Unsticking Sticky Words
by Gabriel Conroy
Some words are “sticky.” They carry so much emotional baggage that no matter how specifically one tries to delimit their meaning for the sake of a discussion, the other meanings associated with them “stick” and it’s hard to have a good discussion. When that happens, there’s blame aplenty to go around. Some readers and discussants are so dense that they don’t acknowledge that someone is trying to use a “sticky” term in a special way, and when such readers and discussants refuse to acknowledge the special definition, we can rightly call them uncharitable. Other people, those who introduce the sticky words, often ignore some very serviceable “unsticky” words that could work just as well, and it’s sometimes hard to believe that they’re not trading off some broader, usually pejorative, connotation.
In this post, I’m focusing on the latter, those who use sticky words when there’s usually an unsticky word to be used and when the one who introduces the sticky words seems to be trading off their stickiness. I’m focusing in this post on libertarians and libertarian uses, but this is something, I’m convinced, that everybody and adherents to all political orientations do. I say unabashedly that “all sides do it” even though in doing so I recognize the sticky reference I’m making to BSDI’ism from certain commenters that plague this blog from time to time.
And this is a lesson we all should keep in mind if we wish to have a broader appeal. In this blog post, focus on a statement made by one self-identified libertarian at a libertarian-leaning blog for which I have a lot of respect and which I encourage others, especially non-libertarians like me, to read. It’s the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (I’ll also add the Moorefield Storey Blog, which I was also going to mention before this blog post got too long, as one of the blog non-libertarians should read to get a nuanced view of libertarianism). That blog (along with, I’ll add, the Moorefield Storey Blog) offers a view of libertarianism that differs from the caricature that liberals like me sometimes are tempted to indulge in.
The sticky words I’m referring to are “fascism” and “slavery.”
For an example of references to fascism and slavery, see Roderick Long’s post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. I think Long makes an argument worth considering, and I urge anyone to read the whole thing. However, if “anyone” is like me, they probably won’t read the whole thing, so I’ll sum up his argument and then quote the portions I have in mind. To use my own terminology as identified above, his argument seems to be that terms like “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” are sticky in the same way that, say, “fascism” and “slavery” are. I think I disagree, but my disagreement is not what I’m writing about here. Rather, I’m focusing on his discussion of “fascism” and “slavery.” First, “fascism” [links removed]:
When critics of Obamacare call it “fascist,” for example, they are regularly accused of absurdly likening Obamacare to the Nazis’ campaigns of mass slaughter. Yet “fascism” is a word with a meaning, and the kind of expansive business/government partnership represented by Obamacare seems to fit that meaning fairly well.
To be sure, the critics of Obamacare use the term “fascism” because it has a negative connotation, and it is the extreme forms of fascism that have played the largest role in giving it that connotation. But the point of using the term, as I see it, is not to give the misleading impression that Obamacare is equivalent to more extreme forms of fascism in the scale of its badness, but simply to point out that they’re bad for similar reasons. (Of course some idiots do seem to regard Obama and Hitler as equivalent in degree of evil, but they’re a different problem.)
And then “slavery”:
When libertarians call taxation or conscription forms of slavery, their claims are often dismissed, on the grounds that taxation or conscription are hardly comparable in thoroughgoing awfulness to antebellum American slavery. But while this is certainly true, it is also true that antebellum American slavery represents one of the worst forms of slavery that has ever existed. Compare, for example, the much milder form of slavery that prevailed in medieval Scandinavia. In the 13th-century Icelandic Gisli’s Saga, we’re told that Gisli’s slave Kol owns a sword (!) which his master must ask permission to borrow (!!). This was obviously a less thoroughgoing form of slavery than the one that reigned in Dixie. Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.
For the record, I don’t think it’s out of line to call conscription a form of slavery (even though it’s almost always a milder form than chattel slavery). But taxation as slavery? I’ll just agree with Matt Zwolinski, another author at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, who finds such arguments to be overreach. See here, here, and here.
Now, about Obamacare as fascism?
The case is perhaps less obvious. But here’s my argument. To my mind, “fascism” is a very hard term to define. To me, it suggests a combination of what I’d call extreme corporatism, militarism, and worship of the nation-state or its leader, the two of which are often conflated. The textbook examples are Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy. Most definitions of fascism that I am aware of use those as the delimiters. It seems, to me at least, almost impossible to speak of an unqualified “fascism” without implicitly also referring to one of those two as the standards. We could, of course, look at other “fascist” countries, Franconian Spain, for example, but even those have some countervailing elements. Franco’s Falangists were fascists by most definitions, but he also had royalist and Catholic constituencies that did not always align so neatly with what we could call fascism. My point, though, is to argue that if one calls Obamacare fascist, they are purposefully calling it something akin to Nazism, or at least Italian Fascism.
Not that there’s no similarity whatsoever. Whatever else Obamacare is, it’s also a corporatist scheme and although I support the policy, I have to face the fact that it’s government working hand in hand with insurance companies and large corporate employers who already provide insurance to implement a policy shift. The fact that insurance companies and some large employers often protest the policy should not hide from our view the degree to which the policy represents the state coordinating and to some extent entrenching the dominance of the present insurance companies. (Also, Obamacare’s local area pricing bears an eerie (to me) resemblance to the local industry codes of the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration, a plan devised back when “fascism” was less a bad word than a referent to “how they’re doing things in Italy.”) Going beyond Obamacare, we can also discuss the militarism which Obama didn’t initiate, but which he has proven all too willing to expand and make his own.
Still and to my mind, to call Obamacare “fascist” commits too quickly and too irretrievably the totalitarian-baiting that happens all too often in opposition to Obamacare, as Long seems to acknowledge. Why not use “corporatist”? That word probably much better describes Obamacare than the “f” word does and doesn’t so quickly bring us down the hole of the internet’s favorite dictator.
Now, I’ve used a libertarian’s uses of these sticky words, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that non-libertarians also use those words. A staple rhetorical device of labor activism in the late 1800s and early 1900s included very frequent warnings against “wage slavery.” And a staple of leftist activism, at least from the “Popular Front” of the 1930s (except 1939-1941) and the New Left movements of the 1960s was to declare that the system was “fascist.”
We should be wary of sticky words. If we insist on using them, we should be clear and clear again what we mean by them. Unless our intention is to obfuscate or deceive.