Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Boycott, girlcott, we all cott

Via Andrew Sullivan, John Hinderaker on Power Line:
Barack Obama has boycotted Fox News for the past two years. Obama's boycott ended today, as he was interviewed by Chris Wallace. The result suggests that Obama had nothing to fear from the ostensibly hostile crowd at Fox.
I didn't see the Fox interview with Obama, so I'll assume that what I've heard is right, that he did a good job. No, my point today has to do with the word "boycott."

When did "boycott" change from a group action to an individual one? Apparently, it has, but I didn't notice it until a few weeks ago when various politicians (e.g., Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton) began urging President Bush to boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies.

I have always understood "boycott" to refer to the action of a group, refusing to buy products or do business with some offending party. I'll grant the definition in a number of dictionaries I consulted do not entirely specify a group: from American Heritage, "To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means of coercion," though the word "together" is there.

The first time I remember the use of "boycott" was the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez. In all the years since, though, I can never remember it being applied to the actions of a single person.

The question is, is this change in usage meant to aggrandize the person or the event? Do we talk about Obama or Bush boycotting something because we want to make them more important, or because we want to make more out of what is a matter of individual choice to call attention to the issue?

Given the identity of the callers in the cases above, I'm assuming the latter. But if it's a "boycott" without a statement of larger principle, is it even important? If Bush decided not to attend the Beijing Olympics out of solidarity with Tibetans or Sudanese (and what in his presidency would make anyone believe that these are sufficient reasons to get him to do anything?), we would hardly expect him to call out the Chinese directly - he would cite "scheduling conflicts" or "ranch brush emergency," anything but risking a Chinese loss of face.

Or maybe it's a way of embarrassing the "boycotter." Clinton and Pelosi don't think Bush will accede, so they make an issue of it and inflate it further by using the term, "boycott." Similarly, Power Line isn't traditionally a pro-Obama blog, so they, in effect, ridicule him subtly by terming his previous failures to appear on Fox as a "boycott" (though Hinderaker was fairly positive, to his credit, while still insisting that McCain would win in November).

I don't profess to fully understand this, but I know that, when I refuse to do business at one company or another, I'll feel a little more proud thinking that I'm boycotting.

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