Dont_think_of_elephantReading George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant the last two days (OK, crack your jokes about taking days to read what is essentially a long magazine article), I’m struck by this column about conservative activist’s James Dobson’s crusade against SpongeBob, the cartoon character. I’ve never seen the show, though I know it’s not about how people named Bob seem so intellectually alive because of all the knowledge they’ve soaked up. But it doesn’t matter. The point of this column by Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times is just the point Lakoff makes: Conservatives are sophisticated linguists who know to use “tax relief” instead of “tax cuts.” That’s well understood. But what’s frightening is how they successfully demonize words like “tolerance.”

Though [Barbara McGraw, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and author of the book Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America] says her own political views are quite liberal, McGraw has devoted significant time to exploring the friction between the religious right and secular left, declaring, “somewhere in the middle, you find the basic values of the nation.” And she sees a significant message in Dobson’s criticisms.

“Dobson says words such as tolerance and diversity are code words for a kind of progay agenda some parents don’t agree with,” said McGraw, noting carefully that she doesn’t agree with the minister’s assertions.

“You’re not going to have millions of people following something that is completely stupid . . . and there is a legitimate point about parents raising their children according to the values they have,” she added. “One of (Dobson’s) key points is that liberals are using buzz words to promote an agenda that goes beyond race and religion. The mainstream media need to be sensitive to that.”

My hunch is that McGraw is right. And other conservatives have taken similar stances; most recently with Education Secretary Margaret Spelling’s stand against an episode of Postcards From Buster in which the cartoon character visits lesbian mothers.

But the PBS series Frontline exposed another agenda conservative politicians and activists often have during such crusades: demonizing key buzzwords among their faithful followers.

Frontline’s recent documentary The Persuaders followed consultant Frank Luntz, the man credited with turning the public against estate taxes by call them a “death tax.” In his hands, “tax cuts” become “tax relief,” and the “war on Iraq” becomes the “war on terror.”

“Eighty percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect,” Luntz told Frontline. “I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think.” Asked if such terms don’t just confuse the issue, Luntz had more wordplay ready: “Some people call it global warming, some people call it climate change,” he rationalized. “What’s the difference?”

Using the Luntz model, if Dobson can convince enough Americans that “tolerance” and “diversity” are simply code for “gay rights,” then he’s won a war on the language battlefield – the same way Rush Limbaugh helped demonize “liberal” and “feminist.”

The challenge for progressives is to reclaim those words, to reinvigorate them, even if it means invoking God. In fact, those who can do so honestly, (yes, even progressives can be religious) can succeed politically. Too many progressives, unfortunately, feel to invoke God, or more specifically Jesus Christ, or their religious beliefs sends the wrong message to potential supporters not of the same religion, agnostics and atheists. I don’t buy that. By focusing on the moral imperative, not the God that dictates politics, progressives reclaim the moral high ground. Through two thirds of Lakoff’s book, I’m not sure he has a detailed map, but that may be found, dare I say, only in one’s soul.