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Stuart Whatley Headshot

Obama and the English Language

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In his compendium on the life and works of Charles Dickens, George Orwell paints his literary forebearer as not so much a revolutionary in the traditional, head-rolling sense, but as more or less a revolutionary all the same. Dickens found fodder for criticism at all levels of the inequitable society from whence he hailed, but as Orwell writes, "there is no clear sign that he want[ed] the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believe[d] it would make much difference if it were overthrown." Nevertheless, he concludes that, "it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as 'revolutionary'."

Two years ago millions of voters saw in Barack Obama their own contemporary Charles Dickens -- a "revolutionary" who arose from within the same system he would condemn and reform, but keep intact. Candidate Obama spoke of the immorality of deep inequality and want, and of justice through opportunity. He successfully tapped into the inherent decency and good faith political leadership one expects any advanced society to not take for granted -- and he furnished a slew of sophisticated policy proposals to fix the dysfunctional areas of a system where that is precisely what was happening.

Unfortunately, that sophistication has been undermined by sophistry, the most recent and glaring example of which comes this week from top Republicans who equate a non-extension of tax cuts for the very wealthiest with "class warfare." This sounds like a bizarre evocation, as if the term were not a diptych with alternate meanings. It's possible that the GOP leadership simply doesn't understand the concept; however it's far more likely that they do and are taking a Menckian approach with the hopes their listeners will prove credulous to its euphemistic position in modern parlance.

Variations of class struggle exist throughout the historical landscape. Aristotle actually incorporated the notion directly into his ideal society. Marx and Engels saw history as nothing more than the study of class struggles in all societies over millennia. But in neither the conceptualizations of Aristotle, nor Marx, nor anyone in between, was class warfare a one-way street of envious outrage against success or standing. In reality, one could make just as strong an argument that the American lower- and middle-classes are the true victims of class warfare, rather than the term's current proprietors, due to neoliberal policies operative since the early 1980s that convinced policymakers that inflation is always worse than unemployment and that markets are always efficient.

The outcome of that ideology's policies is now obvious: between 1980 and 2005 over 80 percent of new gains went to the top 1 percent; and today, a quarter of the nation's current income confers to that same group, even while wages for most everyone else have remained near stagnant for decades, despite more expensive essentials such as health care, housing, and education. An expiration of the Bush tax cuts will move the marginal tax rate for the highest bracket from 35 percent to just under 40. To give this a reference frame, during the 1950s and 60s -- incidentally a time of vibrant national prosperity -- that rate ranged between 70 and 90 percent. To describe a small, top-end tax hike now as "class warfare" should be grounds for one to be laughed from the podium. But for some reason, it isn't.

The reason is that the Democratic leadership continues to roll over in the sophistry war while coming up short in substantive policy battles. "Class warfare" is but one formerly neutral phrase that has been appropriated for propaganda purposes and is thus widely misunderstood by the American public. It's also worth recalling last year's health care debate, where it became obvious that tens of millions of Americans apparently do not own a dictionary. How else, perforce, could an expansion of the customer base for private providers, and the addition of slightly heftier regulations, be described as "socialism," an economic system where the state owns the means to production?

The answer may again lie with Orwell, who in his landmark essay, "Politics and the English Language," describes how:

Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different...a speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.

Unfortunately, polls and primary results in the lead-up to November hint that the power of euphemistic sophistry may perhaps prove itself once again. In his words and writing Obama demonstrates that he 'gets it' with regards to special interests and regulatory capture in government. However, what remains neglected is an acknowledgment of Washington's intellectual capture. It bodes ill that the administration allows its centrist policies to be perceived as Marxist or socialist when that is hardly the case; but, rather than counterattacking the very ideology most responsible for current conditions, the administration often remains on the defensive with cumbersome, waffling explanations and the naive hope for future comity with its opposition.

Rather than bothering to articulate partisan responses to partisan rebukes, Democrats could shift the ideological rubric altogether. The first step would be to vocally acknowledge and celebrate the heterogeneity of American politics and society -- that there are fundamentally differing value structures that can still achieve relative harmony within the basic democratic structure. The American ideal is not monolithic; there is near infinite wiggle room within the poles of "socialism" and "capitalism". One can only wonder at a political environment where deregulation could be labeled as "anarchy"; policies that increase inequality as "class siege"; or policies that close that gap as "class peacemaking" (feel free to offer others below).

This entails easily digestible moral messaging that forcefully sets the ideological record straight and reminds the public of the now legion effects of a teleological rightward shift the country experienced over the past three decades. As Berkeley's George Lakoff points out, it is just as much differing moral doctrines as policy measures that service voters' decision making. In this light, there may well be a practical moral case for political sophistry; insofar that would show the opposition's racket for what it is.

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