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Posts published in “Political Words”

Snowflake

politicalwords

The thing about ‘snowflakes’ is this: They are beautiful and unique, but in large numbers become an unstoppable avalanche that will bury you.
George Takei, actor

Another insult term found in some conservative and most alt-right circles. A 2016 Los Angeles Times article compiled a list of them, including beta (in contrast to alpha), crybaby (not really new, but with juvenile connotations), cuck (see that entry), human biodiversity, libtard, masculinist (in opposition to feminist), and SJW for social justice warrior. More materialize regularly, some more very specific uses; Goolag is used as a criticism of Google; femoid, intended to suggest women are less than human; and GEOTUS, “God-Emperor of the United States,” intended to refer to Donald Trump.

But this one, more than most, making a particular point that ought to be more generally addressed and considered.

The political term comes from the sort-of scientific one, the crystalline singularity of a piece of snow; it draws off some of the flake’s more obvious qualities, such as its fragility and delicacy, the unique structure of each, and (less often but occasionally) its whiteness.

The recent political use of it may have its unlikely origins in the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; its most famous quote may be the one about not talking about Fight Club, but another had more political import: “You are not special, you are not the beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” The use of the terms seized on the idea of self-important people who, perceiving themselves as “special,” demand either various entitlements or extra praise or consideration.

The term began to take off after a 2015 YouTube video of a shouting match between students and faculty at Yale University went viral; the students were widely slapped with the label of “snowflake generation.” That phrase became a “word of the year” the next year for Collins Dictionary, but it was soon shortened to the more generic snowflake.

In keeping with the shorter usage, the meaning was broadened at bit; Urban Dictionary in 2016 had, “an overly sensitive person, incapable of dealing with any opinions that differ from their own. These people can often be seen congregating in ‘safe zones’ on college campuses.”

As that might suggest, the term has been flung more by the right at the left than the other way around. Examples: “Devastated by Brexit? Snowflake. Protesting the election of Donald J. Trump? Precious snowflake. Asking to take down a statue of a racist on your campus? Classic Generation Snowflake. Sexual assault survivors requesting trigger warnings on texts that include graphic rape scenes? Special snowflakes.”

Of course, this does nothing to say whether these things upsetting a person ought to be upsetting; it makes no argument for any of them. It’s an ad hominem attack, of a simplistic kind.

Of course, the word can as easily be sent in the other direction: “Maybe it’s President-elect Trump. He is, after all, a man who has yet to display an ability to laugh at himself. He is offended by, seemingly, everything anyone has ever said about him that is not sufficiently glowing. He is a man who cannot even bear the (really rather soft) satire slung his way by Saturday Night Live.”

There is one other aspect to this that should be mentioned. In fact – in reality – we are all different, unique, with particular qualities to offer. Or at least we’d better be. If we’re nothing more than “you are the same decaying organic matter as everything else,” then what gives any person the right to fling a snowflake at anyone else? Or is the flinger simply another snowflake who can’t handle the world as it is?
 

Elites

politicalwords

The GOP has gone off the deep end w/ conspiracy theories. Things aren’t just things. Everything involves secret cabals of “elites.” (Dog whistle.)
► Kurt Eichenwald tweet, January 26, 2018

They just believe what they believe and they think their job is to drag the rest of the redneck morons toward the light. They don’t understand that the so-called redneck morons, the people they don’t like, are the people that grew up with values, patriotism, all those things.
► Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News (and presumably, non-elite)

The problem – to paraphrase a bit from comedian George Carlin – is that when we talk about elites, we’re not talking about all of them.

Starting with general definition of terms: Wikipedia (and many other definitions are similar to theirs) offers, “In political and sociological theory, the elite (French élite, from Latin eligere) are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”

We might as well include here the “establishment,” a term maybe most widely used in the 60s (more often on the left then), but still popping up regularly (more on the right). William Safire’s description from the 1970s locates the “eastern establishment” as “a cluster of legal, financial and communications talent centered in New York, generally liberal Republican in politics.” He pointed out that the term “establishment’ was used generally first in Britain, where journalist Henry Fairlie was said to have coined it, and where the National Observer in 1967 criticized, “If someone wishes to complain about something but hasn’t a very clear idea of what, all he needs to do is blame the problem on the ‘establishment’ and people will sagely wag their heads … It is one of the great blessings of America that it has no ‘establishment.’”
The Observer spoke too soon.

Holding all of those elements in mind is tricky, because they wobble a lot, and the exact roster of the elite can be hard to list. But what becomes especially important, in political speak, is who we choose to name: Which elites we decide on, taking care to include our preferred bad guys rather than favorites.

Who or what are the real elites? Who ought we to focus on when using the term – and when it is simply being thrown around in an attempt to slur some group that happens to be on the other side?

In 1957 sociologist C. Wright Mills released a book intended to answer that question, called The Power Elite; his sense was that the most powerful group of people in the country was an interlocking, and closely-associated, group of political, corporate and military leaders, many of them members of families that more or less stay in the elite for decades and generations. Outside the core business and governmental leaders, he did include a smattering of “celebrities” linked to them.

The book has gotten a mixed response over time, but reactions to it have tended to become more approving as time has passed.

He did at least make an effort to suggest in some intelligible way where the power is – and that at least should give a clue as to who might be considered “elite.” If it relates to actual power or influence in society, then “elite” ought to relate to raw power of some kind, the ability to make something happen – the kind of raw power you get only through either certain types of government office, by mass persuasion of large groups of well-organized people, or by control of large amounts of money. In American society, there are really no other highly concentrated sources of mass power, and the search for true elites – as opposed to a person who flashes in and out of public attention and maybe generates a conversation for a while – logically starts there.

Most conservative descriptions of “elites” will have none of that.

In his book Talking Right, Geoffrey Nunberg lays out what this looks like on one side of the fence (the side where “elite” is used most):

“The way the right has narrowed the use of the word elite, so that it’s more likely to be used to describe ‘liberal’ sectors like the entertainment industry, the media and the academy, than leaders of business or the military. It isn’t surprising that on Fox News, references to the business elite are outnumbered by almost 50-1 by references to the media elite. But even on ‘liberal’ CNN and in the daily press, media elite outnumbers business elite by 2- or 3-1.” He goes on to note that in Great Britain, where discussion of “elites” also is lively, it’s far more likely to refer to economic than education or communication elites.

The Conservapedia description of “liberal elite” refers to “those high-ranking members of society – politicians, college educators and celebrities – who regularly promote the liberal agenda to unsuspecting teenagers and young people. The Liberal Elite believe they are superior to others. Not in a physical sense but mentally, they have their high ground and nobody dare challenge. If you challenge the Liberal Elite thinking and beliefs, you risk being ridiculed.”

But how “elite” are they, really? What does it mean to call a college professor or this year’s celebrity “elite” but leave out the nation’s billionaires and top setters of public policy that govern the nation? It means the transformation of the word elite from a specific if fuzzy meaning to a simple target of anger.

It also marks, in a way, the difference between illusion and reality.
Years ago, I was editorial page editor of a daily newspaper in a small town. I had some visibility in the community (a regular column among other things) and some flexibility in what I could write. On a local level, by a conservative standard, I might even have been considered a part of the “elite,” and maybe some local (probably conservative) political people or others saw me that way. I certainly didn’t, and not only because I knew my modest pay and the limitations I worked under. It was also because I could look across the room and see the office of the publisher, whose approval was needed for running an editorial, and next to his the office of the man who actually owned the paper. Neither of them could have been described as “liberal” by any definition I know of, then or now. But if someone in that newspaper building properly should have been considered a part of the city’s “elite,” that person definitely was not working at my desk.
 

Government closest/nullification

politicalwords

Nullification. The Idaho Republican Party hereby recommends that the Idaho Legislature and Governor nullify any and all existing and future unconstitutional federal mandates and laws, funded or unfunded, that infringe on Idaho’s 10th Amendment sovereignty. We also recommend that the State of Idaho continue to request funding and assistance from the Federal Government which complies with the Constitutional provision of the 10th Amendment, and recommend that the State of Idaho resist the withholding of federal funds as a means of forced compliance with the unconstitutional federal mandates and laws.
► Idaho Republican Party platform, 2012.

Government in the United States operates in regional levels: There are local governments, an intermediate state level, and a federal government based in Washington. Polling has shown with some consistency that government is trusted in relationship to how close to the constituent it is. A city government, in general and in theory, is trusted more than the state, which in turn is trusted more than the federal government.

As Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said, but actually didn’t, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

At least sentiment often runs that way. Get down to cases and you can find poorly run – as well as well-run – units of government at all levels. Government agencies operated from far away usually come to most people’s attention when something goes wrong and the trouble winds up in news reports, and that colors the overall sense of the agency. More local agencies are less likely to be treated with so broad a brush.

The concept of trust-those-more-local can and does have ideological application, however.
Among many conservative activists who dislike government generally, a special loathing is held for the federal government. That helps account for a widespread support among activist Republicans, in some states at least, for nullification.

“Nullification” in United States history and government typically has expressed the idea that if a state government disapproves of a federal action, it can invalidate – nullify, or declare that action null. (The idea of local governments trying to nullify a state action has been mentioned from time to time, but hardly ever pursued.) It’s an old concept, but despite the age there’s little legal or other support for it, especially since 1865.

The theory behind it is that the Constitution is just a compact, in effect a treaty, between the states, and the states have retained primary authority in the system. The closest thing to constitutional support for this is the 10th amendment, which said, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The Constitution itself does not say it was established by the states, but rather by “We the people of the United States.” Nothing in the constitution lets states nullify federal actions, and courts consistently have affirmed federal supremacy (though the federal government has limited authority to force states into action). In the greatest congressional debate on the subject, featuring the likes of John Calhoun (pro) and Daniel Webster (con), Webster’s arguments carried the day. (One interesting specific application he made is worth a thought: If the United States declared war, could one or more states simply decide not to participate? Nullification theoretically would suggest that they could.)

The idea of nullification surfaced early in the nation’s history, in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (which Jefferson had a hand in writing). Several of the first major sectional battles in the nation invoked the cry of nullification, the hottest of these coming in 1832, when South Carolina tried to nullify a federal tariff; that conflict was resolved through a compromise in Congress over the tariff. But the attitudes surrounding nullification took root and grew, and fed into the secessionist movement in the south that precipitated the Civil War.

The result of the Civil War might have put an end to nullification as an active issue. It didn’t. It returned again in the Civil Rights era, as several southern states opposed federal efforts at desegregation.

And it has come back again. Nullification activism has returned in a number of states, where legislation has been introduced to provide for at-will nullification of federal actions (notwithstanding widespread legal advice that such measures would not stand up in court).
It even has come up at the federal level. Matthew Whittaker, who served as acting attorney general (of the United States in 2018-19), had said earlier in 2013 that, “As a principle, it has been turned down by the courts and our federal government has not recognized it. Now we need to remember that the states set up the federal government and not vice versa. And so the question is, do we have the political courage in the state of Iowa or some other state to nullify Obamacare and pay the consequences for that?”

Some states would cheer him on, but the first sentence of his statement is the one remaining operative.
 

The [whatever] virus

politicalwords

Most commonly, we're calling this bug that's hit the world - and is spreading around the United States - the coronavirus. The more technically spoken among us have taken to referring to it as COVID-19.

But there are other names. And there's some history here.

The coronavirus is something like the flu - not exactly the same, and the differences are significant - so it's worth revisiting some of the names given various strains of flu over the years.

Maybe the most deadly form ever appeared around the end of World War I in 1918, a worldwide pandemic involving the H1N1 virus that may have infected 500 million people around the globe and killed 50 million (One of whom was a grandfather of Donald Trump). They key efforts to combat it were "isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly." (Sound familiar?)

It was dubbed the Spanish flu, though Spain doesn't seem to have had any special role in connection with it (the virus apparently came from birds).

That was the worst, but there have been others, from the Asian flu of 1957 to the Russian flu of 1977 to the swine flu of 2009 (which actually was linked to pigs). Except for the wine flu, most of them seem to be named - with the naming effort mostly centered in the United States - for places from far away, whether they had much to do with the illness outbreak or not.

This week, President Trump referred to a "foreign virus" (do virii have citizenship?) as the culprit behind the current illness. A number of Washington figures have taken to calling it the "Chinese flu" or the "Wuhan flu," which at least is a connection to where the illness first erupted, but may be an indicator of an intended marker: Who to blame for this. (Never mind, of course, that China is one of the nations hardest hit by the pandemic.)

It seems the naming of flus tends to relate more to what we think about ourselves and who we don't much like, than about the actual origins of a strain of flu. For which, after all, no one really wants to take credit.
 

The swamp

politicalwords

You know what it is when you talk about it, right?

But, well, who and what are part of the Swamp?

The “drain the swamp” formulation was one of the more clever linguistic developments of the 2016 election. It had been used before, such as by both Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi in 2006, but not as commonly. And it has some uses. Donald Trump used it often in his campaign that year, and the #DrainTheSwamp Twitter hashtag is highly popular. (It’s a busy Twitter handle as well.)

It caught fire and a lot of people adopted it because it had resonance. The idea of the political and economic centers of the country (even in the states) as a dank, sunken, corrupt place that does in the unwary and is full of “swamp things” is easy to get and even appreciate. And if you drain it, you get rid of disease-carrying insects and other unwanted pests. The metaphor is clear.

A John Kelley article in Slate points out that the phrase goes back much further, and was long used by the anti-capitalist left: “In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” So it has referred to the swamp of capitalism.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke of “draining the swamp” that is the federal bureaucracy.

There is even some loose truth to it.

But be wary of this one. “The Swamp” sounds wonderfully specific and concrete, but it is neither. It evaporates the closer you look at it.

So what exactly is The Swamp?

While Washington, D.C., was built on lowlands by the Potomac River, and the area around the State Department long has been famously called Foggy Bottom, the fact is that the district (or at least nearly all of it) never has been, in its time of human habitation at least, swampland. Humid and mosquito-ridden, yes; swamp, no. So that direct link doesn’t work.

An Illinois group called American Transparency in 2017 issued a report called “Mapping the Swamp,” but that was simply an attention-getter: Its content consisted of budget reports (and employee compensation statistics) about federal administrative agencies. Is the swamp, then, federal administrative agencies, or does it cover much else?

Kelly’s stab at a definition, at least one for the 2010s: “Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex.”

Writers Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles suggested in an October 2017 New York Times article, “Donald Trump’s pledges to 'drain the swamp' of corruption in Washington attest to his genius for unintentional irony. Nepotism, egregious conflicts of interest, flights on the public dime to see Wimbledon and the eclipse — the Beltway wetlands are now wilder and murkier than ever.”

In the end, the swamp is a test: It is whatever you don’t like.
 

Base

politicalwords

In a political sense - the focus here - a politician's base is one's core support, the people who are with you whatever may come ... or at least to a further point than most people.

It is not an entirely new term, even in this context, and the larger sense of it has some generally obvious meanings. A military base is the place where troops are stationed, armaments and other secure supplies and materials are located and to which - in a combat area - forces can retreat or collect in comparative security. In a loose sense, its a localized home territory, a refuge.

Some of that carries over into politics: One's political base is a political refuge of sorts.

The term got its biggest push in that context in 2004, when the George W. Bush campaign, seeking re-election, calculated it was more likely to get the votes needed to win (in the right places) by pushing hardest for turnout within the core support - the base - rather than by trying to reach across to pull in broader support.

Bush's campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, recalled in an interview figuring how many persuadable independents were out there as opposed to how many already-sympathetic non-voters: "nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it. We didn't say, "Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing." We said, "Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation," which is basically what had been happening up until that point -- look at this graph, look at the history, look what's happened in this country. And obviously that decision influenced everything that we did."

That decision was significant in the management of presidential campaigns; it was the first explicitly to focus as much or toward toward maximizing the hard-core support as opposed to broadening support. That has had significant effects on both sides of fence, chiefly by deepening the political canyon between them. Many people in whatever remains of the middle are left stranded, and many on either side see the opposition in ever darker terms. During the Donald Trump presidency, notably, the effort please the base has specifically meant displeasing or even damaging everyone else.

Are we far from the point where being considered a part of a "base" becomes less a badge of honor with a small group than a criticism - a perjorative - with the large remaining majority? Maybe not far. And why not?
 

Geofencing

politicalwords

Not so long ago, communicating with large numbers of people meant broadcasting - sending one message out to lots of people. That still happens, but alongside it we see micro-casting: Using technology to send different messages out to specific people, or groups of people.

The technology has been adopted in the 2010s to remarkable degrees as mega-databases have accumulated immense amounts of information about, well, each of us. And the the resulting capability in microtargeting has become increasingly important in American politics.

It also has led to a whole new language of its own.

A January 29, 2020 column by Thomas Edsall remarked on some of this, noting the degree to which the Trump presidential campaign has been bearing down on this (more than the Democrats have).

He noted that "The explosion of digital technology has created the opportunity for political operatives to run what amount to dark campaigns, conducted below the radar of both voter awareness and government oversight. In some cases, the technology is very simple: the anonymous transmission of negative images of candidates by individuals to Facebook groups. This activity is neither reported to the Federal Election Commission nor linked to official campaigns."

A new language has developed out of it, too. He cited some of the terms associated with it: "geofencing, mass personalization, dark patterns, identity resolution technologies, dynamic prospecting, geotargeting strategies, location analytics, geo-behavioural segment, political data cloud, automatic content recognition, dynamic creative optimization."

The growth term, and the one with maybe the largest application - commercial and otherwise as well as political - is geofencing.

A marketing application for it is described this way: "Geofencing is the practice of using global positioning (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define a geographic boundary. Then, once this 'virtual barrier' is established, the administrator can set up triggers that send a text message, email alert, or app notification when a mobile device enters (or exits) the specified area. So, businesses can section off a geographic area and communicate with devices within that space." The information often comes via smartphones through all those apps that you allow to share location and other information.

Businesses can use it as a device for communicating with people who have interacted with or visited their businesses.

Politically, it can be used in other ways. A National Public Radio report said that "CatholicVote has already identified some 200,000 Catholics in Wisconsin, which of course is a key state heading into 2020. They're able to discover that half of those Mass-goers are not registered to vote." That would be valuable political information.

Of course, there is the potential for blowback, as a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter noted: "it's not illegal, but the idea of mining data of people while they're at worship in a church was causing outrage to some of our readers. And the fact then that that data is going to be used for political purposes added to their problems with this."

Watch for more of these deep data terms to stick their heads up as the campaign year progresses.
 

Human rights

politicalwords

What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn but simply by virtue of our humanity, belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?
► Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, July 8, 2019

As an article in the New Yorker suggested,1 Pompeo’s answer to the question may be found in the members appointed to a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, whose chair, Mary Ann Glendon, is best known for opposition to same-sex marriage. Among other members, “Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, has argued that human rights are, in essence, religious rights – indeed, that the source of all human rights is Christianity. ...

Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has written that embryos are human beings and has argued that the Pope went too far when he suggested that the use of contraceptives may be permissible to prevent transmission of the Zika virus to newborns.”

The rights in question seem to put those of religion – certain religious ideas, obviously not all – at the top of the heap. Beyond that, the article said, “In effect, the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights. Most of the commissioners appear to believe that embryos are human. Many of them also appear to subscribe to the Trump Administration’s general position that trans people do not exist.”

Some of this is a response to an expanding list of human rights over the last – well, three or four hundred years. But what’s being looked at in cases like this is a regression to almost no rights at all, unless your religious beliefs comport with those of the politically powerful.
 

Gun safety

politicalwords

When it comes to guns, we often seem not to want to talk in definitive language, unless we're taking a shot (as it were) at the other side.

There is, for example, the classic old quote (a pre-meme meme) by gun backers: "Gun control means using both hands," sometimes expressed as, "I'm all for gun control: I use both hands."

That tactic is still out there but it doesn't get so much usage these days. It's not hard to figure out why. Once a term used often by gun-regulation advocates (maybe we can call them that here for present purposes), "gun control" has since been adopted more by anti-regulation forces, such as many National Rifle Association members.

In early 2019, the Washington state legislature, like several others, was considering new gun regulation legislation. Advocates of those measures didn't refer to them as "gun control." Instead, they referred to them as "gun safety" measures.

To which one Republican (and anti-regulatory) legislator replied, "It's not gun safety it's gun control."

That more or less unveiled the situation. To the Democratic bill proponents, the bill was a safety measure. (How effective it might be as a safety measure could of course be a matter of debate.) But it also meant to control some aspect of gun ownership or use; loosely at least, you reasonably could call it gun control. Depending, of course, on what you mean by control. Both terms could apply.

The shifts in emphasis represent more awareness of PR than of anything else: Both sides have seized on to what is the most appealing aspect of their side of the argument: "safety for the pro-regulators" as against "control" for the anti-regulators. Both sides have reached a public relations rationality.

that also means, unfortunately, that both sides now likely are destined to start talking past each other, neither side hearing or understanding what the other says.

For a clear real-world demonstration of this in another context, see: abortion, "pro-life" v. "pro-choice."