I trust that most readers are familiar with the meaning of “Santorum.” I am referring here not to the (alas) former Republican presidential candidate, but to the infamous neologism created in his honor, which I dare not speak of here lest I deprive those uninitiated few of the pleasures of discovery (hint: it is one of the first entries to appear when googling his name). Originally disseminated by writer and gay rights activist Dan Savage in 2003, in response to a comment by the former-Senator linking gay sex with bigamy, polygamy, and incest in opposition to a Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas sodomy law, the blog-contest and eventual re-branding of Rick Santorum’s last name received a shot in the arm when the former-senator announced his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination last June, with frequent prime-time mentions by the likes of Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, among others.
This fits nicely into what Bruce Lincoln calls discourses of “affinity” and “estrangement, in his book Discourse and the Construction of Society (1989). For Lincoln, certain modes of discourse, including myth, ritual and classification, are central to understanding how institutional formations, hierarchies, etc., are constantly being shaped and re-shaped by individuals or groups in a given society. Among other things, such an approach aims to
demonstrate how struggles over truth and meaning are fought-over, won, and lost not so much by physical force, which Lincoln considers a “stopgap measure” that is effective only in the short term, nor by the capacity of groups to appeal to “facts” or reasoned arguments, but by the ability to play on peoples’ sentiments as a form of ideological
For example, a recent poll found that 52% of Republican voters in Mississippi think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. While a typical rationalist response might point out how this is factually incorrect and label those who believe it as “stupid,” a Lincolnian
approach would instead ask such questions as “who benefits” by linking Obama with Muslims, thereby revealing the forces of power, “behind the curtain” who stand to gain by mystifying the conservation?
Drawing on additional methods, we might also consider how there may be a more subtle psychology of sacredness at play here, where Obama is seen to be psychically or symbolically polluted in the eyes of certain groups, given his foreign-sounding name and his father’s ties to Islam. Cognitive theorists take note.
Lincoln further argues, following Antonio Gramsci, that discourse can also be used by “subordinate classes” in order to “demystify” and “delegitimate” existing norms and institutions. (5) In the case of the neologism “Santorum,” we find a rather creative symbolic inversion of the former-candidate’s last name, linking its conventional meaning with the very act (and people) that he himself evidently fears and despises. To put it in the language of semiotics, when the signifier (Santorum) is linked to the signified (the neologism), a sign-symbol emerges that reinvests the original signifier with a new meaning and one, in this case, that’s hard to wash off!
David Urban, a Santorum supporter and former chief of staff for former-Senator Arlen Specter touches on this in a recent article discussing Santorum’s “Google problem,” pointing out, “You can bury anything on the Internet.” But at what financial cost and at what political cost? You can bury a bad story. But how do you bury your own name?” Touché.
Given the popular use of Google as a primary site for obtaining information, some have suggested that the neologism “which surpassed Santorum’s own campaign site in search results” contributed to his 2006 loss of his seat in the Pennsylvania senate race. While we can only speculate on what might have been if Rick had pulled off the miracle of defeating Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, the headline of a recent article in the Globe and Mail, entitled, “Can Rick Santorum Become U.S. president if his name isn’t even safe for kids to Google?,” speaks to the potency of this symbolic discourse of estrangement as a form of ideological persuasion. If nothing else, Savage’s re-branding campaign has contributed to the de-legitimization of much of the anti-gay rhetoric coming from the Santorum camp, forcing them to re-mystify the issue as “a policy thing.”
Chalk one point up for LGBTQ struggles and let the language games continue! While these power struggles will no doubt continue on the sidelines in 2012, if Rick does decide to run for president once again in 2016, he may want to seriously consider the power of symbols and change his name.