THE BLOG
01/07/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Of Sugar Coats and Straight Jackets

After the late-in-the-day House vote on January 1 to stanch the financial crisis, President Obama said, "The one thing that I think, hopefully, the new year will focus on is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinkmanship, and not scare the heck out of folks quite as much."

The key word in that quote is "scare." What if it had been called the fiscal thicket or fiscal berm and not that dangerous image of a precipice one might associate with the end of the Mayan calendar? No matter who's at fault, the media or the politicians, how you name it is how you game it. If what you call or label an item, idea or issue reflects the dark side, you are asking for a negative reaction. On the other hand, give it a name that conjures lightness, brightness, boldness, freshness or family orientation, and here comes that stamp of approval.

There should be a word or term for this besides spin or just public relations. It's sort of a perverse use of metaphor, one calculated to leave a distinctive taste or distaste in the mouth of the person reacting to it, sort of something between metaphor and petit four.

We've had our share of alarm bells recently as well as labels that propel you to think you're a lemming. Seems like every year Americans get up in arms over what some wags call the "death tax." This is nothing more than an estate tax or inheritance tax imposed on the transfer of taxable property of a deceased person. A pejorative adjective nicely glides the concept toward a cliff when it's time to take a vote on it.

How about Frankenfood? No, this doesn't refer to the Minnesota Senator's lunch, but rather a way of labeling and dissing genetically engineered produce. The term obviously does not imply such items may be good for you. But the jury is still out on whether consuming such a diet leads to some monstrous metamorphosis where you suddenly find yourself feeding more than one mouth.

Then we have the oddity of Obamacare. Initially it was meant to be synonymous with socialism, thrown at the Affordable Care Act by its opponents. But somehow the taint of demonization began to drip away once the act passed the dreaded U.S. Supreme Court unscathed and the president was re-elected. Now Obamacare has been co-opted by those who support it.

Making something sound affirmative, chauvinistic or proud will rally the troops. For example, the Patriot Act. Of course, it swiftly passed both houses of Congress! Why would you even take the time to read it? Who wouldn't feel warm all over about something patriotic? No matter Samuel Johnson called patriotism the last refuge of a scoundrel, the word has the power to sway. Just look at how Montana Senator John Tester used it. As an underdog Democrat running in 2006 against a Patriot Act-wielding Republican, he managed to convince enough constituents that this piece of legislation gave the federal government the right to come into their homes and take their guns away. He implied a real patriot would fight this act. He kindly asked for their vote and got it.

Wish fulfillment can be a major ingredient in the packaging of a concept or a dream. Take Arab Spring. Who came up with that one? Sounds like a new soap, something that washes you clean, revitalizes and refreshes. It's the season of hope, a good time to start over, to renew your vows as a culture. It's morning in Mesopotamia. It's like an ad to lure you into traveling there to savor a new democracy getting its act together. But once there you should also remember to stay in contact with your tour guide in case you experience an insurrection lasting longer than four hours.

Of course, words and images can undergo changes in meanings. What used to be acceptable can slip into disreputable. Suddenly, for example, sacrifice and compromise become dirty words. It would be nice if we could rise above such fears, control our hackles, keep our economy afloat. It would be nice to think of taxes outside of some fatal framework.

This is the 100th anniversary year of the ratification of the 16th Amendment giving our government the right to collect income taxes. If you believe our elected representatives, we've become a tax-averse nation. But how else can you run a country unless you have money? And why shouldn't you pay for the privilege of living and thriving here? Why shouldn't the rich kick back a healthy chunk of their richness that they acquired by the rules of the American game? The best way to get everyone to see the light is, first, to stop blinding or scaring folks with the darkest of interpretations and, second, to lure them with a sense of comfort and concern. Of course, once again, this all comes down to language. As the BeeGees once said, "it's only words and words are all I have to take your heart away." So let's call the next proposed tax the Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes Act. That sounds comforting. After all, when you're at a supermarket shelf, what do you reach for: Cottonelle or RubAway?

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