automobiles; we want our children to breathe clean air but we oppose cap-and-trade legislation.

Makes me wonder who the children really are!

March 11, 2010

On Words: Filibuster

I’m in frustrated-angry mode. My local power utility (read monopoly) has raised its rates twice in 12 months, and has applied for a third rate increase. My Internet/TV/telephone package rate has gone up because they added cable channels that I’m not interested in ever watching (truth be told, I don’t ever watch TV and have the cable TV only because my wife insists).

But the final blow came in the mail from my health insurance company: our rates are going up 25%. The excuses given include higher New York State taxes (mine have gone up significantly, too), increased use of health care services by others, federal expansion of COBRA, a large number of H1N1 flu cases, and federal expansion of “large group” mental health and substance abuse coverage (we are a small group).

Then I read the latest on healthcare reform in Washington, DC — the movement that appears to be going nowhere fast — and how a filibuster is threatened should a bill come to the floor of the Senate. Setting aside my frustration with politicians who think first about lining their pockets and last about their constituents, I wondered about the origins of the word filibuster. There is a certain Kafkaesqueness, a certain Alice-in-Wonderland-ness about the word that intrigues me.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines filibuster as “1a. The use of obstructionist tactics…for the purpose of delaying legislation.…2. An adventurer who engages in a private military action in a foreign country” The first definition is what we commonly understand, but the second is closer to the word’s roots.

In early American English, the spellings were fillibustier and flibustier. Sometime in the 1850s the spelling changed to the current filibuster. An early English spelling (16th century and earlier) was flibutor, which was borrowed from the Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter); an earlier version of flibutor was fribustier, confusing its origins.

Filibuster is French in origin, coming from flibustier, referring to pirates who pillaged the Spanish West Indies during the 1700s. In the 1800s, the word’s origins shifted from French to the Spanish usage and meaning. Filibustero, the Spanish version, which also meant freebooter or common rover (as opposed to a buccaneer; buccaneers were French settlers who were hired as hunters by the Spanish. When they were later driven out, the buccaneers turned to plundering, thus morphing buccaneer‘s meaning from hunter to pirate), was used to describe Americans, primarily Texans, who incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America.

Probably the best-known filibusteros were those who joined Narcisso Lopez’s Cuban insurrection in 1850-1851, and those who followed William Walker’s insurrection against Sonora, Mexico (1853-54) and against Nicaragua (1855-58). As reported by the Lawrence (KS) Republican, June 2, 1857, “Walker, the filibuster, has been forced to capitulate.”

This sense of filibuster (freebooter, revolutionist, insurrectionist) remained in use for decades and was used to describe other persons whose tactics were similar to those of the American filibusters. For example, an article in Knowledge (1887) said: “What were the Normans…but filibusters? What were the Pilgrim Fathers but filibusters?” Columbus and William the Conqueror also were called filibusters. But this sense has, for the most part, faded away as the political sense has gained use, although it isn’t clear to me that this original sense isn’t an apt description of today’s filibusters.

One of the earliest uses of filibuster in the sense we think of it today, that is, as a tactic by a member of the legislative minority to impede action by the majority, was by the Portland Oregonian (February 5, 1853): “Filibustero principles do not appear to meet with much consideration from the southern members of congress.” In 1889, the Boston Journal (January 14) noted that “The surrender of legislative functions by the majority of the House and the carrying on of business…only by a humiliating ‘trreaty’ with a single determined filibuster is something entirely anomalous in a country…governed by majority action.”

Of course, in the early days of legislative filibustering, filibusters were required to speak — Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in real life — and garnered little sympathy when they could no longer command the floor. As the New York Times (January 31, 1915) wrote: “The Senate sits…and the overwhelmed filibusters simply cannot talk.” Two weeks later, the New York Times (February 16) reported: “The Republicans will filibuster…against the cloture rule.” How little has changed in 95 years!

This action, speaking for the sole purpose of consuming time, was the required method prior to the Senate becoming a gentlemen’s club at taxpayer and citizen expense. Now the excuse is that Senators have other important business to attend (e.g., fundraising, violating ethics, lobbying against the interests of their constituents); so why waste time listening to endless speech making? The Congressional Record of February 11, 1890, noted that “A filibuster was indulged in which lasted…for nine continuous calendar days.” Just think — 9 days of legislative peace!

But there was a spark of humor in the annals of senatorial filibustering. Consider this Chicago Times (July 22, 1947) report of a filibuster: “You’re filibustering against the wrong bill, Senator–the resolution before the Senate is for adjournment.” Now if only the American voter could filibuster, perhaps we could put an end to Washington gridlock.

One final note: I am intrigued that both the act and the actor are called filibuster. Why is the actor not called filibusterer?

February 3, 2010

On Words: Pose

Although most of my posts have focused on publishers and ebooks, this is an editor’s blog and one of the things editors do is deal with words. Consequently, I am introducing a new topic, called On Words, to the mix. On Words will address words and phrases that catch my editorial eye and discuss their etymology. Hopefully this will broaden my understanding of words and phrases used in English. Today’s post about pose inaugurates On Words.

Reading the newspaper has become a bit depressing. I get tired of the strident right and left wings of the Republican and Democrat parties posing for their radicalized followers and hearing nothing from the centrists. The recent demand for a Republican litmus test reinforces my continuing disdain for the extremists of both parties. I believe that most Americans are centrists and simply want what is best for America as a whole, not what is best for the far right or the far left.

Then came the Mitch McConnell smiles about having thwarted Barack Obama’s vision for America by holding the Republican party together in a chorus of no and now adding Scott Brown as  filibusterer number 41.

That led me to think: Are these politicians — Republican and Democrat alike — who should be looking out for the welfare of all America, really just posing when they say they are focused on what is best for America as opposed to what is best for their reelection. Are they just posers?

Pose is is derived from the French poser, to deposit, and from the Late Latin pausare, to rest, and the Latin pausa, to pause. In American usage, it originally meant the distance the cargo of a canoe was carried before the cargo was deposited for a rest. As was explained in The Spirit of the Times (January 30, 1858), “In crossing a long portage, they do not go through the whole distance with one load, but divide it into ‘poses,’ or rests; and carry in succession each load to the first ‘pose,’ and then carry them to the second one, and so on, so that they can rest in walking back for the loads.” In 1941, the McDermott Glossary stated that the average distance of a pose was one-third mile. (Perhaps we should infer that politicians are a burden to be dropped every so often :).)

But somewhere along the path of linguistic history, pose took on other meanings and usages. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) gives the word its modern definition: “To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.” But of most interest is the third definition: “To represent oneself falsely; pretend to be other than what one is.” Similarly, a poser is defined as “one who poses.”

Because pose and poser accurately describe politicians of all stripes in 2010, in 10 years I expect to open my dictionary and see these definitions:

  • pose (v.) 1. The campaign promises made by a person seeking political office that will be ignored once elected. 2. To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.
  • poser (n.) 1. A politician. 2. One who poses.

Still I would like to know how and when the transition was made from a portage measure to the description of a politician (i.e., one who represents him- or herself falsely). Any ideas?

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