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The Semiotics of Disaster

posted: 8.25.11 by Jack Solomon

Semiotics is the study of codes: how signs get their meanings from their placement within larger systems of signs. I have been providing demonstrations of how this works in a number of my posts on popular culture, but this time I want to examine a particular political code that is currently having an enormous—and in my opinion, disastrous—effect on American life: the codes governing the current debate on government spending.

The key sign here is a word: entitlements. Technically, an entitlement is any governmental benefit that a citizen, or entity, is entitled to by law. Entitlements include Social Security and Medicare, and also Medicaid, food stamps, and other welfare-related programs. Note how when Republicans say they want to cut spending, they now refer to “reforming entitlements.”  They don’t say, “we want to slash the Medicare and Social Security benefits that you have been paying for through your payroll taxes all of your working life.” They actually tried that once through Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan but got stomped for it. Shifting the discourse to entitlements is safer. Why? Because in the code of conservative politics the word entitlements connotes “welfare” alone, and welfare opens up a whole new can of semiotic worms.

What worms? Hint: remember the mileage Ronald Reagan got out of the code phrase “welfare mothers?”  Never mind the fact that welfare benefits are received by people of all races; in the conservative code welfare recipients connote “nonwhites.” “Reforming entitlements,” then, really means “eliminating welfare.” The fact that welfare benefits are a small component of the federal budget gets completely erased in the code. The politicians who use the code know (but their supporters don’t) that cutting welfare won’t touch the budget deficit and have their sights on Social Security and Medicare in order to keep taxes low for America’s richest.

So racial conflict—America’s most explosive political topic, and hence its most elaborately codified—gets mixed up in the matter. Emotion rather than reason takes over.   We end up with the odd phenomenon of Tea Party members, whose rank and file are largely lower-middle and middle-class white conservatives who stand to lose a great deal if their Social Security and Medicare benefits are demolished, demanding an “entitlement reform” that in the end will hurt their own economic interests.

In short, the Republicans have altered the meaning of the word entitlement to signify something more along the line of “give away.”  The fact that Medicare and Social Security are not give-away programs and that working Americans pay for them in advance is lost in a semiotic shuffle that George Orwell called “newspeak.”  Newspeak or code-speak, this time the meaning is the same.


Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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