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Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Matt Yglesias objects to the use of martial terms to describe non-military actions--specifically, in this case, the GOP threatening to use the nuclear option in passing judges.

[E]levating this rather arcane philosophical dispute to the level of "war" both coarsens the discourse on the substantive issue and trivializes actual war. Something similar could, I think, be said about both the "confirmation wars" and the "nuclear option" phrases which represent further instances of the tendency to turn every controvery in American life into a (metaphorical) war.

After all, while I think it would be unfortunate if the GOP were to manipulate Senate procedures to pack the courts with bad judges, the sense in which this would be unfortunate is very different from the sense in which it would be unfortunate if the Bush administration were to literally go nuclear and, say, obliterate the entire population of Iran. The stakes in American politics are pretty high, but they're nowhere near that high, and I think the country would be better off if that fact were more widely recognized.

Eh, I dunno. I mean, they use military language in football, too, and we don't complain about that overstating the case or debasing the language. (Well, we do, but for different reasons, most of them having to do with play-by-play announcers.) I guess the argument would be that politics is so close to war that confusing the two risks making them the same--right?--but that seems tangential to a more serious issue: the way extremist political terms get overused and are thus debased.

Here, y'see, I don't think anyone takes the term seriously, which is important. It's clearly being used as a metaphor, and a ridiculous one at that, but not necessarily an inaccurate one--the technique being described would essentially invoke a MAD scenario where the Republicans would only use it if they were aware that it might mean their own destruction. This is meant to invoke a Reagan-esque strength in the face of unreasonable (evil) opposition, the kind of fortitude we're supposed to supposed to have against terrorists etc. It also is a manifestation of the obvious Republican effort to turn the filibusters into political capital in the same way Clinton converted the Republican government shutdown to an advantage (and, er, a blowjob) by portraying the Democrats as so unreasonable--as unreasonable as redistricting outside of a census year, say--that an extremist measure is justified; if the Democrats weren't being bad legislators, then "going nuclear" wouldn't be necessary, would it? Finally, it's meant to promote the Republicans' desire to present themselves as the "Bad To The Bone" rebel party, an impulse (via their successful cooption of leftist rhetoric) that comes up in the NYT Mag cover story on campus conservatives--what we used to call "Young Republicans," I hear--which I'll comment on in a later post.

Anyway, what I'm saying is both that Matt's complaint is unjustified, since it's a legitimate political technique using a term metaphorically that's been used metaphorically almost since its inception, and ineffective, since it would take a lot to get people not to view nuclear war seriously, I feel, and so it comes off a bit like (no offense) namby-pamby leftist whining about language, etc. It's a good thought, though.

What concerns me is a different tendency. I just cringe when I hear things like "Republican revolution" or "a revolution in special effects" or, as a NYC-area billboard puts it, "the end of minimum balance oppression" or "overthrow the overpaid," to say nothing of "middle-class poverty," which deserves an entry all its own. Look, guys: "revolution" is a very specific political term with a very specific meaning, as is "overthrow" and "oppression." I guess this might all be brushed off as late-in-the-game complaints about the way New Economy ad rhetoric seemed to be weirdly coopting Marxist terms, but I think it's different. There, it was the "Fair and Balanced" technique of intentionally maddening cynicism, but in most of these cases, it's far more subtle. These people do really think it's a revolution, and that's a problem. First, of course, is the way revolutions have been fetishized, both through the American revolution and then subsequent anti-colonialist revolutions. It's moved from being the process by which group X, usually localized in a geographic region, forcibly breaks the power that group Y holds over them, but instead it's simply become, metaphorically and then literally, the process by which the old is replaced by the new, which is only a revolution in a very literal, "it's cyclical! It's a revolution!" way. I think what happens is it grows from advertising rhetoric which is taking its cues from social politics of the 1960's, c.f. Thomas Frank's oft-misinterpreted The Conquest of Cool, and is then retaken by the political sphere, except now it has all these bastardized connotations picked up from consumerism. So if buying choices now constitute a "revolutionary" action--and if you doubt that they do, check out some of the leftist globalization rhetoric--then you'd better be damn sure that the Republicans taking the House is revolutionary. Were any shots fired? Are the losers being shot in the street? Isn't the whole point of the American Experiment that we can change leaders without a violent uprising? This is the problem with degrading terms by using them to literally mean what they clearly do not: it then becomes much harder to actually talk about revolutions and oppression and overthrows. (Revolutions are different from revolts, for instance.) The left is, if anything, more guilty of this than the right, especially when it comes to stuff about oppression, but I think the danger is there, and everybody could stand to watch it a bit. Or maybe the damage has just been done.

Incidentally, I think that what sort of the problem with calling for "regime change at home." It's funny when you see it on a bumper sticker, but when a Democratic candidate for President says it, people tend to go, "Well, he clearly doesn't actually mean marching liberal troops up to the White House and bombing Bush into submission, so what does he mean?" Kerry's criticism of Dean might have been unnecessary, but I think it's hardly surprising that he got that reaction in the first place.

Matt also addresses the issue of calling things wars--the war on terror, on drugs, on poverty, etc. I don't think we're trying to "turn every controversy in American life into a (metaphorical) war," as Matt claims, but it is kind of funny. In that case, it's kind of weirdly straddling the line between literal and metaphorical, since it's not something where war is declared and we move in an army, but force is often used, and like the "nuclear option" thing, it's being used to justify more extreme action. Then again, if I were running a satirical website or program, I know what I would do right now: I would cover the war on poverty as if it were the war on Iraq in the style of Fox News. But maybe that's too brasseye.