The Outstater: Pigs in a Poke

December 21, 2015

BACK WHEN WE BABY BOOMERS came of credit-card age, the trigger word was “new.” It was everywhere in advertising promotions carried by the then-novel medium of television. It came to signal products that were overpriced or of lower quality — pigs in pokes, products that couldn’t withstand close inspection.

So it is today with “must” for the millennial voter. They are bombarded by arguments that they must do this and they must do that. Here are the results of a search of recent headlines in the Indianapolis Star:

Why Christians Must Engage In Politics
On Gun Laws, the Sensible Majority Must Speak Up
Why LGBT Rights Must Include Public Accommodation
New Study Says Charter Schools Must Innovate
America Must Share In Hosting Syrian Refugees
Indy Must Rebuild from its Neighborhoods Up
Indiana Must Work Urgently to Close Skills Gap

That’s a lot of must-ing to do for one generation, but must they seemingly must. It is a bad sign. Trying times ride in on that word. For “must” isn’t just another adjective. It is a modal adjective, meaning that it takes us out of the world of mere semantics and into that of logic, illogic and power over other men.

Modal adjectives are used to affirm the predicate with qualification, i.e., possibility, impossibility, necessity or contingency. In history, the modal adjective is used whenever a tyrant reaches for just the right word, when the citizenry is to be led away from liberty into an emotive exhortation.

For instance, it was considered of world-changing importance recently that the modal adjective “shall” was replaced with “should” in the agreement on climate change that Barack Obama signed in Paris. It rendered the piece of paper an aspiration, not an accomplishment.

My copy of the transcript of last week’s Democrat Presidential Debate included 17 references (the Nov. 11 GOP debate scored 18). They included the staccato modal adjectives of Gov. Martin O’Malley (with a bit of name-calling thrown in):

“We must never surrender them to terrorists, must never surrender our Americans values to racist, must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”

And here is Hillary Clinton discussing the “musts” of mortgage finance in the midst of the 2008 collapse of the housing market:

“We’ve got to have some intervention by the federal government. But in the meantime we’ve got to get a time-out, we’ve got to try to persuade the mortgage companies and the banks to slow down their march toward foreclosure, got to give people a chance to renegotiate their loans. Maybe they can rent instead of own. But we must move, because otherwise, we’ll see millions of people out on the street, and we’ve got to stop that.”

Early on, “pigs in a poke” was used to describe all of this. The idiom has its source in a confidence trick of the Late Middle Ages when pig meat was scarce but puppies were not. That sounds about right — if you can think of the government as a poke and millennial taxpayers as puppies.

— Craig Ladwig



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