Mike Kueber's Blog

July 6, 2015

On Language

Filed under: Education,Facebook — Mike Kueber @ 9:29 pm
Tags: ,

Beginning in the 70s, Bill Safire was a political columnist for the NY Times who wrote a special Sunday column titled, “On Language.”  In the Sunday column, he discussed word etymology and usage.

Safire was a favorite of mine for 30 years (he died in 2009), and I thought of him today when I came across a couple of interesting terms:

  • High-quality pre-k.
  • Racist

The first term is invariably used whenever a political entity argues in favor of expanded pre-k, as San Antonio politicians did recently with Pre-K 4 SA.  Not surprisingly, no one wants to expand low-quality pre-k even though America seems to be flooded with it.  Indeed, when I tried to find the distinction between these two types of pre-k, I quickly learned the following poorly-kept secret from an article in the Washington Post:

  • Whenever policymakers talk about universal preschool — and that is happening more frequently these days — they always say that it must be “high quality,” but they never explain what that actually means.

The modifier is especially useful for policymakers to refute any of the numerous studies that show pre-k to be ineffective.  Ineffective pre-k is by definition “low-quality pre-k”; whereas, the progressive politician is asking voters to fund high-quality pre-k (to reduce inequality). How can an egalitarian say no to that?

The term racist was used on Facebook to describe Donald Trump for retweeting the following comment:

  • “Jeb Bush has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

When I suggested to my Facebook friend (a grad of Notre Dame law school) that there was nothing racist about the tweet, he responded:

  • “come on mike…you’re way too smart to stoop to something like that…first of all, trump is referring to a mexican-american, and secondly, he assumes she is illegal…how much more racist can his assertion be?”

I responded as follows:

  • “First of all, Richard, Donald Trump didn’t say anything. He merely retweeted, without comment, what someone else said, kind of like you did in posting this article from Deadstate. And if we are going to infer what Donald Trump was implying, I suggest that he is implying the well-documented fact that Mexican-Americans are generally much more in favor on granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants.  And surely, no one has suggested that Jeb’s wife is illegal.”

I didn’t, however, object to the term racist being used to discuss alleged bigotry against Mexicans. I withheld my objection after reading several online discussions on whether the term racism is appropriate when referring to ethnicities or nationalities.  Although most commenters believe that Hispanics or Mexicans are not racial terms, and therefore believe bigotry is more technically precise and accurate, there were a couple who suggested the meaning of “race” had expanded to include ethnicity or nationality.

I am confident that Bill Safire would not approve of this expansion.  He loved precision in words and felt that flabby usage predicted flabby thinking.  I agree.

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