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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Richard Nixon

play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?


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peace dividend

(1990’s | militarese, bureaucratese | “post-war boom”)

I was surprised to learn that “peace dividend” began to crop up as we were ending the Vietnam War by expanding it into the rest of southeast Asia. According to the Congressional Quarterly, the phrase was born in 1968, as pressure mounted to end the war, and Nixon won the election partly on the strength of a promise to do so — neither the first nor the last of his brazen lies. It occurred to a number of people that we would save a lot of money if we weren’t garrisoning a huge army and manufacturing and destroying vast arsenals of weapons. If we were to spend that money, or part of it, on education, infrastructure, clean air and water, or other components of the much-maligned general welfare, it would be analogous to dividends from stocks and bonds (in fact, the analogy is very weak, but there’s no rule that says new expressions have to be plausible). It’s worth noting that the phrase does not refer to more general benefits conferred by the cessation of conflict; it nearly always has a purely economic cast. It didn’t really get popular until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; for five or ten years after that, we heard a lot about the peace dividend that would arise from the end of the Cold War. Anybody seen it?

The phrase rarely takes metaphorical uses, although soon-to-be former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton has used it to talk about improved community relations following a drop in stop-and-frisks and other small-time arrests. Another meaning did emerge briefly, though it never gained much traction, after the Camp David accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. One of the means we used to get the parties to agree was to promise lots of military aid to both sides, which inspired some commentators to talk of a “peace dividend” to Israel and Egypt. A kind of bribe, in other words, to give both sides incentive to agree to a rather unpalatable set of conditions. (Arms manufacturers and their shareholders received quite literal dividends as well, but that was not pointed out in the mainstream press.) One can find examples from the late seventies and the early eighties, but that sense of the phrase was never more than a distant runner-up.

The end of the Cold War marked the last time the peace dividend played a significant part in U.S. politics. Maybe that’s just because the various wars and police actions* we’ve undertaken were either on a very small scale (former Yugoslavia) or are still more or less in progress (Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism). But the fact is our officials have abandoned alternatives to the national security state. No one considers, much less proposes, eliminating policies that seek to impose our will on the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, evidence that our efforts to do so rarely succeed and often backfire is blotted out of public discourse. There is no alternative to meddling and warfare. And there may be no discussion of the fact that there is no alternative. Naked emperors are as embarrassing as ever.

The problem with the peace dividend is that it is more a fiction of accounting than anything else. It makes sense in theory, but economists are always quick to point out that it won’t amount to much in practice. True, the army never gets much smaller and the pace of armament production never slows for long. But even if they did, government budgeting bears so little relation to personal or family budgeting — where reducing spending in one department might well lead directly to increased spending in another — that savings disappear without a trace into a complex web of interests and bureaucracies. The only way to change that would be to reduce the size of the federal government to something closer to what it was in the early days of the republic, when the population was much, much smaller. Despite a lot of big talk, neither the right nor the left wing has any interest in doing so, or any idea of how to go about it.

* Remember that phrase? It goes back to to the Korean War, when it still made some tradition-minded Constitutional scholars squeamish to refer to a “war” that Congress had not declared.

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air quotes

(1990’s | journalese?)

I often consider, usually without any definite result, how verbal expressions can make their way from non-existence to prevalence in a few short decades. I continue to stumble over the first cause conundrum: Must there always be an instance in which a single individual utters a new expression at a fixed point in time? Or is a more nebulous origin possible? Whether we can actually pinpoint the moment of origin is irrelevant — all sorts of things are lost to science because the right observer isn’t present at the right moment. Perhaps it is due only to my limited imagination, but it still seems incontrovertible to me that there has to be a distinct event, a tree falling in the forest whether there is anyone to hear it or not. And so it must be for gestures. Somewhere, at some time, someone did what had never been done before: held up the first two fingers on each hand while uttering a word or phrase, either to indicate that they were quoting someone else, or (most often) that the locution so decorated is dubious for some reason.

There are cases, of course, where variant forms of a new expression compete — sometimes for years — before a winner emerges. Shouldn’t gestures have the same freedom? Maybe the first propounder of air quotes held up index finger and pinky, or even clenched fists. Maybe Richard Nixon wasn’t making “V for victory” signs after all; maybe he was putting the next four years’ worth of utterances in quotation marks, notably “I am not a crook” or promises to get to the bottom of dirty tricks played on the Democrats, and democracy itself, by a handful of criminals.

The press started noticing air quotes around 1990; in the early days they were associated with the likes of David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bret Easton Ellis, and other representatives of the culture of ironic self-consciousness that bloomed in the yuppie era (before there were hipsters, there were yuppies). One tried to demonstrate that one was fully aware that everything one said was subject to questioning and critique, and to forestall it by acknowledging it, not to say wallowing in it, before one’s hearers even had a chance (cf. “what’s your point“). In the arts, one focused obsessively on the act of creating rather than actually creating anything, in the manner of television pioneer Garry Shandling — before Seinfeld but after Letterman — who went to his reward recently. Everyone got tired of this jokey, stagey, heavy-handed irony after a few years, but sincerity has never been the same since, and we must remain aware at all times of the futility of everything we say and do. No wonder no one accomplishes anything any more.

Today, air quotes always signal derision, or at least skepticism, toward the expression they surround. They make a straightforward non-verbal substitute for “so-called” or the now defunct “quote-unquote.” When you get tired of using your words, use your hands.

scare quotes

(1990’s | academese)

Scare quotes may just be the print equivalent of air quotes. But while air quotes may theoretically be innocent, scare quotes by definition cannot be. And while it is normally obvious to everyone watching when a speaker uses air quotes, writers may not get to decide whether their punctuation constitutes scare quotes or not. Someone else — usually someone who feels aggrieved — may declare them such.

Scare quotes may not indicate direct attribution, but they invariably proclaim that the expression within is unfit (or inappropriate, as we say nowadays). Maybe it’s noxious, or discriminatory, or wrong-headed, or simply fails to capture the full import of the situation. Scare quotes bear malice aforethought and provide occasion all by themselves for argument. Never mind what I actually said; how dare you call it into question. From the other side: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to enclose it in scare quotes.

I encountered the expression first in academic contexts, and LexisNexis concurs; the first instance shows up in a letter to the New York Times written by a philosophy professor in 1983. Professors spend a lot of time examining suspiciously the words of others, and that sort of suspicion is a necessary precondition for the use of scare quotes. If you look hard enough, you can find some objectionable term; with a little practice, you need not look very hard.

To me, the odd thing about both of these expressions is the use of the word “quotes” to mean “quotation marks” rather than simply “quotations.” (My English literature survey professor would blanch at either one, but never mind.) Why shouldn’t “scare quotes” refer to words adopted for the purpose of frightening others, like “scare tactics”? Yet the meaning of “quotes” is invariable in both phrases. There’s no reason for such single-minded usage that I can see. “Air quotes” could mean “citing someone else’s words during a broadcast” or even “prices for commercial flights,” but it doesn’t, just as “scare quotes” isn’t used to talk about another person’s words yanked out of context in order to turn hearers against him. Isn’t that what political campaigns are all about? If I were the militant sort, I would start a campaign to redefine, or at least extend, these expressions. But rest easy, America, I have a blog to write. 323 entries and counting.

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damage control

(1980’s | militarese | “putting out fires,” “keeping things from getting out of hand,” “making the best of a bad situation,” “backing down”)

“Damage control” harks back to “walk back” (q.v.). I skipped a couple of weeks, but I got there.

Before 1975, this phrase came up in two contexts: destruction caused by animals — a federal law was passed in 1931 called the Animal Damage Control Act, and a division of the Department of the Interior is devoted to Animal Damage Control — and repairing problems on board ships (“Damage Control Officer” was a naval title). Somewhere around 1975, it started to turn up in political discourse. When something went wrong with a policy, strategy, or press conference, the politician himself or his staff had to do damage control. In politics, it appears almost exactly contemporaneous with “in the loop” or “out of the loop,” Carter-era terms that became more common after 1980. William Safire, in a 1982 language column, posited a naval origin for the term (he says nothing about harm caused by animals, but that’s obviously a dark-horse etymological candidate, anyway). Because the term sprouted in political journalism, searching “damage control” in LexisNexis during the late seventies and eighties pulls up every blunder, untruth, and scandal of the Carter and Reagan administrations, each of which forced the president’s loyal minions to take steps to make the results look better than they really were. This sort of thing led finally to White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s infamous evocation of “a shovel brigade that follow[s] a parade down Main Street cleaning up.” Regan didn’t use the term “damage control,” but a Washington Post headline (November 18, 1986) reporting his comment did. By that time the expression was also available for corporate use, notably in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s response to poisoned Tylenol capsules (1982), widely regarded as a successful damage control effort.

The case of Johnson & Johnson introduces another dichotomy more interesting than the government/corporation dyad (two sides of the same coin at the best of times). “Damage control,” particularly in politics, is often a matter of fixing a self-inflicted problem, as in Regan’s example. The president, or someone, said or did something we’re getting attacked for, so we have to get out there and quell the uprising. But in the case of Johnson & Johnson, the point wasn’t that they could have prevented someone from tampering with bottles of Tylenol; their packaging was no better or worse than anyone else’s. You may lay traps for yourself or be victimized by circumstances beyond your control — either way, sooner or later you will need to do some damage control. In the seventies, when the phrase gained currency, it could be used in a proactive sense to mean addressing a problem before it arose. But that didn’t last long, and “damage control” has held a firmly post hoc meaning for a long time now.

Any institution may need damage control: government at any level and corporations, but also a small business, a sports team, a university, a church. If an individual feels a need to practice damage control, it’s probably a celebrity — it would still sound a little overblown to refer to a husband’s effort to patch up a quarrel by bringing home chocolate and flowers as “damage control.” But you could, because that is primarily what damage control is in practice. It is making the entity you have offended feel better, smoothing ruffled feathers or papering over a disagreement. It’s a way of getting people off your back, whether friends or adversaries, whether it involves a retraction or a new policy to counteract the effects of an old one.

The way an act of damage control is received says much about it and generally demands interpretation. If it isn’t managed well, or if it is required too often, it raises a red flag. It may suggest that you have no principles, or that you are weak and vacillating, because any adverse reaction causes you to change course. Sometimes too much damage control just means you shoot yourself in the foot too often. Yet effective damage control buries the problem and convinces observers that the organization (or employee) is capable and can be trusted to handle whatever comes up.

The term has continued to grow in popularity since the eighties. It still is used most often to talk about institutions getting on top of difficult circumstances, but it is finding a use in medicine: “damage control resuscitation” refers to a way to handle patients in hemorrhagic shock. The treatment relies on large-scale transfusions and preventing further blood loss; restoring blood volume and circulation is the highest priority.

As a bonus for those of you who’ve made it this far, I can’t resist a New York Times summary from May 9, 1974, plagiarized straight from LexisNexis. It contains one of the earliest uses of “damage control” I’ve found, and a lot of other fascinating nuggets. The speaker is now a well-known political journalist: “Dr. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest who is special assistant to Pres. Nixon, holds extraordinary news conference to deny charges by Sen H. D. Scott and other Republicans that, as Scott put it, the Watergate transcripts portray ‘deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral performances’ by Pres. and his aides. . . . McLaughlin, in theological analysis of transcripts, says that any conclusion that they are amoral or immoral ‘is erroneous, unjust and contains elements of hypocrisy.’ Holds Nixon acquitted himself throughout discussions with honor. Holds Nixon’s concern in keeping Watergate scandal from spreading to White House was merely exercise of ‘damage control.’ Says language has ‘no moral meaning’ and use of profanity by Nixon and his aides served as form of ’emotional drainage,’ an understandable ‘form of therapy.'” This is what they teach in seminary?

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