BY STEVEN JONAS
Framing the issues and controlling the key words that define them is essential to victory in politics, especially in the age of all-out professional propaganda.—Eds
Central to the Presidential election are the issues of the role of the Federal government in our society and what should be the future of such Federal government programs as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Central also is what the role of the Federal government should be in the regulation of personal behavior, especially in the realm of sex and sexual relations.
Closely related to the latter is the matter of the place of organized religion in public life, and the matter of whether or not particular religious views on such matters should be embedded in the law, both civil and criminal. Central also are the economic issues of the concentration of wealth, what is taxation for, and given the unsustainable Federal budgetary deficit, the role of government in dealing with these problems. As well as others, such as whether being fed dog meat as a child in a country where such a practice is common is equal to transporting your dog in a dog carrier strapped to the top of your car.
In the political battles that occur over these issues, words matter. As it happens, many of the words presently used in the mainstream media and political culture are mis-leading and do not reflect reality. These terms are usually those that have been created/established by the Right Wing and their paramount wordsmiths such as Frank Luntz. (He is a very clever fellow . Would that we had one like him on our side.) They are used not only by the Right but also by the media and often by what qualifies as the “Left” in the United States. This practice automatically gives the Right a leg up in any debate on any of the above issues as well as many others. This is a situation that has to change if any of the battles with the Right are going to be won. Consider the following.
Let’s start with the term “conservative.” The GOP candidates are all vying with each other to see who can out-”conservative” the other. But none of them are out to conserve anything. They all want to go backwards, and indeed spend a lot of time telling us that they want to go back to “America the way it used to be” (you know, no unions, no civil rights, no legal abortions, no Medicare or even Social Security, no environmental or financial markets regulation, etc.). This is actually REACTIONARY politics and that’s what our side should begin calling their side.
“Entitlements.” When referring to the benefits provided by certain government programs for which people have paid for many years, like, for example, Social Security and Medicare, many politicians, of both major parties, use the term “entitlement.” The (strong) implication is that someone is getting something for nothing, or is getting something only because of who they are (often “poor” or otherwise somehow “undeserving”). But no, they are getting it because they have paid for it. On the other hand, if a hedge fund manager gets $4 billion in a year (and one did in 2011), feeling that he is entitled to such a payout because he is such a smart and grand fellow, even though he “earned” it just by trading pieces of paper in an unregulated market, that’s called “fair compensation.” And so, the term “entitlements” should be replaced on our side by something like “earned benefits.”
The term “Social Issues” refers to abortion rights, gay civil rights, end-of-life options, stem cell research, treatment and disease management, and in particular the interest of the Radical Religious Right to control personal sexual behavior through the use of the criminal and civil law (as mentioned above), thus imposing, through the use of the law, a particular religious ideology on the population as a whole. “Social issues” is a nice neutral term that emotionally defuses the whole thing for the Right, making it appear that there is some kind of balance to what they want to achieve. However, all of the issues that come under the rubric are based in the religious positions of a particular minority of the population. When Karl Rove got anti-gay marriage state constitutional amendments on the ballot in the 2004 Presidential election in order to get right-wing Christians to the polls to vote for GW Bush, he was not doing it because it was any old “social issue.” It was a right-wing religious issue. Therefore, our side should stop calling these matters “social issues” and begin calling them what they really are, “RELIGIOUS ISSUES” or better yet “RIGHT-WING RELIGIOUS ISSUES.”
While I’m on this subject, let’s consider the term “evangelical.” On the one hand, many right-wing Christians are evangelical in the way they promote their religious beliefs. But there are many evangelicals who are not right-wing. They just get lost on the shuffle. We should stop using the term “evangelical” and call the right-wing religious types, Christian and other (and there are Jews and Muslims who fit right in with them politically), what they really are: the RADICAL RELIGIOUS RIGHT or some variation thereof.
On the matter of abortion rights in particular, we should not use the term “pro-life.” Given the Religious Right’s policies towards people in general after they are born, they are actually not “pro-life” but only “anti-abortion,” and then only in a very narrow sense. They are not broadly anti-abortion in terms of prevention because then they would be strong supporters of sex education and birth control. Thus indeed they are they are: ANTI-ABORTION RIGHTISTS, and that’s what our side should call them.
Finally, consider the term “big government.” From the Right, government is terrible if it does things like regulate the financial markets that when they were allowed to run wild put the country into the current economic mess from which it is recovering very slowly (and they are champing at the bit to destroy the mild re-regulation put in place to try to prevent the collapse from happening again). But “big government” is absolutely at the top of their list when it comes to such matters as criminalizing the religious belief that life begins at the time of viability and for some, the use of contraceptives. Presently, our side gives the Right a virtual monopoly on the use of the term, the way they want to use it. In the fight against them that is a monopoly that needs to be broken.
After the Fall of France at the beginning of the Second World War, when Great Britain stood alone, Winston Churchill spoke of mobilizing the English language and taking it into war. The other side has done this and done it very effectively. It is way past time for our side to begin doing the same thing.
1. Politicus USA, October 30, 2011, “The Secret List of 14 Words Republicans are Never Supposed to Use,” http://www.politicususa.com/14-secret-gop-words.html
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash/Truthout (http://www.buzzflash.com, http://www.truth-out.org/), he is the Managing Editor of and a Contributing Author to TPJmagazine.net. He also serves as senior contributing editor for The Greanville Post.
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