What You Should Think About Doublespeak

“Democracies are dependent upon wonderful language.”

–Norman Mailer

Even though I believe they are an enormous negative influence on the course of events in and beyond the borders of the United States, I retain a measure of sympathy for those people who proudly acknowledge being “dittoheads.” For the uninitiated, the term actually refers to a form of admiration for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Because there came a time when the most sycophantic of his callers might gush on through a whole segment with insubstantial flattery, it has become customary for supportive callers to simple say “dittos” as a means of expressing that admiration without eating up a big chunk of airtime.

Yet the term has another resonance as it applies to the core audiences of righteous indignation specialists like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. These individuals could not possibly be sustaining their popularity through insightful analysis of political realities. If they were indeed insightful, then we would be living in a world where Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden kept each other’s private numbers on speed dial, ozone layer depletion was just an environmentalists’ hoax, and high end tax cuts always insure that an economy will grow like gangbusters.

No matter the number or severity of falsehoods passed off as fact or errant predictions passed off as reliable foresight, pundits catering to the dittohead legion retain their popularity. Clearly part of this is similar to what motivates even more despicable movements that thrive on hate. Rather than demonizing a race, a range of ideologies, often bundled together under the “lib-er-al” umbrella, is the target for hostility. Stirring up negative emotions is a sinister and sleazy, yet nonetheless effective, way to engage the interest of some people and build up a sense of community.

Yet I believe there is something more to all that nonsense than merely a bunker mentality and the sense of belonging that comes from sharing some perspective mainstream media consumers “don’t get.” Perhaps, just as a recovering alcoholic has useful insights into the problems of chronic drunkenness, I possess useful insights into the problems of embracing the dittoheads’ worldview. At no point was I absolute and orthodox in this embrace, but I can recall a time when politics seemed to make more sense to me because I gave serious consideration to the arguments proliferating through conservative talk radio.

I believe part of the appeal is analogous to the popularity of pagan faiths in a more primitive time. Given that the world is innately complex, it provided security and personal satisfaction for people to embrace nice neat little stories to explain mysterious natural phenomena. The politics of the modern world is also innately complex. Responsible civic discourse embraces these complexities and does not substitute the easy myth for the difficult study. Yet dittoheads are not at heart intent on responsibility in their civic discourse. Instead it is the security and personal satisfaction of a coherent narrative that keeps them coming back again and again to the same wells of misinformation.

Part of what enables narratives replete with misinformation to remain coherent is the perversion of language. In its best moments, political speech serves to provide clarity. The Declaration of Independence, FDR’s address following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” oratory — these landmark moments in the history of American political discourse were glorious in no small part because they said what they meant and they meant what they said. There is great power in honesty. This is all the more true in arenas where it is uncommon, like American politics.

Yet there is also great power in duplicity. A man who made no secret of outright hostility to social welfare policies, a man who never met a death warrant he didn’t like — that man rose to power wearing the label “compassionate conservative.” There are in fact compassionate conservatives in the world. Yet they earn that moniker through deeds that display genuine compassion. Today simply talking about compassion seems to be enough to persuade a significant portion of the public.

Karl Rove may have about as much governmental savvy as a dented can of succotash, but his understanding of how to deprive political leaders of popularity may be unrivaled in our times. As he worked his black magic in Texas, anyone at all supportive of a homosexual public figure was characterized as “a pawn of the gay agenda.” Likewise, the 2004 Presidential campaign was only the most recent in a series of maneuvers by which he managed to make a combat veteran cited for valor under fire seem like a coward unworthy of the public trust.

George Orwell is perhaps the most well-known of writers to warn of growing disconnects between political speech and political action. Particularly haunting are the parallels between his darkest narratives and the rise of deliberately misleading terminology in our own time. “Homicide bomber” gave me more mirth than fear, since it was a clumsy effort. The intent to kill is already implicit in the term “bomber.” “Suicide bomber” conveys additional meaning by explicitly articulating the fanaticism of murderous terrorists. “Homicide bomber” is just plain redundant.

Yet not all of today’s newspeak is so clumsy or ineffective. Immigration policies offering a reasonable path to normalization of undocumented alien workers are routinely characterized as “amnesty.” How many critics of reform would find a a $5,000 fine amidst a long series of additional hurdles and penalties the same as getting a free pass? Likewise, even as many Democratic politicians cravenly invite parasites from the health insurance industry into their plans for health care reform, these proposals substantially dependent on private enterprise are still branded as “socialist” by critics.

However, the most dangerous in all the bunch is the nonsense word “Islamofascism.” This term seems to have been crafted with the express purpose of perpetuating the American myth that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were partners in crime. As part of the campaign to shoehorn justification for the Iraq war into some sort of coherent national security policy, the public is being deliberately misinformed about the nature of religion and governance throughout the Middle East.

In point of fact, Al Qaeda has long had the goal of dismantling secular regimes in the Middle East. In fact, years before 2001, bin Laden himself declared that it would serve the purposes of his group if the United States could become bogged down in bloody occupations in that region. Given that the Taliban actually did support Al Qaeda and refused to cooperate with counterterrorism efforts, there once was a tiny nexus where authoritarians and radical terrorists were actually in alliance. Yet elsewhere the relationship is uniformly adversarial. Apart from being oil money playboys who turned to fundamentalist religion before taking center stage in world history’s most recent episode of violence, another link between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden is that they both believed strongly that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go.

In the end Islamofascism serves as a way to blunt understanding of the Middle East. Curiously enough, it is never brought to bear on thinking about the Saudi regime, but Iran is a favorite target of its users. In the end it serves to simplify matters so that people can feel as if they’ve adopted a coherent and useful perspective even as they have actually stopped well short of understanding the complexities of the region. By failing to recognize the various antagonistic relationships between terrorist organizations and working governments throughout the Middle East, conservative pundits dumb it all down to a “white hats and black hats” scenario that presents a mix of shaky alliances and outright enemies as if they were all part of one coherent faction with a single agenda. This serves the immediate needs of White House officials, but it undermines the national need to deal with realities in a hotbed of geopolitical chaos.

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5 Responses to What You Should Think About Doublespeak

  1. horatiox says:

    You are really phucked up. You quote Hitchens–an Orwell scholar– and other conservatives, and then denounce his word “islamofascist.” Yeah, the word’s a bit harsh for mommy boy- leftists, but then so is an Iranian president who has called for the liquidation of Israel, and who denies the holocaust. Hundreds of 1000s of muslim zealots calling for jihad after a cartoonist drew some nasty pics of the Prophet: that’s islamofascism. So was 911: an attack by Saudi muslim terrorists, as was the paki murder of 1+ million of hindus in E. Paki in 71-72. Or say Hezbollah or the history of Ottoman Turks.

    Given your own stated secularism you have no code of objective morality. Everyone plays machiavellian rules, muslims included. ( you won’t likely publish this, since you don’t really understand Orwell–not a pacifist, for one—nor modern politics, or what secular ethics entails)

  2. Demonweed says:

    I’m probably going to get a flood of new input from this obsessed heckler, but since the old stream never really stopped I figured there is little enough harm in letting one rant of his slip through. Also, there is good in it, as it seems I’ve been provided with a live-and-kicking dittohead specimen to put on display. Note the awkward use of names like Orwell and Hitchens, much like a little boy trying to level a man’s rifle in his arms. The same could be said for historical details.

    I got into a mess a few weeks ago with this problem character, well known in other blogging circles for his clear break from reality, because I critiqued an incredibly weak and blatantly misleading analysis of An Inconvenient Truth. To horatiox, I committed the unforgivable heresy of suggesting that a band of pontificating frauds might not know as much about climate change risks as sensible scientists generally do about the matter. However, the specifics of the disagreement are not really material. What seems to have set him off is that anyone would dare violate precious political narratives woven deeply into his personal identity.

    He even goes so far as to assert scientific knowledge must be filtered in order to exclude the work of individuals with particular political views. This guy is deeply invested in propping up the dittohead message — a 21st century brownshirt roaming the blogosphere in the hopes he might be able to put some sort of beatdown on those who do not rally behind key talking points produced by figures like Rove and Limbaugh. To him each reference to a historical event or public figure is not a clumsy display of cognitive ineptitude coupled with personal animus — those distortions are acts of heroism committed in valiant efforts to save the nation from the evils of liberalism.

    The funny thing is, I did this piece in a rush on my way out of the house yesterday afternoon. While I was out being social, I was deliberating a complete rewrite (having yet to ever make more than minor changes to an entry here after the day it was published.) When I saw this blacklisted heckler turning in yet another ridiculous attempt at critique, I thought, “crap — now if I change the thing he might imagine himself to have been influential. Wait! Crap — now if I don’t. change the thing he might actually be influential!” Then I reviewed it and realized, while it ends with more of a fizzle than a flourish, it is not nearly as inarticulate or pointless as I’d originally imagined.

    Then as an added bonus, we have horatiox himself chiming in to show us one variety of dittohead. Many are not inclined to academic pretenses, but they are precisely the sort of people driving the general public distaste for politics as dinner conversation. Not only does reality have minimal bearing on the substance of their views, but these bizarre views will be defended with as much hostility as can be brought to bear under the circumstances. In dinner conversation this is usually a matter of seeking vindication through volume. Online it may extend to some sort of toothless threat of litigation,

    Perhaps being a part of a community of the misinformed really is a deeply satisfying experience for these folks. Perhaps it is less about the community and more about the clash. Who is to say whether or not this unfortunate soul really knows much in the way of human interaction other than defending dittohead memes with a mix of virtual spittle and actual malapropism?

    Still, there are a few things we can say. We can say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for maps that do not contain Israel is a far cry from what talk radio puppetmasters have taught — that it is a precursor to a nuclear first strike authorized by Tehran. We can say that people taking to the streets to express sincere collective grievances at rallies is the sort of thing fascism prevents — hardly a clear manifestation of it. We can even say that the violence associated with the separation of Pakistan from India had little to do with any fascist regime and much to do with the lack of governmental control over the borderlands (especially crucial north-south rail links) during the time of the slaughter.

    In short, we can safely say that horatiox is too dedicated to the quest to make noise about his ideology to spend any time at all reflecting on its imperfections. Of course, it would be all the better if he were to recognize the flaws of life as an ideologue. It may not always be easy to avoid dogmatic thinking about weighty issues of our times. Yet clearly it is within the means of even average minds to give factual realities priority over dogmatic passions in formulating views.

    They may not all be below average, and certainly this specimen is not the cleverest of the bunch, but dittoheads seem to forfeit every opportunity to engage with reality where doing so means abandoning some element of the conservative talk radio agenda. Doublespeak makes it easier for them to cling so, but fortunately it also makes it easier for the rest of us to identify individuals suffering from this disorder.

  3. horatiox says:

    First, I’m not a dittohead nor even conservative, and actually object to some of Hitchens’ writing, so you are mistaken again, and spewing ad hominems and your typical bogus-leftist moralism.

    The word’s a bit harsh: unless maybe you were a relative of someone killed in the 911 attacks, or other muslim terrorism. There is no Doublespeak of the Orwellian sort. Hitchens, whatever his faults, actually wrote quite a bit on the paki muslim slaughter of hindus in east pakistan in 71-72 ( 1 to 2 million people killed in a matter of months). Rushdie is a pal of his. He also qualifies the term: he said he did not mean all muslims were fascist, but that Islam does have fascist elements to it. Hardly Doublespeak (Hitchens also like Orwell, a Trotskyite, at least at one point). Doublespeak is like calling someone who points out the problems with AGW temp. data dogmatic. You are dogmatic.

    There’s no political narrative either to AGW. Some of the skeptics (Cockburn and Lomborg himself) are liberals. Others’ aren’t, like Crichton (of course if you want to just dismiss Mike Crichton out of hand, cool).

    You politicize everything and ignore the problems with AGW data. Nothing to do with politics. Gore’s not a liberal anyway, except in name (and maybe last 5 years or so). Sort of like you.

  4. horatiox says:

    Did I ever mention Rove or Limbaugh or the GOP, Liar?

    I am discussing Hitchens and his use of “islamofascism.” Others use the term; he supposedly coined it. Whether he did or not, there appears to be evidence to support the use of the term–as H well knows, since he grew up in Paki I believe, and has written extensively on the 71-72 Paki/hindu genocide. The E. Paki govt.–muslim— was involved in the genocide. But that’s hardly the only incident.

    You’re the Doublespeak expert–as in ‘dittohead” or “brownshirt”–types of loaded language. Proves nothing, except your own inabillty to reason. You defeat logic at every turn.

    Step in a ring and say brownshirt to me. Yeah?

    You are a deranged liar.

  5. Demonweed says:

    I’ve already tried to engage this angry twerp once in serious debate, so I want to make it clear again that this is by no means an attempt to clash on the issues with him. That is not a productive endeavor, as those who know him must already understand. Instead my purpose in letting these additional comments slip through the filter is both to further emphasize my thesis and to provide some comic relief.

    Someone who is not actually a dittohead, when endeavoring to establish real political independence, will tend to focus on a substantial break with talk radio ideology. Whether it is “I think the marriages of homosexual couples should be legally recognized” or “I don’t really see what good sustained military occupation of Iraq does at this point” or even “maybe federal funding to provide health care for children who don’t have access now is not such a bad idea,” independence is established by showing independent thought.

    Instead we have here a classic dittohead talking point — “I’ve been told even some liberals share my belief that global warming is all a hoax perpetrated by a fringe of villains like Al Gore.” Whatever the dittohead lie is, part of the narrative usually involves arguing that respectable liberals really “get it” while the mainstream media is just being fooled by prominent advocates for whatever beliefs undermine that lie. It may well be that horatiox is not a talk radio listener so much as a “dittohead once removed,” getting his programming secondhand from right wing blogs and woefully misinformed acquaintances. What matters is less how he poisons his mind and more the fact that it is so far gone as we see here.

    I know that is a dark assessment. Still, there is merriment to be had in this. “Step in a ring and say brownshirt to me. Yeah?” — the man wants to get in a fight about whether or not he is the sort of person who would resolve disagreements by brute force and intimidation! He might have typed “liar” with the very same breath that was drawn while he was validating my use of the term “brownshirt.” Of course, he may be a chickenhawk instead, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

    After all, he doesn’t even know if I’m a mountain of a man with extensive paramilitary training or a bookish waif with two wet noodles drooping from my shoulders. Given belligerence in the face of that unknown, I’m willing to believe my original assertion was correct and he is indeed the sort who would throw a punch before letting someone in his presence get away with the horrible offense of promoting opinions that contradict his own beliefs. In another time and place, I believe he would have done Ernst Röhm proud.

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