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The language of political-speak

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by EStreetJoe, Oct 30, 2006.

  1. EStreetJoe

    EStreetJoe Well-Known Member

    Sorry if I overlooked this in another thread and this is a double-post. In our business where language is key to what we do, this article is interesting.


    Leonard Pitts: GOP's 'word magic'
    By Leonard Pitts -

    Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, October 23, 2006

    The first time I was called a member of the "media elite," I was driving a 10-year-old minivan with close to 200,000 miles on it. I was many things. Elite wasn't one of them.

    That episode, many years back, was one of my earliest lessons in the Republican Party's preternatural brilliance in the use of political language. From "family values" to "culture of life," to "death tax" to "Patriot Act" to "No Child Left Behind," the party has demonstrated a phraseological agility that jargon-bound Democrats can only envy. "Social Security lockbox," anyone? Some might argue that what the GOP has really mastered is the language of obfuscation and misdirection, a willingness to unmoor words from their meanings -- as in its shameless attempts in recent years to co-opt the language of the civil rights movement as a weapon against affirmative action. Good point. But the truth of the language is not what I'm here to talk about. Its efficacy is.

    Consider the party's masterpiece. Of all the terms it has arrogated unto itself (values, tradition, patriotism) and all those it has used to jab the competition (secular, culture wars, moral relativism), its best work is embodied in one word: liberal.

    Truth is, we're all pretty liberal -- at least if you're using the word as historically defined. It's hard to imagine even Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter coming out in favor of racial segregation, child labor or male-only workplaces. To the degree the word no longer evokes the fight against those things and connotes moral squishiness and effete elitism instead, Republicans have been astoundingly successful in deconstructing it, rebranding it, making it unusable.

    If you're a word person, you watch this with a sense of appalled wonder and ask, Is anybody else seeing this? Geoffrey Nunberg is. He's a linguist at UC Berkeley and the author of a new book on political language, "Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show."

    In a nutshell, he told me in an telephone interview, the GOP has learned to deftly exploit a "bogus populism, the invention of the red-blue divide as the crucial division in American life." Democrats, meantime, are left looking for "word magic" of their own, failing to understand that it's not the words per se that have the power, but the deeper narrative of hopes and fears they represent.

    Liberal is the perfect example, having been transmuted from a perfectly viable political ideology into a sort of birth defect.

    Indeed, the word is used now in much the same way as a certain racial epithet: to mark not simply political disagreement, but native and irreparable deficiencies. The N-word becomes the L-word.

    "I think that's right," Nunberg said. "That formula's been extended to those two terms, those two 'unspeakable' terms. The N-word really is unspeakable. The L-word, they sort of pretend that it is. It's been going on for 25 years now and it's really become a word that denotes not a political philosophy, but this self-indulgent, effete lifestyle. It's become ... if you're not born in it, it goes very deep in the bone." Thus, liberal becomes "a word that ... you don't have to say anything more than that. It carries its own moral weight."

    So where are the Democrats' words? Their narrative? It's an urgent question waiting for an urgent answer.

    Granted, the party stands to make major gains in next month's elections, but those will not be votes for Democrats so much as votes against Mark Foley, Iraq and Republican hubris in general. As such, they might produce a majority, but not a mandate. For that to happen, Democrats must first figure out two things: What they believe in and how to express it.

    Say what you will about them, but the Republicans already know.
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