A few days ago, I had a great time for a good cause – portraying Humpty Dumpty for an “Alice in Wonderland”-themed fundraiser for the Wayne County Arts Alliance. (You can see photos and video of the event on WCAA’s Facebook page.) We only performed brief excerpts, of course, so I didn’t get to use Humpty’s most famous line from Through the Looking-Glass:
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
With such a philosophy, no doubt Humpty would be a political commentator nowadays – but I’m not quite sure where he’d fit in our political spectrum. After all, he does seem to expect government assistance if he falls off his wall, so maybe he’d be a flack for the banking industry – or perhaps a socialist.
“Socialism” – now there’s one of those words that means vastly different things depending on who’s talking. Some like the features of our society that might be called socialist (you know, like roads, or Medicare) while others see in the word the specter of Stalinist totalitarianism, strictly controlled economies, and really bad vodka.
I recently saw a wonderfully engaging presentation of the late historian Howard Zinn’s one-man play MARX IN SOHO at Wilkes College. (See http://www.ironagetheatre.org/marx.html for information about this particular touring production; there are also video excerpts available on YouTube.) In the play, Karl Marx returns to Earth for a brief visit to “clear his name,” distinguish his ideas about socialism from some of the excesses committed in their supposed service, and point out those parts of his thinking that have turned out to be accurate. While the show didn’t change my personal opinion about Marxist philosophy, I did realize that I needed to learn more about it and its various descendants.
Though I’ll readily admit to being under-informed on the history and meaning of Marxist thought, I feel quite confident in saying that anyone who spouts the “Obama is a Marxist!” line knows even less about it than I do. And there are many, from card-carrying socialists to rock-ribbed conservatives, who concur that Obama is no Marxist. (Check this post for some links.)
Nonetheless, despite solid evidence to the contrary, this “Marxist Obama” meme stubbornly persists. I think there are two key reasons for this: certain political leaders have a vested interest in keeping it alive, and for some of our citizens it provides a cherished linchpin for their preferred view of the world.
Take Newt Gingrich, for example. He’s a smart guy. He understands exactly what socialism really is and what it really isn’t – but the author of the infamous memo “Language – A Key Mechanism of Control” also understands very well what sells. So Newt’s all over the airwaves these days, milking his latest sound bite – calling the Obama administration a “secular socialist machine” – for all it’s worth. Like Humpty, he makes the word do what he wants.
The concept of “Socialism,” after all, triggers an immediate visceral response in many Americans – making further thought unnecessary, and manipulative demagoguery possible. The left has its own set of such words too, of course – “fascist” and “racist” among them – that sometimes get applied inappropriately to gain political leverage. (For example, I don’t think that racism is as big a motivator behind the Tea Party movement as some declare it to be.)
Fortunately, there are remedies to this situation. We can encourage greater “rhetorical awareness” – knowledge of how language is used to cajole and deceive. We can make it a point to learn the precise meanings of terms, and to use them correctly. And we can become more conscious of our own “preferred narratives,” and more critical of ideas that we might otherwise accept without question.
So at this point you might be wondering what my feelings are about Marx – and I will tell you the truth: I am a great fan… of Harpo, that is.