Dirty words in politics
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Michael Crowley over at TNR gives us a look-see at the latest RNC fundraising email:
This year, we face another momentous choice. Fight and defeat the terrorists, or retreat from the central front in the War on Terror. Live up to our calling as Americans to stand for freedom, or choose Democrats, who have been clear that they will censure and impeach the President if they win back Congress.
Yes. Freedom vs. impeachment -- that age-old dilemma.
With all those focus groups and political consultants mulling around D.C., you'd think they could deliver something a little more stirring. But let's be honest: We're not getting much better from high-level Democrats (erâ€¦ "Real Security"?).
The credibility gap in Washington is so wide, you'd have to have your back against a wall not to fall into the yawning chasm. One need look no further than the Stephen Colbert craze to realize that people are starved for someone to speak to the obvious: we are lied to on a regular basis because the president views "facts" as mutable puzzle pieces to be ignored, rearranged, or embellished to further an agenda.
Colbert couched his truth in humor, but politicians tend to neuter their outrage or beliefs with empty patriotism and security speak. Over the past four years, I've developed a visceral contempt towards any politician who exploits words like freedom, evil, democracy, security, and terrorism. Yes, the nebulous concepts of freedom, democracy, and security seem great. And yes, evil and terrorism seem bad. But, what do you mean when you use those words?
One of my old English teachers conducted an exercise in which she had each student present on a topic they were passionate about. As we spoke, she would tell us to stop using certain words we were repeating. Stutter. Pause. Think. Without crutch words, you're forced to rethink what you're trying to say, and work to reclaim meaning. If subjected to the same exercise, what words would Ken Mehlman and Harry Reid have left?
The problem with expansive and bastardized words like "freedom" is that they don't inherently express a specific meaning. They have to be qualified. Maybe those words appeal to campaign managers and pollsters because, with such broadly positive or negative connotations, they're thought to capture the attention of the broadest swath of Americans.
But it's a thin line between a politically-inclusive message and empty rhetoric. Everybody knows someone who exemplifies this vacuous quality: That person who is intent on being liked, and thinks the way to do this is to avoid offending anyone at all costs. But oftentimes, despite being incurably friendly and seemingly pleasant, you develop a seething disdain for them. They're at all the social gatherings, nodding gravely when serious topics are broached, laughing at the right moments, but always needing to freshen a drink or use the facilities when called upon to offer their own opinion.
You just can't appeal to everyone, and if that's your main goal, you're going to fail.
In the end, trying to keep everyone happily misinformed during a war didn't work out for the Bush administration. Americans have learned not to trust the manipulation and over-simplification of Bushspeak. A full 67 percent of Americans that think this president is doing a crappy job. It has paved the way for someone to fill the credibility gap. I'd like to see a politician campaign on something, anything other than "defeating the terrorists" and "spreading freedom" throughout the world. And so would the majority of Americans.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.