out of wedlock

“Out of wedlock” describes a thing you do when you’re not married.

Well, not YOU, necessarily, and not just any old thing. You never hear about people reading books, driving cars, or eating pretzels out of wedlock. Also, if you’re a man, no one will ever say you did anything out of wedlock — even if you never marry!

“Out of wedlock,” refers to an incident involving a pregnant woman or a baby. She got pregnant out of wedlock. She gave birth out of wedlock. Children are born out of wedlock. You might have noticed that this expression contains very little information: A woman or a child’s parents weren’t married at some point.

So why bother saying it?

I can’t tell you why some old-fashioned words and expressions survive while others do not. But I can tell you where to look for clues. The words people use reflect what’s important to them. If you’re wondering why anyone would care whether women are married or not, all you have to do is pay attention to who talks about it. Maybe the other things they say will tell you what you want to know.

what’s in a name: the department of homeland security

The Department of Homeland Security is a division of the U.S. government. In it, you’ll find the president’s personal bodyguards. You’ll also find the people who decided full-sized bottles of shampoo posed a serious threat to airline passengers.

One thing you should know about the DHS, if you don’t know it already, is that it was named shortly after a major terrorist attack on the United States. Don’t tell the terrorists, but Americans were scared as hell.

Let’s look at the two words that matter here: homeland and security. Homeland! Wholesome, isn’t it? Like a wheat farm in simpler times. A wood stove and some lard biscuits. Right? It’s warm and comforting and most importantly safe, which brings us to “security.”

The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to make you feel safe and warm in your little farmhouse with a heavily-armed security detail outside. Whether it’s actually keeping you safe is a whole separate discussion, and if you want to have that discussion, you have to clear this hurdle first: People want to feel safe, and nuance doesn’t play well with frightened people.

thanksgiving

American children are told a bullshit story about the first Thanksgiving. The story goes like this: The Europeans and the people who had been living in what is now the United States for the previous 14,000 or so years put aside their petty differences, shared a feast, and gave thanks to their preferred deities for their new best friends.

I haven’t been an American child for quite some time, but I know they’re still hearing the story because yesterday on my way home from work I saw a little white girl in a paper headdress with neon-colored feathers glued to it and a probably-very-offensive “Indian name”* written across the front.

Thanksgiving may be a story we tell ourselves so we won’t have to think about the genocide that made our lives possible, but it’s not racist to reflect on your good fortune once in a while. If there are people you love in the world, if you have turkey or tofurky or three different kinds of pie at your disposal, you have a reason to be glad. Not thankful, necessarily, but glad.

I propose that we keep Thanksgiving** but stop telling the bullshit story about “pilgrims and Indians”*** and maybe drop the nationalism piece altogether. Who’s with me?

*This is in scare quotes because 1) I’m not sure if it was a real name or just something a white person thought sounded good and 2) the trickiness of using the same word to describe people from India and the people who discovered North America, which was at the time very racist but is currently (I think) not considered racist.

**Even if you don’t believe in a deity, you can thank your favorite people for being great.

***I’m really uncomfortable with this.

spin cycle: the fiscal cliff

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we do our best to keep people in the news from filling our heads with garbage.

Last time on Spin Cycle, we talked about the difference between misspeaking and saying what you actually believe but then wishing you hadn’t because now everyone knows. Today we’re going to step up to the “fiscal cliff” and throw a few rocks over the edge.

So look, some U.S. tax laws are about to expire. People will have to pay different amounts of taxes than they are paying right now. A lot of professional opinion-havers are calling the consequences of this change “the fiscal cliff.”

“Fiscal” means “money-related,” and a cliff is a very dangerous place. If you fall off, there’s nothing anyone can do to save you. You die.

You don’t have to know a lot about fiscal policy to see that there’s something fishy about this fiscal cliff. All you have to do is ask a few questions. A good place to start is, “Jesus, is it really that bad? The entire U.S. economy will hurl itself over a cliff if we go back to paying the same taxes we paid a few years ago? We will die?”

Behind every scary metaphor, there is a person who wants you to do something. Sometimes he’s looking out for you, and sometimes the only person he cares about is himself.

democracy

Democracy means, more or less, a system of government where everybody gets a vote, and nobody’s vote counts for more than anyone else’s.

But when you hear the word “democracy” (at least in the United States), usually the word “threat” is breathing down its neck. A threat to democracy.

Here are some things that have been called threats to democracy: Drugs, Christians, unemployment, liberal bias, conservative bias, and poverty. This is not a complete list.

But really, only one thing is a threat to democracy. Taking away people’s right to vote — and the assurance that their vote counts just as much as a rich guy’s vote or a vote from someone who owns 500 assault rifles — is the only thing that can make a democracy not a democracy.

Poverty is terrible. Unemployment is no good, either. Drugs and druglords mess up people’s lives sometimes but rarely show up at the polling place to make sure their victims don’t vote. Christians are just like any other group of people in that they can’t stop anyone from voting. Biases in the news are inevitable, and they can definitely influence public opinion, but they can’t make people not vote.

The reason people are always fretting about democracy’s safety even when they are talking about things that have nothing to do with democracy is that they know how important democracy is to the rest of us. They want us to confuse our fear of living in a place where we have no say over what happens with their fear of drugs/Christians/whatever.

Sometimes it’s easier to scare people into taking your side than it is to come up with a real argument.

ethnic cleansing

“Ethnic cleansing” sounds almost like routine maintenance, doesn’t it? Like you’re bringing in someone to shampoo the carpets or scrub under the fridge.

It means genocide, though. In case your Greek is rusty, genocide means killing a lot of people with the same skin tone or religion or accent or whatever because you’ve determined they are the cause of your problems.

If you were trying to get away with mass murder, you might tell people the whole thing was an exercise in “ethnic cleansing” to get them to think about disgusting but necessary household chores instead of thinking about how you are murdering people.

If you aren’t trying to get away with murder, it’s probably best to abandon this term. The very worst time to adopt a euphemism is when it might help a genocidal maniac justify his actions.

partisan

Partisan means biased in favor of a political party. Specifically, the OTHER political party — the one you like the least.

When you say something is partisan, you are saying you don’t like it and that anybody who does like it is just falling in line behind an authority figure or mindlessly fighting for the team they think they’re on. You are accusing them of not thinking.

Since most people aren’t thinking most of the time, the odds may be in your favor here. But those same odds apply to every single one of your extremely well considered positions. You’re just as likely as anyone else to be an intractable partisan ideologue, and the people you think are intractable partisan ideologues are just as likely as you to believe they are rational, reasonable, independent thinkers.

Would you ever call your own opinions partisan? Would anyone else?

race

Have you ever noticed that news people use the word “race” interchangeably with the word “election?” It’s a metaphor. The idea is that the candidates in the election are like* runners in a race. They start in the same place, wear the same humiliating little shorts, and start running at the same time.

There is a pretty obvious difference between a race and an election. In a race, nothing matters but the people running. One of them will run faster than the other and win the race, even if no one is watching. And if people are watching, the spectators don’t get to decide who wins.

For an election, you need voters. It’s not a contest in the same sense that a race is. Sometimes the candidates start off in very different places, and it doesn’t always matter who runs the fastest or the farthest.

*If you’re thinking about emailing me to tell me this is a simile, you are the worst kind of person. If you’re not sure what a simile is, don’t worry — it’s not important. You can stay.

lifestyle

“Lifestyle” is the only word in the English language — or possibly any language — that is both a meaningless advertising term and a euphemism for gay sex.

I have no idea how these two meanings both attached themselves to this word, but I do know that if you watch the news for a while, you’ll probably hear some jowly old senator say “I respect gay people but I don’t approve of their lifestyle” during the show, and if you stick around for the commercials, you might eventually hear a professional voice actor say “Buy this thing! It is perfect for your busy/healthy/active lifestyle.”

When the jowly senator says he doesn’t approve of his gay neighbor’s “lifestyle,” he isn’t talking about making toast, going to school, watching cat videos on the internet, or any of the other commercial-break-variety lifestyle things you might find a gay person doing on a typical Wednesday.

He is saying, “It’s okay for me to restrict people’s rights if I don’t like their sexual behavior.”

People use euphemisms when the truth makes them uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s kinder to let them. But if someone is trying to tell other people what to do and he won’t say exactly what he means, the rest of us have a moral imperative to say it for him.