Monthly Archives: March 2013

High importance

With the long-dreaded “sequester” upon us, the United States is suffering the kind of ruthless federal cost-cutting that has sparked protests, riots and other mass actions across Europe. Stateside, the response to austerity has been comparatively muted, though. The US national media have managed to distract the public from the social costs of the crisis, harping on the White House’s cutting back on public tours as if austerity amounted to mere political theater, its only victims civic-minded tourists. Meanwhile, what’s most important in this unfolding disaster goes unreported.

What is most important in this story? What truly deserves reporting? Certainly those cases where budget cuts pose an immediate and substantial risk to people’s health and life prospects. A graphic example: Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program for the children of disadvantaged families.

Blackboard_2In Washington County, Arkansas, Head Start has made drastic cutbacks to services in order to balance their newly-diminished budget, notably by shuttering classrooms two weeks early this spring. The early closure is expected to leave poor working families in the lurch, as their children will not only be without schooling, but will lack safe and reliable day care, health services and a regular source of decent food. According to Brenda Zedlitz, Head Start’s local program director:

This is going to severely impact their daily lives because for 13 days they won’t have a place to go. We serve the working poor. Where are their children going to go when they are at work? Does this mean that they will leave their children with caregivers who might not be appropriate? Mostly [sic], what does this mean to the well-being of that child? (Huffington Post, 3/21/13)

In a time of cutbacks, downsizing and streamlining, one employee does the work of two. This logic of increased efficiency trickles down even into our speech. “Mostly,” Ms. Zedlitz pointedly says, “what does this mean to the well-being of that child?” Her question coins a term that does the work of two: mostly, a hybrid mash-up of the words most importantly, but trimmed down to size — proving that even those words whose job it is to say what’s most important have to bend to the reigning logic of austerity.



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Twitter Imbroglio

It was raining in Rome, foretaste of early spring, when the papal conclave announced yesterday the election of a new pope. In Buenos Aires it was already dark, an autumn night with a touch of winter in the air. The faithful are notImage

late-night carousers; Argentinians went to bed as normal, but their dreams were likely disturbed by the news and in anticipation of the next day’s celebration of their native pontiff. Come morning, some odd stories began to circulate.

Although the Vatican is no stranger to conspiracy plots and occult fabrication, the Argentine connection gave the stories this morning a peculiar twist. In the dreaming minds of his compatriots, Pope Francisco, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was apparently mixed up with that other illustrious Argentinian, whose name he echoes: Jorge Francisco Luis Borges. By 6:00 am this morning in Buenos Aires, Twitter’s #BorgesBergo was trending with speculation about genealogical connections and possible arcane links between the Pope and the Maestro.

Some of these findings: the two names “Bergo” and “Borges” have transposed vowels, suggesting a kind of mirror-play; @qualquier979 claims that the supplemental “s” in Borges’ name is a sign of this inverted reflection. As for the additional “glio” in Bergoglio, @cariño1985 pointed out that the letters spell out a gnomic phrase in Italian: “Gli O,” in other words, “The Os.” But who or what would these “O”s be? Traffic is very heavy at #Os?, where the potential meanings of that suggestive phrase are being feverishly discussed.

The most disturbing hypotheses are inspired by Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In that story, Dr. Yu Tsun, a descendent of the illustrious Ts’ui Pên, creator of a famed temporal labyrinth, commits an act of treachery by secretly revealing to Berlin the location of a British military camp, which the Nazis are subsequently able to target with bombs. Yu Tsun’s coded message takes the form of a murder: he kills his friend Dr. Albert, an event Yu Tsun expects to be notorious enough to make the headlines, where, sure enough, it is read by the Nazis as a clue to the place their bombs should strike, a town also named Albert. Francisco’s “Gli O” would apparently serve a similar function.

The comparison is perplexing, as it imputes to the new pope a nefarious purpose in communicating a message with part of his own name, inherited by birth, something he could hardly have predicted could serve that specific use, unless by time travel or preternatural foresight. Alternately, Bergoglio’s choice of the unprecedented “Francisco” would be the analog to Borges’ coded surname. As for his motives, speculations abound, but as the day drew on and the sun set in Rome, discussion turned to more secular topics, chief among them Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in crimes against other priests during the time of the Dirty War, about which there are conflicting versions of events. In this context, Francisco’s coded signs suggest a possible “naming of names” to settle past scores, or even to turn over left-wing suspects to the Argentine junta by some kind of sci-fi papal retroaction. Discussion became more literary even as it delved deeper into politics. Increasingly the new pope was compared to the sinister protagonist of Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix.

Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” is credited with the invention of hypertext — a work of infinite dimensions and innumerable possible permutations. If it does not provide a key to the coincidences and enigmas surrounding the new pope, Borges’ tale is prescient in another way; Vatican conspiracies have often taken the shape of bloated and artless films and novels (The Godfather III, The Da Vinci Code…). The frenzy of Argentine tweets this morning resembled instead the multiverse of Borges’ magical labyrinths.


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March 14, 2013 · 5:28 pm


Idioms come and go. Phrases pop up, gain currency, become established or fall out of favor. Others overstay their welcome. Tainted by some particularly infamous use or repeated to the point of redundancy, they should by all rights die out; for such phrases there ought to be a “Do not resuscitate” order.

A story in the news this week sparked a storm of moral outrage. At a retirement facility in Bakersfield, California, an elderly woman collapses on the floor of the dining area; a nurse is present and makes an emergency call. The woman is not breathing. The dispatcher on the other end gives instructions to the nurse on how to maintain life-support while the ambulance arrives. The nurse refuses, citing company policy. There ensues a back and forth between dispatcher and nurse, the former expressing increasing urgency and the latter, armored by legalese, placidly swatting away all appeals to humanity and reason. The dispatcher begs the woman to hand the phone to someone else, anyone who might perform CPR. The nurse does not let go of the phone. “She’s going to die if we don’t get this started,” the dispatcher says. “Do you understand?” Finally the dispatcher reaches a point of helpless frustration:

“If there’s any… as a human being I don’t … you know. Is there anyone there that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”

To which the nurse replies, the words drawn out slowly, as if in deep weariness or infinite patience:

“Not at this time.”

Not at this time: Stock phrase of bureaucratese, an obfuscating periphrase meant to fudge the plain words not now. A way to soften the blow to a job supplicant, who might bristle at the word never. A way of denying coevalness to employees and underlings, for whom time means money, only less. The nurse standing over the body of the dying woman does a verbal end-run around the word now, even as the clock is ticking and time is clearly running out. This time circumlocutes the present, while slyly implying there is another time in store; there will be a chance for an appeal, a possible refund, an audience with the pope. The nurse herself must understand there is no other time in store for the stricken woman, but her thoughtless parroting of bureaucratese meshes with the anomic inhumanity of her sovereign self-interest. She is the embodiment of actuarial logic, coolly assessing risk factors to her own job, itself part of a corporate entity designed with a view to extract profit from the calculation of mortality rates.

The woman dies. In the wake of the ensuing scandal, the Executive Director of Glenwood Gardens, Jeffrey Toomer, issued a public statement in which he affirms that the nurse acted in accordance to company regulations. The nurse’s notorious phrase has an ignominious afterlife in his callous legalese:

“As with any incident involving a resident, we will conduct an internal review of this matter, but we have no further comments at this time.”


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Who That

“Suppose you think along the lines of power, authority. Inevitability. You’ve got your two kinds of people now, when you get down to it. On one hand you’ve got your rebel mentality whose whole bag or groove or what have you is going against power, rebelling. Your spit-in-the-wind type that [sic] feels powerful going DSCN6557against the power and the establishment and what have you. Then, type two, you’ve got your other type, which is the soldier personality, the type that [sic] believes in order and power and respects authority and aligns themselves with power and authority and the side of order and the way the whole thing has got to work if the system’s going to run smoothly. So imagine you’re a type two type. There’s more than you think. The age of the rebel is over. It’s the eighties now. If you’re a Type Two, We Want You – that should be their slogan. In the Service.” David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

The “Service” in the quote is of course the IRS, the soul-crushing and improbably compelling topic of David Foster Wallace’s sprawling, unfinished (unfinishable?) last novel. Who noticed the irony that Wallace died only months before the advent of the Tea Party, and that the first anniversary of his death, to the day, was marked by none other than the Taxpayer March on Washington, the largest right-wing gathering of its kind? The coincidence is sadly appropriate: Wallace’s most savage ironies in The Pale King could hardly match the obscenity of that congeries of blustering free-market fanatics and crypto-fascists, all of them exercised to rage by the merest prospect of health care reform and progressive taxation. The “soldier personality” come down to us from Wallace’s 80s had morphed into something deeply incoherent and virtually psychotic, a flailing mob of like-minded sociopaths farcically miming civil rights movements, but of paler complexions, in tricornes.

Wallace’s quote is colored by the period it evokes, but one aspect of the authoritarian language is still a pitch-perfect match for current parlance. Twice the speaking character refers to a kind of person as a “type,” and follows that “type” with the relative pronoun “that.” Such usage (a “type that feels powerful”; “the type that believes in order”) is endemic to a subset of the U.S. population, “types” who skew fascist. This minor grammatical flaw taps into a psycho-social habit of mind that aligns with forces as ominous as those captured by Wallace’s novel.

Proper usage of the relative pronouns “who” and “that” calls for the former when referring to human subjects, the latter when referring to things and animals. The distinction seems simple enough:

The corporation that built the missile.

The drone that carried it.

The man who aimed it.

The people who died.

What explains the slippage from one to the other, or the strong preference for the grammatical error? Take an example from an interview with a Republican operative, tapped by CNN to explain the Tea Party’s summer of rage in 2009 and to plug his book of political wisdom:

The people you should be listening to at the town halls are not those who [note “who”] are yelling in the front, it’s those that [sic] are grumbling in the back. Because there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people that [sic] have come to these town hall meetings that [sic] have never participated in politics before. They’re going to vote in 2010. I’ve offered a lexicon for them to be more effective in this book because in the end, the shouting really doesn’t move people. They need to know how to communicate more effectively.

The interviewee, Frank Luntz, is a right-wing pollster and communications specialist famous for coining the term “death tax” as reference to estate taxes, among other gifts to our political “lexicon.” In the months following the Taxpayer March on Washington, there was a flurry of debate on the nature of the Tea Party: grassroots movement or “Astroturf” product of right-wing PACs? Luntz picks up the ‘populist’ canard and warns the CNN interviewer not to underestimate the angry populace, then seamlessly moves into communications mode, where his role is to mold those same people’s minds. This double aspect – referring to people as autonomous subjects, then as objects of propagandistic manipulation – is betrayed by the shift from an initial “who” to a repeated “that” (“those that are grumbling”; “people that have come”; people “that have never participated in politics before”). The shift reflects either a cynical choice to speak in the language of ordinary folks or an unwitting demotion of those people to the status of objects – the symptom of a fundamental disregard for human autonomy barely veiled by his professions of respect.

Fast-forward to 2010, the year the Republican operative predicts a major Tea Party influence on the national elections. But that influence comes earlier than expected, with the January special election in Massachusetts for the senate seat formerly occupied by Ted Kennedy. For liberals, it’s week from hell: on January 19, Republican Scott Brown claims the Tea Party’s first electoral victory; on January 21, the Supreme Court issues its notorious Citizens United decision. The connection? In each case, a crosswise substitution, a bait-and-switch between ‘who’ and ‘that.’

Which is exactly how Scott Brown first appeared as a figure in the public spotlight. To help fund his law school education, the future senator posed nude in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. Who is that? the magazine’s reader’s must have asked themselves. A similar question may have stirred in the minds of those who saw Brown’s hokey TV ad in 2009, a nightmare hieroglyph in which John F. Kennedy is seen speaking admirable lofty words, and then, after an awkward fade into an image of the flag, Scott Brown’s own prosaic face appears, parroting Kennedy’s lines. Whatever happened to Ted Kennedy? And who that? Meanwhile, demonstrating the limits of their own status as autonomous human subjects, the republican majority in the Supreme Court handed down the decision that enshrined the free speech rights of corporations as equivalent to those of people. The corporation – a that – had become a who.



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