Our lives are defined by invisible wars, wars whose theater of combat is the human imagination. These economic and political wars are waged year in and year out, decade after decade, century after century.
Words are the weapons of choice in these wars, and the corporate-backed radical right adds new ones to its arsenal every year. This year was no different. From “entitlement reform” to “triggers,” the corporate oligarchs couched their aggression in decoy language that made it possible for Democrats as well as Republicans to launch them on an unsuspecting public.
But something was different this year. This was the year that the people came up with some words of their own, outside the corporate- and billionaire-funded think tanks of conservatism. For the first time in many years, the right-wing warriors of language ran into heavy resistance. That’s an important development that should be celebrated — and repeated.
War of the Words
The corporatists own the Republican Party, and large swathes of the Democratic Party too. Most Americans disagree with their ambitions, but they’ve been so good at designing and using these linguistic weapons that the public hasn’t had a chance. Major media journalists have used these words as mantras, while too many Democrats have embraced them for their own selfish purposes.
That’s why they keep winning so many battles, no matter who’s in power.
Some people make the mistake of underestimating the importance of these wars, because they’re fought with words and not actions. But people’s actions are shaped by what they believe, and what they believe is shaped by words.
Nobody understands that better than the corporate interests and their minions. That’s why Newt Gingrich wrote a political memo in 1996 entitled, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”
Now there’s a word that should strike fear in the heart: “Control.”
For the past five decades our national dialogue — and therefore our thinking — has been warped by the use of words as weapons of economic war. From “death tax” to “job creators,” the public has been saturated with prefabricated words and phrases that reshape the thinking of millions of people in an Orwellian way.
Teachers, police, bus drivers and firefighters became “special interests” while mega-corporations became “people” who were being “deprived of their rights.” The values that had inspired all of our nation’s leaders for a century, Republican and Democratic, were suddenly “radical,” “extremist” and “treasonous.”
And rather than resist, Democratic leaders like the Clintons and Barack Obama chose to embrace too many of these inversions in order to serve their own ambitions, a Faustian bargain with terrible implications. (And as it turns out, not a very good way to pursue their own ambitions either — unless you have an Internet bubble or housing bubble to sustain the illusion that “centrism” works.)
There are times when compromise is needed. But you don’t need to reinforce your enemy’s false ideas in order to compromise. With every Democratic concession to corporate-designed Orwellianisms the struggle to create a more effective society suffers another defeat.
Weapons of 2011
The language factories of the Right have been working overtime over the last couple of years to destroy public faith in Social Security and Medicare, destroy the government’s ability to stimulate the economy when it’s needed most, and absolve our political leaders of responsibility for their own actions.
What were the Right’s favorite word-weapons of 2011? Here are a few of the big ones:
“Entitlement Reform:” This phrase is used over and over to describe proposals that would “reform” nothing, but instead would gut the highly popular programs that support seniors and the disabled — Social Security and Medicare. The use of the word “entitlement,” along with the formulation that seniors who collect money from a program they’ve contributed to all their lives are “greedy geezers,” is designed to persuade the public that an elderly woman living on $800 per month is a social parasite – but the hedge fund manager who pays 15% tax rate on his billions is not.
It made some people uncomfortable when we wrote that “Entitlement reform” is a euphemism for letting old people die, but we cited extensive studies that support exactly that conclusion.
Sadly, the Obama Administration has embraced this formulation, along with other anti-safety-net linguistic weapons like “surgical cuts” and “technical adjustments” for devastating benefit reductions like the “chained-CPI” cut.
“Deficit Crisis:” This is another formulation that was accepted by the White House, rather than resisted. 24 million un- or under-employed Americans is a “crisis.” The government’s deficit spending is a long-term concern, not a “crisis.”
“Technocrat:” National politicians in both parties have been co-opted by corporate interests, and have tried to suggest that the collaboration between them — which is designed to force corporate-backed policies on a reluctant public — are the best “technical” solution to our fiscal problems. They aren’t caving in to billionaires’ money, get it? They’re “technocrats” who are rising above their petty differences to solve the nation’s problems.
“Technocrat” was 2011’s “bipartisanship,” and was equally bogus.
“Ideology:” Both parties have delighted in demonizing those who resist needless, savage government cuts as “ideologues.” That’s straight out of Gingrich’s 1996 memo. When did “ideology” become a dirty word? Merriam-Webster’s first two definitions of ideology are “visionary thinking” and “a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life and culture.”
The truth is, virtually everybody has an ideology. We believe that freedom is better than slavery; that theft and murder are evil; that democracy is a better system of government than totalitarianism. In the Right’s Orwellian Newspeak, having beliefs and values is evil, but cynically serving corporate interests is noble.
My ideology knows better.
“Triggers:” Politicians in both parties have attempted to implement unpopular cuts by designing “trigger” programs that automatically cut programs the public wants preserved. We’re about to see “triggers” in action if the so-called “sequestration” process goes forward as agreed upon by the President and Republican leaders in Congress.
As we wrote earlier, “triggers” are “economic IEDs” designed to explode once their political assemblers have left the scene. But the public has a long memory.
The first half of 2011 looked hopeless. Each of the corporate Right’s word-weapons seemed on its way to being enshrined by willing collaborators in Washington and in the media. But then came a flood of new words: “Occupy.” “The 99 percent.” “The 1 percent.”
And very quickly after that came more: “Income inequality.” “Fairness.” “Justice for Wall Street,” or more concisely, “prosecutions for Wall Street.”
Like those of the Right, these are just words. Nothing more. But these words changed the political debate. The president set aside the rhetoric of the right and began using these words instead. (Action will hopefully follow.) The news media was forced to respond to the movement, both with coverage of its actions and coverage of the issues it has raised. There still isn’t nearly enough coverage, but any exposure is more than we had seen before the Occupy movement arose.
Is it enough? Will we look back at 2011 as a turning point or as a moment of resistance on an inexorable path toward total corporate domination of our world and our lives? The future remains unwritten, and it’s up to us to rewrite it.
But I will say this: On July 4 I was hoping against hope that someone would “declare independence” from corporate politics and politicians. A few short months later, miraculously, an entire movement has done it. That gives me enough hope to wish for more of the same in 2012.
But it’s up to us, of course. If we want to take control of our own lives, we’ll need to keep taking control of our language.