Liberals With Tin Ears – The American Prospect

Posted By on December 18, 2021

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the coinage Latinx, which violates the rules of Spanish grammar, and is rejected by 98 percent of Hispanic Americans polled. Our friend and former colleague Matt Yglesias, who is of both Latino and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, has written a very astute essay suggesting that the imposition of Latinx by well-meaning white lefties doesnt explain most of the Democrats problems with the Hispanic vote, but it sure doesnt help.

Not to beat a dead caballo, but imagine if earnest progressive wannabe allies came up with must-use terms for Blacks, Jews, or Asian Americans rejected by those groups themselves. Id like to expand the discussion to other instances of liberal tin ears. Here are three more self-defeating terms that should be retired.

More from Robert Kuttner

Safety Net. This widely used synonym for social insurance is metaphorically and politically wrong. A safety net catches you when you fall off a high wire. It suggests something for losers and unfortunates rather than universal social income that binds us all together.

Everyone gets sick. Why is universal health insurance part of a safety net? Likewise universal child care or paid family leave. Nobody wants to get tangled in a net (which describes means-tested programs all too well).

The term social income is more widely used in Britain, but it captures the idea exactlya form of income that everyone gets as citizens. So lets retire safety net in favor of social income, a usage that also subtly makes the case for universalism and solidarity rather than means tests. If memory serves, we Americans have gotten other language from the English.

Entitlements. If any term is even more self-defeating than safety net, its entitlement. This is a case of a technical budget term passing into the general language. But entitlement is evocatively wrong.

The word entitled has come to describe an obnoxious person who claims privileges that are excessive or undeserved. Sheesh, does that describe Social Security and Medicare? No, but they are described in budget lingo and more broadly as entitlements.

This usage, suggesting unearned handouts, gives faithless Democrats like Joe Manchin language to say things like I dont believe we should turn our society into an entitlement society. But we surely do want to become a society with adequate social income.

Union Density. This clunker is a case of academic language being picked up by journalists and liberals who want to sound with-it. Union density refers to the proportion of workers who are members of unions, as in Union density has declined from 33 percent in 1958 to 13 percent in 2020.

But density evokes stodgy union bureaucracy rather than a spirited social movement. Who wants to be part of something dense? Whats wrong with the simple word membership?

Yes, the media are partly to blame, but progressives can at least model good usage. The right wing goes all the way to Orwellian in its use of language. We dont do that, but lets at least avoid linguistic missteps that make the rights job easier.

December 15, 2021

3:00 PM


Liberals With Tin Ears - The American Prospect

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