When did "broken" become the adjective by which we describe public education, the financial regulatory system, the tax code, The Culture in Washington or American politics in general?
When, and why?
I just read 700 pages of Hunter S. Thompson's letters about how fucked up American politcs were in the late 1960s and 1970s, and not once did I see the system described as "broken."
The trouble with this "broken" term—aside from its overuse by the same sorts of hacks who also write horrible things like, "speaking truth to power"—is that it's purposely simplistic.
What if you went to the doctor and after some tests, he said, "You're broken"? You'd say, "What is broken? A bone? A blood vessel? My heart?" Or if your car mechanic called and said he'd found the trouble: "The car is broken."
Yet we accept it when a columnist describes the free enterprise system—everything happening in an economy of hundreds of millions of people and dozens of nations—as "broken."
It's also a misapplication of a mechanical diagnosis to an organic problem.
And using the word "broken" to describe a social system can have a practical consequence:
The only way to deal with something that is "broken" is to "fix" it. So if you and I think the American government is "broken," the only remedy we'll accept is from someone who promises to "fix" it. Now who are you and I both going to trust to do that? Sure, I might listen to your candidate's bright idea to improve one or another area of the system. But I'm nervous even about my candidate's plan to fix the whole "broken" thing. Maybe it's just the carburetor and a the piston rings!
Obviously, we need terms to make broad statements about complex social systems.
But "broken" is just about the worst word I can think of.
Then why is it the best word anyone else can think of?
Isn’t this post entirely at odds with your views on the Occupy posters, as to whom you’ve essentially taken the position that the persistence of their frustration is compelling and that demanding a concise solution or even a unified message is unrealistic?
If not, what am I missing?
When my car isn’t running, I might say that it’s broken. When my mechanic proposes a solution, I expect more detail.
Candidates call the tax code “broken” when they are afraid to be specific in calling out who will pay more and who will pay less.
David Murray says
John, that’s a good point. “Broken” is a rhetorical dodge.
Jason, I’d written a long response here that disappeared somehow. The distinction you bring up (which nagged me as I wrote this piece, so I’m glad you did) is that the people at Occupy actually do dare to declare the system broken, and expect a wholesale engine tear-down to be the solution. Their attitude was well-expressed by a radical friend of mine in Des Moines whose retort to establishment types who demand that the protesters propose solutions: “Yeah, our solution, is, you need to just get the fuck out of there.”
That’s as opposed to media pundits (and politicians and CEOs) who are very much a part of the system they want to declare “broken.” If you’re gonna call it broke, you’d better be up for radical ideas for fixing it. But they’re not, of course. Or should I say, WE’RE not.
At Zuccotti Park a couple of months ago amid the protests, my friend Paul and I actually had the conversation. I told him that, as old scared guys with kids (OSGWKs) he and I were never going to sincerely share a radical agenda, and that if we sympathized with these young’ns (and we do) all we could ask ourselves is to stay out of their way.
And we will—right up to the moment their radical plans start fucking around with the Dow Jones average so much that our kids’ college accounts start getting affected. When our own security is threatened, we’ll start getting in the way, big time. And we’ll call it self-defense.
People should go around talking about how “broken” everything is only to the extent that they’re truly courageous enough to put up with a serious attempt to fix it.
Yossi Mandel says
Broken is code word for I have permission to give up.
David Murray says
I agree, Yossi. That’s another reason it’s useful for un-serious people. (I guess we are starting to figure out WHY this term is being used.)
Meanwhile, “broken” is far too morally neutral to be used by serious people.
“Oh, it’s broken, is it,” they must ask. “Well who broke it, and why?”