Our Words Are Our Weapons

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com.
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010

In ancient China,
the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a
ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place
under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects
correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than

This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so
electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if
not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity,
once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe
language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about
everything in our world — a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of
“legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.”  Meanwhile,
their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there
should be a rectification of numbers, too.)  

Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of
so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I’m not sure it is. You
can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the
attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor,
the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on
this Earth.

Calling lies “lies” and theft “theft”
and violence “violence,” loudly, clearly, and consistently, until
truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political
activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and
aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or
racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises,
circumlocutions, and euphemisms — “enhanced interrogation techniques” for
torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the
war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.

Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to
open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what
is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this
remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the
people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no
arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed,
I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of
the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of
Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet,
each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton
founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and
the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who
routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton
Family welfare — a taxpayers’ subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested
working conditions of astonishing barbarity — warehouses that reach 120
degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to
pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or

You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton
family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people
— the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as
well as the employees of the stores — only to add to piles of wealth already
obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion
machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty
behind) no matter what. 

They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to
wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in
euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives
never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their
job to know — just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and
exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to
rectify the names for all these things. 

to Moloch 

The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book
A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
is not about his
time in Vietnam,
or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a
1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific
Palisades, California.  It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his
colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for
immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s
host said, “If I were willing to give up all this… if I were willing to
renege on… my commitment to send my son to Groton… I would have signed the

In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to
prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the
upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen
the latter. The man who opted for Groton
was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having
painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our

They could send tens of thousands to Groton,
buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the
environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often
celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts.  But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich
through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying
the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes
and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the
gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming
the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.

A Storm Surge of Selfishness 

Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing
over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present
catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel
portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for
why we did so little — that the rich and powerful with ties to the
carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent
action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular,
they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and
punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone
through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change
unmentioned and unmentionable.

These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as
though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the
tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield
is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from
the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves,
and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate
is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the
future is here, now.

You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations —
Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in
“compensation”) in 2011 — or their major shareholders. They can want for
nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes
to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the
fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come,
the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and
they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy
people the world has ever seen.

Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all
over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because
he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely
to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we
shout loud enough, rectify a few names.  Under pressure, he might even
listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such
problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in
tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).

Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s
Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil
companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a
landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in
spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can
count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference
with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California
initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of
corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another
kind of war, and consider the early casualties.   

As the Irish Timesput it in an editorial this summer:

“Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the
last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa,
and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa
face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the
Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi
Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300
million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate
change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600

This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food
prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a
scorching drought in which the Mississippi River
nearly ran dry and crops withered.

We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the
poor (especially the poor of Africa), and
against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is
destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re
at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save
the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex
systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other
side: “pro-death.”

The complex array of effects from climate change and their global
distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it
harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk
about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more,
but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much
invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the
energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who
benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always
the least willing to change.

The Doublespeak on Taxes 

I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early.
Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly
impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years
before California’s
former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed.
Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an
affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of
the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through
graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to
our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on
earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.

What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to
the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated — though
few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right
has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures — from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and
PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).

As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about
where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression,
and what boons tax cuts were to bring us.  They then delivered the biggest
tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t
going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were
saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public
sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and
over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.

Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as
if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to
feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t
monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at
this moment, the United States
remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California
— with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech
boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley — is
loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in
abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.

Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every
sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt,
to support the arts, to protect the environment — to produce, in short, a
glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of
changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation
without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives — richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community,
power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is,
to call it by its true name, destruction.

Occupy the Names  

One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this
rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the
greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt
and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s
crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a
profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different
kind of tax).  It was a label that made instant sense across much of the
political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.

Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor
initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by
describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by
their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful
enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches.
After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your
dream of something better.

Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the
mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except
distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets,
and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we
can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.

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Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit

Image by David Shankbone,
licensed under Creative

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