31 May 2003

Kpn It Shrt

One of the things that I simultaneously love and loathe about America is the ability (or perhaps that should be compulsive obsession) of Americans to boil (or dumb) down, to condense, to get to the nitty-gritty. It can be good or bad, but it's pretty uniquely American.

This strange gift/mental condition manifests itself in lots of ways. One that particularly gets under my skin is the way people will insist, without checking with you first, on giving you a short nickname of some kind, regardless of your actual name. How "Richard" becomes "Dick" or "William" becomes "Bill" I'll leave to lexicographers. But take any name -- even a one-syllable name like "Charles" -- and Americans feel compelled to find a way to shorten it somehow. Chuck, Chas, Chaz, Charlie, CM ... and so on. After I spent several fruitless years fighting it, I gave up and picked a preferred nickname (Chas) that bothers me least. When I lived in England, nobody ever called you by anything less than your full first name unless specifically instructed not to (indeed, it was rare that you were called anything but "Mr. Martin" in the academic setting I was in).

It can be useful, however, when you're a big country and have to plow through a lot of information every day. Indeed, at least part of President Bush's odd popularity stems from his folksy style of dumbing-down. People (particularly dim people from the midwest) really seem to like his "if it's complicated, I don't wanna know about it" mentality and his Perot-like ability to boil even extremely complicated problems into catchy little phrases like "double taxation" for dividend taxes, "regime change" for illegal overthrow of non-invading nations, and "tax refund" for record-breaking deficit spending.

Indeed, if I had to point to a single problem the Democrats face, it's figuring out how to beat President Bush and the NeoCon fascists he represents at this "fewest and shortest words possible" game of his. Saturday Night Live had it pegged even prior to the 2000 election fiasco:

Gore: "Lockbox."
Bush: "Strategery."

See, the Democrats think that talking about Bush's failures, lies, corruption and illegal acts will get the public to sit up and take notice. Bad idea. What they really ought to do is have one of them come out and say simply "Regime change starts at home" or "Deficits cost jobs" or "Are we better off?" Something simple like that, because simple is apparently all people have the capacity or time to handle anymore.

That said, you gotta hand it to the few remaining wits out there -- they take a challenge like "make something prescient, witty and memorable in six words or less" and they run with it. I recently saw a forum posting where some wag had taken our entire fractured American society and "boiled it down" to it's purest form:

"Which bothers you more: blow jobs or snow jobs?"

It's moments like this that almost make me proud to be an American again. Don't even think that any other country could have come up with something so succinct.

No comments: