Tag Archives: Bill Maher

Rant: The Insidious Power of Political Code Phrases

Angry MobWe all use language as weapons and we’re victims of political code phrases that manipulate and distort. One classic example is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Or the battle of pro-life vs. pro-choice. What does “Wall Street” mean these days? We speak in codes and use words as weapons.  And I ask you to step back for a brief pause, and consider some new code. The power of language matters.

Jihadist vs. Muslim or Islam

Take this test: Take the more aggressive anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic statements in national politics over the last few months, and substitute the world “jihadist” for either “Muslim” or “Islamic.” See what happens to the statement. Doesn’t it improve the discussion notably?

If you use the word “jihadist,” you are talking about people who are deadly enemies to us an billions of other people, most nations, and most societies in the world.

If, on the other hand, you use the words “Muslim” or “Islamic” instead, then you make 1.6 billion people your enemy, and you are making their faith the delimiter. Then you’ve fallen into the trap of letting fear override principle. When you are talking specifically about politics and policy in this country, if you suggest policies based on religion you’ve lost track of what we stand for. Religious freedom is probably our most hallowed principle. That’s what got the pilgrims into those boats.

Bigotry vs. “politically incorrect” 

Our usage has devolved to cloaking bigotry as merely “not politically correct” or “not PC.” People should be ashamed to espouse racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious hatred; but lately, if they just refer to so-called political correctness, they aren’t. They treat “not PC” as simply honest, or, worse still, failing to fall victim to some useless conventions.

How did this happen? When did we let these code word trivialize bigotry?

The meaning devolved. It started a couple of decades ago with comedians – Bill Maher and Jeff Foxworthy come to mind immediately – making fun of what they called political correctness. We all understood, back then, that they were poking fun at exaggerations, or so it seemed; but we didn’t think they were seriously advocating bigotry.

Fast forward to now, and the usage is often cloaking bigotry now. It’s as if discrimination against Mexicans, Muslims, LGBT, and others is okay if you just call it “not PC” and give it a wink and a nod. For my two cents, I’d like to live in a society in which ethnic, racial, or religious slurs are still inappropriate. And I worry that we’re sanitizing them.

Clean Air and Water vs. Bureaucracy and Red Tape

One thing all politicians agree on is that they all favor small business and oppose bureaucracy and red tape that affects small business. That’s as universal as motherhood and apple pie. On the other hand, if you don’t have bureaucracy and red rape, you don’t have clean air, clean water, industrial safety, widespread health care, maternity leave, and so on.

Portland (Oregon) was aghast a few weeks ago to discover that a couple very small businesses making colored glass for artists, located in residential neighborhoods, have been spewing poisonous gas into the local air for decades. Nobody knew. They were too small to require environmental screening. The owners weren’t evil, according to the reporting I’ve seen; they just didn’t know. And what would have made the difference here? Exactly what we call bureaucracy and red tape.

Isn’t it also true that the poisoned water in Flint MI is related to a breakdown in enforcement of rules? Now experts are saying hundreds of other cities in the US have similar problems, but we just don’t know it.

I look at this problem as a business owner. My wife and kids and I own a business that employs more than 60 people. We didn’t inherit it, either; we created it from scratch and grew it without investment.We mortgaged our house and took risks when we had to. But we also breathe the air and drink the water, and we share the community, so we never objected to tax on profits or regulations that keep the community safe.

Conclusion: The Danger of Diluting Meaning

This post is about language, not political candidates. As our U.S. politics become increasingly divisive, it’s as if we are divided into two warring armies, in trenches, tossing code phrases at each other like soldiers in trenches would throw grenades or shoot bullets. Where once we sought facts to resolve issues, now we gather around phrases that hide facts. It’s like shouting instead of talking, without the listening and reflecting that leads to common ground and shared truth somewhere in the middle.

(Image: Flickr CC by daliborlev)

Is Journalism Dead, Dying, or Just Faking It?

I feel like I’m watching Journalism fall apart; watching with interest, horror, and dismay … but just watching, like watching a fire from far away, powerless.

Photo by mphotos on Flickr

Like you do, I read about the newspapers folding, falling like trees in a rotting forest. Even the New York Times is in trouble. Many of the newspapers I grew up with are either dead or dying.

News flash: this isn’t new. It’s been going on since I can remember. It was already a big deal in the 1960s. (News at 11!)

We blame it on different things: blogs, 24-hour news networks, mainstream network television news, declining education, apathy, the Web, Fox News, Huffington Post, the new president, the old president, whatever.

I got a grad degree (MA) in Journalism, with honors in fact, in the early 1970s. That was so long ago we actually called it Journalism, not communications.

Back then newspapers were already dying because television network news was killing them. People liked their news in 30-second bite-size pieces. Professors wrung their hands about the loss of analysis and in-depth reporting.

And we all worried a lot, back then, about the impact of television violence in general. And sensationalism. Like that would turn the news business into show business. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, right? (Show of hands, please).

Not that it was ever just academic for me. Before I reached my 30s, grew up and sold out (I became an entrepreneur, got the MBA), I spent eight years as a journalist. I was a foreign correspondent, based in Latin America. I worked for UPI, freelanced for Business Week, Financial Times, etc. Even after business school I wrote columns in several magazines, although mostly computer magazines.

It’s also a bit of the present for me as well, because of my new job blogging and writing. You can see that here on the right column: I’m on the Huffington Post, USNews.com, plus several business blogs.

So where does that leave us? With this:

Accident of history: journalism and business

We tend to forget that journalism grew up to fill pages between ads. It wasn’t about the the sanctimonious needs of society, or the fourth estate, or fundamentals of democracy.

They needed readers to sell ads. And in the old days, before Fox News or Huffington Post, when freedom of the press was limited to those who owned presses, the best way to get and keep readers was to do real news; to pay Journalists to investigate and report.

In the heyday of great journalism, bias was bad business. So the owners paid the reporters and, with many very well known exceptions, tried not to meddle. Good journalism was also good for business.

And we got professional news reporting because that was good business. They paid somebody to attend town hall meetings, and somebody else to travel the globe covering wars and revolutions, because that kept the readers happy and, because of that, the advertisers happy.

Journalism wasn’t about the public good. It was about making money.

Fast forward to the Internet, the Web, and the collapse of the printing press and big owners as the oligarchy of the “media.” Suddenly the media is splintered up into hundreds of millions of websites, in infinite variety of degrees of professionalism or lack of it. And even on the television, far less free, it’s six hundred channels instead of three, so we have the Fox News people talking to their tribe, and the Jon Stewart-Bill Maher people talking to their tribe, and CNN talking to whomever has 24 hours a day to listen, and NBC and CBS and ABC news trying vainly to compete with Joan Rivers and Entertainment Tonight. All bets are off.

And there’s this other trend mixed in: Even before the Web, while few people noticed, newspapers spent the last generation or two cutting costs by cutting news staff and using AP and UPI, and lately, Reuters.

So what happens next? Who’s going to pay whom to sit through those boring town council meetings, or risk their lives in wars and revolutions, or report politics and democracy fairly?

I don’t know. But, in the time-honored tradition of the back side of journalism, I’m going to tell you anyhow. Later. Not now. News at 11.

(Photo by mphotos on flickr)