What You Should Think About Doublespeak

November 14, 2007

“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.