What’s in a Name? Or, the Political Significance of Elmer

Page from David McKee's "Elmer's Splash" (Dutch translation) © 1995/2003 Piccolo Amsterdam

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power and impotence of names. About how much we invest in the practice of giving names—to our children, to the places where we live, to the places where other people live. You’ve heard, perhaps, about the controversial proposal to hebraize East Jerusalem neighborhood names. I’m here to tell you that the real argument is not to be found in this story and the storm in its wake.

We need to start much further upstream and concern ourselves with fundamental stories about “us” and “them,” for instance, with the figure of a certain rainbow-colored elephant named, in most cases, Elmer —who is a symbol of accepting difference, and the possibility of identifying with, indeed even becoming (for a day) the other. Well, he’s Elmer in English, the language in which the author David McKee first composed him, and allowing for a slight vowel change, he’s the same in various other languages. He’s Elmar in German, for instance. In Hebrew, however, he is “Bentzi,” short for “Ben Zion,” or son of Zion, and in a quite literal way, the most Zionist name one could possibly give or be given. Not only was the rainbow colored elephant’s name hebraized, it was changed to make him a Hebrew figure, i.e.an exclusively Hebrew, exclusively Israeli, figure. To be “Bentzi,” doesn’t only mean not to be Elmer. It also means to be the kind of being that can only be “in the land of Zion.”

It is noteworthy, indeed, worrisome, disappointing, imprudent and counterproductive that powerful voices within Israeli political culture, including Israel’s Parliament, want to change the narrative. These voices want to undercut Arab claims on East Jerusalem (mind you, not Palestinian, as they deny that there is such a thing as Palestinian). Repugnant as this is, I think the change from Elmer to Bentzi is even more significant.

Why? It seems to . . .

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Skin in the Game

Handshake © 2006 Tobias Wolter | Wikimedia Commons

This is the first post by Michael Corey of a two-part series on the use of the phrase “skin in the game.” -Jeff

‘Skin in the game’ is a widely used and imperfect aphorism of uncertain origins. The political meanings of the phrase have been used by all sides in political debates, and each side seeks to appropriate its meaning to connect with people on an informal level. The political application is relatively new compared to its application in business, finance, betting and war. ‘Skin in the game’ has become part of the rhetoric in debates on taxes, deficits and entitlements, and its use is likely to increase as the debates heat up.

‘Game’ is a metaphor for actions of all types, and ‘skin’ is a metaphor for being committed to something through emotional, financial, or bodily commitment. Skin is also a synecdoche representing the whole being. Taken together the phrase implies taking risk and being invested in achieving an outcome. The late columnist William Safire sought the origin of the phrase and didn’t resolve the issue, but he did dispel one widely held explanation. It was not the billionaire investor Warren Buffett who coined the phrase. Buffett likes executives in companies in which he invests to also have their funds, or their skin, invested in the firm. Safire learned from a money and investment specialist that the expression is much used to “convey financial risk in any kind of venture, but you could stretch it to mean some kind of emotional investment. Can you have skin in the game of your marriage? Well, you ought to.”

Ever since humans first walked the earth, our skins have been in the game as hunters, gatherers and cultivators. Over time, animal skins were used for trade and as currencies. For instance, buckskins were monetized, giving us our current buck and the use of the word skin as slang for money. The aphorism has been widely used in informal everyday language and increasingly has become popular in political speech. Safire observed in his New York Times column that ‘skin in the game’ . . .

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On Facebook: Real, Everyday Life

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Last week, DC contributor Robin Wagner-Pacifici commented on how Facebook and other social networking sites have changed the language of social interaction. (link)

I find that the change in descriptive language about social connections that she observes is more in the eyes of the beholder than in lived experience.  Life continues as before, full of human connection, with new tools to carry out the same processes.

When Facebook was founded in 2004, I was a senior in high school and accepted early to college with the prerequisite educational e-mail address to join Facebook’s earliest members.  As a member of the Millennial Generation (defined by the Pew Research Center as Americans born after 1980), I am a member of the first class of college students not to ever go to college without Facebook. In fact, I had Facebook before I even graduated high school, and I “met” my dorm-mates months before my first week of school.

That means I never made a college friend that I didn’t connect with online. I never dated someone without looking at their online profile. I also never had a boss or a professor who couldn’t look me up and see what I was about. When I graduated last year, mid-recession, I was warned to “take those personal details offline.” Take them offline? I never thought it was a private space. They were never there.

I’ve observed, in my life, my work in publishing and my research in sociology, that with each passing year, the social worlds of young people are increasingly entrenched in social media. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t use the word entrenched at all. The rest of my generation, particularly those who had Facebook as high school freshmen (or even earlier), learned who they were while using Facebook. Not because of Facebook.   Our lives are lived in and through social media, as they are lived in and through face-to-face interactions.

Imagine how the milestones of adolescence are changes (or exactly the same) when lived out in a world wrapped up in Web 2.0. Your high school chemistry club calls meetings on its Facebook page. . . .

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Facebook has Changed the Language of Friendship

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I’ve been brooding about on-line network sites, most particularly Facebook, attempting to get a handle on the nature of relations, commitments, and forces that operate in such virtual worlds.

And this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled, “The Crossroads Nation,” that illuminated something about the networked-world phenomenon that I hadn’t clearly seen before. The column’s ostensible topic is the capacity of America to be the most globally networked nation for the 21st century and thus Brooks advocates an economy built on continued digital integration.

Bland and unassailable as a premise (satisfying both more left-leaning infrastructure-building advocates and more right-leaning champions of individualistic success stories)the interesting thing about Brooks’ column is a subtle shift that occurs in the way it narrates human relationships.

“The Crossroads Nation” column is itself constructed by way of interesting shifts in the terminology it uses to label human groupings. Brooks imagines a young person finding her voice and her metier by migrating from a small town to a metropolis and connecting with other creative individuals and groups in the process. Describing this trajectory Brooks begins with traditional words like “country,””place,” “circle,” “group of people,” and switches decisively mid-column to “networks” and “hubs.”

He concludes with a paeon to America’s network capacity: “The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power.”

Brooks does not reflect on the significance of this shift, or of the consequences of abandoning these traditional ideas about social and political collectivities. But reading the column made me realize that my diffidence toward on-line social networks has something to do with this transformation in our understanding of groups.  I realized that I do not see myself as part of networks, that such a self-identification is actually anathema. Rather, I think about my life as one that is embedded in a world of families, communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, institutions and social classes.

This stubbornly off-line relational imaginary may have a generational foundation – born in the mid twentieth century I . . .

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