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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 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.

An Open Letter to Elected Republicans

November 6, 2012 1 comment

Hey guys,  I know it’s been a little bit of a rough day/night for you, and I want to be sympathetic, but I won’t pretend I’m not pretty pleased with the outcome. We all know that you and I have our differences. I imagine losing the presidential election to the incumbent despite poor economic conditions is pretty sobering. You’re probably looking in the proverbial mirror wondering what went wrong. More importantly, you’re probably wondering where does the party go from here. You tried the maverick in 2008. You swung right with the Tea Party in 2010. You went with prototype president version 2.12 in 2012. And yet, Barack Obama is still the president.

There are a number of possible reactions. Was Romney too moderate? Should the party push farther to the right? Maybe the party should continue to blur the lines between being a Republican and a Libertarian. There’s always the option of using a vast media propaganda machine to undermine the legitimacy of the 2012 elections, thus undermining the legitimacy of the Obama administration (thus also undermining the entirety of the American political process, but that’s collateral damage deemed worth it to many). Of all the reactions that you could have, however, I would like to offer one simple suggestion.

Govern. I know, it sounds crazy, right? But after 4 years of trying tooth and nail to limit the actions of the government and the administration, you’ve received a loss. The plan did not work. In 2014, and again in 2016, if you want to make gains and see results, perhaps you should consider giving the people something concrete for which they can vote. Show us that you can work with others and not just against them. We understand that you’re really good at obstructing. We realize that the congress elected in 2010 passed the least amount of legislation of any in recent history by a long shot. Well done.

Now, in a center-right country with a weak economic recovery, you still lost to a Democrat. Maybe what’s missing is the “center” in the center-right. Maybe the rigid adherence to ideology at the expense of results is holding you up. Maybe, over the next two to four years, you should try to give the people something to vote for instead of someone to vote against. Move on from this loss quickly; don’t dwell on the election and try to undermine its results or question its mandate. And when you move on and return to legislation, don’t point fingers across the aisle, but instead look inward and ask, “what can I do within my principles and within the legislative reality that will improve my country?” Try for collaborative accomplishments. I promise you, this strategy more than any other will lead to the results that you want. Until/unless that happens, look for more of the same: a center-right country begrudgingly electing Democrats.

Good luck,
Max Gross

On Humanizing Mitt

August 28, 2012 1 comment

In the run up to the Republican Convention I’ve been hearing a lot of talk from political operatives on both sides about the convention being the last and best opportunity for Mitt Romney to humanize himself and connect with voters. Everyone that hits the screen on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN all agree that this should be priority number one for the Republicans and the Romney campaign. It’s a sharp turn from the previous tone of the Romney campaign, which has been to talk about the economy, the economy, and nothing but the economy, belittling any other topic as President Obama’s effort to pivot away from his record and focus on unimportant issues. But with poll after poll showing that Romney doesn’t connect, the campaign has decided to shore up that “connectivity/likability” weakness. Far be it from me to disagree with seemingly every political operative out there, but it sounds like a big mistake to me.

The effort to humanize Romney and to build a connection to people got an early start with an assist from the weekly news magazine show Fox News Sunday when they invited Chris Wallace into their home. The piece, titled “At Home with the Romneys,” was introduced this way: “One of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems is the perception pushed by the Obama campaign he is out of touch and doesn’t understand what many American families are going through. Earlier this week, the Romneys invited us to their New Hampshire vacation spot, opening their home to cameras for the first time in this campaign.”

To me, that lends the distinct impression that this video is meant to help correct this problem, putting the people more “in touch” with the Romneys. You can watch the video for yourself, but if the effort to show that the real Mitt Romney can connect with and understand the typical American starts with a trip to their vacation home that is described to look much like a summer camp, you might imagine that effort could fall severely short. Wallace makes sure to notice that the Romneys don’t have maids or a chef at their vacation home–quite a connectable trait, right?

Whether it be a look inside the Romneys’ marriage and family or a stale sense of humor leading to failed joke deliveries, Romney’s life and experience are unlikely to relate to common Americans, no matter how it’s dressed up. The old adage that people want “a guy you’d like to share a beer with” doesn’t work when the candidate religiously abstains from alcohol. (Not saying that a sober president can’t be relatable; just that this one, clearly, is not.) In going out of their way to emphasize Mitt Romney the human being, the campaign risks getting off of message and playing to their opponents’ strengths. Barack Obama is just more relatable and more likable (according to polls) than Mitt Romney. If these two weeks of conventions are dedicated to highlighting their personalities, Mitt Romney may run the risk of a post-convention dip in the polls, instead of the traditional/expected convention bump.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Tragedy, Blame and Politics

July 20, 2012 1 comment

When you write a blog dealing with current events and politics, to ignore a major news story would seem odd. That is really the only reason I’m writing this short post today, as I would prefer not to enter the dialogue of how this tragedy can affirm my beliefs. All around the web and on tv, there are responses to the shooting in Aurora, CO similar to those that followed the shootings at Virginia Tech, and at the grocery store in Arizona, and at Columbine, and the like. Gun control fights are being waged on both sides of the issue. People are anxious to find out if the theater could have done more, if the shooter obtained his weapons legally or illegally, or what his motives were… people are anxious to find someone to blame. Some utilize the events as a grounds for sermons and a religious movement. I wish that we wouldn’t do any of that. When a tragedy occurs, we all deal with it in our own ways, and I would be remiss to say that any one way is better than another. That said, I’m fairly certain that grasping onto the tragedy to advance your own cause is among the worst ways.

Categories: Uncategorized