Posting an excerpt of the SrWHOfficial book,
currently in progress (twelve chapters or so done right now) again. Once again, it’s subject to revision, editing, or outright removal before the book’s actually done that’s now published. I’ve gone and made sure it’s fully up to date with the same chapter in the published version.
In an actual, physical war, your weapons are actual, physical weapons, like machine guns, artillery, missiles, and the occasional anti-tank dog. In politics, unless something is desperately wrong with the situation, your weapons are words. Much like how in a real war it’s important to control the high ground and mountain passes, in politics it’s important to control the words. If you control the words, you can control and shape society’s discourse.
As Democrats, we haven’t done real well with controlling the words. Time and again, we’ve let the Right claim important words as their own, and we don’t fight back. We may bleat “but that’s not even what that word means!” to each other on our blogs and magazines, but no one really listens. Once the Right sinks their claws into previously normal and innocuous words, we’ve lost them forever. It’s the same way that once a name that was once strictly a boy’s name starts being given to baby girls, it’s only a matter of time before it’s only a girl’s name. You don’t see too many little boys being named “Beverly” or “Marion” these days, and you don’t see too many Dems going on endlessly about “freedom” and “patriotism.”
Part of it, I think, is that we on the American Left really prefer to use words for what they actually mean. We don’t think, “By Golly, we should start using the words ‘religious voters’ to refer to knuckle draggers who would like to outlaw divorce.” The Right, of course, has no problem at all refining “freedom” to mean “FUCK YEAH CONSERVATISM!”
We’ve also allowed a dog whistle gap to develop. The Right has all sorts of ways to make seemingly harmless statements that don’t alarm the general public at all, but drip with bigotry and racism to the informed audience. Democrats used to be skilled at this, but ever since those Democrats died off or became Republicans, we haven’t been any good at dog whistles at all. A few Southern Democrats may still be alive in zoos (you can see Zell Miller next to that last stuffed Passenger Pigeon), but for us the skill can be considered extinct. When you see talk of welfare fraud, states’ rights, or “preserving religious freedom,” however, you’ll see how the Republicans have kept the art of the dog whistle alive.
The Right’s also better than us at taking new phrases and using them to inject their terrible ideas into the public discourse. “Boning poor people” sounds awful and almost no one would support that, but call it “welfare reform” and people can really get behind it. Everyone likes the idea of eliminating supposed abuses, after all. “Privatization” sounds way less terrible than “giving away public assets for pennies on the dollar” or “taking Social Security and putting it all on black.” Creationism in public schools bothers a lot of people, but “teaching the controversy” about “intelligent design” sounds way more palatable. Fortunately for America, though, the public at large didn’t fall for this.
We also keep taking a beating when the Republicans take a benign concept and find a really horrid way to describe it. Having a brief meeting with patients to explain their treatment options, including making living wills and palliative care if need be, isn’t a terrible thing at all. The idea even had pretty widespread support. Start calling these meetings “death panels,” however, and pretty soon you’ve got people rioting at town hall meetings across the country. If you drone on about the evils of “estate taxes,” the only people who aren’t going to start glazing over either have estates worth gazillions of dollars or are the kind of people who talk about “admiralty courts.” Calling it the “death tax” strikes people at their core; not only do people not like the idea of having to pay taxes just for dying, but it makes them uncomfortable just thinking about the inevitability of death. Death will come for us all, until Science gets off its ass and does something about it, but people like the idea of at least dodging their taxes when they die.
The Left can’t do any of this for shit. When we talk about health care reform, we just mean reform of the health care system. It’s more clear and not twisting words so much makes us better people than them, but it doesn’t do much to help bring people over to our side. We keep using words for what they are, while the Right bends them to what they want them to mean, and we don’t do enough to fight back.
I’ve taken the liberty of collecting some works that we’ve surrendered to the Right, as well as identifying others in danger of being taken over. I don’t know if we can take back the words we’ve lost, but we can at least fight to keep from losing more.
Words That We Probably Shouldn’t Have Ceded to the Right:
- Freedom. Letting this word go was a terrible mistake. Everyone likes freedom, and letting it mean “conservatism” does not help us.
- America. Surrendering this makes it easier to make people think that only conservatives are the “real Americans,” and that liberals and progressives are some sort of lesser, possibly swarthy, Americans.
- Patriotism. It’s not so surprising that we let this go, since so many of us find the notion of blind patriotism so distasteful. Unfortunately, the Right owns it now, and anything less than slavish devotion to the conservative ideal of a Christian America is so unpatriotic you may as well move to Soviet Russia.
- Pro-life. Allowing the anti-abortion folks to claim this one let them imply that those who are not pro-life are members of some sort of death cult.
- Faith. There are people of faith on the Left, as those people of faith with helpfully remind you when asked. Unfortunately, you can’t often hear them over the constant shrieking that Faith is only found on the Right, and the Left only lives to destroy people of faith. They’ve even expanded this one lately to claim that attempts to stop bullying and allow same sex marriage is somehow an attack on Faith itself.
- Jesus. On a related note, we let them claim Jesus entirely, and he is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
- Responsibility. Being “responsible” now means “being a selfish conservative.”
- Elitist. This one got redefined to mean “people like John Kerry or Barack Obama who don’t subsist entirely on a diet of Fritos”, but it ended up blowing up in the Right’s face when Mitt became the presumptive nominee. It’s hard to attack Obama for being “elitist” when, well, you have Mitt in your corner. Right now they’re trying to say that some kinds of elitists, like Mitt Romney, are OK, but definitely not Barack Obama.
Words That They’re Trying To Take Over Right Now, Or Will Soon:
- Vagina. The Right often claims that they’re not anti-woman, and even manage to keep a straight face while doing so. They’ve been hit with vaginas and vagina-related imagery lately because of this, though, so it’s likely they’ll try to make it theirs. The fact that so many of them are terribly uncomfortable actually saying the word, though, means that they may end up trying to claim the term “woman’s shame” instead.
- Liberal. I’ve seen a few attempts at this already. The idea is that modern liberals aren’t really “liberals” at all, and that’s it’s actually conservatives that are the real liberals, using the definition from a couple of hundred years ago.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Expect to see more attempts to posthumously convert MLK to conservatism. Pay no attention to the fact that people called him a Communist while he was alive.
- Racism. This one may be underway. Right now, the Right’s main attempt to fight back against pointing out conservative policies (or conservatives themselves) that are racist boils down to “NO YUO (are teh racist)!!!!!!111one.”
- Hate. This one is interesting. They’re trying to start a narrative here that liberals and progressives are the real haters. There’s not a whole lot to base this on, so they’re going for the “repeat it over and over until people start believing it” tactic.
Words That We Could Probably Let Them Have Without Argument:
- Moist. Pretty much everyone is vaguely repulsed by this word. The only reason to take action would be if the Republicans started trying to call Democrats “moist.”
- Misspelled. There is no better word to sum up their signs.
- Fanatical. I’m not sure there’s a better way to describe screwing yourself over just to deny the President a victory.
- Troglodyte. The Association of Cave Dwellers might push back on this.
- Secretion. Yeah, we could let this one go too and leave it at that.
In the end, we have to acknowledge that words are important, and we continue to allow the Right to redefine the language at our peril. Our future as a country depends both on getting our message out there and not letting them twist our words so it gets misinterpreted. Otherwise we’ll keep getting hammered.