Over the past few decades, the radical right has engaged in a well-funded, self-conscious program of Orwellian doublespeak, transforming the American political discourse to suit its ends. Think tanks like the Cato Institute routinely market phrases for their political resonance, like “personal” vs. “private” accounts. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, lexicographer and MSNBC pundit who combines Madison Avenue techniques with K Street connections, sends out regular missives informing Republican operatives and politicians on how to spin conservative policy proposals. (He was on The Daily Show demonstrating his talents, defining “manipulation” as “explanation and education.”) Paul Wolfowitz admitted to Vanity Fair that “weapons of mass destruction” was agreed upon as the reason to go to war with Iraq because it was the most salable rationale. And we all know how that turned out.
Before we can win the great battle of ideas, we must debunk the right’s political discourse, a veritable code of encrypted language that twists common usage to deceive the public for the Republicans’ purposes. The key to their linguistic strategy is to use words that sound moderate to us but mean something completely different to them. Their tactics range from the childish use of antonyms (“clean” = “dirty”) to the pseudo-academic use of prefixes (“neo” is a favorite) to the pernicious and very expensive rebranding of traditional labels (“liberal” as an insult).
We decided we needed to break the code by building a Republican dictionary. Skewer their deceptions with the fine-tipped sword of satire. Lies melt away in the face of mockery.
Unlike Republicans, who rely on rich old cranks and intellectuals-for-hire to do their dirty work, we opened up the process to the people. For six months, thenation.com accepted suggestions from everyone who wanted to participate. The result was an overwhelming grassroots groundswell of hilarious submissions from citizens who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Thousands of definitions were entered from all over the country, forty-four states in all, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. (We even received a few from outraged Canadians, Australians and Brits.)
As momentum for the project grew, friends and allies joined the effort. TomDispatch.com asked its readers and writers to submit their own definitions. Reviewing the submissions from our website, we found that certain trends became apparent. “Compassionate conservative” and “ownership society” were the most popular targets. “No Child Left Behind” was the most common riff. The disaster in Iraq was the subject of the most outrage. The results have been compiled in a new book, Dictionary of Republicanisms (Nation Books). Here are some of my favorites. I hope they inspire you to action, to take back this great nation from those who are doing it such harm.
abstinence-only sex education n.
Ignorance-only sex education [Wayne Martorelli, Lawrenceville, NJ].
alternative energy sources n.
New locations to drill for gas and oil [Peter Scholz, Fort Collins, Colo.].
A punishable crime when committed by poor people but not corporations [Beth Thielen, Studio City, Calif.].
“burning bush” n.
A biblical allusion to the response of the President of the United States when asked a question by a journalist who has not been paid to inquire [Bill Moyers, New York, NY].
Cheney, Dick n.
The greater of two evils [Jacob McCullar, Austin, Tex.].
See Wal-Mart [Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco, Calif.].