Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Governmental language is a puzzle, and the picture is of a gray, damp fog, so every piece looks alike, whether it be lie, misstatement, truth or slip of the tongue. (A lie may be the truth; a slip of the tongue may be a truth; but a slip of the tongue may be a lie; a misstatement may be a slip of the tongue, or a lie. But it may be true.) The pieces are poorly cut, too, and seem to fit together even when it’s not intended.

Social Security being in crisis is a White House lie. But when Dan Bartlett, counselor to President Bush, talked Sunday about privatization being needed to solve the crisis, his careful language — at least what’s quoted in yesterday’s New York Times — avoids overt lies.

One quote in particular compels attention, which is Bartlett saying that “personal accounts are a part of the solution to the problem, to help give people a greater sense of return.”

He does not say personal accounts are the sole solution, or even a solution at all — just part of one. Nor does he specify what “the problem” is. Being a Republican, Bartlett may feel that “the problem” is Social Security itself.

Bartlett also does not say privatization provides greater financial return than Social Security benefits, only that they will — read this again carefully, savoring and assessing every word — “help give people a greater sense of return.”

There are many ways to do this, just as there are many ways to make people feel better about themselves, even if there’s no reason they should.

One of those ways is to lie.

Bartlett’s is a lie too carefully phrased to be a misstatement or a slip of the tongue, but so carefully phrased that it is probably the truth, and a truth that should help give people a greater sense of unease. If that’s puzzling, move on to the next puzzle piece. And the next. When the gray, damp fog appears, you know you’re done.


Indri's Mom said...

Once you start parsing the language, the writer/speaker proclaims 'oh, that is just semantics', and the lazy reader/listener thinks of you as the nit-picking teacher that they hated, and stops reading/listening altogether; which only tends to reinforce the intent of the original message. Yet another sign of our abysmal educational system, the vast majority of students are not even aware of critical thinking.

Scape7 said...

Thanks for writing. And reading.

I fear you're correct in what you say about many readers/listeners. I fear also that these people will learn the value of critical thought ... too late. The Bush administration is pretty good at deferring the worst of impact (especially financially) until long after they're out of office and rich from lobbying and speaking contracts.