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Solnit writes: "Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets, and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we can begin to rectify the names. So start talking."

An Occupy protester urges peoples to turn off the news and read. (photo: Possible Futures)
An Occupy protester urges peoples to turn off the news and read. (photo: Possible Futures)


Our Words Are Our Weapons

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

30 October 12

 

n ancient China, the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by "the rectification of names," a ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than money.

This was part of what made Barack Obama's first presidential campaign so electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity, once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since. Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about everything in our world - a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of "legitimate rape," "the apology tour," and "job creators." Meanwhile, their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there should be a rectification of numbers, too.)

Let's rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor, the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on this Earth.

Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft" and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it's misogyny or racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises, circumlocutions, and euphemisms - "enhanced interrogation techniques" for torture, "collateral damage" for killing civilians, "the war on terror" for the war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.

Change the language and you've begun to change the reality or at least to open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of names:

"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything."

So let's start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed, I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet, each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton Family welfare - a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested working conditions of astonishing barbarity - warehouses that reach 120 degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or unionize.

You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people - the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as well as the employees of the stores - only to add to piles of wealth already obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty behind) no matter what.

They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives never really have to know what's being done in their names. And yet it is their job to know - just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to rectify the names for all these things.

Groton to Moloch

The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg's gripping book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his time in Vietnam, or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It's about a 1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific Palisades, California. It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg's host said, "If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the letter."

In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen the latter. The man who opted for Groton was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our planet.

They could send tens of thousands to Groton, buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the environment, but they're as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts. But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.

A Storm Surge of Selfishness

Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for why we did so little - that the rich and powerful with ties to the carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular, they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone through four "debates" and nearly a full election cycle with climate change unmentioned and unmentionable.

These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It's as though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the tundra is thawing and Greenland's ice shield is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves, and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the future is here, now.

You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations - Chevron's John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in "compensation") in 2011 - or their major shareholders. They can want for nothing. They're so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come, the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy people the world has ever seen.

Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we shout loud enough, rectify a few names. Under pressure, he might even listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).

Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California's Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference with free enterprise). This year they're backing a California initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another kind of war, and consider the early casualties.

As the Irish Times put it in an editorial this summer:

"Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa, and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300 million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600 billion."

This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food prices from crop failures, including this summer's in the U.S. Midwest after a scorching drought in which the Mississippi River nearly ran dry and crops withered.

We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the poor (especially the poor of Africa), and against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is destruction, and it's all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we're at it, take back the term "pro-life" to talk about those who are trying to save the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other side: "pro-death."

The complex array of effects from climate change and their global distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more, but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always the least willing to change.

The Doublespeak on Taxes

I'm a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early. Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years before California's former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed. Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.

What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they're allocated - though few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures - from that president's "welfare queens" to Mitt Romney's attack on Big Bird and PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).

As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression, and what boons tax cuts were to bring us. They then delivered the biggest tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren't going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.

Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn't monetary: it's moral and emotional. Let's rectify some more language: even at this moment, the United States remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California - with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley - is loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.

Really, there's more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt, to support the arts, to protect the environment - to produce, in short, a glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives - richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community, power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is, to call it by its true name, destruction.

Occupy the Names

One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street's crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the "1%," those who have made a profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different kind of tax). It was a label that made instant sense across much of the political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there's so much more to do.

Naming is only part of the work, but it's a crucial first step. A doctor initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches. After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your dream of something better.

Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets, and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.

e-max.it: your social media marketing partner
 

Comments   

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+11 # patmonk 2012-10-30 22:16
"OUR VOTES ARE OUR VOICE"
Even when we're crying in the wilderness.
VOTE YES ON PROPOSITION 37
www.carighttoknow.org
 
 
+31 # DaveM 2012-10-30 23:19
How many out there remember President Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech? Full text at:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/carter-crisis/

We would also do well to revisit "The Global 2000 Report To The President", commissioned by President Carter and predicting with uncanny accuracy what has happened during the past 30 years. It may well be the most important forgotten book ever published. Just at the moment, it is easier to get a copy in England than it is in the United States.

It is fashionable in certain quarters to ridicule Jimmy Carter. But he told the truth. His critics have had their chance to fix things. He never got it. Perhaps it is about time.
 
 
+17 # maddave 2012-10-31 00:55
The doctrine/concep t of "enough" is not even a footnote to the super wealthy ... the 0.1% ... and the super-wealthy- wanabees. The prevailing paradigm is a game in which excess money is merely a method of keeping score.

Example: CEO #1, sitting in a posh bar, turns to CEO #2 and says: "I made $20 million last year." and CEO #2 says."That's nice, but I made $25 mil." So bright & early the next morning, CEO #1 goes to his compensation committee (comprised of allied CEO's, upon whose Boards he sits) ), demands $30 mil next year and gets it.

NOBODY is worth $10,000/hour (plus benefits) for EVERY single working hour of every single day. But the senior executives of Corporate America --- who, de facto, control this country via bought-and-paid -for Elected Officials --- have run amok. They plunder corporate coffers and the US Treasury openly for the same reason that yella' dogs laying on a red-neck'st front porch lick their privates: because they CAN!

There IS no hand on the throttle and we mere mortals are cheap consumables: easily & economically replaced expendables.
 
 
+6 # sahgb 2012-10-31 02:34
I'm going to disagree with Ms. Solnit and suggest you all read this article: http://truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/12401-george-lakoff-progressives-need-to-use-language-that-reflects-moral-values.

We liberals often come off as snobs to conservatives because we only try to appeal to their intellect in our preferred words. We talk them half to death and even sometimes bore our own with all the forced PC routine. But they're certainly not all bad or unreasonable.

It is also why liberals are disappointed in Obama. Rationally we
know he inherited a huge mess and couldn't cure it all in 1 term but when he was campaigning in 2008 he appealed to our emotions, not just our brains, with that 'yes we can' bit. Reality has set in now.

We've got to change the parties we have. We're not like some countries who rise up and overthrow rulers/dictator s - we believe in our constitution but it's getting changed right under our noses - advances we'd made taken away, bad new things put in (Citizens). We need to reach people in both parties so there isn't a liberal / conservative split down the middle of our population. We can't force change intellectually only since if at all, we're barely a majority. But we can sure invite conservatives to share our views and understand us.

The name of the political party isn't important. Healing the breach and appealing to the best instead of the worst of everyone is.

Occupy can teach us how to be more inclusive, if we let them!
 
 
+3 # lollie 2012-10-31 13:03
Sahgb, Excellent!! One man, one party can't do all.Democracy is an ongoing responsibility. There's a lot to clean up. Unite the masses, that is probably the 1% biggest fear-Divide and conquer has worked very well for them so far. Thank you for leaning towards a solution.
 
 
+1 # sebouhian 2012-10-31 02:59
On the value of language, I recommend Christopher Hitchens' last work,"Mortality ," mainly because he includes a chapter on how he turned to the power of words--away from the dull sounds of everyday and everyone's easy language--and asserted that language is out identity, therefore urging the writer/speaker, the reader, all of us also "To find your own voice, not just a sound [that anyone can make] but a vital reach of 'mimicry and parody,...wit and understatement. ..complexity upon complexity out of the simplicity of ... conversation.'" There's much more, but these quotes identify us and challenge us, not just the professional, but the ordinary readers--from a dying man, wise but humble, still caring for the experience of life and accepting the inevitable fact that life brings death,caring enough to insist that we readers face the invigorating fact with "Remember, you too are mortal."
 
 
+6 # RMDC 2012-10-31 04:32
Thanks, this is good. the language we use is very important. This is really Orwell's argument. The ruling elites have understood the importance of language much better than the left. They created and developed the public relations industry which should better be called the thought control industry.

TV reduces people to the incoherent babble that Orwell's Winston Smith hears among the proles. American proles speak in disconnected waves of trivia and non-sense. This is exactly how TV teaches them to speak and think. Then that sort of language is picked up by politicians who speak prole-language back to them.

The problem with raising taxes is that we don't have anyone in government who is responsible enough to spend the money wisely. It would be wasted on corporate welfare, some new war or military project, some flight into space, and so on. They are not interested in rebuilding out crumbling educational system. New tax revenues would be looted.
 
 
+6 # seeuingoa 2012-10-31 05:11
and climate change was not discussed
or mentioned in the debates !
 
 
+3 # joejamchicago 2012-10-31 05:32
Please view the short video on YouTube, MOVING FORWARD: FIVE-FIFTHS STRONG. We need to move FORWARD, for the babies, for the children, remembering past evils overcome and challenges still to be met.
 
 
+7 # Quonomo 2012-10-31 06:03
YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHING YET!

While I was attending university as a Bio Major I read the book, 'Limits To Growth'. It became my bible for environmental awareness. That was 1973.

This is the takeaway. When the environmental degradation is no longer a disputable fact, it will be too far down the backside of the curve to have much impact on the problem. Scary huh?

I have watch so many of the models from these studies come to fruition. This has occurred in in about 40 years. At the time we were called pot smokin', tree huggin', hippies. Guilty of all charges.

The other aspect that we are dealing is the merging of many environmental calamities. The cumulative effect of this is exponential.

I suggest you all read 'Limits To Growth' and the 30 year update. Have clean underwear handy when you do.

Upon finishing these reads, mail them to your corporate running dog lackey in Washington D.C. I am sure they will ignore them, but it may make you feel better.

As a long in the tooth pot smokin', tree huggin', hippie you probably have been able to guess that I might not make it another 40 years and this changes nothing. Empirical facts are just that.

In any biological system many climax populations are reached. The results are extinction or a small evolving survival colony which may indeed wish they were extinct.

Oh well, we tried to warn them.
 
 
+4 # fredboy 2012-10-31 06:11
The cardinal approach: clear, concise, complete, and compelling.

Share stories best by putting the listener IN the story. Use the present tense. And visual description. Help them live it. And see it.

And learn to frame arguments. Clearly.

Taught this for 28 years, but have yet to find a fellow Democrat who will consider it. They for some reason prefer dweeb talk and bureaucratic jargon. That turns off everyone.
 
 
+5 # lorenbliss 2012-10-31 06:24
The passion in Ms. Solnit's words is as evocative as her logic is compelling.

But in her own rectification of language, Ms. Solnit nevertheless stumbles. Greed per se, though despicable, is relatively harmless. What turns greed into a destructive force is its institutionaliz ation, its adoption as policy, its elevation to maximum virtue, its methodical enshrinement as the core shibboleth of human society. The weaponized greed so produced is capitalism, the greatest evil our species has yet unleashed.

Were Ms.Solnit to rectify our language by replacing "greed" with "capitalism" -- and then explaining how capitalism inevitably transforms itself into fascism (indeed how that very transformation is what is victimizing us now) -- she would join Chris Hedges in proclaiming the one truth no others of their stature has yet dared publicly utter.

Even so, she has written one of the most rousing calls to action Reader Supported News has yet published. She understands true words are the sparks of which Peter Gabriel sings in the song “Biko”:

“You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher”
 
 
+9 # Citizen Mike 2012-10-31 06:47
I have been saying for YEARS that we must take control of the language and not surrender to the use of the other side's choice of words.

For example, they call us "TAX-AND-SPEND LIBERALS" and we respond by saying "we are not that," but by doing so we reinforce their concept.

Why have we not responded that the proper role of government is to TAX FAIRLY AND SPEND WISELY? Why have we not launched a major insult campaign against "GREEDY, SELFISH TAX HATERS"? Those who send jobs and hide profits overseas "ECONOMIC TRAITORS"? We should be screaming about "ECONOMIC TREASON"! These GREEDY PROFITEERS have BETRAYED US! They areUN-AMERICAN!

They speak of "SMALL GOVERNMENT" and"BIG GOVERNMENT," but the issue is not size but a need for GOOD GOVERNMENT which serves the public interest?

I have spent my life in journalism, advertising and publicity, I understand how, to use vocabulary in the service of marketing. We should all read Korzybsky's General Semantics, to understand how controlling language controls thought.

We need to use buzzwords and slogans, we need to repeat and repeat them to make an impression on the collective public mind. Why do liberals cringe from aggressively marketing our message in a coherent,campai gn?

One of our intellectual leaders is a world-famous linguist, f'goshsakes, he should be issuing this call to arms to seize control of the political vocabulary. Chomsky, I am talking to you, wake up, dammit!
 
 
+1 # Painter 2012-10-31 13:10
Fine, Citizen Mike, but, like sahgbbut, I believe George Lakoff is the guy to turn to for plain talk that reclaims language with both truth value and moral content. Highly recommend Moral Politics, not all of which has to be read to get the point(-s).

Are progressives not for family, health, survival, peace, responsibility, expanding our circle of caring, cooperation, respect for (legitimate) authority, rule of (just) law, and prosperity of a certain kind? We do not have a party that articulates this vision, so we have no political home (which is why I've joined the Justice Party).
 
 
+1 # Valleyboy 2012-10-31 06:53
So True
 
 
+4 # dick 2012-10-31 07:44
Paradox: The more the inconvenient truths become apparent, the more people retreat into fantasy. Since Americans seem to think they have more to lose from changes in the status quo, they are more inclined toward denial, fantasizing. Election campaigns should be about truth telling, but currently that would be political suicide. Therefore, we need a tsunami of truths to wash away some lies starting after the polls close. "Liars, murderers,
criminals, greed, despots, plutocrats, crazed zealots, nutcases.."
 
 
+2 # sahgb 2012-10-31 14:36
We can't order or force people to be liberal-type logical. 'Us' vs. 'them' at the point of either words or a sword is something you'd rebel against yourselves - rightly - and so will conservatives.

Speaking and thinking more similarly will come after you have 'shown' those similarities among all us 99% - the small 1% group that's our common enemy - our $ being misspent, climate change perhaps past the tipping point.

The 99% slogan had great strength because it is true for all of usnot among the 1% - we knew and felt it instead of just being told it was so.

That's Occupy's great strength. They didn't get caught in the trap of being one political party warring against the other - and they helped and are still helping people without asking their political affiliation or insisting they use particular words. They're showing what institutionaliz ed greed (thanks for that wording, lorenbliss) is doing to us all, what the usury in those college loans will do to our next generations, the shame of us having people with no place to live but our streets.

We need to show the 99% we're all in this together and have a common enemy in the 1%. Insisting that conservatives use our choice of words without showing them it's important, or that there is only way one to tell a story, is dividing us more.

The 99% vs. the 1% is our majority. Dividing that majority in half because we're mad we can't just force them to join us and talk like us is counterproducti ve.
 
 
0 # Painter 2012-10-31 15:09
Forgot Bumper Sticker:

v
PRO LIFE
PLANETARY

(top "v" is upside down proofreader's symbol for "insert")
 

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