A Meditation on US Political Rhetoric
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on. ‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep,
‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
– Alice in Wonderland
‘…call things by their right names.’
– Henry David Thoreau
The United States has a unique rhetoric, at least when it comes to politics. It has red states and blue states – those that lean toward “conservatism” or “liberalism.” In the rest of the world, the color red signals leftism, which is neither conservative nor liberal, but radical. Most mainstream studies’ standard assumption is that the country is made up of “liberals,” “conservatives” and “independents” (whatever that is). Reactionaries and radicals simply don’t exist. Other entities don’t exist either. Everywhere else, society is composed of different classes. In the US everyone is “middle class,” unless they’re part of the “1%.”
The United States, as its name proudly affirms, is “united,” except that it’s “polarized.” But this polarization doesn’t mean there is total disagreement. For instance, most everyone agrees that evolution “is only a theory.” They agree that it was splendid to kill Osama bin Laden without a trial, though they’re all for jury trials and accept that defendants are “innocent until proven guilty.” They agree that torture is wrong, but although in the recent past it’s been official policy to employ torture, they don’t demand trials and punishment of the officials who authorized it. Instead, they say, “let bygones be bygones.”
In the US, Church and State are kept separate. Religious institutions don’t pay taxes. In exchange, they abstain from politics, except when they don’t. The US has always been a democracy, except for its first century or so, when women, slaves and poor people were excluded. But now everything has changed: all citizens can vote, except for those who can’t, because they’re disenfranchised by newly-minted laws, or by old laws, like the ones that bar convicted felons from voting. “Americans” are descended from immigrants, except for the descendants of slaves, who were forced to come, and Native Americans (but they don’t count, since they were there first). As descendants of immigrants, they think it’s entirely proper to build fences and walls at the border to keep out “illegal aliens.”
Everyone in the United States speaks English, except those who don’t; these others, whose native tongues might be, say, Spanish or Chinese, speak “foreign languages.” Although they do drink vodka, scotch, and rum, “Americans” dislike many foreign things, ideas and practices. They’re Americans, after all: they’re exceptional and they do things better than those in other countries, except for such incidentals as life span, literacy and medical expenses. They hate socialism, because it is “a foreign ‘ism’.” They detest “socialized medicine,” such as exists in “socialist countries” like Italy, Britain and France – their NATO allies. NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is participating in the war in Afghanistan – located a mere 3,500 miles from the North Atlantic.
The US is leading the fight in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the US is winning the Afghanistan War, and has been winning from the moment it invaded Afghanistan, twelve years ago. The US will continue to win even if the war goes on forever! In the forthcoming Wars on Terror (there always will be such wars, because “the terrorists are fanatics” and cannot admit defeat), the US will be victorious. Luckily for the US people, these wars always get fought on someone else’s territory, which is good, since “war is hell.” According to the US Constitution, Congress declares war, but nowadays the President does so; it’s more efficient. Lately the President hasn’t needed to declare war to activate its mechanisms. Thus the United States is attacking countries with which it is at peace, like Yemen and Pakistan. In these non-wars the US is killing people, including women, children and old people, without trial. Even a non-war is hell.
But killing innocents is not so strange: the United States does much the same at home. The domestic equivalent of the military – the police – often kill people without trial. The victims are usually people of color, which makes it okay, or, at most, not too serious. In such cases the police are rarely charged with a crime. But then, neither are the military personnel when they kill non-combatants. However, those who report such crimes often do get charged. And, unlike the perpetrators of the real crimes, they do get sent to prison, sometimes for long terms. After all, a crime was committed: someone must pay.
* * * *
I pause for breath. Until now, I’ve been writing in a sort of stream-of-consciousness mode, the aim of which was to illustrate how many clichés permit or even encourage sloppy thinking, and how oversimplifications cloud reality. I now return to my point of departure – the words “liberal” and “conservative.” The latter word, especially, provides us with an excellent case in point for how the name can influence the thought. “Conservative” has become one of the most misused words in the language of politics. This probably dates from Barry Goldwater’s alliterative apologia The Conscience of a Conservative (1960). I’ll try to show how the nature of this misuse tends to inhibit people’s ability to think clearly.
Before World War II a conservative was one who believed in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society, while a liberal was one who believed in supporting social and political change. A reactionary, in contradistinction to both of these, was one who yearned for and wanted to recreate “the good old days.” Traditionally, in other words, a liberal accepted change, a conservative dismissed change, while a reactionary wanted retrogressive change.
Nowadays the word “reactionary” is commonly understood to be a putdown. A reactionary is often viewed as an irrational or unthinking person or, at best, one who is shallowly nostalgic for an at-least-partly imaginary past. Few politicians want to be seen as reactionary. “Conservative,” on the other hand, conveys a feeling of calmness and dignity, as in the expression “a conservative estimate,” where it connotes caution and care, much more positive qualities.
The media and the politicos have just about written “reactionary” out of the language; they constantly mischaracterize reactionaries as conservatives. Here, for example, are two excerpts from last Sunday’s (10/20/13) New York Times front page article, headlined “Fiscal Crisis Sounds the Charge in G.O.P.’s ‘Civil War’”: 1) “Insurgent conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund…immediately announced their support for Mr. McDaniel, the chairman of the Mississippi State Senate’s Conservative Coalition and former Christian-radio host…”; 2) “…a confrontation between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans….” Thus The Times and the Tea Party agreed: the insurgents now fighting to win dominance in the Republican Party are “conservatives.”
I put it to you: Do you think “the chairman of the Mississippi State Senate’s Conservative Coalition and former Christian-radio host” is happy with the way Mississippi is now? Or do you instead think he intends to return Mississippi to the way it was prior to, say, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? (Me, too.)
While I accept that a language is constantly undergoing changes, when those changes result in language usage that obscures the meanings of words and concepts, I think it has changed for the worse. I’m with Thoreau: words should mean what they say, not whatever the political or media establishment wants them to mean. Maybe that makes me a reactionary when it comes to this aspect of language usage. I want to return to “the good old days,” when a conservative was recognized as wanting to conserve the present and a reactionary was understood to be reacting against the present in favor of the past.
In my lexicon, every measure that deprives people of rights they already have is ipso facto reactionary, since it is a reversion to an earlier era before those rights had been won. Thus, the Sequester is reactionary because it withdraws funding that had already been allocated and used positively. The Supreme Court’s whittling away the right to vote is reactionary, not conservative. Increasing the age at which people become eligible for full Social Security benefits is reactionary. Further restricting workers’ right to organize is reactionary. Weakening Medicare is reactionary. Finally, the Tea Party, despite its assertions, is not a conservative grouping; it’s reactionary.
Some intrepid political scientists should study the program of The Times’ “establishment Republicans” to determine whether they are merely conservative or whether they, like the Tea Partiers, are reactionary. Then, when they’re done analyzing the Republicans, they could apply the same litmus test to the Democrats.
Gene Glickman is a retired college professor of music. He now conducts a progressive chorus, called “Harmonic Insurgence,” and makes choral arrangements for it and other choruses. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.