KATHLEEN PARKER: The meaning of words



In politics, it’s all in how you say things. George Orwell knew what he was talking about when he described political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Today, we’ve become so accustomed to the distortions of political speak that we hardly notice. But as the midterm elections near, we might benefit from a booster shot of skepticism.

Both parties are guilty of verbal distortion and manipulation, but I dare say the left is more clever. Republicans tend to rely on dog whistles, loaded terms that prompt negative messages in the collective subconscious mind, while Democrats paste smiley faces on unpleasant messages, cloaking meaning in Orwellian frocks of emotional distraction.

A dog whistle might be the mention of, say, the “food stamp president,” as Newt Gingrich called President Barack Obama during the last presidential election. Protests that this is not racist are noted and dismissed. The term calls up a certain image and everyone gets it.

Sometimes both sides of an issue select language that essentially cancels out the other. Exhibit A: Pro-life and pro-choice. Who is against life? Why, no one! But, who is against choice? Again, no one. Of course, one chooses to protect unborn life and the other selects termination. Enough said.

Moving along to today’s headlines and “income inequality.”

This may be one of the most brilliant turns of phrase yet. Not one single American, gun to head (figuratively speaking), would say, “I’m for inequality” or “inequality is good.” But is inequality what we’re really talking about?

When you step back and examine the concept closely, what becomes clear is that roughly 99.9 percent of Americans – even North Korea’s favorite son Dennis Rodman – actually like income inequality. What, after all, is the opposite of income inequality? Income equality.

That said, let us stipulate that we do have a growing poverty problem in this country, the contributing factors of which are many and complex.

Factors include: A growing retired population, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population; a dearth of entry-level jobs for college grads saddled with $1 trillion in loan debt (which the government guarantees); the appalling rate of children born out of wedlock, a now-systemic condition that condemns a new generation to another cycle of poverty, as Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out five decades ago and that Obama has reiterated.

What is missing from the trumpeting of income inequality are the hundreds of billions in annual government redistribution that already takes place.

In the end, fairness isn’t the issue. The issue is justifying policies – government intervention, higher taxes, spending and redistribution – that can’t otherwise be easily sold. How about this for a midterm catchphrase, reflective of true circumstances – the need for a higher-skilled labor force that pits no American against another and qualifies people for jobs that are actually available: “Learning for Earning.”

It’s not as emotionally evocative as inequality, but it just might do some good. Other suggestions welcome.

Kathleen Parker‘s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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    Since you asked, here’s a suggestion: stop projecting the Orwellian ‘double-speak’ and ‘dichotomization’ on other’s and admit you’re doing it yourself.

    The concept of ‘double-speak’ is exactly what you are promoting Kathleen, that of the acceptance of material inequality as the societal norm: the elite reign therefore this is the accepted status quo. You wrap up social programs in neat little terms like ‘social welfare’ and ‘redistribution’ pointing directly at the lowest income earners in the economy as primary beneficiaries of government handouts. But then where are your criticisms of the other, by far much larger, side of ‘social programs’, i.e.
    tax incentives, military and government contracts, etc? Aren’t these at the very least equally a much
    more apparent ‘redistribution’ of wealth coming from the vast middle class and rolling up to the elite?

    Yeah, both parties are most definitely guilty of these little tricks we all read about in Orwell’s 1984, and both can be pretty clever about it, even you.