Every language has its fighting words. I, for all intents and purposes, had two Spanish classes every day in high school: one with Mrs. McRight during fifth period, the other with my friends Orlando and Victor — whose families had come to Texas from Mexico and Honduras, respectively — in the cafeteria during lunch break. What I learned in the first helped me in situations where I needed to find the library or had to order food at a Mexican restaurant. What I learned in the second led to many a flintlock duel to the death with the proprietors of just such restaurants, Orlando and Victor howling approvingly from their ringside seats.
To be sure, I have long since matured and, upon going to Japan this summer after a year of language study here at Cornell, I neither asked my newly-made amigos in the Land of the Rising Sun to teach me how to hurl insults worthy of a kindergartener at someone in Japanese, nor was I duly informed thereafter that claiming a person’s mother has an outie for a belly-button is, oddly enough, just such an insult.
My point here is a simple one, plainly stated that, yes, every language does have its fighting words. But we can all usually expect with reasonable certainty that in our day-to-day lives these words will only very rarely leave the confines of the playground, the U.S. Senate or, for the past two years, my table at Viva Taqueria.
The “usually” before “expect” is an important qualifier to note, however. Why? Because this particular columnist must now bemoan, Dear Reader, that Denmark aside, there is something terribly rotten in the state we proudly call our own. Modern political rhetoric is home to some downright dirty words, and not the kind you’d think. Some self-apply these words with pride, but when it is the opposition doing the applying, I dare say they often carry near about as much venom as calling to question the ins-and-outs, so to speak, of mama’s navel.
The specific words I have in mind number all of two, but they take on many forms. Certain maple-enthusiast neighbors of ours would no doubt find it quite amusing that the Yanks to their south have turned the names of their country’s major political parties into exactly the present-day curses I’m talking about — liberal and conservative.
And don’t furrow that brow just yet. I am at least foggily aware, as a humble Cornell Government major, that these terms also serve as the universal nomenclature for two general approaches to governing the world over. But we Americans have made them something more: verbal weapons in the oft-cited, much discussed, and — in the most literal sense possible — colorful modern manifestation of the War Between the States.
The War Between Red States and Blue States, to be exact. Ring any bells? It should, as there is most likely a political hack of a talking head yammering about it on TV right now. And, depending on where that talking head falls on the scale from sapphire to sangria, he or she is likely tossing out one fighting word or the other.
If the person is right-of-center, when he identifies someone as “liberal,” he doesn’t mean to say, in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary, merely that the person’s preferred brand of politics is “characteristic of liberalism”; rather, he means to point out that said someone is, along with his cohorts, a part of the insidious cultural elite that is single-handedly responsible for the steady, merciless destruction of this nation’s most deeply-held values. A person, in other words, who would like nothing more than to burn every Bible and, through excessive taxation, steal straight from the savings accounts of every man, woman and child in America to waste on hundred-dollar rubber bands to toss into the all-consuming vortex of government bureaucracy.
And if the person is left-of-center, he and Webster don’t quite see eye-to-eye on the definition of “conservative,” either. Everyone knows, says the commentator, that any person to whom that term applies is hardly a person at all, more like a simian creature of sorts who conspires in smoky rooms with the Monopoly Man on how best to crush the hopes and dreams of America’s working class. Shining his monocle, this is a man who, our leftist friend continues, fires off indiscriminately at anyone or anything not of his own race, religion or gender, slinging curses at Galileo and Co. in the name of God and Old Glory for the heck of it.
Funny thing is — you guessed it — that’s bunk. Hogwash, if you will. Stuff and nonsense created by people who measure success not in finding the best policies or best solutions for their countrymen but in the effectiveness of their pursuit of the brand of divide-&-conquer politics that allows them to achieve partisan and ideological victories at the expense of American unity. Reasoned discussion is, after all, so eighteenth century.
“Liberal” and “conservative” may not be inherently dirty or galling, but they have become so because of the unspoken implication with which they are too often uttered — namely, that those who disagree with us do so because they are evil.
Not the case for your faithful confrere firmly entrenched in the middle of both the political spectrum and the American heartland. This column makes no such judgments but does not back down from giving both liberals and conservatives hell when they deserve it and praise when they’ve earned it. That’s called a Texan’s prerogative, as is entreating that no one shy away from aiming either or both right back at me at any time and on any subject.
Wear your colors with pride but leave your fighting words at the door, for candor and cordiality are not mutually exclusive — talking heads be damned. There is, at the end of the day, but one team in this country; to our credit, we just have a lot of different ideas on how to get to the goal line.
Mark Coombs is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If You Can Keep It appears Thursdays.