Progressive Language Translations: From Tupac to Policy Wonks

Twenty-five years ago, I would listen to Tupac on my Walkman (mostly to and from school).  He had such an impact on black culture that some people still refuse to believe he is dead.  A brilliant lyricist, he often strayed into a form of politics that formed a bridge between the 1970’s black power era to the 1990’s hip hop generation.  Earlier this week, MTV dusted off and posted a clip of Tupac from its archives.  The network noted that he name-dropped Donald Trump as an example of the worst type of American greed.  But he also talked poverty and race.  As a young progressive, I likely agreed with much of what he had to say at the time.

Today, perhaps because I’m older, I listen to less music.  But I am still happy when Tupac comes up in the shuffle on my iPhone.  I spend far more time listening podcasts featuring politicos and policy wonks.  The ones that I agree with say the exact same things Tupac said—only in a different language.  They talk about Trump and the Emoluments Clause, wealth redistribution, a progressive tax code, faith-based values, dog whistle politics, the demonization of the poor, a strong role for the federal government in addressing economic inequality and racial disparities, and reparations.

Watching that flashback of Tupac reminded me of my first language and highlighted just how much I have become immersed in a second.  In my new spaces, there have been ongoing questions about why a progressive message is failing to connect with too many Americans.  I listened in on one of these conversations just before I listened to Tupac.  As a result, three things came to mind:

1) Shared Values, Multiple Tongues. Many Americans share progressive values.  But not everyone in that group speaks the same language.  There are variations according to region of the country, income level, race, faith-based traditions, and other factors.  Translation is relatively easier challenge to overcome than fundamental differences.

2) Simplicity.  I must admit that I love wonk talk.  However, it is not appropriate for every space.  Simplicity has the ability to break down barriers.  It is the closest thing we have to a shared tongue.  Simplicity is not the same as talking down to people but finding commonality—it’s important to know the difference.  Being able to reduce complex concepts into simple terms is a sign of intelligence.  While the ability to convert simple concepts into complex language can just be annoying and unnecessary.

3) Integrate.  Americans are growingly segregated.  Racial segregation has always been (and continues to be) an issue.  But in recent years, researchers like Robert Putnam (Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis) have been highlighting drastic increases in class segregation.  Evolutions in media have allowed Americans to self-segregate according to multiple individual characteristics and interests.  Integration, in various forms, will benefit efforts to communicate around progressive values.

(Originally Posted on on April 24, 2017)

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