Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I'll start this with an article in the East Bay Times on Saturday, July 8:

Man hangs himself from Lake Merritt bridge in apparent suicide, police say

It's a very short article.  It didn't appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, my usual paper.  This is the significant sentence:  "Witnesses said a woman ran up and down the bridge screaming for someone to stop him before he jumped."

Four days later, at my gym after a water aerobics class, I found myself sharing a hot tub with the woman who ran up and down the bridge screaming.  

For the purpose of this story, I'll call her Ethel, which isn't her name.  She's an older African American woman who works in San Francisco and exercises regularly at the Oakland gym, and one of her exercise habits is a daily walk around Lake Merritt, a course of a little over 3 miles. We chat regularly in the locker room.  After climbing into the tub, she told me flatly that she'd seen a man kill himself on Friday evening.  I asked her to repeat herself a couple of times, partly because the jacuzzi makes a fair amount of noise and partly because I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

What Those Words Mean

All languages change over time, of course.  if you don't believe me, take a look at Shakespeare's plays (400 years or so) or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (more like 550 years).  But the English language (and several others) are morphing as we watch, particularly in the political arena.

Take the most obvious:  President Trump's continual use of the phrase fake news.  It should be obvious to anyone who isn't part of his base that when he says fake news, he means, something I don't like.  It doesn't necessarily mean the news isn't true.  It just means he doesn't like it.  Careful observers may immediately start looking around to see what recent development he's trying to distract us away from.

He isn't the first American to do this; he's just the most recent, and the loudest.  In the 1950s, when I was growing up and just learning what "the news" was, people would often use the word Communist to describe someone whose opinions they disagreed with.  It didn't mean the person was an actual member of the Communist Party; it meant they disagreed with the speaker.

This usage isn't, of course, limited to Americans.  My classic example, before Mr. Trump came along, was Bashir al-Assad of Syria.  It's been much too clear since that whole mess started that when he says the words jihadi or terrorist, what he means is someone who doesn't think I should be running Syria.  His definition includes a lot of people in Daesh, who actually are terrorists; but it also includes the ordinary Syrians who turned out, unarmed, six or so years ago, to ask him peacefully to step down.  President al-Sisi of Egypt also appears to use a variant this meaning from time to time - terrorists are people who don't think he should be running Egypt.

Other misconstructions of the word terrorist include Mr. Trump's version, which means Muslims with brown skin, and Saudi Arabia's, which roughly means Iranian, or possibly merely Shiite.  President Erdogan of Turkey also competes in this - his terrorist translates to Kurd, and secondarily to any Muslim who isn't Sunni.  Given that Turkey now houses the largest single population of refugee Syrians (possibly over 2 million by now), many of whom are Alevis (a variant of Shia Islam), this may cause trouble some day, but so far the situation is peaceful. 

This usage seems specific to prominent political figures, so the next time you see a prominent political figure say something like, "Obamacare is a failure", ask yourself what they really mean.  The LA Times just did exactly that.  What the Republicans mean by "Obamacare is a failure" is that they hope you'll believe them and not ask questions about it - which is basically what all these misstatements mean.  Believe me and don't ask questions.  We always need to ask questions.