Newspeak, Metamemes, and Fag Baptism
One thing that irks me greatly is to see Democratic pundits talk about the "gay marriage" issue. What a bunch of fools. Just saying those words kills Democrats, regardless of the opinion expressed. Putting what amounts to a derogatory term right next to a word expressive of sanctity creates a hook in people's minds that makes them hostile to the issue. It's like talking about "fag baptism" - just hearing it makes me uncomfortable. If you really want to help the cause of committed homosexual couples, then you should never mention "gay marriage" again, or even "equal rights for homosexuals"
Someone with the moniker of Waldo Jaquith over at Kos has linked to an article by Nathan Piazza at Dead Reckoning that is definitely worth reading. Amidst the sudden spasm of folk smitten by Dawkins, Lakoff, Luntz, and other pop lingua-gurus, Piazza manages to get well beyond descriptive theory and down into the wrestling mud where Democrats need to be.
When I mention the phrases "culture of life", "senator from Massachussets", "flip flop", "liberal elite", "hard work", or just the word "prayer", I am using the simple terms that won President Bush this election. They represent just a handful of the litany of linguistic viruses his administration used to shape an electorate that ultimately rated "moral values" as more important than Iraq or the economy as an issue in this election.
Older guys like me understand what Piazza means when he refers to "simple terms" that are easily remembered and naturally repeated. Younger guys like you, reader, may respond more readily to the latest popular synonym, which is "meme."
The power of memes is the same as the virus: a well-constructed one gets people to accept ideas they would normally reject and then has them re-propagating the new ideas without realizing it. Memes can be complex or very simple, but Republican memes are usually very simple in construction and usually built on simple language, though their aggregate effect is complex and powerful. In fact, they are so powerful and insidious that they turn otherwise neutral commentators and even leftists into servants of the Bush message. Every time a Dem says the words "gay marriage" or "terrorism", in fact, they are speaking against their own interests... .Fundamentally, there's not much conceptually new in the world of marketing since Benton and Bowles set out as young men to make their fortunes so they could turn to public service. The medium, including the words and images one uses to communicate, as Marshall McLuhan could have told us if he weren't dead, shapes the message. Only the linguistic constructs change every generation or so, as when tenure-hungry professors claim to have invented a whole new field of study such as semiotics.
Using the pop language of today, Piazza explains, correctly in my view, why the left has failed to sell its ideas to the broader part of the electorate whom those very ideas would benefit:
If leftists want to win presidential elections, they need to seize on some core metamemes and then find ways of relating all of their policy goals to memes that relate back to the core memes. Then they must beat those memes into the heads of the electorate by sticking to talking points that propagate the memes, avoiding all discourse that does not reinforce and exalt them. When voters say they don't "trust" Kerry, many of them are really articulating the fact that his persona is incomplete or incoherent to them. The "trust" issue really testifies to Kerry's inability to quickly and efficiently construct a persona and tie it to a memetic agenda. People will always vote for a well-understood candidate persona of which they only partially approve over a persona that is poorly defined by self-reflexive memes.
This may be conventional wisdom, but it is no less wise for that. What makes Piazza's post worth reading, however, are the specific 'memes' he serves up to encapsulate today's liberal ideas:
I think the Democrat's best metameme candidates are probably "Rights", "Choice", "Unity", and "America First.
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Let's start with "Rights". This meme reflects the long-standing association of Democrats with civil liberties, labor, and defending the oppressed from intimidation and exploitation. But it is an expansive enough notion to include a vast array of other American "entitlements". Democrats can, and do, talk about the "right to quality health care". That is an excellent impulse, but it is one that could be far more universally applied. All Americans like their entitlements, from the richest, most ornery CEO to the lowliest street criminal (and all the crooks in between), so the appeal of "rights" is universal. When applying this meme, Democrats should remember that almost all legislative or policy initiatives can be couched in the language of "rights". Americans have a right to alternative energy sources and quality public schools. We have a right to be respected in the world. Our troops have a right to come home after their tours end. Etc, etc
* * * *
"Choice". This meme is powerful because it can suggest a number of core Democratic issues without directly mentioning them, such as abortion, health care, etc. People who are pro-life can't argue that "choice" is a bad thing, at least in the abstract, while the pro-choice set will "get it" when you invoke "choice" as a key American value. What's more, much like "rights", Americans love more choices, and choices are everywhere to be emphasized in Democratic policy initiatives. Democrats want people to have a choice in their medical insurance, they want people to be able to choose whether to buy their drugs from Canada, and when they become sick they want to offer people the choices that come from stem cell research.
* * * *
"Unity" is first and foremost a replacement for the "diversity" meme, as Barack Obama and others have realized. What's more, it's suggestive of other key Democratic values. America is divided from the world over Iraq. America is increasingly divided between rich and poor. Etc.
"America First" meme. This is an effective replacement for all that unfocused talk about jobs and outsourcing. It can suggest that American companies think of America First when it comes to jobs, and it can also suggest making America an example for other Democracies to emulate again. People sens that America has fallen in stature in the world, and the America First meme capitalizes on this. When it comes to environmental stewardship, health care, education, the quality of our elections process, and the corruption level in our campaign financing system, America should lead the world, not follow it. America should be first. People who oppose campaign finance reform, quality elections, universal healthcare, job outsourcing, and the closing of business tax loopholes. These people, it should be made clear, are keeping America back.
Piazza has a lot more. For such a clever wordsmith, he doesn't make it all that easy to slog through. But it's worth it. The capstone for me is his suggestion for how to make the word "conservative" toxic.
Every time a leftist talks of terror, it hurts the left. Stop doing it. Remember, there's no war on terror, no fighting for freedom. Instead, talk about conservative Muslim groups or conservative Muslim criminals. Remember, this effort is an international law enforcement issue. Don't say it explicitly at first, but as time goes on, the military flags, and Bush's "war" stales in the American mind, people will be begging to think of this as a police matter. At that point, remember, the enemy is "conservative" Muslims. This is just the beginning of a campaign the Democrats should launch to destroy the word "conservative" the way the word "liberal" has been destroyed. The end result should be that both words fall out of use or that both return to inspiring normative levels of skepticism and resentment. Remember, Bin Laden and Bush share many more values than they don't share. The American people, in subtle memetic ways, need to be shown this truth.
A few years of that and who knows how many prosecutors will be itching to put Tom Delay in jail?
At some level, I confess to personal uneasiness over the cynical use of Orwellian newspeak to manipulate public discourse. Then I remember how much more unhappy it makes me to see Democrats with liberal ideas crash and burn every two years. If this keeps up, and there won't be any Democrats left to discuss ideas in public.
Given a choice, I'd rather see the English language ruined than a liberal agenda.