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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Does One Really Intend All Consequences?

Imagine that you are lost in the woods with friends. Not a little city or county park, but a wilderness of thousands of acres. It’s a dark, stormy day, so you can get no fix on direction from the position of the sun, and one of your party has a life-threatening illness, making your situation all that much more frightening.

Stumbling around, you come to a river, and by some apparent miracle, there is a boat tied up onshore, large enough to hold all of you. One of your party assures the rest that heading downstream is your best possible chance for survival. Eventually the river will come to some kind of civilization, where help will be available. Food, warmth. Rescue. Survival! 

It makes sense, you all agree. You get in the boat, push off from shore, and begin to drift with the current.

The storm continues. As rain lashes your crowded little storm-tossed craft, the sense of urgency increases, and drifting with the current seems too slow a pace. Everyone now puts hands in the water and paddles furiously to speed the boat to safety downstream.

Meanwhile, the roaring wind in the trees along the river seems to increase along with your speed. The noise becomes deafening – just as your boat tumbles over a waterfall, crashing on rocks below. Some of the party are dashed on the rocks, others drowned. Perhaps one or two survive to tell the tale.

You did not intend death and destruction. You intended survival for all. If you’d had a map of the river, you could have foreseen the waterfall.

Unfortunately, there is no map to the future. The best we can do is to learn from the past. Or repeat its most hellish episodes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Another Word For It

Said around the dinner table on Saturday by one of our guests (actually, my son): “I took debate in high school, and that is not debate.” So true, we all agreed. I’ve been saying the same thing for I don’t know how many election cycles, and it’s never been truer than this year, and whenever the subject cannot be avoided, I have resorted to “so-called ‘debate’” as my verbal reference. But the modification of the noun was still unsatisfying.

There must be something else we could call it, I kept thinking. But what?

Confrontation? Yelling match? Reality TV? All seemed at least partially appropriate but, again, unsatisfying, failing to get at the tragic heart of the disappointment. It is, after all, American democracy and perhaps the future of political freedom in the world that are at stake.

During the Monday morning early radio news, the word came to me: debacle. I said it aloud, trying it out.

“What? What are you referring to?”

“Instead of ‘debate,’ you know. What to call it. I’m going to call it ‘debacle.’”

The de- prefix makes the substitution particularly appropriate and calls up adjectives such as debased, degraded, and demeaned. Like debased and debate, it also contains the voiced bilabial plosive, with which a speaker can vent emotions such as disgust and disdain – Bah! -- while the hard C shading into a final L hints at spectacle, calling up sound and fury and barkers and circuses. And, of course the dictionary meaning....

When political satisfaction fails, there is some satisfaction to be found in the right word.

Late in the afternoon, glancing at Facebook, I saw that one of my friends had used the phrase “debacle of a debate.” Yes, Linda! You, too? But can we trim away the official designation we all agree does not pertain and be content with a single word to sum up what took place?

Debacle: “a stunning, ruinous collapse or failure, often ludicrously calamitous.” (New World Dictionary, 4th meaning)

Calamity inviting laughter? Joking at the approach to the gallows? Debacle!