Words, Names and Meg Whitman

The pen is mightier than the sword, or so says the oft-bandied chestnut. In my own life I have found this very much to be true. I have also found that silence, used strategically, can be just as mighty. After all, what would the opening cliche of this blog post be but for the silent space between the words “pen” and “is”? The penis, mightier than the sword, that’s what. Silence contains every bit as much power, it seems, as noise.

No one understands the power of language and silence more than the Republican Party. Regardless of my own feelings about their policies, as a wordsmith I have nothing but an awed admiration for their ability to control the message through manipulating and restricting the very words used by everyone else to formulate it.

After all, it is impossible to have a fair conversation about whether or not a person is a criminal by nature, if the word being used by both sides of the “debate” to describe said person is “illegal”, just as it would be impossible to debate a man’s intelligence if the words used instead of his name were “idiot”. The “debate” starts and ends with the use of the word; the person’s criminality or idiocy is not only implied, it is validated, through word choice.

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels knew this well when he said “say something loud enough and long enough and it becomes true.” Many people who use the word “illegal” do not even realize there is any alternative; confront those on the left who use it and they will feign offense at your insinuating they might possibly be biased. To that I reply, it is not you who is biased; it is the words you have allowed to be placed like braces upon your teeth.

Republican strategist and communications expert Frank Luntz is the man who started the right-wing’s habit of controlling the message through a deliberate selection of emotionally evocative words, followed by their unrelenting repetition in the public sphere. You will perhaps recall that he wrote the 2007 bestseller called Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.

Luntz, while arguably breathtakingly unaware of dental hygiene, is breathtakingly aware of the hidden propagandistic potential of words in and of themselves to control public opinion, and he enthusiastically and astoundingly refers to “Orwellian” as a good quality in things. He is, unsurprisingly, a regular commentator for Fox News and a consultant to the Whitman campaign. He is also the man who decided the media should refer to oil drilling as “exploring for energy,” and the media did. Luntz correctly banked on laziness among reporters, who would often rather parrot press releases than question them.

One of the most brilliant strategies the Luntz camp has crafted in recent years is the linguistic attack upon undocumented immigrants, who have served as a perfect scapegoated distraction from the wrongdoing of bankers and mammoth corporations. Though the “crime” of being in the United States without proper documentation is technically a misdemeanor (buying prescription drugs from Canada is a stiffer crime, yet no one calls the denizens of retirement homes in Detroit “illegals”), undocumented migrants here are regularly called “illegals” by nearly everyone in the media, including progressive talk show hosts such as Randi Rhodes and Stephanie Miller whose moral compasses are generally otherwise excellent. It is maddening, and magnificent, the right-wing bit that goes unnoticed in our progressive mouths.

Grammatical abuses aside (an adjective ought never to be used as a noun) the real-life ramifications of such language are far-reaching and unpleasant, contributing to an alarming rise in hate crimes against Latinos (who are all, under the linguistic mind-fuck meted out by Luntz and others, equated with “illegals” regardless of where we were born) at a time when all other groups have seen hate crimes against them diminish. By referring repeatedly to an entire group of people as “illegals” day after day, we not only strip them of their basic humanity (just as is done in India with “untouchables”), we relegate them to a permanent second-class status and attach to their existence and faces a visceral emotional reaction of fear among the masses that they are dangerous criminals — even though nothing could be father from the truth. Studies show that in cities with large immigrant populations, crime goes down; immigrant children do better in school than their domestic-born peers, etc.

It was fascinating to watch Republican Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman try to defend herself against Democratic challenger Jerry Brown in a recent debate, when he pointed out the supposed hypocrisy in her babbling about holding employers accountable for hiring “illegals” while she herself had “an illegal” housekeeper.

Whitman, doubtlessly under guidance of a spin master very much in the Luntz camp (if not Luntz himself), responded not by refuting the charge, but rather by attempting, at long last, to humanize her employee. Whitman repeatedly used the housekeeper’s full and proper name, Nicky Diaz Santillan. She tried to “shame” Brown by blaming him for outing Nicky Diaz Santillan for his own political purposes, saying that Nicky Diaz Santillan would likely be deported because Brown chose to name her, Nicky Diaz Santillan.

It is, as novelist Elias Canetti once wrote, “You have but to know an object by its proper name for it to lose its dangerous magic.” Whitman and the Republican machine behind her were finally willing to allow an “illegal” a name — in the obscene hope not of humanizing Nicky Diaz Santillan, but rather to humanize her employer, Meg Whitman.

I watched this in fascination. It was the first time I had heard a right-wing Republican with staunchly xenophobic politics referring to an undocumented worker by name. This was no mistake, just as it has been no mistake to paint the entire population of such people with a broad and nameless “illegal” or “criminal alien” brush up until now.

To rob someone of her name and to replace it with the unjustifiable mantle of “criminal alien” is to dehumanize her; to dehumanize a person, as history has well shown us time and time again, allows the rest of us to do unspeakably inhumane things to her.

Whitman, in using her “illegal’s” name at last, unfortunately for her failed to come across as the concerned human being she had been advised to concoct on that stage; rather, Whitman displayed herself as a calculating pragmatist desperately trying — and failing — to capture the votes of a population that she and her party continue to literally alienate.

Unsurprisingly, the ploy failed. Whitman, once leading Brown in the polls, is now a solid five percentage points behind him, thanks to millions of human beings with names that the Republican Party has been too slow to ask for.

ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ is the author of The Three Kings. She can be reached through her blog.