Lewis Black: Language and Politics
Go to Source: Austin Chronicle
BY LOUIS BLACK
Another long and winding argument, this time that modern American liberalism (using that word to encapsulate a range of policies, positions, and beliefs) is impotent – that it has little currency with voters – mostly because the language used to present it has lost any meaning. The idea of political policies based on a sense of shared responsibility, with government action viewed as a legitimate way to deal with social issues, now antagonizes voters. Less government – with much lower taxes but better education, stronger defense, and more effective social services – is what excites them.
Samuel Delaney's early science fiction novel Babel-17 presents a beautiful narrative metaphor for the position that language is not just a means of expression but actually directs/impacts how we think. Translating thoughts into words, as well as the very construct of the words, shapes and determines the thoughts. As I remember it, Babel-17 is set on a spaceship. There is a spy on board. An enemy document has been intercepted. The protagonist is a translator who, when deep into his work, often spaces out as though entering a coma. Turns out that, as he translates, thus thinking in the language of the document, he becomes the spy, with the language controlling him.
This is, of course, Chomsky-lite; there is a depth to this discussion I don't pretend to understand. Accepting that language dictates reality on some level just adds to the notion that human beings are vessels full of conflicts, with our beliefs being inconsistent, complicated, and contradictory. How do we get to these beliefs?
Morality and ideology have a biological/scientific core. There probably is an objective, but now indiscernible, "truth" in science. For example, what are the core biological differences between sexes and between races, compared with the learned and socially embedded differences?
The next layer is how we believe: What are the basics of our beliefs, and how are they concocted out of the realities of our family lives – the moral, spiritual, ideological, and religious values by which we're raised, as impacted by social realities? All simmered in the broth of who we are – genes, biology, and the unknown mysteries of life – to create our subconscious foundation.
This leads to what we believe we believe. A too-obvious but instructive example would be one who says and believes he or she is not racist, but has an uncontrollable abhorrence of people of color.
Finally, there is what we do believe: the difference between what we think we are and who we are, between what we think we think and what we really think.
All of this is flooded with contradictions; none of it is clear-cut or easily discernable. On all levels, language compounds the density and confusion. Further, language is living; it keeps changing. Not only does vocabulary expand and contract, but connotative and denotative meanings change, driven by social, ideological, cultural, religious, and scientific evolution.
In the Sixties, most vocabulary defending wealth and privilege came across as parody. Arguing that the rich, having more, thus deserve it, and championing inequality as an inherent requirement of democracy was a priori hypocritical. The very language supporting and advancing conservative ideas was suspect, the discriminatory and anti-democratic dialect of the patrician self-exposing. After decades of rhetorical and philosophical change and repositioning nurtured by politicians, refined in think tanks, honed by wordsmiths, and vetted by polling, this language is now populist. "Class war" once concerned social inequity, damning the upper classes for their neglect of the poorest. Now it is used to deride those attacking Bush's tax cuts for favoring the very richest Americans. "Civil rights" and "a color-blind society" used to indicate activities by those determined to achieve equality by addressing the consequences of centuries of discrimination. Now this is the language used to dismiss affirmative action.
This is more complex than just the meaning and understanding of words. Liberalism has suffocated from a number of factors. Conservatives spent an enormous amount of time and energy thinking about how to sell their ideas to the widest community (while liberals took for granted their ability to do the same). But they were aided by the reality of America's post-Vietnam self-image, the staggering failures of populist social policies from school busing to public housing, and the nightmarish complexity and overwhelming public perception of the failure of the welfare system to address social inequality and correct social ills. Couple this with long-term liberal successes (of unions, for example), where the current negatives (corruption scandals and abuse of bargaining power) are noted while the causes that birthed them (horribly inhumane and deadly working conditions) are ignored.
Currently, security and defense concerns handily trump social welfare. Just eliminating the military programs the Pentagon doesn't want and closing the bases it wants to would bring greater dollar savings than the social cuts now well under way. Defense spending offers a profit potential hundreds of times greater than social services, however: money to influence politicians, hire lobbyists, buy media, and impact political campaigns. In simple economic terms, consider what all the base closings the Pentagon wants will cost in jobs and how many jobs will be lost with social-spending cuts. But of course the former is more obvious and the latter more diffuse.
More important, the Cadillac-driving welfare mother generates more long-term social outrage than any $150 Pentagon screwdriver. Most taxpayers feel they're paying way too much in taxes. The idea of this money being taken from them and given to other citizens (because they aren't working as hard or achieving as much) is an outrage. Their view is that such welfare doesn't just reward but actively promotes laziness. On the other hand, defense is crucial and, of course, you can't trust the government when it comes to spending (isn't that the whole goddamn point?!).
The persuasive power of the socially conscious rhetoric of Sixties and Seventies liberalism is gone. Those who suggest that the failure of Democratic candidates has been because they abandoned their traditional progressive base while trending toward the middle are substituting fantasy for political reality.
Conservatives have figured out how to offer simple but politically potent messages: We can cut taxes while improving education and adequately addressing social issues. Less government is better; it has grown too large due to ever-increasing taxes used mostly to fund inappropriate and ineffective social programs. Civil rights have been achieved, the consequences of historic segregation are overblown (if not actually whining), and affirmative action is the real discrimination. There are no problems that can't be solved by the government leaving them alone (thus making even more tax cuts possible).
The environment and economy are potent issues, but only when presented in terms of self-interest and not the common good. Any politician who argues that our society is still deeply troubled, that there are economic and educational inequities as well as a large underclass that needs social services, is one to whom almost no one is listening. Think about the terms of the debate when the "Robin Hood" school finance plan was first introduced and now.
Painfully, this leads me to discussing the Naderites again, as their existence and purpose argues against this view. Trying not to set up straw men, I offer that Naderites usually lay out three arguments – more overlapping than separated – all accepting that the current political system is intolerable, with no real difference between the two parties, as big money has completely polluted democracy: Voting your conscience is a heroic and democratic act. The Democrats, in abandoning their progressive base, have alienated the large number of voters who would have delivered electoral success. Finally, rather than consenting to the status quo, enabling Republican victories will push this government further right. Eventually, this will so expose its corruption and disinterest in popular representation that voters will rally, eject it, and push far to the left.
In a Democratic republic, to vote your conscience, divorced from real-world consequences, is not noble. It is undiluted narcissism. "What matters is how I feel ... not what happens to the working class, the poor, the environment."
Why have the Democrats abandoned traditional liberal rhetoric? Because they are evil, have been corrupted by big money, and/or are stupid? Maybe it's that it just doesn't work now, that the people have moved toward the middle.
Finally, this notion of pushing government to an extreme doesn't work. Even when political sentiment changes direction, as it invariably does, the movement is not that dramatic. The sad and obvious suggestion is that, rather than forcing the Democrats back to the left, the Naderites instead expose how marginalized, impotent, and disenfranchised progressives are. Not just helping elect Republicans, Naderites are retarding liberal power and slowing its return.
Okay, at the end of the day this isn't about Nader. I don't buy the argument that the American public is about evenly divided politically, almost exactly 50/50. Instead, I think the majority of Americans share a common ground of similar values and visions (of course, with many legitimate differences). Language is as decisive and determining as ideas; how problems and solutions are presented is very important. The liberals have forgotten how to communicate. They need to reinvent the language they use and the way they present policies. Their core beliefs are as vital as ever, but they've allowed themselves to be ghettoized. There is an unstoppable, uneven-pendulum movement to this democratic republic: Politically and socially we swing from left to right, from right to left, never far from the middle, rarely in the extremes for very long, though there is no predictable pattern. Right now we are lost, but we can be found. We just have to figure out a new way to communicate our vision