The Deseret News just published a letter to the editor of mine, about immigration. In this letter, I tried to make a modest and reasonable proposal. Since conservatives are so upset about illegal immigration, why not make more immigration legal? In other words, if you’re concerned about people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border illegally, why not issue more green cards? Especially since immigrants are a net plus for our nation economically. Develop some process where people without criminal records can come over legally and work here.
(The DN comments responding to my letter have been hilarious, BTW. I especially love the high dudgeon displayed by one dude, incensed at the suggestion that immigrants might be better people than Americans. How dare I?!?!?)
I get that immigration is a hot-button issue, and that some folks get really riled up about it. But one aspect of it seems particularly interesting to me; the fury people display at the word ‘amnesty.’ We liberals are, apparently, ‘pro-amnesty.’ And amnesty has become an epithet. Dave Bratt, who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia, basically won his race by using one word: he labeled Cantor ‘pro-amnesty.’ Amnesty, in this context, means ‘soft on crime,’ (crossing a border illegally being the moral equivalent to rape/torture/murder, apparently). Amnesty means telling illegal immigrants, ‘ah, we were just kidding. It’s all cool. Stick around, why doncha?’ It spits on the rule of law. Or something. Watch: every time an immigration bill comes before Congress, someone in the House of Representatives will stand up and say ‘it’s a pro-amnesty’ bill. And then see potential votes for the measure just . . . vanish.
So I declared myself in favor of amnesty. I like that word: amnesty. It’s a really good word. It’s an act of forgiveness, a pardon. It’s related to words like ‘kindness’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘absolution.’ It’s a Christian word, really. Of course, obviously, we should extend amnesty to people who crossed our border, got a job, support a family, pay taxes, start businesses. So someone broke a law years ago. Let it go.
Conservatives have been very successful with this tactic, of turning a perfectly good word into an insult. “Liberal” is one. For awhile, a lot of liberals started calling themselves ‘progressives,’ because conservatives had been so successful in demonizing ‘liberal.’ Well, to heck with that! I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it! “Favorable to progress or reform?” You bet.
Liberals do it too, of course. Both sides seek political advantage through the careful use of language. Don’t think that the political slogan ‘hope and change’ represented much beyond language that had been carefully vetted by focus groups and polls.
Still, it can get mighty sleazy. In 1996, Newt Gingrich sent a famous memo to GOPAC, a conservative political action committee. In this memo, he urged conservatives to memorize two lists of words, one positive and one negative. Here’s the memo.
I’m sorry, but this list makes me ill. It really does. How does calling political opponents ‘greedy selfish traitors’ contribute to civilized discourse? If words have meaning, then really strong words, like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ have to stand for something significant and dreadful. They can’t just be used to win a Congressional race over a guy you may not disagree with all that much anyway. And the cynicism of it appalls. “You, too, can speak like Newt! Just memorize these word lists!”
But it does work. We see it all the time in relation to President Obama. There’s got to be relationship between the frothing-at-the-mouth fury we see so often directed at this President, and the language used to describe him. He’s a tyrant, a communist, an uncrowned monarch! He wants to be king! He’s destroying America!
Except their actions don’t really match the rhetoric. If you really do think that this President is a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying America, then obviously, you have to impeach him. But there’s no real enthusiasm among Republican leaders to do anything of the kind. The only people calling for impeachment are people who can afford to use irresponsible rhetoric or engage in irresponsible acts. It’s all House back-benchers. And talk show hosts. And Sarah Palin. People who will never be held accountable for their words. Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner occasionally calls Obama an ‘imperial President,’ but he has to do that; he’s terrified of the Tea Party right. His actions belie his words; all he’s really done about Obama’s supposed tyranny is file that ludicrous lawsuit. And when the Speaker couldn’t get even a purely symbolic, harshly punitive border-kids bill through the House, he then said ‘well, the President can deal with this unilaterally; he has the authority.’ After suing the President for doing exactly that. Funny funny stuff.
Anyway, as a liberal–and I am a liberal, and proud of it–I intend to use the word ‘amnesty’ every time immigration comes up in conversation. Let’s claim it! It’s a great word. Let’s try to use language that is precise, specific, clear, and accurate. Let’s not go around calling each other traitors. That’s just silly.