Talking Right

A clever title: “Talking Right.” It deliberately misleads you into thinking that it means “talking correctly,” perhaps with a subtle dig at those who use an adjective where an adverb is supposedly the right form. But that’s not what the title means at all! It turns out that it refers to “right” as in “right wing.” So you have to recalibrate just as you start reading. You learn that the theme of the book is closely related to the famous charge against Socrates in ancient Athens. As I’m sure you remember, that charge (in Plato’s words, at any rate) was “τὸν ἥττω λόγον κρείττω ποιεῖν,” which of course means “making the worse argument appear the better.” The general public at the time was unable to distinguish honest philosophers like Socrates from the sophists, who indeed made the worse argument appear the better. Today’s right-wingers, from Donald Trump to Ted Cruz, are today’s sophists, and the general public seems to believe them.

The author, well-known popularizer and linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, knows whereof he writes. For one thing, he is the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. So he is eminently qualified to write about political language — in this case primarily (but by no means exclusively) right-wing language. The full title of the book is Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. That gives you a pretty good idea of what the book is really about. Is Nunberg exaggerating by loading so many stereotypes into one phrase? I wish he were…but I’m sure he isn’t.

The only real problem with Talking Right is that it’s too dense for a popularization. It’s filled with hundreds of examples, including sources and historical context. But the evidence is there, and you can see how the right wing has taken over our political discourse, sometimes in blatant ways but often in subtle ones. Read this book to find out how. Then go back and re-read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which I’m sure you read back in high school.

Categories: Books, Life