6 of the Most Meaningless Words That Politicians and Pundits Throw Around -- and Should Be Abandoned

Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote the prophetic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which he noted that politicians, journalists and academics were increasingly using meaningless words and euphemisms to make “lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and... give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

While Orwell ended his essay with hope for the future, today's politics has unfortunately continued this slide into ambiguity and deception, and is in many ways worse than in Orwell's time. Take Ted Cruz’s recent statement, when he said that “Obama is a disaster because he’s an unmitigated socialist.”

We’ve heard this smear countless times, yet the S word never gets old for Republicans criticizing Obama. For many Americans, this accusation is enough to discredit anyone, even if they don’t know what it actually means.

As in Orwell’s time, words without agreed-upon meaning, and euphemisms defending the indefensible, cloud modern political discourse. Here are six words and terms that have lost their meaning on the road to 2016.

1. Socialism. Like Cruz's attacks on all-things-Obama, the word socialism is mostly used by conservatives to induce fear in their followers. Despite seven years of painfully moderate governing under the Obama administration, conservatives still love to call the president a socialist, as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani did earlier this year: “Look, this man was brought up basically in a white family, so whatever he learned or didn’t learn, I attribute this more to the influence of communism and socialism [than to his race].”  

Kentucky Sen. and GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul also seems sure that Obama is turning America into a “socialistic nightmare.” He said in a Newsmax interview, “It's hard to imagine exactly what his goal is because when you talk to him one on one, he sounds reasonable and like he's not trying to transform America into some socialist nightmare. However, when you look at his policies, one after another they are sort of transformative — changing us from a country that has a marketplace and freedom of choice to a country that is stifled by coercion and mandates.” 

Of course, Obama’s policies are hardly socialistic in the real sense of the word. The Affordable Care Act was largely based on ideas from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, while his unrelenting support for the TPP is completely contrary to socialist ideals. But don’t expect that to stop conservatives from yelling out socialist. With Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who openly calls himself a “Democratic socialist,” seeking the Democratic Party's 2016 nomination, the word will only become more prevalent in the year to come. 

2. Centrism (or moderate). Advocates of centrism promote it as the prudent political strategy, as Republican Peter Wehner warned in a recent New York Times editorial, advising the Democratic party to halt its shift to the progressive left. Republicans like Wehner and Wall Street Democrats are pushing for a return to the 1990s, where then-President Bill Clinton took numerous pro-corporate and conservative stances on banking, trade, welfare reform, criminal justice and prison-building.

Calls for centrism usually come from those on the right, without acknowledging that the Democratic Party has long been dominated by its right-facing wing. The foremost advocate of centrism today is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is sure that moderate politicians could clean up whatever partisan mess is at hand. “There’s no centrist or moderate infrastructure for fundraising,” rued Brooks on PBS. “There’s no intellectual infrastructure, there’s just a void. And so if you’re a politician and you want head out to the middle, there’s just nobody there.” 

The Times' Paul Krugman sees that fiction for what it is and has derided “the cult of centrism,” writing, “We have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president.” 

A centrist politician is a not politician without a true ideology, as some people say. It is one whose fealty is to compromises that favor established power, which is what rightfully scares progressives about Hillary. After all, Bill Clinton's famously centrist administration was a better friend to Wall Street than prior Republican presidencies, promoting financial deregulation while expanding trade. Pretending this is the pragmatic and practical course, is Orwellian rhetoric.

3. Patriotism. Questioning the patriotism of liberals, while promoting oneself as a true patriot, is a conservative tradition in America. When Obama was running for president, his patriotism was constantly being attacked. He ended up having to address it, saying, “I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.” 

Seven years later and it hasn’t stopped. Giuliani, along with calling Obama a socialist earlier this year, also questioned his patriotism: “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” 

What is a patriot, anyway? The standard definition is “someone who loves their country.” But if you question your leaders and criticize their imperialist tendencies, does that make you unpatriotic? Is blindly supporting your country, even when it is clearly in the wrong, the sign of a patriot? The great Mark Twain provided a definition that may well be the most accurate: “Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” 

Once again, patriotism has completely lost any historic context. Today, it's simply used to mean, “I’m good, you’re bad.” 

4.Terrorism. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Jeb Bush’s older brother, President George W. Bush said, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Terrorism has become the ultimate fear-mongering word of the new century. It has been used by government officials to justify the longest foreign wars in U.S. history and effectively undermine the domestic privacy and civil rights of citizens. Like the “communist” menace of the last century, terrorism has become the ultimate non-specified threat, being used so loosely that it has lost any concrete definition.

Earlier this year, Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker strangely compared his experience in Wisconsin fighting union protestors to fighting terrorists: “I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil...If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Walker has little foreign policy experience, so comparing protesters to terrorists was a vain and ignorant political move. But here in America, it isn’t just Walker who likes thinking of activists exercising their First Amendment rights as terrorists. The FBI’s current war on American activists shows how meaningless the word has become. In its original sense, terrorism meant the use of violence and intimidation, usually against the public, to achieve a political or religious aims. In the United States, however, various activists, such as environmentalists and animal right’s activists, have in many cases been designated as terrorists by the government for committing acts like damaging property or breaking into facilities.

The FBI has also used agent provocateurs to push activists (usually protesting corporate malfeasance) into committing or planning attacks that they normally wouldn’t have. The case of Eric McDavid revealed this, when he was released earlier this year from prison, after it was found he had been entrapped by an FBI agent. The FBI had withheld documents revealing the entrapment at his trial. Talk about Orwellian.

While the United States government works hard to put away any activist who criticizes the capitalist system too harshly, its own support of state and non-state terrorism around the world, mainly in the regions of Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, escapes wide notice. Whether helping the Taliban in Afghainistan, or the Contra mercenaries in Nicaragua in the ‘80s, or Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the ‘70s, the word terrorism is always avoided by both the government and the mainstream media. But the violence and terror is just as real.

5. Collateral damage. As Orwell warned, euphemisms have been aggressively promoted by those in power, usually to defend the indefensible. Military operations have always been heavily laced with euphemisms; the most infamous term probably being ‘collateral damage.’ The U.S. Department of Defense defines collateral damage as: “Unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time.” In other words, the killing of innocent civilians. 

Other popular military euphemisms include “surgical strike,” meaning precision bombing, and “friendly fire,” meaning accidental force against allies, usually misidentified as enemies. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, codenamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” was a wonderfully deceptive name cloaking the Iraq war with a veneer of freedom and democracy; because spreading freedom and democracy always sounds better than invading for oil or promoting market/ideological interests.

According to Iraq Body Count, there have been between 139,934 and 158,483 civilian casualties since the Iraqi invasion, or if we are to speak in Orwellian politicial terms, there has been significant collateral damage. 

6. Job creators. “Job-creators” is every corporatist candidate's favorite way to describe the wealthy. How do you get people who would benefit from progressive taxation to oppose it, or to suppress popular discontent with inequality? Lionize the rich, by labeling them the provider class for everyone else. Without great inequality, who would create jobs?

Presidential hopeful, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, has always been quick to bring up job creators when discussing tax increases: “I traveled the state of Florida for two years campaigning. I have never met a job creator who told me that they were waiting for the next tax increase before they started growing their business. I’ve never met a single job creator who has ever said to me I can’t wait ’til government raises taxes again so I can go out and create a job.”

Rand Paul has even used this idea to push for getting rid of the IRS, saying, “Our Founders never intended for the tax code to be used as a weapon against U.S. citizens. As president, I will get the IRS out of your life and out of the way of every job creator in America.”

Putting "job creators" on a pedestal while ignoring productive employees, is as mishapen as supply-side economics, which promised that more wealth at the top would trickle down to everyone else. Terms like these become so common and intertwined in political conversation that they lose their meaning. Or they become Orwellian, and refer to the opposite of what's really happening. Thus, foreign invasions and state-sponsored terrorism become “democratization.” The super rich become job-creators, and on and on.

Heeding Orwell

In our sound-bite and tweeting society, communication has become compacted and compressed. Still, too many writers, pundits and citizens let meaningless words and phrases fly by, which in politics and economics has wrought inane assertions and stifled informed debate. Orwell warned about these abuses of language, especially rhetoric that's deceitful but effective. “[The] invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them," he said, "and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”


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