FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Airbrushing Barbarity

by SHELDON RICHMAN

 

“As the base rhetorician uses language to increase his own power, to produce converts to his own cause, and to create loyal followers of his own person – so the noble rhetorician uses language to wean men away from their inclination to depend on authority, to encourage them to think and speak clearly, and to teach them to be their own masters.”

–Thomas Szasz, Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors (1977)

Statism — in the sense that government can do good things for people — depends on lies, or base rhetoric, that is, language that conceals the truth in order to persuade. Proponents of statism cannot easily win others to their cause if they fail to obscure the fact that, in its essence, the state is physical violence and that ultimately its rule consists in intimidation.

You need only listen to the most prominent politicians and pundits to see what I mean. Politics is inherently value-laden. That should be obvious: Among other things it concerns what human conduct the government should require, proscribe, and ignore. Yet discussions of political methods are usually not expressed in value-laden language. The purported objectives of policies are expressed in such language, but the methods of achieving them are not. So, for example, a politician or pundit will proclaim the moral desirability and even the justice of universal medical coverage. But when it comes to discussing the means to that end, the language turns technical and seemingly value-free. Speeches, op-ed columns, and news-talk programs overflow with wonkish deceptive jargon. Terms like “mandate” and “penalty” are thrown around, all the better to hide the fact that if you refuse to follow some bureaucrat’s orders, armed agents will turn up on your doorstep to force you to obey. And if you resist, those agents are legally authorized to subdue and, if they think it necessary, kill you. No penalty will befall them. You don’t often hear such matters talked about that way – and there’s no mystery in that. (“Penalty” perhaps sounds unvarnished, but that word is closely associated with games like football.)

Think of common political terms and how they obfuscate: Social Security, national security, border security, zoning, licensing, intellectual property, deficit spending, quantitative easing, civil forfeiture, civil commitment, taxation, subsidy, free elections, public schooling, farm policy, foreign policy, free coverage, drug war, and many more. All entail forcing individuals to do or not do something against their wishes. These euphemisms are intended to diminish our awareness of that truth. Couching moral/political matters in technocratic language helps us forget the unpleasantness of the underlying incivility and brutality of political measures. The base rhetoricians who traffic in this lingo aid and abet injustice.

One of my favorite examples is Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, a frequent guest on news-talk programs. No one is better at speaking of political aggression in the policy maker’s value-free jargon as he facilely suggests ways to dispose of other people’s money and preclude voluntary cooperation (markets) — oblivious of any consequence except the one he pronounces desirable. (Too bad if you disagree.) In writing about government management of medical insurance, for instance, Klein says, “Ending discrimination against sick people raises premiums for the healthy but lowers them for the sick.” He relieves his readers of the responsibility of focusing on the fact that “ending discrimination against sick people” is a misleading way of proposing to force innocent people to behave in ways that would convert insurance, which is a means of grappling with risk, into pure political subsidy. (How could proper medical insurance not take account of the fact that some people are already sick?)

Another favorite of mine is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. It’s typical of him to write, “We need to keep investing in the engines of our growth — infrastructure, government-financed research, education, immigration and regulations that incentivize risk-taking but prevent recklessness.” By we he means the state, which is the machinery that forcibly overrides innocent people’s judgments about the best thing to do. By investing he means that government agents seize your money and spend it according to the politicians’ whims.

Political discourse is fundamentally dishonest in that it airbrushes barbarity. (In this connection, see George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”) What Thomas Szasz wrote about the language of the mental-health industry and mainstream social sciences is true of the language of public policy: “Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purposes than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and therefore nonvaluational semantic screen.”

Thus, he added, that type of language “is, necessarily, anti-individualistic, and hence a threat to human freedom and dignity.”

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

 

 

More articles by:

Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

November 23, 2017
Kenneth Surin
Discussing Trump Abroad
Jay Moore
The Failure of Reconstruction and Its Consequences
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Trout and Ethnic Cleansing
John W. Whitehead
Don’t Just Give Thanks, Pay It Forward One Act of Kindness at a Time
Chris Zinda
Zinke’s Reorganization of the BLM Will Continue Killing Babies
David Krieger
Progress Toward Nuclear Weapons Abolition
Rick Baum
While Public Education is Being Attacked: An American Federation of Teachers Petition Focuses on Maintaining a Minor Tax Break
Paul C. Bermanzohn
The As-If Society
Cole A. Turner
Go Away, Kevin Spacey
Ramzy Baroud
70 Years of Broken Promises: The Untold Story of the Partition Plan
Binoy Kampmark
A New Movement of Rights and the Right in Australia
George Ochenski
Democratic Party: Discouraged, Disgusted, Dysfunctional
Nino Pagliccia
The Governorship Elections in Venezuela: an Interview With Arnold August
Christopher Ketcham
Spanksgiving Day Poem
November 22, 2017
Jonathan Cook
Syria, ‘Experts’ and George Monbiot
William Kaufman
The Great American Sex Panic of 2017
Richard Moser
Young Patriots, Black Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Darkness
Lee Artz
Cuba Libre, 2017
Mark Weisbrot
Mass Starvation and an Unconstitutional War: US / Saudi Crimes in Yemen
Frank Stricker
Republican Tax Cuts: You’re Right, They’re Not About Economic Growth or Lifting Working-Class Incomes
Edward Hunt
Reconciling With Extremists in Afghanistan
Dave Lindorff
Remembering Media Critic Ed Herman
Nick Pemberton
What to do About Al Franken?
November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman
Stephen Corry
OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail