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Author Geoffrey Nunberg was on Colbert tonight saying that the right abuses language in order to control public debate.

One example he gave was "support the troops." "There was a time when 'support the troops' meant go out and have scrap drives, turn in your old tires, and so on, now it just means ... shopping, buying a Hummer." Except that the scrap drives of the 40s were mostly meaningless gestures. So he's not really up on his history.

He brought up a bunch of epithets hurled by the right at the left, like saying liberals are "Hollywood-loving" and "Volvo-driving." He, mostly properly, says those labels are largely inaccurate and meaningless anyway, and serve only to bias thinking instead of evaluating arguments. Of course, he neglects the fact that the left does the exact same thing to the Fox News-loving, freedom-hating, moralist, gun-toting, environment-hating right.

He even says that this "bogus cultural divide" is being created by "the right." Funny, wasn't it the left after the 2004 election who made a huge deal out of how culturally divided the urban centers are from the rest of the country, ridiculing those in the South and Midwest for being backward, stupid, ignorant, largely in cultural terms? "The right" is creating this divide? Pull the other one.

He explains this discrepancy in emphasis by saying the right has been more successful in controlling the debate through language: "the right has moved the center of gravity of the language to the right." But he's got it backward: it's been the left that's controlled the debate through language, and it's done it so successfully we don't even recognize it.

Colbert brough up the "death tax," and Nunberg noted how this supposed rebranding of the "estate tax" is a great example of what he is talking about (even though calling it an "estate tax" is itself a liberal rebranding of "inheritance tax"). But it's an even better example of how effective the left has been, as Jonah Goldberg pointed out recently in National Review.

A hundred years ago, some people looked around and decided that government should be the cure for whatever ills we have. Bad economy, no job, no job skills, no health care, whatever you lack, government will provide. And government must therefore control and manage our resources in order to provide these things.

Conservatives today largely reject this notion, but it has become so ingrained in our national culture that we can't avoid speaking in these terms. So, for example, the debate over sex education is not whether we should have sex education in government schools, but exactly how the government should teach sex to our kids.

Similarly, with the estate tax, most conservatives won't argue in terms of the estate tax simply being confiscatory and unjust, but instead will argue about how it harms the economy, or is an inefficient tax, and how there are better and more effective taxes. Instead of arguing that government should not engage in economic and social micromanagement of the country, they use the liberal language of progressivism that assumes government should do these things, and argue that there are better ways to accomplish those liberal goals.

And this is probably one of the reasons why some on the right feel the need to resort to such transparent tactics as name-calling: because they are so frustrated by the inability to say what they really want to say, that they lash out in other ways. So since I can't say that the federal government should not be involved in education - when I say that, people think I am crazy -- I call you a Northeastern latte-drinking liberal who only wants to control our children and spit out carbon-copy citizens who will think whatever President Mao wants them to think. Or something.

Language is used to control thought on both sides. But I can't look out and see that the right's activities in this area are either more pervasive or more successful. And frankly, I think the attempt to paint the right in this way is Nunberg's attempt to do what he chastises: by attacking (and singling out for blame) the right's use of language, he is attempting to undercut their arguments, using the classic (and classically transparent) red herring fallacy. Oops.

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<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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