Tue, Nov 28, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Doublespeak rules in Washington's world of accounting


The US government's annual accounting of hunger in the US reported no hunger in its last outing. Instead, it found "food insecurity."

Likewise, no one is even considering retreating from Iraq. "Redeploying" out of there is, however, an option.

In Washington, words are a moving target that conceal at least as much as they reveal. Doublespeak runs through the discourse on Iraq, terrorism and domestic matters to a point where it is hard to tell what is going on.

The libertarian Cato Institute recently took on the rising tide of fuzzy words in the fight against terrorism, arguing that whatever people think of what the government is doing, it would help to understand what the government is doing.

That is no easy task when the administration offers tortured definitions of torture, describes suicide by captives as "self-injurious behavior incidents" and labeled at least one suspect an "imperative security internee" when it became constitutionally questionable to hold him as an "enemy combatant."

Interrogations are known as debriefings.

Propaganda is a struggle "for hearts and minds."

The estate tax is the death tax.

The right to an abortion is the right to "choose."

Language corruptors

"By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability," Cato's Timothy Lynch argues in his polemic against doublespeak -- an outgrowth of the doublethink and newspeak of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But nefarious "War is Peace" Orwellianisms are not the only impulse at work, by a long shot.

The wish to be technically accurate was behind the decision of the Agriculture Department this year to squeeze "hunger" out of the equation when considering how many people go hungry.

Hunger, in the words of advisers whose recommendations were accepted by the department, is "an individual-level physiological condition that can often result from food insecurity."

The word "should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."

The department reasoned it cannot truly measure hunger because it surveys households, and households do not get hungry -- people do.

The terms "low food security" and "very low food security" replaced the old descriptions of "food insecurity without hunger" and "food insecurity with hunger."

terrorism semantics

The fight against terrorism brings its own evolving vocabulary and semantic arguments, starting with the question of whether the war in Iraq is part of it, as Bush says, or a distraction from it, as his critics contend.

The notion of "homeland security" was foreign to US ears until the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and formation of a department with that name. Now it is an accepted distinction from the foreign-based military and intelligence matters that come under the mantle of national security.

The White House was less successful branding suicide bombers as "homicide bombers," an Israeli euphemism meant to emphasize the murderous nature of the act and deny the "martyrdom" claimed by those who blow themselves up. The term has not stuck.

And there is no more "stay the course" on Iraq. Bush found himself on the defensive when a phrase meant to convey a resolute stance came to be seen as inflexibility in the face of chaos. The rhetoric, at least, changed course.

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