The War Of The Words

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Let me begin with a personal anecdote, one my father told me. He grew up in the very poor South, dropped out of school by the time he’d reached fifth grade to help his father work their farm, and eventually went into the military. He was an intelligent man, but as a young sailor back in the 1950s, he was woefully ignorant and naïve. One evening, at a bar, one of his mates said, "Hey, Curt! Are you gay?" My father, who’d had a couple of beers, replied, "I’m feeling pretty happy right now, so yeah, I suppose I am." The resulting laughter puzzled him. He resolved thereafter to be more cautious if he wasn’t sure what a word meant. A week or so later, someone asked him, "Hey, Curt! Are you anti-Semitic?" Still stinging from the last faux pas he’d tripped over, he replied, "Well, I might be, if I knew what it meant…"

The resulting hoots of derision took his resolve a step further. He bought a dictionary, and started reading. Voraciously. He went to night school, got his high school diploma and eventually earned a college degree. And he taught his daughters the power of words. Today, I hold a Master’s degree in English – and yet I still struggle in the war of words. We all do. Particularly against those who use words as weapons. It’s no accident that the etymology of the word "dictator" comes from the Latin dictatus – to speak. Nor is it just a matter of dreary semantics - he who controls the word controls the world. And there are no dirtier, more malicious or ruthless opponents in this vital war of words than the American right wing.

Earlier this week, Karoli had an excellent post on one of these adversaries, Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who excels in manipulating political messages. Don’t call it the "middle class," he told members of the Republican Governors Association in Florida. Call them "hardworking taxpayers." Don’t call it "compromise," say "cooperation." Sure, it means the same thing, he said, but "compromise" infers selling out your principles. Don’t call it "government spending," call it "waste." Waste makes people angry, and diverts them from the fact that government spending pays for such "wasteful" things as schools and roads and police and fire-fighters and medical care. And above all else, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever use the word "capitalism." Luntz isn’t sure yet what to substitute in its place, maybe "economic freedom" or "free market". But capitalism is being increasingly seen for what it is – an immoral economic system that supports the 1 percent Haves at the expense of the 99 percent Have Nots.

The right wing has spent decades refining definitions and controlling the language of politics, keeping the left constantly on the defensive. Conservative politicians ever since the 1950s have twisted the word "liberal" to give it sinister connotations it never had. John Lukas noted that "the history of politics – more, the history of human thinking – is the history of words", and examined what happened to the term "liberal", so leeched of its real meaning as the right increasingly used it as an insult to define their opponents. James G. Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, said, "I never use the words Republican and Democrats. It’s liberals and Americans."

Liberal, according my venerable Webster’s Dictionary, is rooted in the Latin liber, free, itself derived from the Indo-European base leudhero, belonging to the people. It’s defined as generous, plentiful, tolerant of differing views, broad-minded, democratic, favoring reform and progress in religion, education, and politics, and promoting personal freedom. So far, I can’t see anything particularly offensive in any of that, nor, I suspect, would the vast majority of people presented with simply the definition without the word itself. Conservative, on the other hand, derives its meaning from the Latin conservare, to keep or to preserve, and is defined as resisting or opposing change, to maintain traditions and the status quo, to preserving institutions and established customs. No wonder conservatives hate liberals – particularly those conservatives with a vested economic interest in preserving the present status quo. Of those two particular words, liberals could have had a field day – yet have long chosen not to.

Instead, the word "liberal" has become so vilified and denigrated that, rather than push back, liberals scrambled for acceptable alternatives –progressive, or moderate, anything to avoid using the word "liberal." Even Leland B. Yeager, in his otherwise excellent article, Reclaiming the Word “Liberal”, proposes changing the term to "left-liberals" to dissect it from the now derogatory term "liberal", yet another layer of avoidance. And in doing so, the left has been losing the war of words for decades. Less than 20 percent of Americans are willing to state outright that they are liberals, even though the vast majority support what are traditionally liberal programs and values.

Rather than avoiding the term, liberals could have countered the right’s demi-god Ronald Reagan with another revered President, John F. Kennedy, who defended a liberal as being someone

...who looks ahead and not behind. Someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions. Someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties – someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad. If that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’, then I’m proud to say, I’m a liberal.

Yet buried in that quote is yet another word the right is currently crusading to pervert: Welfare.

Robert J. Samuelson has called Social Security welfare that is bleeding our country, while noting that welfare is "a pejorative term, and politicians don’t want to offend." But aside from whether or not Social Security is welfare or an insurance that beneficiaries have paid into for years and have every right to receive, it is this redefining of a single word that is of significant importance. It’s a concept the right is eager to control, skewing public perception of Social Security out of all sense of reality. Social Security is increasingly being labelled by the right wing as a middle class welfare program that imperils our nation’s future, and any suggestion that the wealthiest of earners contribute more fairly to the tax system is deemed political blackmail, while calling on older Americans on Social Security to avoid the shame of being on welfare by accepting more "shared sacrifice."

Likewise, unemployment benefits have been called welfare by conservatives, the two words linked together by the right-wing as if they were synonymous, and redefined in the most derogatory fashion possible. Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev) has equated the unemployed to "hobos". Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex) links the unemployed to drug addicts and alcoholics. Gingrich has already, and rightly, taken flak for his repugnant suggestion that poor students, most of them the children of the unemployed, become "assistant janitors" to mop the floor and clean the bathrooms in our publicly funded schools, since apparently he likewise considers education to be welfare to which poor children are not as entitled as their rich classmates.

Let’s just have a quick look at that word, welfare. It comes from the Old English wel faren, and unsurprisingly means to fare well. The state of being or doing well. A condition of health, happiness and comfort; well-being, prosperity. And, yes, of granting aid to those suffering from poverty or unemployment. Welfare doesn’t mean scrounger. It doesn’t mean bum, doesn’t mean deadbeat, doesn’t mean slacker, doesn’t mean freeloader, doesn’t mean thief. We have plenty of words suitable for those concepts – it is not only unnecessary but ethically abhorrent to take a perfectly good word such as welfare and subvert it to mean something bad.

We talk about child welfare, and regard helping children – feeding and clothing them, educating them, treating them with medicines to prevent disease, rescuing them from sexual or physical abuse – to be a noble thing. That’s welfare. We talk about animal welfare, and consider people who would starve a dog, kick a cat to death, maim a horse to be evil. We donate to charities to save the whales, the seals, the gorillas, protest against battery caged hens, and pig farms. That’s welfare. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – shameful about that word. The moral test of any government is how well it defends and protects the welfare of the weakest of our citizenship – children, the elderly, the handicapped, the sick, the disadvantaged. It is a test America is failing, largely due to the framing of ideas by the right-wing to undermine the welfare of all Americans.

Let’s take another scary word conservatives routinely use as a weapon that liberals have been loathe to defend: socialism. A system of ownership and operation of the means of production and distribution by a society or a community rather than by private individuals, with all members of society of the community sharing in the work and the benefits. From the word, social – the Latin root socius, or companion, defined as having to do with human beings living together in which their dealings with one another affect their common welfare. There’s that other word again. What is it in this definition that is so frightening to conservatives? Ah, there it is: rather than by private individuals. The 1 percent who own 40 percent of everything and don’t want to share it with anyone else.

But the right wing has been very successful in redefining socialism in the minds of the average American as something bad. Every Western country except the United States has some form of socialized medicine, yet conservatives have managed to convince Americans – by the power of the word ‘socialism’ – that having a national health care system that provides for everyone, not just those few who can afford it, is bad. Worse, it’s welfare. So the risk of death from pregnancy and childbirth in the United States is greater than in forty other countries, including virtually every other industrialized nation. In 2009, the US also ranked 28th among 32 industrialized countries in infant mortality. Half of all bankruptcies in the States are a result of excessive medical bills, even when 75 percent of them have health insurance coverage. The wealthiest country in human history has a higher proportion of poor and hungry citizens than almost every other industrialized nation, many of those nations socialist. One in five children in the States lives in poverty. And yet, conservatives have been able to hold the entire country hostage, by manufacturing an artificial fear of a single word. Socialism. What should scare you more? A word? Or that our country is sick and dying unnecessarily?

But other than complain about how the right wing has subverted the language of politics, what can we do about it? I suggest we have a good look at how the gay community took pejoratives and turned them on their heads in one of the most successful examples of linguistic reclamation. As Robin Brontsem wrote in her excellent article in 2004, the secret to re-appropriating language intended to cause damage lies in the nature of hate speech.

Hate speech intended to disable its target simultaneously enables its very resistance; its injurious power is the same fuel that feeds the fire of its counter-appropriation. Laying claim to the forbidden, the word as weapon is taken up and taken back by those it seeks to shackle.

Gay, in my father’s 1950s world, was a gross insult. Today, it’s linked to Gay Pride, the word not only diffused of its malicious power but turned around to be embraced as a term of dignity and self-respect. The same tactic worked for the word ‘queer’; in 2003, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a highly successful television program, proof that the derogatory intentions behind the original pejorative had been utterly demolished. The gay and lesbian community had taken an entire set of words meant to denigrate and marginalize them, re-framed it, and hung them back up on the wall with a good deal of deserved satisfaction.

Some words, of course, will never lose their offensive impact, mostly because these words were forged from hatred to begin with, not subverted from inoffensive or even positive connotations. So what can we – as liberals – do to reclaim "our" words from conservatives who have systematically framed every issue, spending huge amounts of money to manipulate language intended to promote their worldview while emasculating the left, who have done virtually nothing? How do we take that all important step past analyzing language, and start to use it ourselves? These are questions George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley, and seven other faculty members from Berkeley and UC Davis have been addressing since the formation of the Rockridge Institute, one of the very few progressive think tanks in existence in the States.

Lakoff has analyzed a good many words conservatives have appropriated and distorted. "Tax relief" is a good example. For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, and someone to relieve that affliction who then becomes a hero in the process. When taxation is regarded as being an affliction, as something bad, then anyone advocating raising taxes – anyone’s taxes – is painted as the villain. Yet taxes are vital to the running of any country, and pay for building and maintaining an infrastructure without which we would soon be afflicted for real. Taxes pay for highways, communication, education, power grids, the formation of civilization itself, which presumably even conservatives might consider as good things. More than that, the wealthiest Americans use far more of that infrastructure than anyone else; nine-tenths of the federal justice system is devoted to corporate law, something nine-tenths of us rarely ever use. Yet the wealthiest Americans pay disproportionately less for their use of this publicly funded infrastructure, in large part because of the success conservatives have had in portraying taxes as something bad.

In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, designed to combat an American poverty level of 19%. It created Head Start, the Jobs Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, and did enormous good for our country, reducing poverty significantly. But conservatives quickly enough shifted the ideological framing from genuine, humane welfare to one of so-called self-reliance and fiscal responsibility, resulting in a rise in poverty today nearly the same level as before Johnson’s War on Poverty. Even the language of poverty has been distorted: The United States changed the name of its definitions in 2006 to eliminate references to hunger. It’s now termed ‘food insecurity.’ One in four children in America probably couldn’t define food insecurity, but they can tell you what it feels like to go to bed hungry.

Conservatives are also thieves – they not only killed the War on Poverty, they then appropriated its framework, quick to utilize that nebulous quality of ‘war’, and declare first a War on Drugs, then a War on Terror, with the emphasis on ‘war’. Yet you might as well have a War on Ghosts, as drugs and terror are concepts, not targets, not people. As such, it is both unwinnable and never-ending. But by framing it as a ‘war’ on something bad, conservatives have convinced Americans to cede unprecedented power to the executive branch of government, which rather than protecting us against evil has used that power to erode our civil liberties and provide a pretext that serves to keep conservatives in power indefinitely.

Were Democrats smart or brave enough, they would stop fighting the losing defensive battle against rightwing control of the debate and start employing equally powerful language. Paying taxes is not only good, it’s patriotic. It’s the dues one pays to belong to the best country in the world. Paying for what you use, in proportion to what you use, should rightly be regarded as fair, with those who are unwilling not only unpatriotic, but actually stealing from the people.

To some extent, the Occupy movement has done well to frame this concept, people are increasingly aware of just how badly they have been duped, how much has been stolen from them, how complicit politicians in both political parties have been. Frank Luntz had genuine reason to be scared, ‘frightened to death’ of the anti-Wall Street campaign, and the conservatives are redoubling their efforts to control the argument. Their very survival is at stake, and they know it. If only liberals – if not the equally corrupted and collusive Democrats – would just realize it.

Liberal. Welfare. Compromise. Taxes. Capitalism. Socialism. War. These words all have meaning, and there is genuine power in that meaning. It’s time we liberals took back that power and restored their true definitions. I’ll start it off:

I’m a liberal. And damned proud to be one.

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