For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)

 

The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.

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Abused Metaphors, Soon Dead?

Variety in speech and writing is a desirable trait, and employing a colorful metaphor in place of a more mundane literal statement will enlighten one’s prose. “He swallowed his gun” is certainly more vivid than “He committed suicide.” Some metaphors are so well established that they have become “dead,” that is, they have virtually taken on the meaning of the word they replaced and ceased to be metaphors: “head of state” or “foot of the mountain.” The problem comes in using the same metaphor over and over, eliminating any novelty that it might have once had and rendering it instead an annoyance, akin to a child endlessly repeating some word or phrase he has just learned.

 
It is of course no surprise that it is politicians, and to a lesser degree news anchors, who are most prominent in running metaphorical phrases into the ground. This habit primarily manifests itself in off the cuff (a metaphor!) speech, since political figures have speech writers for prepared comments. Using a trendy metaphor demonstrates that you are with it, and using it repeatedly then demonstrates that you have a certain lack of originality and likely a limited vocabulary. Politicians are after all accustomed to speaking in “talking points” in order to avoid saying something actually revealing and possibly damaging. Endlessly repeated and tiresome metaphors are at least distantly related to talking points, is so far as they are safer than trying another expression, which might lead to a slip.

 
Possibly the most tedious recently overused metaphor is “kicking the can down the road.” This is an especially useful political metaphor, since it means “putting off a serious decision,” which seems to have become endemic in the US Congress. While it is very doubtful that many people under the age of eighty know this is a reference to a depression era children’s game, it nevertheless presents a colorful image and does not have the immediate implication of inability to make a decision, which suggests failure. This expression has become almost intimately associated with America’s fiscal problems, so we can expect it to be trotted out (metaphor!) on a regular basis. Going on about cans being kicked certainly sound better than “we can’t do our job.”

kicking the can

kicking the can

 
Another periodic and increasingly annoying metaphor regularly appears during election campaigns, which seem to be going on most of the time. This is the constant need to “energize the base,” which sounds much more up-beat and electric than “appeal to my core voters.” And in the case of Republicans “base” sounds a lot more innocuous than “the radical minority that can make or break my reelection.” “Base” is incidentally another example of a dead metaphor.

 
Then there are the “options on the table,” wonderful for negotiations and especially non-negotiations, like the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Presumably this once had an actual concrete meaning in the sense that negotiators typically do sit across from one another at a table and on that table are documents pertaining to possible deals. This might be considered a legitimate metaphor, evoking as it does the actual negotiating circumstances, but it has been delegitimized by incredible overuse. Once cannot hear of any negotiating or bargaining situation without hearing at the same time references to options and the table. Tedious.

table with no options

table with no options

 
Particularly annoying to me is the ubiquitous “at the end of the day,” a favorite of public figures and news people. No one now ever says ‘in the end” or “at the conclusion” or even the concise “finally.” “At the end of the day” is certainly more poetic than the more literal possibilities, which is probably why it so overused by people who are distinctly non-poetic. It also sounds more romantic, suggesting a manor house rather than an office or studio.

end of the day (with non-people American)

end of the day (with non-people American)

 
Everyone of course has noticed that no politician, especially one who is being grilled, ever says “then.” No, it is always “at that point in time.” The reason for this is obvious and certainly well known to educationists, the other large group abusing our language: why use one word when you can say the same thing with five? “Then” is too simple; common people use it. How much more grand and redolent of intellect and education is “at that point in time.” One could of course say “at that time,” but this does not sound as precise as referring to an actual point in the time-space continuum. Because of their reluctance to commit themselves to well-defined positions, politicians are generally surrounded by a cloud of vagueness, ambiguity and lack of details and referring to a “point in time” creates some illusion of precision. But still, one wants to know: exactly how long is “a point in time.”

 
And have you noticed that politicians never speak about “the people” or about “Americans”? It is inevitably the “American people.” This phrase is obviously not a metaphor, but it is one that is endlessly repeated, which makes one wonder if these people also talk about “free gifts” or “true facts.” Apparently our politicians fear that if they simply said the “people,” listeners would not know exactly which people they were referring to. Perhaps President Lincoln was taking a big chance with his “of the people” thing, though one might think that today the fact that every politician wears an American flag pin would provide a clue as to which people he was talking about. Why not simply “Americans”? Obvious: it surely does not sound as grand (or pompous) as the “American people,” and in any case politicians are only concerned with Americans who can vote, which does not include the Americans who are not people. Odd how frequently what an elected official says the American people want is contradicted by polls. It must be poor polling.

 
Further, why do they always refer to themselves in the plural? Do they consider themselves a sort of royalty, since like Louis XIV they believe themselves to be the state? (The phrase attributed to Louis XV, après moi, les delúge, might be more applicable to American politicians.) Or is it because most of the work and thinking is done by their staffs and they are actually referring to a group? Using “we” instead of “I’ does of course allow the possibility of collective rather than individual responsibility in the event of a problem, an extremely important consideration for any politician.

 
Specific to news anchors is another abused metaphor: “walk us through.” A reporter or expert is never asked to explain something, but rather to walk us through it. Once again, the beauty of a metaphor is the ability to provide an alternative and more colorful way to say something mundane, in this case employing a concrete image of learning (walking one through, for example, a dance step or football play) for an abstract and colorless word, explain. And once again the problem is beating the phrase into the ground with overuse and in this particular instance robbing it of its specific meaning. The expression has been traditionally used for explaining something very complex, something you need to be walked through to understand, but now it is employed to request an explanation of even simple things.

 
Finally, there are two expression that are not overused metaphors but are nevertheless annoying to the intelligent (or at least should be) and plain stupid. They are manifestations of the rot of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness that afflicts our society and demonstrate the silliness people, especially public figures and academics, are willing to engage in. I speak of the “n-word” and the “f-bomb.” They of course stand for the racially offensive “nigger” and supposedly offensive “fuck” and thus allow serious discussion of issues involving these words without actually using the words themselves.

 
This practice is ludicrous. A word is a commonly understood symbol that allows reference to a thing or an act or whatever, and in this case another symbol is simply substituted for the offensive symbol. But does not everyone who hears “n-word” or “f-bomb” immediately think “nigger” or “fuck? So, the perceived problem must lie not in using these terms but only in vocalizing them, which suggests many Americans apparently live in some sort of mythic universe where the symbol is the thing and speaking the name brings about the existence of what is named. The Greeks, for example, never spoke the actual names of the Furies for fear of summoning them but rather referred to them as the Eumenides, the “kindly intentioned ones,” a wonderful appellation for three incredibly malevolent deities. So, is it thus all right to yell “hey, n-word” at a Black? If it is still offensive (which is how it will be understood), then is it not also offensive to sit around and talk about the “n-word”?

 
“F-bomb” deserves special attention. It is even more silly than “n-word,” because virtually everyone, including the well-educated, at one time or another employs obscenities, especially this one. The word is learned early on by most children and is a bit of vocabulary that is deeply embedded in our culture. But official America seems often inclined to pretend that we are not what we are and that most people would be instantly offended by hearing a reporter say “fuck.” Actually, in the case the media it is the fear that the three viewers out of several million who really were offended will take action and scare off sponsors. This at least is a rational consideration. It is interesting that it is not “f-word” but “f-bomb,” suggesting just what an outrage the public utterance of this word it. Then why is it not “n-bomb,” inasmuch as nigger is truly an offensive and explosive term, while fuck is a fun word that almost everyone enjoys using? Who knows? This is America.