Flip-Flopping on Social Security Linguistics

I wouldn't say it's the most earth-shaking issue around, but I'm fascinated by this fight the administration is picking with the media over "private accounts" versus "personal accounts."

Here's the state of play: Everybody went along in cheerful harmony describing the president's Social Security plan as "partial privatization," since it would allow younger workers to put a third or more of their payroll taxes into private accounts. President Bush called them "private accounts," everyone in the administration called them "private accounts," and Republicans, Democrats and the media all called them "private accounts."

Then, one day, some focus group showed that people, particularly older people, react negatively to any connection between Social Security and the word private. For some reason, people like the sound of "personal accounts" better than they do "private accounts."

So the Republicans, with their fabulous ability to march in lockstep, all about-faced and started referring to the privatization of Social Security as "personal accounts." The Republicans in Congress, the president, the administration and all its media supporters, both paid and unpaid, now insist on referring to the partial privatization plan as "setting up personal accounts." This is the new political correctness.

Rather than the old liberal habit of creating linguistically awkward phrases to avoid hurting people's feelings – such as African-American rather than Negro or colored people, or special-needs children rather than retarded – this is twisting language for purely political purposes.

Liberals used to amuse themselves by making up absurd examples of our linguistic tic, such as "differently-abled, heightwise," instead of "short." Then John Leo and other right-wing commentators decided political correctness, rather than an attempt at verbal good manners, was a turrible, turrible menace to freedom of speech.

Since I live in a state where the words "spic" and "nigger" are still used by a substantial minority, I never paid much attention to the PC police, but many on the right found it a useful tool to beat liberals over the head with.

Meanwhile, Karl Rove, Frank Luntz and many other smart political operatives were perfecting the art of changing language for political reasons. Do people perceive most conservatives as mean? Then run on the slogan "compassionate conservative." It has no meaning, but it sounds better. People don't think the government should be involved in religion? Call it "faith-based policy." People are against more air pollution? Then call it "the Clear Skies Initiative."

Corrupting language for political purposes, as Mr. Orwell noted nearly 60 years ago, has hideous consequences. What is interesting about this little, apparently unimportant word shift for political advantage is how the Republicans are using it to "work the refs," the media.

Luntz himself did a brilliant job of this on Air America.

Asked: "Do you think it's fair for Democrats or reporters or anybody else to use the words privatization and private accounts to describe the president's policy?"

Luntz: "I think it is fair for the Democrats to do so."

"Why not the press?"

"Because it's not – the press is making a pejorative statement."

"But wait, it's the phrase that the president himself uses over and over again. ..."

"Used it."

"OK, so if as long as he stops using it, from that point on – but I'm being serious about this – at the point at which he no longer uses the word, reporters have to start using a different verbiage, shall we say?"

"It's one of the reasons the American people don't trust the media. If the media wants to engage in a debate, let it say so. Let them come on the shows as they do on Sundays, and let them state a point of view and people know that they're not getting the journalistic report, their getting the opinion of the left wing or the right wing because there are journalists from both sides."

You see the beauty of it? If we continue to call private accounts private accounts, then we, the media, are taking sides and the right can once more trot out their hoary shibboleth about "the liberal media." Use our language, or we'll accuse you of bias again. If the president no longer says it, no one else can, either. Under Nixon, they used to say, "That statement is no longer operative."

Rove is famous for never letting his clients get "off-message." Repetition, repetition, repetition, never deviate from the script, and in no time flat, we'll all be calling them personal accounts.

You won't catch me on the wrong side of this argument. I know they're making a list and checking it twice. If I'm not with them, I'm against them. Taking inspiration from Prince, I shall refer to them as "the accounts formerly known as private."

Although it's a hell of a thing to get a bunch of right-wing Republicans claiming that the word "private" is pejorative. Don't they usually think the word "public" is?

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