The DNA of Language

Candy revolution posterHowever noble a politician may pretend to be, or actually be (it could happen), politics is always about power. Politics exists because more than one person wants power over the same group of people, and since we are civilized now, instead of facing off with clubs, politicians make speeches. It is an improvement, though metaphorically they will still hammer one another bloody.

Because politics is so intimately involved with language, politics and rhetoric are woven together like the twin strands of DNA. Rhetoric is not about the truth, it is about winning. But neither is it straighforward lying. Rhetoric isn’t merely about hiding the truth—rhetoric is about getting people to believe and act, so effective rhetoric must connect with the audience, must have real meaning for them.

One rhetorical phrase that has become very faddish during this election is the phrase “class warfare” used to describe any attempt to discuss the vast gap between rich and poor in this country. Maybe Rick Santorum doesn’t use the phrase. During debate in New Hampshire, he said (I couldn’t make this up) “There are no classes in America…We don’t put people in classes.” Somehow he has missed the fact that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class. “Class warfare” has shown up, however, in the mouth of most, perhaps all, of the other Republican candidates.

If you want the rich to pay the same tax rate as a bus driver (an example suggested by Ronald Reagan), then according to current Republicans (who ironically claim to worship Reagan), you are engaging in class warfare. In fact, if you even point out the obvious fact that some people have to decide which of their houses to live in this month, while other people decide whether to buy food or medicine this month, that’s considered class warfare.

As a description of reality, the phrase “class warfare” has almost no meaning, so why is it used? First, war sounds bad (unless we declare war on another country, then it is partriotism). As to the “class” reference, Santorum has at least seen the shadow of the truth. In America we aspire to surpass the economic limits we are born with. Thus we are supposed to work hard to rise into a higher class, not make war on members of that class. To do otherwise might mean you are un-American.

Just for a moment, let’s consider reality instead of rhetoric. If we think of class warfare as a situation in which one economic group harms another, damaging their ability to live peacefully in this country, which group is doing that? Which group has been losing their houses in record numbers? Who has seen retirement savings diminish or disappear? Which group has members who remain unemployed for more than a year? And which group in the last ten years has grown dramatically richer? If class warfare exists in America, the rich are obviously winning.

When Republicans use the phrase “class warfare” they always—let’s emphasize that, always—mean “shut the hell up about social inequality”. I don’t understand why they feel that way. However, rhetoric is not about the truth, it is about winning.

A second example of election rhetoric is often heard from Newt Gingrich, in a variety of phrases incorporating the slangy word “gotcha” as an adjective: gotcha journalism, gotcha questions, and so on. The adjective, as an abbreviation for “I got you” means “I caught you doing something wrong”. According to Gingrich, when he is asked difficult questions that he doesn’t want to answer, such questions are examples of “gotcha” questions, used by journalists not to promote greater knowledge, but as a way to trick a candidate and generate controversy.

That does happen, I’m sure. At the same time, it is the job of journalists to question political leaders and would-be leaders. If journalists only ask questions that allow the politicians to comfortably show how smart they are, the journalists might as well roll over to have their bellies scratched. If I want to see that, I will watch a press conference given by Vladimir Putin. And I would say to Gingrich, “If you don’t like it, Newt, then don’t ask us to make you the most powerful human being on the planet earth.”

In fact, Newt knows the job of the press. By accusing the media of “gotcha” journalism, he is trying to accomplish several rhetorical goals: (1) make himself look too smart to be tricked, (2) make himself look too tough to give in to that kind of pressure, (3) say to Republican voters “look how I stand up to the liberal media”, (4) refuse to answer the question asked and then change the subject.

The rhetorical tricks I’m discussing here are not unique to this group of Republican candidates. All politicians, even the ones you love, do the same.

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