Thursday, January 31, 2013

Varieties of newspeak: folks

My long-festering hatred of the new political uses to which the word "folks" has been put in the past decade had been growing at a steady pace over the last few years, until today I came across this gem in the NYT, and could contain myself no longer:
“We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones.”
The only thing exploding in this sentence is my brain. "Ordinary folk lawyers"! Is an ordinary folk lawyer an ordinary person who practices folk law? Does he practice ordinary folk law, as against extraordinary folk law? On behalf of ordinary folks, as against extraordinary ones? Is he an ordinary folk himself?

In the 1990s, I recall "folks" as a term primarily used to refer casually to one's parents, as in "my folks took my Tamagochi away and now I have nothing to do but watch re-runs on the WB." Of course, it has always been a term for "people," but that usage had the same mainstream status as "ain't." Then, in the 2000s, folks underwent some kind of perverse transformation into a mainstream populist propaganda term for identity groups, and was used by both insiders and outsiders to forge patronizing solidarity with the downtrodden. "Folks" has that sense of personal familiarity held over from its use to denote actual family that's perfect for pretending that people who are not your family and whom you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole are actually near and dear to your heart, or expunging your guilt that they're not. For example, Boston's mayor on his important future-embracing move of bringing no-credit online courses to Boston "community centers":
“I’m very excited. [The partnership] brings technology into the neighborhoods of Boston. That’s so, so important. I think there are a lot of folks out there who could use that program."
"A lot of folks," none of whom happen to be Thomas Menino or his folks, of course. But he sees his common humanity with them there folks, and how important neighborhood technology is for that common humanity. Politician folk are major traffickers in the language of folk, and Obama is a strategic folk-master:
With 30 hours a week split between fieldwork and organizing members of the College Democrats, Thompson’s role is nearly a full-time job, and his vocabulary, too, has come to reflect this. “Whenever I am knocking on doors or calling people or anything like that, I always use ‘folks,’” he says, laughing. When calling voters in other states, “folks” is frequently thrown around by those working for the Obama campaign. “It plays really well up in Maine and then, when you’re calling in Virginia, it plays perfectly,” Thompson says.
I think that earlier iterations of this folk transformation were introduced by activist folks who were less interested in appearing to be in touch with ordinary folks themselves than with changing ordinary folks' perceptions of certain groups of folks who were previously stigmatized by using a familiarizing term that would make them seem more like ordinary folks - hence, "LGBT folks" and "transgender folks." (Look these folks up and you'll get thousands of instances.) They're not weirdos, they're just plan folks. In this way, identity groups of all kinds became folks, just like all the rest of us folks. We're all just folks, and just because some folks are dark-skinned folks and other folks love folks of their own gender while yet other folks don't believe that Jesus came to save their folks but maybe he still came to save your folks, all us folks can all fit on this here creaky backwoods porch and sing us some folk ditties. What d'ye say, folks? This land is your land, this land is my land, from Californyaaaa, to the New York Islaaand... (See, elitist New York folks can join right in! Populism is for everyone.)

Do you wonder, perhaps, whatever happened to the perfectly good and politically neutral term "people" to cover this? Possibly as the formulation "the Xs" (the Jews, the blacks, the gays) fell out of favor and a referential vacuum appeared, we had that option. Jewish people, black people, gay people - not so bad, and still used by the straightforward and unsentimental. But "people" seems to have been identified with some sort of antiseptic, clinical enterprise that made it synonymous with "specimens" - a social-scientific category to be studied in aggregate. For example, during the Iraq War, I never heard Iraqis being referred to as "Iraqi folks"; they were always "the Iraqi people," if they were viewed as a coherent entity at all. (But perhaps that will soon change, since Obama has begun to transnationalize folkdom - there were illegal immigrant folks in his speech this week, and the infamous Libyan terrorist folks, although we can know that terrorist folks are not our folks because he called them those folks rather than these folks.) But on the domestic front, it was all folks all the time, the corny brotherhood of man, from which no one should be excluded and no one can escape.

The problem with folks, however, is the problem of all populism. "Folks" is, after all, a country term, carrying with it all the resonances of hayseed naivete along with the familial connotation sought by its users. Folks, however endearing and lovable they may be, are always a bit stupid, a bit vulgar and clumsy, trailing behind the leading edge of society and unaware of or unable to enact their own best interests. Little, ordinary folks need bigger, more extraordinary folks (let's call them "ordinary folk lawyers") to articulate their interests against those folks (also known as "big corporate lawyers") who would subvert them. So even if we're all folks rather than folks and not-folks, there are still always these folks and those folks, and even folk lawyers are distinct from the folks who aren't lawyers but need folk-lawyering assistance.

So, individualist folks, please remember that we can still rescue the term "people" from the oblivion to which populist folks have apparently consigned it. That backcountry porch of colloquial brotherhood was not built to support the weight of 300 million people.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The anti-drug anthem of the '90s

Well, I was wrong to say blogging has been going on for a decade. I finally found my old .txt archives, and it appears that blogging in some rudimentary form commenced in ye olde daies of 2001, era of sincere animated GIFs (as opposed to meme-induced nostalgia). There isn't much in them that bears reproduction; high school was not a time of great prose styling. But, I did find this one memento that actually predates the blog age which was too excellent to withhold: it is the time my friends and I wrote what should've been the pre-teen anti-drug anthem of the '90s, but it surprisingly failed to catch on.

This is from 1996, and the dance craze of that year, as some of you may recall, was the Macarena. (Side note: Whit Stillman was not exactly wrong in his argument about the social importance of dance crazes in Damsels in Distress, a film I have yet to comprehensively defend but one day will.) In 1996, I was in the sixth grade and enrolled in the school-wide anti-drug education program, DARE. DARE, for those unfamiliar with the recent history of great ideas in American education, was an idea about how children could be effectively manipulated through a combination of fear and "frank talk," which is not wholly unlike the impetus behind YA realism and many other efforts to "reach" the truculent, rebellious yoof of America. I don't know whether the program worked (though I'd be surprised if it did) or if it's still taught in my middle school or any other, but it was the source of at least three of the better forays into hilarity of this period of my life. This was one of them. It's hard to justify this event except by means of the excuse, "cash prize."   

What happened was that the assistant principal and head cheerleader for all hare-brained youth-intervention efforts like this announced a contest to pump us up for the awesome! fun! team-building! that was spending spending an hour a week being lectured by a local police officer and his teddy bear ("the DARE bear"), and greatly expanding our as yet undeveloped knowledge of the world of illicit narcotics. The way to get us excited, concluded the assistant principal, was to solicit an original, DARE-based song to the tune of the Macarena. The person who submitted the best lyrics would win $20 (a veritable fortune from the 12-year-old perspective) and a chance to perform their song over the PA and, along with a choreographed dance, in front of the student body at the annual DARE "graduation." DARE had a remarkable 100% graduation rate. This was due to the exacting nature of its requirements, which consisted of signing a pledge that, "I, [insert name], will never do drugs." My mother suggested appending "again" to that line to see how it would go over.

So, led by my enterprising and creative friend Dale, another friend and I met to hammer out the best anti-drug Macarena the world has ever heard, not least because it was the only one. Dale wrote most of these lyrics, Cathy and I contributed mainly moral support, and later, back-up dancing assistance. We won the contest with this:
The DARE Macarena 
Drug Abuse Resistance Education,
It can help you but we need participation.
It's really fun and it takes determination.
Hey, D-A-R-E! 
If you do drugs, your future won't be sunny.
Don't do drugs if you want a lot of money.
You may think it's a joke, but it's really not funny. 
Hey, D-A-R-E!
Gus was a boy who was head of the class.
Then he did drugs and ended up last.
This is just a lesson of something from the past. 
Hey, D-A-R-E!
If someone says, "Want some drugs today?"
You don't have to turn and run away.
You can stand up straight; NO is what you should say. 
Hey, D-A-R-E!
When you're a kid, you're always feeling feeling bad.
Then as you grow, you may feel sad.
But don't resort to drugs or you'll feel bad. 
Hey, D-A-R-E!
DARE is fun and really cool.
Its educational and right in your school.
You'll want to join and it really does rule. 
Hey, D-A-R-E!
Drug Abuse Resistance Education,
It'll help you but we need participation.
It's really fun and it takes determination.
Hey, D-A-R-E! 
[Spoken] We dare you to DARE!
The first great difficulty with our victory came when we had to split our $20 prize three ways. As I recall, that was somehow resolved with my two friends getting $6.75 each and my getting $6.50 because I "sucked at singing." (True fact.) The second great difficulty came with our public performance of this masterpiece. Dale had, in addition to her youthful songwriting talents, choreography talents that resulted in a complex performance piece featuring the aforementioned "Gus" meeting his drug-addled fate. Then she broke her leg several weeks before the performance and had to dance with the cast. A great moment in the annals of middle school humiliation.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

But who will win the gold in the sex Olympics?

In my quest to attract ever more readers misdirected from Google searches for pornography (note to my fellow girls in glasses: if my site tracker is indicative of anything, there are many people looking to meet you who are meeting this blog instead), I bring you this suggestion from Helen about the impetus for Sex Weeks:
It would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire. 
Take a look at the Sex Week schedule of events (if you have a strong stomach) and you will see just how much of the itinerary is devoted to instruction—how to give the best this, get the most that, and generally become as accomplished at sex as you are at everything else. “Many of us here have never failed at anything, and we don’t want to start now,” explained a rather frank female attendee of a Sex Week event called “Getting What You Really Want,” quoted in the Yale Daily News in 2010...
An idea I'm willing to entertain at least as much as Sex Weeks entertain me, and I've written vaguely before about how social technology has emphasized the idea of sex as a technical skill not unlike, say, tennis, which you can play with any partner who has the basics down (and, moreover, playing with many different partners improves your skills). But I don't really know how this particular competition brings a Yalie the public recognition he craves in other arenas. Let's say that diligent Sex Week seminar attendance could you make you amazingly skilled at sex. What does this win you? How will more than a few people ever know about your great attainments? Pornography can at least broadcast your great skills to be evaluated by the discerning sex judge. But most students are not using their Sex Week knowledge to make porn or stage sex competitions, at least as far as I know. And merely boasting about one's prowess hardly requires attendance at Sex Week seminars. The students are still basically serial monogamists, hoping for eventual marriage, and with it, the confinement of their incredible achievements to one paltry recipient. Imagine if you had spent a decade studying physics, sacrificed many smaller pleasures to continuing your climb to the top, completed your PhD, and then shared all your discoveries only with your family, or you spent 10 years working on an amazing novel, but only ever permitted your spouse to read it. I suppose there probably have been people who've done that or something like it, but I doubt that such gestures were motivated by the very publicly-oriented ambition and desire for social recognition that Helen attributes to Yalies. This is, after all, an age when even amateur home cooks are not satisfied with the appreciation of their families, and set up food blogs to publicize their attainments.

Perhaps the prize in this arena is the hand of most desirable spouse, like a modern version of the footrace to marry Atalanta.* But the logistics of organizing a footrace are a lot more straightforward than those of a sex competition. And while it's possible that sexual prowess makes a candidate's resume "stand out from the pack," as career counselors say, given that most people end up interviewing few candidates and testing out the sexual boasts of even fewer, the sexual meritocracy is bound to be plagued by all kinds of injustices, and to require an affirmative action framework of its own to "level the playing field."

So if it's not done for mere hedonism and pleasure in violating decorum, then must we not attribute a certain nobility to the pursuit of sexual prowess as Helen describes it? When its attainment can bring so little public recognition to those who pursue it, it seems almost selfless, as though it is perhaps art for art's sake, or a fervent paean to marriage - vigorous self-improvement undertaken purely for the sake of the comfort and pleasure one's future spouse. It's just like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy becoming better individuals en route to becoming better spouses to one another, only by somewhat different means than those preferred by Austen.

*Behold the one-line synopsis that Wikipedia offers on the subject of Atalanta: "Atalanta is a character in Greek mythology, a virgin huntress who faces misunderstanding for refusing to follow gender norms." You may not be aware of this, but the Greeks were noted scholars of queer theory (ἡ τoῦ ἀλλoκότου φαλλοῦ θεωρία), and "gender norm" is actually an archaic Greek coinage, or 2nd century BC at the latest. It just looks strange because it's one of those arriviste indeclinable noun forms.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On selling out your kids

Phoebe has made her entrance into the Mommy Wars with a defense of children's privacy against overzealous memoirist parents. This is one of the few things about which I agree pretty much completely with Phoebe, possibly because I also share a more general displeasure with gut-spilling as a route to literary fame.  If adults can't be persuaded to keep their innards intact and inside, at least they might be persuaded - by guilt and shame - not to gut their children. Once we start agitating for legislation about this though, I'm out for the count.

And for a limited time only, Phoebe is volunteering to answer every one of your objections, in detail.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Maybe some writers exist solely to prompt responses superior to the prompts themselves

For example, Elizabeth Wurtzel. What is she saying? She's miserable but happy to be miserable because it would be even more miserable to live in a way that would make her less miserable? Who knows. But Amber and Eve Tushnet have suggestions far more coherent than their subject. And this mess of an essay led a friend to send me this excellent story by DFW, "The Depressed Person," apparently based on Wurtzel herself, which is as sharp a rebuke as can be imagined, improved even further by Wurtzel's unprovoked attack on him in her own thing.

Monday, January 07, 2013

"We are pleased to present a listing of every book Art has read over the last 44 years."

In keeping with the trend of repostings of ancient things, I wish to re-call your attention to Art Garfunkel's stupendous, eclectic, professor-cowing book list:
Since the 1960's, Art Garfunkel has been a voracious reader. We are pleased to present a listing of every book Art has read over the last 44 years. This book list has been divided into several pages to allow easy downloading. Each page indicates the author, title, date of publication and number of pages (when available).
In case you should want to download them! As of now, there are 1,174 books, which is probably 1,000 more than I have ever read, including more than I have read from the 18th Century. (But how many total pages, Art? Inquiring minds want to know!) Of these, precisely 157 are his favorites, among them both both De Rerum Natura and 50 Shades of Grey. Well, at least we can say he is not a snob. What he may be is a little compulsive though, since further exploration of his site unearths a number of other very detailed lists - lists of all his concerts, and lists of all his 134 original songs, "ranked by Art in order of quality of his vocal performance and overall quality of the song." He is also walking through Europe at present, posting one poem in each place he stops. Unfortunately, after listening to Art's #1 song as ranked by Art himself, I was a bit disappointed. Still, even if Paul Simon had all the musical talent, Art Garfunkel is succeeding in his side job of crushing all the political theory grad students in America.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Department of Bad Ideas: One decade of inadvisable, future-undermining activity

In 2013, this blog turns 10. I don't know precisely when because I did a very poor job of maintaining archives through various hosting transfers, and although a version of a blog must have begun in 2001 or 2002 in order for me to get in trouble with my high school for it, I can't find the evidence. Since that incident however, I think blogging has been mostly salutary for me, unless some future employer denies me a job because of it, in which case I pre-emptively rescind that assessment. With the exception of a few loyal readers like Alex and David and of course my mother (and maybe some former participants-turned-lurkers), most of my original audience seems to have fallen off as I've become less forthcoming with unprovoked personal slanders, and more narrow, academic, and boring. I regret this, I really do! I wish all my friends from 2003 and 2004 would get together and throw a big party in Chicago where we would make fun of everyone we've known into the night under the influence of large quantities of liquor. Then the next morning, we'd have no evidence and possibly no memory that anyone ever said any of that, and we'd return to our strange, unpredicted adult lives. But since that can't happen, I'm glad that even as its audience has changed, the blog has remained personal in the sense that I've met many of my interlocutors offline and generally still feel as though I am writing to Real People.

Unfortunately, you can't read anything from the birth of the blog because leaving anything from my first year of college online unattended would be a Bad Idea. You will have to take it on faith that my writing has been immensely improved largely through the single innovation of desisting from profanity, as initially advised by my father and implemented when corroborated by a professor a year or two later. Other poor habits, like Random Emphatic Capitalization, crept in later. But, to celebrate this blogiversary, I will try to divert attention away from my own humiliating stupidities of 10 years ago and towards the following fond remembrance of the U of C pre-frosh message board circa September 2003, a couple weeks before we began college. I think this thing (mercifully) no longer exists, but it was uncannily indicative of what was to come for 18 year-old Miss Self-Important in the subsequent decade:
SEPTEMBER 12, 2003
The longer the wait, the more people I come to hate. So I've decided it's time to share the wealth of mofo-ing pretension that can be found daily at the UChicago message boards. 
Things That They Are:
"As a quasi-communist, I..."
"I'm a determinist, so I don't think people have free will..."
"Speaking from the point of view of a deconstructionist..."
"Well, as a moral relativist who sees the illogic in saying that "right" and "wrong" are universal and absolute, I..."
"As a reductive materialist, I..." 
Things That They Believe:
"I'm in favor of guns because I want to be able to defend myself. Not against street thugs or whatever, but against the police. That's why I love groups like the Black Panther Party..."
"I personally get just as offended by gay pride shirts, and american flags. Then again, it's not quite offense -- I'm just clued in to the biased and hindered mind of the displayer."
"One needs to do whatever one needs to do to get what one needs done. If that means killing a baby, so be it. Life is not precious."
"Ontogeny doesn't recapitulate phylogeny."
"Sociologically, it's well-confirmed that different ethnicities face different variable matrices, so it follows that when those variables are abstractly manipulated, like a Shakespeare work, the reaction will differ." 
Other Things:
"I have achieved Enlightenment." 
And for good measure...
"I'm speaking purely philosophically."

Also, this is for Julia, if she's still reading:
SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
I'm mostly packed, but now I'm starting to worry about minutia like soap dishes.
Not minutia, as it turned out.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


So has anyone ever heard of someone's actually getting a job through LinkedIn? Or is the subjective perception of one's professional accomplishment laid out in links and tabs the main draw? Or, resume stalking?