The language of politics


There is a cryptic language in this world, mastered by practiced, glib and oftentimes spellbinding politicians. It’s often used to be covertly ambiguous, or to protect a politician from social backlash. George Orwell once said that the aim of political euphemisms is to protect the speaker from arousing undesirable emotions among voters. A lie for example can simply be dismissed as an “alternative truth.” America has no poor people, just “economically disadvantaged.” Human induced climate change doesn’t exist, it’s just “a natural cycle.”

My grandfather, who worked in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used to call such language “political gobbledygook.” But this kind of language has become more oblique and sinister in this day and time.

The recent plane crash involving the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was likely payback by Vladimir Putin for transgressions against his leadership. As one Russophile put it, “Nothing happens like this in Russia (an exploding private plane) without Mr. Putin’s involvement.” U.S. intelligence claims that all visual evidence points to an explosion from inside the plane. But alas, to know Mr. Putin is to know that betrayal is a death sentence.

Putin’s first comment after the crash was: “This was a person with a complicated fate.” OK, that’s about as oblique a euphemism as any cryptic politician or strongman might muster.

Vladimir Putin is an egregious example of sinister euphemism and ambiguity, but many politicians more benignly exploit ambiguity to avoid being pinned down or to avoid responsibility for trends or outcomes that can be traced back to them.

Politicians, who regularly employ cryptic and ambiguous language to manipulate or mislead citizens and voters, risk losing credibility. Around the globe, Mr. Putin’s credibility in the universe of truth registers somewhere on the negative side of zero.

Remember, Mr. Putin claimed his 100,000-plus troops lined up on the border with Ukraine had no intention of invading Ukraine. He claimed Ukraine was a nest of neo-Nazis. He claimed there was no war on Ukraine, just a “special military operation.” He claimed, in spite of hours of video documentation to the contrary, that Russia has never struck civilian targets.

Not implying an equivalency here with Mr. Putin, but Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that he won the 2020 election, that it was “stolen” from him, have been debunked by courts, states’ attorney generals (Republican and Democrat), and Republican National Committee’s Chair Ronna McDaniel, who said, “Yes, he’s the president (Biden). It sucks.”

Accusations today of a so-called “deep state,” is one I’m still trying to fathom. It sounds like something we should be against and afraid of, something inspired by a film-noir Hollywood movie. What exactly is it?

Others? Well there’s fake news, dark money, greenwashing, dog whistling and alternative truths. Mismanaged companies may wind up having to layoff or fire employees, but publicly they are just “downsizing,” or doing “workforce adjustments.”

Adolph Hitler wasn’t killing Jews in Europe, he was doing “ethnic cleansing,” a sickening euphemism that was used by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, by the Myanmar military in 2017 against the Muslim Rohingyas, and some would say what China has cynically done with the Uighurs in China. As despicable as these events have been, “ethnic cleansing” is intended, euphemistically, to make them all seem clean.

The lesson here is to beware of the slick and slippery words of political influencers who seek to camouflage or sanitize their behaviors, trying to normalize what is disingenuous, deceitful, or isn’t right, truthful, or morally and ethically acceptable. When language that betrays our democratic values and institutions is normalized, it will weaken our institutions and our moral authority as a nation.

There’s spiritual invocation that extols the contentment of living in “the light of truth,” not in the shadow of lies. Unfortunately, some view politics as team sport, not the serious business of governing a country devoted to a market-based democracy. Words matter. There’s nothing wrong with satire or good humor, but the light of truth, not the shadows of deception, are what will keep us, as a nation, exceptional.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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