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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Displays of Authenticity (16b)—Bayonets and Buggy Whips

One year ago on Round and Square (25 October 2011)—Styling Culture: So and Such
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Displays of Authenticity.
[a] Old RF
This is the second post in a two-part series. Click here for the other post:
Buggy Whips 1               Buggy Whips 2

We have seen how "old" language can rear its linguistic head(word) and send ripples through the world of politics. Before we veer too far from that track, let us consider one more issue. The New York Times ran a fascinating little piece this weekend on Mitt Romney's use of language. It turns out that the Manhattan crowd wasn't used to phrases such as "scared the dickens out of" and "gee-willikers." 

I will admit to a weakness for Romney's phraseology that goes far beyond politics. I like listening to grandpa when he talks. Lest you think that this is a not-so-subtle, urban dig at the Republican nominee, think again. I really mean it. I like many of the words he uses; they bring me back to my childhood. If you have never heard an aging North Dakotan say something along the lines of darn good, then you will never understand me...or the Midwest. The governor and I have a disagreement here and there, to be sure, but, by golly, I like the way he talks. Better put, I like the way he uses odd words that make me feel warm, like a crackling fireplace on a cold day in Wahpeton.
[b] Innards RF

Dated words provide comfort to some of us and befuddlement to others. Let's turn our attention to another matter—term coinage, as it were, during a high-pressure political campaign. The minting of new words and phrases did not begin yesterday. It has been going on as long as electioneering has been a part of electoral culture (and before that, really; politics goes way beyond democracy, as we all should know). 

                 I Like Ike
                 Peace with honor
                 Where's the beef?
                 It's morning in America
                 It's the economy, stupid

Properly put, these are phrases—statements and questions, really. What about single words that resonate, echo, linger...or fall flat on their lettered faces? We have those, too, and they are not particularly new.
[c] Chasing phrases RF


And then we come to today's politics. It does seem as though the wordy stakes have been raised a notch or two (or lowered, depending on your perspective). Some of them have worked their very ways into the mythology of our time, if not mainstream social and economic theory.

                   Voodoo Economics
                   From the Middle Out  
                   Death Panels
                   Don't Ask, Don't Tell
                   War on Women
                   I'll give up my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands
[d] Strategy RF
Wow. That's a mouthful, and much of it has a distinctly "unhappy" character. Well, negativity works, it seems, and words and brief phrases are just as prone to be invoked as thirty-second commercials. Even here, in the list above, though, we don't have a word at a time—single words that carry with them in their reverberating presentness a sense of a changing world.

Let's look at some of those.

We'll begin with a few words that started as attacks and came to be tolerated, if not always loved, by those on whom they were unleashed. Do you remember the term "Reaganomics?" If you are over forty and read the newspaper, I am sure that you do. Do you think that it was an affectionate sound-bite told by sympathetic voters on the right?  

Really, do you? Do you really think that?

Well, I have thrown you a little bit of a curve ball here. In fact, it was a term cloaked in affection by the conservative radio host Paul Harvey. Having grown up listening to his noontime reports on WDAY Radio in Fargo, I maintain that Mr. Harvey was a better journalist than many of today's partisans, and that the phrase was uttered with a smidgen of irony. Despite Harvey's devotion to Ronald Wilson Reagan, I suspect that there was a bit of edge in his otherwise positive spin. 

Still, it was, more-or-less, a portmanteau of endearment.

Word coinage is one thing; word usage is another. Cultural anthropologists and historians should study both. How do you think that Tip O'Neill and various Democrats responded to the term Reaganomics? You would be correct. Nary a liberal could utter the phrase without a sniff of contempt. Go ahead, find some older folks (I am speaking to students out of habit now, and actually refer to people most of us would regard as quite "young"). Ask them what they think "Reaganomics" means. You might be surprised by a few of those fieldwork encounters. Do some research.
[e] Changing RF

Language is like that. It weaves, spins, changes...and evokes emotion.

Now let's try another. Do you think that the Davids— Plouffe and Axelrodgot together after the 2008 election and came up with a plan to call the Affordable Care Act Obamacare? Do you think that they formed their own word puzzle to sell their guy's approach to a contentious issue? 

You don't have to be forty or fifty years old to have a pretty accurate answer to that one...unless you just started reading and watching the news about six months ago. You see, when first employed, the term Obamacare was visceral, negative, and held within its melded letters a clarion call for people who felt that this was all just way too much. This was (to that approach) ...a spect(re) is haunting...stuff. The use of the term in, say, 2009 and 2010, was potent, and heavily loaded toward one end of the political spectrum. It had powerful overtones as candidates battled one another in the midterm elections.

All bad..for both liberals and conservatives, but for different reasons.

This state of affairs held, with just a few exceptions, into the 2012 election season. Then a funny thing started happening that most people have only seen through a partisan lens. Golly, but I think that there is something even bigger going on here than politics. I think we might have a fascinating example of Bourdiuevian social theory playing out right before our eyes. In a nutshell, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) wrote that culture is ever-changing, and that there are no "rules." Nothing is ever set in stone. People (and groups) are always repositioning, appropriating, shedding, and molding. Nothing ever stays "set," like concrete. It is sometimes difficult to see how Bourdieu's theory plays out in complex social processes, and not the least because they are, well, complicated. It is much more clear when we can see how this linguistic-cultural infighting takes place over a word.
[f] Contention RF

And, Jiminy-Cricket, it did. It started slowly. Several Democrats began using the term in neutral and even positive ways. I would argue that phrasal fatigue on the right played a role, too. The term just did not have the gut-kick punch in 2012 that it had two years earlier. It was as though conservatives, by using it repeatedly, had taken a full-strength ounce of Obamacare and diluted it in solution (a little like the way sturdy red wines are consumed in China—mixed with Coke or Sprite). So, the word's power was diminished, on the one hand, and started to look like rhetorical bronze by the very side that had been eviscerated by it just a year earlier.

What the heck? That doesn't sound very "logical!"

It's time to read some more cultural theory, pardner. It's how language works when employed by social animals with big ol' three-pound brains full of stratagems and memories of failure (and success). By summer, even President Obama had begun to use the term. Slowly it began to "stick." Even now, though, not everyone is comfortable with it. I prefer "Affordable Care Act," just as I prefer references such as "Governor Romney" to "Mitt," and "Secretary Clinton" to "Hillary." I'm old, though...and from the Midwest. Here's the key point, though: when it comes to language these little bundles of riposte pack a real punch. 

Obamacare and Reaganomics. They're what's for contention.

And so are bayonets, buggy whips, and battleships. There's something about words—old and new. We would do better to ponder the language candidates are using rather than obsessing about each day's polls. 

Words resonate; the rest is just noise.

This is the second post in a two-part series. Click here for the other post:
Buggy Whips 1               Buggy Whips 2
[g] Noise RF

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