Sunday, June 07, 2009

Talking Right by Geoff Nunberg

Back at the beginning of this blog, I wrote about a book by Nunberg called Going Nucular, a collection of his writings from NPR, The New York Times, and other places about specific words and their modern uses -- particularly in partisan political contexts. I liked that book quite a bit, and expected to keep an eye out for new books by Nunberg. Well, I missed or overlooked this one when it was published in 2006, but I caught his name again recently, since his new book The Years of Talking Dangerously will be published imminently.

Since I was thinking about him already, and the new book wasn't available yet, I dug up a copy of this one -- which turned out to be more partisan, and probably more time-bound, than Going Nucular was.

Talking Right is part of a great tradition in American political books; it was one of the Democrat's "where did we go wrong?" books following the 2004 election. (A similar wave of books from Republicans have already started, and should peak early next year, to influence the midterm elections.) Its long subtitle -- you can read it on the book; I won't re-type it here -- explains the purpose and point; this is a book about framing issues from a linguistic point of view. It already feels old-fashioned, because it presupposes a world in which Republicans are politically dominant and Democrats are marginalized; in retrospect, the 2004 elections were the high point for the current version of the Republican party, and the Dems have been on a tear since then.

Talking Right is also based on previous writings, as Going Nucular was, but Nunberg has reorganized this book more thoroughly and integrated it into a thirteen-chapter examination of how conservatives have presented the issues -- to benefit their side, of course -- and how liberals might be able to use their own strengths to re-cast things in a different way. Nunberg is of course against what the conservatives did, but he has a certain grudging admiration for them, particularly when he notes how the conservative movement has been incredibly good at staying on-message: there really was a unanimity of voice that helped set the tone for a whole political generation.

Nunberg still does have some lurking sense of equanimity, though, and he often fails to delve as deeply into the hidden Republican message as he could. The one big point he never quite notes, though he does dance around it several times, is that Republicans had deliberately and systematically framed their positions in masculine language and Democratic ones in feminine terms. (Not that the Dems hadn't helped along the way, and this is something that's been going on since Nixon.) He mentions the way conservatives equate liberals with "soft" things -- white wine, Brie cheese, France -- but doesn't take that to the natural conclusion. Conservatives say, in their code, that they are Real Men with Big Dicks who can get the job done, and that their opponents are wimpy women who will just get hysterical and try to talk through the problem. To be perfectly blunt, Ann Coulter's real message is that she has a bigger dick than any Democrat, and that she can fuck them (over) with it.

Nunberg is too nice to go for the jugular, which is refreshing in political speech but not necessarily the best thing for his message and audience; he could have used with a bit more partisan vigor. And Talking Right is almost a historical document at this point -- sure, it's only three years old, but politics moves fast. He is quite good, most of the time, at examining the words that are used to talk about politics, and working out what they both mean and imply, and I expect his books, including this one, will be invaluable to future generations of historians trying to work out just what we were talking about when we talked about bias and people of faith and liberal elite and red state and real American.

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