Politics, Language and Pet Peeves

One of the most annoying things about politics is that it results in the mangling of language.  By that I mean that political speak makes very plain concepts and words either needlessly complex or reverses the plain meanings into something else.  I am going to vent a bit and give a few examples.  But before I do that, let me make my political stance and assumptions clear.  I think it is important to do this because one my biggest pet peeves is the veneer of objectivity.  Too many pundits want to act like neutral and unbiased observers when their agenda is so easy to spot that it makes them nearly impossible to hear.  My biases follow:

I am a registered Republican, consider myself politically conservative and think that Ronald Reagan is the greatest President in my lifetime and one of the best in American history.  So feel free to filter everything that follows through those assumptions and apply whatever grains of salt that you feel appropriate.  Since I fall solidly on the right end of the political spectrum, to be fair I will begin by pointing out a couple of ways that I think Republicans abuse language to serve their own political ends.

1.  Redistribution of income – This is thrown out by Republicans as a talking point against a whole host of Democratic economic policies.  And it is complete nonsense.  Every government redistributes income.  Governments collect revenue (mainly via taxes, although there are other streams) and pay that revenue out in a variety of ways.  They pay government employees (from legislators to soldiers to bureaucrats), extend benefits such as Medicare and Social Security, pay off bonds that have been previously issued and support infrastructure projects (along with many other things).  This is, by definition, redistributing income.  It is collecting from one source and paying to another.  Not a difficult concept.  The real beef that Republicans and Democrats have with each other is not the redistribution of income.  It is in the amount to be collected and the way it is redistributed.

2.  Picking Winners and Losers – This is a complaint that Republicans have with what they believe is undue interference by Democratic policies in the marketplace.  They believe that this interference rewards certain businesses and/or industries and punishes others.  On the face this is absolutely true.  Democrats do indeed do this.  But the problem is that Republicans do it as well.  In fact there is no such thing as governments that do not interfere in the marketplace.  Any law or regulation that governs behavior or sets boundaries as to what businesses and industries may or may not do is again, by definition, interference in the marketplace and at least to a degree affecting who “wins” or “loses” in the marketplace.  The only question is what those boundaries are and what behavior is rewarded or punished.  I want the government to help pick winners and losers.  I just want it to reward good behavior, punish bad behavior and set appropriate boundaries that benefit the general populace as much as is possible.  I want the government to interfere when some Madoff-style Ponzi scheme enters the marketplace and punish the jerk (or jerks) who are the bad actors.  I want the government to reward businesses or industries that do things the right way and benefit the market.  Again, the real argument isn’t about picking winners and losers.  It is about what the right boundaries, right rewards and right punishments are.

Now to the Democratic side of the aisle.

3.  Increasing Revenue – Democrats look at the gap between what the government is taking in and what it is paying out and rightly would like that gap to shrink considerably (or preferably disappear).  At least they say the would.  But the focus isn’t for them on what the government pays out (at least for most part, they typically would love to cut defense spending).  But the focus is on “increasing revenue”.  This is a nice euphemism for raising taxes.  Taxes are the biggest source of government revenue and the only way to increase revenue to any real degree is to raise taxes.  You can spin this anyway that you want, from “closing loopholes” to the rich “paying their fair share” but it is raising taxes, nothing more or nothing less.  This may or may not be a good idea, but there is no way to really increase revenue without collecting more taxes and at the end of the day increasing taxes on almost everyone, because the “middle class” pays most of the taxes under any scenario and if you raise taxes on the “rich” it isn’t going to hit the rich so much as the middle class.  The truly rich can move their money around, hire an army of accountants and lawyers to lessen their load and lobby politicians for favorable conditions.  So when you hear talk about “increasing revenue”, it is a tax hike.  And one way or another, it will hit you and I.

4.  Wall Street “Fat Cats” – This is a euphemism to describe the people who make a ton of money on often dubious investment schemes (such as the bundling of high-risk mortgages) and have a nice backstop of taxpayer money if their schemes blow up in their face.  It is also a description of the same people who contribute tons of money to political campaigns (mainly Democratic campaigns in recent years, though to be fair they tend to read tea leaves pretty well and have no problem switching the money train to Republicans if they think that Republicans are going to win the next election), lobby the daylights out of the government to get all kinds of favorable rules for themselves and run to and fro through a revolving door of top executive positions in the private sector and high level cabinet positions in the public sector (see Timothy Geithner, Jon Corzine et. al).  The Democratic party does a great job of talking about “the working man”, but it is every bit as much the party of the plutocrat as the Republican party.

I could keep going, but you get the idea.  It is an election year, so keep your ears tuned for phrases that come up again and again in the political talking points of the day.  And understand that the words that are being said rarely mean exactly what they seem to mean.  Just a helpful hint.

Imagination and Virtue

In a previous post I referenced a book by Vigen Guroian, the Orthodox Christian who is on Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  This book, “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination”, makes the argument that one of most vital ways that parents can encourage the development of virtue in the hearts of their children is by deeply ingraining the most lasting of stories deeply in their imaginations.  I am now a parent and have began to see once again the profoundly imitative nature of children.  Again and again I see them learn by copying or parroting what they see and hear in others.  I love watching my oldest acting out baseball and football games while he and I are watching them on television.  He is seemingly completely incapable of watching the games without physically playing and re-playing the motions of the game as he observes them.  I chuckle whenever I see this because I did the same thing when I was his age.  All of our boys re-enact all of the stories that we read and watch in their play.  Whether they become King Peter and King Edmund, or Batman and Robin they love re-playing and re-inventing stories.  Imaginary play is the life blood of their development.  But just as the nutrition of the type of food we feed our children affects their physical health and development, the type of stories that our children feed upon affects the development of their moral imaginations.  The contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way,

“It is through hearing about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.  Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

I believe that some of the change that we have seen in our culture (and not for the better) is that we have left older, more proven stories behind and replaced them with pale copies that teach very different lessons.  Worse than that, we have removed stories wholesale from the lives and education of generations and left them with a Gradgrindian (read “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens if you want to understand that reference) view of reality where all that matters is the facts and even those are open to interpretation.  Much of the division we see in our political process can be traced to a loss of common stories and culture.  We view the world differently because we don’t know the same stories and even the ones we do we approach from radically opposing directions.  Biblical illiteracy is at epidemic levels even among those in our society who seem to be the “best educated”.

But lest I go too far down the road to Curmudgeonville, my purpose isn’t to bemoan how far we have fallen.  It is instead to reflect on what we can do to tend the heart of virtue in ourselves and our children.  The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”.  (1 Cor 11:1)  One of the best ways we can do that is to approach the stories of Scripture with the imagination of a child.  All too often we in the evangelical Christian world have treated the Bible as texts to be dissected in search of principles for living or correct formulations for teaching.  But, while useful, transformation isn’t accomplished via technical scholarship.  Do we picture the story in our eyes of our heart, putting ourselves squarely in the middle of flow?  Do we believe that the same God who is an actor in the narrative (and not a background character) is acting in our story?  This is how virtue forms.  By yielding to the story we allow virtue to be formed within us.  This is adding to your faith, virtue.  Formation of virtue is an act of grace, it is a gift received.

I do have one more thing to add.  There is a school of thought in education that it doesn’t really matter what kind of literature a child reads, so long it gets them in the habit of reading.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I am not saying that children should only read from a pre-approved canon of “great literature”.  There are plenty of good books around that kids can read.  But they need to be good books.  Stroll through the children’s section of your local Barnes and Noble.  There is a lot of stuff there that isn’t well written, has questionable content and just isn’t worth reading.  But good books should be supplemented by great books.  Not every child’s book rises to the level of Hans Christian Andersen.  But that isn’t an excuse not to read Andersen along with the rest.

In a very real sense, imagination can be defined as “the eyes of the heart”.  These eyes need to be opened.  As parents we can help them be opened at a young age.  And I say, the earlier the better.