Qualifiers are sometimes just qualifiers, but they become ‘markers’ if their effect is to covertly invite others to share prejudicial attitudes.

In verbal analysis, “markers” are unnecessary terms added to a description, frequently pointing to a bias within the writer or speaker. They masquerade as innocent modifiers, but can also have the effect of passing off a taboo attitude that cannot be plainly announced.  A journalist that repeatedly refers to a criminal proceeding as involving “the black suspect” may giving away a predisposition that reveals embedded racism. The same might be said of rhetoric that describes “those Jewish bankers,” “the Sikh Attorney General,” “the lady surgeon,” or the “gay shop-owner.”  Why not just “shop owner” or “surgeon?”  To be sure, there are times when a qualifier may be useful.  But irrelevant adjectives and nouns covertly raise an eyebrow of doubt. I had a relative who added markers only when she wanted to remind us of her displeasure with some ‘out’ group in 50s white America:  perhaps “the Catholic family” down the street, or “the Jew who runs the butcher shop.”  The added descriptors were not completely innocent.  Signals had been sent and received, though not always in intended ways. Markers made her anti-semitism obvious.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge.

This is the same process when people complain of politicians using “dog whistles,” which are essentially terms that signal support for a discredited bias, but with a certain deniability. “I didn’t mean anything by the reference” is usually the disingenuous defense.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge, though not all are about race.  We hear about “the failing New York Times,” the “Amazon Washington Post,” “Crooked Hillary,” or “the Mexican judge” (Gonzalo P. Curiel, an American judge who ruled against Trump University in 2016).  Negative judgmental language is a signature of his public rhetoric, serving as bait for core followers lost in the weeds of resentment and fantasized slights.

Can it be any surprise that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States? The frequent observation that Trump has triggered a wave racial animosity in his rhetoric can be partly attributed to this habit.  Not only is it dishonest to use a marker as a backdoor for communicating prejudice, it’s also signals a certain linguistic cowardice.  Owning a stale attitude about any category of individuals is bad enough.  Hiding it under the thin rhetorical veneer of a supposedly innocent qualifier is the mischief of a practiced demagogue.

Curating Our Lives

            Jay Leno with his 1906 Stanley Steamer

We have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files. All give us ways to display what we want others to know about us.

Several years ago I wrote a essay wondering if we were done collecting.  At that time it was easy to notice that online music and “the cloud” had replaced music collections that used to line our walls.  The question was then answered in the affirmative, but I’m having second thoughts.  The impulse to convert our passions into materials that elaborate our lives seems deeper than I knew.  Most of us are active curators.  We just don’t think of ourselves with a word used to denote a person who decides what should hang on a gallery’s white walls.  And yet we have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files.  Collecting has its own internal rewards.  But I’m impressed with how many of us want to show off our passions to others.

This is obvious to any user of Facebook, Instagram or other forms of social media.  Facebook dramatically displays images of ourselves and the things and images we will allow to stand in for us. Selfies in particular can become galleries presenting the self-conscious self. We also use social media to relay pieces of the culture that we want others to like as much as we do. Most of the time a post includes a moment when we at least ask ourselves the central curatorial question: Is this post worth my association with it?

Older forms of personal curating continue as well.  Model railroaders curate their collections with the passion of medievalists working at the Met.  Guitarists rarely have just one instrument; most acquisitions represent a new point on their own learning curve. A lot of of us can’t resist a rare find carefully brought home to gather dust next to others like it. Even a few of us have tattoos forever memorializing moments when exuberance exceeded caution.

You probably live near a town known for its antique emporiums, used book stores and flea markets.  All are ready to sell everything from art-deco ashtrays to old lobby posters promoting films. Those stores are a reminder that while we may be done hunting for the basics of life, we are still eagerly gathering.


Alas, after the original curator of a collection leaves the scene, our collections may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.


Collecting turns out to be an acceptable way to have too much stuff.  Jay Leno has over a hundred rare cars. Retired newsman Jim Lehrer collects old buses. One of my grandmothers had a prominent display of miniature spoons with the names of such exotic places as Salt Lake City and Tulsa.

But collecting can also have a social function of representing something we hold close to our core identity. The stuff that stays around is emblematic of an individual’s enthusiasms: an expression of a personal aesthetic that still has meaning.

And so we reach the communication angle. In some way a collection on display stakes a claim about who we are. It marks crucial antecedents. We use things to be proxies of our unique affinities and aspirations.  I could bore you with the reason a large model Rio Grande Railroad boxcar is my own Renoir.  But it’s enough to note that it sits on a shelf in a ‘man cave,’ ready to be the trigger for a story that is almost never requested.

Alas, like meaning, collections are not easily transferable.  After the original curator of any collection leaves the scene, those carefully chosen pieces may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.