Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 3, 2012

Forum: Politics and abuse of language

By Porter Abbott

---- — Language has taken a beating this election year. Granted, spinning facts has always been a part of U.S. politics. It's an art practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike. What's new is the increase in flat-out lies, and here, if the fact-checkers are any guide, Republicans are way out in front.

In fact, the Republican convention itself was built around a deliberate falsehood: the President's words ripped from context.

What the president actually said is hard to disagree with: that if you succeeded in business, the U.S. government helped. It has helped business from the start, from the Erie Canal to the trans-continental railroad, from radio to radar, from the interstate to the internet, and in thousands of more ways.

As for the strategy of flat-out falsehood, it has roots. When Romney pollster Neil Newhouse says, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," he's echoing the senior Bush aide who ridiculed Ron Suskind for his naive belief in pursuing the truth. The new game, he told Suskind, is that "we create our own reality."

So maybe that's why Paul Ryan produced his five fact-checked convention whoppers: he was creating reality — encouraged perhaps by the ghost of his favorite author, Ayn Rand, whispering in his ear. After all, for Rand, most of us are pretty dumb.

Well, most of us are smart enough to know when language is badly abused. After Citizens United, even if corporate money flows your way, you know a corporation isn't a "person." You know if it can't vote, can't go to jail, and can't have children, it can't be a "person."

A lawyer might say it's a "person." But then a lawyer might say rounding up enough cash to hog all the airtime is "freedom of speech."

Similarly, a politician might call himself "pro-life" by insisting all fertilized eggs become children.

But, if he turns around and promotes a budget that would deny millions of those children any kind of a life, then the proper word is "pro-birth" not "pro-life."

After all, there are two meanings of the word "life." One is the state of being alive, a condition shared by chipmunks and Justin Bieber. The other is something one has, like a good life or a bad life. The first kind of life may be necessary for the second, but the second is a measure of the first. It's this second kind of life that gives children a chance to achieve something we all value, "self-reliance."

And this word brings me to my last, "socialist," a word that has been thrown around like a rock for over a century. It's now being thrown by right-wing ideologues at a moderate Democrat whose domestic focus has been quite good with regard to life. To call him a "socialist" is worse than a bad joke.

As the Czech film maker Milos Forman said, to call the president a socialist "cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism."

About the author: Porter Abbot taught narrative and rhetoric in the department of English for 40 years at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he was also Chair of English and Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts. He lives in Northport.