If it’s ‘broken,’ edit it

When did “broken” become the adjective by which we describe public education, the financial regulatory system, the tax code, The Culture in Washington or American politics in general?

When, and why?

I just read 700 pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters about how fucked up American politcs were in the late 1960s and 1970s, and not once did I see the system described as “broken.”

The trouble with this “broken” term—aside from its overuse by the same sorts of hacks who also write horrible things like, “speaking truth to power”—is that it’s purposely simplistic.

What if you went to the doctor and after some tests, he said, “You’re broken”? You’d say, “What is broken? A bone? A blood vessel? My heart?” Or if your car mechanic called and said he’d found the trouble: “The car is broken.”

Yet we accept it when a columnist describes the free enterprise system—everything happening in an economy of hundreds of millions of people and dozens of nations—as “broken.” Or when a CEO describes the U.S. trade policy as “broken.” Or when a priest describes our moral code as “broken.”

Besides being an intentionally childlike descriptor of grown-up problems, it’s also a misapplication of a mechanical diagnosis to an organic problem.

And using the word “broken” to describe a social system can have a practical consequence:

The only way to deal with something that is “broken” is to “fix” it. So if you and I think the American government is “broken,” the only remedy we’ll accept is from someone who promises to “fix” it. Now who are you and I both going to trust to do that? Sure, I might listen to your candidate’s bright idea to improve one or another area of the system. But I’m nervous even about my candidate’s plan to fix the whole “broken” thing. Maybe it’s just the carburetor and a the piston rings!

Obviously, we need terms to make broad statements about complex social systems.

But “broken” is just about the worst word I can think of.

Then why is it the best word anyone else can think of? —DM

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