A Domestic War of Words

The political debate in the U.S. has become so toxic that Democrats and Republicans can find it hard to be in the same room together. Congress and the media play their part in dividing the public. Some Americans do not want to accept this hyper-polarization as the new norm. Among them are the members of the group No Labels that wants to change the rules of conduct in Congress. In the audience of one of their meetings on the Hill, I met Kathryn Ruud who takes a private citizen’s approach to bringing the camps together. As a linguist she has studied the language the Nazis used in Germany and sees shocking parallels to today’s political discourse in the U.S. I attended one of her public talks about this topic in West Virginia and wrote about it in Financial Times Deutschland. Kathryn has published an English-language version on her website. Here it is:

A Domestic War of Words

Article by Sabine Muscat, Financial Times Deutschland, March 19, 2012.

The political debate in the U.S. grows ever more hateful. One woman is trying to stop it – with warnings from German history.

Kathryn Ruud still remembers the first time she felt worried about her country. Driving one day in the summer of 1992, she turned the dial of the radio to a station, and a new voice caught her attention, someone she had not heard before: In an agitated tone, the speaker insulted his political opponents, and called them “parasites”. To Ms. Ruud, these words seemed to come from another time. The now 60 year-old had studied linguistics at university in the German town of Trier, and she knew: this is how the Nazis in the “Third Reich” had spoken. But the voice she had tuned into on the radio was not that of a Nazi. It was that of Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular right-wing radio entertainers in the U.S.

Back at her home, she climbed to the attic, and pulled a book from a box that she had brought back from Germany years ago. “Missbrauch der Sprache: Tendenzen nationalsozialistischer Sprachregelung” (The Misuse of Language: tendencies of national socialist language control”) by Siegfried Bork. She read it once again, and realized: talk show hosts like Limbaugh were employing similar methods. In the following years, she documented how extreme language began to seep into political dialogue in the U.S. – from the right as well as from the left. Last year the at-home mom and independent scholar decided she did not just want to analyze rhetoric, but rather become active as a traveling ambassador for civilized debate. To Ms. Ruud, political dialogue in the U.S. seemed to have reached a new low. “It is like a civil war, only the attacks are verbal,” she said.

Even though President Barack Obama had come into office hoping to unite the country, the political climate in the U.S. has become more poisonous than ever before. The right-wing Tea Party calls Obama a “fascist” as well as a “socialist”. The left-wing Occupy Wall Street movement agitates against “greedy” bankers. The media eagerly join the fray. Attacking from the front lines, yet again, is Rush Limbaugh. Recently, he called a Georgetown University student a “slut”, because she advocated that health plans of religiously affiliated institutions should include coverage for birth control. In this instance, at least, he apologized.

The language of polarization is not just a business model for media stars. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum regularly compares Obama’s America to Mussolini’s Italy. Democratic Representative Steve Cohen accused Republicans of spreading lies, “just like Goebbels,” about Obama’s health care reforms. As Democrat Gabby Giffords campaigned for re-election in 2010, the website of populist firebrand Sarah Palin posted a map marking Giffords’ district with crosshairs on a map. On the 8th of January, 2011, Giffords was severely injured in an assassination attempt. The shocked nation looked inward: Had rhetoric somehow prodded the mentally ill perpetrator to act out his fantasies? There seems to be no clear connection. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of extremist “hate groups” in the U.S., organized against government, or blacks or gays, has now climbed to 1018.

In February 2012 Ruud stood in Martinsburg’s Good Natured Market and Vegetarian Café in rural West Virginia. A white sheet on the wall served as the screen surface for her PowerPoint presentation. About 20 listeners of all ages sat at bistro tables. They wore knitted sweaters and pullovers. Most of them were participants in Occupy Martinsburg, a local offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Ruud, who lives in neighboring Maryland, has given her talk to college students and religious groups throughout the region, and she has also discussed her topic with Tea Party supporters.

With serious faces, the audience listens, as the speaker appeals to reason. “We can all live in the same country without killing each other. This is a great country, but it would be much better, if we could deal with one other in a civilized way,” she says. To demonstrate the source of her concern, Ruud gives examples from history, from the language of fascists and communists. She argues that both extremes exploit stereotypes and propaganda that twist the meanings of words and denigrate opponents through derogatory language.

Ruud shows short videos in which right- and left-wing talk show hosts label opponents “parasites” and “vermin”. Ruud says that in Germany today, it is unimaginable that someone would say such things in public. But in the U.S., this historical experience with dangerous demagoguery is missing.

Most of her examples are from right-wing talk radio shows, as these dominate over left-wing programs in both air time and intensity. But Ruud does not let the other side off the hook. She makes clear that Germany has experienced not just Nazis, but also the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group that kidnapped and killed prominent business figures uring the 1970s.

“Wall Street bankers are maggots,” says Ruud, an example she uses to test the audience. “Which word dehumanizes?” she asks. “The word Wall Street”, says one participant, as others laugh. Another one sounds more serious. “It doesn’t matter if it is the left or the right,” he calls out. “The truth is that all of us are being screwed by those at the top!” And so a new enemy has been identified. The self-appointed ambassador for civilized debate has much work yet to do.

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