'The Devil's Dictionary' Revisited

The Webster's Dictionary tells us that a cynic used to refer to "a member of an ancient Greek philosophical sect who believed virtue to be the only good and practice of self-control to be the only way of achieving virtue."

But Webster's second definition more aptly describes what is meant by the word today, by which a cynic is "one who believes all people are motivated by selfishness." (In my book that's also the definition of an economist, especially those "dismal science" practitioners in the Ayn Rand fan club).

It is one of the many tragi-comic ironies of our time that those public servants who speak the loudest about virtue have shown very little self-control in their rush to wage (literal and cultural) war on anyone opposed to a global order based on the cynical proposition: "All people are motivated by selfishness."

So, given the planetary pathogen of propaganda we all feel oozing through the body politic, coupled with the rise of the cynical citizen, today I honor the memory of Ambrose Bierce, author of "The Devil's Dictionary."

Bierce gave us such classics as: "Air, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor." (The global trend toward privatization of the world's water supply makes this definition more and more true with each passing day).

A collection of 998 definitions, Bierce's dictionary is designed to challenge cherished hypocrisies linguistically. It has been nearly 100 years since it was first published. Here, I offer some additions.

Credible, adj. In politics, the ability to completely and sincerely deny an obvious contradiction of reality that relies on an obedient news media and the "patriotic" tendency to justify preemption after the fact i.e. Who cares if Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction, even though the apparent absence means one of two things: Either our intelligence community is incredibly incompetent or, more likely, the Bush administration is made up of ideologues who only listen to those with whom they agree.

Foreign aid, n. Charitable theft.

Mara Vanderslice, program director for the Jubilee USA Network, says of President Bush's recent trip to Africa: "one of the single most pressing issues to the people of Africa (did) not (get) addressed on his tour -- Africa's debilitating foreign debts. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa pay out $14.5 billion every year in debt service. This is more than the continent receives in foreign aid...and more than is needed to stem the tide of AIDS, estimated at $10 billion annually".

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, adds: "The balance of payments for Sub-Saharan Africa shows an annual net drain of more than $12 billion out of the region. This is about 4.4 percent of the region's income, one of the highest such transfers from South to North in the world."

Opinion Poll, n. A propaganda device used to conform public opinion into the shape elite opinion leaders see fit; a survey in which many respondents side with the ready-made opinion they think the pollster wants to hear.

Weapons of Mass Destruction, n. tools of violent coercion that are a benign deterrent in the hands of "us;" but evidence of maniacal evil in the possession of "others."

United States, pl.n. America Inc., whose "elected" president serves as CEO of the Big Business Party. Or in the words of America Inc. former CEO, Calvin Coolidge, "the business of America is business."

The Associated Press reported last week that some companies like Verizon Communications, AT&T Wireless, Barnes & Noble booksellers and Dole Food Co. were "mistakenly" classified by the government as small businesses"

"The mistaken designations...mean the government has overstated the contract dollars that are going to small business at a time when the Bush administration has been pressing to give smaller firms as much federal work as possible."

And, "once a company's status is mischaracterized, it stays that way through the life of a contract -- which can be 20 years. That means smaller firms that the administration intended to help may be frozen out from fresh business by the bigger companies with the incorrect designations."

Care to offer any devilish definitions of your own?

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist.


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