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Can of worms?

[ 2011-12-16 11:23]     字号 [] [] []  
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Can of worms?

Reader question:

Please explain “can of worms” in this sentence: “This political scandal is a real can of worms.”

My comments:

It’s not a REAL can of worms, of course. It’s a metaphor, a figure of speech. And it’s a good metaphor here too – likening the fallout from a political scandal to a can of worms going out of control.

First, definitions. Can of worm is an American idiom (The saying originated in the United States in the mid-twentieth century - Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings), and like many other American idioms, this one is vivid, short, simple, nimble and neat.

Or messy, if you mismanage the situation. That is, if you open the can of worms without promptly putting the lid back on...

All the worms will be crawling out and about. Ugh.

OK, you see the picture of creepy crawlies.

This idiom is derived from the real life situation of fishermen using live worms as bait. Going fishing, you buy a can (or jar) of such bait worms consisting mostly of maggots and earthworms. And when you’re all settled and ready to go, you open the can, put one of the worms on the hook and cast it in the pond – and thus your day of leisure and good amusement commences.

Only that you forget to close the can. Before you know, all the worms are out on the floor... Suppose you are an amateur (which means you’re fishing for fun and probably not very good at it either), this can ruin your day because you don’t know how to handle the situation. Well, a can of worms once opened and left to their own devices are hard to handle to anyone, be they amateur or an old pro.

Hence the metaphorical meaning of opening a can of worms - broaching a problematic situation inadvertently leads to more complex problems and utter chaos.

In such situations, you simply wish the can had not been opened to begin with. Yes, the can of worms is like the genie in the bottle – once let out, there’s no way of putting it back.

Still in other words, it’s a Pandora’s box.

Pandora’s box? Yes, but that’s for another day. I want you to learn very little every day, so little that you can never say that learning tires you out.

I’m just joking. I know you’re a tireless learner, as many people tell me so. Still, I’d like to be cautious, just in case. I mean, I will never give you an excuse.

Anyways, can of worms is the one and only idiom to remember today. It represents any tricky problem which, like a political scandal, you wish had never happened in the first place.

Because the best way to deal with a problem is to not have one in the first place.

Alright, here are two media examples:

1. Ray Harding, the former chairman of the Liberal Party, has just been indicted, charged with receiving huge payoffs to steer investments by the government employee pension funds to two financial firms. Allegedly Harding got $800,000 in the pension-fund scheme.

Four years ago, his son, Russell, who served as president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation under Mayor Giuliani, was convicted of embezzling more than $400,000 from that agency. This followed an expose by the Village Voice.

Rudy Giuliani and Ray Harding were close buddies. Indeed, Harding, by giving Giuliani the Liberal Party nomination in 1993, enabled him to get elected Mayor. He was a close political confidant of Giuliani. He exercised great influence over City Hall’s policies and actions.

Nepotism is apparently a contagious disease in New York politics. According to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, former City Comptroller Alan Hevesi asked Ray Harding to intervene so Hevesi’s son, Andrew, could take the seat his father once occupied in the State Assembly. According to Cuomo, Harding managed to get a six-figure job for Assemblyman Michael Cohen, who then resigned so Andrew Hevesi could take his seat.

Cuomo seems to be the Sir Galahad of New York politics right now. He appears to be indicting every alleged wrong-doer in sight. Yet Cuomo got Harding’s Liberal Party to endorse him in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2002. Cuomo dropped out of that race. But, for a short time, he and Ray Harding were buddies back then. Probably it's not a serious flaw. We can all make mistakes.

So, as Yul Brynner said in “The King and I,” “It’s a puzzlement.” The relationahips in New York politics can be strange. If indeed Ray Harding is proved guilty of the crimes charged, if the associates of Hevesi who have also been indicted -- Hank Morris and David Loglisci -- are adjudged guilty, too, Cuomo’s recent work will prove valuable indeed. As for Harding, his attorney says the charges are “baseless” and that his client is looking forward to defending himself.

So far, Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have already started his campaign for governor next year, is barely mentioned in the Harding saga. Yet he certainly was deeply involved in Harding’s stunning rise to power.

Giuliani told Republicans the other night that Gov. Paterson’s budget was “irrational.” At the same Republican dinner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he hoped Rudy Giuliani would run for Governor. Since both Gingrich and Giuliani are known to nurture ambitions to seek the Republican nomination for President in 2012, political pundits can wonder whether Gingrich truly thinks the world will be better off if Giuliani becomes governor. Or is there an ulterior motive? The way the political game is played here it's difficult to know for sure.

The metaphor of a can of worms certainly applies in the case of the Hardings, Rudy and the Hevesis. You have to scratch your head and recall what that old TV actor used to say: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

- Harding’s Can of Worms Could Harm Rudy's Run, NBANewYork.com, April 17, 2009.

2. In “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” originally published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1970, Friedman, the arch-deacon of free market economics, declared that any businessman who thinks a corporation should take “seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else” was “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.”

Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades … In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.

The great irony of Friedman’s hard line is that in 1970, his words probably sounded much more extreme than they do today. Despite decades of lip service to the idea of “corporate social responsibility,” the notions that corporations do best when most untrammeled by regulatory constraint or that they should only be guided by a desire to generate the maximum return on investment for their shareholders are now bedrock ideological fixations of the contemporary Republican Party.

In fact, one could well argue that we are currently closer to Friedman’s utopia than during any other period in living memory. The Supreme Court has vastly loosened restrictions on corporate spending on the political process, trade policy has supported a decades-long trend toward foreign investment, offshoring and outsourcing, corporate taxes are at a historic low, and even the worst financial crisis in decades has hardly resulted in more than a slap on the regulatory wrist for the guilty parties.

But one wonders what even Milton Friedman might think if he could survey today’s wreckage. Would he have any remorse at the sight of bailed-out banks generating huge profits while ordinary Americans struggled to find and keep jobs and millions more faced foreclosure? Would he feel any necessity to reexamine his own argument, in particular that line that states that businessmen should conform “to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom”?

Because the huge loophole gaping wide open there is hard to miss. It has two parts:

First, what does it mean to play by the rules when you are writing the rules in your own favor? It is obviously in the interest of corporations to lobby Congress for laws that help them to increase their profits. But it is by no means clear that such a practice is in the best interest of society as a whole.

Second, there is the matter of just what precisely is defined as “embodied in ethical custom.” What do Americans believe, what values do we share that should, perhaps, also be shared by our corporations? Inadvertently or not, by throwing “custom” a bone, Friedman opened up a huge can of worms. Maybe, as a society, we do believe that corporations have an obligation to boost employment at home rather than abroad, or pay their fair share of taxes. Maybe, as a society, we think it is repugnant that Fortune 500 CEOs make 400 times as much as their average worker. Maybe, in general, we support the clean air and water regulations that corporate lobbyists are so eager to castrate?

And maybe, just maybe, we believe that corporations that are bailed out with taxpayer funds have an extra responsibility to behave as responsible citizens, and not merely as amoral profit-generating automatons.

There are other considerations to contemplate as well that Friedman appears not to have taken into account. For example, in a society where economic activity is dominated by consumers, doesn’t it matter what consumers think? In other words, if enough people find Nike’s Asian labor practices or Citigroup’s foreclosure rate so objectionable that a meaningful number actually switch their business, isn’t it in the profitmaking interest of those corporations to change their behavior to match consumer expectations?

The time is ripe for a reevaluation of the role of the corporation in American society. The passion motivating Occupy Wall Street protesters tells us this, as does the spectacle of a political and economic system that is so clearly broken.

- Are U.S. corporations good citizens? November 22, 2011, Salon.com.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


The great leveler?

He waited in the wings?

Slap on the wrist?

Out on a limb?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)