August 26, 2011 10:21 pm

Let’s put the meaning back in politics

With a new political season about to start, now is a good time to get rid of another batch of bogus words and phrases
Illustration - Let’s put the meaning back in politics

Every now and then a political word loses all meaning and gets laughed out of use. It happened recently to “freedom”, so overused by George W. Bush that in the end it simply came to mean anything he supported. “Family values” – for 20 years a handy phrase with which to harass gays, single mothers and Bill Clinton – faded away as politicians noticed that ever fewer voters lived in traditional families.

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (just 13 pages long, yet the complete guide on how to write), lists some other “worn-out and useless” words and phrases that were disappearing: jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno. “Political language,” writes Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He believed that bad language stopped people from thinking clearly. With a new political season about to start, now is a good time to get rid of another batch of bogus words and phrases:

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Simon Kuper

The American people. Used in American political argument as a proxy for the speaker himself, as in, “The American people want…”.

Austerity. Chosen by Merriam-Webster dictionary editors as “word of the year” for 2010, due to a sharp rise in the number of people seeking a definition on its website. The word appeals to politicians because it has connotations of virtue. “Austerity” evokes monastic ascetics who shun worldly goods.

In real life, “austerity” (or “belt-tightening”, or in the US, “small government”) usually means taking money from poor, sick or old people. If you believe this is good policy, you shouldn’t need to cloud it in euphemism.

Community. A word with several bogus meanings. The first, often used during the British riots, is a euphemism for “neighbourhood” or “town”. You might wish your neighbourhood were a “community”, but using the word does not make it so. “Community” is also often used to mean “ethnic group”: the “Jewish community”, “Dominican community”, “black community”, etcetera. In this usage, the pretence is that all black people, for instance, are united and believe pretty much the same things. You can then go and see their “community leaders”, who will tell you what the “community” wants. These “community leaders” tend to be elderly conservative men, often self-appointed. A good response to “community leaders” is what a peasant says to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”

Phrases such as “black community” are often used by white people who would never consider themselves members of the “white community”. They think they are independent beings who can make their own decisions without help from “community leaders”. Lastly, there is the bogus phrase “international community”. This means the US + UK + anyone else who agrees with them.

Developing countries. A euphemism for “poor countries”, many of which are not developing at all.

Islamic fundamentalist. A tag applied to any religious Muslim politician, from Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, through the tamest Islamic versions of European Christian democrats to Osama bin Laden. The main purpose of the phrase is not to describe, but to make every “Islamic fundamentalist” appear suspicious.

Nazism, Hitlerite, etcetera (when applied to contemporary phenomena). Anyone with a weak argument is likely at some point to liken the thing he opposes to the Nazis. Recall Godwin’s law, coined by Mike Godwin as early as 1990: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100 per cent).”

This debating tendency goes way beyond absurdities such as the American presidential candidate Michele Bachmann comparing the US’s debt crisis to the Holocaust, or the private-equity mogul Steve Schwarzman comparing President Obama’s taxing of private-equity firms to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. More seriously, the last Bush administration justified the war in Iraq partly by invoking the war against Hitler. By this analysis, Saddam Hussein was about to set the world on fire and should not be “appeased”.

Comparisons to Nazism have proven very hardy. Even in 1946, Orwell noted: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”

Security. Every policy can be justified in the name of security. After all, who could be in favour of insecurity? Airports use the word (“For your own security, please…”) to make us do anything they want, and so do politicians.

Western values. Like “freedom” and indeed “heroes”, this phrase has suffered from overuse since the attacks of 9/11. However, it still hangs on. It is hard now to know what these values might be. Do they mean support for democracy (except when the dictator is our friend), or opposition to torture, or equality of men and women (but what about Silvio Berlusconi)? The phrase also allows non-western autocrats to say, “Ah, but in our culture we have different values.”

It would probably be better to say “Scandinavian values” instead.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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