Life Lessons from Carlisle


We live in an age which is absolutely devoted to the misguided proposition that changing the nomenclature of something changes the reality of what it truly is.

Recently, in a car service on the way to the Atlanta Airport, I found myself with a remarkably talkative driver named Carlisle. Evidently he fancied himself something of a tour guide and social commentator as well as a shuttle driver. Always impressed by folks who add the little extras, I turned off my cell phone and listened. He was jolly, knowledgeable, and something of an asphalt philosopher.

"This street here that we on now is named Metropolitan Parkway. That's the new name. It didn't used to be named that. It used to be named Stewart Avenue and it was one of the worst places in Atlanta. Drugs, prostitution, crime; you name it, it was on Stewart Avenue."

"So," I offered, "I suppose that's all changed now."

This display of my naïveté gave him an outright belly laugh. Not a chuckle. A side splitter. When he regained control, he said, "No, no, no. It's still exactly the same. The street ain't changed, the neighborhood ain't changed, and the whole area ain't changed. The name changed. And what I figured out is, changing the name don't change the street."

Engaging my eyes in the rear view mirror, his voice now drenched with meaningful sobriety and earthy wisdom, he added, "An' that right there, that's a life lesson, sir."

In the face of such a profound observation, all I could do was nod my head and intone, "I hear that." My response seemed to satisfy him. He spoke softly, and, I think, largely to himself, "Yes sir, that right there's a life lesson."

Unused to a shuttle to the airport with the value-added component of a profound "life lesson," I just sat back and marinated in the wisdom. The driver's observation is still with me.

We live in an age which is absolutely devoted to the misguided proposition that changing the nomenclature changes the reality. I understand public relations. The desire to say it well is a communicator's burden. There comes a place, however, a terrible place where a culture believes its own feeble propaganda. That is the ledge from which a culture leaps into the double-talk abyss where the belief that "speaking makes it so" beclouds the atmosphere with deceit, denial and confusion.

Such nominal shape-shifting is not new. When did liquor stores become "package stores?" When did euphemisms like "working girl" and "lady of the evening" replace their untidier synonyms? Forever ago, I think.

The use of a selective euphemism here and there to cloak some ugly word or another is hardly society's death knell. The darker side is what that driver spoke of. When we begin to believe that it that changing words changes everything, we can literally lose sight of reality. Washington politicians who use nonsense phrases in an attempt to obscure their failures and elude accountability are the unfortunate rule, not the exception. Oh, for the public servant whose yay is yay and whose nay is nay.

This re-naming of things is hardly a game. It can actually do damage. Suppose I ventured out late at night on such an optimistically re-named street believing that the new name implied a new reality. Now suppose I am mugged or worse. My own naïveté is certainly partially to blame, but the propagandists are not without guilt.

When the current administration in Washington decided that "war" was not a word they wanted in their vocabulary, they dropped the phrase, "war on terror." It may have seemed a mere semantic shift, a distinction without a difference, but terrorists loved it. Terrorists think it’s Disneyland to make war on a culture that is disinclined to return the favor. Then came ISIS. We may not be at war with them but they are certainly at war with us. An international coalition of air forces bombing ISIS command centers is better than nothing. How much better, however, to tell the likes of ISIS, "You wanted war; you got war. The wrath of civilization will begin today to reign terror on terrorists. You started this war; now war is coming to ISIS without reservation or limitation until you are obliterated. This means WAR!"

But, no, that would be direct, clear, and unambiguous. That would not satisfy the word-twisters who want to make war without calling it war.

Even scarier is the domestic nightmare when the government itself begins to use words to bully and deceive its own people, when words become weapons, first of libel, then of out and out attack. Stalin's propagandists labeled anyone who opposed his dictatorship as "counter-revolutionary thugs" and "reactionary criminals." Thugs and criminals should be arrested. They deserve to be punished, imprisoned, sent to Siberia and eliminated. How different is that from using words such as "liberty" and "constitution" to ear-mark "criminals" and "dangerous, anti-government radicals" and who deserve to be sent, not to Siberia, but into the bowels of the IRS archipelago? There may never be a directive to "commit any crime you see fit to hinder our opposition." It is actually the language itself that does sends the message. The overwrought vocabulary of political propaganda inspires punitive actions, empowers bureaucrats to twist and use laws and agency powers to criminalize and punish those who disagree with them. In such an atmosphere, it seems downright patriotic to "crack down" on "bad guys."

I long for leaders who have the guts. There, I said it: GUTS to say this street is a dangerous cesspool of drudges and crime and prostitution. We may change its name but we know that will not change its reality. What we will change, what we are bound and determined to change, is not just the name but the street. Carlisle was right. That right there, that's a life lesson.

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