Thursday, June 2, 2016

'Reform' deformed

After a long talk about the unusual political campaign with an old friend and colleague of yore who used to be in the middle of such things -- I continued to muse on why so many primary voters have refused the old, time-tested political lies, surprising candidates and experts repeatedly. At the same time, new and different lies, hitherto unpopular and apparently preposterous, are suddenly attractive to some number of Americans.
    Just how many of us have passed this tipping point is a likely focus of tracking polls. And we can guess from the advertising and slogans -- custom modified lies --  based on these polls, as they appear. The ultimate poll, as they say, is in November, but its binary result will be discussed for a long time after.
      Calling a political lie a lie takes us back to Orwell, and his warnings about misuse of language. Phrase wars are not new, and we have seen concepts tucked into linguistic Trojan horses like "right to life" and "right to choose." I know a young financial advisor who has no idea that calling estate tax "death tax" is a conservative meme devised in the 1970s. Ordinary language would indicate that the tax is measured by the size of the estate and not the manner of death. But it was a useful political lie to rename a tax that unfairly took money only from heirs to an estate as a tax assessed at death, which strikes the poor as hard or harder than it hits rich families. Almost all of us are opposed to death, while we are more divided about the utility of hereditary death.
     Some meanings reverse by misuse, such as 'literally,' which now means what 'figuratively' used to mean, back when figuratively was the opposite of literally.
    And so to 'reform.' Here is a word central to more than a century of political truths and lies, that is now stronger in its reversed meaning than it was at the turn of the previous century. At that time, reform in politics referred to a moderate restructuring of corrupt and/or wasteful government agencies or practices. It was contrasted with revolution, and it certainly had populist opponents.     
     But generally reforms would be aimed at making things better. They typically included regulation if not legislation.
      Now reforms aim at making things cheaper. They typically aim to reduce regulation.
      Because reforms were achieved by compromise (which has not always meant surrender) the term 'reform' was always complicated and remains so.
       But the balance shift from betterment to cutbacks is continual and consistent.
        I am not arguing that everything is getting worse, only things described as reforms.
      Case: education reform. Education reform used to be about encouraging teachers and students. The phrase today invokes decades of attacks on teachers, their salaries, unions, tenure, professionalism, training, experience, and vocation.  For students, education reform now means high-stakes testing, narrowing of curriculum, purging material of interest. (The word 'relevant,' which used to mean germane and imply material that would interest students; in the dialogue of contemporary school  is now a swear-word applied to material that might distract students from rote learning necessary to pass the annual gauntlet of tests.
     I have a more specialized interest in "mental health reform" a subtitle for bills in both houses of Congress which propose to focus research and treatment dollars on "evidence-based"  practices as determined by Congressionally reviewed plans developed by carefully specified credentialed experts. What if, like a lot of people coping with mental health issues, you don't have a clear diagnosis and the treatments haven't worked well?
     There are, as often under the reform label, some attractive features to these bills, too. But if anyone proposed to "reform" a mature science like physics in this way, they would be exposed to ridicule for stifling innovation. Only in a scientifically weak area like psychiatry/psychology, still doing as much "human services" as "evidence-based treatment" can the reform label be slapped on a program -- as in the more extreme House bill -- to disempower the majority of practitioners in the field -- social workers.