Obama’s Good and Bad Words

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Barack Obama once warned, “Don’t tell me words don’t matter!” He was right. They do.  

These days, financiers and investors are a “bunch” of “fat-cat bankers.” When your 401(k) tanks, surely a “bunch” of “fat-cat” miscreants who run a “bank” did it. I have a fat cat — and nothing is more unpleasant than to see this lazy pet sleep all day, yawn, and then turn over on his rolls of fat.

“I make a lot more money if I take this kid’s tonsils out,” the president also warned, speaking in the voice of an unscrupulous pediatric surgeon. Note the use of “take out” instead of “operate.” Obama preferred also “kid’s” for “patient’s.” Presto — a surgeon performing a carefully considered tonsillectomy becomes a swaggering chopper who carves out a tonsil or two from an unlucky child for an exorbitant profit.

Note a similar reference: “If that same diabetic ends up getting their foot amputated, that’s 30,000, 40, 50,000 dollars immediately the surgeon is reimbursed.” In the dysphemic (“speaking with bad words”) world of Barack Obama, profiteering surgeons also waltz into operating rooms, needlessly lop off a slightly infected foot or two — and within hours (i.e., “immediately”) a check for $30,000 to $50,000 is in the mail.

In the healthcare debate, insurers were “filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads” and “funding studies designed to mislead the American people.” I think that means they ran advertisements to counter pro-administration advertisements, and that they fund research as their opponents do.

Recently, new government estimates suggested that the healthcare-reform bill will cost more money, not less. Yet the president, on the eve of its passage, blasted opponents with more dysphemism: “It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s bogus. And it’s all too familiar. Every time we get close to passing reform, the insurance companies produce these phony studies as a prescription.” Opposition is “smoke,” “mirrors,” “bogus,” “all too familiar,” “phony” — and never worthy of legitimate debate and counterpoint.

Las Vegas is a favorite tar-and-feather term. Big companies blew our money, but they will not be able to do this any longer, in the Age of Obama, “You can’t go take that trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime.” And later: “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”

According to one participant in closed-door healthcare meetings, Obama warned Democratic fence-sitters, “Does anybody think that the teabag, anti-government people are going to support them if they bring down healthcare?” Americans who are worried about deficits and who evoke the events leading up to 1776 are “anti-government” and reduced to the moral equivalent of the sexually adventurous.

If a news organization is often critical, then it is not “legitimate” — as in the denunciation of Fox News by former White House communications director Anita Dunn: “We don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.” The president himself added, “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration.”

Note again the language: “I’ve got,” suggesting a simple bipolar client relationship between Fox and President Obama. “Entirely devoted” implies that every show on Fox News on any topic attacks the president.

But Obama is also fond of using good expressions. Euphemism (“speaking with good words”), of course, is the opposite of dysphemism, and yet it similarly distorts realty.

For example, once supporters of big-government cap-and-trade programs changed the term “global warming” to “climate change,” we knew that everything from the Indonesian tsunami to the Haitian earthquake could be chalked up to human sin. Furthermore, “climate change” might resonate in a way that “global warming” would not to people freezing through the coldest winter in recent memory. Whether you are roasting or shivering, no matter — “they” caused both, and everything in between.

Consider the more general way dysphemism and euphemism interact in discussions of some of the nation’s most pressing problems, such as spiraling illegal immigration, terrorism, and the national debt.

The majority of Americans worry about porous borders and illegal immigration in ways our elites find illiberal. So they are demonized as “anti-immigrant.” That’s personal; they don’t like Juan or Herlinda, rather than not liking the Mexican government’s following a safety-valve policy that will lead to more remittances for Mexico City, fewer dissidents, and a large expatriate community; or not liking employers’ using cheap labor to undercut American workers’ wages; or not liking millions of people ignoring U.S. law as they see fit.

“Illegal aliens” is an accurate descriptive term for foreigners who cross the border unlawfully. So, naturally, we hear instead of “undocumented workers.” In this formulation, you see, the newcomers are all employed, and they merely forget to bring their documents. Thus the problem in the Southwest is one of memory, not legality.

“Comprehensive immigration reform” has nothing to do with rewriting the immigration laws. Indeed, to close the border we need only enforce existing laws; we do not need to make new ones. Instead, this is a euphemism for a politically toxic idea: a blanket amnesty.

Who can be against “comprehensive” anything (think “comprehensive healthcare reform” versus “socialized medicine”), or “immigration” per se (as in the law-abiding recent immigrant Ph.D. in computer science from Taiwan), or “reform” (as in changing something that is bad)? Put the three together, and the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts — so how could anyone understand “comprehensive immigration reform” as meaning to deem what is illegal legal?

Many of our policymakers also flinch at the notion that the United States is still in a war against Islamic extremists nine years after the September 11 attacks. In the last 15 months, the Obama administration had scrapped the terms “Islamic extremism,” “Islamic radicalism,” and “jihad.”

Instead of real enemies, we are mobilized against “man-caused disasters”; now we can hate oil slicks and Congolese famines rather than the misunderstood and underprivileged from the Middle East. “Overseas contingency operations” means that all those carrier groups are really intended for tsunami relief.

After all, there are no longer threatening “rogue states,” but only “outliers.” The problem is not that some nations act in dangerous ways, but just that they lie somewhere out there beyond Australia.

We need worry no more about another Major Hasan or Christmas Day panty-bomber, or the would-be Times Square bomber, than we fret about our noble fight against climate change. And once the “detainees” at the “closed within a year” Guantanamo Bay detention center were no longer called “unlawful combatants” (i.e., enemy soldiers without uniforms caught on the battlefield), we knew there was no longer a war. Who, after all, worries about “detainees” any more than we do about the DUI suspects held in the drunk tank on Saturday night?

Barack Obama, in just 15 months, has turned George W. Bush’s financial misdemeanors into felonies. If unchecked, his grand eight-year plan will almost double the national debt, to almost $20 trillion. Rather than freeze or cut government outlays — which would involve scaling back his ideological agenda — President Obama here too prefers a linguistic cop-out.

Obama did not invent “stimulus,” but he has used the nice word as never before to cloak reality. We do not hear that we are borrowing $3 trillion from Japanese, Chinese, and American bondholders to bail out the auto unions, or to offer sweetheart deals to crony banks and investment companies. Instead, we are “stimulating” the economy.

“Fiscal responsibility” means an occasional speech or two about the unmentionable unsustainable borrowing. It most certainly does not mean spending only what we take in.

Better yet is a “jobs bill.” Who is against “jobs”? And “bill” sounds like something out of the 1930s, when no-nonsense congressmen smoked cigars and brought home the bacon to out-of-work constituents. A congressman can now put his name on any building or bridge he wants. That is hardly a “pork-barrel” project: It is an “earmark” that “creates jobs.”

More important, who wants to hear about the “unemployment rate”? Aren’t more people working than not? So let’s look positively at the effects of “stimulus” and count instead “jobs saved” or, better yet, “jobs created.” Is anyone against “saving” or “creating” anything? I know I am irked by “unemployment” and anything to do with the word “rate.”

What are we to make of the new dysphemism and euphemism?

Note the pattern. Americans who are successful are reduced to limb-loppers, fat cats, and phonies; they enjoy jetting to Vegas and the Super Bowl at our expense, and they seem to be “anti-immigrant” and eager to lock up Muslims — as opposed to those who wish to save children’s tonsils, save jobs, save the economy, save the Mexican poor, and save the planet.

True, on rarer occasions, the president has dropped the demonizing and whitewashing and simply spoken from his heart. Earlier he once talked of “redistributive change” and “spreading the wealth around.” More recently, he remarked, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”

But don’t misunderstand. That is not “socialist” talk, but merely the language of “community organizing.”

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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