On Offensive Words, Part Two

June 19, 2014 5 comments

This is the second in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

The word redskin is a crazy word. I’ve never seen an etymological debate get so heated, so public, so emotional, or so misleading. I wrote over 800 words earlier today in an attempt to set the record straight when I reached a point in my post when I actually typed, “but none of what I’ve written so far matters.”  At that point, I deleted it and decided to focus on the parts that do matter. But first I just can’t help but share some reading and a quick opinion on the etymological stuff that’s going on, because I hate when two sides feel like they need to bend, stretch, or fabricate the truth in order to make their point–and there’s a lot of that in this case. You are certainly welcome to trust me, but I strongly encourage you to click on some of the links in the following paragraph.

First, the most thorough and definitive history of the use of the word redskin was written by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institute. That study was the primary source used for this more-readable Slate article last December. These sources are specifically written to discredit claims by Suzan Harjo about the word redskin originating as a term for the scalps of dead Native Americans, but both admit a later evolution into a pejorative. The claim of scalp-origin was loudly repeated without substantiation in a bluntly-titled Esquire piece yesterday that relied primarily on oral history and followed up today with an attempt to verify his claims with this picture from 1863 that doesn’t actually prove the point he’s trying to prove (and comes far after the word’s origin). Meanwhile, the Redskins and their fans will tell you all about how the name must be accepted by all because of their Native American coach at the time of the naming in 1937, whose heritage was in such question that a court case attempting to determine his heritage actually ended in a hung jury… and created a pretty crazy story from his mom, too. It’s not hard to tell where I stand on the etymological debate. I think that the worst claims about the origin of the term redskin have never been adequately substantiated and have been, to me at least, adequately debunked. But remember, this is the point where I concluded that none of the above truly matters to the current debate. Word origins don’t mean much because language evolves, words take on new meanings, and public perceptions change–which has certainly happened in the case of the word redskin.

On the subject of public perception, a 2004 Annenberg Poll found that 90% of self-identified Native Americans did not find the team name Redskins to be offensive. Many criticize the findings because of the self-identification aspect, without differentiating at all who was living on a reservation or was more assimilated into mainstream culture and society. However, with such strong results and so little variation among subgroups, the results should be seen as at least somewhat reliable. These numbers line up fairly well with a 2002 Harvard/Sports Illustrated poll that found that 75% of Native Americans (and 62% living on reservations) did not find the name offensive. These numbers are certainly enough to give some pause to the people who feel that there is no need for discussion or debate and no argument against the viewing of redskin as an offensive slur. At the very least, in very recent history, the issue was less clear-cut. Or maybe I just resent a little bit any notion that there is no other side to an argument that has so much to do with emotion and perception.

But times have changed. A more recent poll, by The Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino found that 67% of Native Americans agree that “the Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” While the shift has been less profound among the general population (especially white people), the tide of public perception has clearly turned on this issue. While I fully accept this new reality and have long expected the team to change its name soon after losing their trademark, which I believe that they will even after appeal of today’s decision, I am intrigued by the cause of such a shift. And I fear that, as I stated in Offensive Words Part One, the primary driver very well might be that people are being told how to feel.

One way that people are being told how to feel, which is obvious to notice and just as obviously failing, is that fans of the team and defenders of the team name repeatedly will tell us that Native Americans should be honored by the team name. While it’s certainly true that people don’t name sports teams after cultures or animals they find embarrassing or disparaging, the intent behind the naming is simply not at issue here. The perception of the word and the feelings it evokes are at issue, and you can’t simply tell someone to be proud of something that offends them.

The other way people are being told how to feel, though, troubles me as well. I want to present a series of quotes:

I hate to tell you what would have happened if you had polled African Americans in 1900. Totally irrelevant, because Native Americans, just like Washingtonians like me, have grown up using the name. Their consciences haven’t anymore been raised than mine have been, until I heard what Native Americans were saying… Now, when they know that some of their brethren—who they were really talking about, and what it meant and the history of that name, and the brutal history, very gruesome history, I don’t think you have the same answer.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the uselessness of a 10-year old poll

[Dr. Michael Friedman] claimed that even if Native Americans say the name is not offensive, they do not realize it is hurting their self-esteem.

“Even a positive image, if it’s stereotypical, will lead to psychological distress, lower self-esteem, lower sense of achievement,” Friedman said.

- The Free Beacon in an interview with Native American Activists

Native American activists dismiss such opinion as misguided (“There are happy campers on every plantation,” says Suzan Harjo), or as evidence that Native Americans’ self-esteem has fallen so low that they don’t even know when they’re being insulted.

- Sports Illustrated in an article interviewing several Native American activists

The common thread here is that some activists opposing the use of the word redskin believe that Native Americans are not offended by the term only because they lack knowledge or fail to understand why it should offend them. This notion, especially coming from Harjo who routinely states factually unsubstantiated claims about the word, strikes me as incredibly condescending toward the affected populations. And while the campaign to educate the population about the terrors associated with the word redskin is proving effective in changing public perception, something about that kind of attitude turns me off to the arguments. As I stated in Part One, I believe that the decision to find something offensive or not to find it offensive should be an individual one. These are examples of a population being almost belittled for not understanding why they should be offended by a word.

All of this leads me to wonder if perhaps this education does more harm than good. If, as has been asserted by Dr. Friedman above and the American Psychological Association, the word Redskin has a potentially “negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children,” is a greater awareness of the negative ways in which it was once used a healthy outcome or an improvement? I tend to believe that in almost all circles, the word redskin had all but lost its more problematic meaning and become simply associated with a sports team. It may have made the incredibly rare journey from a word that once offended and now was accepted, like queer (albeit under vastly different circumstances).  And if it had, is returning it to a word of hate and re-wrapping an ugly history of negative treatment toward Native Americans into a word the best outcome?

At this point, my questions can only be hypothetical. The damage is done. The tide is unlikely to turn again. Redskin has become, again, a dirty word. For some it always was. For others, they didn’t realize it ever had been. The Redskins will likely change their team name eventually. The delay will likely place them on the wrong side of history. It’s just a sports team name, after all. It isn’t worth offending so many people so badly. But I, for one, wonder if the price of reviving a polarizing word that had been all but forgotten by society at large (and apparently, 75-90% of Native Americans, too) will be worth the gain of changing the team name. I hope so.

 

My thoughts on this matter continue and are clarified in my first comment response below… if you’re interested in even more words on the subject.

On Offensive Words, Part One

June 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Disclaimer: The language used in this blog post may be offensive and hopefully makes readers at least as uncomfortable as it makes the author to write. However, it felt important to write this particular post free of euphemisms. I have been thinking of writing this post for over a year and was constantly worried about being viewed as insensitive. I can only hope that I have worded my thoughts appropriately.

To my knowledge, the word nigger is the most powerful word in the English language. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve uttered it aloud, and all were quotations; and all were whispered no matter the setting. Typing it feels strange. I’m certain that when it comes time to press “publish” on this post, I will think more than twice about it. My father wrote for a newspaper and once made a typo writing the word “bigger.”  The n-key is just next to the b-key, you see. It slipped through the cracks and somehow got published. Our whole family was tense for days about the potential consequences. I’ve retold that story dozens of times. I always manage to do it without speaking the word. One little word, six letters–they fill me with fear.

But to focus on my fear is missing the point of the word’s power. Wrapped up in this little word, to borrow from a recent Atlantic magazine cover, are 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal. Wrapped in that word are lynchings and cross burnings. Wrapped in that word are oppression and segregation and violence. It’s all right there packed into one word, giving it so much charge, so much bite, that a single utterance can label the speaker a racist and ruin the day (at least) of the spoken-to. It’s a word further complicated with reclamation attempts, generational gaps, cultural appropriation, music…. but the complications do nothing to mitigate the power of the word. It is a terrifying and devastating word.

There’s something about that power that I resent a little. I hate that a word so heavily-charged exists that it can eviscerate someone’s self image or career in a heartbeat. I find the power of the word potentially damaging. I find it harmful. No one likes heavily-concentrated power. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to prevent putting so much power into any single word. It’s too late for nigger. The power is there. It’s real. It’s palpable. I honestly can’t think of another word like it in that respect. Maybe faggot comes the closest (I can tell by how uncomfortable it makes me to write it), but by and large, few words–if any–have become universally known by their more acceptable euphemism, in this case “the n-word.”

But that may not last for long. A funny thing is happening. These days, it seems everyone is trying to create more n-words. You’ve likely all heard about the pledge to end the r-word, retard(ed). And today there’s a big headline about the other r-word, Redskins. Just yesterday, a reality television star who is a little person stated that the word midget is as offensive as the n-word. Of course, you can always tell that a word isn’t there yet when people say it out loud in comparison to “the n-word.” These PR campaigns to equate words with nigger are, to me, short-sighted and harmful. The idea is that they want fewer people to say these words, and I agree; let’s not go around calling people retards, please. But in order to get that result, they are also charging the words up with greater and greater power. They are creating vernacular monsters.

All of this is part of a cycle of name-changing and euphemizing that has always confused me a little bit. There was a time when black people in the United States were officially referred to as negroes, or colored people, or African-American, or black. There was a time when people were referred to as slow, and then retarded (the Latin word for slow; really creative, guys), and then mentally disabled or challenged. Midgets or dwarfs are now little people… or dwarfs, sometimes; I found mixed signals on that. Indigenous people to the United States were red skins and Indians and Native Americans and American Indians. In some of these cases there needs to be a distinction between official terms and slang terms. But in most of these cases the official terms became slang terms, and thus the “need” for a new official term was created. However, these changes in vocabulary serve in large part only to mask the attitudes that turned words into pejoratives in the first place.

I understand that language evolves, meanings change, and connotation especially can change. But it seems that when PR campaigns need to be launched making the most extreme verbal comparison available in order to affect that change, that maybe we’re missing the point a little. Maybe we need to look a little deeper at the practice. Yes, it’s easy to view me from my perch of privilege and write off this opinion, but to me–and this is what confuses and bothers me the most–people are being told how they must feel about words in order to retain status as decent and compassionate human beings. It’s one thing to have the feelings of an oppressed community explained to you and to feel empathy. It’s quite another when a small group within that community claim to speak for the entire community and tell both the outside population and members of their own community how to feel about various words and labels.

My basic understanding of how these labels come to change is that usually, a very small group of people within a minority community advocate to those of power within a majority community to tell the overall population what they now must call a smaller group of people. The rank and file of the minority community being re-branded rarely has much of a say–and generally don’t care, according to polling. However, one year you’re African American… the next year, you’re black again. It must be somewhat of a weird phenomena to experience from within; to be told that your label or your identity is now changed. It has been changed for you.

How many people within a community need to find something offensive in order to change that community’s label and identity? Is their sense of what is or isn’t offensive the new standard? Are you a bad or lesser human being if you find the labeling game to be a mostly fruitless endeavor?  I’m not certain about any of this. But I think that whether or not we find something offensive can be an individual choice, and that can be ok. And I think that charging words with all the power of the word nigger is a disservice to language and to society. And I think that you don’t have to re-brand a community to feel genuine empathy for them and to work to improve their lives.

This is the first in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Saving Face

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

My ex-girlfriend and I had an on-and-off relationship. Many of our friends had grown quite impatient with the constant indecision. When she asked me to move in with her, of course, those close to us were concerned. Those concerns made sense, and soon she started having second thoughts. Of course, to back out would mean that all of those concerned loved ones would blame and vilify her. When she first brought her uncertainty to my attention, I wanted the decision to be based on the issue at hand and not on how it would be perceived, and so I told her that if she backed out now I would tell people that it was a mutual decision that we rushed into things; I’d help her save face. (The end of this story isn’t necessary)

The more I read about the government shutdown, past shutdowns, and past congressional deal making, the more apparent it is to me that had this been averted before the crisis, no concessions would have been needed. But as things have now gone to this greater level, outside perceptions are going to matter a great deal. This sentiment has been well-documented by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post the past two days, who passed along this quote from Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Indiana) “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” If the Republicans are going to end this–even those who want to end it–there is going to have to be something that helps them save face in the public perception. Over the pat few days, I’ve been trying to decide what that might be.

We Did Everything We Could

One method for House Leadership to save face is to simply lose the fight. Although only 19-23 Republican House members have publicly stated that they would likely back a clean continuing resolution (CR) as was passed by the Senate, the estimates for its support behind closed doors are much higher. The National Review’s Robert Costa estimated that there are “potentially more than 100” Republican House members who would back a clean CR. Rep. Peter King guessed that “if you had a secret ballot, 180 would vote for a clean CR.” King is also among the numerous moderate Republicans contingency planning for a revolt against House leadership.

Many members, however, are worried about their home districts and pressure from the right. For this reason, I think that of the 100-180 that support re-opening the government without concessions, those in the safest reelection districts should be identified. Behind closed doors, Boehner could curry votes to end the shutdown, while protecting his vulnerable members and publicly opposing the move. As long as they have enough votes to pass the bill that way (they have enough to pass right now, but not enough to necessarily pull off the plotted revolt), then let the others vote against it, for political cover. This way, individual members get some cover. Leadership gets cover with the right wing by saying “we did everything we could, but we just didn’t have the votes,” and the government opens. Procedurally, this seems the most difficult and complex. It’s also the least likely.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Bias and Keeping Score

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s a popular refrain about what’s wrong with the world today that involves giving trophies to everyone just for participating and not keeping score during sports or other competitions. The story goes that liberal touchy-feely types are so worried about hurting their children’s self-esteem that they are instead sheltering those children from the realities of competition, failure, and the lessons of bouncing back from adversity. I’m inclined to agree.

But while keeping score in children’s athletics is wildly popular among conservatives and moderates, I’ve learned that those same rules do not apply to political commentary. Since writing “On the Shutdown Blame Game” yesterday morning in which I placed the full blame for the shutdown on House Republicans, I have been routinely and incessantly accused of having a liberal bias. Apparently, unlike kids playing sports, the right-leaning in this country do not appreciate keeping score in politics. The only acceptable answer is that everyone is to blame. Picking winners and losers; placing blame on one side or the other; these are unacceptable atrocities that can only serve to reveal your true inner bias.

Now, it’s true that there are often times that I espouse a point of view with which very few conservatives or Republicans would agree. Sure, I can often find an Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, or a Bruce Bartlett to back my logic, but many (most?) on the right consider these men RINOs–not true believers in the cause (which in and of itself might be worth a whole post). Their backing provides no credibility with the right. These are the times that I expect to be accused of liberal bias, even when I feel I am simply conveying the facts as I see them.

I probably could have tried to dissuade people accusing me of bias by pointing them toward the time I wrote that passing health care instead of a jobs bill was President Obama’s biggest mistake and agreed that he leads from behind; or about how pushing everyone to go to college was misguided; or about how wrong-headed I thought the liberal-led anti-bullying campaign is; or wrote that labor unions continue to prioritize short-term gains over the long-term health of the industry in which their members work; or about how useless the focus on “fairness” is and how the word itself is all but meaningless. But I didn’t feel the need to do all of that. I decided I could look elsewhere for my defense.

In the case of the government shutdown, my opinion is simply this: The House Republicans embarked on an ill-advised journey toward certain defeat in a move that could only result in a shutdown, and that Republicans are the ones who are best able and most likely to re-open the government based on the realities of vote counts. It was easy to find agreement in the Washington Post, The Guardian, and a lovely media critique in Al Jazeera. But this straight-forward view can still easily be seen as one-sided if only the “liberal media” backs it.

If my viewpoint constitutes liberal bias, however, then Karl Rove has a liberal bias. John McCain has a liberal bias. A handful of House Republicans such as Devin Nunes, Michael Grimm, and Peter King have a liberal bias. Republican Senators Orin Hatch and Richard Burr have a liberal bias. Honestly, the list is huge. I can’t even begin to include all of the Republicans who have spoken out against the logic and chances of success for the current House Republican tactics. When party leadership is doing the right thing, groups of party members usually don’t attempt to plan a revolt by siding with the other party.

You see, a liberal point of view is unlikely to be replicated by elected Republicans and prominent republican commentators. In fact, the main bias involved in the reporting of this story comes from the people that are trying to claim that “everyone is to blame.” Those are the people who are getting more spin than substance; who are taking media sources at face value; who are buying all the mutual finger pointing on C-SPAN.

Blaming both sides is the lazy way out. It allows you to have an opinion and share outrage without having followed the story or understanding the appropriations process until it all hit the front page. But the fact is that Republicans generally don’t, en mass, endorse a “liberal” point of view. But here so many are. Be honest with yourselves; keep score. The House Republicans messed this one up. They shouldn’t get a trophy just for participating.

Examples of Liberal Bias:

  • Getting angry about George W. Bush’s NSA wiretapping scandal and defending Obama’s NSA metadata scandal
  • Only getting your news from MSNBC, Mother Jones, and Huffington Post
  • Insisting with certainty that Obamacare will work as planned/intended when it’s success level depends on unpredictable human behavior
  • Ignoring the perverse incentives present in some aspects of Obamacare
  • Thinking that George W. Bush should be jailed as a war criminal and Obama’s drone strikes are just fine
  • Agreeing with that old Occupy Wall Street list of demands

Examples of what ISN’T a liberal bias

  • Agreeing with a huge number of Republicans and conservatives on any issue, even if that issue is that House Republicans are to blame for a given predicament.

On the Shutdown Blame Game

October 1, 2013 2 comments

If your social media experience today is anything like mine, you have some conservative or right-leaning friends crying “a pox on both your houses,” while your liberal or left-leaning friends are chanting “Down with the GOP!” Some could interpret this to mean that right-leaning friends are more fair, clear-eyed, and rational about the situation while left-leaning friends are being partisan nincompoops. In many situations, that could easily be the case. However, in this specific scenario, it’s simply that this whole shutdown is entirely the House Republicans’ fault. Let me explain the many reasons why this is true.

(For ease of writing, I’m going to refer to Republicans and Democrats instead of specifying “a large block of House Republicans including their leadership,” or “the Democrats in the Senate.”)

Play the Cards You Have

This is a fairly simple concept. How realistic is it for each side to secure that for which they are asking? Back when poker was a big television event, viewers always had the luxury of knowing which cards each player held. Well, in this situation the Republicans are waiting on a flush draw and the Democrats already have a full house. The only way Republicans can win is to convince the Democrats to fold a superior hand. I’m talking about vote counts. The House Republicans continually pass bills which have no chance of winning a majority in the Senate, where there are 54 Democrats who support Obamacare. Meanwhile, multiple reports have indicated that there are enough Republicans in the House who would vote for a “clean” continuing resolution that a vote would pass.

So the Republicans keep passing bills that will not pass the Senate. And the Democrats keep passing bills that will pass the House. All they have to do is put it up for a vote. The Democrats’ plan has the support of the majority in both chambers of congress. Clearly, on “winability,” it’s advantage Democrats.

The Electoral High Ground

There was an exchange just before midnight during the Ted Cruz non-filibuster in which Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia conceded that Sen. Cruz was elected by a wide margin in both the primary and the general election on a clearly-stated opposition to Obamacare, and thus felt legitimately honor-bound to fight for its removal. Sen. Kaine then went on to explain that other representatives were equally honor-bound to do the opposite, and there were more of them.

You see, in the 2012 election, Obamacare was a pretty front-and-center issue. Yes, the economy was on everyone’s mind when they took to the ballots, but the outcome of Obamacare was clearly known to be a consequence of this election. The results were that Democrats received more votes for the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. They picked up seats in both chambers, expanding the Senate majority and narrowing the gap in the House. The American people weighed in, and the Democrats got more votes. The Republicans were able to maintain the House majority only due to a combination of geographic realities and some gerrymandering (more the former than the latter; sorry liberals). But the conclusion remains that more voters cast votes for representatives promising to uphold the law than to repeal it.

Moral High Ground

You’ll notice, thus far, that I have not made any arguments about the merits of Obamacare itself. That’s because I find them irrelevant to the issue of a shutdown. There have been numerous government shutdowns in the past, and while a handful centered on abortion issues, the vast majority of the times that the government couldn’t agree to funding levels before a deadline passed occurred because the government couldn’t agree on funding levels. This is a budgetary debate. There are many, many things that take place within the government with which I do not agree. I don’t think that there is a single one that I find worth failing to meet the obligations of elected office, governing, and funding that government. I think that to inflict real harm on the nation’s economy and several hundred thousand federal employees over an ideological agenda is simply wrong.

Survey Says

One point often made is that the American people are against Obamacare and therefore the Democrats should listen to them and give ground. While this flies in the face of election results, polling data speaks fairly clearly. However, very few of those polls ask the proper follow-up question. The CNN Poll does. When asked whether they disapprove of Obamacare because it is too liberal or not liberal enough, a solid 11% of the respondents say they disapprove because it’s not liberal enough (that’s 11% of the total population, not 11% of those who disapprove). Suddenly, those election results make a lot more sense, don’t they? If you assume that those who disapprove of Obamacare because it is not liberal enough are more likely to back a Democratic agenda, then suddenly the 10-12 point majority opposing the bill swings the opposite direction.

On top of that, every single poll out there indicates that shutting down the government is wildly unpopular under any circumstances, for any reason. So on the health care bill, the public is siding less with Republicans than Republicans seem to think, and on shutting down the government the public is adamantly opposed to the Republican tactics. Make DC Listen!

Negotiation 101

The Republicans are reprimanding Democrats for not negotiating. “The President will negotiate with [insert terrorists, Iran, Russia, etc] but he won’t negotiate with Republican leaders,” they cry! Well, let’s look at where both parties stand.

Democrats want: To fund the government (at previous levels)

Republicans want: To fund the government (at previous levels) and to delay/defund/weaken/cripple Obamacare.

So let me get this straight. You want to negotiate when only one side has any demands? Funding the government is good for everyone. Not funding the government is bad for everyone. The Republicans are not offering any concessions. They are simply offering fewer demands each time and calling it compromise, but they are still the only one with demands.

And guess what. Time just ran out. People today will begin enrolling in Obamacare. The default position wins the day. When one side is asking for major changes, and the other side is asking for, well, nothing, it’s tough to negotiate.

Precedent

Okay. Let’s say the Democrats go along with this and delay key aspects of Obamacare for a year. They won’t, but let’s say that they do. Now, a year goes by. A legislative body has to enact a new spending bill to keep the government open, and Obamacare is about to go into effect. The House has voted approximately 40 times to repeal this law, so the odds are that a simple delay is not their end game. What is to stop Republicans from, once again, taking a stand against the bill and holding the operational purse strings of the federal government for ransom? Nothing. There is nothing stopping them from using what leverage they have over federal funding to continue to attempt to derail this law. And if they succeed using this tactic once, why on earth would they not try it again in a year?

Wrapping Up

In closing, the Democrats have a more-achievable position; they have passed a funding bill which has the support of a majority in both chambers of congress; they have electoral results on their side; they have polling data on their side; and they have a stronger negotiating position. The only way this works out for Republicans is if the Democrats fold a winning hand. I don’t see any rational justification for them to do so. Hopefully, we remember these lessons in November 2014.

On Republican Victories that Weren’t

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

I often like to think about what might have been. I’m not going to contemplate a world without partisanship. I’m not going to ponder a world where everyone works together and sings kumbaya. Those are nice ideals, but within the reality of one-upsmansmanship and party message control, I can still see clearly a very different political path from 2009 to now; a path that starts with Republicans claiming a victory that was rightfully theirs, and would drastically change the political landscape in which we currently live.

It starts with a simple story of an idea: the individual mandate. As outlined here by FoxNews, the individual mandate made it’s way from the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation in 1989, into Republican-sponsored health care bill proposals in 1993 (by current mandate opponents such as Chuck Grassley), enacted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 2006, and finally into another congressional bill proposal in 2007 co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. Mitt Romney even referred to the rule as his “personal responsibility mandate.” In short, this idea was entirely of Republican origin and remained a popular means of reforming health care and reducing costs within the Republican party until very recently.

Let’s now think back on the 2009 health care debate. The Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, but did not quite have a filibuster-proof majority. They desperately wanted to have a public option in their health care legislation. Ultimately, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy and the strong opposition and threats to join Republicans in a filibuster by Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman crushed that plan. The end result is that a massive health care bill focused around Republican ideas and modeled after a Republican governor’s plan passed through the Democrat-controlled congress without having a public option attached. Just imagine if that’s how the story played out in the messaging.

Imagine that Republicans, seeing the embrace of a conservative ideal, participated in the framework and negotiations structuring the law. Imagine that upon the failure of the public option, a bipartisan bill was passed with Republicans claiming victory for the bill and their role in its success. Their idea had won the day. They had defeated the public option. They had, in effect, hijacked the President’s attempt at a signature piece of legislation. They had brought him along to an individual mandate he opposed in his primary against Hillary Clinton. What if what is now the signature polarizing piece of legislation of Obama’s administration was instead spun, messaged, and ultimately viewed (Republicans are pretty good at message control, after all) as a strong Republican minority exposing the President’s weakness. What if Obamacare was Boehnercare? What if, in 2012, Mitt Romney ran partly on the platform that the President’s greatest accomplishment was simply piggybacking off of his largely successful Massachusetts legislation? Might he have looked stronger? Maybe even won the election? Would Democrats still be clamoring for enough seats and votes to add a public option to the bill?

Certainly, we would not be here. Certainly, Republicans who embraced health care reform and undercut the President by taking most of the credit for it would not be orchestrating a government shutdown as a last-ditch effort to defund a bill based on a long history of their own conservative ideas.

Then again, if the Republicans didn’t shift the current debate to Obamacare, Democrats would probably be pressing them to undo the “sequestration” cuts in the new fiscal year. As it is, the Democrats are offering a “clean” continuing resolution, accepting the funding level reductions enacted by sequestration as the new status quo…. yet another Republican victory for which they are too partisan to notice and accept credit.

On Privacy and the Culture of Leaks

June 11, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m not sure if this was exclusive to my generation or even just to my elementary and middle schools, but growing up there existed a pervasive myth: if you said the words “president,” and “bomb,” within a minute of each other over the phone, the FBI would be at your house within minutes. As this was in the earliest stages of the (public) internet, I have no idea how widespread this notion was, but it was a well-known part of my childhood. Interestingly, no one seemed to mind it. We were just kids, of course, but in most ways it was viewed as a sign of strength–almost as a token of nationalistic pride. Our government knows all; don’t cross it.

As we grew up, the Bond movies were revamped with Pierce Brosnan and later Daniel Craig. Shows like “24″ and “Alias” unveiled a world in which top secret authorities had virtually unlimited access to all the information that they needed. As adults, we get sucked into NCIS marathons and gleefully watch Abby hack into any system or hard drive she wants in order to unlock the necessary intelligence. Yes, we are a generation that grew up believing–or maybe wanting to believe–that our government had an omniscient quality; at least in theory.

However, as that theory becomes more like reality, my generation is not pleased or unphased, but disgusted. A recent CNN poll revealed that those under age 50 are much less likely to value security over privacy. The libertarian movement has erupted among the nation’s younger generation, leading to Ron Paul’s relevance and a push back against privacy invasions of all kinds, often celebrating WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden.

But not me. In fact, I am more worried by the leaks than I am about the information collection. You see, when I assumed growing up that some secret government agency probably knew everything about me, I took solace in the fact that they wouldn’t tell anyone. If you are covertly or illegally acquiring information, you can’t tell people that you have that information, and you can’t use it in court against me. It can only be used in some pretty extreme circumstances, and I’m not really mixed up in anything that crazy. In fact, the original document leaker, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, was not prosecuted because evidence against him was acquired illegally through wiretaps. Thus, any information the government collected on me was known only to a select few, and would stay that way.

But in a world in which leaks are viewed as heroic acts; when disclosing classified information gives you instant notoriety (be it fame or infamy), I no longer have that assurance. Now that leaking is seemingly becoming en vogue, any information that the government may collect on me could at any point be leaked to the public. Top secret won’t necessarily stay that way. I always figured that the government has bigger fish to fry than to read my gchats and facebook messages, but that doesn’t mean I’d like them exposed to the public.

Having a top secret (or higher) clearance is a responsibility. It means that you are willing and able to safeguard information and use it judiciously. When that wall breaks down and classified becomes public… when it becomes trendy to “expose” that information to the media or to WikiLeaks or to anywhere else… my information is no longer safe. Maybe it’s naive to trust government entities with my day to day life, but being granted a clearance used to mean that I could trust you. And I sure would rather have it in their hands than in everyone’s.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,047 other followers