At long last, the immigration reform debate is heating up in the House of Representatives. The legislation, if it comes, will directly affect two groups presently living in the United States: illegal immigrants and undocumented nonresidents.
Illegal immigrants, as you may know, are criminals, simply and solely by virtue of their presence on this side of the border. They exploit generous U.S. social programs, paying little in the way of taxes while milking the system for all it's worth. Food stamps, health care, schooling, you name it.
Undocumented nonresidents, on the other hand, represent the cheap, essential labor on which U.S. agriculture relies. Among these undocumented nonresidents are millions of fully assimilated people who were brought here as children and who in many cases contribute significantly to the economy. They own homes, pay taxes and patronize local businesses. They are American in every sense except the legal.
We're talking about exactly the same people, of course. Only the labels have been changed to reflect the biases. Which came first, anyway: the world view that helped create the label, or the label that fed the world view?
We could ask that question regarding a whole dictionary's worth of epithets. Wingnut, bleeding heart, Marxist, Nazi, socialist, tea bagger, reactionary, leftist, elitist, neo-con, flaming liberal, Neanderthal, environmental whacko, corporate tool. Some people might embrace the label that others foist upon them, in which case they probably deserve it, but most of the time real people live inside of all that rhetorical wrapping -- people who might actually have the capacity for empathy and some basis for shared values.
Labeling is just too easy. Sometimes it's even fun, in a boorish, dismissive kind of way. It's a short walk from the labels we used to hear in high school -- nerd, jock, stoner, preppie -- to the poison-dipped sobriquets that hit us as adults. We don't want to sit at the same cafeteria table with a nerd for the same reason we're uncomfortable with the idea of a respectful, civil discussion with an environmental whacko or a corporate tool -- that is, unless we're allowed to arm ourselves with all the preconceived assumptions and label-mongering behaviors that typically attach themselves to such encounters.
I once had a reader go ballistic on me because I referred to someone as a "conservative activist." "Left-wingers are activists!!," he shouted via email. "By putting those words together you're deliberately putting passionate conservatives into the same category as socialist rabble-rousers. Conservative 'activists' do not exist." That will come as a surprise to anti-feminist (another of those words) Phyllis Schlafly or James O'Keefe, who made those damning candid-camera videos at ACORN's offices.
It's easy to pick on conservatives on this issue because they're so good at it (led, of course, by Rush "Femi-Nazi" Limbaugh), but liberals swing a pretty good axe too. Look no further than the MSNBC staffer who got himself fired for tweeting that the "right-wing" of America would have a tough time identifying with the biracial family depicted in an "adorable" new Cheerios ad set to air during today's Super Bowl.
This whole label thing is a subset of semantics, something smart political strategists grasp. As conservative Frank Luntz, the celebrity pollster and message-shaper puts it, the Republican Party shouldn't be trying to appeal to voters by trumpeting "capitalism," it should be championing "free enterprise." Et cetera.
Find advantageous shades of meaning -- that's how you win elections, Luntz would say. Putting labels on things to further one's personal or political agenda isn't the way to bring people together, of course. But who on earth would want to do that?
Email Executive Editor Robert Price at email@example.com.