Top of This Issue Curremt Issue
Language, Lies, and Power
How the Republicans Use Language to Undermine Democracy
by Jonathan Wallace firstname.lastname@example.org
The Republican Party is pursuing tactics which are heavily similar
to those used by the Nazis as they
sought to destabilize and overthrow the
Here is a hypothetical. Joe Bloviator is a talk show radio host known for his venomous drooling. On air, he calls me a “prestidigitator”, a word he uses frequently in tones of withering rage and denigration. Joe Bloviator has so popularized this word that it can now be said to have three meanings, the one prior to Joe's usage, and two resulting from his adoption of it: what it really means when he uses it, and what it appears to mean.
The actual meaning of prestidigitator is “one who performs sleight of hand”. If we were having a real debate, we could determine if Joe was telling the truth about me, by determining whether I in fact perform such tricks. There would be room to discuss whether Joe B. meant the use of the word metaphorically, for example to suggest that my reasoning in certain essays involves trickery similar to feats of legerdemain.
But Joe Bloviator refuses to get trapped in any discussion so specific, logical or definition-bound. The suggested meaning of “prestidigitator” when he uses it is “bad person who should be ejected from our community”. This is the meaning Joe wants us all to understand, and act upon.
But Joe has performed an act of prestidigitation of his own. The only real content of his statement, slender as it is, is “Joe Bloviator hates Jonathan Wallace”. In a warped enough culture, with ultimate disregard for truth and a fierce cult of personality, this would be enough for his followers to act on his words (shades of Henry II's exclamation, “Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?”). However, living in a culture which is still transitional, somewhere in between a truth-oriented democracy and the obedient fascism to which Joe B. aspires, he must disguise his statement that he hates me, as if it set forth an objective truth. Therefore, he uses a word which sounds like it categorizes me as a very bad person, without binding him to support it with any specific facts. He also identifies himself with power and the zeitgeist: his followers thus are encouraged to believe that anyone hated by Joe Bloviator is objectively bad and dangerous for reasons other than that hatred.
Before I proceed, I need to take a moment to defend myself against aspersions resulting from my use of the word “Nazis”in the first sentence above. Am I not in fact committing exactly the misdeed I am describing? If I accuse Joe Bloviator of being a Nazi, am I not simply saying I utterly dislike him? Have I not stripped “Nazi” of all content, to avoid any necessity of justifying my assertion by proving that Joe Bloviator follows Adolf Hitler, wears a swastika, believes in the thousand year Reich, hates Jews, etc.? (So there is no confusion, I will acknowledge that none of these things are true.)
I didn't call Joe Bloviator a Nazi. I said that he is adopting tactics successfully used by the Nazis. The word “Nazi” is used very frequently and tediously, especially in Internet debate, to mean “I hate you”, and is therefore often an example of the behavior I am criticizing. Unlike these usages, I am not slinging words and running away; here are the historical examples which justify my analogy.
Victor Klemperer, a Jewish philologist who survived the Nazis, kept a journal which, after the war, he turned into a notable book called “The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologists's Notebook” (1947). He coined the ironic, bastardized phrase, “lingua tertii imperii”, to describe the damage the Nazis did to the German language. Prior to Hitler, German had been the language of high culture, philosophy, and novels; the Third Reich created a degraded version, full of euphemisms empty of content and constantly repeated in speeches and the Party-controlled press. Among the buzzwords analyzed by Klemperer in this influential work were “artfremd” (meaning “alien to the species”) and “untermenschen” (subhuman). A parallel trend was the use of apparently harmless euphemisms to cover quite horrendous acts, like “sonderbehandlung” (special treatment) to denote murder. (Though that is not the main focus of this essay, the Republicans have also shown signs of this, as when Dick Cheney compared torture to fraternity hazing.)
Klemperer described the Nazi modification of language and its effects:
No, the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions.
Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. . . language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.
And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.
The Third Reich coined only a very small number of the words in its language, perhaps - indeed probably - none at all. . . But it changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence, it makes common property out of what was previously the preserve of an individual or a tiny group, it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures with its poison.
In other words, the Nazis had to dominate the German language in order to dominate the minds of their people. Another trenchant commentator, Arthur Cohen, asked in “The Tremendum”, his interpretation of Holocaust history:
What allowed...the degeneration of German speech, over the length of a half century, from the rich, imbricated, responsible pursuit of truth into the garbled, vulgarized German authorized and distributed by the Nazi press, Nazi literature, and official bureaucratic speech [?]
Such an inquiry would be illuminating, but ultimately ineffectual, since the debasement of language and the traducing of the psyche, dependent as it is upon the organ of speech, is a process observable in varying degrees in all western language. The case of the German language is only an example of more so...one notes in advanced capitalist societies that the command of nuanced and subtle language in public discourse has all but disappeared. The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues after he is gone.
Cohen therefore believes that the degradation of English, so clear and frightening today, began a long time ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century or even earlier.
Now that I have established some details of the Nazi manipulation of language, its my responsibility to show that the contemporary Republican approach to language follows the same methodology.
Here is some rhetoric posted on the Washington Post website during September 2009 by someone using the handle “hostileknowledge”:
But the main goal of Obama and his socialist comrades would be achieved. 90% or
more will vote for the one promising free goodies – socialists.
Obama is a liar and a socialist cockroach.
What does that prove? The world is and has always been full of fruitcakes, and many of them post stuff on the Web today. But in this case, hostileknowledge is merely using the vocabulary handed to him by powerful mainstream Republicans.
On October 28, 2008, Rush Limbaugh delivered a radio tirade entitled “Socialist Obama Cannot uphold the Constitution He Has Dismissed”. In it he said:
The people of this country love their Constitution, and the people of this country reject socialism, and they don't support an authoritarian judiciary. And this is the Obama agenda. He wants to unleash the full power of the federal government, especially through the courts, against the people, including the middle class.
A few weeks ago, Limbaugh began calling the President a fascist instead:
Fascism is where the private sector still owns what it owns, but the politicians run it -- and fascism is exactly what we're getting under Barack Obama.
Would you agree with the following analysis someone made of Rush Limbaugh?
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong....
Oops! Guess I just committed an act of prestidigitation. That actually comes from a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler issued by the Office of Strategic Services during the war, The next two sentences were as follows:
people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
In this month's “Rags and Bones” column I
discuss the nationwide flap which occurred when our President wanted to give a
completely innocuous speech to grade school students urging them to avoid drugs
and stay in school. Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer, following faithfully
in Joe Bloviator, I mean Rush Limbaugh's footsteps,
issued a press release stating that the President intended to “indoctrinate
is getting thrown around by Republicans in Congress and at the head of the party as well. In October 2008, the faltering McCain campaign tried to regain
some momentum by accusing candidate Obama of
socialism. McCain, who in earlier political life stood above
cheap rhetoric, said, "At least in
Does anyone actually know any more what the word “socialism” originally meant? Its not hard to find definitions on the web. From Wikipedia:
Socialism refers to various theories of economic organisation advocating public or direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources, and a society characterised by equal access to resources for all individuals with an egalitarian method of compensation.
Is Barack Obama an actual socialist under the original meaning of the word? From where I sit, the man presents as a moderate, rather centrist Democrat, probably to the right of Bill Clinton. His proposed solutions to our current economic problems have been nowhere near as sweeping as those instituted by his famous predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Obama does not favor workers owning the means of production. Nor does he believe in the nationalization of banks and businesses.
entertaining essay in the
The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies.
Wharton notes that Obama is avoiding any permanent changes to the financial system, or the “single payer” health care system beloved of dangerous Socialists like the Canadians.
is an interesting choice of phrase for historical reasons. Sixty years ago,
Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk effectively destroyed lives and ended
careers by painting individuals as Communists, may of
whom had never been members of that party and were in fact nothing more than
political liberals. Because of the eventual implosion of McCarthy and some
continuing vestigial public memory of the injustices committed in the name of
anti-Communism, it would be hard to call anyone a Communist today with a
straight face. Also, official ideological Communism of the type represented by
Joseph Stalin has largely ended in the most powerful countries of our world,
after the collapse of the Soviet Union and
The use of
“socialist” by people like Michael Steele and John McCain is unique in modern times. Even
in the McCarthy era, no mainstream politician dared call the President of the
Isn't it a lie, effectively libel, to call President Obama a socialist? Statements of fact must be either true or false, there is no third setting. However, no-one is holding McCain, Steele or Limbaugh to the standard of proving that Obama reveres the works of Karl Marx or believes in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, the Republicans would, if challenged, certainly hide behind the doctrine that statements of opinion can't be libelous. But a statement of opinion would be, “I think Barack Obama has the wrong policy beliefs to be President” or “I don't like him”. “Obama is a socialist” is not a statement of opinion; it is phrased as a factual assertion, and the Republicans want it to be understood and reacted to as such. Certainly Limbaugh, McCain and Steele know that the President is not a Socialist under any received definition. Therefore, they are lying, and are in fact engaging in the time-dishonored practice, invented by Hitler and Goebbels, of telling a lie so huge that many will believe it must be true.
What happened to the ancient idea of loyal opposition? Loyal opposition in a democracy such as ours would consist of recognizing President Obama's authority, his right to be in the position he holds, while vocally disagreeing with his policies. Loyal opposition is in fact an obligation of a minority party which disagrees with elected leadership but retains its commitment to the processes of democracy. By calling an elected president illegitimate, the Republican party is advancing a very powerful subtext, that democracy does not work. How else would it be possible for a majority of the voters to elect a socialist? The huge Republican propaganda push to de-legitimize him, to define Obama in the public mind as an outsider, an interloper, someone with no more authority than if he seized power, is very dangerous to the Constitution and to the continuation of American democracy.
A question I would love to ask Rush Limbaugh: if the president is either a socialist or a fascist, as you say, doesn't it logically follow that democracy and the Constitution have somehow fatally misfired? If the president is what you say, shouldn't he in fact be removed from office by any means necessary, as rapidly as possible? I would love to hear Limbaugh explaining why he doesn't favor a military coup, despite his belief that the President is the anti-Christ.
It is an interesting contradiction that the Republicans so vocally accuse Obama and the Democrats of undermining democracy, precisely what they are doing themselves. My experience as a litigator was that the lawyers who shouted the loudest about ethics were the most dishonest ones. To destroy freedom while claiming to protect it is of course the most effective of big lies. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels harped endlessly on the Nazi defense of freedom. In a speech delivered on New Years' Eve 1940, he said:
No power in the world will make us deny our duty, or forget even for a moment our historical task of maintaining the freedom of our people.
The Republicans have transformed themselves into a radical, revolutionary party, and are deliberately creating the kind of overheated environment in which a zealous follower may feel entitled to take a shot at the President. President Obama has not shown the least interest in gun control, but the Second Amendment crowd, caught up in the general Republican-promoted hysteria, believe he is about to grab their guns. If something happens, the Republicans will disclaim any responsibility and profess themselves shocked. But they have worked very hard to create the volatile environment in which their followers believe that the President is not human, and is a mortal danger to each of them personally and to democracy.
Why are the Republicans working so hard to reach out to primitive, violent people? It is possible that, after the lamentable Bush administration, which bungled everything possible from Iraq to Katrina and the economy, the fringe is all they have left, the true believers, who most recently they have inspired to come out and shout mindlessly against those who would force health insurance and employment upon them, or prevent them from losing their houses to mortgage default.
Am I overstating my case? Is this merely the active, loud free speech of the kind the Constitution protects?
The best way to answer this question is to take a look at the intentions and understandings of the Framers of the Constitution. I maintain that the use of accusations of Socialism to de-legitimize a sitting President is a gross example of the kind of bad faith, antidemocratic behavior the Framers referred to as “faction”, and of which they were very frightened. In Federalist 10, James Madison said:
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
The Framers spent a lot of time discussing the evils of
faction in various of the Federalist Papers,
particularly analyzing the way in which the direct democracies of
It is impossible to read the history of
the petty republics of
The attack on President Obama as a socialist, coming from the very top of the Republican party, leading its foot soldiers to characterize him as a “cockroach” and worse, seems to me to be the most egregious demonstration of party rage in modern times. The other day, I saw a bumper sticker on a pick up truck here in Fort Myers Florida, which communicated that the American Republic was born on July 4, 1776, and died the day Obama was inaugurated. In the warped minds of the individuals who created this sticker and those who place it on their vehicles, the republic survived the November 2000 riot which ended the Florida recount, the partisan, legally questionable Supreme Court decision anointing Bush as our president, the use of torture, indefinite detention, mass warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition—only to end with the popular election of a centrist Democrat? By filling the zeitgeist with this kind of rhetoric, the Republican leadership encourages an atmosphere of sedition and of physical violence.
I am not calling for restrictions on free speech. Quite irresponsible and dangerous statements (including Communist calls for dictatorship of the proletariat) are protected by the First Amendment. I am using my own right of free speech, however, to shine a light on the fact that the Republican Party is assuming a seditious, dangerous posture. In their attempts to bring down President Obama, they could well bring down the Constitution and our democracy, and they don't seem to care. In fact, they appear to be fine with that.
Framers spent a large part of their Federalist essays explaining why the
Republic they proposed would counterbalance and calm the forces of faction in
The destruction of language is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the overthrow of democracy by a minority party. It must next be coupled with action. Once sufficient followers are accumulated, whose fervent ideology trumps their reason, the natural next step is to use them to take action to shut down opposing viewpoints.
During August, we saw hundreds of Republican foot soldiers sent by their leaders to disrupt Democratic town hall meetings about health care, often by repetitive chants drowning out the speakers. These were not spontaneous local actions, but were nationally promoted by FreedomWorks, the organization founded by former Republican House majority leader, Dick Armey. Rush Limbaugh called for his listeners to disrupt a town hall meeting held by Democratic representative Kathy Castor in Tampa, and hours later, angry chanting protesters drowned her out and forced the cancellation of the meeting.
Sending foot soldiers to
meetings of opposing groups to shout down their speakers was the job of the
deployed during the
Republican Party's willingness to use disruption and even violence to achieve
its goals was first stunningly demonstrated in
a handful of the Brooks Brothers rioters were publicly identified, some through
photographs published in the Washington Post. Jake Tapper’s
book on the recount battle, Down and
Dirty, provides a list of 12 Republican operatives who took part in the
The modern Republican misuse of
language and the attack on democracy began in Newt Gingrich ascendancy of the
early 1990's, when Gingrich trained Republican candidates to describe their
opponents with words such as “decay,
sick, pathetic, stagnation, corrupt, and traitors” (LA Times 12/19/94). It
reached its nadir in that decade during the Gingrich-led shut down of the
federal government and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The latter move was an
attempt to knee-cap a political adversary purely based on hatred; he hadn't
committed any high crimes and misdemeanors and the Republicans knew they hadn't
the votes actually to remove him. They did succeed in so marginalizing
The Framers feared faction for exactly these reasons, that it would cripple the functioning of government and prevent work from getting done. Yet instituting that same paralysis, and crippling President Obama, is again today the proud goal of the Republicans.
What I find so stunning about these events is not only the lack of consequences—state employees and visiting Democrats were roughed up and threatened in the Brooks Brother riots, but there were no arrests—but the apparent lack of public and media consciousness as to what it all means, that we are watching an ongoing deliberate assault on democracy and majority will. A party which has moved to the right of the country, which deploys a minority of the vote, is attempting to regain power through accusations which would be obviously lies—if they had any content at all. The accusations of socialism made against President Obama should inspire widespread outrage, because of their meaninglessness, bad faith, and the motives for which they are made. Instead, the supposed mass media is handicapping itself, partly through complacency (and possibly weakness and fear), and partly through its very habits of even-handedness, which give equal weight to outrageous false allegations and to denials. “Joe Bloviator calls politician a murderous pedophile. Politician denies being a murderous pedophile.”
With a curious sense of unreality, I read mainstream media, which report on these Republican tactics with little awareness that the party has transformed itself into a radical, revolutionary entity, using fascist tactics. If a new American Hitler arose, how far would he get while the media reported on him as an everyday phenomenon, business as usual? I saw the obituary the other day of a crusading local newspaperman from the South who, across the decades, wrote hundreds of articles exposing the Klan, at great personal risk to himself and his family. These new Republican tactics are more dangerous to democracy than the Klan was, because more widespread and mainstream. Where is the indignation? Where is the investigative reporting? A Google search on “Republican language” popped up only three responsive articles before wandering off into the irrelevant—and one of them was from the Guardian, a UK newspaper (quite a good piece, too, about Republicans talking in code,). None of the articles was from a large American newspaper. A search on “Republican rhetoric” turns up more responsive hits, but they are almost all partisan websites, not newspapers.
voice from the margins (and I am marginal myself in the same sense) who has
written quite analytically and well about the Republican transformation of
language, is Phil Agre, a California college
professor whose work I used to republish here quite regularly. In his last
appearance in the Spectacle in
December 2000, on the
To impose its order on society, conservatism must destroy civilization. In particular conservatism must destroy conscience, democracy, reason, and language.
Voices like ours can only do so much. I am left with a strong and disturbing impression that a very major and dangerous political development, the transformation of the Republican party into a revolutionary, antidemocratic force, is not being covered by the mass media.
We are back in the era of the big lie: Calling Barack Obama a socialist is a big lie. There are times when I feel like I am trapped in one of those recurring nightmares—the kind where the monster is coming, but I can't shout or run away.