It’s only words….

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ – Lewis Carroll

In recent weeks, we’ve been blessed with the political excitement of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the US, and a much-derided Cabinet reshuffle here in the UK. As party conference season looms for us and politicians start flying unfeasible policy kites in preparation to appease their more insane members, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how the politics of class is currently shaping – and being shaped by – its use of language.

The English language, with all of its ambiguities, multiple meanings, synonyms, antonyms and homonyms, has always been a bit of a gift for political rhetoric. There’s nothing so telling of the political climate of the times as seeing the prevalence of particular words and phrases, cunningly employed to drive home a political message in speeches, press releases and party-affiliated news stories.

Scenes from the class struggle with the English language

DNCMiddleClass

One of the most noticeable things at both the Democratic and Republican conventions was a relentless focus on the middle class. At a time of economic hardship, when hard-right policies seem designed specifically to funnel money even further towards an already massively wealthy clique, this is fairly understandable. “Ours is a fight to restore the values of the middle class,” declaimed Barack Obama, as his supporters waved banners proclaiming “middle class first”. Over in the homogenous dream world of the Republicans, ultra-reactionary VP candidate Paul Ryan set out his stall: “We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years”.

So what’s missing, you might ask? Well, both parties were taken to task for neglecting to cover the “poor”. But what’s interesting is that the term “poor” seems to have supplanted the term “working class”. If you’ve a “middle class”, then you must have one above and below it, by definition. The one above it is fairly clear, both here and in the US – they’re the ones with all the money, bankrolling each country’s more rightwing party to run the government for their own advantage.

But where’s the one below it? Why is “working class” now the more pejorative “poor”? “Poor” seems to carry connotations of helplessness, dependence, and inferiority. “Working class”, by contrast has overtones of decent, hardworking nobility.

It now seems quaint and old-fashioned. In part, this is because of the aspirational culture of the last few decades. “We are all middle class now,” said John Prescott in 1997. That’s John Prescott of the Labour Party, the one that was founded by and for the working class. The same party whose current leader, nerdish school prefect lookalike Ed Miliband says he wants to appeal to the “squeezed middle”. Being a “poor but honest” worker isn’t trendy any more. If you don’t have the mortgage, the two-year-old car, and the annual foreign holiday, you probably aren’t “working” anyway.

So the lowest class is not now “working”. Instead they are “poor” or even more pejoratively, with an overtone of menace, the “underclass”. Sorry to get all Godwin’s, but it’s always worrying when politicians or political journalists use terms reminiscent of “untermenschen”.

With the rightwing holding sway politically in the UK, after the riots of last summer, another word found itself attached to that – “feral”. That’s even more disturbing. Now not only are the former “working class” the “underclass”, but they’re actually animalistic and unhuman. You can see why this makes for a worrying narrative progression.

As if to emphasise that the “underclass” are no longer the “working class”, they’re now routinely conflated with the unemployed – conveniently ignoring all those full time workers here in the UK whose wages are so low they have to rely on government benefits anyway. So the “poor” are demonised as “scroungers”, part of an “entitlement culture” whose “dependency” is on money taken unwilling from virtuous, hardworking taxpayers. For added venom, the adjectives “idle” and “feckless” tend to be used in varying combinations, in government speeches, press releases and the news stories that cover them. The result is an unhealthy climate where if you’re not “middle class”, it’s your own fault for being “idle” and “dependent”. Never mind that the minimum wage is so low and the cost of living so high that often full time employment won’t pay enough to live on.

 

Rebrand the rich

RomneyTax

“For the last time, I am a job creator! You must, you will OBEY ME!!”

In tandem with the linguistic subjugation of the lower class from “working” to subhuman “scroungers” who steal from the virtuous middle class, the “upper class” have tried to twist the language describing them into more glowing, fulsome praise. The word “rich” has for many years (possibly since the French Revolution) had snobbish, uncaring and materialistic overtones. How then should the rich present themselves as altruistic and beneficial to the society whose money they’re gradually accumulating all of?

The result, initially, was the insidious term “wealth creators”. I first heard this emanating from the Republican Party in the US, and I’ve wondered ever since if somebody was actually paid to think up this asinine term. It does sound like just the sort of thing that might be focus grouped and moulded by the sort of consultants who briefly tried to rename the Post Office “Consignia”.

“Wealth creators” implied that the rich’s accumulation of material assets was good for the wealth of the country as a whole. But people cottoned on to the fact that any wealth they “created” went straight to them and stayed there, often moored in offshore tax havens so it wasn’t subject to that inconvenient burden of taxation for the good of society – “wealth hoarders” would be a more accurate description. Plus, the phrase still contained the word “wealth”, as in “wealthy”, ie “rich”. And if the wealth you’re creating is your own, you’re hardly going to be seen as contributing to the society you’re funnelling it from.

So “wealth creators”, even though it’s still in common currency, morphed into “job creators”. You can imagine some smarmy image consultant somewhere sitting back and folding his arms in satisfaction at that one. Well, if the business you’re running has made you rich, you must have “created jobs”, right? And that can only make it look like your contribution to society is more important than your employees, who pay a far greater proportion of their meagre incomes in tax than you do. Mitt Romney stated that he didn’t need to release any more tax returns; he’d definitely paid enough tax, it was a whole 13% of his $20.9 million income (2011).

But Mitt’s a “job creator”, so that’s OK .Even though most of the jobs he “created” while running Bain Capital were in India and China. Governments will find it far less acceptable to impose heavy taxes on “job creators” than they would on “the rich”. If “job creators” leave the country because tax rules aren’t favourable enough to them, who will “create the jobs”? You can see why that’s worse than “the rich” leaving the country, which by and large people don’t really care about. Ask Phil Collins.

 

Race to the bottom

NOLALady

With the upper class elevated to sainthood and the lower class reduced to the level of animals, you can see why, linguistically, “middle class” is the only uncontroversial one left. Particularly in the US. It’s been said that in the UK, the political struggle is always about class, whereas in the US, it’s always about race. That’s only half true; class does exist in the US, it’s based on money, and it often seems determined by race. Its prisons bulge at the seams with young African-Americans, many of whom turned to crime as the only refuge from a desperately poor background. Visit Southern California, and you’ll see the class divide even more starkly in racial terms. Whites have the good jobs and the nice cars; Latinos have the service jobs and the beatup but respectable older vehicles; and blacks, if they have jobs at all, may well have to travel on the bus because they can’t afford cars.

Yes, it’s a sweeping generalisation, and far from true universally. But it’s true often enough, and here in the UK too, non-white ethnicities tend to be poorer and/or jobless at a level disproportionately higher than Caucasians. In the US, where Republican state governments are passing voter ID laws that explicitly target the poor, class and race overlap. The “poor” in a state like Florida is disproportionately made up of non-Caucasians. Perhaps coincidentally, a recent poll registered African-American support for the Mitt Romney at a modest total of 0%. OK, Herman Cain and Marco Rubio will probably be voting Republican, but there’s always a margin of error. Nevertheless, that’s a poll figure that might make even the Lib Dems here in the UK feel slightly better.

 

Turn Left

Occupy01

Trying to reclaim the word “rich” from the “wealth creators”

Still, the right haven’t had the monopoly on shaping the political and class debate by distorting the English language. Since austerity (another political buzzword) bit, and income inequality (and there’s another one) became hot political topics, the left have found their own way to load words with unintended meaning. In the wake of the Occupy movement, the word “elite”, which always carried faintly nasty overtones of exclusion, took on a far more damning meaning when used to describe the tiny clique of hyper-rich people who seemed simultaneously responsible for and immune to the financial crisis engulfing the world.

In the UK, left-leaning politicos and journalists got their own back on the right by taking their pejorative adjective “feral” and applying it to that “elite”. For a while, the phrases “feral underclass” and “feral elite” were flung at each other with such frequency they ceased to have much meaning; as a result, after a brief period in the linguistic limelight, they seem to have faded somewhat into obscurity. Significantly, the terms coined by the left to describe the unfairness of the situation which stuck are not linguistic but numerical – the “elite” are “the 1%”, and the rest of us who pay a greater proportion of our income as tax are “the 99%”. Put in those terms, the injustice is hard to argue with even with any amount of “job creators” in that “1%”.

 

Language in a post-truth world

RyanPinocchio2

Politics and truth have always had a rather abusive relationship, as US journalists are finding as they struggle to adjust to the “post-truth” world in the wake of Paul Ryan’s epically inaccurate speech. The astute use of language can make an untruth seem less like an actual lie. It’s nothing new. When arch-Republican Chuck Norris claims that re-electing Barack Obama will usher in “a thousand years of darkness”, that’s hyperbole at its most extreme. Of course, Winston Churchill said something similar about Adolf Hitler, but it’s hard to equate Obama with Hitler (unless you’re Glenn Beck). Meanwhile, Fox News and other histrionic right wing news outlets pander to their sponsors by treating the words “liberal” and “progressive” as descriptions of something beneath contempt, which in turn passes into mainstream Republican discourse.

Taking poor, innocent English words and twisting them into political weapons is, of course, a longstanding practice in both the US and the UK. But in the modern era of spin doctors, image consultants , key demographics and focus groups, it’s hit an all time high that’s often ridiculous – as Nick Clegg, with his repeated meaningless blather about “alarm clock Britain” seems not to have noticed. The flexibility of the English language is both a blessing and a curse for political discourse, but it’s never less than interesting to watch. To help you out, here’s a little chart of phrases to look out for in the coming US Presidential election and UK party conference season. Have fun playing political bingo, or alternatively, use it for a drinking game. It should get you so drunk that you might stop despairing…

 

Austerity

Middle class

Feckless scroungers

Public sector waste

Illegal immigrant

Entitlement culture

Job creators

Gold-plated pensions

Socialist healthcare

Private healthcare

Underclass

Benefit fraud

Hardworking taxpayer

Big society (getting rare now, this one)

Alarm clock Britain (not rare enough)

Plan B

Terrorism

Liberal media

Conservative media

Bureaucratic excess

Deregulation

Reregulation

Small business

Big business

Lending

Family values

God

Innovation

“..and I’m not making this up.”

“…well here’s the truth.”

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