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American Pie: Sticks And Stones

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can also be profoundly hurtful, as John Merchant reveals when he casts an eye on name calling, from ancient times to the present day.

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“Give a dog a bad name and hang him” is a proverb that has been in use since at least the early sixteenth century. The original Scottish version, dating from 1721, was “Give a dog an ill name and he’ll soon hang.” In its modern context it is usually taken to mean that if you label someone negatively, the label will stick, even though it may not be justified. A little research reveals that we have been casting slurs and bestowing epithets on the objects of our displeasure since time began.

Even countries have been targeted; most recently by George W. Bush’s infamous “The axis of evil” proclamation in the year 2000, against North Korea, Iran and Iraq for their supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. The epithet is still heard today despite the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

In the fourteenth century, an Italian poet, Girolamo Fracastoro, published a poem titled “Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus,” “Syphilis, or the French Disease.” 200 years later the British were still using the term “French Disease,” partly to express their disdain for the French.

The influenza pandemic that occurred during World War I, which is estimated to have killed between 20 and 50 million people, was named the “Spanish Flu.” The negative appellation came about primarily because the pandemic received greater press attention in Spain than in the rest of the world, as Spain was not involved in the war and had not imposed wartime censorship. This being the case it seems grossly unfair that the Spanish should have to endure this slight, but the term persists to this day.

The USA is presently mired in the political campaigns of candidates aspiring to be the next president, which creates the perfect climate for name-calling and the wielding of slurs, whether real or fabricated. The technique goes something like this: you make a comment in a speech, or issue a news release, impugning your opponent - it doesn’t have to be true. This sets off a furious reaction by your opponent’s staff to disprove the insinuation. For some reason the rebuttal gets far less media coverage than the accusation, and so the slur sticks.

The current slate of presidential hopefuls is a relatively “clean” bunch, with the possible exception of Hilary Clinton, so it’s been kind of hard to come up with a really telling body blow.

As a result, giving these dogs a bad name is a tough assignment, and the attempts so far have verged on the childish. Barak Obama is too white, not black enough, too young, insufficiently experienced, smoked pot when he was in high school, is long on charisma and short on substance.

John McCain is too old, too left wing, a divorcee, supports the Iraq war and is not eligible to be president because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Though Hillary Clinton’s past is potentially a more fruitful source of “red meat,” she’s wealthy enough and powerful enough to deter her opponents from using the most heinous material. So the best they have been able to come up with is that she’s married to Bill Clinton, has an economically devastating health plan up her sleeve, is a woman, and has waffled in her position on the Iraq war.

In a desperate attempt to come up with something damning that is hard to refute; in an “unguarded moment” during an interview with The Scotsman newspaper in London, Samantha Power, Barak Obama's key foreign policy aide, let slip the camp's true feelings about the former first lady by stating that “Hillary Clinton is a monster.” What a revelation! Not content with that, the following day the Obama machine issued the disclosure that Clinton had not yet submitted her income tax return - shame on her.

At the root of this campaign’s piddling attempts to blacken candidates is the Republican Party’s disarray. Since they became the minority party, their machine seems to have lost the bloody fangs it used to good effect in the last two presidential elections. A significant factor in this is the 2007, retirement of Karl Rove, President Bush’ closest political adviser in the White House. Rove was the Grand Master of the adhesive lie, and applied his skills with unprecedented ferocity. His long career reads like a catalog of political dirty tricks.

During the Nixon, Watergate era, recordings were leaked to the Washington Post of several training seminars for young Republicans, where Rove discussed campaign techniques that included rooting through opponents' garbage cans. On August 10,1973, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, the Post broke the story in an article titled "Republican Party Probes Official as Teacher of Tricks."

John Dean, who was implicated in the Watergate break-in and became the star witness for the prosecution, has been quoted as saying that "Based on my review of the files, it appears the Watergate prosecutors were interested in Rove's activities in 1972, but because they had bigger fish to fry they did not aggressively investigate him."

Though he was never directly implicated, it is likely that Rove’s most despicable and complex defamatory scam was perpetrated against Senator John Kerry, who was George Bush’ democratic opponent during the 2004, presidential campaign. Critics alleged that Rove had professional ties to the producers of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ads. The series of TV spots re-enacted some of Kerry’s Vietnam War missions and implied that the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded were not deserved. Kerry lost his bid for the presidency.

So it would seem that the ancient proverb, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” needs to be revised.

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