Thursday, April 2, 2009


My fascination with the subject of political language leads me to comment on this New York Times article. That report describes how President Obama has not, yet at least, changed the substance of American foreign/military policy much, but his administration is making a major effort to change the language that is used to describe those policies.

This is a topic that easily lends itself to demagoguery. Bush people accuse the Obama people of playing semantic games, to the detriment of American security. Obama's staff say that it was Bush and his aides who played the games, while the Obama people are only trying to undo that damage, and describe things properly.

Now, of course, if a president were to spend his entire workday trying to decide whether to call Al Qaeda's attacks "terrorism" or "man-caused disasters", that would be a waste of his time. But the words a president uses are extremely important.

People often talk about the difference between a president's words and his actions. In a certain sense, that's a meaningless distinction. All of a president's actions involve his use of words. If a federal courthouse needs to be constructed in Cleveland, the president doesn't grab hammer and nails and go out to build it. He accomplishes that by writing "approved" on an appropriation bill, and saying "I appoint you" to the officials who will oversee the work.

But beyond that utilitarian use of language, there is also the question of the bully pulpit, and inspiring presidential rhetoric. Perhaps the Obama White House should pay more attention to words, not less. Certainly, “overseas contingency operations" doesn't pack the same punch as, for example, "the war to end all wars".

So, yes, a comedian such as Jon Stewart can make fun of the semantic twists and turns that presidents attempt. And there's something to that. But there is a serious purpose behind those verbal gymnastics.

As someone who writes, as both vocation and avocation, I take it as a personal affront when someone dismisses an issue as being "just semantics". Taken literally, that phrase devalues what I do, because all writing involves semantics.

By the way, if any of you are shocked that Stewart would attack a Democrat, you probably didn't see Jon on the Letterman show recently. The question was whether it's more difficult to do political humor, now that Bush has gone into retirement. Stewart's response (and he acknowledged the high-brow nature of this metaphor) compared the situation to Bewitched. There's a new Darren, but it's still Bewitched.

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