Home > Books, history, Learning, Reflections > the power of “s”

the power of “s”

A few weeks ago, I read briefly from Michael Harrington’s Socialism. Early on, he used the word “socialisms.”

I stared at the word for a couple of minutes. For all the times I’ve read, heard, and spoken the word “socialism,” this was my first time encountering it with an “s” at the end.

The “s” highlighted how little I actually know about socialism. It taunted me with the implication that, as Neil Postman might caution, I knew little enough of socialism’s histories to know an “s” could even belong there.

Another book made me think about the power of “s” to provoke deeper reflection. Called Late American Holocausts, it forced me to confront the idea of multiple holocausts. As an American, I’d grown up with the idea there was but one.

Of course, without even having begun reading the book, I could already see precisely why many Americans are taught that there was only The Holocaust … in which Americans were the victors, fighting evil, self-nominated, for the good of the world.

(The script hasn’t changed much, and–despite the tens of millions of people killed by America, its allies, and its arms sale recipients–American leaders still portray America as the lone, brave cowboy out bringing justice to the world. (Bah!))

Where else does an “s” invite deeper inquiry?

After “soldier,” for one. Who are the individual soldiers who sacrificed so much of their selves so that so few could gain vast riches? How do their stories vary? How do their losses ripple out to impact those who love them and must also face the daily consequences of those losses–of safety, of limb, of life? Who are these millions sacrificed by those who will never directly understand the individual costs of war?

And “war”? There’s another one. Though I didn’t see it until a few months ago, to read the word “war” and glide over it is to trivialize it. There is no one, uniform war. Each individual war killS and woundS different personS, placeS, and dreamS in dramatically different wayS.

Little has done so much for my seeing more clearly what is than the pluralizing letter “s,” which challenges me to explore the stories concealed by words used in misleading singular.

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  1. June 25, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    How I wish those pluralities could be realistically viewed in the singular.

  2. June 27, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Thinking about all the plurals also invites us to consider the we—where the individual intersects with others—and indeed the multiple weS.

    • June 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

      I thought about your comment while driving to work. I loved it more with each mile I drove.

      Up until last year, I didn’t really explore what “we” meant. I knew only that I felt like I was being coerced into some conceptions of “we” that weren’t right for me.

      In the book on late Victorian holocausts, one leader is quoted as saying something like, “We will export, even if we starve!” I wrote in the margins, “different ‘wes’ here.” The people who starved were not the same people who controlled exports.

      Then, last night, I began a book about building social capital in an era in which that’s been devalued. The authors introduced the ideas of “bonding” (roughly, cohesion within groups comprised of similar individuals) and “bridging” (cohesion between groups that are not as similar). Reading that was such a delight; it gave me another way of expressing that there are different we’s, and also that the differences can be celebrated while forming a larger “we” known by its component we’s to be comprised of many.

      I think there’s a lot of hope in finding our different we’s, and working together to see where/how they fit–finding solidarity, instead of having “we” made, awkwardly, into a single, overbroad union.

      Thanks for the lovely food for thought.

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