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‘Urban’ weasel

Killing the conversation with a phrase.

by and

BOOBS: Ashcroft, offending nude.
  • BOOBS: Ashcroft, offending nude.
The Far Right loves stealing the words right out from under us. You know: Patriotism. Marriage. Life. God. Now it looks like they’ve moving on to boosting whole phrases. The latest example is the co-opting of “urban legend” or “urban myth.” First, back in January 2004, Wal-Mart sent out a press release saying that those rumors you have heard about Wal-Mart being unfair to women, minorities, po’ folks and others, had reached the level of “urban legend.” It was a phrase Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott employed more than once during the ensuing press blitz. Then, on Feb. 8, I open up the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s editorial page and in the middle of an editorial about departing attorney general John Ashcroft, I read: “Ashcroft … became the target of generalized hysteria in the media. Also of scare campaigns, personal attacks, and urban myths. (When an aide decided to set up a television-blue background for one of his press conferences, the attorney general was accused of trying to cover the naked breasts of the classical statuary, mean old puritan that he was.)” According to the urban legends reference page, urban legends are those “friend-of-a-friend” stories, fictional tales that are “provided and believed as accounts of actual incidents that befell or were witnessed by someone the teller almost knows (e.g., his sister’s hairdresser’s mechanic).” Once the turf of a handful of folklorists, “urban legend” is now pretty much a household phrase, one that most people take to mean a story that sounds true, might be true, might even be told to them as true by a friend, but isn’t. Even that freeze-dried definition is a far cry, however, from either the situation at Wal-Mart or those infamous draped statues. Wal-Mart, even by their own figures, does discriminate against women in upper management positions. In almost anyone’s judgment, it does treat its smocked “associates” like serfs. In the case of Ashcroft, in January 2002, the 12-foot Art Deco statues that grace the Great Hall in the Justice Department building — one of which is a female figure in a toga with one breast exposed — WERE permanently draped with blue cloth at the cost of $8,000. While no official statement was ever issued as to why, insiders at Justice told media outlets at the time that the drapes went up because Ashcroft was tired of photographers including more than one exposed boob in photos taken at his press conferences. (And, contrary to the DoG’s dismissive account of Ashcroft’s aide having a “background” set up for “one of his press conferences,” we should point out that once they went up, those drapes never came down during Friar John’s tenure there, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. Whether incoming AG Alberto Gonzales will keep them up is another story.) While neither of these incidents fits the definition of urban legend or urban myth, it’s easy to see why the Right would want to employ those terms. In this sound-bite world, where you have to dig deep to get the whole truth about any story, invoking the phrase “urban legend” tosses a handful of doubt into the conversation. It is, in short, a way of mining the field of casual discourse and sabotaging the water cooler works by which a story stays alive in the American conversation. You hear: “You heard Ashcroft draped those statues? That’s just an urban legend.” Suddenly, for anyone who hasn’t done his research on the given topic, sources become suspect, convictions become spongy underfoot, and he’ll probably hesitate to tell the tale again. Call it counter-myth-making — a way of turning the average person’s fear of looking stupid or misinformed against them in order to smother the story. Now, if we could just find the guy who started the one about “weapons of mass destruction,” we might be getting somewhere. Tips? Hints? Recipes?


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