Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s getting a little scary out there and he links to this post by Ezra Klein, We have something to fear from fear-mongering itself, to illustrate the point. Ezra writes:
I don't want to exaggerate the importance of the death threats being made against congressmen who voted for health-care reform. Nuts are nuts. But there is a danger to the sort of rhetoric the GOP has used over the past few months. When Rep. Devin Nunes begs his colleagues to say "no to socialism, no to totalitarianism and no to this bill"; when Glenn Beck says the bill "is the end of America as you know it"; when Sarah Palin says the bill has "death panels" -- that stuff matters…
..take the universe of people who really respect right-wing politicians and listen to right-wing media. Most of them will hear this stuff and turn against the bill. Some will hear this stuff and really be afraid of the bill. And then a small group will hear this stuff and believe it and wonder whether they need to do something more significant to stop this bill from becoming law. And then a couple will actually follow through. And one will cut the gas lines leading to house of Rep. Tom Perriello's brother after seeing a tea partier post the address online.
Beck and Palin are brazen demagogues and shameless opportunists out to make a buck off the anger and frustration of their fans and adherents. They answer to nobody and nothing but their vanity and bottom lines and feel no responsibility except to continue their cults of personality so the money keeps pouring in.
But Devin Nunes is a member of the United States Congress. Even if Nunes has no constituents who support health care reform, although he probably he has tens of thousands who by implication Nunes has accused of being eager for totalitarianism, he should be mindful of his colleagues in the House of Representatives with whom he has to work for the benefit of all his constituents and those colleagues might resent having to cooperate with someone who believes they’re out to destroy the nation.
Ezra asks if Nunes really thinks what Nunes appears to think:
[T]otalitarianism? Death panels? The end of America as we know it? These critiques aren't just wrong in their description of a cautious, compromised reform that uses private insurers and spends only 4 percent of what we spend on health care in an average year. They're shocking in terms of what the speakers believe their colleagues and representatives are willing to do to the American people. Nunes, for instance, has served with Democrats for decades. He might believe them too willing to tax society's most-productive members to fund social benefits. But does he really believe them friends of totalitarianism?
My bet would be that if you tried to pin him down on this he’d tell you that he didn’t say what he said. If he’s like most people, he wouldn’t recognize his own words as his own words even if you showed him a video of him saying those very words. That’s because for most people words don’t matter as conveyors of meaning. Words are merely sounds that express feeling.
Try to use their own words against them and they will reply, “You know what I meant.”
Of course they won’t have said what they meant with that rejoinder either, because what they meant to was, “You know how I feel.”
People will say anything when they’re upset and they can expect that everybody who hears them will understand and not take it personally or excuse them on the spot. And usually that’s how it goes. “Nevermind. I understand. Heat of the moment. No big fucking deal.”
In the heat of passion, when carried away by excitement, when overwhelmed by terrible sorrow or terrific happiness, people might as well talk gibberish as try to make sense.
And sometimes the only words that sound right, that sound like how we feel, are the “wrong” words, sometimes only the ugliest words are strong enough for the most ecstatic emotions and out of the mouths of people who normally don’t use four letters words harsher than darn and pooh will come vehement, loud, and accurate concatenations of Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs that in other circumstances would offend the ears of convicts, Marines, and stand-up comics, as any one who has been to bed with a former Catholic schoolgirl can tell you.
Or, in other situations, has gotten one mad.
The best words are the ones that not only mean exactly what the person speaking them need them to mean but also sound like what they mean, words that convey both the idea and the feeling together. And unless your audience is made up entirely of lawyers and schoolteachers, if you’re going to use the wrong word, it’s better to use one that sounds right but doesn’t quite mean right than one that means perfectly but sounds weak, silly, priggish, pedantic, or just plain boring and doesn’t carry with it the right feeling if it carries any feeling at all. People are more impressed and more likely to approve your meaning if they share your feelings.
You can change most people’s feelings, at least for the moment, far more easily than you can change their thinking.
Demagogues and other con artists don’t even need to change the way people feel. They just need to incite people to feel instead of think.
This is where I think the Right has had it over the Left for decades now. Right Wing politicians and pundits and talk show clowns will say anything. They will exaggerate, lie, make things up, insult and ridicule anybody for any reason, spout incoherent nonsense to the point where they might as well be talking gibberish, and not care, because what their words mean doesn’t matter to them. They use words for how those words feel. And for how they want their audiences to feel.
Liberal politicians and pundits, though, tend to precision. They choose their words carefully and choose the ones that most closely mean what they need them to mean. They don’t just talk as if their audiences are made up of lawyers and schoolteachers. They talk as if they are lawyers and schoolteachers. Which is not surprising since that is what many of them are.
And they don’t just favor meaning over feeling when they choose their words. They reject words because they sound too much like feelings.
When they choose words for their feelings it’s often because those words make them feel clever.
I should know.
The Right has traded on fear and hate for decades now. They’ve become addicted to the feelings and dependent on words that express those feelings strongly and persuasively, persuasion here being a matter of infection and contagion. A Right Winger doesn’t try to convince you to think his way as much as he tries to get you to catch his feeling.
Or a feeling.
They don’t care if Liberals are demonstrably not fascists, communists, or aiders and abettors of Islamic terrorists. Liberals make them as angry and afraid as any and every enemy, real and imagined, because Liberals are trying to bring about the same thing as those other enemies---a world in which the American Right isn’t the reason for that world’s existence.
A world where they don’t control everything is a world where they control nothing. Power and domination define every relationship and if you aren’t the powerful and dominant party you are as good as nothing. So bosses dominate over employees. Men dominate over women. Adults dominate over their children. White people dominate over non-white people. Christianity dominates over every other religion. America dominates over every other nation.
Where their rhetoric has any consistency or coherence it is where they are promising each other power and dominance or warning each other that they have lost or are losing one or the other or both.
It’s not surprising, then, that they love to use words that make them feel powerful and dominating, that make them feel strong and brave and tough and scary, all the things they are at heart afraid they aren’t.
And for them, strength, bravery, toughness, and the ability to make others afraid are all inherently violent qualities because they are all about power and dominance.
Power and dominance are achieved by beating your enemy into powerlessness and abject submission.
So it’s not enough to use words that make you feel strong, brave, tough, and scary. You need words that make you feel as though you are being strong, brave, tough, and scary, that you are beating your enemy into submission.
In a culture that privileges strength, bravery, toughness, and scariness but sees them all as expressions of power and dominance, the weak and afraid, as you can imagine, are going to suffer ridicule and ostracizing at the least. Imagine then to be one of the weak or to be someone who suspects he is weak. Someone like that needs words that make him feel strong and brave but he needs those words even more to make others feel he is strong and brave.
You don’t think Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh don’t know what they are?