Friday, October 23, 2009

Orwell Would Be Proud

Congressional Democrats have apparently figured out that they've got a better chance of passing a "public option" health plan if they re-brand it as "Medicare Part E," where the E is supposed to stand for "Everybody." And, predictably, right-wing commentators are up in arms about this attempt to deceive the public by changing the program's name.

Of course, all concerned doth protest a bit much, because such manipulation of language has been a standard part of politics for years. See the PBS "Frontline" documentary, "The Persuaders" (which you can watch online here). Part 6 of the broadcast describes the Republicans' successful effort to gain public support for a repeal of the inheritance tax--through re-branding it as the "death tax." Consultants found that while voters had a generally positive response to the term "inheritance tax," seeing it as justly taking some of the ill-gotten gains that the filthy rich were passing on to their worthless and lazy offspring, the term "death tax" summoned up visions of poor Uncle Fred being unable to give Aunt Martha a proper burial because the government had taxed her demise. In truth, of course, the inheritance tax already had something like a million-dollar exemption, so if Uncle Fred was having trouble burying Aunt Martha, he must have been planning one lavish funeral. But this is politics, where truth matters much less than perception.

And manipulation of language for political gain wasn't new when the Republicans pulled the "death tax" thing. When I was but a young sprout, borrowing government money to pay for my college education, I received what was called a "National Defense Student Loan." President Kennedy had launched this program in the 1960s, in the belief that we needed lots of college graduates (especially in science and engineering) to defeat the Red Menace and win the Cold War. But by the early '70s, with "detente" the word of the day and the public pressuring Congress to cut the defense budget and increase spending on domestic priorities like education, Tricky Dick Nixon figured out he could pull of some re-branding sleight-of-hand: the student-loan program moved from the Department of Defense to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and its name changed to "National Direct Student Loan." Yep, Nixon didn't even change the acronym! Nor did he change the amount of money spent on student loans, or the amount spent on bombs. All that changed was one word in the name.

You can go back further, of course: in 1947, under Harry Truman, the former War Department was re-branded as the Defense Department. Doesn't that sound a lot more peaceful? "War Department" sounds like a bunch of military badasses looking to start a fight; "Defense Department" sounds like the John Wayne character who never throws the first punch. Oddly enough, the US seems to have gotten into more wars of choice in the sixty years since the re-branding than it did in the previous 150 years.

All of this, of course, goes back to what Orwell said in his classic 1984: that language matters. If you can control the words people use to debate an issue, then you control the debate, and ultimately the issue itself.

Which brings us back to the First Law of Science Fiction: the more things change... (the rest is left as an exercise for the reader)

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