Monday, October 5, 2009

Oxymorons

The other day I was reading an article about a program in which students, middle-schoolers I think, were pitted against adults in an academic contest. One of the questions was “what is the grammatical term for the expression “jumbo shrimp”. The answer was “oxymoron”. And I found myself thinking, “well no, that’s not really an oxymoron at all. In that case “jumbo” is merely being used as a term of relative size, to denote a shrimp larger than other shrimps. I understand that jumbo shrimp is used commonly as an example of an oxymoron. But my mind immediately drifted off to other more serious forms, as “military intelligence”, or republican ethics”, both now fine examples of the form. And that got me to thinking about such terms.
Military intelligence—is that a reasonable interpretation of the military mind and it’s thinking potential? The more I think about that term, the more I am drawn to the notion that our military leaders are not so much lacking in intelligence, but rather that they narrow their focus to the tasks they understand and are committed to achieving. When military leaders committed their forces to the attack as in, say Gallipoli, they lost very large numbers of their troops in a vain attempt to capture the day. Similarly, the “Charge of the Light Brigade” is now a famous example of foolish leadership. But in Vietnam, we have a different kind of failure. There, the military did what they know how to do—kill as many of the enemy as they could identify, in an attempt to forge something called “victory”. Yet, lose we did, mainly though because of failures in our political leadership. Military intelligence had little to do with our eventual defeat there.
But the oxymoronic term, “republican ethics”, or perhaps more broadly, “conservative ethics” has more staying power these days. Is it true that republicans/conservatives are entirely unethical? Well, no, that would never be the case, any more than thinking that all Muslims want to kill innocents by committing suicide, or that all Christians want to bash Gays.
But conservatives really seem to have defined a territory of their own. That territory includes:
• All political battles are to be defined as zero-sum games, in which they can win only by forcing the other side to lose;
• All social issues are to be defended on the basis of the most conservative, narrowest interpretation of Christian tenets, regardless of their impact on society at large;
• All economic issues are to be argued on the basis of what is good for corporate America—generally following that old axiom, “what’s good for "GM" is good for America”, again without regard to the overall well-being of the American people;
• All advertising campaigns aimed at convincing Americans of their various causes are to include material that appeals to either greed, or fears, regardless of whether the required material includes patent lies. Lying works, so that makes it ok.
• Finally, the only thing that counts is power. Anything that will achieve or consolidate republican/conservative power is by definition good and acceptable. That is the principle that gave us an ok to employ torture as a routine interrogation approach.
So, I will continue to believe that conservative ethics will remain as the classic example of an oxymoron, until such time as responsible, thoughtful conservatives come out of their closets and re-engage in the battle for a healthy, ethical American Nation. I look forward to that day.
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