George Orwell once wrote that "political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."
It's also the case that political liars degrade the truth and misname lawful acts as "murder." Internationally, Iranian President "Wipe Israel From the Map" Ahmadinejad has elevated the denial of the Nazi Holocaust to official state policy -- "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim," as he recently put it.
Meanwhile the United Nations' so-called Human Rights Council labels as "war crimes" acts of self-defense by Israeli soldiers responding to Hamas' barrage of 8,000 rockets targeting civilian communities.
In this country, hyperbolic language debasing politics is not exactly new. In 1855, when the Know Nothings Party was questioning the loyalty of immigrants, Abraham Lincoln complained in a letter to a friend: "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid." Old Abe was lucky he isn't alive today. During the last few weeks, one Congressman has had to apologize for disrupting an address to a Joint Session of Congress by shouting "You lie!" at the President, while another Congressman refuses to apologize for charging that the other party wants "sick people to die early," and that their opposition to health care reform amounts to "a holocaust." The fact that the Congressman is Jewish compounds his inexcusable chutzpah.
Unfortunately, these outrageous "speech acts" are no isolated instances. The 21st Century is still young, but the Internet Era is also emerging as an era of political shamelessness. Specimens include attacks calling former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney Nazis, libeling Governor Palin's family, questioning President Obama citizenship and right to serve while equating him with Hitler or Stalin, and mocking General Petraeus as "Betrayus." Not to be outdone, some of popular culture's top headliners turn reality and morality on their heads -- re-defining the sexual assault on a 13-year-old girl by a 44-year-old celebrity director as "not rape rape".
Back in 1954, during the Army-McCarthy Hearings at the dawn of the television age, attorney Robert Welch all but ended Joe McCarthy's career as an irresponsible red baiter by asking him in front of the live cameras: "Have you no sense of decency, Senator?" The answer of our politicians and political activists now seems increasingly to be: "No, we have none."
Winston Churchill during the very early stages of the Nazi murder of Europe's Jews called it "a crime without a name." In 1943, while his own family was being exterminated in Poland, refugee legal scholar Raphael Lemkin invented the term "genocide" for mass murders including the Final Solution. Then specifically came "Holocaust" -- a Greek word meaning "burnt offering" -- and "Shoah," the Hebrew word "calamity" applied to the crime of Judeocide.
Everyone knows -- or should know -- that genocide means mass murder and that the Holocaust should be restricted to the mass murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. Abuse of these terms is inexcusable -- especially by political and media publicity hounds.
Once upon a time, political discourse in our democracy was a search for truth; in 2009 America's political discourse has become a license to bludgeon your opponent, the truth be damned. Americans correctly cherish and protect their First Amendment Rights. But words have consequences. Our leaders should use free speech to help us build national consensus not shove us to the abyss, one abusive sound bite at a time.
Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, co-authored this essay.
POSTSCRIPT: JUST RECEIVED FAXED LETTER FROM CONGRESSMAN GRAYSON (D-FLA) WHICH READS IN PART--
"I am writing in response to your letter about my comments on the floor of the House last week. I am Jewish and have relatives who died in the Holocaust. In no way did I mean to minimize the Holocaust. I regret the choice of words, and I will not repeat it..."