DATE December 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Lisa Belkin discusses the Victim Compensation Fund set
up by Congress to benefit the families of 9/11 victims, and her
column in The New York Times
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Less than two weeks after September 11th, Congress passed a bill authorizing
financial compensation for the families of people who were killed in the 9/11
terrorist attacks. But the results have included exactly what the bill was
intended to avoid: anger, feuds and lawsuits. And a lot of questions are
being raised now that probably should have been addressed before the bill was
written, questions like: Why is one victim's life worth more than another's?
Why are these victims being compensated when victims of previous terrorist
attacks have not been? And will this be the model if we're attacked again?
My guest Lisa Belkin wrote about the Victim Compensation Fund for The New York
Times Magazine this past Sunday. She also writes The Times column Life's
Work, about the intersection of work and life. Many of her columns are
collected in her book "Life's Work."
The bill that created the Victim Compensation Fund was rushed through Congress
in three days. I asked Lisa Belkin to explain the larger bill the fund was
attached to, and how it was passed.
Ms. LISA BELKIN (The New York Times): It was never intended to help the
victims, or at least not as it was originally formed. On September 12th, the
airline industry came to Congress and the White House and said, `We're losing
our insurance, and if we lose our insurance, we can't fly.' And one of the
reasons they were losing their insurance was threat of lawsuits, threat of
liability for all the damage that had been done the day before.
So Congress and the White House created something called the Airline Safety
and Stabilization Act. And it provided money, it provided loan guarantees; it
also provided a cap on liability. It said people can sue, but they can only
recover to the limit of the insurance that was carried by each plane. And
each plane carried $1.5 billion in insurance, which is a lot of money in a
normal airplane crash. But this clearly was not a normal airplane crash. I
mean, the estimates now are about 40 to $50 billion in damage that was done on
the ground. And Congress said, you know, `You're not liable for any more than
$1.5 billion per plane.'
And at the last minute, people stood up, mostly the American Trial Lawyers
Association, and said, `You can't take away the right to sue, which in effect
is what you're doing. You can't take away the right to sue without giving
something back to the victims' families.' And so in Section 6 of an
eight-section act that was designed to save the airlines is the Victim
Compensation Fund. And it says, `OK, if you waive your right to sue, we will
compensate you in the way that the court would have done.' And that's where
this ball started rolling, and it's ended up in places that no one expected,
people didn't anticipate. And I would say pretty much no one is happy with
the way it's working.
GROSS: So what is the basic formula that the Victim Compensation Fund created
for compensating the families of people who were killed on September 11th?
Ms. BELKIN: There were two ways they could have gone. They could have said,
`Here is a set amount of money. Everyone gets the same thing.' And there was
some talk of that. But at one point, Tom Daschle said, `Well, do you want to
decide the amount? Do you want to put a price on human life right now? I
don't.' And that sort of shut down that conversation. And the Democrats
mostly said, `If we're taking away the tort system, we have to pay like the
tort system. We have to pay like the courts do.'
And the way the courts do is they figure out actual monetary damages. They
figure out what someone was worth, what the, you know, projected lifetime
earnings of that individual would have been--there are charts, lots of charts,
that do this--and then pay that. And they deduct what are called offsets.
They deduct things like life insurance, money already paid in different forms,
pension. And so that was the direction the legislation took. So that's what
the fund did.
What it opened itself up to, of course, was questions of: Well, why is her
husband worth more than my husband? How can you value different people
differently? And it's getting ugly.
GROSS: Tell us more details about how this process decides how much a victim
is worth financially.
Ms. BELKIN: Inevitably it decides that different people are worth different
amounts financially. It looks at a janitor or a dishwasher and says they were
making this amount of money at this age. They had, you know, X amount of
working years left to them. And odds are they would have gotten wage
increases of, you know, Y percent. And therefore the total amount of money
they would have earned in a lifetime, the loss, the actual economic loss to
their family, is, you know, spit out the final number. It then looks at a
bond broker and does the same thing.
Well, the bond broker lifetime earnings is going to be in the millions and
millions of dollars. And the firefighters were in the hundreds of thousands
of dollars, particularly after you subtract things like the insurance that
came with the job. And it all got so complex, actually, that Kenneth
Feinberg, who is the special master, the man in charge of doing all of this,
which is another thing the legislation did--in its wisdom, it gave all the
power to one person. And Senator Chuck Hagel said to me, `Well, we punted,
you know. We figured he would figure out the details.' And so all of the
details are in the hands of this one man with a broad outline set by Congress
that says, `You have to do it this way, but we're not going to give you any
hints as to what to do, you know, within this framework.'
And Feinberg has yet to decide what numbers he's going to use for the people
who made over $231,000 because you had bond traders who were making a million
dollars a year. The amount of money that by these charts they should be
receiving, their families should be receiving, you know, is $10 million. And
then there's the question of: Do we want to be paying--we, being the American
people, who are paying for this; this is taxpayer money. You know, is that
the best way to be spending the money, to pay one person $10 million and to
pay someone else $250,000, $500,000? It just feels very unfair.
And yet, again, the families on the upper ends are saying, `Wait a second.
Why are these charts OK? Why is it OK to follow the numbers and, frankly,
follow the legislation when it comes to people making less money, but it's
suddenly not fair to follow those same rules, the rule that exists in law,
just because you don't like that the number's too big?' And so that's sort of
the arguing and jockeying that's going on right now with the families and with
GROSS: What are some of the specific arguments that families who are getting
paid comparatively less are taking to Feinberg?
Ms. BELKIN: That `My loved one would have gone to college and made more
money and gotten a better job'; that `He was the sole supporter of three
different families, one back home, one here, and his elderly mother, and so
that money is just more important to more people.' The specifics range
everywhere from solid economic arguments to videotapes that he's receiving of
people at birthday parties to show how full of life they were and what a huge
loss it is. It's heart-wrenching. I mean, we're applying numbers to
something that is raw and emotional, and that fit never works. And yet it's
surprising to everybody that the fit isn't working, that people are
frustrated, that they're feeling devalued.
And actually, what I find most interesting is that there's the beginning, I
think, of a backlash against the families. People are beginning to accuse
them of being greedy. The whole conversation is about money. The families
all say, you know, `It's not about the money. It's not about the money.' It
is about the money. It has to be about the money because money is all we
have. And so from the outside looking in, it always looks, not just in this
tragedy but--obviously this tragedy is bigger, but it always looks as if the
survivors are obsessed somehow, have gotten greedy, have gotten things out of
And I've come to the conclusion that there has to be something about money
that the rest of us can't understand unless we've been through it. It's come
to stand for something much more metaphorical than just what the money can
buy. It's the fight to protect the last thing you have left of the person you
love. And they'll be damned if one person is judged more valuable somehow
than the other one. And so it's deeply hurtful to many families. And on the
other hand, it is just money and it has to be divided in a way that includes,
you know, equations in black and white and dollars and cents.
GROSS: My guest is Lisa Belkin. She wrote this week's New York Times
Magazine cover story on the Victim Compensation Fund. We'll be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lisa Belkin and she's the
author of an article about the Victim Compensation Fund, which was created
after September 11th to compensate the families of victims of September 11th.
She also writes the Life's Work column for The New York Times. It's a column
about the intersection of life and work.
The Victim Compensation Fund is unprecedented. What are some of the many
examples of families of victims who were never compensated by the government?
Ms. BELKIN: Well, if you go all the way back, I mean, they looked for
precedent. There's the Holocaust, and, you know, Germany paid reparation.
But that was the government that did it. There are some funds set up to help,
you know, uranium miners or people who have suffered from certain vaccines.
Other than that, there is nothing like this in the history of the United
And being the first, people who think that they're comparable are starting to
stand up and say, `Well, wait a second. Why didn't anyone come up with this
when Oklahoma City happened, or the USS Cole or the embassies in East Africa?'
And they are just as hurt as the ones who are being offered less money or not
enough money. I mean, it's the same feeling of: Why is a bond trader in New
York more valuable, worth more money, than my daughter who was in the Murrah
Building in Oklahoma City? And there's no answer.
So now we have the situation of people from past events saying, `What about
me? I'm hurting, too.' And I think the more important question is: What do
we tell the next group? Our government has more or less guaranteed us that,
you know, inevitably something else will happen. And what do we tell those
victims when they turn around and say, `And the person I love is worth what?'
And so I would argue, and the reason I wrote the article is we need to sort of
fill in the philosophical foundation that was never placed under this
legislation. We need to say why are we paying these people.
GROSS: The Congress never said that all victims of terrorism are entitled to
compensation. What they said was the victims of September 11th are entitled
because there was going to be a cap on what the airlines could pay out to
families of victims. So is there anything you could read into this specific
bill that talks about intentions for the future?
Ms. BELKIN: No. It specifically, very specifically, says this is the
September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. But the message is one that just,
you know, leaves a bad taste. The message is: Well, if you are killed in an
event that involves an industry that the American government really wants to
save, well, then you're in luck. And if you're involved in--you know, if
you're killed in an event that involves an industry we don't care so much
about, well, then you're on your own. And it doesn't sit right. It doesn't
sound right. It doesn't feel right, I don't think, to people.
You know, maybe that is the message. Maybe that's where we'll end up. But
that conversation never took place. They why never took place. Are we doing
this as a metaphor? Is money a metaphor here, an attempt to thank you for
your loss? Or is it a practical solution to a problem? So many people died,
so many of them without enough insurance. And so is there sort of a national
obligation to help?
No one ever asked any of those questions and they're being asked now a year
later. And unless we answer them, unless we can say to the next victims,
`Well, 9/11 was different because,' or, `You're right, 9/11 was not different
and therefore, yes, you are included,' the questions will be asked again and
again and again.
GROSS: Meanwhile, some families are actually choosing to sue the airlines
even though the Victim Compensation Fund was supposed to prevent that from
happening. Why are some families suing the airlines, and what are they suing
Ms. BELKIN: Different reasons for different people who are suing. Some are
suing because they are, in effect, not included in the victim compensation
fund. If you had enough insurance--in other words, if the presumptive award
based on the charts was $2 million and your husband carried a million-five in
insurance, then that's subtracted, his pension is subtracted, and in effect
you are left getting very little money from the fund, so you might as well
sue. I mean, in stark mathematical terms, you might as well sue because if
you win, potentially there's a greater reward there.
I'm not hearing that that's most of the people. Most of the people suing
can't afford to. They really should be taking this money if you looked at it
in stark monetary terms, but they want answers. They want to show the
airlines that they should have been more vigilant. They want, you know,
papers opened and people subpoenaed and investigations to occur that they feel
that only a lawsuit will do.
GROSS: There are also some suits planned against the Port Authority in
Manhattan and in New Jersey, claiming that they were responsible for safety
failures and inadequate evaluation procedures. What are those suits about?
Ms. BELKIN: There are--most of the suits are against the airlines. Some of
them are in ancillary ways against the screeners at the airports, the
companies that were responsible for screening at airports, although
interestingly, box cutters were legal on September 11th. There are suits
against the Port Authority for improper communication, for not telling people
to get out of the second tower when that would have saved their lives, of not
having signs saying that the roof was closed, so people went up when they
should have been coming down. You know, if you look closely enough into
anything, I think we've learned you can find somebody who, if they had done
something differently, things might have turned out differently for someone.
And this is what our legal system does. So, yes, there are lawsuits against
Interestingly, one of the places I looked at when I wrote the article was
Israel. In Israel nobody sues. There are no lawsuits against bus companies.
And since September 11th of 2001, 500 people have died in Israel. And
proportionally, if you multiply out based on their population in ratio to our
population, that's like a September 11th there every other month.
Ms. BELKIN: No one has sued the bus companies in Israel. And I spoke to one
of the biggest lawyers in Israel who actually has brought a number of lawsuits
against the Palestinian Authority. And I said, `Well, why not the bus
companies for improper security?' and she said, `Well, you know, the bus
companies didn't want to hurt any Israelis.'
GROSS: Well, what is the Israel government do, if anything, to compensate the
families of victims of terrorism?
Ms. BELKIN: Well, that's the big difference, and that's likely why people sue
less in Israel, is because they're taken care of. There is a plan in place,
has been for almost 30 years now, that says any victim of what's called a
hostile incident in Israel is entitled to life-long care, not millions of
dollars and not a lump sum, interestingly. And the head of this fund in
Israel was thoroughly confused as to why we were handing people this much
money all at once and discussed sort of what the ramifications of that--the
potential downside of that could be. But it's a monthly pension, and it's
exactly the same as is received by the family of a soldier killed in battle in
Israel. It's a monthly pension, the equivalent of one month's salary, the
average Israeli salary, and it also includes many things like education for
children for the rest of their lives through college, psychological counseling
through college, and it takes care of people. I mean, it's a completely
different philosophy, not necessarily one that will translate to the United
States, but it is a practical look at money: `OK, what do you need in order
to live?' not, `How much can we pay you to show that the person you loved was
GROSS: You know, is Kenneth Feinberg, who's the head of the Victim
Compensation Fund and who is charged with figuring out how much each family
should get--is he happy with the way this is working?
Ms. BELKIN: He won't come outright and say Congress made a mistake. He comes
very close to saying that if he were to do it again, if Congress were to do it
again, it really should have been a set payment, you know, a million dollars,
`We're very sorry. You know, we wish you the best, and goodbye,' and it would
have prevented everything that happened since.
So he's frustrated. The families are frustrated with him, too. I mean, this
is not a man who makes quick decisions even though he promises them. He
doesn't know what to do about the highest earners, so he's left them sitting
for a year without any idea what they're going to get. I mean, there's huge
frustration on both sides. And he has his questions and he'll say only a
certain amount of it publicly. But I think just the way he answers makes it
clear that he thinks it should have been done differently.
GROSS: Has anybody actually gotten paid out from the Victim Compensation Fund
Ms. BELKIN: Yes. There have been a handful of payouts. I don't know what
the number is now. I know that when I last finished researching it, it was
about, you know, a couple of dozen. Interestingly, families aren't applying
in the numbers that you would have expected. About 25 percent of the families
that are eligible to apply had applied as of about Thanksgiving. And many of
them are holding back. I mean, some of them are holding back because they
want to hold open their option to sue. Some of them are holding back because
they want to see more people go through the pipeline to get more of an idea of
what's going to happen to them. It's a fairly complicated process. I sat
down to fill out the forms as though I were filling them out having lost my
spouse, and I didn't know where much of that information was. And so
there's--it's also--you feel like you're jumping in, I think, to a process
that you're not quite clear where it's going to turn out. And there's
something very final to it, `I'm going to take my money and then somehow it's
supposed to be over.' So I think emotionally there's a hesitancy on the part
of families who are less desperate for the money and aren't quite sure that
they are ready to confront this process emotionally.
GROSS: Lisa Belkin's article on the Victim Compensation Fund was the cover
story of this week's New York Times Magazine. We'll talk about her New York
Times column on balancing work and personal life in the second half of the
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the intersection of life and work. We talk with Lisa
Belkin about her New York Times column Life's Work. Linguist Geoff Nunberg
considers how the nearly archaic language of courtship has ended up on the
business pages. And Ed Ward reviews "When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret
History of Rock & Roll."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lisa Belkin. She wrote
this week's New York Times Magazine cover story on the September 11th victims'
compensation fund. She also writes The Times column Life's Work. It's about
the intersection of work and personal life and the daily collisions that
happen at that intersection. Many of her columns are collected in her book,
The dedication in your book, "Life's Work," is dedicated to the thousands who
on September 11th, gave their lives at work. I thought that was such a really
interesting way of putting it. Could you just talk a little bit about that
Ms. BELKIN: That's all they did. They got up in the morning and they went to
work. And as someone who writes about work and what sort of work takes away
from your life, It was haunting to me. And I was actually finishing the book
on September 11th. It was due on October 9th, and so the last few weeks of
putting it together were completely enmeshed with all the emotion and the
anguish of that tragedy, so I mean, there couldn't be any other dedication.
It was the only that made sense.
GROSS: How did you start writing this column?
Ms. BELKIN: I had a really bad day one day. I write for The New York Times
Magazine. I had a magazine piece closing. At the same moment that the
magazine piece of closing, I had to take my then-four-year-old, I think he
was, to the pediatrician's office for a checkup, and it was one of those
checkups that included shots, and I'd promised I'd be there, and I also needed
to close this magazine piece. So what I did was, you know, I tried to be
super-mommy, and I had them fax the galleys to me at home, and I ripped them
out of the machine and I raced Alex to the pediatrician's office, and I--you
know, he was lying with his head on my lap in the waiting, kind of whimpering,
'cause he didn't want shots. And I had the galleys literally over his head,
and I was sort of editing and making changes because I needed to get them back
by a certain time. I mean, short of human cloning, this was the only solution
I could come up with.
And I looked across the room, and this woman was just glaring at me, like I
was "Mommie Dearest," and I just sort of looked over to her, and you know,
give this kind of, you know--neither of us were having a good day. She was in
the pediatrician's office waiting room, too, and it was kind of this--almost
this shrug of, you know, `I'm doing the best I can.' And for me, it was
either an epiphany or a nervous breakdown, but the idea that doing the best
you can has to count, and it doesn't always work out so that you feel like
you're handling it, but trying matters. And it was about, I would say a
couple of days after that that I get a call from the Business Section of The
Times saying, `We're thinking of starting this column about life and work, and
since you're such a great example of balance, we were wondering if you would
take it on.' And you know, the irony was just too good to pass up.
I was looking for answers. I mean, I'm a parent of two sons, and I was
looking for answers. I figured that I would call up the smart people and they
would all tell me how to do it, and then I would write this how-to column. I
haven't gotten any answers in three years. I mean, I've gotten a lot of
questions. I'm involved in a remarkable conversation with thousands of
readers, and I've learned there are no answers, that doing the best you can
matters, and so I'm not a great example of balance. I'm a great example of
how no one's a great example of balance. They're just sort of all running in
place and trying really hard.
GROSS: Now you actually work at home.
Ms. BELKIN: I do.
GROSS: What are some of the things you've gained, what are some of the things
you feel you've given up by working at home?
Ms. BELKIN: I choose the location of the juggling act, but I'm still
dropping balls all over the place. They're just different balls. I'm still
juggling. My first day at home, Alex was not born yet. I was actually
pregnant with Alex, and Evan was about three, and I came downstairs in my
sweats, which was the entire point was to work in my sweats, and I had
breakfast with him and my baby sitter came and I kissed him sweetly and said,
`Bye-bye, honey. Mommy's going to work now.' I went upstairs to this office
over the garage that I'd created so I could be super-mommy, and I closed the
door, and Evan began to shriek. And he screamed outside my door for the
better part of three days.
And looking back, of course it makes sense. I mean, he had far more sartorial
sense than I ever would have suspected. I mean, Mommy dresses one way when
she's Mommy, and one way when she's leaving, and here was Mommy was Mommy, and
Mommy was home, but Mommy wasn't his. And what I finally did is I got up and
I, you know, put on hose and heels and a suit and I kissed him and said,
`Bye-bye, sweetie, I'm going to work now.' And I went to the local diner and
I had, you know, a cup of coffee and a muffin, and then I snuck back into my
own house, and I finally got some work done. And I did that for a decent
amount of time.
They're older now. They get it. I feel like I've gained a lot being at home
in that I can be at the things I need to be at. I think that I will never be
executive editor of The New York Times. I will never go, you know, overseas
on some plum foreign assignment. I've given things up; they're my choice, I
can live with them happily. But to pretend that we can all do whatever we
want is a fiction. What we need to do is sort of define what it is we want,
and then try and structure our life around that as best we can.
GROSS: My guest is Lisa Belkin. She writes The New York Times column Life's
Work. We'll be back after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Lisa Belkin is my guest, and her article on the victim compensation
fund was published in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Lisa Belkin
also writes a column for The New York Times which is called Life's Work, and
it's about the intersection of life and work. She has a book as well called
"Life's Work," which collects some of her columns. It's subtitled
"Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom."
Lisa, are you married?
Ms. BELKIN: I am. My husband is a professor of medicine and has ridiculous
GROSS: OK. Just the point I was trying to get to. Now...
Ms. BELKIN: Yes.
GROSS: ...he can't do all that work at home, so since you're the one who's
working at home, do you get stuck with more than what you think is your share
of the errands and of the household work that needs to be done?
Ms. BELKIN: Yes, although define `my share.' I mean, I purposely ratcheted
back, and then I have more time and so then I fill that time doing sort of
things for the family, and then I get to rant and rave that `How come I do
everything around here?' The most interesting column in terms of response
that I wrote was something called The Grapes of Marital Wrath, and it was
about a law professor at Georgetown who went to work every day and wrote sort
of academic articles for law journals about gender inequality in the
workplace, and she started to notice that she would spend the first couple of
hours of her day, or a good chunk of her day, sort of calling home, checking
in with her baby sitter, arranging play dates, calling the preschool, getting
on the waiting list, you know, anything but work, and her husband would go to
work, and he would work.
And she started thinking, `Well, if things can't be equal at home, then how
can they ever be equal at work?' In other words, if women are coming in doing
the little sort of lagging half of a second job while they're at their first
job--or maybe it's the other way around--then how can you possibly have gender
equality in the workplace? So she set out to explore this as a sort of
academic exercise, and came to the conclusion that a lot of the inequality at
home is women's fault. I waited six months to write this column, because I
figured I had to sort of accumulate some goodwill among readers before I
started saying this out loud. But what she said made me look at myself. She
said that basically there are things that women in particular hoard, as `If I
don't do this, then I'm not a good parent,' or as `I'm the only one who can do
this properly. He can never do it, and therefore I'm not going to let him
because he'll screw it up.'
And the title, The Grapes of Marital Wrath, came from a woman who stood up at
a meeting I was at and--talking about exactly this subject--and said, `You
know, I don't let my husband go to the supermarket anymore because he always
gets the wrong thing, or else it's the wrong brand, or he forgets something,
and so I might as well just go myself.' And she said, `And last time he
brought back five pounds of brown grapes.' And the column was about letting
go of some things. The column was about saying some of what you do is because
it has to be done, and some of the too much that you do is because you're
feeling guilty that you're not doing enough, and you're not doing everything
your mother did or your grandmother did, and so some of this stuff can go.
GROSS: I think for some spouses, whether it's like the husband or the wife
who's taking on the extra responsibilities, it's kind of like training an
intern at work. Sometimes it doesn't feel like it's worth it. Sometimes it's
easier to just do it yourself than to go through all the emotional and
physical work of getting the spouse to do that.
Ms. BELKIN: Yeah. I think that that is very much the way a lot of people
feel. You know, I've said it out loud; I've told my husband, and I've told
audiences. Yeah, sometimes it's just easier to do it myself. And then, of
course, I get to complain that I'm the one who does everything. With us, it's
buying shoes. I mean, Bruce knows how to buy shoes. Bruce wears shoes. But
for some reason, I'm the one who buys the kids' shoes. And if I had to
examine it deep down, it's because somehow I get emotional goodies from that.
It's sort of this primal `I have shod my children' feeling. But I can't give
that one up. And then I can blame him because how come he doesn't know his
children's shoe size?
GROSS: I'm sure something that can be the source of reassurance for you is
that every time something goes terribly wrong in your life in that
intersection between life and work, it's at least potentially the subject of
Ms. BELKIN: Yeah. `At least I'll get a column out of this.' Yes, I have
said that once or twice. You also have to be careful. I mean, I have a deal
with my children that I will not embarrass them in public.
GROSS: By whose terms? Who gets to decide what's embarrassing?
Ms. BELKIN: Well, if I write about them, I tell them about it in advance. I
don't--and maybe it makes the column a little less honest, but if I have to do
a trade-off, it's an obvious trade-off.
GROSS: How old are they now?
Ms. BELKIN: They're eight and 11, and the 11-year-old's beginning to get
embarrassed by me. But I...
GROSS: I'm sure it will only get worse.
Ms. BELKIN: It will absolutely only get worse. And I mean, it was important
advice I got from Anna Quindlen when I first started, who basically said that
no column is worth a relationship. And I've kept that firmly in mind. And so
Bruce does get veto power and has not vetoed anything yet.
GROSS: That's your husband.
Ms. BELKIN: That's my husband. Because no column is worth a relationship.
But then again, it also isn't always about me. I mean, I try very hard to
make this about other people sometimes, and so there are ways of writing about
subjects without completely embarrassing your family.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. BELKIN: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Lisa Belkin's New York Times column is called Life's Work, which is
also the name of her book.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Language formerly associated with seduction and
courtship is now used in newspapers to discuss corporate mergers
TERRY GROSS, host:
The language of seduction used to include words like `suitor' and `wooing.'
These words are rarely used today to describe lovers, but they show up
frequently on the business pages. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been
listening to the way we talk about corporate mergers and what it says about
our changing ideas of love and money.
There are few things as dogged as a business writer who gets a meaty metaphor
between his teeth. Here's how BusinessWeek described the recent announcement
of a merger between two cruise ship lines. `The path to the altar is strewn
with crushed hearts, but no broken engagement between companies has proved
quite so stunning as the one that befell Royal Caribbean International. It
stood ready to seal a merger with P&O Princess Cruises before a congregation
of investors, but then rival suitor Carnival Cruise Lines swung in. Now P&O
Princess has kissed off Royal Caribbean and is betrothed to Carnival.'
That's typical of the way mergers and acquisitions are described nowadays,
with a quiver full of words borrowed from the old language of courtship. In
fact, the business pages are about the only places where these words are still
being used. The other day I looked up the first 50 hits for the word `suitor'
from a Nexis database of major newspapers. Forty-eight of them involved
business deals of one sort of another. One other came from the plot summary
of a movie about King Arthur. And the last was from a palace gossip story
about the rivals for Princess Di's affections after her separation, which is
only marginally closer to real life than Camelot was. `Suitor' isn't a word
that pops up a lot on "Sex and the City."
Or take the verb `woo.' You read about companies wooing investors,
politicians wooing voters and teams wooing fans. But lovers don't talk much
about wooing anymore except in fits of coyness or nostalgia. `You don't
suppose you could woo me a little first.' That language has been receding for
a long time.
The word `courting' was already on the way out by the late 19th century when
people began to feel that the rituals of courtship were impediments to the
candor that true affinity required. Anthony Trollope only put the word
`courting' into the mouths of his lower middle-class and lower-class
characters. And within a few years, it had become the stuff of rustic comedy.
By the beginning of the 20th century, people were taking up the new slang word
`dating' with its modern egalitarian syntax. Only men could be suitors or go
courting, but women could date men as easily as the other way around.
But the very things that make the language of courtship sound anachronistic
for talking about our love lives make it a handy language for describing
corporate couplings. As that root `court' reminds us, the vocabulary has
always been drawn from the language of politics and influence ever since it
was first cooked up by the 12th-century nobles and poets who laid down the
codes of courtly love. And the words of courtship have always been charged
with double meanings of power and sex. The verb `court' means both to pay
amorous attention and to try to gain favor with someone. For that matter, the
word `favor' has the same ambiguity between the meaning good graces and its
sexual sense, what people used to describe delicately as the last favor, as
in `She granted him the last favor.' And until recent times, a suitor could
be either a lover or a petitioner.
Those ambiguities are summed up in the underlying plea of all courtly
attentions: be mine. That's what makes the language a natural fit for the
corporate world, the last place left where you can realize your dynastic
ambitions by getting somebody to change their name to yours. The supermergers
that have built today's corporate giants recall the intricate maneuverings of
an age when Catherine of Braganza could arrive in England for her marriage to
Charles II with a trousseau bulging with two million crowns and big chunks of
India and Morocco.
Even more to the point, the language of courtship has always involved a
certain charade of power as the suitor abases himself in order to gain the
upper hand. Samuel Richardson observed that the gallantries always came down
to the same message: `I am now, dear madam, your humble servant. Pray be so
good as to let me be your master.' That's a fair paraphrase of the
blandishments that companies like Tyco and WorldCom dangled before the
companies they were acquiring, and in the end, the stockholders wound up in
pretty much the same compromised position as Richardson's heroine Clarissa
In fact, if there's travesty here, it isn't because corporate CEOs are any
more devious or rapacious than the courtiers they replaced, but because
they're a lot more banal. The ardent avowals of courtly love may have been
disingenuous, but that's something poetry will be eternally grateful for,
whereas the romance of the modern boardroom is pretty prosaic stuff in every
sense of the term. Imagine what a Sidney or Marlowe would have had to come up
with if they've been working as corporate publicists spinning their companies'
takeover bids. `Come merge with us and we shall seize 10,000 win-win
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.
He's the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews "When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret
History of Rock & Roll." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: RCA American roots music four-CD set "When the Sun Goes
TERRY GROSS, host:
The surge in American roots music has caught the record industry off guard.
And its response has been to look back into the past for material that might
interest the people who bought the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and
the reissue of the Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music." RCA has
entered the fray with four CDs from its back catalog issued under the title
"When the Sun Goes Down." Rock historian Ed Ward has this review.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Walk right in. Sit right down. And, baby, let
your mind roll on. Hey. Walk right in. Stay a little while. But, Daddy,
you been away too long. Not everybody's talking about that evil way you
walking. The thing you want to do and why. Hey. Walk right in. Sit right
down. And, Daddy, let your mind roll on. Hey, walk right in...
ED WARD reporting:
Releasing CD compilations of old 78s won't exactly assure you of a commercial
blockbuster. So it was with great interest that I opened the mail a few weeks
back and found the four volumes of RCA's "When the Sun Goes Down" series,
subtitled "The Secret History of Rock & Roll." Covering the time span between
the late '20s and the mid '50s and compiled by the noted archivist Colin
Escott, it's a collection of mostly African-American music from deepest
country blues to early R&B. The good news is that it's on RCA, a label that
made high-quality records of a great spectrum of American folk artists during
this period. The bad news is that it's on RCA, a label infamous for recording
tons of second-rate blues in particular during the late '30s and '40s. But
there was a lot here I wasn't familiar with as well as some welcome old
(Soundbite of "Statesboro Blues")
Ms. BLIND WILLIE McTELL: (Singing) Wake up, Mama. Turn your lamp down low.
Wake up, Mama. Turn your lamp down low. Have you got the nerve to drive Papa
McTell from your door? My ma--Daddy loved me reckless. My daddy loved me
wild, wild, wild. Mother, daddy loved me reckless. My daddy loved me wild,
wild, wild. No, I'm not good-looking but I'm some sweet woman's angel child.
WARD: Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" certainly qualifies for the
rock 'n' roll history title, since it's been recorded by dozens of folk,
folk-rock and rock bands including Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers. And as
far as I can tell, this is its first appearance on a legitimate CD.
Then there are songs whose original versions I'd never heard. For instance, I
knew The Youngbloods' version of "When I Woke Up This Morning, She Was Gone,"
which they called "Grizzly Bear," but I'd never heard Jim Jackson do it.
(Soundbite of "When I Woke Up This Morning, She Was Gone")
Mr. JIM JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) When I woke up this morning, she was
gone. She made me mad. I felt so sad. But I would not tell you the reason
why. Oh, don't you love to dance with that old grizzly bear. I guess she's
gone to Frisco to dance me down. Oh, when I woke up this morning, she was
gone. Ow! When I woke up this morning, she was gone.
WARD: It was volume three, "That's Chicago's South Side," that I was dreading
though. RCA set up its race record subsidiary Bluebird in Chicago and
recorded a load of musicians there, many of whom weren't very good. There
were exceptions, of course.
(Soundbite of "Good Morning, Little School Girl")
Mr. SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: (Singing) Hello, little schoolgirl. Good morning,
little schoolgirl. Can I go home? Yeah. Can I go home? Little joy. Now
you can tell your mother and your father that Sonny Boy is a little schoolboy,
WARD: The original Sonny Boy Williamson was a Bluebird artist and a big
enough star that Rice Miller, a harmonica player from Mississippi, took his
name after he was murdered and used it all over Chicago. He even recorded his
own version of "Good Morning, Little School Girl." Both versions are
classics, but the original is not always the greatest.
(Soundbite of "Good Morning, Little School Girl")
Mr. RICE MILLER: (Singing) I just want to say ...(unintelligible). I just
want to say ...(unintelligible). And I'm going to be another woman's man.
Say hello. Say hello, little girl. Say hello. No...
WARD: Muddy Waters, like a lot of the generation of Chicago bluesmen who came
after the Bluebird crowd, recorded some of their material, including Bumble
Bee Slim's "Sail On." There's no doubt in my mind which version is better.
And another interesting thing about this collection is that they give the
performers' real names. It took me a minute to realize that the Amos Easton
listed on the cover is really Bumble Bee Slim. How many people will recognize
Minnie McCoy as Memphis Minnie? Perhaps unwittingly what this series does is
point out some serious holes in RCA's CD reissue program. For instance, once
upon a time there was a whole LP of the mysterious Lil Green.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. LIL GREEN: (Singing) You had plenty of money in 1922, but you let other
women make a fool of you. Why don't you do right like some other men do? Get
out of here and get me some money, too. You sittin' down wonderin' what...
WARD: And although the label never recorded much group harmony, there was a
double LP by a little-known but very influential '30s group called the Cats
and a Fiddle that shows that blander groups like The Mills Brothers and The
Ink Spots weren't the only show in town.
(Soundbite of music)
CATS AND A FIDDLE: (Singing) I think we got to have little talk. I ought to
pack up my things and walk. I know a dollar goes from hand to hand. Before I
let you go from man to man, I'd rather drink muddy water or sleep in a hollow
log. Yes, yes.
WARD: All in all, though, this is an admirable collection. "The Secret
History of Rock & Roll"? No, not exactly. But it's a well-chosen trawl
through a bewilderingly huge catalog, readably annotated and admirably
remastered. Will it have the same impact as the reissued Harry Smith
anthology or Revenant's masterful reissue of the Charley Patton records?
Probably not. But if it stays in print long enough to interest some young
people in this music, that can't help but be a good thing.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He reviewed the four-CD set "When the Sun
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "That's All Right")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, now that's all right now, Mama. That's all
right for you. That's all right now, Mama, any way you do. But that's all
right. That's all right. That's all right now, Mama, any way you do. Well,
my mama, she done told me, Papa told me, too.
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