Talking the Talk 

How to interpret political cryptology.

Talking the Talk

How to interpret political cryptology.

By now, most users of the English language are familiar with that branch of the mother tongue that goes by the name of "Orwellian" -- so called after the novel 1984 by the great English writer George Orwell.

That book, written in 1947 during the heyday of the Cold War and the Soviet Union's Stalinist practices (as well as, arguably, our own Hooverized and McCarthyized native lingo), presupposed a future in which the masters of government had turned language on its head, perverting obvious common meanings into their opposites.

The most famous examples were in such dystopian slogans as "War Is Peace," "Freedom Is Slavery," and "Ignorance Is Strength." These were the distillations of a sinister "Ministry of Truth" charged with the official duty of manipulating and misleading the masses.

The fact of the matter, however, is that brainwashing of that sort would be easy enough to detect and resist. All one has to do is to reverse the process of distortion by subjecting the offending phrase to a 180-degree turn. More difficult to deal with (or to take the "spin" off, in current Orwellian Speak) are the little white lies by which today's politicians and bureaucrats disguise their meanings.

What follows is a brief glossary of the circumlocutions now in favor:

"I have no plans to run for such-and-such an office." This one's easy enough to parse. It means, "I plan to run for such-and-such an office." They're just not ready to talk about it yet. Maybe the organization (specific "plan," etc.) isn't quite in place.

Alternative: "I have no intention of running for such-and-such office." Substitute "I intend," etc.

"Many friends have urged me to consider serving the community (city, state, nation, etc.) as such-and-such." Means: "I'm trying like hell to put my campaign committee together."

I mean, lookit, if one really doesn't want to run, he or she can say so easily enough, as the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman did when he was being bugged about it by Republican kingmakers in the 1870s. "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve," said Sherman. Hence the adjective "Shermanesque" to denote a disavowal you can take seriously.

"I'm not looking past ..." The current election. The needs of the moment. The problems facing the country. Etc., Etc. Meaning: "Hell yes, I'm going to run for the next big job up the ladder. It's just impolitic to talk about it right now." This phrase can either precede or follow after the foregoing examples.

Okay, so one of these artificially shrinking violets finally does run, is elected, and screws up while in office. How is that accounted for?

"Mistakes were made." This passive-voice expression is the classic response, meaning at root nothing more or less than "I blew it but don't expect me to take the blame."

So damage control won't work, push comes to shove, and the nitwit finally has to either quit outright or avoid future humiliation by declining to run for reelection:

"I have decided to spend more time with my family." Yeah, right. And no more fooling with interns or raids on the secretarial pool, either, Clyde.

And if an officeholder has to fire a difficult or embarrassing staffer, the official announcement goes something like this: "All of us are grateful to Mr. So-and-So for his honorable service to his (party, city, state, nation, etc.)." Meaning: "All of us are glad to be rid of the jerk. I sure as hell am, anyhow." Alternative: "The (party, city, state, nation, etc.) have experienced great gains during the period of Mr. So-and-So's tenure." Meaning: "No thanks to that dumb bastard!"

The rift that caused the sacking is often attributed to "differences in philosophy." (See above, under "dumb bastard.")

In all of these instances the person resigning/being fired/not running for reelection usually says that he/she is doing so "to pursue an opportunity in the private sector" -- i.e., hopes like hell to be able to find some job above the rank of stock clerk.

Let's say, however, that -- with or without the aid of euphemisms -- some utterly unqualified hack actually gets to rise all the way up the ladder of political success to, say, the pinnacle of power itself. We're back in Orwell country now, wherein pollution becomes "environmentalism," looting the treasury becomes "tax incentives," aggression becomes "defense," and quagmire becomes "progress."

As Bill O'Reilly would put it, "Happy New Year!"

baker@memphisflyer.com 

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