The events in Charlottesville, Virginia are still fresh in our minds and emotions are running high. A fear of rising escalation of anger, of steeper polarization seems to be taking hold. Words are weapons, and if we don’t use and understand them properly, we run the risk of living in an Orwellian world in which nothing has any meaning except in the way that zealots define it.
So, being a word person, I thought it would be useful to look at the real definition of some terms and try to pry them loose from the manipulations of folks whose motivations stem more from ideology than accuracy.
- Centrism: The political philosophy of avoiding the extremes of left and right and taking a moderate position. This approach has become a dirty word to the ideologues of both parties. Any effort to try to steer a middle course between the hot rhetoric of either pole is derided as mushy thinking at best, and accommodating “the enemy” at worst. But centrism has been what has made America a stable and – mostly – just society. Extremism tends to need to punish those with which it disagrees, and the result is almost always tragic. I’m a centrist and proud of it.
- Heritage: Something passed down from previous generations; tradition. Those who defend the flaunting of the Confederate flag and claim that it doesn’t represent slavery are playing fast and loose with the facts, or perhaps admitting what’s really on their minds. The Confederacy was all about protecting slavery; its defense was written in its constitution and in each ordinance of secession passed by a rebelling state. So if that banner represents “southern tradition,” it must therefore mean the notion that black people are sufficiently inferior as to be property bought and sold like cattle. That’s not a tradition worth bragging about, or trying to defend.
- Socialism: a social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. Since the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the term has come into vogue among some lefties of the Democratic Party, which – ironically – Sanders does not belong. But hardly anyone seems to know what it means. Hard-right ideologues consider almost any public enterprise – health insurance, education, environmental safety – to be “socialistic,” while hard-left polemicists think it is the only alternative to unfettered “robber-baron” capitalism. Social security and Medicare are not socialism. Schools, fire departments, trash pickup are not socialism. And a national heath insurance system – whether it be Obamacare or single-payer or something else – is not socialism. And certainly, owning the modern “means of production” would mean the government running Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Walmart. Can you imagine how creative that would be?
And here’s a rising – and potentially ominous – trend.
- Identity politics: A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. This, of course, is not new. Over the years, ethnic and other minorities – including blacks, Hispanics, union members, the poor, academics, etc. – have tended to back liberal endeavors while others – Anglos, the wealthy, Southern whites, business owners – have skewed conservative. But now what we’re seeing is a breakdown of a sense of common cause and the common good. If the proverbial “you” is dedicated to a particular cause, someone who carries that flag – no matter how otherwise repugnant he or she might be – gets your vote. Conversely, someone on the other side of the issue – regardless of ability or integrity – is to be rejected and often reviled.
How did we get to this point? How can there be a gay or transgender position on net neutrality? What’s the official evangelist stand on light rail? Why should your group hobble your reasoning power and dictate a litmus test for the complicated and complex issues of modern life?
Our national motto is “e pluribus unum,” meaning “one out of many.” We have become the world’s greatest nation through our ability to reconcile the interests of many different nationalities, races, creeds and situations. We need to seek to emphasize what unites us more than what divides us.
So, on the subject of words, here are some wise ones from Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears on Wednesday. He is a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, which today seems like a good place to get run over.