Word War III
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This is a false statement; words are more powerful than bullets or bombs. They can change the way we think. Distortion and manipulation of language was a central theme of Orwell’s “1984”, and Republicans have been refining this art. How else do you think they can get millions of Americans to continually vote against their best interests? Don’t believe me? What if I trashed yo Mama? Try this: note your first emotional reaction to the word “entitlements”. Is it positive or negative?
The Right is able to do this by penetrating the thick skulls of low-information voters with emotional weapons of mass distraction. In his classic book, THE CONSERVATIVE MIND, Russell Kirk points out something that psychologists have long known – – people are more swayed by emotion than by reason. Conservatives have invested heavily in language experts like Frank Luntz, who come up with nifty little catch-phrases that appeal to what George Carlin called “symbol-minded” people. It was Luntz who turned “estate tax” into “death tax”, to give it negative impact. Another of Luntz’s gems was the Democrat Party, rather than Democratic Party. It has “rat” on the end, see? And it riles the hell out of the Democrats, which was its purpose. Conservatives will more often refer to the American type of government as a republic (which it is, technically), because that sounds more like Republican, whereas democracy makes you think of Democrat or democratic. During the Obama healthcare debate in 2009, Luntz had the GOP use the term “government-run” healthcare, which fed into the anti-government sentiment of the Right. This was another lie, as the government would merely administer the payments, but it was effective in galvanizing their base.
Luntz was probably behind the Right’s use of “class warfare”, their go-to reaction whenever someone calls them on the fact that the rich have been winning a class war against the poor and working people at least since Reagan. Then, when hordes of people begin occupying the streets of our cities calling themselves the 99%, they are accused of class warfare. It’s a technique known in psychiatry as “projection”, in which the patient is in denial of his behavior, and projects that behavior onto others. Republicans use it for another reason, too. If you accuse someone else of what you are doing, it invalidates their accusation before they can make it; it makes them look silly.
Let’s examine this word entitlement. The primary definition refers to bestowing a title in a line of succession, but the secondary meaning is “to give, carry, imply, a right or claim to”. You see? It’s a give-away, a government hand-out. In actuality Medicare and Social Security are insurance programs. We pay into them during our working years, and at a certain age we receive benefits. FICA stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. You could even say we are all “entitled” to receive these benefits.
The world liberal began to be demonized thirty years ago, so that now liberals are afraid to even use it; they apologetically call themselves progressives. Liberals have allowed the Right to put them on defense, linguistically and therefore psychologically. I think it’s time to fight back. Let’s call Republicans and conservatives “regressives”, which is what they are. If the Democrats would learn to use language more effectively they would begin to gain back lost ground. For example, they could refer to the estate tax as the rich brat’s tax, or the lucky sperm club tax. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile, and the Democrats did find one, when Obama said recently, “It’s not class warfare. It’s math.” It was a brilliant rejoinder, and if the Democrats are smart, they’ll paste that phrase on every billboard, bumper-sticker, milk carton, and McDonald’s Happy Meals bag.
Talking about the rich paying their fair share is good, too, since that’s all we’re really asking of them. Taxes are the price you are supposed to pay for the successes you have. That’s why the tax system is called a progressive one. Of course the Right must demonize even the word tax, hence “tax burden”. Another talking point of the Right is “shared sacrifice”, which really means making the poor pay more, or cutting social programs they badly need. The only sharing going on is the rich sharing all the profits, while wages for workers keep declining. This brings us to the Right’s doctrine of job creationism. “You can’t tax the rich, they’re the job creators!”, they scream. If that were true, then why have companies like Koch Industries and Exxon-Mobil seen their profits grow to obscene proportions in the past five years, while their workforce has grown smaller by the thousands? Bank of America saw a $6.2 Billion net profit in the last quarter, and they’re preparing to lay off 30,000 workers. The real job creators are consumers with money to spend on goods and services, which drives up demand, spurring job growth.
Currently under attack – – “regulations”, as in pesky government regulations. They are job-killers, you see. Besides, you and your children don’t need clean air, water, or food that’s free of cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins., right? It’s all the fault of those “environmentalists”, “anarchists”, and “radicals”. They want to destroy the social safety net, so now we hear this word: “collectivism”, which is supposed to make us think of communism. Let’s see, WE THE PEOPLE . . . form a more perfect UNION . . . promote the general WELFARE. That sounds like collectivism to me. This war on the poor has been going for decades. This time, though, the battlefield is in our minds, so we need to weaponize language in order to defend ourselves.
If you’re interested in exploring more about language and its power in politics, you can’t do better than Thom Hartmann’s book, CRACKING THE CODE. You’ll also win more arguments with your friends on the Right. Unless and until Democrats learn to use language as skillfully as Republicans, they’ll keep losing elections they should be winning.