Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for January 2nd, 2007

Socialism, meaning, and health care

Posted by metaphorical on 2 January 2007

I’ve seen the word “socialism” thrown around quite a bit lately, especially in the context of universal health care systems. I called it a meaningless word the other day, in just that context. I still think that, but it makes me wonder why people throw the word around and what they’re really objecting to.

Let’s start with a couple of oblique datapoints. First, an article from SFgate, “Toddler Found Playing Along Busy Highway”:

The boy, Damon Dyer, was unscathed as at least a half-dozen cars and a tractor-trailer rig swerved into other lanes to avoid him. Temperatures were in the mid 50s as the boy ran around barefooted.

Police said they traced the toddler to an apartment at a nearby complex, where they found his mother, Nancy Dyer asleep in a filthy apartment and his 2-year-old sister eating spaghetti off the floor.

Dyer, 33, was arrested on two counts of child neglect and remained in custody Sunday, officials said.

So the state takes the child away, but it’s not socialism.

Second, a NY Times editorial commemorating the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Nothing in “The Jungle” sticks with the reader quite like what went into the sausages. There was the rotting ham that could no longer be sold as ham. There were the rat droppings, rat poison and whole poisoned rats. Most chilling, there were the unnamed things “in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”

Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” as a labor exposé. He hoped that the book, which was billed as “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of wage slavery,” would lead to improvements for the people to whom he dedicated it, “the workingmen of America.” But readers of “The Jungle” were less appalled by Sinclair’s accounts of horrific working conditions than by what they learned about their food. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he famously declared, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

So the state can require health inspections; the meatpacking companies will grumble, but it’s not socialism.

In each case, demurrals are somehow made. On a mailing list I’m on, one fellow says of the 3-year-old that protection of individual rights is one of the few legitimate purposes of government, especially those of someone too young to protect their rights themselves. As for food inspections, well, a similar justification can probably be made, though most of the injured are adults who can choose to not eat meat. But then why does the same fellow balk at any possible universal health care, no matter how its structured, even if it includes HMOs and choosing doctors?

I think, for many people at least, it really means, I want the state to do some things, and not others, and the ones I want aren’t socialism and the ones that are, are. As I pointed out last time, Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” called it:

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.

Some people use the term socialism to mean, essentially, “unbridled government power to tax, jail, and generally compel behavior.” Certainly, that’s a bad thing. Unbridled power, in the hands of anyone one group or sector of our society, is a very bad thing.

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How well do you and your bank know each other?

Posted by metaphorical on 2 January 2007

On-line banks have to require more than a user-name and password. With the new year, federal banking regulations now require “‘multi factor’ authentication systems,” according to an article in last week’s Boston Globe. One acceptable addition is our old friend, the low-tech cookie (which the Globe calls a “fingerprint”). When you log in from a different machine, the bank doesn’t see the cookie, and mail:

If someone tries to log in from a machine that isn’t fingerprinted, the bank will send a confirmation message to the customer’s e-mail address. A crook who’s stolen somebody’s user name and password probably won’t have access to the victim’s e-mail account, so he can’t reply to the message, and won’t be allowed to log in.

That’s okay until your identity is stolen in the form of your laptop stolen. If you have Gmail or some other web-based mail, the laptop is probably already logged into it in an already-open window. If you use something like Eudora, it probably already contains the password. All you have to do is open it and say “check mail.” This all assumes that your e-mail program doesn’t dump the bank’s message into the spam bin. We won’t even go into all the legitimate reasons to set your browser to reject cookies.

Software designers call this “overloading”—giving e-mail (and the browser) tasks that it was never designed for. Fortunately, some banks are using more sophisticated systems. Unfortunately, some of them might be a bit too sophisticated.

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