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Say what you mean – and mean what you say

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

January 15, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

The keyword in politics this election year is "Change", a word that means many things to many people. It's a word that candidates for president are embracing as their own, but only Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich have offered any real definition of what the concept of change means to them.

John Edwards spoke recently of the reaction he and Barack Obama are getting from established interests as they preach the Gospel of Change: "Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack - every single time." That's true but misleading, as Edwards and Obama and the other leading candidates are advocating only minor changes from politics as usual.

The exception to this trend are Rudy Giuliani and his supporters, who don't seem interested in changing anything aside from the current White House occupant. They talk a lot about wanting to be kept safe from dangerous Others who might bring changes to their neighborhood, but change is not a heavy word in their vocabulary.

All social and political revolutions bring changes to the language, but changes in language have helped trigger revolutions as well. And it's through language that we can change our electoral system and re-create the representative government that's described in our Constitution.

In order to talk honestly about any issue we need to use words accurately. The simple truth doesn't stand much chance of being spoken when political debate becomes an exchange of marketing phrases, which is pretty much the only language presidential candidates speak these days. That's our own fault, by the way – the weak quality of American political discourse is the collective fault of every one of us for allowing the public dialog in every aspect of society to become so thoroughly dumbed down.

We can begin to change all that by using words that say what we really mean, and being careful with words that have become tools of propaganda. We can also start to insist that public officials speak honestly with us and choose their words just as wisely.

"War" is probably the most important word to use carefully. America hasn't fought a war since WWII, at least not in the traditional use of the word as describing an open military conflict between nations that ends when one nation surrenders. What we've actually done during the past sixty years is sanction the use of our military forces in armed incursions, invasions and occupations of other countries.

We need to use those correct words when we talk about our recent military history. Proper respect for the soldiers who've died in battle requires that we be honest with ourselves and with each other about what they sacrificed their lives for. Unless it's absolutely necessary to defend and preserve a free society, ordering soldiers to risk their lives is just plain wrong. If we don't use the right language when we consider military actions, a bad decision becomes easier for warmongers to implement and for the public to accept.

It might also help if we drop our habit of talking about a War On Drugs or a War On Crime or a War On whatever social problem is in our face at the moment. We prohibit some drugs and license the use of others while selling the most popular ones on the shelves of our supermarkets, so there's no actual War On Drugs going on. There is a lot of police activity related to drug use, but it's still just an attempt to regulate human behavior based on selective moral issues.

As for the War On Crime – crime is an innately human trait that isn't going away until we breed it out of our genetic code. A successful war on crime would need to eliminate all causes of crime or create a total police state to prevent it. Neither of those things will happen in your lifetime. It makes no sense to call law enforcement a war and it creates the false impression that aggressive police actions and a skewed system of justice will keep society safe from criminals.

The word "Victory" as used by politicians is also meaningless. Nobody wins in the street fighting and aerial bombardment that we call war now, certainly not the citizens who live in and around the battleground. Collateral damage is always high when bullets are flying in streets lined with the homes of innocent residents and their children. Ask the people who once lived in Fallujah; those that are still alive don't see a victory for anyone in the ruins of their once-prosperous city.

"Bipartisan" is a word defined by George Carlin as meaning, "...there's a larger-than-usual deception being carried out." As always when talking about our language, Carlin is right. Even in the best of scenarios it's a purely political word thrown loosely around by politicians and journalists. Bipartisan is not a real word. You're either partisan or you're not. When two opposing parties work together to solve a problem, they are no longer being partisan over that issue. They become non-partisan, at least for that moment.

"Illegal immigration" has become a catchall phrase that contains a powerful symbolic message. It's used in many ways but everyone understands its base meaning – keep those Latinos south of the border. The modern approach of fences and patrols, special identification cards, deportation and denial of human services deals with immigration problems in a way that denigrates human beings almost as much as slavery did 150 years ago, and logically so – our modern economy exploits migrant workers almost as much as the Old South exploited slave laborers.

"Leadership" is another word that we could do without. It's a perfectly good word outside of politics but we don't elect Leaders in this country, we vote for Representatives. Or at least we're supposed to. Some folks like to have a leader whom they can follow, but leadership is a concept our Constitution put limits on. Intentionally. So true Americans vote for the candidate who can best represent them, one who can follow our lead instead of trying to show us the way.

Eliminating the language of political division would help to free up political discussion in this country. Whatever brand of politics you may believe in, do everybody around you a favor and quit speaking like a political parrot. Try talking about your beliefs without those omnipresent labels of left, right, red, blue, Republican or Democrat.

There is no such thing as a "red" state or "blue" state. If a Republican candidate wins 52 percent of a state's vote, that doesn't make it a Republican state. It simply means that a little over half of those who voted chose a Republican, which isn't the same thing at all. Because only half of all eligible voters actually vote in most states, how can 26 percent of the citizenry represent the political affiliation of an entire state?

If color is a reference point, then we are a Purple Nation – we're about an equal blend of Democrats and Republicans along with just as many people who hold some other political orientation. As individuals we're a lot more centrist than anything else; for the most part, we all want the same things from life. It's only when we artificially divide into color-coded groups that we lose sight of our common interests.

The weird mix of belief systems in America doesn't hold together well in modern politics because a warped, winner-take-all mentality has infested our electoral process. That won't change until we stop emphasizing theoretical differences and get a better focus on our common reality. That change begins with the way we talk about politics and our political process.

When words lose their meaning, the ideas framed with those words become meaningless. After more than two hundred years of practice, we should have a better understanding of the words that define what America aspires to become.