Fixing the Language of Journalism to Reflect Reality

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

We need to eliminate a bunch of euphemisms from our political vocabulary, if we’re going to have serious debates about the future of the country.

A new president, an ousted fascist predecessor, and an obstructionist opposition party that wants nothing to change despite losing a national election is a great time to take on this task.

So let’s go to it.

1.  Change Department of Defense to Department of War.

The US has not played “defense” with its military since, in my view, the War of 1812 when the British attacked the young nation and burned it’s new capital to the ground.   (And I wouldn’t be surprised if some expert on US history didn’t write in and tell me that actually the US started that war too.)  Just to anticipate criticism, I’m not counting the Civil War, which wasn’t a foreign invasion, and as for WWII, which US mythology blames on the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, that claim ignores the moves the US had been making in the years leading up to that attack to strangle Japan of oil and other needed raw materials, an act of economic warfare that forced that island nation’s hand.

In any event, even if some may disagree with my view of US military history, nobody can make a legitimate or credible case that the US military has been defending this country since the end of World War II.  Even the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9-11-2001 was not a war. It was a terrorist act that was used to launch a war by the US against first Afghanistan and then Iraq, two countries that had nothing to do with the attack.

Actually right up through World War II, the executive agency in charge of the military was aptly named the War Department, and was headed by the Secretary of War. Let’s go back to calling the Pentagon what it is:  the War Department

2. No military action outside of the UN is a “humanitarian operation.”

When the US sends armed troops, or more often, fighter-bombers and armed drones, to a country it is never really a “humanitarian mission.”  Statistics show that American military forces kill far more civilians than “combatants” on such missions. Let’s call them what they are. Without UN Security Council approval, they are simply unlawful military invasions.

3.  There is no such thing as a “moderate Republican.”

The media are fond of this term, but the Republican Party, which stands for illegally retaining power despite a shrinking political base of white, racist or race-obsessed voters, win-by-vote-supression and gerrymandering policies, opposition to abortion rights, equal rights for women, opposition to environmental actions on pollution and climate change, and opposition to any gun-control laws or regulation, and supposed “moderates” in the party, by helping such a reactionary rightist party in gain control in legislatures and in Congress, are part of those policies. They cannot call themselves, or be identified as “moderates.” They are simply Republicans.

4. There are no “conservative” Democrats, either. So-called “centrists” or “moderates” in the Democratic Party are simply closet Republicans who prevent the more progressive members of the Democratic party from passing laws that the party base desires, like the long-stalled Equal Rights Amendment, serious measures to attack climate change, and cutting the bloated military budget. Let’s start calling them not centrists but Republican moles or fake Democrats.

5. The term “progressive” has become a euphemism for people who are either basically pro-capitalist but don’t want to admit it, or are basically socialists but don’t want to admit it. The term progressive itself has no real concrete meaning. If you favor abortion rights and equal rights for all races, sexes, sexual identities, religions (or no religion), etc., but you favor continued military budgets that exceed $1 trillion a year, you shouldn’t be considered “progressive.”  Nor, if you want to cut military spending in half but don’t believe in equal rights or a woman’s right to control her own body, you shouldn’t be called “progressive.”  Let’s trash the term. If you believe in limiting the power of corporations, massively taxing corporate profits and the income and wealth of the rich, and cutting military spending significantly, then you’re a socialist, so say it!  If you believe in letting corporations run rampant while their owners and managers amass unheard of wealth, as now, and allowing them to invest big sums in supporting politicians, then call yourself what you are: a capitalist.

6.  American democracy is a term that should be trashed. As long as the bi-cameral Congress includes the senate, a relic of the negotiations during the writing of the Constitution that allocates the same two seats to each state regardless of whether it’s a Wyoming with just 300,000 population, or a California with 55 million. And so long as that same senate can prevent any popular bill coming out of the House, where each representative represents the same roughly 700,000 people, from becoming law, what we have in Washington is no democracy. The situation is made all the worse because of the electoral college, which awards all the electoral delegates of a state to the candidate who wins a majority of the votes in that state in the presidential election, regardless of the narrowness of that win. That system virtually assures that a whole bunch of smaller states that are narrowly Republican can provide far more delegates to tht party’s candidate than a few heavily Democratic states that represent half the population of the country among them can provie to the other candidate. It’s why Republican presidents keep getting elected president in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote (think GW Bush in 2000  and Donald Trump in 2016). So what do we call the US government if it’s not a government of the people? How about a pseudo-democracy or partial democracy.

Actually, given the power of money in US elections, which is essentially unlimited, and which overwhelmingly comes from large corporations and wealthy people, we shouldn’t be using the term “democracy,” which means government of the people, at all when it comes to the US government. It is a plutocracy (government of the wealthy).

7.  Campaign “donations” is another expression that should be dropped from the reportorial lexicon.  First of all, let’s acknowledge that many donations are essentially extortions or bribes.  Often, businesses feel that they must provide cash to candidates to elected office — local, state and federal — lestthey not get government contracts, and don’t have their issues addressed by politicians. That is extortion by elected officials.  Second, Even more businesses and wealthy people feel — and with good reason — that they can buy favorable action from government at all levels by shoveling campaign cash into the coffers of political candidates, as well as appointed officials who don’t even have campaigns to run. Such funds are called campaign “donations” or lobbying funds.  They should just be called what they are:  bribes.  Legal perhaps, but bribes in practice (that’s why Congress made it possible for most of that money to be given without being traceable or reportable!). Let’s at least just start calling them what they are.  It would make a big difference in election outcomes I’m sure if we could read news reports saying, “Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff took in $103 million in bribes in his Senate run-off race against Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue, who picked up $90 million in bribes.”

8.  Reform.  This is an overused term that refers to any change made in a law by Congress.  It has a nice sound to it, the vernacular usage means making changes to improve something, but much of what Congress does has nothing nice about it and has nothing to do with “improving” anything. Often it’s the exact opposite goal of the change being sought. For xample, when the Trump administration announced new decrees to “reform” immigration, it meant ripping young children and even babies from their parents and putting them in cages or detention facilities, while deporting their parents, and in hundreds of cases, losing track of those parents entirely. When President Bill Clinton pushed through welfare “reform” legislation, it meant basically ending welfare for struggling single parents who now have a five-year lifetime limit for receiving financial support for themselves and their children, even if there are no jobs to be had where they live and there is no child care available to them to allow them to find work if there is any. Such government actions are not reform by any stretch of the imagination.  Let’s just kill it and call such “reform” what it is: The crushing of public support for the poor, desperate and vulnerable.

9.  The Free World.  This term, typically taken to mean the nations that are allied with or that are clients states of the United States, is a relic of the Cold War. Coined in the late 1940s, as World War II ended and morphed into a deadly competition between the US and the Communist states of the Soviet Union and China, both of them dictatorships. But over time, the US has become less free, with a staggering number of laws passed over the intervening decades to the point where criminal law expert Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average American just going about her or his life probably unknowingly commits three felonies every day that could land the person in jail without even knowing it. Meanwhile, the US typically considers many non-democratic and non-free, but pro-US states like Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Hungary, Indonesia and Egypt, to be “free” while calling at least as democratic countries like Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to be “unfree.”

The term should be cancelled as a misleading anachronism.

10. Correction institution.  The US does not have a penal system based upon the concept of rehabilitation through incarceration. It has, rather, a system of punitive and vindictive retributional imprisonment, along with a death penalty.  Leaving aside the deeper problem of the difference in legal outcomes between how poor people and those with the money to hire a lawyer fare in the US so-called “justice” system, nobody is sent to prison in the US with the intention being to investigate why they have become criminals, and to offer them help, training and encouragement to get out of prison and re-enter society as peaceful and productive individuals. Even when prisoners make it through their sentences and are released, in nearly all states and in the federal prison system, they are released with no skills, and with a “Scarlet F” for “felon” on their record, which effectively prevents them from getting all but the most menial job, if that. Let’s be honest and call prisons carceral institutions — places of punishment — and forget about the fraudulent term “correction.”

This list is not intended to be limited to the above terms. Feel free to add your own to the list.


CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.