A new term has crept into our national, colloquial lexicon. And I’m not talking about “you’re fired!” or even “insurgent.” It’s “embolden.”

Emboldening is something we are not supposed to do, because those who are emboldened are those who oppose us. It first crept into the national vernacular shortly after 9/11, as new internal security measures emerged. It was the basis for action. “If we do not act,” so went the argument, “our enemies will be emboldened.” Fair enough, we don’t want bold enemies. We want them timid, on the run.

Indeed, the word’s become a catch-all bogeyman when it comes to foreign affairs. As the nation chose its president last fall, some claimed that the wrong choice might “embolden” the enemies of freedom. (One analyst amusingly retorted that terrorists were “pretty freaking bold as it is.”) As Iraq now lurches toward elections, a letter-writer to a newspaper in Tennesee says that delay will only embolden these same enemies.

But, “emboldening” isn’t just a geopolitical worry. Many more are getting into the act. The Transportation Safety Administration is accused of being “emboldened” by a Supreme Court decision to infringe on citizens’ rights. The lure of big profits “emboldens” hackers.

What is the warning, when we say that someone is being emboldened? It is, simply, that we are worried the enemy will do what we suspect he or she has wanted to do all along, and has simply avoided doing due to cost calculations. But, were I a general, I might wish for an emboldened enemy — if yesterday they were wisely waiting to act, and today they rashly make their move simply because I’ve given them reason to be encouraged, I can strike them down all the easier.

If there is a group in America that has been emboldened by the re-election of President Bush, it is social conservatives. Everywhere you look, they are flexing their muscles, thundering about new restrictions on gay unions and getting God back into public life. The President has done his share of emboldening, sending strong signals that he is in support of this basic moral agenda. Such moves have the secular left tearing their hair out.

Surely the latest such baldness-inducing episode will be an effort by James Dobson’s group, Focus on the Family, to pick a fight with Barney, Jimmy Neutron, and SpongeBob SquarePants. If you only vaguely recollect the purple dinosaur and have no clue who the subatomic particle boy is, have no worries. They are not household names. But, SpongBob has become an icon and there are few who do not know the good-hearted sea-dweller. Mr. Dobson has targeted Mr. SquarePants becuase of his appearance in a video intended for distribution to elementary schools that promotes a “tolerance pledge.” This sort of outreach effort, if I remember my own childhood and my reaction to such adult-inspired media manipulations correctly, is destined to be a snoozer and one may wonder at the expenditure. But it’s happening nonetheless.

The complaint is that the SpongeBob video explicitly promotes tolerance of gays. But, it doesn’t. Nothing in the video or its accompanying materials discuss homosexuality. There is a reference to a pledge, available at a website, that mentions “sexual identity.” This hardly counts as gay propaganda, in a world where there are television shows predicated on the notion that gay people have better taste than straights.

But, Mr. Dobson and other social conservatives are clearly emboldened by their recent electoral victory. They feel the wind of a mandate behind them. Picking this particular cute little yellow spong as an adversary may have been a miscalculation, however. Because anyone who has watched even a bit a SpongeBob SquarePants (that is, anyone with children and many without) knows that the little guy is just a good-hearted soul trying his best to make his friends happy and do the right thing. His character is one of the bright spots of the TV landscape. He has no guile in his heart, and is steadfastly cheerful — yet not cloyingly so like Barney.

And so, in levelling its fire at Nickolodeon’s flagship sponge, Mr. Dobson’t group may well have overreached. The charges don’t make sense. Were I an adversary of Focus on the Family, I might be chortling. Were I a supporter, I might be worried.

Being neither, I watch with interest as the idea of “being emboldened” takes wing in new ways across our political landscape. In fact, only recently I saw a glowing reference to the President’s inaugural speech, saying that it would “embolden” freedom fighters across the globe. So, it’s beginning to be a good thing, now. Good, then.

Perhaps there are a few friendly words that can be said that would embolden SpongeBob to fight back against this recent attack. But, I think he is too retiring a fellow.