Friday, June 29, 2012

The weapon of words

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

― George Orwell1984

Over the past year, I have thought often of George Orwell's novel "1984."  Certain aspects of Orwell's dystopian vision of the future have lingered with me since I first read his 1949 novel as a high school student, more years ago than I care to discuss.  One of the parts of the book that made a lasting impression on me, far before my political consciousness fully emerged, was the use of doublespeak, language that deliberately distorts or reverses the meaning of words. 

In Orwell's novel, the government of Oceania was comprised of four ministries:  the Ministry of Peace, which supported Oceania's perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for the complete rewriting of history to support the goals of the regime, the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for the severe rationing of basic necessities while claiming to be raising the standard of living, and the Ministry of Love, whose agents sought to identify and crush any form of dissidence against the government.  In the nation of Oceania, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance was strength.  Orwell's novel highlighted the power of propaganda when combined with the fear produced by a totalitarian state.

I am not exactly sure why Orwell's treatment of doublespeak lingered with me after reading "1984."  On some level, I was both fascinated and repulsed by the concept that a power structure, particularly a government, could make average people believe something that is objectively, and fundamentally, untrue.  I think my interest in this subject stayed with me to adulthood because I saw examples of doublespeak in the real world, and those examples never failed to alarm me.  

I have become intensely interested in this subject with renewed enthusiasm in the past few years while watching the corporate takeover of our political system.  That interest has peaked over the past 16 months while witnessing the the attack in Wisconsin on workers, women, the poor, and the environment at the hands of our government.

If there is one conclusion I have reached in the past year and a half, it is that language, when used effectively, yields tremendous power.  

We have seen a disturbing phenomenon over the past decade regarding the use of Orwellian-type doublespeak in the corporate takeover of America.  In particular, the Republican party has been absolutely masterful in utilizing language in a way that doesn't merely change the meaning of words, but changes peoples' perception of the very policies and conditions that affect their daily lives.  In short, I believe that the use of doublespeak has been a huge factor in convincing people to vote against their own interests.  

Over the past few years, as the GOP has become more and more extreme in its ideology and policy, an entire vocabulary of phrases has been intentionally concocted in the halls of right wing think tanks and spread with disciplined commitment by Republican politicians.  These precise messages have been crafted by men like Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster and strategist.  Luntz has been absolutely instrumental in helping to create the language of today's GOP.  Luntz truly understands the power of language, as evidenced by this excerpt from an article he wrote in 2011 for the Huffington Post:
 "Words matter. The most powerful words have helped launch social movements and cultural revolutions. The most effective words have instigated great change in public policy. The right words at the right time can literally change history."
Luntz is a master of the use of language to redefine truth:  He taught the GOP to use the phrase "death tax" instead of "estate tax," the phrase "deep sea energy exploration" instead of "off-shore drilling," and "economic freedom" instead of "capitalism."  And while his skills as a wordsmith are undeniable, his ethics are far more questionable.  He has been censured by both the American Association for Public Opinion research and the National Council on Public Polls for suspect polling methods and results.  He remains, however, extremely influential in the messaging of the Republican party.

Let us examine a few of the current popular doublespeak phrases to illustrate the scope of the problem.  Once created, these phrases are diligently repeated, like a script, by Republican politicians nationwide.  The most troubling aspect of all of this, however, is the fact that these phrases also become adopted by the media, and not just Fox News or right-wing radio.  I believe that this adoption is sometimes intentional, but sometimes it is merely the result of intellectual laziness.  I also believe, with total conviction, that the adoption and incessant repetition of these phrases greatly impacts the outcome of important national debates.  

Let's start with a bedrock of Republican doublespeak:  Reform.  

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines reform as 1) to put or change into an improved form or condition 2) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.  We have witnessed the word "reform" used relentlessly by the GOP when discussing their desire to weaken our national social safety net.  Proposed cuts to social security, or turning Medicare into a voucher program as Paul Ryan proposed, is called  "entitlement reform."  Scott Walker called the stripping of collective bargaining rights of almost all public employees "bold reforms" to balance the state budget, despite the fact that collective bargaining has almost no impact on that budget.  The GOP uses the term "reform" because it connotes something positive, not destructive.  Conversely, they will avoid this term at all costs when referring to a policy they don't like.  You will never hear a Republican politician refer to the Affordable Care Act as healthcare reform.  Nope, on that one you will hear "Government takeover,""European socialism," or just plain "job-killer."  In a nutshell, if you hear the word reform coming from a Republican's mouth, you can rest assured that some program or right that benefits average people is about to be cut, defunded, or destroyed.  Yet the use of the word at every press conference and in every news article helps convince average people that the destruction of programs, or even rights, is something positive.  War is peace, as Orwell would say.

A few days ago, the Pew Center on the States named the Wisconsin Retirement System the very best pension fund in the nation.  Know what the headline in the following day's  Beloit Daily News was?  "Walker "open" to pension reform."  Aside from the fact that I believe a Republican attack on the best pension fund in the nation is imminent, as I wrote about in my piece "Enemy at the Gates," there is something curious about the headline of the AP story:  Walker himself doesn't even use the term "reform" regarding WRS anywhere in the article. It is the newspaper that uses the term in the headline.  In the article, Walker merely states he is open to "changes" to the pension system (although he has talked gleefully about "pension reform" to other audiences outside Wisconsin).  His choice of toned-down language in Wisconsin is probably intentional, as reforming something that was just named the best in its class will be a tough sell to Wisconsinites, and the term "changes" may be used to sound less threatening.  But the use of the term reform is so pervasive in the GOP vernacular that the media is now inserting it on its own when writing stories about GOP politicians.  I am still trying to find that famous liberal media, folks.

Another great Republican doublespeak phrase is "Right to Work."  

"Right to work" was a phrase concocted by the GOP and corporate lobbying groups to describe union-busting legislation that is sweeping Republican-controlled statehouses across the nation.  It is a phrase which was designed to present the image that the GOP was somehow empowering workers with this legislation, yet that characterization bears almost no connection with the truth.  So far, 23 states have passed this type of legislation.  "Right to Work" is Scott Walker's Act 10 on steroids.  "Right to Work" legislation kills unions with a multi-pronged attack. First, it allows employees to stop paying union dues while continuing to benefit from union representation.  This has nothing to do with freedom, it is a method of starving unions financially.  Second, it often prohibits the collection of union dues through payroll deduction, making it a logistical nightmare for the union to collect the revenue necessary for survival.  Third, this legislation frequently mandates a recertification schedule, forcing unions to put their existence up to a vote on a regular basis, an expensive and onerous process.   

"Right to work" has nothing to do with worker's rights, unless if you count the right of selfish workers to freeload benefits on the backs of dues-paying members.  In reality, it crushes workers' rights by destroying the power of a collective voice.  This legislation has been championed by corporate lobbying groups such as ALEC and the US Chamber of Commerce not only for the power it gives employers over workers, but for the effect on the Democratic Party, which relies heavily on political contributions from labor unions.

So with this information in mind, how did this legislation get such an innocuous, seemingly positive, name?  The GOP deliberately created it, that's how.  Not only is the name misleading, but it has become commonly accepted by most people who discuss this topic, on the right AND the left.  Ignorance is strength.

Next, we have the term "Job Creators." No GOP press conference in the past few years would be complete without this term.  

"Job creators" is GOP code for rich people, and, yes, it is a term manufactured by none other than Frank Luntz.  The problem, as people like Luntz discovered, is that struggling Americans don't like hearing about rich people, particularly when it is in the context of tax breaks and outsourced labor on the backs of working people.  In order to make gluttonous tax breaks for the wealthy palatable to the American people, the GOP redefined the wealthy as "Job Creators," and parroted the phrase incessantly to the national media.  If college kids used the phrase as a drinking game during a John Boehner speech, everyone playing would be grossly intoxicated at the conclusion of his remarks.  The Tan Man absolutely adores the term "Job Creators."   

The creation of the phrase "job creators" is pure genius, because it taps right in to the core self-interest that currently motivates the majority of Americans.  By calling the rich "job creators," it delivers to people an implied warning that their future success, and their employment,  is inextricably tied to the success of wealthy, so the masses better leave them alone.  In reality, the middle and working class in this country are the job creators, because they drive our predominantly consumer-based economy.  Henry Ford understood this when he took the unprecedented action of paying his workers a substantial wage of five dollars per day.  Yet we see how powerful the phrase has been for the GOP in successfully promoting tax policies that favor the rich to a degree that would have made Ronald Reagan blush.

Another term that has been utterly distorted and savaged by the GOP is "Freedom."  

Freedom used to mean something wonderful in America.  In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about his idea of freedom in his State of the Union address to the American public.  Roosevelt told the nation that freedom was something that was achieved when the needs of all Americans were met, not just the needs of the wealthy.  Roosevelt's speech is well worth the read.  It inspires me and renews my commitment to fight to restore the true values of this nation.  

The power of words.

This notion of freedom, by the way, was once not limited to Democratic politicians.  Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a vision of freedom that bears zero resemblance to the vision of the current Republican party.  I have no doubt that this great man would have been defeated in a Tea Party primary if he ran today.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
"Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice."
Today, the word freedom in GOP-speak means something far different, so different that it makes it almost impossible to for me to reconcile that this is the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower.  It is the freedom of corporations to treat workers like chattel, pollute our environment, injure our citizens without fear of lawsuit, and move our industry overseas.  It is the freedom of financial institutions to extract the wealth from our nation, collapse our economy through unbridled greed, and receive bail outs when the house of cards falls. It is the freedom of religious zealots to impose their beliefs on a secular society, to deny groups of people civil rights, to hurt others in God's name, and to interpret scripture in a way thoroughly inconsistent with Judeo-Christian values.  It is the freedom of employers to deny health care to cancer patients, as was just espoused by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.  Jesus most certainly would not approve of the GOP's vision of "freedom."

To my readers on the left, I am asking each and every one of you to commit to joining me in pushing back against the very language that is used to further the immoral agenda of today's corporate right wing.  I believe Luntz is correct, words can literally change history.  Words can create greatness, but they can also devastate, particularly when used to deceive a populace, and we should never underestimate this power.  Start tuning your ear to the GOP corporate doublespeak, and tirelessly challenge those who utilize it, particularly in the media.  Don't passively accept language that was created in the recesses of think tanks with the intent to deceive our nation.  That language becomes reality when it is allowed to flourish.  Instead, create your own terms that reflect the truth of the corporate domination of the GOP.  Instead of right to work, call it "anti-worker legislation"  Instead of job creators, how about "Un-American tax dodgers?"  Instead of "freedom from regulation," call it "corporate lawlessness"  Use whatever terms you want, but stop legitimizing doublespeak through your silent acceptance.  

To my readers in the center:  All I ask of you is to start to question these terms when you hear them.  Ask yourself if they reflect reality, or are merely being used to create a false reality.  Make your own decision based on facts, and if you conclude I am right, I hope you feel compelled to help change the national vocabulary.

To the corporate right and your elected minions that control this nation:  All I say to you is that you use this language at your own peril.  Once the American people realize they have been deceived, they won't be happy or charitable or kind.  People just don't like to be suckered, and you aren't as charismatic as PT Barnum.  Furthermore, understand that you are using a parlor trick of language that has a rich tradition in the most brutal regimes in the world's history, all of which ultimately saw their own demise.  

Finally, to the media:  You have a responsibility to utilize language that was not created for the sole purpose of deceiving the public you are supposed to serve.  I recognize that much of our media is controlled by corporate influences, and as such, the use of this language may be intentional.  But for those journalists who use these terms out of convenience or sloth, you need to engage in some serious soul searching.  By reporting on things such as Walker's "reforms," you are making an inherent value judgment that you are passing on to your consumers, and that value judgment is based upon artfully crafted lies.  The public deserves better.

I will end as I began, with a quote:  

"By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise."  Adolph Hitler, 1943

The power of words.



  1. It's worth some time to see how your wise essay fits into linguist George Lakoff's idea of "framing." Which has to do with an easy to understand phrase that basically entitles a simple story that persuaders want you to buy into. He thinks Dems and progressives do this badly, while Repubs are masters at it. See:

    1. Thanks for sharing that link, what a great analysis of not only messaging but the core values of the Progressive movement. Lakoff is spot on when it comes to the message Progressives deliver to the American public. It goes far beyond the OWS movement.

  2. Brian, I was thinking much along these same lines and was doing some googling to back up a point I was making on the forum, concerning this wave of language bending, calling WRS changes, 'reform'. I characterized it as classic propaganda technique, along with a well timed blitz of conveniently placed news stories about the WRS in advance of the so-called "study" that we all know was written by ALEC participants years ago. I called to attention in my post on the subject, this speech by Goebbels, which I believe has shockingly coincidental underlying process and methodology as what we see ALEC forces plying in the public cyber-square, on public blogs and the like. Check it out and consider how much of it is relevant propaganda technique used be the right wing in our current political rhetoric and millieu.

    Keep'em coming, your essays are so very well composed and thoughtful.


    1. My friend, let's just say that I believe the propaganda techniques we are currently seeing have a long tradition in oppressive regimes. The reason is simple-the goals of all of these regimes, including the forces currently at work in the US, are inconsistent with the well-being of the populace. When you promote such an agenda, effective propaganda is vital, because the truth just won't work to win people over. Very troubling times we live in, for sure

  3. I'm pretty sure you're my new favorite blogger. Thanks for your very thoughtful, articulate, insightful, truth-telling posts.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and many thanks for reading!

  4. Brian- Great stuff, keep fighting the good fight. It's true that we simply don't do enough in terms of honest talk to fight through the noise of the right-wing propaganda machine (including the 9 hours of hate that pollutes AM 620, 1130, and 1310 every weekday).

    On a related note, I think public unions need to more forcefully remind people that we are the final check on political hacks, and the last line of defense for the people when it comes to putting a lid on the corruption and damage that the money power and their political puppets can cause.

  5. Indeed. I have even heard Luntzed used as a verb. I ask, often, who is the Democratic "Luntz"? What's keeping the Dems from getting their messaging act together? or the Progressives, for that matter? I appreciate the clarity of your writing and observations.

  6. There's no reason to stand there flat-footed in response to this stuff. I've taken to counterattack at least one of the phrases you mention, "job creators". I've tied it together with another right-wing doctrine, one with far less social appeal. I counter them by talking about the economic gospel of "job creationism." Lumping the two together as articles of faith then opens the door to attacking "job creationist" dogma as mythology, wishful thinking, and countering it by referring back to people's actual experience with the wealthy and powerful, which is that they are simply seeking to maximize profit, and that's more often done these days by eliminating jobs than creating them.

    Don't stand there helplessly, crying "foul" (although I know that's the Democratic Party way, and I'm coming from far to your left) take the bull by the horns, use your wits, remember your debating with society's mouth-breathers here, you can outthink them with half your cerebrum tied behind your back. Intellectual jiu-jitsu at all times, they'll be struck dumb as is their natural state of being.

  7. I don't care, and I'm not going to argue with you about it, but I really don't see how you can criticize something while engaging in the exact same behavior in the process.

    That's been my big realization over the last year and a half with regard to Orwellian language. There doesn't have to be some giant, overwhelmingly powerful, malevolent institution involved. We'll do it to ourselves. We love it!

  8. Well done, nice work. I will be following your work.

  9. I appreciate your perspective and yet I respectfully point out that your pursuasiveness is limited because your own political ideology is quite apparent. I become skeptical when I sense a lack of impartiality. Speaking from the "center ", I see doublespeak clearly on both sides. It's use is not limited to one party. I am not sure how this is not apparent to you, as you seem pretty astute? This i do believe is where bias enters, as we lose objectivity when we become impassioned.

    1. Your criticism is very fair. What you see as a failing, though, is actually a conscious decision on my part. My political ideology IS quite apparent, and it isn't merely born out of emotion. I try to write carefully, and I attempt to make sure I am conveying the precise ideas I want. I have always, however, worn my beliefs on my sleeve. To appear to be impartial or dispassionate would be dishonest, and that is truly where persuasiveness is lost.

      I think we are just looking at this from two different point of views. You were very respectful, so let me elaborate a little further. I did not set out to write this blog from the center, or to appear "impartial." I am extremely troubled by what I see happening in this country, and will do what I can to point out those things. To make it clear, though, my ideology isn't about supporting the Democratic party. The Democratic party has also been damaged by big money, and the result is that it has been pushed consistently to the right over the past 30 years. Democrats take a lot of money from the same corporate interests that have completely consumed the Republican party, and in that sense, both parties are infected. However, since we do not have a meaningful third party, I have to place my bets, and I believe that there are more Democrats than Republicans who still represent the interests of average people, and thus that party is potentially more salvagable. The Republican party is off the charts when it comes to ideology these days, and I feel it is driving us off a cliff.

      Finally, what you have to understand is that I believe the corporate right that controls our nation is promoting an absolutely immoral agenda to enrich themselves at the expense of the American people. You can read my prior posts if you want, but the income disparity in this nation alone is compelling evidence of that. If I believe that, why would I try to present both sides? For me, compromise with an immoral agenda that is ruining our country is no longer a workable solution. I talk about this in "Right Turn Only" and "Not your average liberal."

      Thanks for your honest comments. As I said, your assertions are fair. We'll just have to disagree about what makes an author persuasive. I am passionate about the topics on which I write, but I also try to do a healthy amount of research and citation to make my case. Hope you keep reading and commenting.


    2. How nice for you to reply so promptly! I appreciate very much that you refrain from hostility, condescention or sanctimoniousness (not sure if that is a word!) that seems so prevalent amongst those on both sides of the fence who are politically "impassioned". Let me clarify, I don't see this as a failing but as a limitation, as I stated above. The facts just get lost when emotion takes over, for me. I enjoy hearing a person such as yourself express your thoughts but I personally am not swayed as much by one's emotion, which sometimes takes on a ranting tone, as I am by cold hard facts that haven't gone thru an interpretation mill. BUT you agree that corruption exists on both sides, so that was honestly refreshing. Thanks. And I will read your prior posts, because now I am intrigued...

  10. I teach 1984 to my Sophomores, and the novel is eerily prescient and especially relevant during an election year. Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" mirror your sentiments as well . May I share your blog post with them? Keep up the good fight!

    1. Danielle, I would be honored if you shared this with your students. Thank you for your work in educating our kids. No matter what the right wing says, teachers are integral to the backbone of our society, and we value what you do very highly.

  11. Beloit Daily News or even AP may have just taken that headline direct from a Walker press release.

    On this general topic, the writing of Geoffrey Nunberg is quite convincing. See, e.g., The Years of Talking Dangerously (2009).

    Suzy Metta4

  12. Also, in response to the Anonymous who mentioned Luntz used as a verb, and Rocky Rococo, now that we are aware of this linguistic barrage, when will we start fighting back?

    Suzy Metta4 again

    p.s. the deviousness of your captcha utility is the only thing holding off Alzheimer's in my life.

  13. The Republicans have become masters of PROJECTION, accusing their opponents of what they themselves do or intend to do:

    Now they are trying to hide their multiple billionaire advantages by claiming that "The Left" has all the money:

  14. Another quote of his I really like is, "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind."

    Considering that I love 1984 I don't like how the hard right is now name-dropping it to promote the virtual anarchy they support. Animal Farm is a great read as well. Great blog, following.

  15. Hello! What's your opinion on who is your blog's average reader?