When they’re not crying “political correctness” to divert legitimate criticism from themselves, Republicans use the phrase to portray Democrats and liberals as thought police out to squash free speech and the truth. Yet Republicans practice their own brand of political correctness, which keeps them just as firmly bound to their own party line.
A recent op-ed by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, headlined “The politicization of the English language,” illustrates my point. Hanson begins by writing about the deletion of French President Francois Hollande’s use of the phrase “Islamist terrorism” from the official White House video of his meeting with President Barack Obama last week in Washington (see above). The deletion prompted several conservative publications to charge the White House with censoring Hollande.
The White House blamed the deletion on “a technical issue,” and the phrase was restored on an updated video. And it must be noted that the phrase was never omitted from the official White House transcript of the Obama-Hollande meeting.
I’m not here to defend the Obama administration, however. The deletion is indefensible if it was intentional. If it was a mere technical glitch, it was one that should have been noted and fixed immediately. I understand why Obama and members of his administration avoid saying “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islamic terrorism” — they don’t want to grant legitimacy to terrorists who see themselves as defenders of Islam, nor do they want to promote the idea that the West is at war with all Muslims — but I don’t agree with their stubborn refusal to ever utter the phrase.
At the same time, Republicans such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have turned the phrase into a linguistic contortion of their own, to borrow wording from Hanson’s op-ed. They’re not primarily interested in speaking clearly about the nature of Islamic terrorism, but in using a political cudgel against Obama to advance their own ideological agenda.
We should denounce euphemisms that disguise, distort or soften political realities. In his own commentaries, however, Hanson has used such Republican euphemisms as “death tax” for “estate tax,” “enhanced interrogation” for “torture” and “Democrat” as an adjective rather than the grammatically correct “Democratic.” Obama, liberals and Democrats are fair targets for linguistic criticism, but one cannot condemn them as Orwellian while ignoring how one’s own side of the political divide also twists language to its benefit. In fact, from “activist judges” to “right to work” to “religious liberty” — their latest cause de la guerre culturelle — Republicans are the undisputed champs when it comes to grand abstractions, dog whistles and obfuscations of the language.
It’s also one thing to argue against political doublespeak. It’s another to be deliberately, willingly wrong.
“Obama has said the greatest threat to future generations is ‘climate change,’ a term that metamorphosed from ‘global warming’,” Hanson continues as he cites other examples of “politicized euphemisms to reinvent reality.” “The now anachronistic term ‘global warming’ used to describe a planet that was supposedly heating up rather quickly. But it did not account for the unpleasant fact that there has been negligible global temperature change since 1998.
“Rather than modifying the phrase to ‘suspected global warming’ or ‘episodic global warming,’ the new term ‘climate change’ was invented to replace it. That way, new realities could emerge. Changes of all sorts — historic snows, record cold, California drought, El Nino storms — could all be lumped together, supposedly caused by man-made carbon emissions.”
As for the phrase “climate change,” it has been around for decades in one form or another. Just consider, for an obvious example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international organization created — in 1988 — to study the effects of global warming. Or read the 1965 report prepared for President Lyndon Johnson that warned of “climactic changes” from the burning of fossil fuels. Or scan the titles of scientific papers published in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that explore the effects of atmospheric carbon from the burning of fossil fuels on global temperatures and note how often “climate,” “climactic change” or “climactic variations” appear in their titles. What you won’t see in any of these early climate-change papers is the phrase “global warming,” which was first used in 1975 and entered the public environmental conversation only in the 1980s.
But wait! There is an Orwellian aspect to the phrase “climate change.” It’s just not the one many conservatives allege.
In a confidential party memo in 2002, Frank Luntz, Republican minister of language manipulation, urged conservatives and their fossil fuel allies to use the “less frightening” term “climate change” rather than the more catastrophic-sounding “global warming” to sow doubt and confusion about the growing scientific consensus on the issue. Sure enough, by 2003, “climate change” had become the George W. Bush administration’s phrase of choice. Ironically, Luntz’s memo accelerated into common usage something that was already happening — the interchangeability of “climate change” and “global warming.”
Censorship and the control of language are essential to Big Brother’s tyranny in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But before anyone hyperventilates about one’s political opponents politicizing the language — “We are now 32 years beyond 1984, but we are at last living Orwell’s nightmare,” Hanson writes in his op-ed — one should take a look at their own group’s doublethink.