Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Reform" and "taxes": Words of Warning

Quick now, does the word “reform” have positive or negative connotations?

My guess is that you’d say positive. After all, if we try to reform ourselves, we are trying to make ourselves better, not worse.

And now we have “Health Care Reform.” The built-in assumption is that "the reform" will be good. So who could be against health care reform?

I might be — if I strip the legislation's provisions from its name and look at what it actually does.

It may or may not make things better. It could even make health care worse in this country — although that’s hard to imagine.

For those who oppose the current legislation as it moves forward, the very name “Health Care Reform” is a problem.

The name merges with the thing itself, and the connotations rub off. It’s a classic case of what semanticists call “reification.” The name becomes the thing. The Latin word for “thing” is “res.” (An aside: a "republic" is "a public thing." You'd think that "Republicans" would support "public things" over private ones. Something strange happened as republicans became Republicans.)

Here’s another one. What is your gut feeling about “taxes”? Not so good, right?

In January, Oregon voters will be called upon to vote on two “tax” measures that have been put on the ballot by tax opponents. Voting against the measures is a vote against the new taxes passed in the last state legislative session. The “anti-tax” campaign by a business coalition calling itself “Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes” will avoid detailing how the proposed taxes will be levied, who will pay them and what the money will be used for.

The key word in the anti's campaign is “taxes,” and opponents are counting on the public's aversion to them, no matter who is paying. Lazy headline writers are already using short forms like “Anti-Tax campaign" and “Tax Reversal Effort.” In doing so, they are unwittingly framing and distorting the issue.

Those who support the new taxes, which are to be levied on the wealthy and large businesses, need to seize the debate by rebranding the issue to show what’s at stake. They need to talk about “tax fairness” and “paying for public services” such as decent schools for kids.

Campaign causes can be won or lost by the names used to describe them.

The political playing field tilts to the dominant name — and frame.

To see how the competing coalitions are playing the "tax/fairness/jobs etc." issue, see Empower Oregon and Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes.”

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Afghanistan in my mind

I'm no expert on Afghanistan. Which probably means you're like me. What to do?

Afghanistan for me begins as a word. Then it takes a shape I've learned from maps.

In the newspaper, the maps are often the size of an envelope. In my atlas, the country is still a manageable size. Afghanistan is a page. Entirely conquerable, some might think.

So that’s “my” Afghanistan — a name and the after-image of a map.

To review my knowledge, I may even point to the map and say, “Ah, that’s Afghanistan.”

Who would argue? (Someone should!)

We can scan the map and “see” where various places are, Kabul, Kandahar, Mehtar Lam. But do we see them? Do we understand them?

Our exploration is a study of delusion. Afghanistan, the map, is pure deception. All maps are.

Afghanistan, the country, is something else. (I use the word “country” advisedly, especially if I equate it with other “countries” I have known, including our own.) It’s hard enough to comprehend any place even when we are there. Do I really understand Portland, Oregon?

As President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, and as we, as citizens, respond, we would do well to free ourselves of the Afghanistan in our minds.

Afghanistan in physical reality becomes a bit more clear when we superimpose its image on a map of the Pacific Northwest. Place Afghanistan’s western border (that would be the one with Iran) on the Willamette River. Then see where Afghanistan’s eastern border falls on our own map. (It reaches out like a finger to touch China at its eastern-most point.)

Any idea where the distance would take us here in the Northwest?

It turns out to be Billings, Montana, more or less. Billings is a long, long day’s drive from here — in the best of weather. Afghanistan has no equivalent to the interstate highway system. Traveling across the country is measured not in hours but days. And it's all up-hill, and I do mean up hill. Think the Himalayas as your destination.

So there’s the matter of topography. On our drive to Billings we climb mountains and admire the feats of engineering needed to build four-lane highways through them.

Yet on the maps, the Afghans' and ours, we can run our finger over mountains with equal ease. Theirs and ours are paper smooth.

As it turns out, Afghanistan's highest mountain, at 24,557 feet, is more than twice as high as our highest, Mount Hood, at 11,239 feet. (In terms of land mass, you could fit two and a half Oregons inside Afghanistan.)

No, the Afghanistan in my mind is of little help. Understanding begins by recognizing the inherent distortions of map and word. They are, after all, symbols.

We confuse symbols with reality at our peril.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Would Gandhi buy a "Gandhi" pen?

In the late Neil Postman’s prescient book “Technopoly,” he foresees the media-besotted day when there will be an advertisement for wine that includes an endorsement by Jesus Christ.

Postman envisions Jesus holding up a glass of California chardonnay and preaching, “When I transformed water into wine in Cana, this is what I had in mind. Try it today. You’ll become a Believer.”

Postman notes the idea isn’t that far-fetched. He cites a Hebrew National frankfurters' ad proclaiming that their product exceeds federal standards. The reason for the special care is in the ad’s tag line: “We have to answer to a Higher Authority.”

Thus, writes Postman, do media transform the sacred into the profane. Eventually, Postman warns, the profanity of pervasive advertising will consume all we hold sacred.

Postman's book came to mind last week when I came across a newspaper story about Montblanc, the maker of extravagantly priced, status-symbol pens and other knick-knacks for the super-rich.

It seems the firm has created a "Mohandas Gandhi edition" gold pen aimed at India's new wealthy elite.

Before continuing, recall that the ascetic Gandhi lived virtually possession free. He owned little more than an extra loincloth, sandals, a pocket watch, a rice bowl and his spectacles.

Montblanc is “commemorating” the great non-violent leader's 140th birthday with the pen.

Price: $24,763 per pen.

Happy birthday, Bapu.

The newspaper story reminds us that in India today “more than 450 million Indians struggle to get by on less than $1.25 a day.”

The good news for Montblanc is that India’s economy has produced enough multimillionaires in recent years to provide a market for the Swiss firm’s Gandhi pen, which is 18-karat solid gold and engraved with Gandhi’s image. It comes with a saffron-colored mandarin garnet on its clip and an impressing-sounding rhodium-plated nib.

But wait, there’s more. Only 241 pens will be sold. Why 241? Montblanc says it chose the number to honor the number of miles in Gandhi’s grueling “salt march.”

You have to figure that factoid alone is worth a grand or two of the pen's price. It's certain to enliven gin-and-tonic conversations on at least 241 palatial Indian verandas.

To soften the grotesqueness of invoking Gandhi's name to sell pens, Montblanc is giving the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation $145,666 plus $1000 for each pen sold. (By the way, I can't find any reference to the Gandhi pen on Montblanc's web site under "special editions." Perhaps that's because the company is being sued by a consumer education group.)

One wonders whether the donations to the family foundation are what led Gandhi’s grandson, Tushar Gandhi, to pitch the pens with his own endorsement. “I consider the Montblanc pen their acknowledgment of the greatness of Gandhi. They are doing it the only way they know how…. His writing instrument was his greatest tool.”

Whatever you say, Tushar.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Somewhere in nowhere

Stehekin, at the northern, isolated end of Lake Chelan, is the sort of place that, if you had years to just stay and be there, most of your friends would traipse through. They’d be surprised to find you; and you them. But on reflection, it would make all the sense in the world.

As those who have already been there know, you must cruise by boat for three or four hours to get to the remote hamlet with its lodge, restaurant and Forest Service information center. Wander along the lake’s extreme northern end, on the way to a network of steep mountain trails, and you happen on a bakery, a small schoolhouse and an organic garden where you can buy fresh-picked fruit, vegetables and goat cheese.

A few old pick-ups ply the road, frozen in time, Cuba-style. They, the glaciers, the trails and the mountains are all evidence of place that measures time in seasons and eons. During our third and final night, the first snow dusted the upper granite peaks. Another season gone.

The people who live here all know each other — well. And they know whom they don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It’s the old story of a stranger merely being a friend you haven’t made, yet.

If you get weary on your hike along the road, stick out a thumb and you’ll get a ride and an earful of local lore.

Trust is still palpable in this secluded place.

You can fly in and out if you are willing to pay the price. A bright orange pontoon plane makes the trip two or three times a day. I met a retired Seattle policeman who lives in Omak, perhaps 150 miles away. He and his wife fly their bush plane to a remote landing strip. They come to fish and stay at a resort ranch, called, appropriately enough, “The Ranch.”

Back packers, many answering the challenge of the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, tromp down to the cluster of dwellings along the lake shore to visit the post office. The hikers have shipped provisions there for the final leg of their adventure from Mexico to Canada. “Only four days left!” one exuded in mock exhaustion.

If you have an hour or two or three — and in this place you just might — the hikers will fill the time with tales of the trail.

Back in the city now with its headlines of Iranian nuclear weapons and reports of political mudslinging, I think of Stehekin, Lake Chelan and the easy camaraderie of a place somewhere out in nowhere.

Yes, if you waited in Stehekin long enough, if you sojourned on the porch of the lodge, transfixed by the distant North Cascade peaks, if you stayed there in that far away world, thousands of other seekers would wander in, visit, and linger before moving on.

Perhaps that’s what’s needed. I know the earth is full of Stehekins — places pure, unspoiled and trusting. We need to discover them. We need to protect them. We need to know we can make more of them — wherever we are.

Labels: , ,