The Assault on Language

Author: Gary Hart

When words lose their meaning, tyranny is at the door.  Behind all the unprecedented cacophony emanating from the White House, there is an assault on language, words and their meanings.  Many Americans have brushed aside all the talk, during the last national campaign and thereafter, about “fake news”.  That is a mistake.  If society loses its respect for commonly understood and accepted definitions of everyday words used in politics and elsewhere, communication of important information necessary for self-governance in a republic is replaced by propaganda.  Propaganda is the essential tool of dictators.

The New York Times, among others, has tried to keep track of an ever-expanding list of lies told by the President and others in his Administration.  This is one way of trying to protect definitions and meanings.  But the lies, or misstatements if you prefer a kinder word, are promoted on purpose.  They are to create a different set of realities.  This is a language meant to communicate with the “base”, those whose outlook on the world insists that there is no climate change, immigrants steal jobs, foreigners are not our friends, everything President Obama did is wrong or even evil, liberals are ignorant at best and evil at worst, trade agreements should be shunned unless they clearly give us advantage, and Russia may be a better security partner than our traditional NATO allies.

A dramatic nationalistic right-turn can be managed only if traditional language is replaced by a new vocabulary, one that may insist that night is day and wrong is right.  George Orwell was prophetic.

Those of us who think we have seen it all and believe that our fellow countrymen cannot be duped should think again.  Even if one shrugs off the new humpty-dumpty vocabulary, serious damage is still being done.  A third of our fellow citizens are learning to dwell in an alternative political universe, one whose language is different and whose realities themselves are different.

If this alternative universe takes root and transcends generations beyond a single presidency, America will think much differently and more importantly it will behave differently.  We will be divided not so much along class lines but along language lines.

The groundwork was laid before this presidency.  High level deception was practiced in the Vietnam War, during Watergate, and in the lead up to the Iraq War.  In each case, public trust was seriously eroded.  In too many cases it took the mainstream media too long to question authority and then when it began to it was criticized by authority for “undermining America.”  So we learned not to trust authority and not to trust those who came to question authority.

But all those chickens have come home to roost in a big way.  And when corruption in Washington involving both Parties encourages and reinforces cynicism [See: A Republic of Conscience], the floor is open for a new vocabulary of propaganda.  A lie is out the door and down the street before Truth gets its pants on.

American history shows that we’ve been through something like this on more than one occasion, for example the populist era of the late 19th century.  Except for Philip Roth’s fictional account in The Plot Against America, however, the chief propagandist never made it to the White House…until now.

It is for all of us, in day to day discourse with friends and neighbors, to politely insist that there is such a thing as objective truth, that words have accepted meanings that even the president cannot change, that science is based on provable evidence, and that our Founders knew what they were doing when they wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

8 Responses to “The Assault on Language”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The stage has been properly set for a serious up-wing American leader to take the reins in the wake of Trump.

    The campaign platform practically writes itself.

  2. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>A lie is out the door and down the street before Truth gets its pants on.

    I love it!

    Serious up-wing leadership can fix that.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>It is for all of us, in day to day discourse with friends and neighbors, to politely insist that there is such a thing as objective truth, that words have accepted meanings that even the president cannot change, that science is based on provable evidence, and that our Founders knew what they were doing when they wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

    I will try to do my part in the only other blog I take part in. Because, God knows, there are certain people there who need to be thusly (is that a word?) persuaded.

  4. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    “It is for all of us, in day to day discourse with friends and neighbors, to politely insist that there is such a thing as objective truth, that words have accepted meanings…”

    “…our Founders knew what they were doing when they wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

    Those of us who hold to the existence of Absolute Truth and who still firmly hold that the Founders Knew in the sense of having experienced these truths to be what they are without any doubt whatsoever, would do great self harm to deny or compromise them. If it become exceedingly clear to everyone that playing fast and loose with the fabric of our nation and its foundation, has resulted in self harm, there may arise a feeling of heartfelt remorse that may compel us as a nation to seek those who still hold fast to Principle: to Reality as a guide.

    Perhaps even Providence may inject a catalyst (person or event) that we in our Freedom could use to initiate a Renaissance that would be in harmony with the demands of the modern times. We have been prone to deny Providence and yet our Founders deemed it an essential component in the workings of our New Republic…

  5. Eric Jacobson Says:

    By my lights no one has improved upon John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous dictum: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
    https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/johnkennet107301.html

    It is a futile quest, as all normal Americans know, but since it has what Karl Marx referred to as “the power of money” behind it, the sky is virtually the limit on how far conservative oligarchs will attempt to go to advance their selfish cause. See Marx’s great monograph on the alchemical power of money to pervert and invert everything: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm .

    I would distinguish between the type of U.S. governmental disinformation campaigns which accompanied the Vietnam War and Cold War to which Sen. Hart first alludes and the (in sum) rightist language/alternate reality “matrix” which arose in a big way during the Reagan era (which really began in the late 1970s following Reagan’s near-miss 1976 Republican presidential primary challenge to President Ford).

    The former featured garden variety deceits which opened up yawning credibility gaps, as they were known.

    The latter was engineered by people like Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich, who started weaponizing the English language in service of the selfish Republican (pro-1%) cause in pursuit of an America run “of by and for” the rich. Their “stock in trade” was simply inverting the truth (per Sen. Hart’s Orwell quotes) on any and every subject under the sun. Indeed my rule of thumb in those Reagan years was to take every utterance spoken by Reagan or his political team members, invert it and test whether the inverted assertion was true. It invariably was.

    Sen. Hart secured a place in American political history by shattering that rightist language and substance matrix in his 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign that propelled him into a 9% lead over President Reagan following Hart’s victory in the 1984 New Hampshire primary. See NH election night video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hCsUI8gUqs . A few weeks prior, a Superbowl tv ad for Apple’s Macintosh personal computer had (at least subliminally) set the stage for Hart’s breakthrough and captured the rebellious anti-corporate (anti-IBM) and inferentially anti-Reagan administration Zeitgeist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R706isyDrqI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsjMmAqmblQ . See also Ray Strother’s then-cutting-edge public interest vs. special interests Hart 1984 tv ads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRWiiW24H-I . (Note: If anyone has access to Sen. Hart’s ax-throwing bullseye at the lumberjack contest in Berlin NH a few days before the vote — which resonated with voters ala the hammer-throw of the Apple ad — please post it to YouTube.com for posterity. It will help undo the appalling (neo-Stalinist) “erasure from political history” Sen. Hart has been subjected-to over the years by mainstream Democratic Party operatives.)

    In my view however, Donald Trump was- and is not a Reagan-type old-school rightist Republican truth-inverter. Indeed in many ways in 2015-2016 he broke the prevailing rightist/neoliberal matrix every bit as much as (but in a substantively quite different way than) Hart (and Apple) did in 1984. Whatever Trump’s flaws and he has many, it must be borne in mind that he single-handedly defeated the two — two — most powerful American pro-establishment pro-1% political dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons, in one — one — election cycle!

    That is no mean feat and Trump did it not- (certainly not primarily) by inverting the truth but by speaking it on key big-picture policy issues such as free trade: Eg. by telling the American people the truth about the ruinous manner in which 1% elites (like Trump!) had bought-off the entire political class and betrayed America’s everyday people wholesale for decades; by telling the people that these U.S. corporations with “global reach” (in the late great author and Institute for Policy Studies’ co-founder Richard Barnet’s old phrase) did so by prioritizing the well-being of millions of peasants in the world’s poorest places such as China, India and Bangladesh over the well-being of American blue collar workers; by telling the people that these multinational corporations’ CEOs, aided and abetted by venal near-treasonous U.S. politicians on a bipartisan basis, had selfishly (in search of increased profits) relocated American factories overseas, while turning America’s rust belt into decrepit ghost-towns.

    (Trump’s sincerity in inveighing against de-industrialization and advocating Americans First populism, protectionism and quasi-isolationism (“PPI”) and his related promise to “drain the swamp” in DC of K Street lobbyists’ monied interests’ influence is another issue entirely, about which a bit more below.)

    But because American uber-elites do not take kindly to frontal opposition (even if it is just rhetorical), the oligarchy owned-and-operated mainstream media went into overdrive to besmirch and discredit Trump after he caught-on (Howard Beale style) during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign. This is demonization over policy differences (a kissing cousin of criminalization of policy differences, which is, alas, what Special Counsel Mueller is now working on). The corporate media has never let up and plainly never will. In sum, Trump and his supporters’ classification of mainstream media’s incessant Trump-detraction as “fake news” is essentially correct.

    What is most noteworthy about what Trump is attempting to do vis-a-vis the media is something else: His extreme version of what used-to-be called (in the quaint old days of JFK’s administration) “managing the news”. Newsweek ran a cover story on it in April 1963: https://www.terapeak.com/worth/newsweek-april-8-1963-jfk-s-pierre-salinger-managing-the-news/360638210966/ , and the subject of “managing the news” was so salient in the 1960s that the Library of Congress compiled a bibliography of books and articles on the subject https://fas.org/sgp/crs/secrecy/biblio71.pdf . (Go figure.)

    Trump has taken the art-form to a whole new level. He developed a knack for personally dominating the media, news and cultural landscape in a manner no president has since JFK became the first “television president”. (Of course Mussolini did the same thing in the newsreel era in Italy and look at how well that turned out for him. Joking! Contra Sen. Hart’s perhaps understandable worry, even Philip Roth says the literary template for Trump’s ascendancy is Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence-Man, not Roth’s own 2004 book Hart mentions: The Plot Against America. See https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/philip-roth-e-mails-on-trump .)

    What leaves me conflicted about Trump’s approach is that although a (by definition “oppositional”) free press is an element of a civilized free society, politicians worth their salt HAVE to manage the media if they expect to have a fair chance of being elected and to thereafter govern effectively. Sen. Hart’s own disastrous personal experience as a serious presidential candidate (for just 3 weeks!) in 1987, which was an unmitigated tragedy not just for himself but (far more importantly) for the American people and the people of the world, is a textbook example of the fate of prominent politicians who fail to “manage the news”.

    By my lights, then, what matters most important is the substantive nature of the ends to which political power (including a president’s persona and “stage presence”) is employed. And here is where president Trump’s latest crazy antics (coinciding with Hillary’s book release…hmmm?) raises cause for concern if not alarm:

    Alas, the president (to whom I was willing to give many benefits of the doubt due to my agreement with his Americans First anti-corporate globalization approach) has now pretty much convinced me I’m right in my surmise that Trump’s mission “right from the start” has been to serve as the discreditor-in-chief of the Americans First/PPI ethos on which he ran. Alas, that includes not only his and Pat Buchanan’s regressive ugly-American version of PPI but Bernie Sanders and Robert Kuttner’s-type enlightened Americans First version. See my comment of a month ago here: https://www.facebook.com/ECJLA/posts/1426416817395930 .

    First Trump casually halts his welcome salutary (Donald-Chuck-and-Nancy) bipartisanship-offensive by endorsing Graham-Cassidy’s last-ditch (though DOA) Obamacare repeal bill, one that would have very badly hurt his own low-income voters most (including the legions of “poorly educated” ones he claims to love) by ending their eligibility for subsidized health insurance they can now afford under the ACA.

    Then Trump’s overboard juvenile war of words (and it damn well better stay that) with North Korea’s Stalinist pipsqueak leader (North Korea is literally “the mouse that roared”) gives a bad name to Nixon’s “mad-man theory”.

    Then Trump’s asinine racist picked-fight with professional athletes of conscience who are very properly calling attention to- and seeking a halt to the epidemic of homicidal police “wilding” against African-American men and boys, gives new meaning to the phrase “jumped the shark”. The president is either blissfully ignorant (or pretends to be) about the role corrupt public employee unions representing police and corrections officers and prison guards play in sustaining this horrendous symptom of our Not-Great Society. President Trump should watch the “truth-bomb” his fellow 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich once spoke in this regard when a cop’s obtuse idiocy affected HIM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq9Sm_gX49o .

    And now Trump’s deficit- and debt ballooning tax “reform” — one provision of which alone: the elimination the estate tax — contradicts the president’s populist promise to the electorate he would at least moderately “soak the rich” (at least those who run hedge funds) and otherwise be at least a moderate class traitor ala his Republican forbear Teddy Roosevelt who stood up to the “malefactors of great wealth” of TR’s era. No such luck with the incumbent president it turns out.

    Other than president Trump being a deep-state AKA mainstream establishment operative himself (deep-state/establishment meaning the government operatives of the super-rich powers-that-be loyal ONLY to their own 1%, which personnel include the elected and appointed hierarchies of both old political parties), it is hard to imagine any reason why Trump would “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to run a normal and respectable bipartisan presidency that protects and serves “everyday people”. Especially when he could (with a few more rightist-nutbar White House staff firings and a lot more diverse qualified professional staff hirings) so easily have a presidential term (and it is now appears certain to be only one term) that makes sustainable the long-overdue precept of putting the best interests of ALL Americans first.

    One can only imagine the size of the financial payoff Trump has likely been promised by America’s oligarchs to play the role-of-a-lifetime as the chief discreditor of the entire concept of a virtuous public interest presidency and the enlightened populist, protectionist and quasi-isolationist policy pillars on which it would have to be built. It has to have been a devil’s bargain that makes the one made by Goethe’s Faust (interestingly mentioned in the Power of Money excerpt linked above) seem small-bore by comparison. For shame Mr. President!

  6. Paul G Says:

    FOX IN THE CHICKEN COUP?

    “When words lose their meaning, tyranny is at the door. We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

    Statesman Gary Hart’s first and last phrases may be almost humorously knitted together to sum up his insightful essay on our “leaders” assault on language, except, as he makes clear this reality is no joke.

    A recent New York Times Magazine article, “Attention Deficit,” not only parallels the essence of our noble statesman’s Matter of Principle decades-long truth-enlightening mission but circles the square:

    Author Carina Chocano writes: I recently stumbled across a quote, rendered in friendly block lettering and posted, naturally, on the internet: “Perhaps figuring out what matters most matters most!” I could not tell if it was meant to be inspirational or a joke.

    Our inability to focus … has become a distraction … the way the world ends – not with a bang but a ding; from your iPhone! Ms. Chocano’s parallel essay continues with predictable examples from our current president, including bullying tweets that cleverly distract political media from governing incompetence.

    How (words) we are directed to look at something (framing) determines what we see, writes Chocano, citing BBC art critic, Josh Berger: “Framing is power: it determines what matters and what doesn’t; what should be paid attention to and what shouldn’t; it isn’t merely aesthetic; it’s ideological.”

    Just before 9/11, Berger wrote: “Being a unique superpower undermines military intelligence strategy. To think strategically, one has to imagine oneself in the enemy’s place. If one cannot do this, it is impossible to foresee, to take by surprise, to outflank. Misinterpreting an enemy can lead to defeat. This is how empires fall.”

    Chocano’s critique of Berger’s words: “(Berger) was recommending empathy, sincerity, curiosity – the ability to step into somebody else’s shoes, even if it’s only in the service of defeating them. But in order to do this, we must first agree that the shoes exist, and that they are indeed shoes. He was talking about engaging in good faith with reality. It’s no longer a given that we do …

    … Our tug of war over what is important and what is irrelevant reveals something unsettling: a bent towards totalizing ideologies and a seismic struggle over which one gets to lay claim – in our minds, at least – to the center of the universe.”

    Statesman Hart’s observation that “propaganda is the essential tool of dictators” may be self-evident to enlightened students of our founders’ republic but perhaps not in the distracted minds of US voters who “fake news” as truth for seemingly self-evident reasons, including: (a) as shown on TV; (b) as shown in headlines; (c) as heard with passionate intensity; (d) as corroboration of personal beliefs; (e) as framed.

    “We will be divided not so much along class lines but along language lines. The groundwork was laid before this presidency. High level deception was practiced in the Vietnam War, during Watergate, and in the lead up to the Iraq War. In each case public trust was seriously eroded. In too many cases the mainstream media took too long to question authority, and then when it began to it was criticized by authority for “undermining America.” So we learned not to trust authority AND not to trust those who came to question authority. But all those chickens have come home to roost in a big way.” – Gary Hart

  7. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    As ever a very poignant commentary from Senator Hart, as usual, a fine contribution from others I have missed while only dipping in and out very briefly , as busy over the Summer, and not having put in my few pennies, worth , for a few weeks !

    Words mean more than words can say . For their use is all to readily regarded as cheap and expendable and particularly by politicians and even presidents.

    That is primarily because too many break their word. This is an argument for honesty , but for more measured language.

    Aims are better than promises ,goals more sensible than pledges.

    “I shall have my bond !” , Shylock cries in The Merchant of Venice, and often we talk of our word as our bond.Shylock did get his day in curt but not his “bond.”

    If we more readily used language that was less overblown, with rhetoric, the words could mean far more.

    Trump is the best example , the worst offender!

  8. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    Can I also say how my heart goes out to your country and individual people , in the aftermath of the worst gun massacre you have ever had, in the Las Vegas horror.

    There shall be other times for political discussion about gun control, to me, as a citizen of a country that is incredulous when faced with such regular tragedies, this seems essential, but meanwhile, we think of the loss of so many , the suffering yet, and the bravery too.

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