Pluralistic: 05 Dec 2021

Today's links

A 1937 ad from the Escanaba Daily Press for 'Women's Nylon Stretch Gloves, One Size Fits All, 97¢.'

When you hear "one size fits all," think "universal" (permalink)

Once, the phrase "one size fits all" was a futuristic boast offered by manufacturers availing themselves of new, high-tech materials that stretched and flexed without tearing or deforming. Today, it's a curse-word used to damn universal programs. What happened?

As is so often the case with big linguistic shifts, the culprit is capitalist realism, the ideology that there is no alternative to unfettered profit-seeking, which relies heavily on linguistic games. Much of our vocabulary is infected with these ideological shibboleths. For example, "free markets" – a term that once referred to markets free from "rent" (passive income collection by asset-owners that productive firms had to deal with) has now come to mean the opposite: markets today are only "free" if you can extract rent from assets, rather than production:

Scientific terms are heavily represented in capitalist realism's lexicon – and why not? If you want to convince people that your ideology is inevitable, cloaking it in science can make your preferences seem like immutable laws of nature, as inescapable as gravity. For example, "learned helplessness," the evidence-free conviction that a state that helps people with the essentials for human thriving (health care, shelter, nutrition, education, etc) will make those people literally incapable of procuring those necessities for themselves.

(Of course, "learned helplessness" doesn't apply to aerospace companies that receive multibillion-dollar bailouts!)

The demonization of "one size fits all" didn't find its way into the neoliberal Devil's Dictionary by accident. As Lawrence Glickman writes for the Boston Review, it was tied to a deliberate, late-1970s effort to kill the New Deal's ethic of universal services:

Take Ed Clark, the Koch-backed Libertarian presidential candidate in 1980 (his running mate was David Koch). Clark used "one size fits all" to attack on the idea of universal, public education, calling the system an "educational straitjacket."

By the 1990s, "one size fits all" was the go-to way to criticize any universal program, including (and especially) programs that protected the civil rights of minorities. In 1990, James J Kilpatrick used the phrase to damn "motor voter" laws that automatically combine voter registration with drivers' licenses. The trick worked so well that he used it again to attack a family and medical leave bill.

It worked. When GHW Bush's vetoed the Family and Medical Bill, he repeated the phrase: "By substituting a ‘one size fits all’ government mandate for innovative individual agreements, this bill ignores the differing family needs and preferences of employees…"

The phrase was a favorite of Bush's and was trotted out whenever a universal program was under discussion, including his analysis of the uprising after the acquittal of the dirty cops who beat Rodney King:

The GHW Bush years saw "one size fits all" converted into a "one attack kills all" superweapon to justify all kinds of institutional cruelty. Bush Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole used it to fight universal child-care. His Council of Environmental Quality chair Michael R Deland used it to kill the 1992's UN climate change goals.

Many have noted Bill Clinton's successful adoption of neoliberal policies and rhetoric in a bid to move the party away from universalism and labor advocacy into a party of finance and global capital. Clinton was happy to use the right's language, and "one size fits all" was no exception. In 1992, he gave a campaign speech promising his government wouldn't deploy "one size fits all" policies.

Corporate Dems ran with "one size fits all" as a key to promoting "entrepreneurial government." The phrase is sprinkled through "Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector," Obsorne and Gaebler's Clintonite bible.

By 1996, Clinton was using the phrase in his State of the Union address: "the era of big, centralized, one-size-fits-all government is over."

But you can't out-GOP the GOP. Its 1992 platform damned universal access to child care as "one size fits all." In 1996, it used "one size fits all" to fight nationwide interstate highway speed-limits. In 2000, its platform promised to dismantle Medicare because it was a "one size fits all" solution.

The demonization of universal services with "one size fits all" talk grew and grew. Rick Perry used it to attack the Affordable Care Act in 2015. Today, it's being used to condemn the Build Back Better Act:

The 5th Circuit Appellate Division just took it up in its decision banishing vaccine mandates for federal contractors, calling mandates a "one-size-fits-all sledgehammer." Republican lawmakers like Joni Ernst use "one size fits all" to fight the $15 minimum wage:

Ernst called a $15 minimum wage a "policy set by Washington politicians," but as Glickman dryly points out, another phrase for this is "a federal law." Literally every federal law is "a policy set by Washington politicians."

Seen in this light, "one size fits all" is of a piece with talk about "states' rights" as a justification for voter suppression and other Jim Crow (and New Jim Crow) policies.

Of course, there are places where universalism should give way to customization and exception: Crime Bill cruelties like mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws (and other "zero tolerance" policies) are incapable of producing nuanced, just outcomes, and there's a rich record of their failures. But these aren't the "one size fits all" policies that conservatives condemn.

Their aim is reserved for universal policies like mask mandates – policies that are intrinsically about social problems, where the right to individual preferences can't trump the collective right to safety. Masks work, folks:

What's more, there's nothing about universalism that says customization and individualism must be sidelined. It was public, universally accessible alternative schools that made me the person I am today:

Today, those schools have been all-but abolished by the same conservative ideology that made "one size fits all" into a dirty word.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago KPMG defends legal threats over links

#20yrsago Throwing creampies as political protest

#20yrsago Bruce Sterling "Geeks and Spooks" speech at Information System Security and Education Center

#15yrsago Toronto PET Users’ Group alive and well

#15yrsago Homeless kid in Second Life

#15yrsago Warner Music CEO: before selling the company, I stole all its music

#15yrsago New Zealand to get the DMCA?

#10yrsago Copyrights vs Human Rights: big publishing and SOPA

#10yrsago 3.8M children in the UK don’t own a book

#10yrsago Young adult writers take the SAT, reflect on writing instruction

#10yrsago Alan Moore on Frank Miller’s unhinged Occupy rant

#10yrsago Counterfeiting electronics: what it really means

#10yrsago Swiss gov’t study: downloading leads to sales, so we’re keeping it legal

#10yrsago Canada’s secret police to government: we need torture to keep this country safe

#5yrsago Pirate Party invited to form Iceland’s next government

#5yrsago 2,100+ veterans pledge to build barracks to help Dakota Access Pipeline water defenders survive the winter

#5yrsago Bernie Sanders: Trump didn’t win the election, the Democrats lost it

#5yrsago Crooks can guess Visa card details in six seconds by querying lots of websites at once

#5yrsago Army Corps of Engineers denies Dakota Access Pipeline permit

#5yrsago How governments and cyber-militias attack civil society groups, and what they can do about it

#5yrsago UK cops beat phone encryption by “mugging” suspect after he unlocked his phone

#5yrsago Virginia State cops have blown a fortune on useless cellphone spying gear

#5yrsago W3C at a crossroads: technology standards setter or legal arms-dealer?

#5yrsago A new edition of the Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free audiobook featuring Neil Gaiman

#1yrago Descartes' God has failed and Thompson's Satan rules our computers

#1yrago Section 230 is Good, Actually

#1yrago Postmortem of the NYPD's murder of a Black man

#1yrago Student debt trap

#1yrago Breathtaking Iphone hack

#1yrago The Ministry For the Future

#1yrago Monopolies made America vulnerable to covid

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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