06/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Not a Political Act?

A recent Newsweek article, "The Art of Darkness" by Mac Margolis, caught my attention with the sentence someone found so important it was emboldened outside the article itself:

"In Latin America, honoring victims of the dirty wars can be a political act."

Uh, yeah.
By which I mean, no duh.

When is it not a political act to honor victims of dirty wars, in Latin America or anywhere else?

In the body of the article itself, this sentence turns out to mean that certain parties or groups will use the act of opening a memorial to further a present-day political agenda. Okay, that makes a little more sense. But it's not quite the same thing, and this is why "political" strikes me as one of the most ill-used words in American conversation--specifically that of the national media. Sentences like the one in the Newsweek article serve to render a word like "political" obsolete. "In Latin America, honoring victims of the dirty wars can be a political act" tells us nothing we don't know. Of course it's a political act. But so is laying flowers at the grave of a soldier, building a shrine to Mother Mary on a roadside, saying the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, or writing an op-ed.

The freedom to do, artistically and personally, the things we'd like to presupposes a political freedom that is always there if we are allowed to express ourselves. A child born and bred in America might not see tying one's shoe outside one's home as a political act. The child of a dissident Chinese writer might, though. The use of a word like "political" reflects a great deal of information about the life, and safety, of the speaker of the word.

I'm not a linguist by training. But I believe that "political" is more of what I'd call a lens-word. Like "cultural": I don't know that anything can be described as more or less political; similarly, I don't think McDonalds is a less culturally American food than turkey and stuffing. I think the culture of American food has changed. I don't think American culture is being lost when clothing is manufactured in other nations before being sold here, I think it's changing. This doesn't mean I like or agree with this cultural shift. But politics and culture are, to me, lenses, continuums to describe an ever-changing and inclusive way of conceptualizing how humanity arranges and understands itself over time. I think something can be described as an overtly political statement, or a movement as part of a heated debate about local politics, but I think absolutely anything taking place in a Latin American country that is recovering from a dirty war could be described as "political".

In light of the current debate about the Arizona Immigration Bill, I don't think an examination of the words we use about these things could be more timely. As we move forward in a conversation that will likely always be charged, I'd like to see America examine the way it employs certain words, because this presupposes an examination of the ideas we use words to describe, further, or denounce. The language we use always reveals more than we know about our own--see, I could say "politics and culture" here, but I'd rather say "political freedom and cultural moment". It just seems a little closer to the mark.