Making Murder Respectable | Harper's Magazine

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Making Murder Respectable

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The great chronicler of the corruption of language, George Orwell, noted in Politics and the English Language (1946) that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The dangers presented by the proliferation of such language are ominous. Victor Klemperer carefully recorded them in his book, Lingua tertii imperii (The Language of the Third Reich, 1947), perhaps the greatest account ever written of the power of simple twists of language to work murderous evil. And when the homicidal misrepresentations of the warmongers slither into the realm of news reporting, the situation becomes graver still. America has long prided itself on its independent guardian press, but this hardly ever was the case and assuredly is not so today. Even the best of the print media—publications like the New York Times and Washington Post–show the corrosive effects of corrupted language.

Last year, I tracked the Times’s use of the word “torture” over a period of six weeks. The results? “Torture” is used to described the excessively loud music coming from a neighbor’s apartment; a clash in accessories accompanying formalwear; drudgery or highly repetitive and monotonous office work. But what about things that really are torture: waterboarding, beating a person’s face to a pulp, the use of electroshocks, long-time standing—or as the KGB calls it, stoika, the cold cell? These things appeared many times, and the word “torture” never appeared next to them other than inside of quotation marks. No, the words the Times preferred to use were “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Orwell would crack an anxious smile. He would say: so you see, it’s well underway. Who could imagine a better example than this?

And currently we see much the same thing going on in reporting on the air and in print surrounding Congress. Remember just a bit more than two years ago, when on a single occasion the Democrats threatened to filibuster a judicial nominee? It was raised as a threat to the Constitution and our form of government. The media quaked and trembled. The horror! At length, the Democrats folded under this pressure and allowed a number of grossly unqualified persons to obtain lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

And today? Hardly a week now passes in which the Republicans, now reduced to the minority, fail to use the filibuster. They use it even to obstruct “sense of the Congress” resolutions—that is, nonbinding statements. And they’ve let it slip that their intention is purely to obstruct: to insure that the Democratic Congress is unable to do anything—that it continues to be viewed by the public as essentially impotent. Senator Kent Conrad in an interview this weekend:

The leader has had to file cloture now over 40 times already this year. And cloture, as you know, is a special procedure to stop debate, to stop filibusters, in order to reach conclusion on legislation. I had a Republican colleague tell me it is the Republican strategy to try to prevent any accomplishment of the Democratic Congress. That is set in their caucus openly and directly that they don’t intend to allow Democrats to have any legislative successes, and they intend to do it by repeated filibuster.

And how is this reported in the media? The word “filibuster” never appears. Look for it. You’ll see that there was a “procedural vote,” or that Republicans relied upon a “procedural device to block a vote.” And here’s a Reuters article out this evening that is positively comic in its twists and turns to avoid using the word “filibuster.” Why exactly? Because, I am told, the “Republican leadership would be upset if we used that word.” Ahha, now we understand how news copy is written. That’s the “liberal media” for you.

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