Guest perspective by Ralph Nader
Ever wonder what’s happening to words once they fall into the hands of corporate and government propagandists? Too often reporters and editors don’t wonder enough. They ditto the words even when the result is deception or doubletalk.
Here are some examples. Day in and day out we read about “detainees” imprisoned for months or years by the federal government in the U.S., Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan. Doesn’t the media know that the correct word is “prisoners,” regardless of what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld disseminated?
The raging debate and controversy over health insurance and the $2.5 trillion spent this year on health care involves consumers and “providers.” How touching to describe sellers or vendors, often gouging, denying benefits, manipulating fine print contracts, cheating Medicare and Medicaid in the tens of billions as “providers.”
I always thought “providers” were persons taking care of their families or engaging in charitable service. Somehow, the dictionary definition does not fit the frequently avaricious profiles of Aetna, United Healthcare, Pfizer and Merck.
“Privatization” and the “private sector” are widespread euphemisms that the press falls for daily. Moving government owned assets or functions into corporate hands, as with Blackwater, Halliburton, and the conglomerates now controlling public highways, prisons, and drinking water systems is “corporatization,” not the soft imagery of going “private” or into the “private sector.” It is the corporate sector!
“Medical malpractice reform” is another misnomer. It used to mean restricting the legal rights of wrongfully injured people by hospitals and doctors, or limiting the liability of these corporate vendors when their negligence harms innocent patients. Well, to anybody interested in straight talk, “medical malpractice reform” or the “medical malpractice crisis” should apply to bad or negligent practices by medical professionals. After all, about 100,000 people die every year from physician/hospital malpractice, according to a Harvard School of Public Health report. Hundreds of thousands are rendered sick or injured, not to mention even larger tolls from hospital-induced infections. Proposed “reforms” are sticking it to the wrong people—the patients—not the sellers.
“Free trade” is a widely used euphemism. It is corporate managed trade as evidenced in hundreds of pages of rules favoring corporations in NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. “Free trade” lowers barriers between countries so that cartels, unjustified patent monopolies, counterfeiting, contraband, and other harmful practices and products can move around the world unhindered.
What is remarkable about the constant use of these words is that they permeate the language even if those who stand against the policies of those who first coin these euphemisms. You’ll read about “detainees” and “providers” and “privatization” and “private sector” and “free trade” in the pages of the Nation and Progressive magazines, at progressive conferences with progressive leaders, and during media interviews. After people point out these boomeranging words to them, still nothing changes. Their habit is chronic.
A lot of who we are, of what we do and think is expressed through the language we choose. The word tends to become the thing in our mind as Stuart Chase pointed out seventy years ago in his classic work The Tyranny of Words. Let us stop disrespecting the dictionary! Let’s stop succumbing to the propagandists and the public relations tricksters!
Frank Luntz—the word wizard for the Republicans who invented the term “death tax” to replace “estate tax” is so contemptuous of the Democratic Party’s verbal ineptitude (such as using “public option” instead of “public choice” and regularly using the above-noted misnomers) that he dares them by offering free advice to the Democrats. He suggests they could counteract his “death tax” with their own term “the billionaires’ tax.” There were no Democratic takers. Remember, words matter.
Using words that are accurate and at face value is one of the characteristics of a good book. Three new books stand out for their straight talk. In Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-party Tyranny, Theresa Amato, my former campaign manager, exposes the obstructions that deny voter choice by the two major parties for third party and independent candidates. Just out is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Pulitzer Prize winner, Chris Hedges. Lastly, the boisterous, mischievous short autobiography of that free spirit, Jerry Lee Wilson , The Soloflex Story: An American Parable.
Not withstanding their different styles, these authors exercise semantic discipline.