Spinning the Spin

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Beth Arnold Author & Founder, an Exile Returned From Paris

I was glad to read Gary Hart's Huffington Post blog "Candor in the Age of Spin" in which he wrote about Hillary's challenge of Obama in the recent debate -- for saying he'd reserve the option of attacking al Qaeda and bin Laden on Pakistani territory with or without approval from the Pakistani government. Hillary characterized this public statement as a gaffe that highlighted Obama's inexperience in worldly affairs. But former Senator Hart pointed out that he doubted any Pakistani alive, including President Pervez Musharraf, would question that we'd do whatever it took without permission from anyone if we could just find bin Laden.

This was Hart's advice for American presidents or presidential candidates:

The rule, it seems to me, should be this: State clear principles upon which and conditions under which we will take action to the world; notify friendly or semi-friendly nations of specific intentions where they are concerned; and otherwise behave with the candor and honesty that our founders hoped would characterize America's behavior in the world.

What a refreshing idea. Could this also apply to us, the American citizens? Could we actually get candor and honesty from our politicians when they're speaking to us, or has spin beat substance in our political debates? Is our political landscape lost in a permanent haze of doublespeak?

The word doublespeak was coined in the early 1950's after George Orwell's book, 1984, was published in the late 1940's. Language was high concept in the book, and people had been manipulated and defeated, in part, by their own speech. Oldspeak was our very own English, but newspeak had replaced it with words that were "deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them."

The word doublespeak grew out of this post-1984 culture and is just as timely today. The Merriam-Webster definition for doublespeak: language used to deceive usually through concealment or misrepresentation of truth; also : GOBBLEDYGOOK.

Obama was creamed by Hillary's doublespeak and the press's reportage. As a translation for the spin and doublespeak impaired, here's the interpretation of Hillary's attack on Obama: "Senator Obama, you were silly to be so open and honest, when I can turn your statement on its ear. Everyone knows that we're both smart and capable candidates, and either one of us would make a fine president and do an upstanding job in foreign affairs. I mean, we'd look like rocket scientists after that idiot Bush. But I'm going to imply that you're a foreign affairs rube because I want to win."

I don't mean to pick on Hillary, but she's an easy target. From's blog on the National Association of Black Journalists' convention in Las Vegas: "Through queries about post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, picking an ethical attorney general and genocide in Darfur, the candidate offered responses so lengthy and generalized, some audience members wondered if she actually answered the question posed." Voila.

But honestly, it's not just the politicians. The media is just as bad if not worse. Okay, let's say worse, because they're supposed to be bringing us the "news" instead of a transmission of doublespeak, which is what we get at least half the time now. The media can't seem to tell the spin from the facts, or the spin seems like fact. Spin is what actually gets reported.

Maybe we should add news-speak to the Orwellian lexicon:

News-speak -- information that is passed along by the media as news but is as likely as not spin.

The National Council of Teachers of English is light years ahead of us. They established the NCTE Doublespeak Award in 1974 as "an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered."

By the way, they're now seeking nominations for this year's Doublespeak Award, "which is given to a glaring example of deceptive language by a public spokesperson. The words must originate from an American."

No doubt, the competition will be stiff.