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Decoding the Political Buzzwords of 2012

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg gives his analysis of this year's top political words.

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Feeney: What does it mean when people call this a “post-truth” era. Are they right?

Nunberg: The phrase “post truth” has been out there for a while. Sometimes it just meant that people are lying more than they used to, but that’s not interesting — after all, every generation sees itself as beset with mendacity. Post-truth now means more than that. It’s an indifference to the truth, as if you don’t care whether what you say is going to be believed or is even believable, or whether you’re going to be called on it. I think Romney’s charges about Obama’s “apology tour” are a good example. Nobody buys it, though it gives some partisans pleasure to pretend to. To the rest, it’s more like,  “Apology tour? Really?”

It’s an attitude you run into on both sides, but there’s a huge chunk of the right that has made it the basis of a whole worldview. It’s not just birtherism or global warming denial. There are sites out there like Conservapedia that provide a whole alternate cosmology, down to the correct conservative positions on Anglo-Saxon literature, the Theory of Relativity and Bobby Vinton. And if you’re willing to buy into all that as an article of faith or as a sign of solidarity with your fellows, then it’s a trivial matter to accept that Obama went on an apology tour or that the Affordable Care Act is an assault on American freedom that’s edging us to a communist takeover.

Jonathan Haidt has described this phenomenon using William Gibson’s notion of a consensual hallucination, and the thing to focus on here is the sense of collective identity that comes from defining your beliefs in opposition to the other guy’s. It’s connected to the way the discourse of the right has become hermetic and self-referential. I’m not thinking just of Fox News or Limbaugh, but of online discussions and Twitter. There’s a group of Michigan researchers who have been doing  large-scale statistical analysis of tweeting, and they’ve found that conservatives are more densely connected, retweet each other much more frequently, and stick to a narrower range of topics than liberals do.

That creates the bubble environment that licenses politicians to make these off-the-wall charges, then answer the people who challenge them with, “Well, we won’t let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” or that marvelous remark Jon Kyl made after claiming that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services were abortions, “It was not intended to be a factual statement.” You’re not going to hear that sort of thing from Democrats. Not that they’re above a little mendacity now and again, but they tend to be more traditionalist about it.

Feeney: One of the most deceptive phrases in vogue this year is “right to work.” Any idea who came up with that one? Can you think of any others that are quite so deceptive?

Nunberg: “Right to work” has a long and fascinating history — it could stand in for the whole drift of political language over the past 150 years. The phrase was coined (as the “droit au travail”) by the French socialist Louis Blanc and became a slogan in the 1848 French Revolution, which was the first revolution in which workers demanded jobs rather than bread. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the “right to work” was a fundamental principle of socialism, and it’s set down as an article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it refers to the right to have a job with fair and decent working conditions and protection against unemployment.

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