No Fear of Words
By A.D. Freudenheim  

9 April 2005

Last night
I saw the fire spreadin’ to
The palace door.
Silent majority
Weren’t keepin’ quiet
  From Effigy, by John Fogerty

Nazism. Maoism. Fascism. Socialism. Totalitarianism. Marxism. Authoritarianism. Conservatism. Communism. Leninism. Rationalism. Stalinism. Liberalism.  And so on.

American history (both recent and less so) is filled with discussions about the “isms” that shape the world around us, our fear or embrace of them, and our individual desires and preferences versus the shifting tendencies of society as a whole. Our history – our self-obsessed history, though perhaps there is no other kind – is also riddled with expressions of concern about the current state of the nation, and whether we are drifting towards (or away from) one of these “isms,” and how we as a society are handling that drift.

Our freedoms as Americans likewise has ensured a vibrant market in political commentary. Let me reiterate that, because it is a fact both encouraging and sad: our political commentary exists as part of a market, where it is bought and sold, traded and transferred, and even considered new, used, or refurbished. New and old technologies alike help with sustaining this market and the proliferation of political commentary: of words, and words, and more words; of words printed in books and magazines; words spoken over the radio or the TV; words blogged and e-mailed; words spoken, written, heard, or read next, door or half a world away. Some people make money off their words, and others do not, but all of us trade our words in a marketplace full of them. And what do all these words mean, anyway?

So-called “conservative” talk shows became popular on the radio 20 years ago, much as they were during the era of Father Coughlin during Great Depression; they are popular mostly because of the withering criticisms they offer, and the simple solutions these “conservatives” pose to address complex problems. Nuance, historically, has been to the liberals and intellectuals, so to confront these right wing shows (and their spread to TV), a proudly left wing radio network was launched a year or so ago. Now the liberals can rebut the lies of the right with the lies of the left, and ridicule the need for nuance among any and all elements of the electro-political spectrum. Then there is the internet, where there are surely more political blogs written than there are likely readers – which means, of course, that to attract readers, these blogs must be more and more politically outrageous in their language and their claims, while at the same time appearing more professional, diligent, and research-oriented. Just the “facts,” ma’am.

And all too often, the words that get bandied about are those that end in “ism.”


I started writing this essay about a month ago and I remain now, as I was then, conflicted about my ultimate point. How is that for a confession? The question at the center of my conflict is straightforward enough: do we Americans need to be afraid for the direction of our nation? From one perspective, , the obvious answer is: yes, absolutely. The center of our political discourse cannot hold, both because of the pressure on it and because the center itself has been largely vacated. But when explored in more depth, that statement, the less true it seems – or rather, it seems like a myth propagated by the media marketplace, rather than a true reflection of how Americans think and feel.

The marketplace of words and ideas is trying hard to change how we, the word and idea consumers, feel about them; they want us to value them differently, to treat them differently, and not to analyze them the same way anymore. The media want us to associate words and ideas with their brand label – “conservative” versus “liberal,” or “Fox News” versus “CNN,” or “The New York Times” versus “The Wall Street Journal” – rather than with their underlying meaning or validity. Much like the “cola wars,” this marketplace-driven approach wants those who drink Coke to stay away from the Pepsi consumers, and vice-versa. Never the twain shall meet.

Think about coverage of the recent election, dominated by media discussions of “red” states versus “blue” states – with only a few renegades declaring that “purple” should considered as well. There was and is no massive divide in the American populace: the election was not a landslide for President Bush, after all, and in many places, the vote was divided nearly in half, decided by tiny percentages of the overall numbers. This was about selling newspapers and advertising space, about getting the loudest talking head on the air to attract the biggest audience for the longest period of time. This was about creating the best and most dynamic story in order to make more money. The one thing the media coverage of the election was mostly not about was the election itself or the merits of the candidates for office. If you need further proof of how undivided the population is and how brand-driven the politicians and the media are, look at the Schiavo case: while the federal politicians betrayed their political principles to involve themselves in what they saw as a black-and-white/life-vs.-death case, the American people seemed to take the more nuanced position that it was shame Terry Schiavo would die ... but that it was inappropriate for Congress and the President to intervene to “save” her.


With the volume of American political mock-discourse growing ever louder and more vituperative, perhaps we should be less concerned with the labels applied to the observers and the observed – and ever more watchful of the actions of those who govern us, and how we respond. The hyperbolic language used in defense against verbal attacks is a particular weakness, too often the first resort in calling one’s opponent a host of unflattering “isms” or “ists” instead of addressing the strength or weakness of their point of view.

The American government and the Bush Administration is not – allow me to repeat this for all the lefties out there, is not – a fascist government. I am no supporter of President Bush, but we as a nation have some space to go before we plunge into the world of the Brown Shirts and Mussolini, even if one can discern such tendencies in different parts of our government and in the language of the Republican Party (and in the opposition party, too). For now, our system of checks and balances is – generally – working. The process may be slower than many would like, but recent court decisions requiring the release of Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla reflect a countervailing force to the seemingly-unfettered freedoms of the Bush Administration. There is a parallel here to the era of Senator Joe McCarthy and the political witch-hunts of the 1940s and 1950 – when, after much time had passed, clear minds and voices overcame the absurdity of McCarthy’s show trials.

Our system needs help; we must ensure the rights of the innocent and the guilty alike, and we must fight the absurd expansion of Executive branch powers at every level. Likewise, as in the Terry Schiavo case, we must be alert to a Legislative branch that has taken a similar approach: outlining the most extreme positions, and hewing to them for as long as possible. But: it does no good, benefits no one, to bandy about the “isms” indiscriminately, to level accusations that are exponentially out of tune with the reality. Hyperbole does not help. What matters, what will be effective, is tackling the reality and responding accordingly. We should most definitely fear this Administration, which is increasingly good at making and distributing its own propaganda, and which even self-justifies such propaganda as long as it is “factual.” No doubt Mr. Bush sees, understands, and loves, the irony of such self-assured proclamations.

We need to remember what real oppression is like, the damage real “isms” can inflict on people and society. Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is a great reminder of what matters in terms of political discourse and freedoms, and the dangers of “isms” like “Islamism,” “fundamentalism,” and “authoritarianism.” In her book, Nafisi the professor of English literature faces a religious and political revolution that not only makes it impossible for her to teach – or even buy or read – classic novels, but a “permanent” revolution that summarily executes those who disagree with it, or have been accused of doing so, in wave after wave of killing. All the screaming in the U.S. about “red” states and “blue” states, and the focused energy on dividing (and conquering) – it all looks so pathetic in comparison to the real political battles of, say, Iran, then and now.

Americans might be less concerned about the talking heads on Air America or The O’Reilly Factor if our police stations were exploding daily, or if we were not allowed to watch or read anything other than either The Nation or The National Journal. We Americans are not, in comparison to most of the world, oppressed. Nonetheless, we should beware the true believer, and we should watch their actions as much as their words. We need to pay attention not only to the brand of ideas we consume, but to what the brands actually mean, how they make us feel – and how we act in response. The only “ism” we need for an effective and secure democracy is “pluralism,” which may be the most difficult of all to sustain.

  Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.