When you hear 'reform' think 'destroy'
By SUSAN JACOBY
LOS ANGELES TIMES
In a 1946 essay titled "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell observed that all political language is designed "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
As President Bush begins his second term, he already has demonstrated the truth of Orwell's dictum by persuading much of the windy news media to attach the word "reform" to his plan for fundamental change in the way Social Security is financed. Each time television or radio newscasters use the phrase "Social Security reform," as they do every day, they send a message to the American public that Social Security is a broken system in need of fixing.
The general definition of reform is always positive, conveying the notion of changes designed to improve an institution. In its specific political sense, reform is offered as a moderate alternative to radicalism and revolution. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, for instance, has been judged by history as a set of reforms that saved capitalism from its own worst excesses. Neither common nor political usage justifies the application of the reform brand to such a controversial proposal as the Republican plan to privatize Social Security.
A minority of newspapers appear to have made a conscientious effort to keep the reform label out of their headlines and use more neutral terms like "change" and "revision." But most of the media have capitulated to the administration's understandable desire to soothe the public with the R-word, thereby displaying as profound a bias as if the Bush plan were routinely described as "Social Security destruction."
"Reform" is a particularly loaded term because it has such a long history of appropriation and exploitation by religious and political groups. Not for nothing do Protestants use the proper noun Reformation to describe their 16th century break with the Roman Catholic Church. But when I attended parochial schools in the 1950s, priests and nuns talked only about schism and heresy.
To cite a more recent example, Bill Clinton was as successful as Bush in his effort to dress a potential wolf -- welfare reform -- in sheep's clothing. But Clinton was more candid than Bush in that he promised to "end welfare as we know it." He could make that statement because welfare -- unlike Social Security -- elicits negative responses from many middle-class Americans. A Bush promise to "end Social Security as we know it" would scare so many voters that it might have the unintended consequence of ending the Bush administration as we know it.
The ubiquitousness of the phrase "Social Security reform"cannot be attributed solely to conscious political strategy. The lazy, tone-deaf relationship to the English language that pervades the electronic media is far more influential -- and far more destructive in the long run to rational political discourse -- than any political machination.
A culture that pays little heed to the precise meaning of words is easy prey for those who distort words to suit their ideological purposes. As Orwell noted, slovenly language is not merely the product of foolish thoughts; it "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
X Jacoby is director of the Center for Inquiry of Metro New York. CFI describes itself as a nonporfit organization that promotes and defends reason, science and freedom of inquiry.