The Ideas Behind the Words

Back in my carefree liberal days, when I thought that "God's in her Heaven, Clinton's in the White House, and all's right with the world," I used to listen to Geoffrey Nunberg, a UC Berkeley linguist, on NPR.  I thought he was wonderful.

Nunberg would carefully explain how conservatives were perverting the English language to hide their nefarious goals.  Indeed, he wrote a whole book on the subject.   As far as he was concerned, conservatives had co-opted words such as "patriotism" and "honor," while leaving liberals unjustly smeared with the cheapened word "liberal."  This was entrancing stuff to a word-lover.

Thankfully, wisdom comes with age, and I've since realized that Nunberg was wrong.  Conservatives have not engaged in any Nixon-esque subterfuge in order to steal away words, leaving liberals with only the icky, unappealing words.

Nunberg forgets that there are actual ideas underlying those words or phrases that deal with abstract notions.  Americans happen to be resistant to defining "patriotism" to mean that one loves one's country in the same way a wife-beater loves his wife.  They're equally unexcited when they see the word "liberal" -- rooted in Latin liberalis, or "freedom" -- being bent to a political cause that devotes itself to restricting individual freedom.

What Americans understand, and what sophisticated statist linguists try to avoid, is that, no matter how much one manipulates the words, people hold to their ideas.  My children, both in middle school, perfectly illustrated the difference between ideas and words during a conversation about the Weinergate scandal.

Both of my children knew what Weiner had done, and they're old enough to understand what sexting is generally.  Given that they were conversant with the sordid facts, I decided it was important to check in with the way in which they understood the morality (or lack thereof) connected with those facts.

After giving them the full (but decently expurgated) story of Weiner's sexcapades, I wrapped up by saying, "So far as we know, Weiner never actually touched another woman.  Keeping that in mind, do you think he cheated on his wife?"

My daughter snapped out, "Yes, of course he cheated."

My son as quickly responded, "No, he didn't cheat."

Always ready to wage war against her brother, my daughter began castigating him.  "What do you mean, Weiner didn't cheat?  What he did was gross.  That was cheating!"

"No," said my son, sticking to his guns.  "That wasn't cheating."

Before major hostilities erupted in my car, and with Dennis Prager's wise admonition to "prefer clarity to agreement" ringing in my ears, I asked my son a question.  "Why wasn't it cheating?"

"Because," answered my son, "cheating means actual sex."


"Well," I probed further, "was Weiner unfaithful?"

"Absolutely," my son replied.  "His wife should divorce him."

While my daughter and my son agreed about the moral principles underlying the whole Weinergate affair, with each believing that Weiner had broken his marital vows, they were in danger of coming to blows over a semantic quarrel.  I would have witnessed an ugly battle to the death between two parties on the same side of an issue.

This drama doesn't just play out in my car.  It plays out much more significantly in the world of political ideas.

Last week, Zombie, the Bay Area photojournalist extraordinaire, attended an Arab Spring protest in San Francisco.  Zombie was much struck by how reasonable the signs were.  The small number of attendees, all visibly Arab or Muslim, carried signs trumpeting "Freedom" and "Democracy."  Surrounding these reasonable protesters, however, were the usual leftists, people whose placards had nothing to do with the Arab Spring, and everything to do with hardcore communism.  What a shame, thought Zombie, that the left has to despoil every protest.

All was not as it seemed, though.  Some sharp detective work on Zombie's part revealed that the ostensibly democratic Middle Eastern protesters, and their signs, arrived there courtesy of AROC -- the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.  That's an innocuous name, right?  Not so.  As Zombie says:

What kind of Arab political organization, you might ask? Well, that's where things get, shall we say, interesting."

No, they're not Islamist. I was right about that. But a quick survey of their Web site revealed various buzzwords and telltale phrases:

"social justice"
"oppose all war and occupation"
"community organizer"
"union organizing"
...and so on.Furthermore, their "values" platform includes:

1.  Challenge the racism and religious discrimination.
2.  Work to create an economically just world free from occupation and exploitation.
3.  Oppose sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism within our organization...."
...etc. They're also stridently pro-Palestinian and demand the "right of return."

And it dawned on me: These are the exact same phrases one sees spouted by American socialist and communist groups. And so these must be...Arab communists! [Slaps forehead.] Or, more precisely, Arab crypto-communists, since they take great pains in their literature to never say the c-word (or the s-word, for that matter). They say all the wink-wink nudge-nudge code phrases so like-minded far-left activists know how to identify fellow travelers, but keep the verbiage somewhat neutral so that mainstream freedom-minded Arabs might join up without full cognizance of the group's true political slant.

[I urge you to read Zombie's whole article, which is fascinating, scholarly, and lavishly illustrated.]

Just as my son and daughter ascribed radically different meanings to the word "cheat" (in the marital context), so too do communists and conservatives use the same vocabulary to describe very different things.  For example, as AROC illustrated, both conservatives and leftists speak of "justice."  One has to drill down, as I did with my children, to understand the profound difference in usage between the two sides.

When conservatives speak of "justice," they speak of a higher truth and morality that applies equally to every single individual in the world.  When communists, Progressives, and Democrats speak of "justice," they're referring to active government favoritism for specifically designated anti-capitalist victim groups.

Ostensibly neutral phrases, the ones that poll well on college campuses, also have rather surprising meanings when one delves deeper.  Take "right of return," for example.  What could be fairer than allowing the dispossessed to return to their homeland?  Gullible college students will readily agree to that notion.

I wonder, though, if these same naïve students would be as supportive of the notion if someone explained to them (a) that the right of return extends generationally, so that the tens of thousands allegedly dispossessed will return as the millions who transform Israel into a majority-Muslim, judenrein nation; or (b) that the right of return is not a two-way street, as the hundreds of thousands of Jews booted out of Arab nations will not have a complementary right to return to their Iraqi or Iranian or Egyptian homelands.  This innocuous "right" is a one-way street aimed directly at Israel's elimination -- but you have to examine the principles underlying the language to appreciate what's really going on.

My particular pet peeve is the way in which "fascist" is ascribed to the right, so that the malevolent and uninformed can then call all people on the right "fascist."  Faced with this erroneous nomenclature, there are two choices.  First of all, one can engage in the time-consuming, laborious, and confusing task of walking people through history, carefully explaining that the phrase "right-wing" is a hangover from the French Revolution, which is hardly relevant now; that the original "fascists" were socialists, following a left-wing political ideology; and that the American political left rejiggered the term "fascism" in the post-War era to mean right-wing, making it possible to tar conservatives with the wrong brush.  As an alternative to a mind-numbing history and vocabulary lesson, one can ask people whether or not they want total government control over all facets of life.

With the exception of hard-core leftists, who believe total government frees the individual (a bit of Orwellian Newspeak that defies logic), most people will opt for a less intrusive government.  These same people are then quite surprised at this point to learn that it's the "fascist" Republicans who are trying to relieve Americans from the burden of an overly intrusive, burdensome, controlling government, while it's the "liberal" Democrats and Progressives who work diligently to increase government control over every aspect of American lives.

Words definitely matter, but what matters even more is to understand the meanings underlying abstract concepts.  So before you get into a fight with someone, or before you conclude that you agree with someone else, take the time to determine whether both of you attribute the same meaning to the same abstract words or phrases.  The results of your inquiry may surprise you.

Bookworm is a crypto-conservative living in a blue county.  She blogs at Bookworm Room.  Her book, The Bookworm Turns : A Secret Conservative in Liberal Land, is available in e-format for $4.99 at Amazon, Smashwords, or through your iBook app.