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Shawn Vestal: Definition of war gets lost in rhetoric

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

I would like to extend a heartfelt thank-you to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for – when taking to the lectern last week as the GOP’s woman-in-chief – not calling her proposed legislation a “war.”

Of course, the dude standing next to her did. The House GOP, said Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado in trying to rebut the Democrats’ “war on women” thing, will now wage a “war for women.”

Gah! Does no one in politics – no elected official, no lowly staffer, no media blowhard anywhere – suffer from the normal human embarrassment that would accompany such a lame, unoriginal expression? Does no one in politics feel a pang when invoking yet another rhetorical war – the war on women, the war on Christmas, the war on science, the war on religion, the war, for heaven’s sake, on coal – when the actual, real-life consequences of warfare remain so freshly and constantly apparent?

No. Almost no one does. This week, an Alabama yahoo congressman, Mo Brooks, claimed there is a “war on whites.” Earlier, we’ve heard that the president’s energy policy is a “war on the suburbs.” The gross ubiquity of the terminology makes it now seem that, in politics, everything is a war on something. So kudos – small ones – to Cathy.

McMorris Rodgers’ failure to go to rhetorical war is noteworthy. No one stands nearer to the center of the Women Wars than she, unless it is her Washington congressional counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray. Murray helped develop the Democrats’ “war on women” strategy – no more original and no less tone-deaf than any of the other formulations. Back in 2012 – the 10th year of the Iraq War – she said Republicans were waging a “war against women’s health.”

But it was effective, thanks less to the words themselves than to the Hobby Lobby policies and the foot-mouthed manner of speaking about women that seem ingrained in the GOP. The proof of the effectiveness has been the rush on the right to reformulate this “war,” and McMorris Rodgers has very often been out in front, asserting her official status: “As a woman myself … ”

She once called the war on women a “war against reality.” But give her credit: She turns to the words of war less frequently than many others, on her side and on the other.

This may not seem like the biggest deal in the world. Metaphorical language is useful, and powerful metaphors for conflict frequently invoke the terms of war. And what politicians do is certainly more important than what they say.

Still, words matter. And metaphors – in terms of framing the way people think about things – matter more. Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, wrote an essay in 2012 about the skyrocketing use of “war” in political talk. He noted that certain metaphorical uses – the war on poverty, the war on drugs – are attempts to unify, in the sense of reflecting a social effort against a social ill. But he added that the range of divisive, us-against-them use of “war” had exploded.

“If you’re keeping score, at various times over the past three years Obama has been accused of waging wars on America, jobs, the economy, small business, big business, gun owners, energy, religion and even Christmas trees,” Pinkham wrote. “Differences in social policy are called ‘culture wars,’ and differences in economic policy amount to ‘class warfare.’ This trend is not a coincidence; it is a conscious framing of the debate by opponents.

“Meanwhile, we’ve heard lately about the Republican Party’s ‘war on science’ and, because of recent controversies over abortion and contraception laws, its ‘war on women.’ Democrats don’t play the war card as often as Republicans do, but they still play it. … It’s time for rhetorical disarmament.”

I wondered if McMorris Rodgers had avoided this terminology on purpose. I tried to get someone in her office to talk about it, but they didn’t call me back.

What she did choose to say last week was interesting, as well.

“You think about a changing 21st-century workforce and how women make up half of our workforce. Fifty percent are the primary income earners in their households,” she said. “They are making the majority of purchasing decisions – 80, 85 percent of purchasing decisions – yes, women like to shop.”

Two years ago, she wrote in an op-ed piece: “Sometimes Republican men who talk about budgets and fiscal restraint are in danger of boring the women in the audience to tears.”

Let me just say: Unlike McMorris Rodgers, I am not a woman myself. But if someone talked about me that way, even another woman, it would drive me absolutely, bat-guano crazy. And if you coupled it with the even crazier talk – the legitimate rape spectrum – and the desire of Republicans to step intrusively into the doctor’s office, and their refusal to support equal-pay initiatives, I might well think there was some kind of concerted effort against my interests. Some kind of campaign. Some kind of movement.

Absolutely. But it ain’t a war.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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