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What do they really mean?

Fri, May 30th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

Several days ago I had a conversation with a friend and professional colleague. We've known each other about 5 years and have enjoyed many interesting exchanges. Our topics this day ranged a bit and finally settled on the economy, specifically, the price of gasoline at the pump.

As most of us do when this subject comes up we complained about the ongoing price hikes. I then said something about the tremendous profits the major oil companies are making and how the government should stop their subsidies and consider applying windfall taxes on these profits.

My friend replied with the usual come back of supply and demand and how the oil companies need these profits to stay in business. He then said that if the oil companies were allowed to drill in areas that are now environmentally protected there wouldn't be such a great problem.

He went on to say that I was of course opposed to this because I'm a "tree hugger". I told him that I accepted his name-calling in good spirit, that being a tree-hugger is not all bad, and that it really depends on the issue as to whether I am indeed a tree-hugger.

This exchange got me thinking about code words and labels used to described people and the positions they may or may not espouse. Who or what exactly is a tree-hugger?

As I interpret it, the term tree-hugger is a somewhat derogatory label used to describe one who is environmentally focused to the extreme. Can one believe in sound principles of environmental protection without going to extremes, or being a tree-hugger? I think so. But, I fear, the cartoonish picture the term brings to mind will always be in the general consciousness of most of us.

What of other labels? What comes to mind when one hears the term "compassionate conservative". Of course, I immediately think of President Bush and how he used the label to describe himself. But, at least for me the term never really had a definition.

Taken for what each word means I'd expect that the first part, compassionate, would describe an awareness of the suffering of others with a desire to relieve that suffering. Conservative, on the other hand, could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Conservative could be thought of favoring traditional views or values. Conservative might also be thought of as being cautious or moderate, as in a conservative estimate. Then there are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, religious conservatives, and cultural conservatives.

So, what was Mr. Bush saying when he applied the compassionate conservative term to himself? It certainly does not describe his reaction to and action about the Katrina disaster ("you're doin' one hellava job, Brownie"). But, at this point in time it makes little sense to continue to talk about Mr. Bush and his failings.

If, as it has been said, that money is the "mother's milk" of politics, then labels and code words are the coin of the realm. What to make of the charge leveled at Mr. McCain for "loosing his bearings?" Was it an oblique reference to his advanced age, suggesting he may be too old to handle the pressures of being President. Or, was it nothing more than just a term to suggest he was off course with his thinking and nothing more. Who is to know for sure?

Is Barack Obama really an elitist? What is an elitist anyway? Is it a guy who was raised by a single Mom, who worked his way through college, and was for several years a community organizer helping those who were less well off than he? Probably not.

The code-word label-game is not new. This bait and switch approach is used to make us think or feel a certain way. This is the basis of advertising; nothing wrong with that. However, when applied to people and their positions, especially by those who wish to foster an opposing view, we might pay attention to exactly what the message being delivered really is, who is saying it and why; and, if there really is truth in the message.

Alan Lipowitz lives in Peterson.

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