Georgie Anne Geyer

Obama's Second Term May Give Us New Vocabulary

WASHINGTON -- The world may turn out to be not much different during Barack Obama's second term, but from what we have to go on now, the language to describe it certainly appears to be.

All you've had to do, in these weeks since the election, is to listen carefully to the words used on both sides to describe the other's ideology or makeup. Each side is using not words that could be construed as insulting or nasty, but rather as politically loaded -- words that still have plenty of provocative history clinging to them.

Words like "collective," for instance. Since President Obama's inauguration speech Monday before America and the world, Obama's approach has been called a "collective" one -- in contrast to the sharply individualistic residue left by conservatives' rhetoric. His manner of dealing with the implementation of health care is deemed to be a collective one. His work on climate change, before it carries us all out to sea, is collective. Gun control? You've got it right: a collective effort.

I do not agree that the manner in which the Republicans are employing this particular word right now -- or the fact that they have dug for it way out in Siberia, trying to make the Democrats look bad -- is based upon the recent historical meaning of the word.

"Collective" is really a communist word; it refers to state enterprises being worked by Russian or other national communist movements and is not the same as "cooperative." It would be far truer to speak of "co-operative movements" or of "co-ops." But then, these words were taken by the leftist democratic movements of the early 20th century, in that idealistic period when buyer-seller co-ops gave the poor a way up and out.

Another word recently used in newspaper headlines is "progressive." This is an old word, coming out of the Progressive Movement of the turn of the last century, which led to reforms of all kinds. President Obama has used it more to describe himself as a forward-looking, open-minded man who will look into whatever can make life better.

In today's terms, however, "progressive" is used more as a modern synonym for "liberal," while conservatives fit in most with the words "anti-liberal" or "anti-progressive."

One change I've noticed in President Obama's approach is his far greater use of "citizen." In recent history, "citizen" has become a much-abused word. Perhaps the huge numbers of illegal aliens have downgraded the importance of citizenship, which is the one vow that every person in a nation-state makes to his or her homeland.

Now one hears President Obama speaking of citizenship as though it were part of his vision of a great country. We have debased citizenship in the last years, as we have literally given citizenship away, made it so easy to get that it was hardly worth it.

Of all the definitions of citizenship, my favorite is that it is the belief in "voluntary allegiance." It not only sounds nice; it attaches significance to it. It is an oath you solemnly take to the nation you have chosen. Citizenship is the heart of our relationship to our fellow countrymen and women.

So, as the Obama administration embarks on these next four years, we citizens should watch carefully the words used to describe what they are doing. Let us not only watch their words, but also devise our own words to describe our new world.

Above all, let us not abjectly accept the old words that have no meaning for us as we face the future.

Almost 200 years ago, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his students:

"And now we welcome the new year

"Full of things that have never been."

Indeed, let us welcome it!

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