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Words used to distort, not enlighten

A colleague recently suggested I take a look at George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" to understand the intellectual bankruptcy of modern politics. The essay speaks to the way politicians use language distortions and outright lies to undermine the ability of people to distinguish between what's true and what's false. And without clarity on objective reality, there's no hope of problem solving or holding public officials accountable. My colleague thought this was among the worst problems the country faces, and I agree.

Prompting all this was what happened at Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signing of Florida's $69 billion budget, where residents identified as Democrats were removed from the audience. Scott transformed the signing ceremony from a governor's public duty to a private event sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida, which allowed his staff to excise all hints of political dissent. Later, Scott's spokesman flat-out lied about what happened, claiming the signing was "a public event."

Maybe Scott's team uses the terms public and private to mean the opposite of their common usage. You know, the way private schools in Britain are called "public schools," in that they are open to anyone who could afford to go there and meet the requirements for acceptance. Come to think of it, that really does nail Scott's understanding of "public."

Orwell's 1946 essay identified how words in politics are used in a "consciously dishonest way," as a feint. Among his examples: "The Soviet press is the freest in the world" and "The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution," phrases, he noted, that are almost always used to deceive.

Today's politics is rife with similar examples. Linguist Frank Luntz, a GOP rock star, is a master of this dark art. He is the man who brought you the "death tax," the euphemism Republicans use to describe the federal estate tax. The phrase somehow succeeded in turning average Americans against taxes on huge, wealthy estates — causing the overall tax burden to shift away from the heirs of millionaires and billionaires and onto the less wealthy.

Luntz also authored the infamous 2009 memo tutoring Republicans on how to respond to President Barack Obama's health care reforms. He suggested they use phrases such as the "government takeover" of health care, and government "rationing care."

It didn't matter that Obama's plan utilized the private insurance market and looked a heck of a lot like prior Republican reform plans, or that rationing was not a component. These Luntz-inspired phrases conjured the right bugbears in the minds of listeners, arousing a major backlash against a plan that, in fact, left most people's health insurance alone while addressing the problem of the uninsured and cutting the federal deficit.

Luntz's specialty, known as "framing," uses words that make listeners think about a subject within a framework that evokes an automatic positive or negative reaction. In Luntz's hands, a complex public policy is reduced to a catchphrase. The point is to obscure, not enlighten, and to engage people emotionally rather than intellectually.

Orwell's political essay discusses this, but it is really Nineteen Eighty-Four that is his monument to the manipulation of language as a means of control by distorting a passive people's sense of reality. In Orwell's Oceania, and under Big Brother's watchful eye, words are an enemy of the state. So much so that a Newspeak dictionary is written to constrict the language itself. With fewer words, the range of consciousness becomes smaller, eventually making "thoughtcrime" or dissent impossible. People simply won't have the vocabulary to conceive of it.

If the 21st century is to be remembered for anything beyond America's ruination through political stalemate, it will be the hijacking of political discourse by brainwashers like Luntz. When people are convinced that health insurance for all will mean less access to health care, and lower taxes on billion-dollar estates is good for tax fairness, it isn't much different than: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.

Oh, and if you're Rick Scott, Private is Public.

Words used to distort, not enlighten 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 5:30am]

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