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What's In a Name?

By       Message Kurt F. Stone       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Question: What do French diplomat Jean Nicot (1530-1600), the French Controller General Etienne Silhouette (1709-1767) German Astronomer Fran z Mesmer (1734-1815), French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), British editor Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) and Austrian novelist Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) all have in common?

Answer: Their names have all been immortalized as either nouns (nicotine, silhouette and sado-masochist) or verbs (to mesmerize, to guillotine and to bowdlerize).

English abounds in this sort of thing. Think of all the eponymous verbs we use on a daily basis: To "sue," "mark," "pat," "jack," "rob," "hope," "pierce," "don," "grace" and "chuck" are but a few. Then, there are all the brand names which have either taken on generic lives of their own -- Kleenex, Saran Wrap, Xerox (also used as a verb), Jacuzzi, Chapstick and Vaseline, to name but a few -- or have become generic verbs -- such as "to Photoshop" or "to Google."

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In the political realm there is the verb "to gerrymander," defined as " Manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class." Etymologically, the term comes from Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), the 5th Vice President of the United States and sala mander. Goodness knows there are millions who use the term without knowing who Gerry (pronounced with a hard "g") was. Likewise, how many people know what it means "to Mirandize" a suspect without having the slightest idea who Ernesto Arturo Miranda actually was, or what Miranda v Arizona was all about?

And then there is "Borking," a term named after the recently deceased judge and legal scholar Robert Bork. "To Bork" (a verb used with an object) means "Trying to block candidates for public office by systematically defaming or vilifying them." The term
goes back to 1985, the year that President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the high court. Many will recall that in nationally televised hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee delved into Bork's judicial ideology, not just his legal qualifications or competence. His past commentary on hot-button issues such as the Civil Rights Act ("While the ugliness of racism is clear, having the state coerce you into more righteous paths is a principal of unsurpassed ugliness. . ."), and the court's 1965 decision establishing a constitution right to privacy, caused committee Democrats - and Republican Senator Arlen Spector, to oppose his nomination with a heretofore unseen level of ferocity. Led by then-Senator Joe Biden and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Bork would be turned down by a roll call vote of 58-42 -- the most votes ever against a Supreme Court nominee. Looking backward, the "Borking of Robert Bork" was a pyrrhic victory for which both the Democrats in specific and the American public in general have been paying reparations for more than a quarter century.

Prior to Robert Bork, Supreme Court nominees -- along with virtually anyone else a president might name -- were ratified by the Senate with both dispatch and dignity. Ever since Robert Bork, presidential nominees -- and increasingly, not just for the bench -- have been subjected to intense scrutiny both in committee and before the cameras. Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, tens of dozens of presidential nominees have never even received a hearing; their positions have gone unoccupied. In 2012, "Borking" is far more than a verbal term; it is a vile technique; a technique whereby the wheels of government can be ground to a virtual halt in the name of ideological purity.

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Whether practiced by Democrats or Republicans, Borking is both puerile and counter-productive; it has turned United States Senate -- once called "The world's greatest deliberative body" -- into a sandbox. Until recently, senators gave sitting presidents tremendous leeway when it came to naming people to the Cabinet or federal bench. Indeed, in all American history, only 21 nominees have been defeated or withdrawn. That number will likely double within the next four years.

And if it does, it won't just be because of "Borking," for indeed, as of a few days ago, there is a newer, even more pernicious political gerund making its way to the front of the line: "Ricing" . . . as in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. What makes the latter far worse than the former is that that one need not even have received an official nomination for the process of "Ricing" -- of defamation and vilification -- to commence. Remember, Senate Republicans began questioning whether Dr. Rice was qualified to become Secretary of State when she was nothing more than the purported front-runner -- not the nominee. Slashing attacks on her suitability, her temperament, and her political judgment quickly became page-one headlines; so much so that she removed her name from consideration.

Who knows, maybe Ambassador Rice wouldn't have turned out to be the greatest Secretary of State since Thomas Jefferson or William Seward. The fact that she was forced to withdraw her name from consideration means we will never know, and is yet another indication of just how partisan and spiteful the art of governance has become. Believe it or not, no Secretary of State nominee has ever been defeated . . . and we've had some real doozies reigning at Foggy Bottom. Senator John Kerry, who just became the president's official nominee for State, will likely avoid most of the traps and pitfalls set for Ambassador Rice and be confirmed. It certainly helps that he has been a senator for more than a quarter-century, is well-known to those who will pass judgment on him, and has specialized in foreign policy.

But "Ricing" continues. Former Nebraska Senator -- and Vietnam War hero -- Chuck Hagel is being touted as the next Secretary of Defense. He too is is getting "Riced" over statements he made in years past about what he called "The Jewish lobby," and the perception in some quarters that he is not sufficiently hawkish when it comes to Iran or Hamas. (This may well be true, but it is always good to keep in mind that the Secretary of Defense does not set U.S. military policy; his -- or her -- responsibility is to carry out policy as set by the President of the United States. And yet, the name, record and reputation of this non-nominee are also being Riced.)

Make no mistake about it: "Ricing," like "Borking" has as much -- if not more -- to do with partisan politics than with what's truly best for America. It is yet one more indication of how much we have come to treat governance and leadership like some fantasy league blood sport.

To paraphrase Juliet, "What's in a name? That which we call 'Ricing' by any other name would smell of defeat . . . "

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-2012 Kurt F. Stone


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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)

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