Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


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 by Geoffrey Nunberg








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Linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg presents a diagnosis and prescription for liberalism in his new book, 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. This book may have the finest subtitle I’ve seen in years. Nunberg shows how Democrats and liberals have lost the battle of words in conveying what they stand for in ways that resonate with voters. He clearly documents how the Republicans and conservatives have done an outstanding job in choosing words and phrases that work. While Nunberg identifies the problem and diagnoses it, his prescription provides less than a clear road map for a cure. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “The Volvo Dodge,” pp. 63-66:


He’s silent majority. . . but he keeps making noise.


—John Updike, Rabbit Redux, 1971


From a linguistic point of view, branding is simply the process that turns the associations or overtones of a word into part of its mean­ing. That’s what marketers and advertisers are paid to accomplish, but it can happen without their efforts, in either a positive or negative way. Rolls-Royce comes to stand in for opulent luxury; the DeLorean be­comes a synonym for a commercial flop; the favorite prefix of McDon­ald’s becomes a sign of cheapness in words like McMansion and McJobs.

With political labels, branding involves coloring the purely descriptive meaning of a label with the stereotypical traits of the people who wear it. In extreme cases, the original meaning of the term may be obscured as its connotations are made the basis for a new meaning. That can happen to a label anywhere on the political spectrum: over the years it has been the fate of words like tory, bolshevik, populist, and fascist. But the Democratic left has always been susceptible to a particular kind of stereotyping by its opponents. People don’t usually require a convoluted story to explain the political views of bourgeois conservatives or proletarian radicals. But it takes more ingenuity to discredit the motives of people who don’t seem to be motivated by obvious self-interest. So conservatives have always tried to dismiss those concerns as the signs of baser motivations like so­cial pretension, dilettantism, or effete sentimentality.

In one form or another, that maneuver has been a staple of the pseudo-populism of the American right since the 1840 “cider election.” The intellectually challenged William Henry Harrison was an Ohioan from an aristocratic Virginia background whom the Whigs successfully repackaged as a cider-sipping frontiersman in the Jacksonian mode, sending him out on the campaign trail in a wagon topped by a log cabin and attacking his Democratic opponent Martin Van Buren as an effete Easterner who ate off gold plates, put cologne on his whiskers, and was “laced up in corsets such as women in town wear”—an effete snob avant Ia lettre.

Attacks like those have left their mark on the language in a long line of disparagements for people who seem to subordinate their own class inter­ests to the cause of social justice. In the 1920s, a Wall Street Journal edito­rial described supporters of the progressive Robert La Follette as “visionaries, ne’er do wells, parlor pinks, reds, hyphenates [foreign-born Americans], soft handed agriculturalists and working men who have never seen a shovel.” Parlor pink was a particularly deft touch, which managed to convey bourgeois affectation, ideological timidity, and effeminacy at the same time. (Time magazine coined the variant pinko in 1926.) A few decades later, the acerbic right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler con­tributed the adjective bleeding-heart, a durable phrase that reduces all al­truism to girlish sentimentality. And in the 1950s, egghead evoked Adlai Stevenson’s minimalist tonsure by way of adding an anti-intellectual note to the mix. (It was around then that William E Buckley famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the entire Harvard faculty.)

Most of those disparagements echoed antique class resentments—as the conservative writer Peter Viereck put it, they were allegations that had been “made for centuries by pseudo-wholesome, ‘pious’ peasants against ‘effete’ noblemen.” Until recent times, the right dismissed liberals as an influential but relatively small group of intellectuals, bohemians, and bourgeois fellow-travelers who were motivated by infantile rebel­liousness or misplaced sympathy for the downtrodden. But in the late 1960s, the tenor of antiliberal rhetoric began to change. Now the right cast the net much more widely, to include a wide swath of middle-class American society that was defined more by its tastes than its political convictions.


The moment was propitious for that shift. The Nixon years may have been a troubled time politically, but they were also the high-water moment of postwar prosperity. Wages hadn’t yet begun to stagnate, infla­tion was at reasonable levels, and consumer goods were becoming ever more accessible. To many, it looked as if America was becoming a con­sumerist monoculture, and it was natural that consumerism began to leave its mark on the way people talked about social groups. In the 1950S and 1960S, Americans had taken their social vocabulary from sociologists and social psychologists, as they adopted expressions like status symbol, peer group, organization man, and the power elite. In the 1970s, though, marketers became the new cartographers of the American social land­scape. People turned to advertisers for words like lifestyle and yuppie, and marketing terms like upscale and demographics became part of everyday conversation. In the public’s mind, if not in reality, consumption pat­terns were trumping the old economic and social indicators of class. The entry requirements for becoming a preppie were relaxed from four years at Choate to an afternoon at Abercrombie and Fitch, Ivy League came to denote a style of dress, and blue-collar became a name for a dogged style of basketball or a bare-brick decor.*

There were echoes of that new language in the way people were char­acterizing the newly discovered “Middle Americans” in terms of their cultural tastes and consumer preferences. Kevin Phillips described the group in his influential 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority as “the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii.” And Time magazine described them as people whose car win­dows were plastered with patriotic decals, who learned baton twirling rather than reading Hermann Hesse, who skipped Midnight Cowboy but went back several times to see John Wayne in The Green Berets, and who stood in line to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall rather than Oh, Calcutta!—all of these, presumably, choices that had political signifi­cance. From there, it was only a short stretch to turn to consumer cate­gories to redraw the conservative-liberal distinction.



* “Head for the heart of Emeryville’s manufacturing district, specifically, Semifreddi’s Bakery, where you can lunch blue-collar style on upscale sandwiches, salads, focaccia and soups (tomato rice with Swiss chard and lots of freshly shaved Parmesan the other day) in a warehouse-type setting.” (San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 1991).


Anyone who cares about politics will enjoy reading Talking Right.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2007 issue of Executive Times


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