Monday, April 20, 2015

Another Oppophor

I have invented a sniglet.

A sniglet, for those of you who did not watch HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News” back in the early 1980s, is "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." One from the show that I will always fondly remember is “cinemuck” – the gunk on the movie theater floor that sticks to the soles of your shoes.

The political word is full of odd phenomena. Most have coined terms, but some do not. If we were Germans, we could just take a descriptive sentence and remove all the spaces to arrive at a new word. But Americans are generally more imaginative and less literal – or at least pithier. We like to shorten things to save time.

So, here is my modest proposed contribution to political discourse:

Oppophor /ˈä-pə-fôr'/ (n): A political metaphor stolen from your opponent and distorted to poorly make the opposite point. Invoking history which teaches the opposite lesson is a common oppohor. Oppophors are often made by conservatives as part of an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” argument. For example, take their trying to portray gay rights activists as intolerant, intrusive Puritans.

Of course, this oppophor has precedent in conservative circles. As I wrote in this blog, it is akin to an earlier one in which a talk radio host warned listeners about a "witch hunt" against Christians. In both cases, social conservatives are the ones with the torches, pitchforks, and big, shiny hat buckles.

Such poor metaphors often go beyond being clunky, stretched, or inapt because they are deliberately absurd and jarring. They are an attempt to be clever and outrageous. Of course, I do not object to being provoking so long as you are honest. But this device tries to pass off dishonesty as irony or just an innocent "thought experiment" - an interesting intellectual exercise. They mine shock value by arguing that the counterfactual is actually only counterintuitive – if not the victim of a slanderous liberal media conspiracy.

Conservatives often posit that their liberal opponents are “the real [racists / fascists / sexists / hypocrites / prudes / warmongers / enemies of the poor / elitists / etc.].” Thomas Frank has written a lot about the right co-opting the word “elitist” and portraying the party of the rich as the political protector of ordinary working Joes. In their narrative, social workers are snobs and oil barons are just plain folks. I look forward to conservatives calling liberals “the real homophobes.”

The goal of such metaphors is not to convert your debate opponent but to stun them with your chutzpah. It is rhetorical shock and awe. Oppophors should backfire spectacularly and discredit its users. And they do. But they also play so well to the base that the end result is a net gain. The base, harried by accurate critiques, is hungry for any sort of rhetorical table-turning – however incoherent.

Unfortunately, this often goes way beyond metaphors to literal beliefs. As I wrote before in both my book and this blog, Ann Coulter had once claimed that liberals fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and instituted Jim Crow laws afterwards. Likewise, Reverend Pat Robertson had said that liberals are punitive, addicted to building prisons, and responsible for the War on Drugs. More recently, Robertson argued that Hillary Clinton wanted to turn the clock "back to the 50s."

But whether presented as a thought experiment or as an actual fact, the goal and effect remain the same – to co-opt liberal arguments, to subvert or invert them. The fact that Jonah Goldberg writes exclusive content for Glen Beck’s paid subscribers illustrates this. Both make absurd Nazi analogies about liberals, but Beck and his audience take them literally and Goldberg surely knows this.

Oppophor: The sniglet for our times.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fool's Goldwater

Yesterday, a novel argument against LGBT rights came to light.

A 2013 video interview with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) surfaced in which he philosophized, "I don’t think I’ve ever used the word gay rights, because I don’t really believe in rights based on your behavior." The quote re-revealed the Tea Party's chronic freedom-hostile proclivities.

No, rights are not based on a particular behavior - they are based on being a human being. And those rights affirm you can do whatever you like as long as you do not harm anyone else. That is where behavior comes in. There is nothing libertarian or liberty-friendly about Rand Paul's argument.

Ironically, somebody needs to quote the late Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) at him. When Goldwater was accused of turning liberal for supporting gay rights in the 1990s, he replied, "I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process." Things sure have changed.

In my book, I called the Tea Party "warmed-over Goldwaterism" but perhaps I should have said southern-fried. As I wrote, "Goldwater had tried to move his party’s regional base from East to West, but it instead shifted from North to South. The Arizona Senator had created a monster that later turned on him." But, to be accurate, the seeds of these reactionary tendencies were apparent in his 1964 campaign. The racist dog whistles were already there. His protests to the contrary, Goldwater had later mellowed and conservative purists hounded him for it until his dying day. Only the political utility of the word "liberty" had allowed his posthumous political rehabilitation among Republicans. The rhetoric of rugged individualism is essential to the GOP's re-branding and Goldwater's image certainly supplies that. It's cowboy rather than klansman.

LBGT rights is one of the quickest litmus tests of having a true libertarian temperament. Abortion rights (which Goldwater also supported) is another. The Paul family - father and son - spectacularly fail both. One anti-Ron Paul graphic said it all - "Government so small it fits in your uterus."

I wrote quite a bit about libertarianism's built-in authoritarian drift.  Their entire philosophy is rhetorical planned obsolescence. In Cato's Letters, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon wrote, "Liberty can never subsist without equality." Libertarianism is liberty without the equality, and thus such liberty has the lifespan of a fruit fly. Some libertarians have even become monarchists. Interestingly, the full Cato quote also advocates economic equality - which I imagine the libertarian Cato Institute is unaware of: 

Liberty can never subsist without Equality, nor Equality be long preserved without an Agrarian Law, or something like it; for when Men’s Riches become immeasurably or surprisingly great, a People, who regard their own Security, ought to make a strict Enquiry how they came by them, and oblige them to take down their own Size, for fear of terrifying the Community, or mastering it. In every Country, and under every Government, particular Men may be too rich.*

But whatever the issue, orthodox libertarianism is a freedom-toxic sham. As Rand Paul's argument illustrates, its entire purpose is to twist liberty into its polar opposite. It is just a circus of clumsy rhetorical gymnastics designed to deny people their rights.


* John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters: or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 2:16.