By Geoffrey Nunberg, Public Affairs, $26, 264 pages
Despite the well-documented Democratic politics of American journalists, more than a few liberals say the media is doing conservatives’ work — adopting the right’s pet phrases as neutral language, looking at politics from a rightward point of view and otherwise tilting the pinball machine so that the left scores fewer points.
Geoffrey Nunberg is probably the most savvy liberal to make this complaint. A Berkeley linguist and contributor to National Public Radio, he examines how conservatives have narrowed the meanings of expansive but key political terms to mean what conservatives want them to mean. Mr. Nunberg also considers the more comic, though no less vital, issue of political stereotyping.
“Liberal” has come to suggest “spinelessness” and “sanctimoniousness,” Mr. Nunberg writes, even as liberal positions on the economy and social programs enjoy popular support. And as liberals have shied away from their name, “liberal” has been redefined by the right to evoke the extremism of “leftist.”
“Elite” is another major example for Mr. Nunberg of how an important idea-word has been made to do the bidding of conservatives. Fifty years ago, C. Wright Mills used the term to refer to the people who sat atop the major hierarchies of government, the military and business. Today, the term is more likely to refer to second-tier influence-brokers like celebrities, academics and journalists, none of whom are supposed by conservatives to work for a living or have any idea what ordinary Americans really think.
Such rhetoric, Mr. Nunberg observes, turns political differences into personal squabbles, but this is hardly a conservative-only tic. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd regularly dramatizes politics as a personality contest worthy of the most cliquish high school cafeteria. As Mr. Nunberg notes: “Liberal America is still waiting for its Evelyn Waugh.”
The right’s use of “elite,” Mr. Nunberg contends, serves to exploit class resentment while concealing the issue of class itself. This the author considers a disingenuous feat, especially when it comes to the right’s celebration of the “entrepreneur”: “In the right’s new language, the guy who does dump runs in his pickup truck and the manicurist working out of her home stand shoulder to shoulder to shoulder with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.”
It may not be cold-eyed realism, and such rhetoric may not be the answer to every last social ill, but the right is correct that a concern for the weak and the poor is consistent with paeans to work and self-help, for these lead to independence and self-sufficiency. And believing a person to be capable of self-sufficiency, if not always great riches, is a mark of respect, a point the compassion-drunk left has many times overlooked.
No favored term of the right has gained as much respectability, however, as “values,” whose roots actually lie in German sociology. As Mr. Nunberg rightly says, “since the Nixon era, the word has been shorthand for a particular collection of narratives about the decline of cultural standards concerning sexuality, religion, hard work, and patriotism.”
Mr. Nunberg criticizes liberal efforts to mimic the right’s values talk (John Kerry claiming he was the true candidate of conservative values). What the left needs to do is return to the issues of economic security that made them so powerful in the past, according to Mr. Nunberg.
The trick is in making this economic case for voting Democratic with non-economic language. Mr. Nunberg quotes Mr. Clinton as the left’s master of this kind of rhetoric: “I am tired of seeing the people who work hard and play by the rules get the shaft.” A little Washington bashing, a little class resentment, mix in some praise for good old-fashioned hard work and honesty and, voila, there you have compelling liberal rhetoric. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Liberals’ bigger problem, Mr. Nunberg concedes, is that like George Bush Senior, they’re lacking the “vision thing.”
“Talking Right” contains many a lesson on being a smarter consumer of language, political and otherwise. And it is more than diverting in its reading of the caricatures conservatives have retailed to trivialize liberal positions.
As a book on politics, however, it can prove a little frustrating. In the often-brilliant chapter on how the right has used the word “values” since the 1970s, for example, one finds no more than a passing comment on the right to an abortion and no discussion of the impact of Roe v. Wade. But, unlike some of his colleagues, Mr. Nunberg seems to realize that linguistics has its limits. Indeed, in politics there are fundamental disagreements that no words can make disappear.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard and the editor of Doublethink magazine.