Tag Archives: language

Words, Words, Words….

Words matter.

In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.

Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.

It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”

Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.

Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.

The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.

As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”

We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking:  excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”

Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised  that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”

The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”

The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”

The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”

Or perhaps “infested.”

Point Well Taken…

One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.

In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.

Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.

But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.

But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.

Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.

I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.

Words, Words, Words…..

In My Fair Lady, Eliza sings “Words, words, words–I’m so sick of words…” Instead, she demands, “show me.”

These days, the way politicians use and misuse words is quite enough to “show” us.

Multiple media outlets have reported on the administration’s recent instructions to the CDC, forbidding the use of certain words in official communications. As an article from the Chicago Tribune reports,

Trump administration officials are forbidding officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases – including “fetus” and “transgender” – in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

Shades of Rick Scott’s edict banning the phrase “climate change” from Florida’s official vocabulary! (Unfortunately for the state, forgoing use of the phrase hasn’t stopped the water from rising…Damn pesky reality!)

This new mandate would be funny if it weren’t one more piece of (whoops!) evidence that government under Trump is unconcerned with (that word again!) evidence–or fact, or science, or–let’s be honest–anything we would recognize as actual governing.

As ridiculous and worrisome as this effort at Newspeak is, the apparent reason for the language ban is even more troubling. The emphasis on “alternative” language appears to be focused on the budget.

The ban is related to the budget and supporting materials that are to be given to CDC’s partners and to Congress, the analyst said. The president’s budget for 2019 is expected to be released in early February. The budget blueprint is generally shaped to reflect an administration’s priorities.

The New York Times report on this directive suggests that the reason for banning these phrases from the budget document is to increase the likelihood that Congress will respond positively to that budget–in other words, it’s an effort to avoid riling the anti-science, anti-evidence GOP Neanderthals who currently dominate Congressional lawmaking.

Given the amount of attention this ham-handed effort has attracted, it isn’t likely to be very effective. Far more terrifying–and sinister–is a quiet venture meant to distort and confuse the definition of “science” and the rules of “economics,” aimed squarely at current and prospective members of the judicial branch. (Evidently, packing the courts with know-nothings isn’t the only Trumpian assault on the courts.)

In early October, 22 state and federal judges hailing from Honolulu to Albany got a crash course in scientific literacy and economics. The three-day symposium was billed as a way to help the judges better scrutinize evidence used to defend government regulations.

But the all-expenses-paid event hosted by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center in Arlington, Virginia, served another purpose: it was the first of several seminars designed to promote “skepticism” of scientific evidence among likely candidates for the 140-plus federal judgeships Donald Trump will fill over the next four years.

The lone science instructor was Louis Anthony Cox Jr, a risk analyst with deep industry ties whose recent appointment as chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air scientific advisory committee drew condemnation in public-health circles. Since 1988, Cox has consulted for the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group that spent millions to dispute the cancer-causing properties of benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, and is now working to question the science on smog-causing ozone. He’s also testified on behalf of the chemical industry and done research for the tobacco giant Philip Morris.

What was that line Humpty Dumpty uttered in Alice in Wonderland? “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

I know it’s still morning, but I need a drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Conundrum and a Mea Culpa

A couple of commenters to yesterday’s blog leveled a criticism of my post that I think is valid.

My statement that many of Trump’s supporters are bigots came far too close to the same sort of name-calling that distresses so many of us when Trump engages in it. Although I did say “many” (in an effort to acknowledge that the epithet doesn’t apply to everyone who is supporting him) that statement was both too broad-brush and too dismissive. Flat assertions of that sort do not encourage mutually respectful communication, to put it mildly.

So, mea culpa.

Here’s the conundrum: It has become increasingly obvious that Trump and his most ardent supporters present a “clear and present danger” to American constitutional and social values. As a country, we need to understand the dynamics of this phenomenon, and why a man so manifestly unfit for the Oval Office nevertheless appeals to so many voters.

Survey research suggests that a significant number of Trump supporters are responding to his message of racial grievance and white nationalism–and we can’t afford to ignore that reality. We need to consider what it implies and what to do about it, because even if–even when–Trump loses, those grievances will still be there, waiting to be inflamed by the next demagogue.

We cannot afford to shrug our shoulders and simply hope this ugly moment passes. We need to identify the fault lines and discuss them candidly.

That said, we need to acknowledge–I needed to acknowledge–that some people are supporting Trump because they are loyal Republicans, or because they haven’t followed the election news closely, or because they don’t trust reporting from what Sarah Palin dismisses as the “lame stream media,” or because they’re just “mad as hell and not going to take it [the status quo] any more,” and don’t recognize the likely (disastrous) consequences of electing this particular “disruptor” to the most powerful office on earth.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Trump campaign thus far has been the normalization of nasty, uncivil discourse. It should be possible to conduct even brutally honest analyses of troubling political behavior without sinking into”Trump-like” name-calling.

I intend to be more careful with my own language in the future.

 

If It Walks Like a Duck, Call it a Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Rampell had a must-read column in the Washington Post, beginning with “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that feller behind the tree!”

Rampell focused upon the rampant hypocrisy of the “no tax” ideologues:

Jonathan Gruber has been vilified for (among other things) noting the “tortured” way that sections of the Affordable Care Act were written in order to stay in the good graces of both the Congressional Budget Office and the public. But such budgetary gamesmanship has long been an open, and bipartisan, tactic in Washington. When “spending” became a dirty word, Congress phased out earmarks. In their place, it doled out treats to special interests through the tax code, now awarding more than a trillion dollars each year in federal tax breaks, carve-outs and loopholes. Arithmetically, letting someone pay less in taxes is identical to spending money on them, but voters don’t see things that way….

Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Examples abound. Call it a toll. Call it a fee. Finance local government with smoke and mirrors.

This “no tax” chicanery plays to our worst impulses, the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and piss on the public good” attitudes that have crippled efforts to improve our communities and build a more inclusive, robust public square. But as intellectually dishonest as the “that’s not really a tax” strategies are, they’re a subset of a larger, even more troubling phenomenon: we’ve stripped our language of content.

I’ve frequently noted–in response to overheated rhetoric from the Right–that President Obama really can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi, because those words have meanings, and they are different. (And actually, in a sane world, neither remotely applies to the President, whether you like his policies or hate them.) Science is not a system of “beliefs” equivalent to religion, because falsifiable empirical facts are not matters of “faith.” LGBT folks don’t have “lifestyles,” they have orientations. I could go on and on.

The problem with misuse and abuse of language is that we lose the ability to communicate with each other. When words no longer have generally accepted meanings, we are just making sounds–and when those words are turned into epithets and insults, intelligible conversation comes to a screeching halt.

Language is one of the most important achievements of the human race; it is fundamental to human progress. We jeopardize more than we realize when we debase it.