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A Few Good Words

A new book offers a provocative lens through which to reconsider words suffering from deft right wing manipulation.
 
 
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"At this moment, peace, that word so glibly appropriated by all sides, feels soiled, tired, and beaten-up."

So says artist Sushma Joshi, summing up the reaction of many Americans battered by escalating political rhetoric. "Security," writes journalist Mary Louise Pratt, "is one of those words, like 'celibacy' or 'short' that invokes its opposite. As soon as you mention security, you suggest there's a danger, or a potential danger. Otherwise the subject wouldn't be coming up. So talking about security is one of the most effective ways to cause fear."

More and more words have acquired strange, new inflections. "Imagine you are a U.S. state governor or corporate CEO who wants to slash spending, fire employees, close branches or plants, and avoid pension obligations. How can you put it across; how can you minimize the 'turbulence'; how can you sugarcoat this bitter pill?" asks political scientist James Scott. "It will help if you call it 'streamlining.'"

Consider the phrase "shock and awe," a recent military appropriation of terms describing altered states of consciousness. "Twist and Shout." "Shuck and Jive." Even the rhythm of the phrase plays with emotionally charged memories and associations. "Shoot to Kill." Just in time for the upcoming election, a new book, " Shock and Awe: War on Words" reappropriates that phrase – and many more, providing a bracing antidote to prevailing polit-speak. The first publication from the über-alternative New Pacific Press, "Shock and Awe" is the brainchild of University of California, Santa Cruz's Institute for Advanced Feminist Research. Inquiring minds numbed by the voodoo of media propaganda will find refreshment in this slender text, composed of essays, photographs and poems. As history is busily rewritten by battalions of script-writers and strategists, the contributors to "Shock and Awe" are passionate about reclaiming a few good words.

The motivation for this compilation of "the political trajectory of words" sprang from a seminar on Feminisms and Global War. "It was a call to take back language that had been so debased in the aftermath of 9/11," explains IAFR Director Helene Moglen. Moglen, who also holds a Presidential Chair in Literature at UCSC, was amazed at the vigorous response from over 75 contributors. While acknowledging the leftist perspective of "Shock and Awe," Moglen insists that "the meanings of words are dependent on who has the power, and the right definitely has had the power lately." Co-editor Jennifer Gonzalez, a visual historian at UCSC, recalls the book's inception. "We had something of the Orwellian concern that our mass media and even political discourse was becoming an intolerable form of "newspeak."

For Moglen et al., the elasticity of language has become shaped and frozen by those in control – hence the "war on words" of the book's subtitle. Organized as meditations upon single words or phrases, the book offers a diversity of styles. Some, like the illumination of "the Disappeared" by Angela Davis, lace taut historical lessons with controlled anger. Others – the opening poem by L.R. Berger, for example – resonate with equal helpings of humor and defiance. Co-editor Anna Tsing helpfully includes the passage from "Alice in Wonderland" which has immortalized the very issue of words and their ownership. "When I use a word," says the reigning Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean." To wit, George W. Bush's use of the expression, "evil-doer."

The political right, through such wordcraft as "partial birth abortion," managed not only to spin the political platter their way, but in the process generated slogans with the sort of instant sex appeal adored by the media. Soon the airways were clogged with journalists repeating these sound bites and unwittingly reinforcing the perspective of the dominant political party. UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff is another academic exercised by the implicit agenda embedded in public discourse. The linguistic "frame," as Lakoff calls a given metaphor of choice, gives potent spin to the conversation. Yet most people rarely look past the debate in question to notice that the delivery system, in this case the rhetoric, is what actually twists, skews, and spins the point in a particular direction. If words are the arrow, then the linguistic metaphor – the frame – is the bow. Gonzalez agrees that viewed in stride with Lakoff's work, "Shock and Awe" might be thought of "as a new framing device which serves to reclaim meanings for words that had been usurped by the mass media and the Bush administration."

At best, repeating the linguistic context of the party in power perpetuates a lopsided perspective and at worst, it succeeds in complete, if invisible, distortion of the issues. Psycho-linguistic metaphors give underlying shape to the landscape they describe. But all rhetoric is designed to shape and control from a chosen agenda/position. So what is "Shock and Awe"'s agenda?

As a collection of meditations, "Shock and Awe" performs its own deft retelling, reclaiming and revisiting of pithy words, by resetting the metaphorical thermostat. The claim is not that the words have been restored to something like a "true meaning," but that each passage offers a "corrective" lens through which to look. Providing "alternative genealogies" of words, the contributors invite us to become reacquainted with some old friends, former linguistic allies which have become battered out of shape by ill (make that "Republican") usage. Words like "airport" and "security" have been co-opted by ideologists with hidden, often imperialistic, agendas – whereas the contributors are ostensibly more forthright in copping to their own attitudes.

Make no mistake, the left can spin with the best of 'em. Kerry notes that Bush is "sending our kids to war," and the listener pictures a group of bloody children carrying AK-47s. Clinton contends, "I did not have sex with that woman," and suddenly we are asked to accept a definition of "sex" that flies in the face of common sense. Nonetheless, Moglen agrees, the more illegitimate the government, the more defensive its rhetoric. Hence the euphemistic urge to create such Hallmark moments as "collateral damage." Or the warm and fuzzy, "friendly fire" in place of "accidental killing of soldiers by their own comrades." Think of those linguistic spin maestros, the Mafia. From this underground culture pundits extract such useful terms as "hit" (rather than murder) and "contract" (again a murder, but one set within the frame of a legal obligation). And consider the fictional Corleone spin on "family." At what point does euphemism start to decay and erode into out-and-out deceit?

"Shock and Awe" succeeds in considering words that have been held hostage by what the editors consider to be abusive agendas. There is occasional nostalgia for past usage as well as rage over linguistic rape. Moglen's own contribution to the book riffs on the word "family," and in it she notes the curiously "melancholic urge" on the part of both the feminist left and the "Moral Majority" right to return to the idealized nuclear family of the past – even long after such a family unit has dissolved in the cauldrons of civil rights, personal choice, gay liberation, as well as the darker realities of poverty, drug abuse, job loss and terrorism. "It has always been the role of the family to create this deep sense of longing for something that never existed," Moglen believes. Like a June Cleaver mom in starched shirtwaist dresses and pearls.

Through creative reframing and intellectual black ops, "Shock and Awe: War on Words" hopes to liberate value-charged words and restore them to their original power. The point, says Gonzalez, is "to change the terms of the discussion so that other positions might be possible." Whether or not such a retrospective agenda overcomes the odds, it certainly provides that most potent political tool of all – thoughtful examination.

Christina Waters, Ph.D., is a lecturer in philosophy at UCSC and writes about social issues, food, wine, art and the environment for the alternative press.