Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Responsible Language

An article by Katrina VandenHeuvel in this week's edition of The Nation Online -- a call for adulthood in language.

Don't We Need a New Political Language"

Here's a modest proposal for improving nationalpolitical discussion. Let's stop equating ouropponents WITH famous dictators, their chiefexecutioners, police apparatus, or ideologies. Let'sdeclare a national ceasefire on "his (or her) viewreminds me of..." -- fill in the blank: Hitler,Goebbels, Eichman, Stalin, Mao, the Gestapo, theGulag, the KGB, etc.I figure these are hard enough times in Americanpolitics -- war, threats to national security, the greatest increase in inequality in our history, deepcultural divisions, a brewing constitutional crisis --that we don't need demonizing rhetoric that furtherconfuses matters. The demons are already among us.

Itmay be that our 24/7 cable/talk radio politicalculture is too far gone to hope for rationaldiscussion of issues of public importance. But if wesuck it up, I think we could manage to stop callingeach other mass murderers. Doing so doesn't clarifydebate. It further polarizes. And it shows a seriouslack of imagination. I'm all for learning from history, but I'm also for describing presentdifferences in contemporary terms.

Consider the value of such a cease-fire as you readthis cross-section of quotes:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on VenezuelanPresident Hugo Chavez: "I mean, we've got Chavez inVenezuela with a lot of oil money. He's a person whowas elected legally-- just as Adolf Hitler was electedlegall."

Senator Rick Santorum, on Democrats protesting the"nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster:"[It's] the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying,'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare youbomb my city? It's mine.'"

Senator Robert Byrd, on the nuclear option: "Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognizedthe enormous psychological value of having the law onhis side. Instead, he turned the law inside out andmade illegality legal. That is what the nuclear optionseeks to do..."

Author Michael Crichton, on a Senate global warming hearing: "It's all like a Stalinist show trial. TheSenators all get up and make their statements andleave. No one listens."

James Dobson, on stem cell research: "In World War II,the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there wouldhave been some discoveries there that benefited

Sen. Dick Durbin, on Guantanamo abuse: "You would.believe this must have been done by Nazis,Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others...Sadly, that is not the case. This was theaction of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

Ralph Peters, New York Post columnist, on Howard Dean and his supporters: "I can predict with certainty thatDean's Internet Gestapo will pounce on this column...These are the techniques employed by Hitler's Brownshirts...Had Goebbels enjoyed access to the internet, he would have used the same swarm tactic."

Rush Limbaugh, alleging a pro-life majority: "Militant femi-Nazism has backfired.."

Harry Belafonte: "We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here,where citizens are having their rights suspended."

Grover Norquist, on those who support the estate tax:"That's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it'sonly a small percentage,' you know...the morality that says it's okay to do something to a group because they're a small percentage of the population."

Larry Schweikart, describing the left: "I think the modern so-called 'left' in fact greatly resembles the Nazis."

Sheri Drew, who led the opening invocation at the 2004Republican Convention: "Those who support gay andl esbian families are no different from those who supported Adolph Hitler."

Ward Churchill, on victims of the World Trade Centerattack: "...little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers."

Congressman Frank Lobiondo, describing Guantanamo detainees: "Hitler, in his philosophy, was, you know, he hated Jews, he was murdering Jews, and there were some people he liked. But he never went to the levelthat these extremists are going to."

Michael Savage, on George Soros' campaigning against Pres. Bush: "I couldn't believe what I heard when Iturned on C-SPAN today, and heard Billionaire George Goebbels Soros attacking Bush."

Camille Paglia, on students tape-recording professorsas evidence of liberal bias: "...when students becomesnitches, we are heading toward dictatorship by Mao'sRed Guards or Hitler Youth."

You get the picture. Now, does anyone think we'd lose anything by dropping such rhetoric? Of course, to update our political language will require a little work. As historian Eric Foner has asked: "How do we describe the current system in which the government is increasingly corporatized and militarized yet democracy continues to exist?...Whatlanguage should we put in its place?" Along with new analytic terms, we'll need some new analogies, symbolic politics, and cultural allusions.

A lot of us, albeit for different reasons, are very angry right now about where our country is headed. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate that anger, but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it -- in ways that invite discussion, not inhibitit. I know that finding the language (and analytics, symbols and metaphors) to do that is itself a formidable task. But maybe we can get started by dropping the dead dictator talk and saying something new."


Lucas Krech said...

Sure, but then you would need to refer to the current administration as acting like Bush, and that is an insult I would not wield upon anyone.

John Branch said...

I agree with Scott entirely. I'm all for describing things not only "in contemporary terms" (as Scott proposes) but also in exact terms. I can think of at least a couple of reasons why our discourse is cluttered with historical comparisons, broad analogies, figures of speech taken literally, and the like (these may be two ways of getting at the same thing). One is the influence of marketing, which inclines us to make the biggest and boldest statement we think we can get away with. Another is our fondness for emotional expression, which arises from the belief that an outburst is somehow more authentic than a calm and careful argument.

I noticed these tendencies, as Scott did, in much of the recent discussion of the Rachel Corrie case, where terms such as censorship and freedom of speech were used, in my view, a little carelessly. But it's clear from the examples cited in Scott's post that this is a habit that's widely indulged.

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, John -- I was hoping somebody would make the connection to the "Rachel Corrie" debate. When we use language sloppily, the words become blunted and are ineffective when they need to be used in situations in which they are truly called for.

John Branch said...

I'm glad I found this opportunity to second your opinion. I've seen some of your comments on the Rachel Corrie affair, as well as some rather impolite critiques of your views, and felt like defending you there, but the comment chain had changed course by the time I read them.

I'm also glad you broadened the point here.

Alison Croggon said...

I think it's a question of precision. There's a legitimate comparison to be made between the fascism of Nazism and what's happening under Bush - eg, the planting of public fear to make the electorate malleable, the scapegoating of a minority to channel economic dissatisfactions, etc - but the whole issue is so emotive, in part because instead of looking soberly at the phenomenon of fascism it's simply held up as a symbol of unutterable evil, that any point can't but get obscured.

Likewise with Corrie - soberly speaking, and looking coldly at the given definitions of censorship, censorship is a wholly legitimate description of what happened. But then that gets clouded in so much implicit moral condemnation, even where it is not intended, that the actual argument gets lost. And that's even without the Israel/Palestine question.

I'm all for precise and rational public language, but that's exactly what we don't get in a democracy dominated by the spin of FOX, and where emotional nationalisms or paranoias and other irrationalities trump sober factual argument every time.

Scott Walters said...

"I'm all for precise and rational public language, but that's exactly what we don't get in a democracy dominated by the spin of FOX, and where emotional nationalisms or paranoias and other irrationalities trump sober factual argument every time."

And so...what? We sink to FOX's level? Or do we resist?

Alison Croggon said...

No. We speak as precisely and honestly as we can. The problem is, as far as you're concerned Scott, is that speaking with precision and honesty is often seen as a provocative act.