Friday, August 12, 2016

The Show Must Go On

Sometimes, I feel as if life has turned into a giant reality TV show.  Of course, this feeling is not new-- way back in the early 1600s, a character in Shakespeare's play "As You Like It" mused that "All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." (Rush fans know these lines too, since they are quoted in the song "Limelight.")   

As many of you know, I used to be an English teacher, and to this day, I still love books.  And while buying online is convenient, I also still enjoy wandering through a local bookstore and seeing what I can find to read.  Because I love words and appreciate good writing, I sometimes quote from great great works of literature, past and present, since they often express exactly what I'm feeling far more succinctly than I can.

One of my favorite quotes comes from chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass." Alice is talking to Humpty Dumpty, and this is the dialogue: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Becoming the master of words-- changing their meaning to suit your particular perspective and then persuading others to use those words your way-- is a technique we often see in politics, where words that were once neutral are given a partisan connotation (and yes, both sides do it).  Consider the word "liberal," which to my friends on the right is the ultimate insult, a synonym for everything that's wrong in America (according to them, fact-checkers are liberal, the media-- except for Fox News-- are liberal, anyone who is pro-choice is liberal, etc).  Conversely, consider the word "conservative," which my friends on the left associate with bigotry, closed-mindedness, indifference to the poor, adulation for the rich, and the worship of the past.  And of course, each side has its own provocateurs telling them that their interpretation is correct, so why even bother talking to the other side, given how wrong and deluded "those people" are?

There are also times when the meaning of a word is altered in order to make a rhetorical point... and the point is not a good one. Consider the NBC sports analyst who decided to weigh in on the family of gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, offering the comment that her grandfather and step-grandmother-- who adopted her as a kid-- are not her "real" parents.  Needless to say, Ms. Biles (along with many of us on social media) was not amused. I mean, Ron and Nellie Biles took her in and it was they who raised her.  So, how are they not her "real" parents?  Maybe they didn't give birth to her, but so what?  They're her parents. End of story.  (The commentator later apologized, as he should have.)

Or how about Donald Trump's bizarre assertion that Barack Obama (or as he cleverly put it in some versions of his claim, Barack HUSSEIN Obama) "founded" ISIS.  Okay fine, we can debate whether the president's policies in that region of the world are working.  But it's revisionist history to ignore the fact that the invasion of Iraq occurred under President George W. Bush, and that what became ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) emerged as a result of the mismanagement of that invasion after Saddam was deposed.  Barack Obama was not the president in 2001-2006, nor did he have any authority in the matter (and he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq).  But focusing on the name President Obama inherited from his biological father-- a man he barely knew, and only saw once after Barack Senior abandoned him and his mom when young Barack was two years old-- is a way to remind anti-Obama partisans that the president is "foreign," and might be a secret Muslim.  (Poll after poll shows that among Republicans, disappointingly large percentages still believe President Obama was not born in the United States and is not really a Christian.)  But even if you dislike him, it's quite inaccurate to say Mr. Obama founded a terrorist group.

And once again, a quote comes to mind-- Inigo from the movie The Princess Bride, saying "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Far too often, words get thrown around that do not mean what the speaker is implying.  Like, what does it mean to be "patriotic"?  During the Olympics, one of the Americans who won a medal did not place her hand on her heart during the playing of the National Anthem.  I've talked about this before:  placing the hand on the heart has long been a custom associated with saluting the flag.  When we pledge allegiance, we place our hand on our heart, to show love of country, as I was taught in elementary school.  But it was only after 9/11 that other symbols began to proliferate-- like expecting politicians to wear a flag pin on their lapel (and then criticizing them if they didn't), or expecting everyone to place their hand on their heart during the National Anthem.  I fail to see how wearing a pin or placing your hand on your heart during a song tells me anything about your patriotism.  Mostly it tells me you have agreed to conform to some new custom, rather than risking getting mocked by people who ought to mind their own business.

Meanwhile, we have candidates who live for the applause, and a media that loves to hone in on one gaffe or one time the candidate said something outrageous (intentionally or not), and then replay it over and over and over, to the exclusion of anything else that's going on.  It's a world where critics on social media seem eager to catch someone doing something wrong, giving them permission to send out rude or sarcastic comments about it.  And it's a world where rumor, innuendo, myth, conspiracy theory, and total fabrication can be believed by millions of people because they read it online or someone famous said it.  And, sadly, it's a world where demonizing the other side is more important than doing or saying the courteous thing-- witness the Egyptian judo competitor who lost an Olympic match to his Israeli opponent yesterday. Respect for the sport dictates that once your match is over, you shake hands, but the Egyptian refused to shake the Israeli's hand.  I am not sure what such rudeness proves, but there are all too many times where this sort of attitude can be seen:  in political campaigns, at awards ceremonies, and of course, on the playground, where at least you might expect it.

So, here we are, in our reality show life, where everything seems to be about the performance; where the focus of the media is on who is getting praised versus who is getting blamed, and where all too often, confrontation is preferable to conversation, even if that means manipulating words to make your rhetorical point and get the attention you seek.  This week, my conservative friends are furious that the mainstream media aren't covering some internet gossip about Malia Obama, who was allegedly caught smoking marijuana and (gasp) twerking.  My liberal friends are equally upset that information about Donald Trump's taxes and when his third wife actually got her green card hasn't been made public.  And even if both sides got what they wanted, soon there's be some other pseudo-controversy for each side to get upset about.  So much to criticize, so little time, and the show must go on.

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