“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.