Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The War Over Words

Writers, philosophers and especially politicians know one thing all too well: he who succeeds in framing the language about an event or situation inevitably ends up controlling how it is perceived. Which is why the Bush crew has begun to do away with the word "privatization." As the NYTimes' Robert Pear pointed out last week, Republicans have found that the word doesn't poll well, and thus you'll hear words like Social Security "reform" and the "ownership society" to describe what they used to straightforwardly call privatization. But it doesn't stop there: others have taken the same cues. Even the giant old-folks lobby, AARP, which one would think might oppose such a plan, has internally banished the word.
Email messages circulating within AARP in recent weeks indicated that the group would avoid the word whenever possible. One message, by an editor of an AARP magazine, says, 'there is a new forbidden word at AARP: Social Security privatization. Another email message, by a manager of its Web site, says, 'The term privatization is stricken from our vocabulary forever.'"

In similar fashion, this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review nicely makes an important point about the ever-more-important phrasing governments attach to wars like so much soap advertising:
Three years after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, it is extremely difficult fo rthe press to gauge where the United States stands in the war on terror because the term itself obscures distinction. Even a presidential campaign that turned largely on the war on terror failed to bring clarity. So now, two questions: How seriously did the press err in adopting the shorthand of the political establishment to describe America's response to 9/11? And, what should it do now that the terminology has been naturalized into the vernacular?

Two Big-Foot U.S. Presidents Have Back-to-Back Library Openings. Amid all the attention over the opening of the Clinton presidential library this month, an even more interesting presidential library opening was lost in the shuffle in October. In Abe Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, a $150-million project, including a library, was opened so as to fittingly honor our greatest prez. If you've never made the obligatory journey to Springfield, you should. And soon. In all the plethora of coverage of the two events, I most enjoyed this factoid: Clinton had the second-largest feet of any president, topped only by...you guessed it, Honest Abe.

Digital Studs. Someone once asked me which well-known writer I thought had the best, most comprehensive online presence. That stumped me at first--not because I couldn't think of any, but because I thought of so many, and no one writer seemed to rise above the pack. There is something to be said for the incomparable contrarian New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who characteristically found an ingenious way around the fact that his magazine was one of the last major journalistic outfits to have any real web presence. As early as 1996, Malc simply began collecting PDF files of his stories and putting those on his site (a classic of minimalist design), years before the New Yorker also began doing so for him. But after some more thinking, and a little browsing, here's my nomination (at least till I find a half-dozen better ones) for the best writerly site: Chicago's timeless Studs Terkel, the working-man's hero, has a hell of a nice site, which you'll find here. Of course, he cheated: he seems to have had significant help from the Chicago Historical Society and funding from no less than the National Science Foundation! But then, Stud has never thought small. He only writes about the little guy...


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