July 16, 2006

Compounding the insults

With one or two exceptions, I've been pretty pleased with the attention people have given to my 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. The title in particular has been very good to me -- whatever else the reviewers seize on, almost all of them find a word of praise for the subtitle. In fact I suggested to my publisher that they should run an ad consisting of nothing but blurbs like:

"The most descriptive subtitle of the year" -- William Safire, New York Times.

"Its title makes its point before you read the first page." -- Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

"The title alone should get everyone thinking." Dr. Forbush on Daily Kos

But while I've certainly never been one to look a gift hosanna in the mouth, honesty compels me to say that the real kudos for the title is due to an unknown copywriter for the Club for Growth, and more generally to the rhetorical stroke that has enabled the right to capture, not just the political vocabulary of the English language, but one of its major word-formation processes in the bargain.

The subtitle was adapted from the ad that the Club for Growth ran during the run-up to 2004 Iowa caucuses, when Howard Dean was still the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. An announcer asks a middle-aged couple leaving a barbershop what they think of "Howard Dean's plans to raise taxes on families by $1,900 a year." The man responds, "I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading ..." -- and then his wife picks up the litany -- "... body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."

It was a clever ad -- on the progressive site Alternet, in fact, Daniel Kurtzman called it the best conservative ad of the campaign. What made it cute was precisely the demographic mishmash it brought to mind. I had this image of Marilyn Manson sitting in a rocker on the porch of his home in Brattleboro with the New York Times, and laughing so hard at Maureen Dowd's column that he chokes on his unagi cone. But absurd or no, it neatly exemplified the pot-pourri of traits that conservatives have used to brand liberals as out-of-touch and pretentious weirdos -- and by-the-by, the syntax that made the branding possible.

The fact is that the right owns those object+present participle compounds, as surely as it owns values, media bias, the lapel-pin flag, and sentences that begin with "See...." In fact you could trace the whole history of the right's campaigns against liberals via those compounds -- from tree-hugging and NPR-listening back through the Nixon era's pot-smoking, bra-burning, draft-dodging, and America-hating, until you finally excavate the crude origins of the trope in nigger-loving, the ur-denunciation of white liberal sentimentality.

Of course there's no intrinsic reason why the right should have a monopoly on those compounds. Back in the day, people played just as fast and loose with stereotypes in depicting poor white Southerners as cross-burning, Bible-thumping, sibling-shtupping primitives -- not just Northern liberals, but white-shoes Republicans and "genteel" Southerners, too. You still see this sort of thing coming from liberals from time to time -- writing in the Chicago Sun-Times just after the 2000 election, William O'Rourke described Bush's America as "Yahoo Nation":

It is a large, lopsided horseshoe, a twisted W, made up of primarily the Deep South and the vast, lowly populated upper-far-west states that are filled with vestiges of gun-loving, Ku-Klux-Klan sponsoring, formerly lynching-happy, survivalist-minded, hate-crime perpetrating, non-blue-blooded, rugged individualists... which contains not one primary center of intellectual or creative density.

But nowadays that sort of talk is kept alive chiefly by conservatives who never tire of reminding the good people of the heartland how much contempt liberals have for them. In her book Shut up and Sing, for example, Laura Ingraham writes that "mocking the pickup-driving, tobacco-chewing, shotgun-owning South is one of the elite rites of passage." And the Washington Times' Greg Pierce, while avoiding the construction itself, writes that "To [Howard Dean's supporters], America's red states are populated by ignorant cowboys, unwashed swampies, hellfire preachers, beauty parlor bimbos, redneck sheriffs, Confederate flag wavers and retarded hillbilly kids sitting in trees playing the banjo."

But actually liberals rarely talk this way. On the Web, Volvo-driving liberal outnumbers pickup- or truck-driving conservative by around 50 to 1, and when you do encounter a phrase like beer-guzzling redneck it's almost always offered either as a conservative caricature of liberal speech or in the spirit of a reclaimed epithet (as in, "...and proud of it, son!" In fact the word redneck turns out about 20 times more likely to appear in the pages of National Review or The American Spectator than in The American Prospect or The Nation, almost always set in the mouth of some imaginary liberal.

Whatever they privately believe, most liberals know that this sort of culture-stereotyping is counter-productive for the left, not just because it puts them on the wrong side of the faux-populist divide, but because it excludes from consideration the bowtie-wearing, port-sipping Yalies who are sitting around the National Review office cooking this stuff up in the first place. And even when they restrict themselves to purely political attributes, liberals can't really use those cadences nowadays without implicitly acknowledging the right's ownership of them. In the course of praising the cleverness of the Club for Growth ad, for example, Kurtzman suggests that liberals might think of responding with an ad "telling Bush to take his deficit-creating, war-mongering, gas-guzzling, corporate criminal-coddling, election-stealing, Rush Limbaugh-listening, civil liberty-seizing, Bible-thumping, right-wing dictatorship back to Texas, where it belongs." But that comes off as nothing more than a strained tribute to the right's mastery of this syntax, in something like the way anti-war Democrats' "lie and die" seems to validate the right's "cut and run" as the basic pattern for Iraq War sloganeering.

The great rhetorical achievement of the right, as I argue in the book, is to have reformulated distinctions of class as bogus differences in consumer culture. So it makes sense that conservatives should seize on the object+participle construction, whose function to turn activities into attributes -- politically speaking, that is, you are what you do (or more accurately, what you drive, drink, or otherwise consume). Whereas when people on the left are of a mind to make sweeping generalizations, they tend to draw the distinction characterologically rather than culturally, which is why they favor extended bahuvrihi compounds like narrow-minded, hard-hearted, and mean-spirited.

I'll grant you that the partition of the morphology will never be absolute -- the left will always own war-mongering and it's unlikely the right will ever let go of limp-wristed, for example. But it's a sign of how polarization sets people at cross-purposes: their "they" is not our "we," and vice-versa.

Added 7/17: Ben Zimmer drew my attention to a weird eructation of obj-participle compounds by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) during last month's House debate on the Iraq War resolution. After suggesting that Jack Murtha would have wanted to withdraw troops from WWII if he had been around, Gohmert said:

Who would really be helped would be ruthless, heartless, finger-detaching, hand-removing, throat-slashing, decapitating, women-raping and -abusing, child-misusing, corpse-abusing, merciless, calloused, deranged, religious zealot, murderers who think they are going to get virgins in the next life, but may find they are the virgins with what happens to them.

What makes this so bizarre, I think, is that stringing these compounds together is usually a comic trope: it's as if Gohmert has got his modes confused, describing the Iraqi insurgents in cadences that most of his ideological soulmates would find more appropriate to describing Cape Cod liberals.

Added 7/17:In a posting called "Fact-dodging Geoff Nunberg" on Kalebeul, Trevor has me claiming that the object-present participle form of compounding is a recent invention of the political right and originates with nigger-loving. Another liberal intellectual canard, says he: in fact these compounds actually go back to Shakespeare!!!!! If Trevor owned a copy of Marchand he'd know that the pattern actually goes back to Middle English -- there are cites for seafaring from 1200, for example. If he owned a dictionary he'd know the difference between a construction and a trope. (PS: Trevor has responded, but apparently still hasn't looked up either word. RTFM.)

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at July 16, 2006 04:42 PM