There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Talking Right, the latest from rock-star linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, delivers not only the most tongue-trippingly truculent subtitle of the year but also a fresh and well-argued take on the Democrats’ so-called “messaging problem.” Nunberg’s previous book, the studied and droll Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times, was a collection of short essays on the usage, etymology, and sometimes hidden meanings of political and cultural buzzwords; here he tackles something bigger and more insidious: the right’s control of popular political language. Though much has been made of the Republican commitment to “staying on message” and the party’s ability to sway, even create “truth” through shameless repetition, Nunberg argues that the problem here is deeper than oft-repeated conservative catchphrases such as “the war on Christmas” or “culture of life.” He parses it thus: “[T]he real sign of the right’s co-option of American political culture has been its ability to dominate that core vocabulary and make it the norm not just among its own circles, but in the larger American conversation about politics.” Perhaps the clearest example, and one that continues to vex the left-leaning, is how the right has made “liberal” a dirty word. Fifty years ago, politicians across the spectrum, from Hoover to Eisenhower to Kennedy, wanted to ally themselves with the label, but these days the L-Word is like political scabies: shudder-inducing, wildly unpopular, and tough to shake. He posits that conservatives have so sullied the term that liberalism comes off as less a political ideology than as “middle class lifestyle choice.” Nunberg claims that the right’s linguistic success is bottomed on redefining certain irreducible terms like “values,” “elite,” “patriotism,” and “liberal” in a 30-years-in-the-making swell of specious cultural populism. He lays out the right’s strategy to co-opt the language of populism, wresting it from its economic and political roots (where liberals have always been friendlier to the down-at-heel) and recasting it as a cultural struggle between the tastes, lifestyles, and mores of “the average American” and “coastal elites.” How do you keep a white middle-American Christian who pulls down $120,000 a year feeling perpetually under attack? Convince him that the liberal elite sneer at his faith, his car, his pastimes, and his politics. An avowed leftie, Nunberg digs into the political lexicon with obvious partisan relish. Dems are the presumed audience here, and then only those who get a masochistic thrill from having their hackles raised. As with many works that characterize “the right” and “the left,” Talking Right’s rendering of the actions and intentions of each occasionally suffer from reductionism, as in the author’s claim that “Conservatives may not have a lot of enthusiasm for laws or campus codes that restrict hate speech in the literal sense of the term, but they know that the phrase conjures up an image of speech that’s outside the boundaries of civilized behavior.” He buttresses his findings, however, with facts and figures taken from savvy searches of media outlets. In parsing the stigmas against the term “liberal,” he finds that “[e]ven in supposedly ‘liberal’ papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, liberals are four times as likely as conservatives to be described as ‘unapologetic’ or ‘unabashed,’” suggesting that somehow conservatives have less to be ashamed of. By relying on this brand of research, Nunberg keeps his data outside the realm of academia and firmly planted in everyday political speech. His observations are trenchant, questioning whether lefties should even try to use the language assigned to them by the right and largely adopted by the media. And his discoveries, both linguistic and cultural, help decode our current political language while offering the occasional surprise. For instance: Republicans buy more brie.