Thursday, January 13, 2011
Just Plain Folks
About a decade ago, I started to hear "folks" used a lot. What ever happened to people? Just ordinary people. Nobody seems to acknowledge that the world is inhabited any more by people. Now the world is made up of "folks." I hear folks all over the place: at the office, among my kids' generation, on TV and the radio. I hear the President of the United States refer to people as folks. A young Hispanic woman used the term twice in the same sentence on the radio. The other day when three experts on violence were discussing the Tuscon tragedy, they all referred to folks, not people. Sarah Palin also talks about folks.
What is it about using folks? Folks comes from a German word, Volks, yes, the same as in Volkswagen. It means people, or the people. It is not a new word. We have studied folklore for over a century, referring to the popular behaviour and ways of the common people in far off parts of the world,in our own hinterland or in the past, like the Middle Ages. These are often quaint and lusty, as in a Bruegel painting.
Politicians are quick to use "folks." It brings them immediate familiarity with the people whom they are addressing. It is, well, folksy. It is not distant or clinical. Folks are just like us. We are folks too, and we want everyone to feel like they are just plain folks. But do we always want this kind of familiarity when hearing from experts or our leaders, or do we want some degree of distance and respect, our respect for them. But we live in an age when such respect, dignity or any pretensions of superiority are simply not tolerable. Why do we call our most exalted leaders Jimmy, Bill or Mitch. Why not use a nickname when the opportunity arises? Well, George or Barack do not seem to fit the pattern, but how could they? There must be some political mileage in trying to demonstrate that you, though an elected member of Congress, are just like ordinary folks. We like our leaders to be like us. We do not like "elites." So even though our leaders enjoy a huge advantage over the rest of us in terms of wealth, power and influence, it is comforting to think that they are just "folks," so no real threat to our own self-esteem.