Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Role of Language in Politics

As any reader of this blog likely knows, I am generally displeased with the nature of political discourse in the United States. Thanks to major, for-profit media outlets like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, our national discourse is shaped and our language is carefully selected to represent primarily the interests of the few extremely wealthy men who run those companies. As a result, we spend a lot of time talking about issues like abortion, stem cell research, and immigration policy - all admittedly important - and not much time talking about things like the structure of power, voting policies, and income distribution. Of course, we talk about those latter things some, but with those issues, as with the more popular and sensational issues listed before, the whole debate is framed by major media outlets. And that's the real point: the range of acceptable opinion has almost nothing to do with the range of possible solutions.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the brilliant associations the so-called right and left have made around each others' positions. Anything strongly conservative is "fascist," and anything strongly liberal is "socialist, communist, or Marxist." None of those words is used according to their actual meaning, but rather they have become bugbears, denoting some vague sense of evil and despair that comes from running a government that is not, as we call it, "moderate."

Moderate is much more a myth than words like Socialist and Fascist. How so? Because the concept of moderate depends upon a linear model of political discourse. For some reason we've all bought into the Facebook Likert scale of politics; each position is scored from strongly liberal to strongly conservative, with the middle being moderate. Why should this be? What is so linear about politics? On a superficial level, sure, it makes sense: if I believe the government should take measures to prevent illegal immigration, it is fairly easy to draw a straight line from there to the opposite position, which says that illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. But does it really make sense to draw that line? Even if we can turn the general sense of what should be done into a linear continuum, surely there's room for debate on the how?

Consider: one person might argue that we need to build a big wall along the Mexican-American border. Another might say we need to round up all of the illegal immigrants in the country and deport them. Yet another might argue that we should work closely with the Mexican government to improve working conditions there, so as to minimize the incentives for immigration. Still another might argue that we ought to do our best to simplify immigration law so that it is easier to determine who is legal and who is not. And so on. The thing is, many of these positions are not mutually exclusive for any reason other than where they stand in our perceived left-right linear model of politics. Yet, if you were to ask most Americans, they would think that the border fence idea and the simplified immigration law idea are irreconcilable.

This is just a single example, but we could do the same with almost any issue. Try it yourself. Take a major, hot-button issue. Map out the conservative position and the liberal one. Then determine possible solutions, and see whether they are mutually exclusive.

I should say, what I'm talking about is not a moderate position, because that implies finding the midpoint of a line. My point here is that we are imagining - we believe almost unquestioningly - in a line that does not exist. There is no linearity in political solutions. Even a yes or no question like "should the USA reduce its military budget" cannot be answered by liberal-says-yes and conservative-says-no. The issue is more complicated than that. The issue is not, fundamentally, linear.

With all that in mind, I want to return to the words we use in politics to denigrate opposing positions. "That's socialism!" is the cry around which - ironically - many people rally when talking about President Obama (ironic because Obama is about as far from being a socialist as everyone who derides him for it; indeed, he probably has fewer socialist beliefs than most of the people who criticize him). No explanation is needed. No examination of why socialism is bad, how it works and doesn't work, and why we have to fear socialist reforms is offered in the national discourse. We take for granted that socialism is evil, that it has been tried and does not work, that income and wealth should never never never be distributed throughout the population.

In 1967, the median income in the United States was roughly $33,000. Someone in the 95th percentile, on the other hand, made roughly $89,000 per year. That's significant disparity, but not outrageous.

By 2003, the median income in the United States was roughly $43,000, while the 95th percentile had risen to $154,000.

I don't have the more recent numbers, but I suspect the gap is still growing. And here I wonder, when we start talking about economic policy, why we talk about socialism in such evil terms. Does the richest 5 percent of the country really need to make 4 or 5 times as much as the median (and lets not talk about the bottom 20 to 25 percent, who make less than a living wage)? Is it not possible and, perhaps, reasonable to change the way that income is distributed, not in some bizarre pseudo-Marxist equal way, but simply so that everyone can survive?

Here's the point. I'm guessing that, if you take out all political language, almost everyone will agree that, yes, everyone should have a chance to make it. Hell, it's in the declaration of independence. The thing is, we've been hoodwinked into thinking that equal opportunity exists under our current economic and social structures when it certainly does not. We've been fooled into thinking that we have a "welfare state," where people at the bottom are there only because they are lazy and incompetent. We've succumbed to the idea that there is no alternative - in the best of all possible worlds, to quote Voltaire - to what is increasingly a reverse-socialism in our economic policy.*

*That is, we have socialized losses and privatized gains, a truly despicable situation. Remember that the bailout was paid for by tax payers and paid out to large investment and insurance companies. In other words, a problem caused, at least in part,** by income disparity, was "solved" by increasing income disparity. Brilliant!

**It is worth noting that the biggest economic collapses of the last century occurred at the times of greatest income disparity; that is, in 1929, in 1987, and in 2008. Hmm...

All this because there is no language available to have a rational discourse around economic (or almost any other) policy. You believe in changing the tax structure so that it is more progressive? You're a socialist-communist-Marxist pig who doesn't deserve to be in the country, let alone the conversation. How much worse if you use the word - socialism - yourself? Gone are the days when Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey proudly called themselves socialists. Today you have to apologize, all because of the power of language.

What terms are available, however, is not the issue. The issue is that we have an entire political and social and culture machine that uses language to force us to think of politics as linear, and forces us to continually reinvent meaningful terms because the ones we try to use continually get twisted and saddled with innuendos and connotations they don't, in themselves, warrant. Language is a powerful thing - maybe the most powerful thing there is - and it seems we don't know how and don't want to use it responsibly.

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