The Case for Oldspeak

You may not know what a disposition matrix is, but you wouldn't want to be on one.

By Jack Meserve

Tagged Language

Mid-January, returning from some holiday travel and waiting for the Metro in Washington’s Union Station, a grim poster caught my eye. The picture was a black-and-white mug shot of the President. Beneath the photo, the charge: Barack Obama is “bankrupting America.”

Now, technically, the United States can’t go bankrupt. Unlike an individual, if the government owes creditors a trillion dollars, the Treasury can print the money and pay them. This might cause inflation or make borrowing more expensive, but these are different problems with different solutions than “bankruptcy,” as most Americans understand the term. Then again, anyone with a passing familiarity with American politics understands what that advertisement means, what political party its sponsors support, and what broader philosophical beliefs its creators hold on the appropriate role of the state. So, no harm, no foul, I thought.

Until later, when I happened to see Charles Krauthammer on television, ostensibly explaining the country’s “debt problem” and predicting our future: “If we keep spending like this we’re going to have a President in a few years who’s going to stand up and say that we are unable to pay Social Security, or the military or benefits. And not because of a self-imposed crisis on a debt ceiling, but because we will be out of money.” [emphasis added] Again, saying a nation will be “out of money” is incoherent bordering on meaningless. It’s a category error, like saying Wal-Mart’s going to raise your taxes. It’s also a rotted foundation for making policy decisions.

That’s the problem with inapt political language: It has a way of warping back on itself, of infecting the original meaning with whatever ambiguities or inaccuracies the metaphor carries. What starts out as a convenient shorthand for explaining complicated arguments to a general audience becomes the argument itself. Specific public-policy problems (like escalating government health-care costs) become generalized (“we’re out of money”), and then solutions are created for the cliché instead of its root.

Progressives and Democrats are not blameless in this. What I didn’t mention about the poster in the Metro is that it foregrounds a quote by President Obama: “Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget.” This government-as-family metaphor is as hoary and pernicious as any that conservatives have offered. Worse, it validates the bankruptcy charge: It’s true that families shouldn’t have deficits year after year. Conservatives are hanging liberal policies with rhetorical rope Democrats are busy providing.

This should stop, of course. But there also needs to be a broader defense of language itself, of trying to identify and use the right phrase in the right context. It’s important for progressives, but it’s also important for its own sake. As long as problems are defined incorrectly, they’ll be solved incorrectly. The two political spheres rifest with bad language are economics and national security, and the parlance of each has allowed policy-makers to argue for bad solutions to hard problems.

Perhaps because it’s a difficult and often counterintuitive technical field, economics is especially prone to being described in a kind of pseudo-folksy patois. Thus we have calls for “belt tightening,” and a governmental debt ceiling described as a credit-card limit. Or Republican Congressman Greg Walden, arguing against the idea of minting a platinum coin to evade the debt limit by saying: “My wife and I have owned and operated a small business since 1986. When it came time to pay the bills, we couldn’t just mint a coin to create more money out of thin air.” It’s as if Congress and the Federal Reserve were in charge of an old-timey dry-goods store and not a $15 trillion economy.

The government-as-family metaphor has been the progenitor of a whole brood of inane statements. During the 2011 debt-ceiling debate, Georgia Representative Paul Broun attempted to explain why he was voting against fellow Republican John Boehner’s plan, which included only spending cuts in exchange for a debt-ceiling raise: “The thing is, when someone is overextended and broke, they don’t continue paying for expensive automobiles; they sell the expensive automobiles and buy a cheaper one. They don’t continue paying for country-club dues, they drop out of the country club.” In case that didn’t elucidate it for you, he added later, “I’m voting for America.” But the government is not a family, and cutting government spending when families are also cutting their spending because of a weak economy makes everyone worse off.

Debunking fallacious economic language can seem Sisyphean, but a recent attempt was actually partially successful. During the fiscal cliff debate, a meta-argument started about the appropriateness of that metaphor. One can be on a cliff or off a cliff, and once you’ve fallen off, that’s the end of it. This didn’t apply to the automatic spending cuts or the expiration of tax cuts, both of which would have taken effect gradually over 2013, and in most cases would have been reversible whenever a deal was cut. MSNBC host Chris Hayes took to calling it the “fiscal curb” for this reason. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein argued for “austerity crisis,” which is also more denotationally accurate.

While having to explain semantics has a touch of tediousness about it, this was absolutely the right call. Hayes was vindicated when the deal was passed by the House on January 1, nearly 24 hours after we had supposedly walked off said cliff. Even though Hayes and Klein are progressive journalists, this was more about meeting a basic media obligation: conveying to the viewer the most accurate impression possible. Even though most media still referred to it as the fiscal cliff, stories in The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Bloomberg, among other outlets, at least acknowledged the debate.

If economics is dumbed down for popular consumption, then national security is complicated up. To lay off conservatives briefly, look at the rhetoric used in debates over the Obama Administration’s drone-strike program to kill suspected militants overseas. In October, The Washington Post ran a three-part series that gave a good sense of the corporate and bureaucratic jargon national-security officials now use to describe what is in fact futuristic and brutal combat. The first and worst case is that the list of militants approved for killing by missile strike is called the “disposition matrix.” The National Counterterrorism Center is called “the keeper of the criteria.” The questions used to fill the kill list are: “Who are the operational leaders? Who are the key facilitators?” The purpose of the new kill-list database: “The database is meant to map out contingencies, creating an operational menu.” Drone strikes themselves are described as “kinetic action.”

The key point about obfuscatory language like this is that it’s probably intended to cloud the mind of the speaker as much as the listener. Ordering someone to “Put Ahmed on the disposition matrix, because he meets the criteria of a key facilitator” is easier to think about and justify than “Put Ahmed on the drone kill list.” The first sentence could just as easily be spoken by Dilbert’s boss as by the head of the CIA.

This gets back to what Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” said best: that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible….Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” If someone wants to defend torture or drone strikes or kill lists, they should have to defend them on these terms, not as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “kinetic action” or “disposition matrices.” It’s a sign of intellectual cowardice to demand that your own policies be debated in such a bleached and sterilized way.

National-security arguments aren’t entirely free of inappropriate metaphors either. For instance, whatever one thinks of the drone program (and many smart progressives support it on the grounds that it’s the cleanest way to perform interventions necessary for national security) one potential problem with widespread drone strikes is that bombs and missiles might, by killing civilians and enraging local populations, create more militants than they kill. What language does Obama counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel choose to describe this quandary? “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower….You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”

The problem with describing killing even bad people with missiles as “mowing the lawn” is that, again, the metaphor starts to trump the reality you were originally attempting to describe. Mowing the lawn is an uneventful chore for most people, a weekly annoyance. And so missile strikes, which most considered an extreme and extraordinary step until the twenty-first century, are now as routine as tending to the grass.

Calling for clearer language doesn’t mean trying to rig the rhetorical game. Referring to pro-life people as “anti-choice,” for instance, reeks of Frank Luntz-inspired manipulation, not an attempt at argumentative clarity. And liberals are certainly capable of being unclear. Conservatives have accurately complained that “assault weapon” is largely an undefined term, and replacing “illegal immigrant” with the euphemistic “undocumented worker” seems to muddy the waters more than it clears them.

I’m a realist. Political posters in subway stations are never going to be theses on long-term bond yields, or exegeses on just-war theory. But fixing these problems around the edges is possible, whether by telling politicians to say, “Families are tightening their belts, that’s why we want to loosen ours,” or by encouraging news anchors to define terms like “militant” and “terrorist” before using them.

Expunging these faulty metaphors from the political vocabulary is a good first step; replacing them is a better second. Some of that work is being done in these pages. (See “Growth and the Middle Class,” Issue #20.) News outlets running pieces explaining the origin of the terms themselves is a welcome development.

But much more has to be done. If progressive policy-makers continue to enable the public’s misunderstanding of economics, or hide military decisions behind walls of jargon, they’ll ensure long-term defeat of liberal goals in exchange for nebulous short-term benefits. That’s the pragmatic political case, but there’s also the purer one—that clear language is necessary for open and productive discourse in a democratic society. Liberals have good enough arguments and compelling enough rhetoric that a lucid argument is an argument we can win.

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Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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