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Was Obama right to buy in to 'Obamacare' slur?

By John McWhorter
updated 7:59 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
Cathey Park shows her
Cathey Park shows her "I heart Obamacare" cast at an event in Boston where the president spoke. He later signed the cast.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John McWhorter: Adopting a slur cancels its sting: women did it with b-word, blacks with N-word
  • McWhorter: Should Obama use "Obamacare," the GOP slur for Affordable Care Act?
  • He says anti-Obama people support ACA, hate Obamacare, think they are different
  • McWhorter: Obama did the right thing to link his name with far-reaching health care reform

Editor's note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University, writes for Time Ideas and is a contributing editor for The New Republic. His latest book is "What Language Is (and What It Isn't and What It Could Be)."

(CNN) -- The Obama administration has not always been great at selling its agenda, but the president's adoption of the right-wing slur "Obamacare" as a prideful new name for the Affordable Care Act has been a notable exception. We often think the proper response to being called a dirty name is to object. That's a good first step, but in the long term, the judo approach is constructive -- hurl the power being used against you back to your opponent.

John McWhorter
John McWhorter

For example, in 1968 William F. Buckley could offend Gore Vidal by calling him a "queer" on television. Today, the line would feel antique and impotent, in large part because gay men adopted the term for themselves and denatured its sting.

Women today are doing the same with b---h. Black people long ago adopted the N-word as a raffish term of in-group affection, and if you ask me as a black person, we'd do better to stop going to pieces when white people say it.

If the word didn't do the job, people would be less likely to use it. Kanye West understands the technique. His idea of emblazoning the Confederate flag on T-shirts to take possession of it in the name of black America is inspired. The good ole boy hangs a Confederate flag out his window and black people are walking by under it in T-shirts with the same flag on it -- that's how you get a new world started.

Dean and Gergen on the Obamacare mess
Dean and Gergen on the Obamacare mess

Yet on Obamacare, we face the awkward fact that the right wing has not been completely vanquished in its quest to vilify the program with a name. We hear of quite a few out people out there who confidently espouse the tenets that the Affordable Care Act is based on and yet lustily declare themselves opposed to Obamacare, which they think is something separate. (Watch this Jimmy Kimmel video to see people do that very thing.)

But this doesn't mean we'd be better off if Obama hadn't adopted the term Obamacare. For one, for those in favor of the program, the term stands as a useful reminder of one of the few large-scale triumphs of this administration on the domestic policy front. Health care policy isn't as inherently dramatic as battles over education, the environment or the culture wars. In the grand scheme of things, Obama's legacy in the popular consciousness is better served by a term as memory friendly as Obamacare, just as the Johnson administration is better served by its association with Medicare rather than "Social Security Act Title XVIII."

But what about those Obamacare opponents who think companies should be required to enroll people despite pre-existing conditions and that young people should be able to stay on their parents' policies until age 26, while unaware that this makes hating Obamacare about as logical as seeking to breathe while disapproving of respiration? Well, we can assume that in a massive, poorly educated nation such as this one, a healthy segment will display this "keep your government hands off my Medicare" level of political sophistication.

We assume, however, that in a modern democracy, change comes from ongoing disputation, as "conversations" move in certain directions. It will be hard for such people not to notice, as time goes by, that the provisions they espouse came into being under "Obamacare," whatever their take on Tea Party ideology. Even sooner than this, the prevalence of the meme holding these Affordable-Care-Act-loving Obamacare opponents front and center as national jokes will have a certain effect.

Oh, we won't see many contrite admissions of ignorance. But that's not how ideological battles are won. As often as not, people admit the truth to themselves, but they'd have no way to do even that if Obama hadn't picked up the Obamacare term and lobbed it back.

Kanye West's idea with the Confederate flag T-shirts is "Now, whaddya gonna do about it?" For those who want universal health care but hate Obamacare, the ignorance so deep that there's nowhere to go but up. What are they gonna do about it? Learn, apparently -- they couldn't avoid it if they tried. That's progress.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John McWhorter.

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