RSSCategory: Language

Was 9/11 a crime or a war?

September 24, 2011 | By | Reply More
Was 9/11 a crime or a war?

At Huffpo, George Lakoff discusses the consequences for the way in which Americans have framed the 9/11 attacks.

Colin Powell recommended calling the attack a crime. But Cheney understood that if it were framed as an act of war, then Bush and Cheney would be given war powers. So war it was, a metaphorical “war” on terror. The American people, intimidated by the vision of the towers falling, accepted the framing. Democrats, seeing the reaction of their constituents, went along with the framing. Except for my congresswoman, Barbara Lee. I ran to my computer to be the first to congratulate her on her no vote.

Terror meant everyone should be afraid of terrorists. Throughout the Midwest the predictable happened. A highly memorable event raises one’s judgment of the probability that it will happen to them. All over America people started being afraid of terrorists. Bush asked for and got unlimited war powers and the Patriot Act.

I discussed this same issue in this earlier post on the frame of war.

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Scary News from the Christian Coalition

August 7, 2011 | By | Reply More

I did not opt out of the Christian Coalition newsletter mailing list that someone unknown signed me up for some months ago. It helps to keep an eye on what the other side is up to. The Aug 5, 2011 issue includes the following scary observation:

“Critics and supporters of the Budget Control Act … agree that the Tea Party now controls the agenda in Washington D.C. As one who attended Glenn Beck’s Tea Party event last August — along with over a half million other Tea Party supporters — when looking at the hundreds of thousands of families near the Lincoln Memorial on Washington D.C.’s Mall, I realized that those families represent the large majority of the American people, as anyone with any kind of commonsense would.

Why in particular do I find this scary?

  • Open admission that The Tea Party (not even an official political party) controls the actions of our legislature. This group is a powerful vocal minority, arguably smaller but richer than the 1980’s “Moral Majority.”
  • Lack of fact checking: The attendance of the Glen Beck event is well established by several independent sources. They range from Beck’s hopeful “300,000 to 600,000” and Michelle Bachman’s “at least a million” to several actual counts from aerial photos between 60,000 and 87,000.
  • The massive innumeracy that equates “thousands of families” with “large majority of the American people.” Please divide several thousand by hundreds of millions and show that this is somehow more than half.
    87,000 / 330,000,000 = 0.00026 or somewhat less than a majority, however you massage it.
  • The implication that the openly theocratic ideals of the Tea Party are somehow related to common sense. Even Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” argued against a government supported by the church (as is England’s).
  • And in totality, the tone that says that the oddball ideals of this group are somehow mainstream. They seem hopeful about Lenin’s maxim that a lie told often enough becomes the truth. And the Christian Coalition is all about The Truth.
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I’m looking for a punchy word that is the singular of “sheeple.”

June 24, 2011 | By | 16 Replies More
I’m looking for a punchy word that is the singular of “sheeple.”

.

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“Retard” and other disability-insults.

May 21, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More
“Retard” and other disability-insults.

The word “retard” possessed dual meanings for a long time. First used as a term for intellectual disability in 1788, the word took on a pejorative sense in the 1970s. For thirty years the two meanings curiously co-existed. Universities had “Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability” Departments and students who drunkenly called one another ‘retards’ for lobbing bad beer-pong balls, and the two existed in tandem.

But once medical and social service experts finally disavowed the word ‘retard’, it vanished from official usage with amazing swiftness. The Special Olympics ceased using the ‘r-word’ in 2004, initiating the trend. In 2006, the (former) American Association of Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

By 2008, Special Olympics turned the abolishment of ‘retard’ into a full-time effort and launched R-word.org. The site protested the derogatory use of ‘retard’ (including a protest campaign against the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, which featured a lengthy discussion on ‘retard’ roles in film). Special Olympics and R-word.org also pushed for their fellow disability-service organizations to drop the term.

In 2010, ‘retard’ was legally banished from the professional lexicon. On October 5 of last year, Obama signed “Rosa’s Law”, which banned the use of “retard” in all federal health, education, and labor policy. “Intellectual disability” and “developmental disability” became the approved nomenclature. Non-federal organizations followed hastily: in Ohio, Google directs you to the “Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities“, but the website itself has already been scrubbed of the R-word(even if the url still has the dreaded ‘r’ in it).

It’s official: ‘retard’ has no place in formal usage. Once a medical term for someone with an intellectual disability, it lives now only as an insult. One that means, roughly, unintelligent.

Like moron, which began as medical terminology for one with a mental age of 8 to 12.

Or imbecile, which meant ‘a mental age of 6 to 9‘.

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Chinks III

May 17, 2011 | By | Reply More
Chinks III

Since writing Chinks II, I’ve felt uneasy about calling the Vietnamese workers in that nail salon ‘racists’. It’s true that they pigeonholed an African-American patron as a lazy welfare recipient who was unwilling to get a job. They seemed to take pleasure in voicing all the hurtful stereotypes that could be applied to a total stranger. I found their behavior cruel, terrifying and ironic.

The barb at the heart of Chinks II was minority on minority hate. Yet I described their hate speech as “tittering… nonsensical verbal massaging.” Even if the taunting was meant to be indecipherable, wasn’t I being a bigot myself by writing about it this way?

I can’t think of more alternatives to the pronoun “them.” That’s probably because I don’t know much about the Vietnamese women who taunted a black woman that day. (Here again, I resort to the roughest of rough sketches: “that black lady”). I don’t know their names. I don’t know where they live, although it’s probably not far from my own neighborhood. They are caricatures precisely because I have so few details with which to draw my group character sketch. And what would my cartoon self-portrait look like?

Qipao1

On the day of Chinks II, I was the most socially normative minority in the room. Being light-skinned, speaking with an American accent, growing up in a solidly middle-class household and earning a professional degree all help me to appear more “white” and inviolable. Who knows? It could have been my blessed-in-every-way-second-generation-Chinese-American presence that precipitated the verbal attack that I describe so vehemently. It’s not that I think I am the center of every story; though this story – all the Chinks stories – are about me and my perception of race. Chinks II simply exemplifies the pervasive, insidious, contagious nature of bigotry. This is a barb that hasn’t stopped pricking.

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A job that pays you to snipe at your coworkers

April 11, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
A job that pays you to snipe at your coworkers

Harvard professor Gary King determined that Washington lawmakers spend a lot of time calling each other names (King is interviewed “How senators spend 27 percent of their time taunting each other” in The Week).

Groucho Marx might have to rework the lyrics in the song from Horsefeathers

I don’t care what you have to say
It makes no difference anyway;
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!

to include a couple of slurs to bring it up to date.

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How to not answer a question

March 22, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
How to not answer a question

Here is how lawyers can gum up the communications process. Thank goodness this is an extreme example. The question causing this to-do is essentially “Does your office have photocopying machines?”

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Robots and human interaction

February 22, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Robots and human interaction

Last year, before I even heard of DI, I resolved to read all 15 of Isaac Asimov’s books/novels set within his Foundation universe this year. Why “before I even heard of DI”? Well, you may already know, but I won’t spoil the detective work if you don’t. (Hint: scroll down to the list about ¾ down the wiki page.) Why “this year”? I spent the summer and fall studying for an exam I had put off long enough and had little time for any outside reading.

I read I, Robot nearly 40 years ago, and The Rest of the Robots some time after that, followed by the Foundation trilogy, Foundation’s Edge when it was published in 1982, and Prelude to Foundation when it was published in 1988. I never read any of the Galactic Empire novels or the rest of the Foundation canon, and none of the “Robot novels”, which is why I decided to read them all, as Asimov laid out the timeline. I do like to re-read books, but hadn’t ever re-read any of the robot short stories, even when I added The Complete Robot to my collection in the early 1980s. As I’ve slept a bit since the first read, I forgot much, particularly how Asimov imagined people in the future might view robots.

Many recognize Asimov as one of the grandmasters of robot science fiction, (any geek knows the Three Laws of Robotics; in fact Asimov is credited with coining the word “robotics”). He wrote many of his short stories in the 1940s when robots were only fiction. I promise not to go into the plots, but without spoiling anything, I want to touch on a recurrent theme throughout Asimov’s short stories (and at least his first novel…I haven’t read the others yet): a pervasive fear and distrust of robots by the people of Earth. Humankind’s adventurous element – those that colonized other planets – were not hampered so, but the mother planet’s population had an irrational Frankenstein complex (named by the author, but for reasons unknown to most of the characters being that it is an ancient story in their timelines). Afraid that the machines would take jobs, harm people (despite the three laws), be responsible for the moral decline of society, robots were accepted and appreciated by few (on Earth that is.) {note: the photo is the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, now in the public domain.}

Robots in the 1940s and 1950s pulp fiction and sci-fi films were generally menacing like Gort in the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, reinforcing that Frankenstein complex that Asimov explored. Or functional like one of the most famous robots in science fiction, Robbie in The Forbidden Planet, or “Robot” in Lost in Space who always seemed to be warning Will Robinson of “Danger!”

When writing this, I remembered Silent Running, a 1972 film with an environmental message and Huey, Dewey and Louie, small, endearing robots with simple missions, not too unlike Wall-E. Yes, robots were bad again in The Terminator, but we can probably point to 1977 as the point at which robots forever took on both a new enduring persona and a new nickname – droids. {1931 Astounding was published without copyright}

Why the sketchy history lesson (here’s another, and a BBC very selective “exploration of the evolution of robots in science fiction“)? It was Star Wars that inspired Dr. Cynthia Breazel, author of Designing Sociable Robots, as a ten year old girl to later develop interactive robots at MIT. Her TED Talk at December 2010’s TEDWomen shows some of the incredible work she has done, and some of the amazing findings on how humans interact.

Very interesting that people trusted the robots more than the alternative resources provided in Dr. Breazel’s experiments.

Asimov died in 1992, so he did get to see true robotics become a reality. IBM’s Watson recently demonstrated its considerable ability to understand and interact with humans and is now moving on to the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to work with diagnosing and patient interaction.

Imagine the possibilities…with Watson, and Dr. Breazel’s and others’ advances in robotics, I think Asimov would be quite pleased that his fears of human robo-phobia were without … I can’t resist…Foundation.

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Taking Cues

January 11, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More
Taking Cues

In the last post, I opined about the atmosphere in the country generated by overheated rhetoric and the irrationality that has resulted from seemingly intransigent positions. Some of the responses I received to that were of the “well, both sides do it” variety (which is true to an extent, but I think beside the point) and the “you can’t legislate civility or impose censorship” stripe.

As it is developing, the young man who attempted to murder Representative Gifford—and succeeded in killing six others—appears to be not of sound mind. We’re getting a picture of a loner who made no friends and indulged in a distorted worldview tending toward the paranoid. How much of his actions can be laid on politics and how much on his own obsessions is debatable. Many commentators very quickly tried to label him a right-winger, based largely on the political climate in Arizona and that he targeted a moderate, “blue dog” Democrat. This in the context of years of shrill right-wing political rhetoric that fully employs a take-no-prisoner ethic, including comments from some Tea Party candidates about so-called Second Amendment solutions. It’s looking like trying to label this man’s politics will be next to impossible and, as I say, if he is mentally unbalanced, what real difference does that make? (Although to see some people say “Look, he’s a Lefty, one of his favorite books is Mein Kampf ” is in itself bizarre—how does anyone figure Mein Kampf indicates leftist political leanings? Because the Nazis were “National Socialists”? Please.)

Whatever the determination of Mr. Loughner’s motives may turn out to be, his actions have forced the topic of political stupidity and slipshod rhetoric to the forefront, at least until Gabrielle Gifford is out of danger of dying. Regardless of his influences, in this instance he has served as the trigger for a debate we have been needing to have for decades. This time, hopefully, it won’t be shoved aside after a few well-meaning sound-bites from politicians wanting to appear sensitive and concerned, only to have everyone go right back to beating each other bloody with nouns and verbs.

But while it may be fair to say that Mr. Loughner is unbalanced and might have gone off and shot anyone, the fact is he shot a politician, one who had been targeted by the Right. Perhaps the heated rhetoric did not make Mr. Loughner prone to violence, but what about his choice of victims?

[More . . . ]

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