Commons Language: Provide the Words and They Will Speak

Language is a silent commisar in our political and economic life.  What we can say – what we even can think about – is a function largely of the words that are available for us to use. “It is hard to focus the attention upon the nameless,” is how William James, the psychologist-philosopher, once put it.  One big reason that the discourse of the commons is so deficient in our public life – and why there is so little awareness of the thing itself – lies here.  Where are the words that we would use?

The vocabulary of the market is beyond extensive.  It exists in such profusion that it is hard to tell where it stops and the rest of the language begins. Such basic terms as value, benefit, wealth, good, are suffused with market meaning and the astigmatism this includes.  (Is the “value” of a tree or of a life really what an economist says it is?)  It is a good question whether economics as we know it could have evolved without the English language to serve as host.


Defending the Commons, Defending Life

In a sense, President Bush has done humanity a service. He has provided a foil in a drama that was lacking one, and set in motion a politics that did not before exist.

The president did not invent the assault on that which we Americans own together—our air and water, our public lands, our Main Streets and public spaces, our public domain of culture and knowledge, and the rest. The enclosure of these for corporate gain has been going on for decades.


The Personal Is Ideological

I’m looking at a letter I received last fall from the Social Security Administration. It’s a statement of my account: how much I’ve contributed, how much I will get each month when I retire, how much my family would receive if I were to die. It is a bit unsettling to see my life reduced to numbers this way. (The record of annual earnings shows why my mother once remarked to my then-girlfriend that my brother was “the practical one.”)

Still, it is comforting to know that my work has not gone unnoticed, and that a reward, however humble, awaits in my old age. I’ve been saving these statements for about five years now, ever since I was married. It never once occurred to me that they would have any significance outside my own household. Yet now they are at the center of the political brouhaha over Social Security; and specifically the attempt on one side to fence off the language commons so as to steer the debate its own way.


Speak out for the World our Kids Will Live in

Frank Luntz, the Republican focus group wizard, says a magic phrase for Republicans is “for the children.” Talk about kids, and voters are with you.

So what do people who care about our habitat talk about? The “environment.” “Sustainability.” They talk about abstractions that have zero affective content for those who have not bought in already. The environment is the world we inhabit. Sustainability is about the world our kids will inhabit. Why can’t we talk about them that way?


Don’t Talk Like a Twit

I was hitchhiking around England in the Spring of 1983. It happened to be the middle of an election campaign: Margaret Thatcher was running for re-election against a professor named Michael Foot, who represented what was called, with wonderful British aplomb, Labour’s “Radical Tendency.”

Somewhere north of London I got a ride from a lorry driver. The man looked as though he had stepped out of a Labour Party poster from the 1930s: gaunt frame, missing teeth, and wool snap-brim cap pulled down to the eyes. I expected a Labour speech, but got something different.


War and Warming: Polemical Blowback

Of all the sources of unintended consequences, war probably is the greatest. The forces set in motion rarely stop where the participants expect. The Civil War helped spawn the large industrial corporation and Jim Crow. World War I gave rise to Hitler, and World War II to the Soviet Bloc. On the positive side, the latter also helped produce the civil rights movement, as black GIs who risked their lives for their country did not take kindly to the second-class status that awaited them on their return.

An invasion of Iraq isn’t likely to be exempt from this recurring pattern. As James Baker III, secretary of state under the first President Bush, acknowledged recently, “War can create dynamics that are difficult to predict and control [and] this is particularly true in the Middle East.”