September 16, 2019

Between Us: Just Don’t Do It

The notion that simple solutions exist to knotty problems should trigger a host of red flags.

I have a bone to pick with “just,” because in at least one of its permutations, it lies.

My dictionary defines “just” in its adverbial sense as ”simply; no more than,” which, when you think about it, “just” seldom is.

Consider, for example,  Nike’s admonition to “Just do it,” and Nancy Reagan’s solution to the lure of recreational drugs: “Just say no.”

If it were as simple as Nike and Nancy would have us believe–if we’d “just” lace up our running shoes, and “just” decline the drug du jour—then the percentage of obese adults (34%) and obese kids (17%) would fall to zero, and zero drug use would mean we were all clean.

The point here, is that with campaign season upon us, and about as unavoidable as a 900-pound, halitosis-ridden gorilla on the coffee table, the notion that simple solutions exist to knotty problems should trigger a host of red flags.

Because in these days of financial uncertainties, social realignments, and toxic exchanges that pass for public discourse, chances are, if the solution to any problem were as simple and obvious as “just” doing it implies, whatever the “it” was, it would have been done, and we’d all be seeing its beneficial effects.

Unfortunately, there exist a number of office seekers this fall for whom the “just” admonition constitutes the entirety of their political platform, while any concrete, creative change that might result from their rhetoric is either immaterial or non-existent.

In New York, for example, gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino has come up with the simple (or simplistic, depending on your views) notion of “taking a baseball bat” to Albany.  According to some polls, this “just” approach resonates with more than a few voters who note that Mr. Paladino’s campaign reflects their “anger” at political “insiders.”

But as columnist Clyde Haberman noted recently in the New York Times, if Mr. Paladino “believes that he can waltz into Albany with his baseball bat and, as he vows, pound it into cutting state taxes by 10 percent in his first six months and state spending by 20 percent in his first year, he better own a helmet that fits well.”

Leaving aside the question of whether anger represents a viable methodology to bring about constructive change, consider the impact on the public discourse of both public and private voices who lay claim to some sort of real Americanism by virtue of their “just”-ness—as in “just” being Every-day Joes and Josephines— while at the same time exhibiting little or no grasp of basic American democratic tenants.

It is apparently came as a news flash to Christine O’Donnell, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Delaware, that the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids the establishment of any national religion, or the preference of one religion over any other.

And apparently neither Dred Scott v. Sandford— in which the Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent were, in effect, non-citizens—nor Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down separate public schooling for black and white children, were sufficient blips on Sarah Palin’s radar screen that she could cite them as pivotal moments of American history, despite her highly-touted image as a patriot and a representative of the American Everyperson.

Further, it seems that along with ratcheting up public rancor and attempting to pass off “Don’t Tread On Me” as the solution to convoluted national problems, some voices out there are equating ignorance with chic–or at least evidence of some sort of “real” patriotism.

The more a candidate demonstrates ignorance of basic English; the more a candidate dismisses educated, critical thinking as “elite,” the more, in the candidate’s own parlance, those gaffes qualify them as “real” Americans. (Or, as Ms. Palin put it in a recent tweet, “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’  English is a living language.  Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”)

Fraught times can morph the most innocuous-seeming words into distinct threats to clear thinking, to informed public discourse, even to the basic understanding of who we are as citizens in a working democracy.

“Just” is one of those words.

Benjamin Franklin famously described the American experiment as “a republic—if we can keep it.”

That’s an admonition to informed debate and careful considerations, not “just” sloganeering; sloppy, uninformed rhetoric, and simplistic reasoning.

Come to think of it, let me tweak the title of this piece with the power of punctuation.  How about “Just: Don’t Do It.”

Trish Bennett’s award-winning column, “Between Us,” ran in the Main Street News for many years.  She holds a master of science degree in journalism and was adjunct professor of media history at Quinnipiac University before relocating Bryn Mawr, PA.  Her latest work appears in “This I Believe: On Love,” a collection of essays submitted for broadcast on National Public Radio, and on sale in stores nationwide beginning Nov. 9.  

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