October 2009

Top of This Issue Curremt Issue

Language, Lies, and Power

How the Republicans Use Language to Undermine Democracy


by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net



           TheRepublican Partyis pursuing tactics which are heavily similar to those used by the Nazis  as they sought to destabilize and overthrow the Weimar government.   The party is deliberately warping language,denuding the words they use of their meaning, so they are converted into mere labels denoting horror or disapproval.These labelsare then used to marginalize and weaken adversaries. If the people making the accusations were held to the original definitions of the words they use, they would clearly be uttering libelous falsehoods, but in today's atmosphere of degraded language, we are witnessing a remarkable phenomenon, where empty words without meaning fly like stones and have a tremendously destructive impact. The whole arc is something like this:


  1. Take a word, and scoop out its meaning.
  2. Convert the word into a mere contentless label now denoting “a bad, horrible person to be excluded from our community”.
  3. Teach or compel others to believe these labels unquestioningly without realizing or caring about their lack of content.
  4. Apply this word to an individual with the goal of marginalizing or weakening him, and with a radical disregard for the falsity the allegation would have if the word still had meaning.
  5. Weaken the individual or drive him from power by causing enough people to believe the applicability of the empty label.


           Here is a hypothetical. Joe Bloviator is a talk show radio host known for hisvenomous 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 heis adopting tactics successfully used by the Nazis.The word “Nazi” is used very frequently and tediously, especially in Internet debate, to mean “I hateyou”, 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, aJewish 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 andsentence 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 oflanguage 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 Republicanapproach 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. America will become a one party socialist state.

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, Limbaughbegan 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 America's schoolchildren to his socialist agenda”.


           The s-word is getting thrown around by Republicans in Congress and at the head of the partyas well. InOctober 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 Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives." And his running mate Sarah Palin said that Obama's health care plan was “a little bit like socialism”. Last spring, former Republican presidential candidate and ex-governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee said, much more grandly:"The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born." In July, asked in a news conference whether Obama's health care reforms represented socialism, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, “Yes. Next question.”


           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.


           IsBarack 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 havebeen 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.


           In an entertaining essay in the  Washington Post, American Socialist Party member Billy Wharton (editor of the house organ, circulation 3000) says:


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.


           “Socialist” 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 China's turn towards oligarchical capitalism.But “socialism” is the next best accusation to fling. Socialism, after all, is nothing but ur-Communism, a commitment to Karl Marx  lackingany specific connection to Stalin, Mao or Kim Il Sung. As an accusation, it works better because vaguer, less tied in to specific historical proof than an accusation of Communism today.


           The use of “socialist” by people like Michael Steele and JohnMcCain is unique in modern times. Even in the McCarthy era, no mainstream politician dared call the President of the United States a Communist. We have entered an era of unprecedented savagery and dishonesty.


           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 andreacted 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 followermay 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 toprimitive, 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 ofaccusations 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 Greece were destroyed by faction. Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 9, “A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection,” and then presented the appalling Greek example:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.

           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 leadershipencourages 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.

           The 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 United States. Unfortunately, the checks and balances they put in place appear to be breaking down. I think there are several forces and trends to blame for this.


  1. The Founders could not have foreseen the extraordinarily powerful and toxic effects of money upon the political system. Repeatedly in modern times we have seen theremarkable results when a rabid billionaire backs a lie, like Richard Mellon Scaife and the scurrilous “Swift Boat” attacks on John Kerry.
  2. We tend to think of mass media as a benign or democratizing force. In reality, media, like most technology, is neutral, and can be used for evil as well as good. Examples are Hitler and Goeb bel's radio speeches which were a major part of Nazi propaganda, and more recently Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda, which played a very important role in motivating the Hutu to kill their Tutsi neighbors. The Republicans, via bloviators like Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have proven very successful in degrading the language, spreading lies, and undermining the President.
  3. The continuing success of a democracy depends very much on the major players maintaining a real, not feigned, commitment to the rules which make it possible. A very important example: we have never had or, as far as we know, been close to a military coup here because the generals are educated to defer, and sincerely want to defer, to their elected bosses. It is hard to see how democracy could continue if that ever stopped. Today, unlike the military,the Republican party seems to have abandoned its commitment to the constitution and democracy.
  4. The continuation of democracy also depends very much on the commitment of the governed.   People living under democracy,may lose knowledge of it andtherefore fidelity to it, especially if led to do so by their leaders. The foot soldiers of the Republican revolution, including the man who made the “cockroach” comment and the other one with the bumper sticker about the death of the republic, are members of an increasingly vocal, ideological and potentially violent minority who appear to have no fundamental respect for the checks and balances instituted by the Framers.
  5. Minority parties should understand that that is what they are and behave accordingly. Their best bet to regain majority status within the democratic system is by recruiting new voters based on clearly stated policy differences and by winning reasoned debates over policy with the majority party. A minority party which seeks a road back to power by disseminating powerful lies, with the intention of paralyzing majority government,is dangerously anti-democratic.

          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 ofRepublican 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 wasthe job of the Nazi “Rollkommando deployed during the Weimar years:

In Berlin, under the leadership of Goebbels, so-called Rollkommandos were organized for the purpose of disrupting political meetings of all non-Nazi groups. These Roll kommandos were charged with interrupting, making noise, and unnerving the speaker....During the campaign forthe Reichstag election of 14 September 1930, Nazi conspirators made it a practice to send speakers accompanied by many Storm Troopers to meetings of other political parties, often physically taking over the meetings.

           The modern Republican Party's willingness to use disruption and even violence to achieve its goals was first stunningly demonstrated in Miami on November 22, 2000, when Republican operatives staged the “Brooks Brothers” riot which forcibly stopped the Presidential election recount. About two years later, documents which the party was forced to release to the IRSconfirmed that the riot was staged:


Only 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 Miami riot. Half of those individuals received payments from the Bush recount committee, according to the IRS records.

    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 Clinton he couldn'taccomplish anything.


           The Framers feared faction for exactly these reasons, that it would cripple the functioning of government and preventwork 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 toregain 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.


           A 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 Florida recount. Agre analyzes some Republican language tricks, including uses of “partisan”, “double standard”, accusations of stereotyping, etc. In a 2004 essay, “What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?, Agre said:


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.