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Some Words That Bug Me

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Message Hilton Obenzinger
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As the new year begins, I think of words. I teach college students writing, so I get a lot of words tossed at me. This is my chance to toss them back.
Some words begin to drill into my head, sometimes giving me endless joy, but too often causing me great pain.  For the painful ones, I have to un-drill them or go nuts.  Please bear with me as I extract a few irritating words and phrases to share with you. When they are exposed to sunlight I feel that they can wither a tiny bit. Please add the words and phrases that cause your own teeth to gnash. I’m positive that my list is thoroughly incomplete.
So here they are, in no particular order:
Intelligence: I always thought “U.S. government intelligence” was an oxymoron, like “military intelligence.” But I gained unexpected appreciation for our country’s spies when the National Security Estimate appeared to declare that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons years ago. The announcement took the wind out of the sails of the Bush administration’s drive to attack Iran. The neo-con maniacs in power may still launch some kind of assault, but they were quite visibly taken aback by the report, and they need to regroup. Consequently, the world got a breather. The “estimate” reminded us to hope in unexpected ways: There are sane, decent people throughout the government and the military, and someone had the guts to throw a monkey-wrench into the war drive. Ordinarily, I hate “intelligence,” but there really may be some intelligent people in the “intelligence community.” Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contain . . .
A Market-Place of Ideas: This metaphor is frequently used as a self-evident truth to defend free speech, so the intention is often admirable. But the domination of the paradigm of unbridled capitalism is so complete that we are forced to regard our knowledge as bought and sold by means of an invisible hand as if such weird notions were second nature. But do ideas need to be in a market? Do we need to buy and sell ideas? Has anyone told these people that there’s such a thing as monopoly? That the market can be rigged? Can’t there be “a potluck of ideas” or “a wild orgy of ideas” or “a cultivated garden of ideas” or “an ecosystem of ideas” or “an amusement park of ideas” or any number of other metaphors? We could even have “a crap shoot of ideas” (or is that the market-place?). I like the notion of a garden, personally. That way we can cultivate ideas that feed us while at the same time pull out the weeds that will choke us. The weeds can grow anywhere they want, except right where the tomatoes are planted. And the garden is fed with the luxuriant manure of real life and compassion. Do you believe me? If you do, you may belong to a  . . .
Faith-based Organization: Once upon a time there was a thing called religion. Today it feels awkward to talk about “religious schools” or “religious charities,” so “faith-based” has become the current obfuscation of choice. For some reason, “faith” seems to eclipse or blunt the bad associations of “religion” (Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, etc.). Faith is a warm, undifferentiated heart-felt feeling and not a doctrine.  “Faith-based” may not have been invented by Bush, but he has certainly done a lot to popularize the euphemism. We’re living with the many disasters of “faith-based” politics brought to us by Bush and Company’s muscular faith. Whenever a student writes, for example, “faith-based charity,” I respond: Do you mean a religious charity? Of course, even if using the term “faith-based” were enforced through social pressure, I suspect that no one would complain that it was a form of  . . .
Political Correctness: This term has been around for a while, and thankfully its use is fading. I witnessed the birth of this term: how people in the New Left would joke that a particularly dogmatic activist was “politically correct,” meaning that his doctrinaire political outlook would blind him to the material world and he would be a bone-head. The rightwing enthusiastically adopted the term as a criticism of anyone advocating egalitarian politics, particularly through self-naming. So, for example, Lakotas wanting to change the sign in the national park in the Great Plains from “Custer’s Last Stand” to “Battle of Little Big Horn” or someone wanting to be called a name of their own choosing (e.g., “woman,” “African American”) are just whims of puny liberals and professional victims. And “faith-based” is absolved. Most denunciations of “political correctness” are actually coming from people who disdain the expansion of democracy to begin with. Too often it’s the White Citizens Council at a tea party. Which leads to . . . 
Empowerment: I got nothing against this word, and all of its variants (empowered, empowering, etc.). It’s a beautiful idea, whatever it is. I see students using this word often, so often that it’s become an overused vague stand-in for some kind of achievement, whatever that is. When a community learns to do something or organize a protest, that’s good; they have a better sense of their capabilities to make change; they get a whiff of change, the possibility that they can take power. But feeling good about yourself or gaining tools is not in itself the power to rule, just a step along the way. If every small improvement or achievement is “empowering,” then oppressed people around the world would have been in power a long time ago. I’d like to be more modest, and less vague. Someone who learns how to read in jail can have his mind travel far beyond the bars, but he’s still behind bars. While I’m at it, I’d also like to ditch a few of the technical terms that social science has sprinkled into everyday speech: “underserved,” “underresourced,” “underprivileged,” and others like them. Natalie Portman came to Stanford a while ago, speaking about some of the causes she supports, and she talked about “poor people.” It’s invigorating to say that someone is poor and not “underprivileged,” that a school is crappy, meaning that it doesn’t have books or its teachers get paid peanuts, rather than to say that the school is “underresourced.”
Most of the time, what’s “underresourced” is real “intelligence,” the kind that shops at the Halliburtonesque “market-place of ideas.” I know I’ll be criticized for advocating “political correctness,” but I don’t care: mouthing off at a few words is “empowering.” At this point I’m ready to seize the Winter Palace.
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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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