Falling in love with @MerriamWebster in the era of Trump (and his budget proposals)

I grew up with dictionaries. I have had my own dictionary for as long as I can remember. Even now, when I walk by one of those BIG dictionaries on a pedestal in the library, with the leather binding and almost translucent thin paper, I will run my finger down the page and read the words. I am usually looking for some word I haven’t heard of, or an etymology of a word I was unaware of, but curious about, and sometimes just to remind myself of words I already know. There continues to be something alluring about the book, and the form of the book as a vessel of knowledge.

Because of this intimate, longstanding affair with books, I have to admit to being slow to commit to any one dictionary online. My searches for meaning online have become more opportunistic, focused, yet strangely scattered, and entirely dependent upon where in the world I am when I am searching and which search engine I am using. The variety did not bother me because there was nothing particular about any of the online dictionary platforms, they could have all been the same because they felt the same. And then last fall, I saw Merriam-Webster across a crowded twitter-scape, and I caught my breath and thought, I never knew how much we needed a dictionary in our social lives at this moment. They won me over with tweets like:

We’re seeing a spike for both ‘ombre’ and ‘hombre’. Not the same thing. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hombre …


*whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence. https://www.merriam-webster.com/news-trend-watch/conway-alternative-facts-20170122 …

I went from being an occasional user of @MerriamWebster to subscribing and following them. On March 16 I recognized my growing need to touch base with the dictionary as I read the FY18 Budget proposal from the White House. As I looked through it, excavating the many meanings embedded in words used, I felt like I was engaged in some paranoid action, but it was the best way not to panic and gave me a feeling of control through words. I found myself thinking at various points during my read of the budget proposal: words have multiple meanings and interpretations; words can combat words; we just need a good argument made of specific words; words, words, words… (although to be fair, the cynic in me rolled her eyes at the idea that the current White House even cared about words).

It is probably the only thing I do have access to, words and arguments. But where and how those words are used, needs to be reassessed and re-imagined (for example, see a recent post by Alex on intervening on Wikipedia here). I don’t think we’ve (collectively as Anthropologists) have figured it out yet, but @MerriamWebster has hit their stride.

But, enough of my love of dictionaries; back to the matter at hand. As I and many other American academics pour over the proposal for the FY 18 Budget, entitled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” there has been much speculation, consideration and an anxiety surrounding the elimination of key agencies that fund, support, and maintain our research. For anthropologists, the AAA has clearly laid out some pathways for advocacy, as has the National Humanities Alliance. And these are important forms of advocacy to engage in on both local and federal levels.

In reading through the proposed budget (and before insisting that everyone get to advocacy) I thought it might be useful to have a clear sense of what agencies and programs broadly linked to Anthropology were being eliminated by these proposed cuts. The following are proposed to be cut (this list is from the National Coalition for History report – but you can read more of the blue print pages 5, 17-18 and 27-28, of FY18 proposal):

It is also important to keep in mind how budget appropriations work. As the National Coalition for History says:

The major point to remember is that Congress ultimately controls appropriations. Many Republicans and Democrats on the Hill have already dismissed the Trump proposal as “dead on arrival.” The reality is the president is posturing and this budget plays to his base by delivering on his promise to “drain the swamp.” So while our community should and will fight vigorously against these proposed cuts, I cannot stress enough that there is no need to panic.

I felt a bit better having read the second half of the last sentence: there is no need to panic. But an allowance not to panic should not introduce an apathy into our approach to this. The paranoia and panic related to this administration has seeped into everything. Even the White House is not immune to the seeping paranoia that such posturing brings. This, if anything, proves that when there are actions structurally put in place to intimidate some, they intimidate all. As I read how the White House aides are hiding their phones in their drawers for fear that the phones could eavesdrop on their conversations, and using encrypted messaging services, it reminded me playground politics. These are not only issues related to paranoia, but in a very basic sense, all of this posturing coming from the White House feels like being bullied.

I immediately went to look up the word on Merriam-Webster. “A bully is a blustering, browbeating person; especially :  one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.” It’s in the top 1% of words searched.

The US Department of Health and Human Services hosts a website called Stop Bullying. On their editorial board are the Department of Education, Health and Human Services (including Center for Disease Control, Health Resources and Services Administration, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), and the Department of Justice. They coordinate closely with the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, an “interagency effort led by the Department of Education that works to coordinate policy, research, and communications on bullying topics.  The Federal Partners include representatives from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, the Interior, and Justice, as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

They haven’t posted much on their website as an ‘update’ since January 26, 2017.

On March 16, the day the FY18 proposal was released, @MerriamWebster posted #wordoftheday as decry: to express strong disapproval of — and indeed, that word embodies the feeling of that day for those of us researching in the humanities, social sciences, and particularly those of us conducting research abroad (we all know someone who got through grad school and language study with FLAS). But instead of just sending messages of disapproval and anxiety to each other, we do need to ensure that our collective disapproval is heard/read/trending. And not superficially so. As researchers in earnest, there is also a need to understand the deep historical nature of Empire (in which I would include these policy changes, budget posturing and the construction of general paranoia), and it’s relationship to resistance and hegemony (check out #AnthReadIn).

There are many ways to show some love. Join in the conversation. Have a conversation of your own. But don’t just stand aside and watch all of us get bullied. Do something. If you aren’t sure what to do, the next #AnthReadIn is on March 24th, 2017. You can join in that conversation on social media (even if you aren’t an Anthropologist). Also, do check out ideas for advocacy on the AAA and NHA.

If @MerriamWebster can show some sass, certainly so can we. We just need to open up the ways in which we engage with the public, use our words, and analyse/interrogate/consider how meaning is made. Let’s not just write about the world, let’s write in it.

Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.

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