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The Struggle for Language

Liberal Art

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

You heard it here: Howard Dean is against the Right to Work. Last Monday at the IOP, Dean explained his opposition to “Right-to-Work” laws. To anyone who doesn’t know what that means, it sounds intuitively like a terrible position to have, and I’m sure the Republicans will take full advantage. But lest anyone think that Right-to-Work means the same thing here as in Italy, where people actually have a constitutional right to a job, it’s a very different thing. Right-to-Work legislation here means being able to work in a union factory but skip out on joining the union; as Dean explained to Chris Matthews last week (and Gephardt tried to say a few weeks earlier), it’s a state-by-state union-busting project, and it’s unfair. Explaining this to the country will be an uphill battle, though, largely just because of the name. It’s the latest instance of the Democrats losing a critical, though unseen, fight—the struggle over the language of American politics.

It might seem odd at first that our tongue-tied president is out-stepping the Democrats in the language wars, and it’s true that an insensitivity to consequences can often characterize his language. Our European allies cringed when Bush used the term “crusade” to describe his War on Terror, apparently unaware that invoking centuries of bloody Christian holy war against Muslims in the Middle East might undercut his insistence that his war was indeed not against Islam. (Europeans should be used to cringing by now; the last time we bombed Iraq it was called “Operation Desert Fox” with no apparent recollection that this was the nickname of the Nazi general Erwin Rommel, who overran Arab North Africa.) But when language is being crafted for American consumption, Bush has become the mouthpiece for an ingenious conservative language engineering operation, dating back at least to 1990, when Newt Gingrich issued the famous memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”

The remarkable memo to Republican candidates, which has seen no effective Democrat analogue, culminated in a list of good words with which to describe oneself, and negative terms for one’s opponents. The “D” section is classic: “debate, dream, duty” for positive language; “decay, destroy, destructive, devour, disgrace” for Democrats. The memo is over-the-top, but it worked. As one staffer on “The West Wing” sighed, it’s now been the case for years that “Republicans are just good at naming things.”

The phenomenon is particularly marked on emotionally charged issues like abortion. A conservative revision to federal law that would reduce access to abortion is mysteriously and euphemistically labeled the “Abortion Non-Discrimination Act,” while a proposed law against adult friends or relatives driving young women across state lines to get an abortion bears the unopposable name of “Child Custody Protection Act.” And Democrats this year lost a rhetorically unwinnable fight against a ban on late-term abortion, or as CNN gingerly calls it, “what opponents refer to as partial birth abortion.” Pleas for some kind of exceptions, as when the life of the mother was at stake, failed before the Republican master stroke of terminology, which gave new life to the old routine that liberals kill babies.

But abortion is just the beginning: a tax on the wealthiest of the wealthy estates in America is the medieval-sounding “Death Tax;” a flaw in the tax code making some couples pay extra is an unthinkable “Marriage Penalty.” A sweeping, embarrassing bill now resented by most of the educational community continues to be called the “No Child Left Behind” act, while a dramatic weakening of the Clean Air Act goes by the name of “Clear Skies.” The Republican National Committee issued a memo recently signaling one of their new language projects, a move to associate Democrats with bigotry by labeling anti-Bush rhetoric as “political hate speech.” (It’s heartening, at least, to see Republicans concerned about some forms of hate.)

Conservative control over the language of policy is largely creditable to an extremely effective intellectual infrastructure, but the structure of the media makes it all possible. When all discourse must be reduced to brief television packages, anyone who can come up with a two-word version of a complex policy will be rewarded. It helps, of course, to have a whole network dedicated to propounding Republican policies, like Fox News. The existence of a channel like Fox means that terminology fine-tuned in the White House can quickly enter the political conversation as though it were objective terminology and not rhetoric. A classic example was Ari Fleischer’s April 2002 nonsensical term “homicide bombers” to describe Hamas suicide attacks. Fleischer was exhibiting that classic Bush-administration courage by scoring rhetorical points against terrorists, but the actual term is meaningless and even counterproductive. What bomber is not homicidal? The term “suicide bomber” exists to distinguish between terrorists who kill themselves and those who don’t. The distinction is important in dealing with terror, since the former are more powerful and more motivated, but it didn’t matter to Fox News, who dutifully and instantly adopted the term “homicide bomber,” now applying it every time tragedy strikes Israeli civilians and leaving viewers clueless as to when bombers are and are not killing themselves—they even used it this weekend to describe an attack in Chechnya.

With the recent establishment of John Podesta’s liberal Center for American Progress, it’s clear that Democrats are beginning to catch on to their need for the kind of think-tank infrastructure of policy work that has given the Right a major advantage in recent years. Now, in addition to smart policy analysis, liberals need to get to work on reclaiming control of the political vocabulary. The left needs wordsmiths who can outstep the Republicans in naming policies, because “Corporate Accountability” and “Fiscal Responsibility” aren’t quite hacking it on the airwaves. I’m not saying they have to lower themselves, but sophisticated policy needs to be packaged with a command of language. Democrats could propose a “Fair Districting Act” to stave off Tom DeLay’s gerrymandering program, or an “Anti-Misinformation Law” to keep the Pentagon from resuming its absurd project to deliberately mislead foreign journalists, or a “Corporate Patriotism” bill to close the loophole that lets companies avoid billions in taxes by putting a home office in Bermuda, but this in itself is not sufficient. The real challenge for the Democratic Party, and its presidential candidates in particular, is to figure out how to reverse the Right’s stranglehold on our political vocabulary, without adopting the kind of lock-step dogmatic monolithism that empowered the likes of Gingrich. I don’t have a quick solution handy, but I’m pretty sure that if the Dems don’t act fast to reclaim our language, they risk losing the word battle before they realize they’re fighting it.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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