Dept. of Word Lists

Safire's Political Words, Part 2

Part two of our interview with William Safire focuses on new political terms that have entered the latest edition of Safire's Political Dictionary. Below, for your delectation, you'll find extended excerpts from relevant dictionary entries.

moonbat A knee-jerk liberal, short for barking moonbat; a derogation by kneejerk conservatives—or wing nuts, as they, in turn, are derided by moonbats.

From a 2006 profile in The Washington Post of NBC's White House correspondent, David Gregory: "At Free Republic, another conservative site, a poster said: 'This barking moonbat is just mad because he realizes there is no way to turn this into a "Get Bush" or even "Get Cheney" scandal.'" Vinay Menon, slamming a reality TV show, Wanted Ted or Alive, in the Toronto Star in 2006, put the insult in flavorful context: "The show is not for everybody. Specifically, vegans, liberals, gun-control advocates, vegetarians, pansies, evolutionists, elites, sophisticates, urban snobs, atheists, tree-huggers, feminists, Germans, useful idiots, moonbats, multiculturalists, and profanity-averse viewers are advised to proceed with caution."

Moonbat was introduced as an epithet by Perry de Haviland in 1999 and popularized in the blogosphere, starting in 2002, on de Haviland's libertarian Web site, Samizdata. De Haviland has rejected the suggestion that moonbat was inspired by the surname of George Monbiot, a proenvironmental columnist for the Manchester (U.K.) Guardian. "I coined the term long before George came onto my radar," he wrote in a 2006 e-mail message. "I rendered the term as 'Barking Moonbat' as part of a conversation I was having with some friends about how when certain topics appear in the media or on the internet, some people start howling just like wolves reflexively at the visual stimuli. However as wolves seems too noble a connotation, I started to describe the reflex as 'the Barking Moonbat reflex.'"

De Haviland thought of moonbat as an "ecumenical" term of abuse, applicable equally to "dogmatists of any ilk, left, right, or libertarian," but coiners cannot be choosers. In practice, righties took over moonbat, using it as a club for beating lefties exclusively. The moon part is key. On account of its changing phases, earth's satellite has long been associated with instability—with insanity in general, and with the "loony left" in particular. (Loony comes from luna, Latin for "moon.") Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko played upon the association in 1979 when he referred to California governor Jerry Brown as "Governor Moonbeam." The label stuck because of Brown's perceived eccentricities, but Royko took it all back in a 1991 column, saying that he had thought at the time it was an "amusing phrase" but "if he had to do it over again, he sure as hell wouldn't."

Moonbat had prior, nonpolitical incarnations. Aviation buffs adopted it as the nickname of an experimental nighttime fighter, the XP-67, developed by McDonnell Aircraft during World War II. Only one of the planes was ever built and it was not called the Moonbat at the time. The name came later, popularized by aviation buffs, according to Lawrence Merritt, archivist and historian for Boeing. "The plane had an unusual body. ... Some folks thought it looked like a bat and it was supposed to fly at night. That's where they must have dreamed up Moonbat," said Merritt. The earliest example of the name in his files come from a December 1973 article in Wings Magazine, entitled "It Must Have Been 'Moonbat'" (a play on a lyric in the 1934 pop hit "Moonglow").

Still earlier, Robert Heinlein used moonbat in two sci-fi short stories, "Space Jockey" and "The Black Pits of Luna," published in 1947 and 1948, respectively. In the first, Moonbat is the name of a landing craft employed in a three-stage voyage (anticipating the multi-stage Apollo missions) to the moon. In the second, a tour guide on the moon also serves as scoutmaster of the Moonbat Patrol.

Moonbat's companion in infamy is wingnut, not to be confused with the wing nut for fastening screws, the Wingnut who was a fan of The West Wing TV series or who roots for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, the exotic Caucasian Wing-nut tree, or Robert "Wingnut" Weaver, the surfer who starred in the 1994 documentary The Endless Summer II.

Like moonbat, the political wingnut is an abbreviation of a longer term, in this case right-wing nut, where nut, as slang for the head, has long been used to refer to a person who is silly, stupid, crazy, or simply nutty. The shortened wingnut is especially popular among bloggers, who delight in abbreviation and who do not always use it in a strictly pejorative sense. Matt Drudge, of The Drudge Report, told The Washington Post in May of 1999 why he regularly checked conservative websites: "I get to see how my story is playing among the wing nuts. This tells me it is going to be a huge radio thing."

The original right-wing nut is of considerable antiquity, dating at least to the 1960s, well before the blogosphere emerged to fan the fringes. Early examples come from letters to newspapers. Edward Cowan referred in a letter to The Austin (Tex.) Statesman on Nov. 1, 1962, to "the emergence within our borders of right-wing nut-groups which preach a diplomacy of cloak-and-dagger and a politics of apocalypse." John Lewis complained to the Modesto (Calif.) Bee and News-Herald on Oct. 15, 1965, that the newspaper's editorials cast too wide a net: "I am, by being a conservative, automatically a neo-Fascist, right-wing nut and a fanatic."

Today, the long and short forms coexist amicably in print. Scripps Howard columnist Dale McFeathers used the long form in 2002, reporting that his e-mail on the subject of bias in the press was "split 50-50 between those who think I'm a pinko traitor and those who think I'm a right-wing nut." Slate went with the short form in a December 2003 headline for an article on a Supreme Court case: "The Wing Nut's Revenge: A Conspiracy Theorist Has His Day in Court." The anonymous headline writer picked up on reporter Dahlia Lithwick's observation that during oral arguments Justice Antonin Scalia is "never afraid to call a wing nut a wing nut."

The presumed wing nut in this case was a California lawyer who wanted to obtain death-scene photos of Vince Foster, the Deputy White House Counsel, who committed suicide in 1993. The legal issue was whether the right of privacy extended after death under the Freedom of Information Act to Foster's family. Scalia joined in the unanimous opinion that it did.

netroots Liberal wing of the blogosphere, as contrasted with the slower developing conservative Rightroots.

"You've heard the story," observed Perry Bacon, Jr., in Time magazine in September 2006: "the Netroots, the Democratic Party's equivalent of a punk garage band—edgy, loud and antiauthoritarian—are suddenly on the verge of the big time. The gang of liberal bloggers and online activists who helped raise millions of dollars for Howard Dean's presidential campaign two years ago are now said to be Democratic kingmakers."

Netroots, a portmanteau of Internet and grassroots, was popularized by Jerome Armstrong, on his blog, MyDD, starting Dec. 18, 2002, when he went to work on Vermont governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign. He headed his entry that day: "Netroots for Dean in 2004." In his 2006 book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, coauthored with Markos Moulitsas, Armstrong claims credit for coining the term. Actually, Armstrong re-invented netroots, not knowing that it had been used a decade before. The earliest example that I have found is in a Jan. 15, 1993, message on the newsgroup bit.listserv.words-l. Apparently complaining about a shake-up at the University of California at San Diego, "rmcdonell" (identified by etymologist Ben Zimmer as Robert McDonell, a student at UCSD in the early '90s) wrote: "Too bad there's no netroots organization that can demand more than keyboard accountability from those who claim to be acting on behalf of the 'greater good' when they do things like this."

Armstrong insists that netroots does not have a political coloration: "The term netroots is ideologically and politically neutral." Most observers differ. While the netroots in 2007 may total less than six million people (Time's estimate), a small number in national political terms, the sheer volume of their postings appeared to push Democratic candidates leftward. Time's early assessment: "Moderate Democrats say it with remorse, conservatives with glee, but the conventional wisdom is bipartisan: progressive bloggers are pushing the Democratic Party so far to the left that it will have no chance of capturing the presidency in 2008."

Grassroots started off in politics as a populist term, however, associated with the "Bull Moose" convention of 1912 and Theodore Roosevelt's break with the Republican Party. Today, grassroots is neutral. Over time, netroots also may gravitate toward the center.

9/11 Collective term for the suicide attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Islamic terrorists, led by Mohammed Atta, from a wealthy Saudi family, and inspired by Osama bin Laden, destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., by crashing three hijacked airliners into them, killing about 3,000 people. A fourth airliner, United Flight 93, never reached its target, presumably the Capitol or White House, after courageous passengers and crew tried to regain control of the plane, causing it to crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

9/11 is a metonym—a word or phrase substituted for another. (Oval Office for President is another example.) In this instance, creation of a shorthand term probably was inevitable, given the complicated nature of the event (a sequence of attacks on three buildings in two cities) and its traumatic psychological impact as well as physical significance.

People groped for several weeks for a way to describe what had happened. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani referred to the "attack" or "massive attack." President George W. Bush spoke of "acts of war" and "mass murder." Three weeks afterward, on Oct. 3, The Wall Street Journal reported: "In daily conversations, many people are resorting to an assortment of vague monikers to describe the events: 'the terrorist attacks,' 'the events of Sept. 11,' 'the bombing,' 'the tragedy,' or simply 'it.'"

The date was employed in different forms within a matter of days to denote the attacks. Some referred to the events of 9-11-01 or simply to Sept. 11. The United Way established a September 11th Fund for disaster relief, while the International Association of Fire Fighters set up a 9-11 fund for New York City fire fighters. The New York Times used 9/11, which came to be the accepted style for referring to the attacks, as early as Sept. 12, headlining an Op-Ed piece by Bill Keller "America's Emergency Line: 9/11."

The coincidence of the date of the attacks with the national 911 emergency telephone number made the metonym as memorable as the comparable Pearl Harbor for the Japanese air raid on Dec. 7, 1941, that precipitated U.S. entry into World War II.

9/11 is an Americanism not picked up by the rest of the English-speaking world because U.S. usage puts the number of the month ahead of the number of the day; from Britain to Australia, 9/11 signifies not the 11th day of September but the 9th day of November. Writers outside the U.S. refer to "the attacks of 11 September 2001" or "the World Trade Center attack" (which leaves out the crash into the Pentagon and Flight 93).

Why the numeration 9/11 and not Sept. 11, when we still remember Dec. 7 and not 12/7? That is primarily because numbering has gripped this generation, as Americans stay open "24/7," not "around the clock all week long"; secondarily, the rhyming 7/11 is central to a game played with dice and subsequently was the name adopted by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores. "The compact and catchy rhythm of 9/11 makes it memorable," Steven Poole, a correspondent for The Guardian observed to the author. "If the attacks had occurred on the 23rd of November, I don't think we would still hear people saying 'eleven twenty-three' or see '11/23' written. Too many syllables; not catchy enough. The chance homology with the U.S. emergency telephone number gives it an extra frisson, too."

Although terrorist attacks had taken place years before on U.S. embassies and the destroyer USS Cole, this stunning surprise, followed almost immediately by sweeping national-security legislation, was seen as the beginning of the war on terror.

pork barrel The public treasury, into which politicians consumed by prospects of reelection dip for "pork," or funds for local projects.

The classic example of the pork barrel is the Rivers and Harbors bill, a piece of legislation that provides morsels for scores of congressmen in the form of appropriations for dams and piers, highways and bridges.

The trope is derived from the pre-Civil War practice of periodically distributing salt pork to the slaves from huge barrels. A story by E. E. Hale called "The Children of the Public," which appeared in an 1863 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, helped popularize the term. In Chapter I, entitled "The Pork Barrel," Hale wrote: "We find that, when an extraordinary contingency arises in life, as just now in ours, we have only to go to our pork barrel, and the fish rises to our hook or spear." By the 1870s, congressmen were regularly referring to "pork," and in 1919 C. C. Maxey vividly made the analogy in the National Municipal Review: "Oftentimes the eagerness of the slaves would result in a rush upon the pork barrel, in which each would strive to grab as much as possible for himself. Members of Congress in the stampede to get their local appropriation items into the omnibus river and harbor bills behaved so much like Negro slaves rushing the pork barrel, that these bills were facetiously styled 'pork barrel' bills."

Labor "skates"—a fond old-time term for union historians—remember the use of the term pork-chopper in the '30s meaning "fulltime union leader" or "holder of a political patronage job." Time magazine noted in 1948 that one New York politician "fished in Tammany's pork barrel for 28 years to bring improvement to 'me people.' " In a Baltimore speech on inflation in 1952, Adlai Stevenson pledged "no pork-barreling while our economy is in its present condition." Former Senator Paul H. Douglas (D-Ill.) called pork-barrelers "drunkards who shout for temperance in the intervals between cocktails."

The practice of channeling federal or state tax revenues to local projects is defended as a means of making certain that improvements in the nation's infrastructure are directed by local authorities reflecting the needs of local voters rather than "Washington bureaucrats." More often, the porcine image is invoked as an attack on a system that is later embraced by the successful attacker. Recent attacks using other symbols can be found under earmark and bridge to nowhere. Arizona Republican representative Jeff Flake, asking "And we wonder why we were beaten like a rented mule on Tuesday?" after the 2006 elections, answered, "Pork-barrel earmarks, or 'member projects' (as we preferred to call them so as not to offend our own sensibilities) greatly multiplied under Republican rule. The Democrats were happy as long as enough crumbs fell from the Republican appropriators' table."

realism Originally a foreign policy that emphasized stability between superpowers and minimized confrontation to promote democracy; later, a much different policy opposing military intervention abroad as naively idealistic and against the national interest.

In a 2006 Washington Post column titled "This Is Realism?" Charles Krauthammer led with "Now that the 'realists' have ridden into town gleefully consigning the Bush doctrine to the ash heap of history, everyone has discovered the notion of interests, as if it were some new idea thought up by James Baker and the Iraq Study Group." Contrariwise, Tom Ricks wrote in the same paper: "The Iraq Study Group report might well be titled 'The Realist Manifesto,'" a repudiation of the Bush administration's diplomatic and military approach now being challenged by recommendations stemming from "the 'realist' school of foreign policy."

In a 2007 essay in Time magazine headlined "The Return of the Realists," Walter Isaacson noted that "the doctrine of realism, or its Prussian-accented cousin realpolitik, emphasizes a hard-nosed focus on clearly defined national interests, such as economic or security goals, pursued with a pragmatic calculation of commitments and resources. Idealism, on the other hand, emphasizes moral values and ideals, such as spreading democracy."

Pragmatism was the word that proponents of realism preferred in the Nixon Administration to define the opening to Communist China and détente with the Soviet Union, as well as a tolerance for authoritarian (a euphemism for "dictatorial") leaders like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore who were on our side in the Cold War.

The old realism of the 1960s and '70s coined "the balance of terror," glorified "strategic stability" with its "mutual assured destruction," and derided President Woodrow Wilson's dream of a "war to end wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy" as hopelessly idealistic and naïve— that is, not pragmatic.

In the 1980s, however, under Ronald Reagan, it was the word realism's turn to take a hit: the lexical pendulum swung toward evocation of America as a "city on a hill," an embrace of human-rights rhetoric, and the moral denunciation of an evil empire. Crusading idealism was in vogue and amoral realism was passé.

But not for long. In the elder Bush's term of 1989-93, stability became the byword and paramount goal of diplomacy, and the idea of realism (though not yet the word) began to make a comeback. It peaked in the senior Bush's 1991 visit to Kiev, just as the Soviet Union showed signs of coming apart in the Baltics and Ukrainians sought their freedom from Moscow rule. Brent Scowcroft, a retired general who had been a longtime Kissinger aide in the Nixon era, helped write a stability-first speech for President George H. W. Bush on a visit to Kiev that urged Ukrainians to stay within the Soviet Union and direly warning of "suicidal nationalism." This caused a right-wing opinionmonger at The New York Times to label the outburst of realism "Chicken Kiev" (and the elder Bush has not spoken to the author since).

As word and policy, realism had its ups and down through the two Clinton terms, 1993 through 2000. But in the first term of Bush II, the "old" realism of Kissinger and Scowcroft was battered by what the historian Robert Kagan called "Americans' belief in the possibility of global transformation— the 'messianic' impulse." President Bush called it his "freedom agenda."

Public impatience grew with "the long, hard slog" in Iraq, however, and that fresh stock of Wilsonian idealism—reborn in the Reagan years and reborn yet again in the younger Bush's administration—fell into disrepute, not only in liberal and academic circles and among antiwar activists but as reflected in public opinion polls and Democratic victory in the 2006 congressional elections. Realism came back into oratorical vogue; the headline in an August 2007 National Observer read "Hot Policy Wonks for the Democrats: the New Realists." Subhead: "Neo-Liberalism is Passe, Anti-Idealogues Surge. Kind of Scowcrofty."

"We are all realists now." That was the lede of George Packer's article in an April 2007 issue of The New Yorker. "Iraq has turned conservatives and liberals alike," Packer wrote, "into cold-eyed believers in a foreign policy that narrowly calculates national interest without much concern for what goes on inside other countries." Unexpectedly in a magazine with unabashed Bush-bashing credentials, Packer offered a sobering note to triumphalist realists: "At some point events will remind Americans that currently discredited concepts such as humanitarian intervention and nationbuilding have a lot to do with national security—that they originated as necessary evils to prevent greater evils. But, for now, Kissingerism is king."

That equated realism with Kissingerism, synonymy that "Henry the K" (who supported the Iraq war) surely considered insufficiently nuanced, and reminded the "new" realists that they had to dissociate themselves from the "old" realism.

This article is adapted from Safire's Political Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. © 2008 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Visit OUP online at www.oup.com.


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Friday May 16th 2008, 3:33 AM
Comment by: steve C.

Actually Australians DO call it 9/11 - i guess 11/9 doesn't have the same ring.
But when I ask youngsters what date 'It' happened, they figure it must have been on 9th November. We're hopeless for Americanisms down under.

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