Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed! - On the language of anti-liberalism
FOR a while during the 2008 election - namely, in the honeymoon period immediately following John McCain’s decision to nominate Sarah Palin as his running-mate - it looked as if the old Republican strategy of inciting ‘cultural resentments’ in order to ignite the conservative base would work yet again. Less torch-bearer than flame-thrower, Palin offered a divisive vision of an America whose ‘reality’ was a function of its conservatism, defensiveness, and a general sense of animus against perceived privilege. When Katie Couric, interviewing Palin on CBS, asked her why she had not acquired a passport until 2006, Palin’s answer was touchy, revealing, and predicated on class resentment: “I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, ‘Go off and travel the world’. Noooo. I worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life, until
I had kids. … I was not part of, I guess, that culture.”
The logic of Palin’s defense, characterising a ‘culture’ of education defined by privilege, leisure and self-indulgence, and pitting them against a different ‘culture’ of work, discipline and self-reliance, is the zero-sum logic of the culture wars. Palin’s hostility to education, and indeed to language, would eventually come to define her candidacy, and establish the limits of America’s tolerance for anti-intellectualism. The real winner of the 2008 election may yet turn out to have been the English language.
Language has long been an unacknowledged casus belli in the American culture wars. If they were fought over the ideological ground of value systems, religious beliefs, political dogma or fiscal policy, the wars have always been waged by means of loaded words. The difference between liberal and conservative was habitually expressed by means of charged registers that put at stake language itself - and its metonymic associations, including not just the tools of vocabulary and grammar, but also the question of edification, of literature, reading and education. Liberals, associated with over-education, ivory-tower irrelevance and elite effeteness, were understood by extension to indulge in overly theoretical, exclusionary or multisyllabic language, as well as pedantry. Conservatives, by contrast, associated with small-town exurbia, were understood to employ the aw-shucks, down-home, common-sense vernacular of the man on the street. Conservatives long claimed that the argument is between those who are too busy dealing with reality to bother themselves with trivial semantics, and those whose privilege affords them the luxury of irrelevance. But in fact the argument is over argot: the way in which language is classed.