March 6, 2008
Part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy has been to portray her opponent Barack Obama as a man of eloquent words and herself as a woman of decisive action — it’s performance, not peroration, she would say if she were eloquent, that makes an effective president.
She’s right in at least one sense: Words can indeed seduce, and empty words are often the most seductive of all.
This applies not only to Obama but to political discourse in general. Words do matter; they construct the mental picture that shapes our view of the world and our responses to it. If words are misused or misapplied, some very bad responses can result.
There are certain words that when beaten enough in political rhetoric take on a life of their own. They trigger a host of associations that go far beyond their basic meanings. Used ideologically, they can cloud clear thinking and push people and politics in ways that often defy common sense. A true straight-talker would do the public great service by unmasking these words for what they are and opening new and honest dialogue on the issues that lie beneath them.
"Tax" is such a trigger-word. Its straightforward meaning as a levy used by government to pay for its operation and for public projects has been turned by ideologues clustered around the long-ago oratory of Ronald Reagan into a symbol of intrinsic evil, detached from any purpose. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, is an early and classic example of this detachment, where residential property tax rates were set at fixed levels and no longer pegged to the needs of the community. When public education costs, for which property taxes had been primarily used, continued to rise, there was no longer the instrument of taxation to pay for them — or to provide an incentive to control them.
With sufficient haranguing, the detachment of taxation from its purposes spread to all levels of government. The current administration has carried this disconnect to remarkable heights, cutting taxes while simultaneously prosecuting a trillion-dollar military operation in Iraq and now burdening the nation with even more debt with that dubious "economic stimulation" package. Every candidate for president is loath to make the bold but common-sense assertion that if we want good and necessary things — health care, education, transportation — we have to pay for them. The public, in fact, would gladly agree, as long as they could see results.
A truly straight-talking candidate would destroy that malevolent icon and reestablish the relation between taxation and its purposes.
"War" is another trigger-word. Most incendiary of all, it opens up visceral feelings of nationalism and defensive fear. It also opens up the desire for discipline and self-sacrifice. Metaphorical uses of the word can lead to unwarranted aggression and demoralization.
The Bush administration has ruthlessly exploited the power of this word. Calling the response to terrorist threats a "war" has generated completely inappropriate and ineffective reactions. Terrorist groups are not nations but tiny, diverse, and often unrelated cells of individuals without armies, air-power, or large-scale munitions; they rely on home-made explosives and arsenals of small arms plundered or purchased. Common sense dictates that they should be dealt with on their own terms, on their own scale, by working with the police forces of the countries where they hide to flush them out and bring them to civil justice, and by censuring those countries that consciously harbor them.
The administration most effectively used the war-on-terror metaphor to whip up support for starting actualy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which, most analysts agree, did not squelch terrorists but opened up new opportunities for them.
The war-metaphor is also employed to heighten anxiety and compel support for the continued American presence in Iraq. By every conventional definition, the war there ended when the Iraqi army was defeated and Saddam Hussein deposed, but politicians and the press have continued to designate as "war" what is plainly now a policing operation, an attempt to bring order to a country beset by paramilitary factions. As with the "war on terror," the "war in Iraq" terminology shapes the policy of maintaining a huge military presence that has proved to be a helpless Goliath pelted by the small stones of improvised explosives and small arms.
"We are a nation at war," all the candidates, including opposed-from-the-start Obama, repeat in their stump speeches. But as long as that phrase is hammered at, a realistic resolution of the Iraq dilemma will be impossible.
And then there’s "defense spending." Though the U.S. spends more on the military than all other nations combined, no candidate has touched the subject of whether all this is really necessary, fearing political suicide. But the promise of a thorough review of the military budget might make a candidate actually credible. Rather than being tarred as "soft on defense," a forthright candidate would be seen as "hard on accountability." Half of the annual $700 billion defense budget — the highest in adjusted dollars since World War II — is being spent on high-tech, big-ticket items like multimillion-dollar fighter planes that are useless in the small-scale, on-the-ground actions that are most likely to occur today, while the manpower needed for these actions is lacking and often woefully underequipped and unprotected. Were the public truthfully apprized of the skewed priorities of the Pentagon and the Congress (which routinely appropriates more than even the Pentagon proposes, to fuel projects in their states and districts), the magic of the defense-spending mantra might evaporate.
Until a candidate has the courage to cut down these shibboleths and many more like them that stylize and distort the debate, there will be little straight-talk on the issues, eloquent or prosaic. And little action either.