Nunberg On the Language of Class

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter Four (“Class Dismissed”) of Geoffrey Nunberg’s 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 (New York: Public Affairs, 2006):

I wanna be a lawyer

Doctor or professor

A member of the UMC

I’ll pretend to be liberal

But I’ll still support the GOP,

As part of the UMC.

–Bob Seger, “Upper Middle Class”

Like much of the new language of the right, the redefinition of liberal goes back to the Nixon years, as liberalism was coming under attack, and Vietnam and the fallout of the civil rights movement were opening new fissures in American society.  Or I should really say the Agnew years, since it was Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew who pioneered the new populist tone of Republican rhetoric. Agnew’s phraseology was impishly sui generis–it’s hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes describing his critics as the “nattering nabobs of negativism” or “pusillanimous pussyfooters.”  But with his coded appeal to “law and order” and his attacks on the “liberal intellectuals” who were destroying the country’s strength, the student radicals and hippies, and the “effete corps of impudent snobs” of the media, he became the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of the culture wars.  (Quoted from page 49.)

Nunberg’s epigraph, taken from a Bob Seger song, is especially amusing to me because the most recent photo of Seger I saw was of him and Tiger Words playing in a golf tournament. So Seger, if not the song’s persona, has indeed joined the UMC.

Arguably, the GOP used “liberal” as a club effectively well into the Bush II years, but no the word seems to have lost some of its power of insult, so much so that those who want to defeat, demonize, and depict the “Left” (who may not really be Left, of course) now seem obliged to use words like “socialist,” “socialism,” and–bizarrely–“Nazi”).  I don’t know whether the media is still thought to be dominated by “effete impudent snobs.” Newspapers are dying, so journalists just look like everybody else: people trying to hang on to a job.

Stewart and Colbert (among others) do such a great job of mocking the “mainstream” media that the media cannot even pretend to be “effete,” arguably–although occasionally Keith Olbermann and George Will still manage to pull it off.  Also, when Agnew was saying “effete,” did he have Mr. Conservate Effete, William Buckley, in mind?  Probably not.

Cable “news” media have become carnivalesque: Fox News hires youthful, inexperienced blond women to read from monitors and young but dull men to stick with the Party line; MSNBC features the worst listener on TV, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, the anti-O’Reilly, and Ed Schultz, big, beefy pro-union guy who once played football well.  It also features an academic, Rachel Maddow, who is erudite but too self-deprecating and genuinely well mannered to seem effete.

CNN still has the old-school (old-carnival) Larry King but also the bizarre Lou Dobbs, obsessed to the point of insanity with “illegal aliens.”  One-trick Dobbs. And so on.

The way some alleged liberals deploy terms of class can be intriguing.  Some speak blithely of “trailer trash,” and, as deserving of criticism as Sarah Palin may or may not be, some liberals definitely portray her as an unsophisticated, uneducated hick.  So do some conversatives.  Look at some of Andrew Sullivan’s recent posts about her.

At any rate, people on all parts of the political spectrum seem interested in using class-status to create political enemies.

Additionally, GOPers go one step further and, when Democrats talk about things related to poverty, unions, health-care, and so on, accuse opponents of class-warfare (which Nunberg suggests Agnew started, at least in this most recent epoch of American politics). Democtrats go one step further and accuse GOPers of “declaring war on the middle class,” even though neither Party has passed much, if any, legislation that might maintain and cultivate manufacturing or assist small businesses.  Both parties are too busy baiting rhetorical traps for working-class and middle-class men and women; the parties don’t have much time left over in which to do something pragmatic for such folks.


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