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Michael Brenner Headshot

Verbal Abuse -- Torturing our Political Language

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Turbulent political times can sharpen our awareness of ideas, issues and interests. America's current political mayhem has had the opposite effect. Language has become a victim of our debased public discourse. It is cause and reinforced effect of speech being used for self-affirmation rather than communication. Public personalities emote more than they express viewpoints. Those who do use them with calculated intent are most likely seeking to manipulate feelings rather than to encourage thought. Words literally have lost their meaning.

An especially pernicious manifestation of this phenomenon are Janissary words. Kidnapped words are the Janissaries of campaigns to promote an invented reality. Their original identities are obliterated. Worse, unlike the Ottoman Janissaries, figments of the past identity can be retained when its resonance is considered helpful. Words are kidnapped for two reasons. One is to slay them; the other is to exploit them. American politics offers rich examples of both variants. The radical right in the United States effectively took control of the term liberal and all its variants so as to tar it with strongly negative connotations. They succeeded so completely in transforming it into a political 'dirty word' that it has long been abandoned by Democrats. They now engage in all sorts of verbal gymnastics to avoid its designation for themselves, their ideas or their policy proposals. In the process, they expose any new coinage intended as a surrogate to similar calumnies. For example, the self-styled progressive Senator who is accused by his opponent of not having the courage of his convictions to call his 'tax & spend' program liberal.

Conservative itself is a Janissary word. The literal meaning is one who conserves. In politics traditionally, it has been adopted by those factions who see virtue in the status quo and are skeptical of change -- especially when change is sudden and challenges established principles. There is nothing conservative about modern day Republicans who have made a fetish of conservatism. They are at once reactionaries, who want to return America to a mythic past, and radicals who want to introduce basic changes in our public life. Their socio-economic thinking in rooted in 19th century social Darwinism, their reference point the 'Gilded Age' of the 1890s. Rolling back the New Deal and everything associated with it is objective number one. So-called 'conservatives,' once in power, also aim to fortify the arbitrary powers of the Executive, at the expense of the principle of 'checks and balances' etched in the Constitution, in a manner never before experienced in the United States. Internationally, they are dedicated to building a world according to American specifications through generous application of American military power. This package is diametrically different from all that has been meant by conservatism. The reactionary/radicals kidnapping of the term for their own purposes is made possible by the free and easy use of vocabulary in a literally mindless political culture. For clear thinking is impossible without logically structured language; and clear speaking is impossible without logical thinking.

Exploiting Janissary words normally occurs when they are seen as having a positive image that can be used to market something rather different. Reform is an outstanding example. Its emotive power stems from the implication of progress, an unalloyed good in modern imaginations. Progress in turn implies improvement or betterment. Reform movements in the United States and the rest of the English speaking world were associated with expansion of voting rights, the breaking of monopolies, the sweeping out of office of corrupt political machines, etc. The beneficiaries in those cases were the 'people,' the citizens, the common folk, the little man. Nowadays, the term reform has been abducted and put in the service of change that implies -- but doesn't necessarily deliver -- greater efficiency, especially the efficiency of markets, in disregard for the well-being of flesh and blood persons.

Liberal is a close cousin of the grander word Progress. Liberalism's essence is the conviction that progress will ensue from following its precepts. Progress means more wealth and greater liberty -- for all. For society to follow the course marked out by enlightened reason is to have the reality, not just the promise, of the good life. The collective good is synonymous with the individual's good. The sum of satisfied individual interests is the common interest. The progress registered by the triumph of neo-liberal economic practices and policies contradicts this principle. Many people in the Western countries, most in the United States, have not shared in the aggregate wealth generated over the past 35 years.

Nowadays, the promotion of any social change is labeled reform -- whether or not its objects will find their situation improved. Market fundamentalists campaign under the banner of reform when they press for 'flexible labor markets.' That phrase is a euphemism for making terms of employment more onerous or simply abolishing jobs via outsourcing and other methods of boosting corporate profits at labor's expense. Workers, in the wake of labor market reform, find themselves less secure in their jobs, less well paid and recipients of reduced fringe benefits. It can be argued, of course, that the change improves the overall efficiency of the economy -- the unregulated global economy as an economic unit -- from which they draw greater wealth than from regulated national economies. Differential effects and system bias are ignored -- as are market dysfunctions.

The dogma of market fundamentalism says that systemic efficiencies help everyone. That is not true. There is a redistribution of wealth and even opportunity. There are winners and losers - certainly in the short and middle run. Whether everyone gains in the long run depends on the intervening factors of how market power is structured and what actions are taken by governments. In the decades preceding the financial crash of 2008, reform was even the preferred term of those advocating an end to the regulation of financial markets. They succeeded. The heaviest costs of their success - and the resulting abuse and then failure of financial markets - were borne by the general populace. Their lives deteriorated rather than improved. There was a high positive correlation between implementation of that 'reform' agenda and society's moving backward by the enlightened standards of the past century. the United States, Britain, Ireland and the Baltics -- where a combination of faith in the EMT (efficient market theory) dogma and calculated unbridling of finance -- have suffered the most from the great crisis of 2008-09.

Similarly, American officials and pundits talk about the vital need for 'Reforming entitlement programs -- itself a euphemism for Social Security and Medicare. Reform in this instance means cutting benefits, i.e. a straightforward reduction in the value of what recipients get. Blatant untruths are propagated by the advocates of 'reform': Social Security is in crisis; there is no other way to fund these programs. It fact, it is funded until 2040 and there are reasonable ways to fund it thereafter -- such as raising the ceiling for FICA and Medicare withholdings. An honest public discourse would not use the word 'reform.' Instead, it would refer to cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits so as to distribute the nation's wealth towards other ends, persons and purposes. It remains to be seen whether the harsh lessons administered by the 'great recession' will sensitize us to the practice of enlisting the Janissary words Reform and Progress into causes with no legitimate claim to the words.

The term Middle Class has been completely denatured by a process of indiscriminant use. It is a complex phenomenon whose examination reveals a number of current elements in the silent campaign against truth and honesty. It has become a synonym for the great mass of Americans who figure neither among the super-rich nor live below the poverty line. Anyone earning between $20,000 and $250,000 is now declared 'middle class' in political parlance. The upper bracket is drifting even higher. One calculating reason for this status inflation is to erase the 'working class' from the public vocabulary. That term has acquired unsavory connotations. It implies poor and failure -- notions that are linked in American minds.

Rather than take steps to improve the lot of the working class, they are offered honorary status in the Middle Class. Admittedly, in our habits of what we buy and how we entertain ourselves, there indeed has been a move toward uniformity, a cultural compression. Nonetheless, life on an annual income of $20,000 is very different in terms of health care, comfort, opportunities for children and many other ways from life on $250,000. A one-size-fits-all vocabulary elides those realities and glosses over the public policy implications. It is a self-serving tool fashioning an image of the quite wealthy as just your average Joe whose taxes should never be increased -- even to the levels that prevailed before the Bush tax giveaway that greatly favored those in uppermost income brackets.

Responsibility is yet another casualty of the flight from truthful expression of reality. Its deformation takes two forms. Most glaring is its cavalier use to affirm something real when in fact nothing real is intended. Leaders of all types declare themselves responsible when the organizations or groups they head do something reprehensible. It has become almost cartoonish for the chief involved to go to the microphone in order to pronounce: 'I take full responsibility" or 'the buck stops here.' Left to be inferred is that there will be no consequences. It is as if the declaration is sufficient unto itself. Responsibility carries with it no tangible accountability, just nominal accountability. In short, the promiscuous use of the word responsibility has voided it of all but nominal meaning. Its very use in this manner is a lie.

Freedom has been in servitude for generations. The free world Cold War days included a menagerie of tin-pot dictatorships and thugs in American employ. One certainly can argue that the core of the free world was indeed free; that expedient actions had to be taken to protect it; that it was not possible to be honest by calling our own bad guys something other than defenders of freedom. Still, promiscuous use of the word, and its derivatives, has discounted its value. For most Americans, it simply has come to mean those people who are on our side and/or do what we want in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Palestine or Lebanon. George Bush sealed these subjective perceptions with his self-serving and simplistic rhetoric about 'being with us or against us' -- 'us' meaning the United States as the fount of political virtue. Thus we had Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and sundry other misappropriations of a noble word. This was calculated exploitation of a brand name.

Bleached words have been scrubbed of all denotative meaning while keeping a faint tinge of past usage. Center and bipartisanship head the list. They conjure vaguely positive images that merge in peoples' minds. Center suggests pragmatism and moderation as associated with avoidance of the 'extremes' of 'right' and 'left.' Whatever meaning any of those terms has is wholly situational. The remarkable shift in the locus of American political discourse toward the radical right, accompanied by the liberals' self-emasculation, means that the literal center is now somewhere to the right of where so-called Rockefeller Republicans were located 30 years ago, and on the right fringe of the political spectrum anywhere in Western Europe. Oddly, the locus of public opinion, as measured by issue specific surveys, simultaneously has shifted well to the left. That is to say, public discourse is manipulated to serve a reactionary political agenda.

Bipartisanship has suffered a similar linguistic and political fate. It has been reduced to verbal decoration. Once it was used when a coalition of legislators from both sides of 'the aisle' was formed to back some piece of legislation that cut across standard party platforms. The other was as an expression of solidarity in times of national emergency, e.g. World War II, post-war security engagements, the Gulf war. These days, bipartisanship is a fuzzy word used to lend an aura of high-mindedness around what is a flaccid, lowest common denominator consensus. On most occasions, bipartisanship is not good for everyone. There are losers in compromises. Moreover, a broad bipartisan consensus can form around dubious policies -- the cocktail of unsavory practices that is called the 'war on terror' or the mongrel health care and finance 'reform' legislative acts.

The words appendage to the disgraceful process that produced health care 'reform' suggests that it should be given a dishonorable discharge from the political lexicon. Barack Obama's stress on bipartisanship was integral to his 'feel good' style, an above the fray manner that neatly matched his preference for the status quo on matters of consequence -- American commitments in the Greater Middle East, the virtues of mutant financial institutions and practices, the probity of the intelligence agencies, and a health care system build around profit-making commercial enterprises also 'too big to let go of.' What mainly interests us here, though, is not the content of Mr. Obama's views as much as his addiction to a discourse that intentionally blurs rather than clarifies the meaning of words and ideas.

Some words have been so abused as to be little more than slogans emptied of all meaning. Bastard carries no presumption as to the matrimonial status of one's parents at the time of birth. Son of a bitch carries no presumption as to the actual temperament of one's mother. Analogues in the political realm jump to mind. 'Socialist and 'fascist' are the favorites of the tea-partiers and their ilk who often couple them in outbursts of run-on, multi-word political profanity. Change, too,or CHANGE as it has become to be known, has been the victim of abuse. Whenever the current state of affairs is bad, change looks to be a good idea - whatever its contents. The key to turning it into a Janissary is to exploit its positive connotation while diverting attention from what if anything substantive you have in mind. Jimmy Carter took this tack to gain entry to the White House. So did Bush the Younger. And that is exactly what the Obama campaign did.

There was good reason why it won the award for outstanding advertising campaign of 2008 from the American Advertising Association. Slapping a 'Change' placard onto every lectern pictured, and imprinting it on the draped background to candidate Obama's every public utterance, represented a crude form of mental branding. Only in its pervasiveness, did it differ from the slick Old West traveling salesmen who drove their wagon into town with the words 'Magic Elixir' painted on the canvas and signboard. The potion that guaranteed health, virility and a sharp mind was little different from the Obama exhortation that all could be made well in American by choreographed chants of 'change you can believe in' and 'yes we can.' One difference is that on the frontier vigilant citizens occasionally put up warning notices that 'bunko-steerers' risked a necktie party if they dared ply their trade on public premises.

Phantom words reference a seeming reality that in fact does not exist. They are emotive words masquerading as denotative words. Emotive in the sense that they are intended to create an impression of something actually happening or being that is not. Public discourse nowadays is rife with them. First there is responsibility, again, as in "the system failed, but I take full responsibility." This is a favorite of elected officials and of organizational leaders more generally. The explicit meaning is that the unfortunate matter at hand was my fault -- directly or indirectly, intentionally or inadvertently.

That literal definition implies accountability which, in turn, implies penalty or chastisement. None is envisaged, of course, by the resolute statement of 'responsibility.' Just the opposite. The declaration is designed not to open the way to some sort of reckoning. Rather, it aims to foreclose any further consideration of the issue, most specifically punishment. The speaker is pronouncing closure even while punctuating that he is the only one who has done anything blameworthy. In plain English, the true message is: yes, what occurred was most unfortunate; it was pretty much inescapable given the circumstances, I am the one who as the Boss therefore am ultimately 'responsible in that I am supposed to monitor and supervise, but we all know that it is impossible for any mortal soul to oversee and monitor everything that goes on in this vast government/organization, so I'll do everything I reasonably can to prevent things like this happening again, now let's find closure on this troubling affair and fix our attention of other pressing problems -- going forward. Hence, public relations strategies on Katrina, financial meltdown, BP oil spill, et al.

It is a commentary on our feeble power to scrutinize critically the conduct and speech of our rulers that this formula invariably succeeds. Evidently the part of us that desires comity and faith in high officials outweighs the part of us that seeks to place blame as a prelude to exacting a penalty. Skepticism is not ingrained in our political culture even as Americans vaunt their rugged independence and strong belief in the republican virtue of not deferring to the holders of high office. Rugged individualism itself is manifestly a phantom phrase itself.

The modern corporation is another rich lode for phantom words. For it has only a legal personality. The individuals who comprise it are dissociated in crucial ways from its actions. Violations of the law almost always result in the imposition of penalties on the corporate entity while leaving officers unscathed. When the global accounting cum consulting firm Arthur Anderson was convicted for committing multiple act of fraud, a fine was levied. The popular mind has difficulty appreciating what this means. Arthur Anderson himself had been dead for sixty years and his business incorporated as an entity with no personal identity -- or responsibility or accountability. The fine levied, along with the hefty lawyer's fees, come out of the company's treasury. It thus figured as a business cost in the accounts.

The depersonalization of the penalty has serious effects on the behavior of officers. Since they are not found culpable in their personal capacities, the judgment -- or the risk of subsequent judgments -- affects their thinking and behavior only insofar as the Executive Board or the shareholders might take action to remove them from their lucrative positions. In the event, financial penalties usually are markedly lower than the gains from illicit conduct, members of the Executive Board have been in on the game, and the shareholders have little leverage or, given the balance of gain and loss, little motivation to seek a change in management. As for the shame factor, it simply has ceased to exist in the American business community or in the wider society. That stems in part from a legal philosophy that increasingly treats executive crime as little more than an accounting matter. The settlements that terminate these civil actions leave the culpable party financially much better off that if he had not strayed from the straight and narrow. They usually include the declaration that acceptance of the penalty is not an admission of wrong-doing. Guilty is a word unspoken. Its suppression is a serious loss for the integrity of our public life.

You cannot expect to have a coherent public life, much less an elevated one, when words themselves are turned upside down and inside out.