NPR's Linguist: 'Socialism' Is An Antiquated Word That Isn't Scary
Geoffrey Nunberg is a liberal professor of linguistics at Cal-Berkeley and has advised Senator Byron Dorgan and other Senate Democrats on their use of language. He’s the author of the book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. So of course, he’s also a regular on National Public Radio – as a commentator on language for the program Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
On Wednesday’s program he mocked the Republicans for reviving the apparently antiquated word "socialism" as a charge against the latte-drinking left:
But it's been 70 years or more since anybody thought that socialism was a serious political alternative for America. In modern times, the persuasive power of the S-word has always been symbolic, not substantive. As Walter Lippmann once put it, it's one of those words that are meant to assemble emotions after they've been detached from their ideas. And to most Americans, the emotions that socialism stirs up have always had less to do with political theories than with the cast of characters the word has brought to mind from one era to the next, bomb-throwing radicals, super silly parlor pinks, insidious subversives, Soviet thugs, Third World guerrillas, pretentious French intellectuals.
To Joe the Plumber and a lot of other people, the word socialism is still chilling. The ism dismalest of all, as the Chad Mitchell Trio put it in the 1962 song. But it isn't clear that the word still casts a dark spell for those outside the conversations of the right.
Earlier this year, the Harvard School of Public Health commissioned a survey of American attitudes about socialized medicine. It turned out that more people said that socialization would improve the health care system than said it would make things worse. And among people under 35, the proportion of those who approved of socialized medicine was almost two to one. Not that most of those people have a clear understanding of socialized medicine or socialism itself for that matter. Americans have always been a little fuzzy on that concept.
But if you were eight years old when the Berlin Wall fell, the word socialism probably isn't going to sound very toxic to you. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the last thing a party abandons is its language. But it doesn't happen all at once. It reminds me of what linguists call hearth languages, those dying tongues that are no longer used in the wider world but are still spoken by old women around the kitchen table.
The left has a hearth language of its own, the discarded limbs of the heyday of liberalism. Fifty or sixty years ago, no Democrat could finish his speech without denouncing the Republicans as "reactionaries." Now, that word is barely a tenth as frequent in the press, and it doesn't appear at all in the pages that the Democratic National Committee posts at its website. But it still gets thousand of hits at sites like the The Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, where liberals keep it on life support.
The hearth language of the right is where you find the vocabulary of old style anti-communism preserved in aspic. Take class warfare, another item that's lately reappeared. It's still the first term that conservatives reach for whenever the Democrats proposed tax increases for the wealthy. But it's been a long time since it conjured up images of workers in cloth caps building barricades in the street. Surveying the debris of the Soviet empire in 1991, Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, announced communism is over, and that means that anti-communism is over, too. But linguistically, it's taken a while for that to sink in.
By the way, Brent Bozell took Nunberg apart for attempting to denounce Bernard Goldberg in a 2002 column called "Stupid Media Study Tricks."