Tuesday, May 12, 2009
While I am certainly not one to downplay the extent to which corporate greed has influenced the political landscape of the last decade, I am consistently irritated by the implication that this is somehow a new development, that G.W. Bush was "the worst President ever" and "corporate oversight" is at an all-time high/low (depends on how you interpret the phrase). American history is, in fact, filled with shysters, hucksters, and innovative megalomaniacs wearing collars of every color. The most recent example I've come upon, thanks to a brilliant piece of popular journalism circa 1954 by Stewart H. Holbrook, is the origin of the adjective shoddy. Before it meant "a person or thing having the delusive appearance of superior quality," it referred specifically to "a material made of reclaimed wool," generally an inexpensive way of making rags. During the Civil War, however, government contractors for the Union recognized they could turn a higher profit by using shoddy to make blankets. Similarly, they discovered the lucrative aspects of boots made largely of paper, rations made of diseased livestock, and firearms made of solvent metals. Sound familiar? When such practices were uncovered in the wake of the conflict, journalists co-opted the term as a way of describing the politicians and industrialists who allowed these practices to proliferate, as in "Bush's shoddy diplomacy"(NY Times 8/1/08) or "the Pinnacle group's shoody underwriting"(NY Times 4/15/09).