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Q&A: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Katrina vanden Heuvel in her office at the Nation in New York CIty / Photograph by WARREN DAR


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue, available for purchase on this site.



By Annie Nocenti

"When Republicans want to re-define reality," says Katrina vanden Heuvel, "they pull out their dictionaries." So in the tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, created her own satirical counter-punch in the linguistic war. Dictionary of Republicanisms skewers, with playful, cynical humor, the ways in which language is co-opted and re-defined for political ends.

Besides being editor/publisher of the magazine and having a new book out, vanden Heuvel regularly braves the fires of mainstream TV debate shows and has a column on the Nation’s blog called "Editor’s Cut."

She lives in New York with her husband, Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at NYU, and their 14 year old daughter.

Stop Smiling: Your new book, Dictionary of Republicanisms, describes the spin that can be put on a word or an idea. The 2004 election had plenty of this, as when the Bush campaign managed to align war with peace, and a vote for him with a vote for God.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: And a vote for security. How does one change politics when you have this kind of media fog? That doesn't justify the lack of powerful, bold, subversive ideas on the other side, so to speak. But there's been a concerted effort, on the part of mainstream media, to create passive, fearful spectators. The media will politicize things that shouldn't be politicized, but depoliticize things that should be politicized. But the manipulation of language and of images has been masterful on the part of the Right.

Think about how obscene it is that when Ted Koppel wanted to read, at the end of last year, the list of those fallen in Iraq, it was not only branded unpatriotic by a marginal group, but then this idea filtered into the mainstream almost as if it really is unpatriotic.

SS: Your book points out how one can co-opt or re-brand a word, even a concept or an idea. Like the word patriotism.

KvH: Or the “death tax.” Or the “Healthy Forest Initiative” or the “Clean Air Act.” Try “dirty air.” Or “dead forests.”

SS: Or the brilliance of the right taking pro-life, which left the other side with pro-choice. These semantic games have impact. It goes back to “mutual assured destruction.” The Nation just did a story on personal versus private and how they actually test-market these words.

KvH: Frank Luntz is the great spinmeister of the Republican Party. They would get angry if their spokespersons on television started using “private” versus “personal” tax, because they knew the resonance, the power of those terms.

But my book is a satirical skewering of the Republican Orwellian language. It emerged willy-nilly in a sense. There were a series of blogs that I did, soliciting contributions from readers, and they poured in. We got thousands of submissions from citizens, people who are mad as hell at what's happening to their country. So it was suggested, hey, why not a little book? Think of the relentless assault on the term liberalism. That's part of what the book is about, too, the assault on these terms that have innately good meanings.

Before the battle of ideas begins, you have to expose this kind of Orwellian language and the political ends to which it was used, in addition to having some fun and engaging Nation readers. He or she who controls the language controls the debate. So my book was meant to expose that and have some fun with it. Just this August, remember when Bush redefined the “war on terror”? It was no longer the “global war on terrorism” (GWOT) — it was a “global struggle against violent extremism.”

The most effective term that the left liberal community has coined in the last 10 years is “living wage.” If you work, you should be able to live on what you make, which isn't the case. Forget minimum wage: a living wage means a fair wage for your labor. I think it plays on this concept of fairness.

SS: So why did people who earn minimum wage vote for Bush if he doesn't represent them? He doesn't stand for a living wage.

KvH: First of all, the election was a tight, tight election. It was not a landslide vote. We underestimated the power of the conservative right-wing grassroots, which is rooted in megachurches, which is rooted in exurbs, the fastest-growing part of our country. But here's where the structural issues come in. Labor is very important to a left progressive tradition in this country. It's very weak, because the laws screw it. Unlike in Canada and other civilized industrialized countries, labor here is screwed from the get-go. And it's even worse under this administration. Labor used to be counter, in a sense, to these megachurches and communities among the Christian Right. Labor halls provided a way for people to be involved, hang out, get meals — it was a rooted community. So the idea of parachuting in activists is a complicated one, and not a great one, and that's being rethought.

It's an excruciatingly difficult time, as jobs are exported to India or China, but unless you speak to people's economic future needs, you're going to be at a great disadvantage. The Democratic Party has become so associated with social liberalism, and that's good, because these are the civilizing causes of our times. But there's such division and timidity on economic populism. You have a very hard time winning over those who should be listening on cost grounds. I think there has to be a way to show that religion isn't the exclusive province of an exclusive right-wing Republican operation.

SS: You had an idea to do an experiment, to see who would even sign the Constitution today.

KvH: Or the Bill of Rights. I want to do that because someone did that in the McCarthy era. The defense of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, these “subversive” documents, has become a radical proposition. We're at risk of losing our democracy. How do we save our democracy? That includes things like a separation of church and state which still allows people to be tolerant and religious. But everything is at risk, from access to the vote, countering the over-weaning power in our society, allowing organized people to overtake organized money, excessive secrecy, the deceit and misleading a nation, misinformation from a media that is increasingly corporatized and timid. You can't have a democracy without an informed people.


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