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Archive for October, 2008

Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of such quirky films as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation has written and directed a new one, called Synecdoche New York. The critics have helpfully provided a definition of “synecdoche”, which means “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.” The reviews have been almost as baffling as I suspect the movie must be. I think I’ll rent it; that way I can watch in small doses so as not to overly tax my mind, which is plenty baffled these days.

But the movie and its brainiac title got me thinking about vocabulary during this election season. Words – their meanings new, old and just plain baffling – are certainly getting their due. I decided to visit dictionary.com (http://dictionary.reference.com/) to look up a few of those that keep popping up in political speeches of late to see what the reference books think we mean:

  • liberal: favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs. Also open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc; also and marked by generosity
  • elite: the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons
  • taxes: fees charged (“levied”) by a government on a product, income, or activity. The purpose of taxation is to finance government expenditure. One of the most important uses of taxes is to finance public goods and services.
  • debate: a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints; a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers; to deliberate upon or consider; Obsolete: to fight; quarrel.
  • socialism: any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

I admit I’ve used only a portion of the multiple definitions I found for each of these words in order to make them as “neutral” as possible. The more definitions we find, the more choices we have as to how we might feel about a particular word. As language evolves, words are sometimes given new meanings which may come to dominate or eliminate older definitions.  Yet sometimes all it takes to give a neutral word a negative spin is to, say, substitute a partial meaning for a whole meaning or swap a general definition for a narrower one. Call it “Campaign Synecdoche 2008.”

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In the news, the campaign dominates, of course. Is anyone not looking towards the finish line with the usual mix of anxiety and relief? Those stories dominated but there were some unusual twists and other tales worth reviewing.

  • Colin Powell endorses Obama. My favorite part of the interview centered on a subject most public figures have been too afraid to mention until now, which is that while Obama isn’t Muslim, who cares?  If a young Muslim-American wants to grow up to be President, why not? I’ve had some issues with Powell’s “good soldier” routine in the past but for highlighting the stupidity of continuing to equate all Muslims with terrorists, kudos.
  • Sarah Palin appears on “Saturday Night Live.”  I watched the show, which on balance was far inferior and less funny than previous shows had been (there was an entire skit about calling a colleague “fart-face”). Can’t these actors read cue cards and look at the person they’re playing off?  Even an amateur speech maker can look up from notes occasionally. As to Palin’s appearance, it confirmed my earliest impressions; she’s definitely an entertainer, destined to make tons of money with her own talk show someday.
  • “Joe the Plumber” isn’t actually a licensed plumber.  Joe is, however, apparently sick of the attention, or rather, the scrutiny. Hey Joe, that’s what fifteen minutes of fame is all about. Seriously, who cares?
  • High school cheating is on the rise. Okay my young friends, here it is, plain and simple: as to whether cheating is wrong, yes. As to whether “everyone’s doing it” is an acceptable excuse, no. As to whether bringing in cheat notes, “borrowing” an exam from a friend, copying from the Internet or using the exact wording from a book or article (it’s called “plagiarizing”) is actually cheating, also yes. As for whether oral sex is actually sex, also yes.
  • Mr. Blackwell, publisher of the “Worst-Dressed” list, dies. OMG, are we going to have to rely on Joan Rivers to tell us who’s tastefully clothed and who’s not? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

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I don’t know who won the debate last night. I’m not certain at this point who’s going to win the general election. To be honest, I don’t know what I know anymore. Is it supposed to rain tonight ? How long will I have this headache? Are my health insurance premiums going up? Exactly what percentage of my savings have I lost and if it’s all on paper, does it really matter? Damned if I know.

Uncertainty is a state of mind I’ve been examining as part of the research for my book. Humans, particularly Americans, don’t like to be uncertain. We want to know who won, who’s winning, how much we’ve lost, how fast we can make it up and, occasionally what it all means. To not know is to be in a position of weakness.

Or not. Accepting uncertainty as a more or less permanent condition can be liberating. It allows you to consider possibilities. Whatever it is you don’t know for certain you’re free to imagine. Why not imagine the best of all possible worlds? Doesn’t mean it will happen, just that it might. It’s that glass-half-empty, glass-half-full point of view.

It’s one thing to not know something absolutely and another to not make up your mind with the information you have at hand. Most people I know (myself included) have pretty much settled on a candidate whose vision we feel is most in line with ours, which is why I was so fascinated to listen to the comments of the undecided voters being grilled by various commentators last night. As Gail Collins pointed out in today’s New York Times, these undecided swingers in unpredictable states are the voters on whom the candidates are now focused like laser beams. They claim to be examining the positions of the candidates, which have remained largely unchanged for some time. Clearly, if they admit to making a decision before November 4th, they won’t be as interesting to either the press or the politicians. Which begs the question: are those oh-so-unsure but ever-so-popular independents really still undecided? I don’t know for sure – but I tend to doubt it.

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After watching last night’s debate, I tried to come up with a word to describe it and remembered one my sister used as a little kid whenever she was frustrated: stoopy. Stoopy means stupid and that’s the best description I have right now.

What was so stupid about the debate last night? Let’s begin with the restrictions, which went a long way towards making it as boring as can be imagined. It’s one thing to tell the audience not to make any overt noises or gestures but I’ll tell you what: if you get a small crowd and admonish them to behave and subject them to harsh lighting, roaming cameras, close proximity to candidates and national exposure, what you’re going to get is an audience of automatons. Which is what we had.

What about the format? The town hall-style was supposed to favor McCain but with an unresponsive audience asking, well, mostly stoopy questions, no one was much served. I’m not familiar with all the restrictions agreed upon by the candidates but if you believe the frustrated and all-too-willing- to-show-it Brokow, the candidates were happy to dispense whatever rules were supposed to apply.  I looked up the word “debate” and it’s supposed to be “…a formal method of interactive…argument” Given how resolutely McCain refused to interact with Obama, I wouldn’t describe it as a debate. As for whether it was truly a town hall meeting, I can only say it wasn’t a tenth as interesting or fun as the ones I’ve attended. Dumb decision and/or dumb execution.

Then there were the questions: Call me naive, but I think the American public is smarter than the questions seemed to indicate. How’s a candidate supposed to answer three variations of “Why should we trust you with our money?” except to say something almost as inane? What kind of format doesn’t allow for follow-up questions from the audience? Why did Brokow ask the candidates who they’d pick as Treasury Secretary when he must have known they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer  except in time-wasting generalities? Although we didn’t spend forty minutes talking about whether a flag pin symbolizes patriotism (remember the ABC debates last April?), there was little to compel the candidates to get substantive, except, I will admit, when it came to health care issues.

Speaking of time-wasting, I stayed up to watch a little post-debate analysis. I even switched between Fox, NBC and CNN. Apparently McCain didn’t do what he needed to do, although it’s completely unclear what it was the talking heads wanted from him. I may surprise some people here but his use of the phrase “that one” to describe Obama  was way over-analysed. McCain is thinking on his feet, he’s clearly ticked off to be sharing the stage with a man he views as a young upstart (as was Hillary) and both candidates have shown flashes of real disdain for each other, although McCain’s gotten worse at hiding his and Obama’s gotten better. Give it a rest!

I was disappointed with some of the candidates’ answers. McCain is going to buy up bad mortgages but how, what with his proposed tax cuts and his “win at all costs” war? Obama is going to end the war in Iraq responsibly and promptly move troops over to Afghanistan and how does that help stretched-to-the-limit servicemen and women? I was also disappointed in Brokow, who wasn’t able to keep it together or add any spark to the proceedings. And let’s not get started on the questions asked by we, the people.

The debate was certainly not what you’d call terrific entertainment. Maybe the candidates are tired; I’ve read somewhere Brokow is. I know I am. This entire campaign has gone on too long and, as much as the outcome matters to me, I’m ready to have it over with so we can end all the stoopiness.

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Readers, I’m sorry. I heard from several of you, letting me know you were looking forward to my comments about the VP debates last night.  I settled in with my popcorn, watched a new episode of “Ugly Betty” and geared up. Suddenly, I realized I was still watching ABC and hadn’t forgiven Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for their abysmal performance during the April primary debate, so I switched to NBC to catch Tom Brokow, who will be moderating the next presidential debate. Brokow, who’s taken over many duties formerly belonging to the late Tim Russert, looks a little tired these days. I hope he can soon return to his Montana ranch and get back to trout fishing.

As the two VP candidates strode out on stage, I admired Palin’s smart-looking suit although maybe not the ruby red slippers. Biden’s tie was appropriate; I was wondering how he gets his teeth so white. Then Gwen Ifill, the moderator who’s been getting slammed all week for her presumed pro-Obama bias, began her introductions. She seemed subdued and low-key and I began to fidget.

As soon as Palin starting winkin’ and droppin’ her “g’s” and Biden stiffened and sighed, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay the course. My head began to throb from the statistics the candidates were lobbing across their podiums; how many times this one voted that way or that one voted this way. I can’t lie to you; at the first “you betcha!” I reached for the remote and switched over to HBO to watch Chris Rock.

Once you get used to the nearly exclusive use of the word “f*ck” as an adjective, Rock is hysterically funny. The special was brilliantly edited, with three different performances combined, sometimes in mid-joke. Interestingly enough, Rock was dealing with the same issues as the debate participants (I was flipping back and forth), i.e. Iraq, the economy, abortion, and the Bush policies in general.  At one point, he was even talking about same-sex marriage at the same time Palin addressed the issue. It was uncanny.

I went back to the Palin/Biden matchup for ten minutes during the foreign policy portion – no suprises there. Whenever I began to feel as if I were watching a performance rather than a debate (it happened frequently), I’d go back to Rock. Frankly, he’s better at entertainin’.

At one point, as Rock considered whether America was ready for a black president, he noted that any black aspiring to anything out of the ordinary had better be exceptional. He noted that in his wealthy neighborhood in Alpine, New Jersey, the four black residents were all at the top of their professions (as entertainers) but the white dentist living next door was only an average dentist. A black dentist in his neighborhood, he insisted,  would probably have had to invent teeth!

In other words, the bar is high for some people but not for others. But, as Rock said, don’t blame the player, blame the game. Indeed.

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