George Orwell famously examined the malleability of political language in the hands of society's rich and powerful. "Political language," he wrote, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Throw in the innovations and conscious attempts to manipulate political language that spew forth from Frank Luntz's focus groups and the producers at Fox News, and it's pretty clear that Orwell's insight has been proven correct with a vengeance.
It's an old cliché that "knowledge is power," but one could also argue that "power is knowledge." The powerful have the means to define reality on their terms. Ideas that serve power, such as market fundamentalism, are widely ventilated, while those that don't get relegated to the dustbin. Just look at the climate change "debate" where the fossil fuel industry and its right-wing shills believe they can trump science through propaganda. Few practices illustrate this phenomenon better than how ruling elites these days inside and outside the corporate media talk about "reform." For example:
"Entitlement Reform" in reality means privatizing Social Security, voucherizing Medicare, and slashing social programs, thereby taking food out of the mouths of babes and grannies and turning over large swathes of these vital programs to corporate managers, "entrepreneurs," and profiteers.
"Tort Reform" in reality means dismantling laws and regulations and hindering civil lawsuits that are often the last resort in protecting the environment and the rights of workers and consumers. This "reform" would allow corporations to more freely brutalize workers, rip off customers, and foul the air, water, and land.
"Tax Reform" in reality means slashing tax rates for the wealthy and the corporations and passing on the tax burden to workers and lower income people through regressive sales taxes and other schemes.
"Pension Reform" in reality means dismantling or seizing the pots of money that millions of workers have contributed to their entire working lives and handing them over to big banks, corporate managers, "entrepreneurs," and profiteers. (Similar to the enormously successful multi-year propaganda campaign that pushed ditching defined benefits pensions in favor of shitty 401ks.)
"Prison Reform" in reality means privatizing prisons, breaking the correctional officers' unions, and turning the facilities over to corporate managers, "entrepreneurs," and profiteers. This "experiment" in free market incarceration wherever it has been enacted imposes a perverse incentive structure where filling prisons is part of the "business model."
"Education Reform" in reality means privatizing public education, destroying teachers' unions and staff unions, and turning over the system to corporate managers, "entrepreneurs," and profiteers.
A good share of the blame for bastardizing the word "reform" should be tossed onto the laps of the so-called education reformers. Because they are "bipartisan" and really pour on the liberal sounding rhetoric about saving the little children, and have soft-focus spokeswomen like Michelle Rhee setting up straw arguments and knocking down before a fawning corporate media, they're very good at masking the privatizing corporate interests that financially back their "school reform" agenda.
Isn't it interesting that all of these "reforms" if enacted would benefit the richest and most powerful corporate interests in America?
The word "reform" used to have a progressive accent - such as the reforms that took place in the Progressive Era between 1900 and 1918 and during the New Deal era between 1933 and 1939. "Reform" was then associated with protecting consumers from contaminated meat and drugs, or recognizing the rights of workers to organize labor unions, or providing for a better society through insurance against the vicissitudes of life and the right to retire with a shred of dignity after a life of hard work. "Reform" used to mean government actions designed to give working people a leg up or expand democratic participation.
Today, as Orwell predicted, we need a new political language. "Reform" is being used in our political discourse by the wealthy and corporate mouthpieces as code for privatizing and deregulating every public service they can get their greedy hands on. How many times do we hear banter about the need for "entitlement reform" from all the "guests" on those odious Sunday Beltway talk shows?
Most people are unaware of the fact that when Paul Ryan or Ron Wyden or David Gregory or Ruth Marcus or David Brooks or any other denizens of the power structure use the term "entitlement reform" what they really mean is gutting Social Security. Maybe Democrats when they appear in corporate media should use the term "cut Social Security" as a replacement? Maybe some good minds on the progressive side of the dial can come up with an alternative to the word "reform." That word, like the words "freedom," "peace," and "compassion," has already become so muddled and misused these days it only gives "the appearance of solidity to pure wind."