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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Even if it’s all in English, we’re not speaking the same language

George Carlin famously gave us a list of seven words you can never say on television. How quaint it seems 37 years later, the idea of boundaries around language on public media. All seven words are on Wikipedia and the entire monologue is on YouTube.

In a world of no boundaries, we now require a speaker’s bio and a context video to tease out the meaning and intent. Even if it’s all in English, we’re not speaking the same language.

Language defines culture. It’s why the Spokane Tribe and others are focused on recovering language. Loss of common language is an overlooked threat to the larger community, too.

Republicans of Spokane County sponsored a forum last week titled “The Threats We Face.” At one point Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich asked for all constitutionalists to raise their hands. The few hands up were tentative, until he clarified with a verbal asterisk and the audience realized he didn’t mean “those” constitutionalists: The far-out fringe who declare themselves sovereign citizens. Those constitutionalists who hold themselves above the Constitution, instead of swearing to uphold it. Veterans, police officers, anyone who has ever taken a public oath of office are the original constitutionalists.

The primary focus of the forum was defining the white supremacy and Christian Dominion movements operating in the Northwest. Former State Senator John Smith, Jay Pounder and Knezovich were the speakers. And, yes, Rep. Matt Shea’s name came up, but that’s a column for another day.

In a press conference after the forum, Knezovich said he’s monitored threats in the Bush era from the extreme left, in the Obama years from the extreme right, and now both sides gearing up and raising money off fear.

When so many voices are pulling us apart, the center cannot hold. Language is the last refuge of common culture, and we’ve abused and overused it. When everyone is Hitler, no one is Hitler. Or a racist, misogynist, homophobe, Islamophobe, Nazi, fascist, socialist or bigot.

“Advice to the left – if you really want to fight racism then quit calling every Republican a racist,” said Smith. “The most powerful thing you can do to put a stumbling block in front of the Christian Identity Movement is quit painting every Republican with a racist brush.” Or calling all Democrats socialist.

Former colleague Caleb Heimlich, now serving as chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, agreed with the danger of generalization. “It mainstreams hate by demonizing everyone who voted Republican instead of focusing on actions of a few. May be good politics but doesn’t help our state.”

A Spokane-area progressive recently posted a pretty good joke at Caleb’s expense. “The Washington State GOP Chair is Caleb Heimlich. Does that mean every move the GOP makes is a Heimlich Maneuver?”

Bah duh bum. Caleb thought it was funny. Decent political satire, deserved a rim shot. What followed did not.

Cynthia Hamilton is a prominent Spokane area Indivisible activist proudly opposed to President Trump. We’ve met, we’ve talked, we disagree on politics. Her response on the thread was a textbook example of divisive generalization.

“Just more germans running the nazi, I mean Republican party…” And when called on it by a self-described liberal progressive who urged her to “please” not “associate all people of German extraction as Nazis or even Republicans,” she doubled down. “didnt intend that, just an observation…Reince preibus, so many in the tea party movement that has taken over the republicans…strong German influence.”

“When we decide to demonize people on the basis of German sounding last names … that’s wild,” said Heimlich. German Americans are the largest single self-identified ethnic group in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Probably not a winning political move either.

It’s not just a problem from the left, obviously. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has been dubbed “Fascist Fergie” by Tim Eyman. And President Trump and his tweets have both enraged and exasperated across the political spectrum. It makes indivisibility difficult.

The invocation at a recent We Believe We Vote dinner was read by Pastor Chris Martin of Valley Bible Church from a 1920s book of Christian prayer used by his great-grandfather during World War II. It’s a powerful reminder of how language once was used to unite.

“Almighty God, King of kings and Lord of lords, from whom proceed all power and dominion in heaven and earth; Most heartily we beseech thee to look with favour upon thy servants, the President of the United States, the Governor of this state, and all others in authority.”

Not a prayer for Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives, but a prayer for wise leadership from all those in authority. And a reminder of the ultimate authority.

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