Thursday, February 28, 2013

The War of Words

There is definitely a "war of words" between reactionaries and progressives, and our side is losing. That is pretty sad, considering that most of us are "words people." Not only do most of us earn our daily bread by the written or spoken word, but we are generally better educated, well read, and articulate than our opponents. And yet, we keep letting our adversaries impose their nomenclature on the most crucial debates of the day. No matter how much we protest, the mainstream media always seem to adopt the right's shorthand frame of reference rather than ours.
[Mayhap that says something important about the quality of today's journalism, but that is a topic for another post.]

The popular terms are almost always loaded with value judgments that allow opponents to put us on the defensive. Take, for instance, the general acceptance by the communications media, and even "progressive" politicians, of the term "entitlement"  to characterize the terms of the debate over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other items of our shredded and inadequate safety net. To my way of thinking, an entitlement is something that you possess without having done anything to earn it, such as "picking the right parents," marrying the boss's daughter, or gaining legacy admission to a university otherwise beyond your capability. Put in baseball lingo, it is like waking up on third base and assuming that you got there by hitting a triple. [The most extreme cases wait confidently for the umpire to call a balk on the pitcher, so they can stroll home unimpeded.] The term "entitlement"is actually the polar opposite of programs that people have earned by a lifetime of labor, and that they and their employers have contributed toward financially for that same length of time.

Equally egregious is the alacrity with which progressives and the mainstream media have accepted "Obamacare" as a shorthand term for discussing the Affordable Care Act. Like entitlement, it began as a term of derision and a weapon with which to bludgeon the president and other progressive candidates during the recent election campaign. It is still a term of opprobrium designed to coerce state officials into refusing to participate in the insurance exchanges that are the "building blocks"--inadequate as they most certainly are-- of the nascent health care system. [Here in Wisconsin, our esteemed governor Scott Walker has just announced his decision to refuse to participate, turning down the federal money attached. He will soon announce his own plan for Wisconsin, which promises to be a bonanza for everyone but patients].  It is also clearly designed to mobilize resistance to the individual and employer mandates that are equally as crucial to the success of the ACA.   

Then there is the "fiscal cliff," the "sequester," the "Grand Bargain," "Fix the Debt,"and all the other terms thrown around with reckless abandon by those whom Paul Krugman calls "fiscal scolds" and "austerians". The simplistic analogy between the family household budget and that of the federal government ranges between pathetic and absurd. It holds water only "if those households can print dollar bills in the basement," as John Buell so succinctly puts in in The Progressive Populist. "A sovereign government the debts of which are denominated in its own currency," he adds "can never default unless it chooses to do so."  And if my household had the kind of taxing power conferred on the federal government by Article I, Section 8 and the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I would have exercised it more times than I can count. Whether those who constantly invoke that analogy really believe it themselves is highly unlikely, but it is difficult to underestimate the knowledge base and reasoning ability of either Congress or Wall Street. Either way, the analogy serves as a tried and true smokescreen for right wingers, an excuse to diminish or eliminate government programs. "The real north star of Ryan's policy record," as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has cogently observed, "isn't deficits or spending, though he often uses those concerns in service of his real agenda. It's radically reforming the way the federal government provides public services, usually by privatizing or devolving those public services away from the federal government."

This deliberate falsification in the right-wing labeling of crucial public issues is long and growing. Here are some that I find especially widespread and pernicious:

Pro-Life or Right to Life
Although some "pro-lifers" admit of exceptions [e.g.rape, incest, serious defects in the fetus], or broaden their concerns to include opposition to capital punishment, torture, or abuse of women and children, the core belief remains opposition to abortion in any form. Moreover, the rebuttal most commonly used to describe the other side, namely "pro-choice," has inadvertently handed the anti-abortion forces an additional weapon by claiming that most women who resort to abortion do so frivolously or callously.

Death Tax
Inheritance or estate taxes do not fall on the deceased, but rather upon the unearned income of their beneficiaries. In any case, the tax threshold is set so high that it reaches only the super-rich. Those beneficiaries whose inheritance falls below that threshold are not effected at all. Even Andrew Carnegie, who vehemently opposed the federal income tax, argued that those who were unable or unwilling to dispose of their wealth through charitable contributions, deserved to have it confiscated and applied to the general welfare.

Right to Work
Unable to bring back indentured servitude, employers used every possible device or method to ensure that workers had to bargain for wages, hours of labor, working conditions, or benefits as individuals, not as members of a labor union or other type of employee organization. Against overwhelming odds, and with help from progressive politicians, many unions succeeded in gaining the right to bargain collectively by the post-World War II era. Since that high point in the early 1960s, however, employer organizations and "free-market" ideologues have succeeded in rolling back the calendar to the Gilded Age,destroying the majority of private sector unions and are utilizing
every means possible to eliminate public sector bargaining units as well. To buttress their case against public sector unions, they have worked at labeling teachers, policemen, fire fighters, social workers, emergency relief personnel, and other civil servants as public employees--a diabolically clever attempt at constructing a double-double entendre.

Voter Fraud
Despite the fact that every serious, non-partisan study conducted by such unimpeachable institutions as the Brennan Center of the New York University Law School, the League of Women Voters, and the Public Policy Institute have found that claims of illegal voting to be virtually non-existent, the Republican Party launched a massive campaign during the 2012 elections to require photo IDs, limit provisional and absentee balloting, complicate registration and voting procedures and various other measures to discourage or prevent voting by those most likely to vote Democratic. [See, for example, my earlier posts on Voter Suppression and the need for a national voting law.] Although most of these were temporarily blocked by the courts and the Justice Department, it is obvious that right-wing Republicans are preparing to mount an even more momentous campaign in 2013 and beyond. In the most basic sense of the term, they are clearly out to destroy our democratic system, which has taken more than two centuries of struggle to establish.        

Right to Bear Arms 
It is painfully obvious that we will never come to anything like a consensus over the meaning of the Second Amendment.That is not surprising since even the people who wrote it and ratified it did not agree on its definition. Is the right to bear arms an individual one or a collective one? The best way to begin the dialogue is to start with matters on which there is majority agreement and work out from there. According to a January NTTimes/ CBS News Poll, 53% would agree to a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons, 74% favor prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines, 92% would support background checks on all potential gun buyers, and 78% feel that there should be a nationwide data base of all gun sales. Not surprisingly, households without guns favor these measures a good deal more than those who keep guns in their homes, while women are more supportive than men. The NRA has succeeded in making this seem an "all or nothing" issue, which it clearly isn't.  

 Demographic. Inner City. Urban
The latest in a long line of code words used to describe racial and ethnic minorities and poor people in general.  They are designed to mask the real meaning and motive of right-wing Republican efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters by Voter ID laws, gerrymandering of Congressional districts, eliminating same day registration and voting, as well as organized registration and voting drives, curtailment of early voting and provisional ballots, reducing the hours for voting. and the number and locations of polling places  As I have already shown in my earlier posts, many of these are simply rehashes of the voter suppression laws of the Jim Crow Era.       

Corporations as "Persons"   
 This is essentially a perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment which made former slaves citizens of the U.S. and of the states in which they reside, prohibiting the states from denying them either due process or equal protection. The concept of "corporate personhood" dates from the Supreme Court's 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v.The Southern Pacific Railroad Company. But it was not part of the Court's official decision, but rather a , "headnote" written by the court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis, former president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company. [Headnotes are "not the work of the Court, but are simply the work of the Reporter, giving his understanding of the decision, prepared for the convenience of the profession."] The claim that "corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States" comes from the brief filed by counsel for the Southern Pacific and was never discussed by the members of the Court. In fact, Chief Justice Morrison Waite expressly stated at the outset that the Court did not wish to consider or discuss the issue because "we are all of the opinion that it does." At best then, the supposedly sacrosanct doctrine that corporations were protected from state regulation by the 14th Amendment was only the court reporter's rendition of the personal opinion of the Chief Justice who claimed to speak for the entire Court on an issue which they never even discussed. It was not part of the Court's official decision and appears only in Davis's headnote in the United States Reports, which the other justices may--or may not--have even read and which has no legal status. In Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson (1938) Justice Hugo Black held that "the history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments...The language of the amendment itself does not support the theory that it was passed for the benefit of corporations." Writing in 1949, Justice William O. Douglas said that "the Santa Clara case becomes one of the most momentous of all our decisions...Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives."

 Money as "Free Speech"
 This pipe dream was made real in the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on 21 January 2010. The justices divided 5-4 on the question of whether corporations could use money out of their treasury to support or oppose specific candidates during an election. The conservative majority consisted of Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, while the dissenting minority was composed of Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. (To show that it was not favoring corporations, the majority also included labor union as if their ability to raise money was the equal and opposite of corporations. In what universe is that real?) The ruling ignored numerous precedents in which earlier Courts had barred corporations from electioneering, while overturning most of the provisions of the existing McCain-Feingold Act. The majority opinion went so far as deny that corporate electioneering would even give the appearance of impropriety. In his 90 page dissent, part of which he actually read from the bench, John Paul Stevens asserted that the decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution....A democracy cannot function efficiently when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold." Because several of the candidates backed by corporate money failed of election in 2012, some critics have expressed relief and argue that grass roots mobilizing can effectively counter corporate money every time.. But 2012 was only the first round. They will get better at it, believe me. If it takes a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, then lets get busy enacting one.          

What can progressives do to counter this manipulation and distortion of language in the service of reactionary politics? Obviously, there is no quick or easy answer, but I think that following excerpt from "Language Versus Lies" by Scott Russell Sanders in the latest issue of The Progressive is a good place to begin:

                We can examine every slogan and label critically, those we use ourselves as well as those 
                encounter in the public arena. We can challenge euphemisms. we can insist that torture
                is torture, murder is murder, poison is poison. We can expose verbal tricks. We can defend
               the names of things we value from those who would corrupt them. We can maintain, for example, 
              that corporations are legal constructs, not persons, and therefore not entitled to the rights of human 
              beings, regardless of what a slender majority on the Supreme Court might argue.We can explain that 
             "outsourcing" means the elimination of jobs in one place by moving them to another place, usually 
             abroad, where labor is cheaper and safeguards for workers and nature are weaker. We can show what 
             the coal industry calls "mountaintop removal mining" is is really "mountaintop devastation    
            mining,"  because the forests, animals, topsoil, and stone blasted from the peaks and dumped into 
            waterways are not simply "removed," as a hat or lid of a pot might be, but are permanently shattered, 
           fouling streams, destroying habitats and erasing beauty. We can explain that "death taxes" are not 
           levied on the dead, who have passed beyond reach of the IRS, but on the heirs who did nothing to earn 
          the money; and they are levied, moreover,on only a tiny fraction of estates, the gargantuan ones, which 
          typically accumulate tax-free in shelters available only to the super rich. We can observe that abortion 
          opponents who advocate the "right to life" of fetuses rarely show equal concern for the needs of the 
          resulting children, let alone for the fate of the millions of species that are being driven to extinction by 
          the relentless growth of human population. But we need not give in to lies. We need not surrender 
         language, the greatest of all our common creations, to charlatans. We can defend the things we love,  
         and  language itself, by striving to speak and write clearly, accurately, and honestly.



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