Speaking in Code: Two phrases that no longer mean what they used to

To liberals, a lot of what conservatives say and do looks like hypocrisy. And some of it really is, like the pro-life congressman who urged his mistress to get an abortion, or the long list of people who denounced Bill Clinton’s illicit affairs while they were carrying on some of their own. That’s hypocrisy: piously announcing strict rules for other people while living by a looser set yourself.

But some things that look like hypocrisy to liberals are actually something else: Conservatives have repurposed phrases that used to mean one thing to express some other idea entirely. Both the speaker and his target audience know exactly what he means, and there’s no inconsistency between that meaning and his actions. It’s just that liberals never got the memo.

So let me catch you up on what two phrases you’ve known and loved in the past mean now when conservatives say them.

Religious liberty or religious freedom means special rights for Christians. Thursday, the Republican National Committee asked everyone on Twitter to thank Donald Trump “for his commitment to religious freedom”. One commenter expressed skepticism about Trump’s commitment to religious freedom by adding “unless you happen to be Muslim”.

I’m sure many people thought that commenter had launched a devastating barb, exposing a blatant example of Republican hypocrisy. Because we all know what religious freedom used to mean: Even if your religious community is small and powerless, no one can stop you from meeting. The government can’t tax you to support the views of other sects, or use the public schools to indoctrinate your children in the majority faith. In any legal proceeding, your religion does not count against you.

In the old sense, there is no more powerful opponent of religious freedom in America than Donald Trump, who ran on the promise to keep Muslims out of the United States, and who has signed numerous executive orders trying to work around the clear unconstitutionality of that idea.

But in conservative circles, that’s not what religious freedom means any more. Here’s what it means now: People who root their misbehavior in the teachings (or even just the common prejudices) of popular Christian sects can get away with things that no one else can.

Today, religious freedom means that you can violate anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people, if you claim that your bias against them is the historical bias of your popular Christian sect. (You can’t exempt yourself from racial discrimination laws, though, because Christian sects that believe in racial discrimination aren’t popular any more.) You can refuse to do your job as a pharmacist, if the drugs your customer wants are implicated in behaviors your popular Christian sect disapproves of. You can limit the healthcare choices of your employees, if those choices would be sins according to your popular Christian beliefs.

None of these rights can be claimed by non-Christians, or even by members of unpopular Christian sects, except by happy accident. (Zoroastrians might be able to claim special rights in situations where their teachings happen to agree with Baptists or Catholics.) Imagine, if you can, pacifist Quakers trying to claim the same distance from war that Baptists want from abortion — not simply that they not have to do the killing themselves, but that they be kept clear from any connection to it. Imagine Hindus insisting that the FDA not inspect beef, because their tax dollars should not contribute to the killing of cattle. Such “rights” are ridiculous; they would be laughed at if anyone dared to claim them.

Special rights properly belong only to members of popular Christian sects. Everyone knows this. Some are even open about it, like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who offers this interpretation of the First Amendment:

By “religion,” the founders were thinking of Christianity. So the purpose was to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith. It wasn’t about protecting anything else.

The rule of law means getting undocumented Hispanics out of the country by any means necessary. Tuesday, Vice President Pence was the headliner for a rally in Tempe, Arizona organized by the pro-Trump group America First Policies. As headliners often do at political events, he gave a shout-out to some of the local politicians in the audience, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio probably would be in jail now if Trump hadn’t pardoned him, but instead he is running for the Senate.

A great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law — Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I’m honored to have you here.

For centuries, the rule of law meant that laws applied equally to everyone, and were not subject to the whims of whoever happened to be in power. It was related to the longer phrase a government of laws and not of men.

Arpaio’s career as sheriff is the paradigm for out-of-control law enforcement that is the exact opposite of the rule of law in its traditional sense. His legitimate job as county sheriff had nothing to do with border enforcement, but he squandered his office’s resources on that issue, harassing countless law-abiding Hispanic-American citizens (as well as Arpaio’s political enemies) along the way, and compiling a dismal record dealing with the crimes that were actually within his jurisdiction. His shoddy care for and outright cruelty towards his prisoners showed a similar lack of respect for his duties under the law, and resulted in the county paying tens of millions of dollars in settlements to mistreated prisoners (or their surviving family members). For details, see “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio” and several other articles I collected after Trump pardoned Arpaio.

Arpaio is a “champion of the rule of law” only in one sense: He wants undocumented Hispanics out of the country.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a defender of the rule of law in a similar sense: His attempts to punish sanctuary cities may themselves be illegal, but they serve the goal of pushing undocumented Hispanics out of the country. Much of what ICE is doing now is also of questionable legality, but its actions are directed against undocumented Hispanics, so it is defending the rule of law.

The Newspeak problem. The problem with assigning new meanings to words and phrases is that the old meanings might still be important. (I’d hate to be a high school history teacher trying to cover “The Gay 90s“.) If the neologism takes, it may drive out the original meaning, making the issues related to that concept difficult or even impossible to discuss.

To a large extent, that is the point of Newspeak: to win arguments by making the opposing position inexpressible, or to avoid dissent entirely by keeping possible objections out of mind.

The rule of law is still being fought over, and rightfully so. In this era, when Trump is trying to claim the Justice Department as his own rather than the country’s, and is pressuring law enforcement officials to stop investigating him and start investigating his political enemies (or investigate again if they didn’t find anything the first time), it’s very important to have a term that captures the original meaning of the rule of law. We desperately need judges and prosecutors and law-enforcement officers who are loyal to the laws of the United States rather than to the President. Anything that makes that issue harder to talk about is a threat to American democracy.

But sadly, the old meaning of religious freedom and religious liberty is all but lost in popular discourse. There is still some small overlap, when Christians are genuinely persecuted in other countries, but many Americans, particularly conservatives, are just confused when atheists don’t want their children pressured to pray in public settings, or Muslims are denied the right to build a mosque somewhere. They don’t see how religious freedom can even apply to someone who isn’t Christian. To them, a religious freedom issue is whether the Christian clerk who refuses to process same-sex marriage licenses gets to keep her job, not whether a Muslim woman can wear her hijab to the airport without fear of being profiled as a terrorist.

To fight back, I think we must constantly retranslate the new usages back into older terms, and refuse to recognize them as legitimate. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case, for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with religious freedom; it’s about Christians claiming the special right to break discrimination laws. Denying federal funds to sanctuary cities does not defend the rule of law, it tears down the rule of law.

You know what would have defended the rule of law? Letting Joe Arpaio go to jail for his crimes rather than pardoning him.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Roger Owen Green  On May 7, 2018 at 10:24 am

    One of your more useful essays. They’re not trying to gaslight us. It’s that the WORDS have changed in meaning

  • bkswrites  On May 7, 2018 at 11:13 am

    Well done. Here’s another: “GMO” is clarified to “BioEngineered,” or to be perfectly comprehensible, “BE food.” The Dept. of Agriculture has published for comment proposed rules that contain several multiple-choice questions: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=AMS-TM-17-0050-0004 I haven’t waded clear through the 30 pages of the Federal Register (download as a PDF from the comment site), but a quick scan spotted questions of how much of what kind of modification makes a foodstuff BE, from traditional breeding programs to meat animals fed on blatantly BE foods, and 3 choices of cheerful logos to let consumers know what we’re being fed. All the logos are to be done in lively greens and sunny golden starbursts, or in one case “resembling sky,” though these colors are only described in the Federal Register (pp. 14-15 of the PDF), and 2 of the 3 have emoji-like smiles. Aw, shoot, maybe it just needs a smartphone-readable code that anyone who actually cares what they’re eating can use to find out.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 7, 2018 at 11:43 am

      Assuming, of course, that GMOs by their very nature are somehow different from wheat and other hybrid foods that people have consumed for thousands of years with no ill effects. Honesty in labeling doesn’t require acceptance of conspiracy theories.

      • bkswrites  On May 7, 2018 at 6:57 pm

        This is something very different from traditional husbandry, altering organisms at the genetic level for reasons that have nothing to do with nutrition or, for that matter, sustainability. Talk to some Indian farmers about the “green revolution” that was defeated by drought, just for starters. The problem is that we don’t know whether GMOs are in general or in any specific case different from the other hybrid foods. They are manipulations of those historic hybrids that were made by traditional methods, so doubly “engineered.”

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 7, 2018 at 9:50 pm

        I’m not saying they shouldn’t be regulated, but the automatic “GMOs are evil” is ridiculous. GMOs will prevent some people from starving.

      • bkswrites  On May 8, 2018 at 10:19 am

        Again, look at what happened to the “Green Revolution” in India. The prevention of starving was only temporary, and when the GMO rice failed in a drought, people were in even worse trouble, unless they’d saved some of the seed from their traditional species. Companies go to the trouble of genetic manipulation to control the market and make profits, not for the benefit of the farmers or their ultimate customers.

    • Roger  On May 10, 2018 at 11:37 pm

      Your points about the sustainability of GMO production are right on point. There certainly are valid concerns about GMO products that do not depend on assumptions about their personal health effects. Why should not I as a consumer be allowed to express an antipathy towards food products that are patented (GMO) by corporations aiming to privatize the nutritional heritage of, well, the human race? In fact, in their role in privatizing important necessities of human life, GMO products strain to the breaking point the analogy with “wheat and other hybrid foods that people have consumed for thousands of years.” Anti-labeling advocates would in effect squelch public reflection and deliberation on the wisdom of yielding a critical component of human well-being to the caprice of the market-place.

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 11, 2018 at 8:00 am

        GMOs are just another aspect of modern technological society. Of course people are going to become dependent on them, the same way they become dependent on electricity or automobiles or medications. So the question shouldn’t be whether we allow this to occur, but how we regulate and control it to avoid the monopolies you describe. Maybe GMOs should be regulated in a manner similar to public utilities.

      • bkswrites  On May 11, 2018 at 11:41 am

        I call deflection, a form of bullshit. @Roger and I, as consumers, do not “become dependent” on GMOs in our food, except that we may become accustomed to buying a product in a particular price range. Patents run out on medications, and prices drop for generics. And it’s not in any way comparable to utilities, which are mostly regulated at the state level, which would be impossible with GMO food ingredients. Anyway, my original point, which was at least related to the original blog, was about the newspeak rebranding of GMOs as “bioengineered.” Let’s stick to that, or better yet, educate yourself on the proposed standards for the foods and what we call them and how we let consumers have a clue as to what they’re buying to eat.

  • Bill Camarda  On May 7, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Something identical happened with “drain the swamp.” Liberals and good government types think it’s hypocrisy when Trump talks about that, and then follows up by filling the government with corrupt individuals who revel in partnering with lobbyists, refusing to meet with people who don’t contribute to their campaigns, and wasting fortunes on furniture and first-class travel.

    But to Trump supporters and conservatives, “drain the swamp” never meant any of that. It meant putting a stop to the government helping people they hate. And if that’s your definition, Trump is most assuredly draining the swamp.

  • Larry Benjamin  On May 7, 2018 at 11:45 am

    The worst repurposing is “fake news.” This started as a legitimate phrase to describe fabricated news stories from Russian troll farms, intended for dissemination on social media. But now the phrase refers to legitimate news stories that are critical of the administration.

    • Bill Camarda  On May 7, 2018 at 2:46 pm

      And I can rarely recall a more purposeful, deliberate, and rapid subversion of the English language. It was so brazen it made even Frank Luntz look almost honorable by contrast.

  • Corey Fisher  On May 7, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    I think these redefinitions are a bit too specific to the examples. I would probably say that “the rule of law” as used here isn’t necessarily about illegal immigration specifically – it isn’t really about anything specifically. It’s defined in opposition, as “fighting ‘lawlessness'” and protecting people against said lawlessness, and “lawlessness” is a property of things we don’t like because when we don’t like them, we write news stories about how they’re lawlessly attacking our way of life. So, the rule of law can be about immigrants, about “inner cities”, about all sorts of things.

  • Roger Owen Green  On May 7, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Or the Freedom Caucus in the House is against freedom for anyone who isn’t like them, the Tea Partyists.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 7, 2018 at 5:49 pm

      “Freedom” is one of those words that the right has managed to co-opt, along with “patriotism,” “flag,” and many others. On Quora, I deliberately confuse people by referring to myself as a “Constitutional Progressive.”

  • Marty  On May 7, 2018 at 10:52 pm

    The thing that really bothers me about the their interpretation of “religious freedom” is that it is essentially religious oppression. If they have what they are calling religious freedom, then nobody else can. They think that, because they believe that, for instance, gay marriage is wrong, I shouldn’t be allowed to practice my religion which involves the marriage of gay people. If their church wants to refuse to bless or recognize gay marriage, that is their prerogative. But, beyond this, they want to stop all other religions from blessing and recognizing gay marriage. This latter thing is the definition of “religious oppression”, and the *exact* kind of thing that drove the protestants from England.

  • Zeroth of Rationalia  On May 8, 2018 at 12:02 am

    Except for the inconvenient thing that scientific meta analysis after scientific meta analysis shows that commercial GMO crops are quite safe. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/once-again-us-expert-panel-says-genetically-engineered-crops-are-safe-eat

    Furthermore, crops have been selectively bread since the dawn of agriculture. If you look at fruit and veggies in the paintings of 17th century Dutch masters, they are unrecognizable from what we see in the supermarkets today.

  • Joe saladero  On May 8, 2018 at 7:41 am

    From one to another bagering Trump again about Muslims. It’s the countries that have the Muslim type that love to kill others outside of their religion and beliefs. When’s the last time you saw a Christian run into a Muslim place of worship and lighting off a bomb screening JESUS Lives!!. You don’t. Our constitution is built on Christian values. Peaceful ones. That Muslims do not believe in. End of story. We don’t go over there trying to change thier rules. We just try to police thier anger at each other. There violence towards each other shows in past history it will never change. This is a land of peace. We don’t need there nastieness here. Amen.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 8, 2018 at 8:24 am

      Can you cite the sections of the Constitution that mention “Jesus” or “Christianity?” Because I can’t find them.

      Also, arguably, our recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were motivated in part by religion, at least for some people. George W. Bush described these wars as a “crusade,” and Ann Coulter advocated forcible conversion of Muslims in those countries to Christianity. So your characterization of Islamic violence is, to say the least, rather biased in your own favor.

      “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Matthew 7:3

    • bkswrites  On May 8, 2018 at 10:25 am

      How many Muslims do you actually know, Joe? And how many mosques have indeed been burned by your “peaceful” Americans? I worry about you, carrying so much anger.

    • weeklysift  On May 8, 2018 at 10:35 am

      150 years ago it was often claimed that our Constitution was built on PROTESTANT values, and that’s why we shouldn’t be letting so many Catholics into the country. The Catholic religion was hierarchical rather than democratic, so they couldn’t possibly assimilate to become Americans.

  • Ken  On May 8, 2018 at 9:24 am

    All you people do is look for and make up shit to start trouble. You are on a path to destroy America. One of the first rights to go will be freedom of speech and the press. Congratulations for a bang up job. That was sarcasm so there is no confusion.

  • sglover  On May 12, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    About sanctuary cities (SC’s) and the rule of law:. It’s seems to me that the core and best argument *against* SC’s hangs entirely on — maintaining the rule of law. Maybe there’s something about the way that the Trump regime is doing this that strikes you as illegal?

    At this moment SCs are *necessarily* extralegal to some degree. They’re a mild yet persistent kind of civil disobedience, aren’t they? So folks who sympathize with the idea should own up to it. I’m one; there are several SCs in my vicinity, and I lean toward local pols who speak up for them (it’s not my #1 issue when elections come around, though).

    • bkswrites  On May 12, 2018 at 6:31 pm

      Nope, it’s not civil disobedience. It’s cities doing their jobs and letting the fed do theirs. Enforcing immigration law is not cities’ job.

    • weeklysift  On May 12, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      Actually, this is a federalism issue. Local governments cooperate with ICE as a courtesy. They have no legal obligation to do so.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 12, 2018 at 7:56 pm

      Actually, sanctuary cities should be the default. There is no reason why a local law enforcement agency should hold anyone beyond their release date, just to accommodate ICE. If ICE and a city want to enter into a memorandum of understanding to facilitate this, that’s different.

      So instead of calling them “sanctuary cities,” we would instead refer to any city that isn’t a sanctuary city as a “danger city.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: