Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 July 2020

What’s in a Name, or How GOP Extremists Win


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    “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet . . .” — William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words will never hurt me.” — Old folk saying used to encourage taunted children
Introduction
The basics
Real-life examples
The power of subliminal positive spin
Conclusion

Introduction

Of course both the Bard and the old savants were literally right. Making up or changing a name doesn’t literally change the underlying reality. Nor can a name break bones by itself.

But both also were wrong in important ways. We humans are social and political animals. The primary means we use to communicate, socialize and govern ourselves is words.

So names matter. They matter a lot, especially in politics. They can supercharge propaganda. They can become weapons. They can corrupt and sour democracies. They can provoke wars, oppression, riots and lynchings.

Indirectly, they can kill people and destroy democracies. That’s what they’re doing, right now, today, in the United States of America.

“Applied philology”—the engineering of words, names and nicknames—is a vastly underrated tool of politics and propaganda. [See, for example, this post and this one.] Today one American political party exploits it far more cleverly and effectively than the other.

You don’t have to think long to see which. Even Donald Trump, for all his public stupidity, scattered brains, and wishful thinking, is a master of the trade. That’s a big reason why his popularity still sits near a rock-hard 40%, despite innumerable blunders in word and deed.

None of this makes much sense in logic. That’s why intellectuals, lawyers, professionals, and policy wonks have such trouble dealing with it. As my first Russian teacher told us, language is psychological, not logical. This essay explores that under-appreciated truth in politics and explains what progressive people and our pols might still do about it, although the hour is late.

The basics

There are two ways in which modern propagandists prove Shakespeare wrong. The first is to change the connotation of a name without changing the name at all, or maybe only a little.

Let’s take the Bard’s rose, for example. Roses have thorns; they can stick you. After a while, their petals darken, flatten and fall off. As they do, their scent sours and becomes putrid. Wait long enough, and mold and rot set in.

All this is but the hard truth of nature and the facts of life. Wait long enough, and beauty ever fades and dies.

Simply by emphasizing these harsh realities, over and over again, a good propagandist can take the bloom off the rose. With the aid of modern mass media, including social media, she can change the connotation of the name: the mental image or impression that a word conjures in human minds. Like Pavlov’s dogs, people repeatedly “dosed” with images of thorns and blood, petals falling off and putrefying, and colors and bloom fading, can change their minds about roses. They may begin to buy their loves carnations or daisies instead.

The Internet lends itself brilliantly to this sort of verbal re-engineering. It never tires. It can repeat the same slant a million times, with a million variations, wrought by myriad trolls and spooks in different, secret places, or spawned automatically by algorithms. It can hit consumers where they’re most vulnerable, on their Facebook Walls, amidst stories and images of their friends’ and families’ graduations, career triumphs, births, marriages and deaths.

The second way in which modern propagandists prove Shakespeare wrong is to change the word, either subtly or completely. The GOP did this in comparing Bernie Sanders’ mild democratic socialism with images of and rants against Soviet Communism, caricatures of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, and predictions of the death of free enterprise.

In replies to a comment on this blog, I’ve explained in detail the vast differences involved in this invidious but bogus comparison. Yet the points are subtle and detailed and incapable of fitting on a bumper sticker. No doubt they elude the vast majority of voters who see the comparisons. Polls confirm that progressive candidates—including even Elizabeth Warren, who insisted throughout that she is a capitalist—suffered from those comparisons, despite their deficiencies in accuracy and logic.

That’s also how Trump’s pejorative nicknames work—the very same way that a childish bully or frat boy (like George W. Bush) uses nicknames to belittle, taunt and dominate rivals. The whole enterprise may be puerile, but it works. It works because it’s psychological, not logical. In order to have a significant political effect, it need only poison a small minority of voters’ minds. (Recall that Trump won in 2016 in key battleground states by margins of 1-2%.)

As crude as these propaganda ploys may become, they can fly under the radar of intellectuals and most other abstract thinkers. For them, the label on the box doesn’t matter; only what’s inside the box counts.

But most voters are not experienced in abstract thinking. They’re practical people who often take a label at face value, as the embodiment or essence of what’s in the box. If the label has a negative connotation, so be it. No one ever thought a leader as understated, methodical, careful, and law-abiding as Barack Obama could successfully be labeled a “tyrant,” at least in the minds of some voters, until he was.

Real-life examples

Name-calling and name-slanting are not just hypothetical dangers. They’ve actually moved the needle of national public opinion in my lifetime.

Liberal

Take the word “liberal,” for example. In my childhood, it connoted a simple, clear position on the political spectrum. A “liberal” was an empathetic, caring voter who supported liberty and freedom for all people, a strong safety net for the unfortunate, fair and equal treatment for minorities, strong labor unions, regulation to reduce pollution, laws to limit individuals’ industrial and financial power and ensure fair competition, and prioritizing domestic justice over optional foreign wars.

Today—through the “miracle” of applied philology—the word “liberal” has morphed into something entirely different, at least for a vast array of voters. It has come to mean a shaggy, lazy, rule-breaking, sexually promiscuous, child-neglecting (or baby-killing!) protestor or rioter, who comes from a minority, or who coddles them, and is habitually weak on national defense.

Don’t ask me how the GOP’s right-wing extremists accomplished this verbal transformation. It took decades, and all the power of Fox’ moron-pundits and the Internet. But now the transformation is a fait accompli, at least among a substantial minority of voters. For them the term “liberal” goes right along with the nickname “libtard”—meaning “liberal retard” or “(mentally) retarded liberal”—which expresses the same general negative connotation more forcefully.

Ironically, the very same word, “liberal,” still has something close to its original meaning among conservative intellectuals. When used in connection with our globalized economy, it refers to the values of the Enlightenment, but as applied to corporations and businesses, not people. It means a political environment that gives free rein to business formation, operation and expansion, with low taxes and light regulation and few or no restrictions on trade. The British weekly The Economist, for example, uses the word and its root regularly, in such phrases as the “liberal economic order” or economic “liberalism.”

Incongruous, even weird? You bet! The word “liberal” now connotes for many a despicable human being, while it remains for some an adjective for laudable policy governing businesses and corporations. How’s that for prioritizing wealth and power over humanity?

As crazy as it may seem, all this is as real as the tip of your nose. Voters and pols who’ve been victims of this legerdemain in applied philology, aka “propaganda,” now have explicitly recognized both the fact and the power of it. They’ve abandoned the term “liberal” and now call themselves and their ideas “progressive.”

That was a good strategic philological retreat. After all, who can stand against progress?

Democrat

What the GOP did with the word “Democrat” is both more subtle and more insidious. Its transformation rose to philological and propagandistic brilliance.

In my youth, the word “Democrat” (with a capital “D”) was a noun, and only a noun. It connoted only a person: a member of the Democratic Party. The word “Democratic” was an adjective—the only relevant adjective—and part of the party’s proper name.

Today, after two decades of effort by right-wingers, the word “Democrat” (with a capital D) has become an adjective with the form of a noun, as in the phrases “Democrat party,” “Democrat bill” or “Democrat program.” That jarring and ungrammatical use has two powerful, under-the-radar emotional effects. First, it implies that Democrats are not small-d democratic, or at least not the only ones to be so. Second, as a noun used as an adjective, “Democrat” is grammatically jarring and so feels like an epithet. All by itself, it casts an awkward, negative spell over the entire Democratic (capital-d) enterprise and its practitioners.

The tragedy is that clueless Democrats have themselves, willy nilly, adopted this bit of subtle philological bias. They now use it routinely, in acts of unknowing verbal self-abuse. To me, that’s like Joe Biden calling himself “Sleepy Joe.”

Whether Democrats do this out of simple carelessness, or out of the politeness and cooperative spirit that traditionally characterized them, I can’t tell. But the end result has been utter capitulation to a nickname that jars, sounds like an epithet and abandons the very notion of democracy to authoritarian right-wingers. Repeated over and again, hundreds of times a day, this distortion of good English and good manners drives its point home like a poisoned spear.

Nothing else, to my mind, shows so clearly how today’s Trump-tromped Republicans, while often bereft of logic, good ideas and basic decency, have pounded Democrats into the sand on the field of philological combat. The contest to date has been entirely unequal. It’s as if a nineteenth-century boxer trained under Marquis of Queensbury rules were trying to fight a modern Brazilian Judo master in a ring without rules.

The power of subliminal positive spin

Not all of Republicans’ applied philology involves belittling the opposition. Some involves subtle or not-so-subtle self-aggrandizement.

Take the so-called “Tea Party,” for example. In reality, it was an extremist rump group of GOP House members bent on political extortion through shutdown. At the height of their power and influence, two-thirds of them were from Old South and Border States, and 20% from Texas alone. Not a single one hailed from the largely progressive state of Massachusetts.

Yet by adopting the incongruous name “Tea Party,” they all sought to evoke the historical aura of New England, the American Revolution, the Fourth of July, and the now-mythical act of rebellion in which early colonists threw British tea into Boston Harbor as a protest against taxation without representation. Their group name evoked the hazy glory of our Founding, while their policies exalted the rich, the powerful, the militarization of our police and foreign policy, and the greatest and most widespread economic inequality since the abolition of slavery.

Conclusion

It’s both shameful and tragic that Democrats and progressives have let this verbal farce go on for so long without effective challenge. Perhaps they still harbor a naive but touching faith in the durability of the kind of Reason and respectful debate that once undergirded the Enlightenment and our Founding.

But Reason and cooperation have had their day. We now live in an Orwellian age where lies, demagoguery, extortion, coercion, and corruption are becoming ways of life. This deviation could be temporary, but it could mark a trend.

In such an age, the Internet and its social media, if not all electronic media, are two-edged swords. We once hoped they might lead to new age of free expression and popular empowerment. But they seem, in recent times, to have morphed into juggernauts of propaganda, brainwashing, bullying and lies. The trolls, spooks, oligarchs, political “operatives” and power-brokers who actually pull the strings hide under layer upon layer of digital and legal anonymity.

So unless Democrats and progressives want to bring knives to a gunfight, and consequently to lose quickly, they are going to have to get smarter and tougher. They are going to have to stop leading with their chins. They are going to have to stop touting “socialism” and even “democratic socialism,” as Bernie did.

Instead, they are going to have to recognize how decades of media lies, distortions and demagoguery have thoroughly tarnished the word “socialism” in American political discourse. They’ve made it, in many voters’ minds, synonymous with the Hammer and Sickle, the gross failures of Chinese and Russian Communism, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Maduro’s Venezuela, and the death of free enterprise. So progressives are going to have to use simpler, less abstract and less loaded words—just as Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams do—to explain what they stand for and how it will improve voters’ lives.

Most of all, progressives are going to have to do better than use slogans that play into demagogues’ hands, like “Defund the Police” or “Abolish ICE.” These banners may express justified horror at real excesses and injustices of our over-militarized (and often downright cruel) police and immigration services. But philologically and politically, they have a fatal flaw: they sound like nihilism to many voters.

How, pray tell, do these slogans differ from the GOP’s oft-repeated but never (so far) realized push to “Repeal Obamacare”? Over twenty million people now rely on Obamacare for health insurance, including coverage of pre-existing conditions. Most of them vote. So how does threatening to pull the rug of health care out from under so many voters advance the cause of so-called “conservatives,” let alone the public health in the midst of a pandemic?

However cruel and misguided our current policing and border protection may be, great swaths of voters rely on them for protection against crime and gangs, and for accepting only the immigrants that we, the people, actually want, or that justice requires admitting. Even loved ones of non-white men murdered by the police call them under extreme circumstances, just as Carlos Ingram Lopez’ grandmother did.

So don’t threaten to abolish something that many voters respect and rely on without offering a better alternative. Make your slogan something positive, like “De-Militarize the Police,” “Community Policing with a Heart,” “Police with Humane Help,” or “Humanize ICE and our Immigration System.”

It’s not easy to pick just the right word or slogan to express an idea for improving our society. In fact, it’s one of the hardest conceptual tasks in politics.

But it’s vital for winning votes. Getting just the right word or slogan can change the world, just as have Jesus’ bumper stickers “Love thy enemy” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

In this critical task, progressives’ reliance on intellectuals and the highly educated can prove a handicap. Smart people don’t rely on the label on a box; they look into the box to see what’s inside. But smart people also don’t give as much weight to size, power, strength, wealth, conformity and celebrity as many voters do. So if they want to start winning, Democrats and progressives are going to have to tailor their slogans and their messages to the vast majority of voters, for whom the label on the box can matter as much as or more than what’s actually inside.

There are recent signs that progressives are catching on. For decades, they’ve struggled to answer a simple, vexing question: what to name the group among us who are the subjects of our most long-lasting, durable and virulent oppression and prejudice?

At seven syllables, “African-Americans” is too long and unwieldy. It’s also factually wrong: a lot of people within the group have nothing to do with Africa, except for distant and long-forgotten ancestors. And a lot of Americans of African descent are white.

As for “black” (the ordinary English adjective), it’s wrong chromatically, genetically, culturally and morally. It lumps together far too many different people, of far too many different skin tones, from too many different countries, linguistic groups, tribes and cultural backgrounds. It also smacks of the slaveholder’s “one-drop” rule, invented to convert people into durable property, even the progeny of white rapists.

But sometimes the most ingenious solutions are the simplest. Begin the word “Black” with a capital “B,” and it becomes a proper noun. Then it can mean what its users want it to mean, while also connoting a degree of respect.

The proper noun “Black” is also broad enough to run the gamut of victims. It can include: (1) an impoverished descendant of slaves living in the ghetto, (2) a business entrepreneur who has to fight conscious and unconscious racism every step of the way, (3) a well-educated immigrant from Jamaica or Ghana, who must deal with unaccustomed prejudice on first stepping off the boat, and (4) even Tim Scott, our Republican Senator from South Carolina, who must suffer unwarranted assumptions about people who look like him even as he wends his way in his business suit to cast his senatorial vote.

In retrospect, the philological task looks simple. Just pick a clean, respectful, single syllable, and make it a capitalized proper noun, to denote the entire group whose mistreatment for four centuries is our greatest national tragedy and our greatest shame. Yet it took all of those four centuries to pick just the right word.

The morals of this story are clear. Words matter. Names matter. Getting just the right word, name or slogan can take lots of time and thought, as well as trial and error. But none of that effort is ill spent.

In fundamental ways, Shakespeare’s memorable quotation got it wrong. The clan names that his star-crossed lovers bore did lead, almost inevitably, to their tragic and untimely deaths.

Call it naming. Call it “framing.” Call it what you will. But getting the name or slogan just right is a fighting skill in politics. In that skill, the right wing has beat the left wing all hollow for at least a generation.

So it’s a skill the left had better learn fast. Otherwise, dumb slogans like “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE” will let right-wing demagogues imprison the left in verbal cages, re-elect Trump, and kill our American democracy stone cold dead.

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