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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Talking Right: How the Right turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times Reading, Body Piercing, Hollywood Lovi

Talking Right: How the Right turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times Reading, Body Piercing, Hollywood Lovi

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Geoff Nunberg

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg analyzes the language politics of left and right in America, and concludes that conservatives have won hands-down. He shows example after example where "the right's linguistic dominance" has set the terms of the debate … see full wiki

Author: Geoff Nunberg
Genre: Political Science, Language Arts & Disciplines, Social Science
Publisher: Public Affairs
Date Published: July 03, 2006
1 review about Talking Right: How the Right turned Liberalism...

Highly recommended for moderates and liberals

  • May 22, 2007
Pros: Sharp analysis with material to back it up

Cons: Ignores the way the right pigeonholes people rather than praising our true virtues

The Bottom Line: If you are conservative, this will likely anger you. If you are a political neutral or left leaning, then I recommend this short book highly.

I wrote this originally a week after the book was published, but it was not listed in the book section at that time. If you read this essay when it was published in the Writers Corner, Non-Fiction, Politics section, there is no reason to read it again

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show has very little to do with linguistics, but he is honest about this in the introduction. The focus of the book is political rhetoric and how the right essentially owns the vocabulary of political discourse presently.

This is not a book for conservatives. At several points in the book, Mr. Nunberg mentions the rhetoric of Fox News as worded specifically to make the left angry; though there is nothing in the book that isn’t backed up with source material to make conservatives angry, it is likely that they will be. Therefore, conservatives have been warned.

The gist of the book is two fold. The first is the already mentioned aspect that the right owns the language of politics—this is a topic I have mentioned before in essays in the non-fiction religion and politics sections of Epinions. The common examples are the fact the even so-called liberal publications and news organizations have changed the phrase ‘estate tax’ to ‘death tax,’ ‘private account’ (with regards to the failed ‘reform’ of Social Security) to ‘personal accounts,’ and ‘the war on terror’ instead of ‘the war on terrorism.’ ‘Tax relief’ instead of ‘tax cuts’ and ‘pro-life’ instead of ‘anti-abortion,’ are shifts that the book doesn’t cover but that have been almost universally accepted over the last couple of decades.

The second is more amorphous. Mr. Nunberg, echoing information in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, says the reason the right can get people to vote against their own financial interests in favor of cultural issues is that the right can spin a narrative. He says that the left is currently hamstrung when it comes to telling a story that will resonate. He mentions Mr. Clinton’s idea that he was tired of working men and women who play by the rules getting the shaft. Due to several factors, the Democrats have found themselves unable to spin that kind of story. Mainly it is because the right so controls the emotional words—values, freedom, choice, ownership, patriotism—that when the left uses the words, they are swimming against a tide of connotation that the right has nailed down. This forces the Democrats either to find new words and stories that resonate or to fight a probably losing strategy of trying to move the words back to a neutral space.

The book methodically takes on each of the buzzwords or topics and dispels them. Mr. Nunberg explains the notion of values and how it is a hollow word now filled with the meaning of the right. It is like the concept of ‘law and order’ that politicians used in the 1960s. ‘Values’ now means a politician who is religious, against abortion, against gay marriage, against evolution or for intelligent design, against sex education and other issues that are related only to social issues and not fiscal ones. In the 1960s, ‘law and order’ meant that the politician was for broader police powers to squelch the protest movements and control inner-city blacks. In both cases, the word or phrase means one thing but is a shorthand buzzword for a group of voters that indicates the pol is on their side without scaring those who aren’t part of that interest group.

Further, he shows how the right has taken the phrase ‘color-blind’ from the left and turned it on its head. Color-blind was a goal of the left during the lengthy desegregation fights. The right has now taken it over as a way to dismantle affirmative action. The idea is that the minorities of today have it so much better than before, that racism is parochial and limited, so there is no need for anything like affirmative action. I live in one of the eyes of the storm for the civil rights movement. My current hometown showed the world black protesters getting attacked by police dogs and sprayed harshly with water from water cannons. Racism still exists in this area, so while affirmative action might be scaled back somewhat, removing it will just mean that states like this one and other deep red states can turn back the clock on the advances we have made socially.

Religion and religious talk pervades the book (Mr. Nunberg brings up the notion that the religious right is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican party—he is hardly the first or only to say this and only partly tongue in cheek; also, I think that the religious right views it the other way around). The language is not inflammatory when he writes about religion. He simply shows how, in nearly all debates, religion is used partly as a wedge, partly as a cudgel to keep the left in its place.

To me, though, the most striking thing about the book is something it covers but does not fully analyze. The idea of class is a touchy one in the US. On paper we are a classless society (there is a pun in this sentence that, when viewed from non-American eyes may be doubly true); perhaps I should say a class-free society. Mr. Nunberg shows how the pundits and pit bulls for the right contrast the NASCAR fans who shop at Wal-Mart, drink big brewery American beers, eat nothing more complicated than rib-eyes and potatoes, believe fervently that the Founding Fathers wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, and drive SUVs as a matter of pride and even solidarity with soldiers in Iraq (this comes up when a Hummer club says they have a special pride because no soldier in Iraq drives an Audi A4) in a binary contest against people whose lives allow for more variety of complexity. In other words, the right doesn’t extol the virtues of a simple American, it is pigeonholing a group of people as simplistic Americans and expressing their limited-mindedness as a high ideal. All this is in direct contrast with a binary opposite. (And in an aside to the Hummer club . . . there is a tremendous difference between driving a military Hum-V that could hit a roadside bomb at any moment—and the largest number of US casualties have involved a Hum-V in one way or another—and driving it to a suburban mall where the greatest danger is road rage from too many stoplights. That anyone would claim to be in solidarity like that is nauseating.)

If you drive a Volvo your patriotism is impugned before anyone even bothers to talk to you. If you prefer lattes to coffee that comes in a can, you must be a milquetoast liberal. If you read the New York Times instead of listening to the screed of Fox News and its affiliated talk radio shows then you should be tried as a traitor. This is what the right appears to be saying. Some say it in an off-handed way, others like the vituperous Ann Coulter, say these inflammatory things outright.

Mr. Nunberg mentions, only briefly, that when the right positions itself as it has, then it has consigned its followers to a very limited and bland world. And here is where I find the only fault in the book—one of omission. This notion of the simplistic American being a blue dog Republican is more insulting to the right than it is to the left. For one thing, what is the opposite of a Volvo-driver? There are dozens of makes of cars, so if you drive a Saab do you pass muster? What is the opposite of a latte-drinker? In all cases, when the right limits the world to a binary one, their side is shown not just as simplistic and literal minded, but liking only one thing (long neck beers as Mr. Nunberg points out), and this one thing doesn’t have one opposite.

I’ll quote Helen Reddy: “It’s You and Me Against the World.” When you construct a world of one right and hundreds of wrongs, then you are framing the situation as your side against all others who do not fit the pigeonholed attributes. This is what allows Christians in the US to say, with a straight face, that they are being persecuted. There aren’t many cultures or times when the group in control, that can claim about 80% of the population, can claim that a portion of the remaining 20% are persecuting them. (This is true, however, but not socially. Far less than 20% of the population controls the vast majority of American wealth and they can, in fact, persecute the remainder of the country if the right is allowed to turn over all of the reins of power to them—however, that is a fiscal issue and the right has to keep the volume of the social fight very loud to drown out such a problematic fact.)

Despite being disappointed by this, it isn’t a failing of the book. Mr. Nunberg is a linguist not a sociologist. The book covers the ideas he spells out in the introduction well and thoroughly from a rhetorical point of view. It is for others to focus on the sociological aspects.

I recommend it highly, but only to neutrals or those on the left.


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