Taking Cues

January 11, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More

In the last post, I opined about the atmosphere in the country generated by overheated rhetoric and the irrationality that has resulted from seemingly intransigent positions.  Some of the responses I received to that were of the “well, both sides do it” variety (which is true to an extent, but I think beside the point) and the “you can’t legislate civility or impose censorship” stripe.

As it is developing, the young man who attempted to murder Representative Gifford—and succeeded in killing six others—appears to be not of sound mind.  We’re getting a picture of a loner who made no friends and indulged in a distorted worldview tending toward the paranoid.  How much of his actions can be laid on politics and how much on his own obsessions is debatable.  Many commentators very quickly tried to label him a right-winger, based largely on the political climate in Arizona and that he targeted a moderate, “blue dog” Democrat.  This in the context of years of shrill right-wing political rhetoric that fully employs a take-no-prisoner ethic, including comments from some Tea Party candidates about so-called Second Amendment solutions.  It’s looking like trying to label this man’s politics will be next to impossible and, as I say, if he is mentally unbalanced, what real difference does that make?  (Although to see some people say “Look, he’s a Lefty, one of his favorite books is Mein Kampf ” is in itself bizarre—how does anyone figure Mein Kampf indicates leftist political leanings?  Because the Nazis were “National Socialists”?  Please.)

Whatever the determination of Mr. Loughner’s motives may turn out to be, his actions have forced the topic of political stupidity and slipshod rhetoric to the forefront, at least until Gabrielle Gifford is out of danger of dying.  Regardless of his influences, in this instance he has served as the trigger for a debate we have been needing to have for decades.  This time, hopefully, it won’t be shoved aside after a few well-meaning sound-bites from politicians wanting to appear sensitive and concerned, only to have everyone go right back to beating each other bloody with nouns and verbs.

But while it may be fair to say that Mr. Loughner is unbalanced and might have gone off and shot anyone, the fact is he shot a politician, one who had been targeted by the Right.  Perhaps the heated rhetoric did not make Mr. Loughner prone to violence, but what about his choice of victims?

There is a dearth of plain speaking across the political spectrum.  That is as far as I’m willing to concede the charge that “both sides” indulge the same rhetoric.  They do not, at least not in the same degree, and this is one time when the Right has more to answer for than the Left.  The rhetorical shortcomings of the Left are of a different kind, but nowhere near as divisive as what we’ve been hearing from the folks who bring us Fox News and the national pundit circus.

“Why don’t we hear congressmen talking about banning Wicca in the military?  Or banning the occult in America?  This shooter was a stone-cold devil-worshiper!  A left-wing pot-smoking lunatic!”—Michael Savage.

That’s helpful.  Now we’ve dragged the supernatural into it, something I don’t believe anyone on the Left has done yet.  Mr. Savage seems not to have understood the call for “toned-down rhetoric” for what it actually means, but somehow something to be responded to as if it were an attack on his freedom to make outrageous assertions.

The fact is, the majority—the vast majority—of assaults over politically sensitive issues in the past three decades have come from a perspective that can only be characterized as supportive of the Right.  It may be that such issues attract the nutwings.  It may be that more nutwings find themselves in sympathy with conservative issues.   But it is more likely that the apocalyptic messaging coming from the Right has the correct tone and resonance to provide nutwings with proof that their personal paranoias are correct and they are justified in acting upon them.

In his excellent book, Talking Right, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg chronicles the shift in language in our public discourse and shows how the choices made by pundits, think tanks, speech writers, and politicians themselves have pushed the discourse further and further to the Right and making it a battle, for some a war, to stop Liberalism.  Increasingly, right-wing rhetoric has adopted a “take no prisoners” intransigence.  Even when cooperation occurs, when bipartisanship happens, and compromise is achieved, the Right makes it look like they won over the Left, to the point where the Left appears to be not only ineffectual but a burden, a drag on society, and in some instances a scourge to be expunged.

For the most part this has been carried out by the well-honed machine that is the right-wing media.  Republican politicians don’t have to say the truly objectionable things because there is a cadre of talking heads who will do it for them.

It is fair to say, however, fair to ask: why can’t the Left do this?

In a fascinating passage in Nunberg’s book he describes the problem:

“I happened on a striking demonstration of the right’s linguistic consistency back in 1996, when I was playing around with one of those programs that produces an automatic summary of texts by analyzing their word frequency and recurrent syntactic patterns.  out of curiosity, I ran it on a collection of all the speeches that had been given over the first two nights of the Republican National Convention in San Diego, and it promptly distilled them into five key sentences…but when I tried the same experiment a month later on the combined texts of the speeches from the first two nights of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the software returned pure word salad.  Because Democrats are chronically incapable of staying on message, no single group of phrases rose to the statistical surface.”

The five sentences?  Here:

We are the Republican Party—a big, broad, diverse and inclusive party, with a commonsense agenda and a better man for a better America, [insert politician’s name].  We need a leader we can trust.  Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being part of this quest in working with us to restore the American dream.  The commonsense Republican proposals are the first step in restoring the American dream because Republicans care about America.  But there is no greater dream than the dreams parents have for their children to be happy and to share God’s blessings.

(Lundberg traces the current demonization of Liberal to 1988, when in a speech Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator—said “The masquerade is over.  It’s time to…say the dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition are liberal, liberal, liberal.”  The Democratic candidate that year, Michael Dukakis, rather than counter the charge, ducked it, and the expression “the L-word” entered the lexicon of public discourse the same way as other unmentionable epithets have—the N-word, the F-word, etc.  So Liberal was reduces to a slur, something not said in polite company.  We have not recovered since.)

It’s interesting to look at those five sentences and parse what they actually seem to suggest.  The word “dream” is in there four times, the word “commonsense” twice, the word “America” three times.  The question to ask is, what comprises the dream and what do they mean by commonsense?  And do you have commonsense dreams?  Dreams by definition are in some way outside the practical, and usually commonsense refers to some species of practical.

But for the moment, let’s look at that American Dream so oft mentioned and so seldom examined.

James Truslow Adams, in his book Epic of America in 1931, first coined the phrase:

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

This more than a year and a half into the Great Depression demands context.  The “dreams” of millions of Americans had been thoroughly dashed in the Crash of ‘29.  People were out of work, losing their homes, with little or no possibility of relief.  At that time there were no safety nets.  No unemployment insurance, no welfare to speak of, nothing provided in the event that private enterprise failed to absorb the majority of available workers, who depended on wages to maintain themselves and their families.

image by spxChrome at iStock (with permission)

President Hoover stood resolutely opposed to providing any kind of direct aid, fearing it would sap the will of workers to seek employment.  He was, along with most “conservatives” of his time, willing to see millions destituted rather than risk undermining the vaunted “work ethic” that had fueled American industrial and economic ascendence to that point.

This was also the era in which unions were still struggling to make inroads in the struggle to achieve fair labor practices.  Unions were opposed by the conservatives of the era because of fears that giving workers power to determine the conditions under which they labored would undermine the entrepreneurial spirit.

What is most striking, however, about Mr. Adams’ words is his downplaying of the material in lieu of a kind of independent self value, a notion that people have a right to be treated equally as worthwhile, and to be free to pursue their own vision of improvement.  This kind of appreciation for what might called a basic right of civilized life has been talked about and worked toward through most of  Western history, no less elsewhere that here, but seldom more polarized and equivocated than America.


Self rule via a popularly elected government subject to recall—liberal idea.

Recognition of individual value regardless of station—liberal idea.

Emancipation of bond slaves as a fundamental human right—liberal idea.

Electoral franchise available to all adults, regardless of race or gender—liberal idea.

Recognition that women are individuals unto themselves with all the rights and privileges pertaining to a fully enfranchised person—liberal idea.

Protection of children from exploitation through child labor laws—liberal idea.

Right of workers to be free from arbitrary dismissal without cause from jobs—liberal idea.

Limited work week—liberal idea.

Universal public education—liberal idea.

The list could go on.  And by Liberal I mean the notion that progress to achieve social egalitarianism is a positive value.

It also means, implicitly, that people should not judge others according to myths, stereotypes, or prejudices.  This is embodied in the old maxim that in this country “anybody can become the president.”  The truth of this maxim is debatable, but underlying it is Liberal concept of egalitarian value.

In each of the aforementioned instances, the conservatives of the time opposed—sometimes aggressively, even violently—the changes necessary to make these ideas a reality.  And by conservative I mean a philosophy of stasis, the maintenance of status quo, or at the very least the preservation of privilege among the properties few.

Whether it is true or not in every instance, conservatism has been the ideological partner of the well off.  It has stood generally in opposition to change, often for good cause (Speaker Reed of the House of Representatives during the McKinley administration stood in opposition to a change in policy that allowed for America to become an imperial nation by launching a war on Spain.  He was a conservative by any definition and in this instance he saw the manipulation of rules of procedure by those eager to go to war as an unsupportable change), but also quite often simply to preserve the privileges of those viewed as successful.

So what is it Liberals have to be ashamed of?

It is this:  for being unwilling or unable to define progress in such a way that the general public can support it and to stand up for their support of such progress.  Liberals have often been unwilling to take stands.  The Left does, but usually it is a Left that is even farther left than Liberal comfort allows.  Radicals.  Extremists.  And by their efforts, everything on the Left has come to be vilified.  Liberals ride the wave in to progress and after the achievement claim to support what has been accomplished.  Liberals tend to be accommodationist to the point of letting conservatives—or the Right—define them, usually to their detriment.

What is fascinating is how after every period of explosive progressive change, the new order, sometimes quite rapidly, becomes the status quo and defended by conservatism, so that Liberalism almost always loses credit for what it has accomplished.

But that seems now to be just an appearance.  The Right has been trying to roll back progress for some time now.  Missouri is about to vote on a Right To Work bill—again—which sounds reasonable on its face, but is just one more attempt to break unions.  Unions have lost ground since the Seventies and in many instances they have been their own worst enemies.  Any long-established entrenched power system becomes corrupt and, yes, conservative, and can become unreasonable.  But if anyone thinks getting rid of them will redound to workers’ benefit, they are delusional.  Right To Work has in those states where it has been in force for a long time, translated into lowered pay, lowered benefits, lowered standards, and higher abuses—many of which have been countered by Federal laws prohibiting certain practices.

By Mr. Lundberg’s analysis, the Right has taken control of the language and ridden that control into power more often than not since Reagan.  And those five key sentences of Republican solidarity seem to attract people, if not to join them outright, at least to demand some kind of compliance to them by their own ideological spokespersons.  But just what is it that those five sentences promise?

Nothing.  They are an acknowledgment of sentiment, not a program.

What the Right does speaks for itself.  Lower taxes, gutting of education, reduction of resources to basic research, and, since 9/11, an increase in domestic paranoia that targets an enemy it cannot clearly define but has resulted in restrictions on all of us.  A support of big business (and by that I mean corporations so large as to constitute de facto governements within themselves, many of them functionally stateless), and an opposition to secularism.  A promotion of the idea of American Exceptionalism based less on actual achievement than on birth-right (hence the current discussions over revision of the 14th Amendment) at the expense of the very commonsense approach they tout.

Lay on top of all this the superheated rantings on the part of their mouthpieces, you have an atmosphere in which anything that equivocates, that seeks to reflect, that calls for honest debate, that might require rethinking of positions, any compromise is seen by the faithful as treason.

But against what?

I have some thoughts on that.  Stay tuned.


Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, History, Language, Orwellian, Politics, populism, Propaganda

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Mark H says:

    The thing that bothers me so much about this, is the hype that has been added because he chose to do this at a political function. The ONLY reason this has turned into a political duscission is because of the venue.I am FAR more bothered by the fact that an innocent child was killed.

  2. Dave Jenkins says:

    Sorry Mark, but you lost me somewhere around the 3rd or 4th paragraph. What started out as a salient post about how harmful the rhetoric is out there, you then switch into a fairly defensive and almost confrontational position on your own liberalism. I have not problem with liberalism, nor your arguments for it. I do have a problem when you mix it in with this tragedy– even while bemoaning those that are mixing partisanship with this tragedy. Got Irony?

    I really think we have some connected problems here. Connected, but separate:

    1. The rhetoric is caustic and harmful. No one argues that it's not (left or right). But nevermind which side is 'worse', examine the problem for what it is– a market has been created for caustic rhetoric with some systematic quirks: 1) the one-to-many mass media relaitonship, 2) channel personalization from multiple mass media outlets that allows for extremism (even rewards it), 3) the illusion of groupthink that occurs online when the mass public can respond and participate with like-minded individuals (because the Internet is a pull, not a push). Extreme rhetoric is here to stay, unfortunately, I think.

    2. Nutjobs are nutjobs. Again, no one is doubting that. To the extent that nut jobs latch onto a given set of extremist rhetoric is subject to the environment, I believe. Remember the SLA and the Weathermen? They were 'left wing nutjobs'. If the right wing identified itself with guns and the NRA and black helicopters and New World Order conspiracies, then yeah– they'll invite the paranoids to the BBQ.

    The trouble is in the connection of those two problems: we often step on each others' toes when we try to connect problem A with problem B. I'm guilty of it myself– anyone who writes political commentary is guilty.

  3. Dave,

    The key sentence (so I intended) is this one:

    "Whatever the determination of Mr. Loughner’s motives may turn out to be, his actions have forced the topic of political stupidity and slipshod rhetoric to the forefront"

    And then I intended this to be about the left-right divide and the rhetorical shifts that have brought us here.

    Mea culpa on the defensiveness. I do feel that part of what has brought us here is the Left's shortcomings at defining itself and in continually allowing the bullying of the right to dominate. The bullies are loose in the schoolyard as much because we allow them to be—by being, apparently, ashamed of our own accomplishments—as because they are, well, bullies.

    All of which has created the atmosphere at issue. Sorry if I caused confusion. (He says accommodatingly…:))

  4. Dave Jenkins says:

    No worries, Mark, and thanks for being rational and understanding and cogent. I have faith in the system somewhere, if only for intelligent forums like this one.

    I always just try to invoke a simple filter to spot a rational argument: whenever I see certain words like "left" "right" "liberal" "conservative", I switch them for their opposite in my head, and see if the argument still holds water. The next thing I do is subtract the words from the sentence, and see if it improves the argument.

    In your case, if I were to take out the word 'liberal', then I think you have a much better case. In other words, I agree that bullies are bullies, and vile rhetoric is damaging the Republic– but nevermind which side it's coming from. By pointing fingers at one side or another, one only joins in the fray, and retards their own purpose in a way.

  5. Dave,

    I agree with your sentiment for the most part. But…

    There's the lesson from back in grade school that must be remembered. The instigator of a problem always seems to be the one who gets away with it and the one who gets caught by the teacher is the poor kid who finally responds to the goading. For justice to triumph, I think it's important to identify the instigator and not always just pat the air and say "Okay, boys and girls, let's all play nice now." Before we can disempower the bullies, we need to know who they are. Sometimes one side or the other really is at fault for causing the crap. Granted, we shouldn't respond with similar crap, but blanketly proclaiming that we should all "stop that" doesn't always work.

  6. Dave Jenkins says:


    Your playground analogy would hold water if it weren't for some unfortunate realities:

    1. The world is much more complex than a grammar-school playground. One man's "bully" is another man's "vanguard for truth". There are so many contributing and interacting factors, that labeling one person or another a 'bully' does little to advance the conversation, really.

    2. I'm not sure what 'justice' means, except for what I read in comics about The Punisher or John Wayne movies. Here again, 'justice' is a very squishy thing outside a court of law, and if one pursues certain actions in pursuit of 'justice' based on their own moral code or beliefs, then that person is at best simply going another round of partisan yelling, at worst they are a gun-toting vigilante.

    Please note that I wasn't calling for everyone to just sit down and stop yelling. I was trying to find the systemic and structural flaws that cause and amplify the yelling and screaming. I'm never one to advocate trying to change people's behaviour by force– I strongly believe in working to change market/environmental conditions to where people chose to do something else. To wit:

    – I am pro-legalization of all drugs

    – I want a carbon tax

    – I want people to be allowed to designate the department of govt that gets their tax money.

    – I want to find ways to change the dynamics of the conversation that doesn't reward extremists. If this means new channels, new ways of constructing online conversations, reworking the way party primaries are held, proportional representation, or whatever.

  7. I agree the world is more complex than a school yard, but I'm not convinced we're more complex. I appreciate the pitfalls of reducing things to too simplistic a model, but the reverse is also a problem, assuming we "grow out of" the lessons learned as children. There's no line and I think sometimes we act out of what we picked up at 10-years-old. The layers of living mask the source. Perhaps not in method but in motivation, it actually makes a kind of raw sense to see the entirety of W's administration as the aesthetic manifestation of a bully—or someone who had been bullied deciding finally to stand up to the bullies.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    In the ongoing coverage of Loughner, Fox news outlets have been consistently describing Loughner as the "alleged" gunman.

    According to the dictionary, "alleged" means "suspected,but not proven", so this indicate to me that Fox news wants the public to believe that all the witnesses present were lying about the shooting.

    The use of the "alleged" description has spread throughout the media. Personally, I fid this bit of spin to be bizarre and disquieting.

  9. Niklaus,

    In this instance, it's standard practice. Until the trial is over and a conviction is handed in, all such persons are "alleged"—-it may seem absurd, but it covers them from libel suits in case of an aquital.

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