The Names of Things III

The Green Knight has a post on the lunacy of Ann Coulter that makes me think again how we come to a consensus on what to name things. In his post, he takes aim at Ann’s swipe at the willingness of New Yorkers to surrender to terrorists, despite the fact that they’ve already been attacked by terrorists, and don’t appear to have surrendered.

The right absolutely hated the fact that New Yorkers proved their culture war narrative wrong. It would have been so much better if it had been red-staters that were attacked by terrorists and behaved heroically in response (which no doubt they would have). Annie sez this herself: “I think I’d rather have them trying to invade Mississippi or Georgia, Alabama.” It was so thoughtless, really, of the Al Qaeda terrorists to make New Yorkers look good.

What to do about this if you’re a right-wing culture warrior? Well, simple, really. Keep retooling the narrative until New York just vanishes from the picture.

First, make sure that you don’t call the event something like “The attack on New York,” or “The destruction of the World Trade Center.” Most other historically important battles and attacks are named for the places where they happened — Fort Sumpter, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, the Alamo, Pearl Harbor — but that will not do in this case. You want people to forget New York, not remember it. So instead, call it 9/11. Just a date. It’s as if the attack happened anywhere. People in the tiniest village, with no targets worth a terrorist’s time, will begin to imagine that they too could be attacked — maybe even that they were.

Second, use 9/11 as an excuse for all kinds of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with what happened on that day. That pretty much sums up the past five years in Washington, up to and including the invasion of Iraq.

Third, keep repeating the number — 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 — until it becomes background noise, stripped of any actual meaning.

After a few years have passed, you’ll be able to come to the point that Annie now has come to: the ability to sit there in perfect comfort and confidence and say, pretty directly, that New York was not attacked. 9/11 now has nothing to do with New York. And so, the culture war narrative — which is all that really counts in the right-wing world — is saved. Once again, it’s Red America that gets to be the victim, and Blue America is safely reassigned to its traditional role as the Enemy Within.

He’s too sweeping in his comments for my liking, but he makes a good point: why did we decide to call the Trade Towers attack “9/11”? I realize the Pentagon attack and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania broadens the geography here, but it’s the images of the Trade Towers collapsing that everybody remembers about this day. All eyes were on New York, not Washington. For the longest while, I called the events of 9/11, the “Trade Tower attacks”, before I was whittled down by the constant repeating of the popular term by other individuals, by the media and by politicians.

This isn’t the only case where I found myself at the wrong end of a naming convention. I so wanted the Canadian two dollar coin to be known as the “dubloon” — a double-looney, with a tip of the hat of the old Spanish pieces of eight. But, no, the public preferred to go with the rhyme: loonie, toonie. Ick.

But don’t underestimate the power of names. Control the names, and you control the viewpoint. If your name for something is beaten out by public consensus, your views about it can also be beaten out or changed. And somebody influential enough to alter the names of things becomes a very powerful figure indeed.

Another example of the power of the names of things is the attempt, by some commentators, to link the National Socialist party of Germany with Socialism. Not much is offered up in the way of proof in these statement, and the reason for it is that it is mostly inaccurate. These same individuals tend to label those who are in any way further left than they are “socialists”, showing an equal ignorance of what “Socialism” is about. The textbook definition isn’t important here; what’s important is discrediting their opponents, by associating them with the intolerable through the power of naming.

The textbook definition of socialist is an individual who wants to end the capitalist system with a centrally planned system of economics. If any individual accepts in any way the free market system’s method of distributing resources in any industry, they are simply not socialist.

The Nazis may have called themselves a worker’s party, but they were very laissez-faire with the corporations operating within Germany, and workers’ rights, along with the rights of anybody else who didn’t tow the party line, took a beating. The Nazis weren’t interested in controlling the economy and in ending capitalism. They just wanted power.

I suppose, in impact, that makes them not much different from communist extremists. But the tactic of tying one’s opponent to the wackos on their fringe is another well-known and well-used tactic in unsubstantive debate.

Mind you, even in textbook terms the term “socialist” is already corrupted by the term “democratic socialist”, which describes people who wish to rein in the excesses of the capitalist system, without actually ending capitalism. So, for future reference, here are quick and dirty textbook definitions of some of the political players on the (rough) spectrum as I see them (done with my tongue at least partly in my cheek):

Communists: Kill capitalism! Kill capitalists! Kill them all! Kill! Kill! Kill!

Socialists: Dissolve capitalism! Reform capitalists! Reform them all!

Democratic Socialists (NDP): Aggressively rein in the excesses of capitalism for the benefit of the workers.

Small-l Liberals (Liberals): Passively-aggressively rein in the excesses of capitalism for the benefit of all.

Red Toryism (old PCs): Reluctantly rein in the excesses of capitalism for the stability of the system.

Neo Conservatives: What excesses of capitalism? The free market system knows best.

Libertarians: What system? The individual is the marketplace.

Authoritarians: The old guard. The old crown. The old country.

Fascists: EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!

…Intriguingly, this post suggests that Ms. Coulter’s recent article may have helped get her column dropped by the Arizona Daily Star.

Many readers find her shrill, bombastic, and mean-spirited. And those are the words used by readers who identified themselves as conservatives.

  • David Stoeffler
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