Thursday, October 28, 2004

Language is a virus from outer space

Ok, the title of this post comes from one of the crappier things spewed forth from William S. Burroughs (and quickly devoured by Laurie Anderson), but I have a point in dredging up this little quote which accumulated at the bottom of my soul from too many years spent in art school: Every election, there are a few words that seem to pop up out of nowhere that everyone gloms onto.

The one that really took over the election in 2000 was the ill-chosen lockbox, a term so vague yet vaguely sinister that really it didn't matter what the fuck Gore did or said afterwards. The word just sort of hovered out there, unable to be pinned down or explained, except that it was felt nearly universally to be a tad creepy and to confirm everyone's worst suspicions about Gore.

But language is funny that way. If I went into a meeting tomorrow with my boss and a few other people and said, "I think we have to be very careful about how to proceed on this project; I think we have to approach it with upmost nabrent and care," I promise you that every single person in the room would nod their heads solemnly, certain that they understood the word I just made up. They would have gotten it from the context, or maybe there was a shred of a root word they think they understood; nevertheless, they would have all nodded in agreement at a word that doesn't exist. And that's one of the ways in which language is funny - you and I might have very different opinions as to what our worst suspicions about Gore are/were, yet somehow lockbox confirmed and cemented those different and various suspicions in our mind.

And so, I've been wondering about the different words that have been used and abused this time out. Nothing sticks out in my mind quite like lockbox, but I have a few ideas about Honorable Mentions.

First off, there's neo-con. If, like me, you read a lot of foreign newspapers, you'll see this term tossed around quite a bit (like in the article linked above, where it is used but not defined), while it remains almost off-limits here. Ok, in some news magazines you might occasionally come across it, but I haven't heard it mentioned once in the TV news. The foreign press generally uses it to vilify everything that the Bush administration stands for; it is used, by and large, as a slur.

I encountered this interpretation of the term some months ago when I posted a personal ad on the Washington DC craigslist entitled "Hello out there, Neo-Conservatives!" While I certainly meant no disrespect - my reason for placing the ad was to meet people with different opinions on the world than I have, and I personally didn't consider it a slur - I got chewed out by quite a few people who responded (although it bears mentioning that many also happily accepted the term) for trying to solicit them by using a term they consider derogatory.

Regardless, I tend to think it's important to learn what people in other countries think of us and are saying about us. So, for the record - in case you're one of those people who's always nodded and gone along with it, just wondering what on earth that term meant - here is an excellent and even-handed definition.

Which leads me to a personal rant... Possibly the #1 word being tossed around these days is disenfranchised, as in all the voters that, one assumes, will find themselves disenfrancised by this upcoming election. Oh, it could be from any of a number of reasons - maybe their names are going to appear on a list of felons; maybe they'll be told the wrong poll place or the wrong times in which the poll is open. Whatever the reason, something like 48% of people in this country are now worried that their vote won't count or the election will be in some way not quite fair and square.

I'm one of them. I got in the mail today a terse little note from the Hudson County Clerk's Office informing me that my request for an absentee ballot has been turned down (luckily, I'm only going to be busy that day; I think if I had requested it because I was going on vacation, I'd be gone by now). Now, The Man will have you believe that it's because I "forgot" to sign my request - an accusation that has a high probability of being true. Between the utter sleep deprivation that I've been operating on, along with sick amounts of stress I've been experiencing, it's quite possible I flaked and sent the damn thing off without signing it.

Of course, this being Hudson County, that's not the end of the story. If you know me, you've heard this story before: In the last election a few months ago, I was forced to vote on a provisional ballot (and we know those things just get tossed in the gutter the second you leave the polling place) and - this is the topper - I had to vote in Spanish. Now, I don't read/speak Spanish, and there were several lengthy initiatives we were voting on in that election, so it was kinda important for me to be able to read the damn thing before I checked the little box "si" or "no." And so, it took several people to pitch in and "help" me vote in order to get the job done... and then I assume the thing went promptly into the trash the second I left. Honestly, in that case it's not the end of the world - the local election I was voting in wound up being won by such a ridiculous majority it didn't really matter.

This time out, things are different. The polls in NJ are nearly tied between Kerry and Bush, and I'll be damned if my little state drifts from blue to red under my watch. I'm hellbent on voting for the Democrat, even if it means waking up at the crack of dawn and taking my life in my hands by wading into one of the worst neighborhoods in Jersey City to do so (instead of just doing it from the comfort of my own home... sigh) only to vote for a man I pretty much hate - which I will, in fact, have to do.

Things being different this time, I will be prepared. I will be bringing with me my cell phone, the number established by Common Cause (1-866-MYVOTE1) to report such "questionable activities," as well as the 911 of voter abuse - 1-866-OUR-VOTE - which has a team of lawyers waiting to take up reports of abuse. The latter may be overkill in my case, given that this is lefty ol' Hudson County, but I'm bringing it anyway. I'm not voting in Spanish or on a paper ballot when I'm all good and on the books and ready to go. Things are different this time, and this time I'm ready for a fight.

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