March 26th, 2009

Words matter: but not as much as liberals think they do

There’s been some relabeling going on in the Obama administration. The “Global War on Terror,” a term criticized by the Left as too simplistic and truculent, and on the Right as too general and nonspecific, has been rebranded.

The “solution” would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Read about one of the new terms and its rationale, according to Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano (and note that, while the Spiegel interviewer uses the term “Islamist terrorism,” Napolitano leaves the word “Islamist” out in her response):

SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, in your first testimony to the US Congress as Homeland Security Secretary you never mentioned the word “terrorism.” Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?

Napolitano: Of course it does. I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word “terrorism,” I referred to “man-caused” disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.

The second and related relabeling effort is to use the term “overseas contingency operations” instead of “global war on terror.” It’s got a real ring, doesn’t it?

It’s not clear who’s at the bottom of this one (the article mentions allegations that it was the Office of Management and Budget, but the OMB denies this). But the term has been used for a while by “senior administration officials,” so there does seem to have been some sort of directive from the administration.

This is an example of language designed not only to be dull bureaucrateese, but to obfuscate, neuter, and hide. Does anyone, even native speakers of English (or perhaps especially native speakers of English), know what this phrase actually means? That, of course, is the point.

This has been the province of government for quite some time. But it seems to be accelerating in the Obama administration.

Strangely enough, I see some of its roots in the efforts of therapists to use less blaming language when working with clients and their families. However, families are not terrorists, and when they’re in therapy, they tend to be there because they actually want to change, at least at some level.

Here’s an example of how it works in therapy: if there’s a child who’s gotten into trouble and has been regarded as a bad seed and incorrigible, the therapist can give the family a message such as “he’s not bad, he’s sad.” This can stop a vicious and spiraling cycle of rage towards the child in question, and help the family to be more responsive to suggestions for setting limits and transforming the child’s behavior in an atmosphere less harshly punitive and more conducive to cooperation.

It’s not appropriate in all cases, of course, even with families. But it can work quite well in a situation in which a child has been acting up because he/she really is crying out for help to the adults in his/her life, and is getting nothing but angry condemnation back.

The key point is that therapeutic clients and terrorists are different (duh!). The latter have not come to us for help. And although it’s true that Islamicist terrorists are indeed mired in an honor-shame culture, and are sensitive to language and face-saving, the situation is not amenable to linguistic gymnastics (and although author Richard Landes is speaking of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the following passage, he might just as well be speaking of the entire War on Islamicist Fundamentalism):

In this kind of war, negotiations will not work. The Palestinians cannot make any significant concessions to Israel without losing honor. Additionally, they view concessions by Israel as marks of weakness, as invitations to further violence, rather than as invitations to put an end to the war.

The idea that the administration’s linguistic changes will matter to anyone at all—except to draw laughter from the terrorists themselves, approval from the deluded pacifists of Europe and at home, and (I sincerely hope, just for the irony of the thing), anger from feminists who consider “man-caused” to be a sexist term—is a delusion.

The Obama administration doesn’t seem to get the concept of enemies who wish us dead. There really really are such people. And if you call them something nicer, and don’t label the war against them as what it actually is, you only earn their contempt, and their perception that it is you who are the weak horse.

And that’s a recipe for “man-made disaster.”

[ADDENDUM: Great minds think alike.]

39 Responses to “Words matter: but not as much as liberals think they do”

  1. expat Says:

    I wonder how this gobbledygook translates into Arabic, Farsi, and Pashtu.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    As a joke, expat.

  3. FredHjr Says:

    I believe there is only one word that describes the Left’s use of language: OBFUSCATION.

  4. SteveH Says:

    Its like the self esteem movement thats made little tyranical monsters over here is now directed over there.

    Can we safely predict terrorism on steroids?

  5. vanderleun Says:

    Remember the 3 fates? With Obama you get the 3 states (of information): obfuscate, neuter, and hide.

  6. david foster Says:

    A “man-caused” disaster might be a petrochemical plant explosion caused by operator error. By combining *accidental* disasters and *deliberate murders* in one phrase, specificity is lost, and this is clearly the intent.

    People who use less-specific words where more-specific ones are available and appropriate are, with few exceptions, either fools or scoundrels.

  7. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Well, it is an operation that takes place overseas that is contingent on ????????

    Wait! I almost had it. Let me try again. WTF??????

  8. physicsguy Says:

    This is just an extension of politically correct speak from the universities into the government. As in most cases of PC’ness, the aim is to avoid clear, and concise language in order to advance an agenda.

  9. Thomass Says:

    Didn’t they mock the government during the Vietnam War for the same kind of verbal games?

  10. Mac Beach Says:

    Orwell called it “Newspeak” and the left has already used it to great advantage. I don’t expect them to stop until the point at which nothing they do can be critisied without raising issues of political correctness.

  11. Occam's Beard Says:

    Using language to obscure has long been a favorite strategy of the left. One I especially dislike is their tendency to define away a problem, or to create/exaggerate a problem through definition.

    For example, lefties commonly distinguish pedophilia/pederasty from homosexuality as though the groups are mutually exclusive. That way, by defining homosexuality as relations between adults of the same sex, they can vociferously deny that homosexuals molest children/young adults. Simple. By their (misleading) definition, that’s true.

    The converse, creating/exaggerating a problem with a definition, occured recently in the “study” that claimed that 1 in 50 children were homeless. They defined “homeless” practically as anyone who spent a night under another’s roof in the past year.

    Feminists did the same thing some years ago with regard to rape. By defining it as any unwanted sexual advance, probably including a peck on the cheek, they were able to claim that some ridiculous proportion (ca. 50%, IIRC) of women had been raped.

  12. Ca1ppy Says:

    Maybe we have been too harsh on the poor dears. Maybe therapy could help them. If Neo and Dr. Helen were the therapists.

  13. Bruce A. Miller Says:

    The point is well taken. Our President is easily the most gifted person holding this office in decades. He has enormous command of language and facts. Unfortunately he is by conviction an envirormentalist of an extreme type. That point of view is consistent with a dovish foreign policy. We may yet see a disaster in Iran (nucleur bombs), an encouragement of the anti-Israel
    Arab front and a refusal to defend Western values against the Islamic attack. I don’t think it is over yet but I do worry.

  14. Occam's Beard Says:

    Our President is easily the most gifted person holding this office in decades. He has enormous command of language and facts.

    The first assertion is highly debatable. The second is risible.

  15. Perfected democrat Says:

    “The Obama administration doesn’t seem to get the concept of enemies who wish us dead.”

    As I, and others, have repeatedly said, Obama is himself a moslem-communist; Raised and bred, enthusiastically practicing, and identified officially as a moslem from early childhood until adolescence, thru his years in Indonesia; Until his return to Hawaii, and adolescent thru early adulthood years when he was mentored by his left-wing mother, grandparents and the marxist Frank Marshall Davis. Then on to his adult years and his affinity for the “Alinsky” politcal brand, in concert with his intimate best friends, moslem terrorist allies and left-wing apologists predominately. When Obama took office as Commander in Chief, the first foreign figure he thought to “call” was the PLO chieftan Abbas. Forget Abbas as an enemy of Israel, he is a man who has allied, aided and abetted the murder of Americans, as well, as one of Arafat’s closest partners, and as his heir to the PLO. It is indicative of Obama’s priorities. He is truly, and without exaggeration, “the fox guarding the henhouse”, and as he did everything possible to undermine the Iraq war, he is now doing everything possible to undermine and remake America’s foreign policy compatible to the Islamist/Leftwing model, to the extent that he can without exposing himself as the dedicated oppenent, that he is, to traditional American values and alliances. Legislation and policy changes are being orchestrated at a rushed pace, deliberately, to disable any qualitative opposition; Mainstream America is generally in denial that we could possibly have a traitor occupying the White House, but that is obviously the case…

  16. FredHjr Says:

    “The point is well taken. Our President is easily the most gifted person holding this office in decades. He has enormous command of language and facts.”

    Yes. I learned from him that we have 58 states.

  17. huxley Says:

    In my speech, although I did not use the word “terrorism,” I referred to “man-caused” disasters.
    — Janet Napolitano

    That is the most mind-numbing language I’ve heard in the past week and it’s been a bang-up week for it.

    If Ayn Rand had written about the members of the Obama administration and their behavior, it would have been dismissed as more of her shallow demonizing, like naming a character Wesley Mooch.

  18. Lance de Boyle Says:

    What this nuance-slinging rump-fed Napolitano hag actually “demonstrates” is that she’s not a wordsmith; she’s an imbecile.

    By her logic, terrorism is in the same class as spilling hot pie down your shorts—clearly a man-made disaster.

    I hope that we are in the second stage of a five stage process of political demystification.

    Stage 1. Denial.
    “Yeah, this guy seems like a loser. And the policies seem insane and evil. But come on. Settle down. Chill. He just got into office. It will be alright.”

    Stage 2. Anger.
    “Heeyyyyyy, this is bull$#@&! He’s lying. He’s nothing but a manipulative huckster commie. Barney Frank needs to be installed on a 2x 4. He’s been in training for years.”

    Stage 3. Bargaining.
    “Okay, we’ll just be patient and develop true conservative leaders and clear solutions. The public will wake up. Yeah, that will do it. Then everything will be okay.”

    Stage 4. Depression.
    “Oh, sweet Jesus. We’re doomed. I’ll be working till I fall over dead. This glad-handing smarmy no-nothing tool wants to make out with Amadinnerjacket in the backseat of his limo. We…are…screwwwwed! We’ll be wiped out with an electromagnetic pulse bomb, while these devil monks are drinking Chablis.”

    Stage 5. Acceptance.
    “Acceptance?! Your ass, acceptance! There will be NOOOOO acceptance. We aren’t dead. We’re gonna pants this criminal gang and drag them through town by their nasty drawers (Barney’s come to mind.) and thongs. Yeah, you want my guns? Come and take them, tough guy. I’ve lived long enough. And Barney. You listening, you toothless lisping dick-smootch? Just leave Brookline, come to our town, and open your hideous pile hole.”

  19. nyomythus Says:

    while the Spiegel interviewer uses the term “Islamist terrorism,” Napolitano leaves the word “Islamist” out in her response

    Remember a part of our fight against Islamic extremist is to discern between the extremist and our moderate allies in the Islamic world — some of whom aren’t as sophisticate as we, or it’s easier to manipulate the western response in media outside the west when the work ‘Islamist” doesn’t appear. We know it’s Islamic terror, the administration knows it’s Islamic terror — give the new administration a ‘fair’ chance and stop being to reactive.

  20. nyomythus Says:


  21. Artfldgr Says:

    your willing to tell a bunch of liars, posers, fakirs, charlatans, con artists, sociopaths, schemers, socialists, and genrally incompetents who have used little else but words to acheive everything they have which includes high offices, and copious amounts of money, fame, and power, that words dont mean as much as THEY think they do?

    the whole reason we are worried and over 100 million people were torturted to death last century are because of words.

    everything mankind has or does that is greater than an animal is because of words.

    and words dont mean or matter as much as they think they do?

    that would depend on whom THEY think is their intendent target. by changing the word it becomes easy to notice that there are no antiwar protests for the non war war, or some other equivalent. everything being done now is for OUR consumption.

    damn the rest of the world which is like a pack of hyenas waiting to see who is going to be first in for the kill when all this herculean incompetence takes hold and the gears grind (they are very ready to flood the place with weapons to help things along).

    a crisis starts, and goes down hill from there. because the choices being made are so ideological it is like a predictable automaton in a crisis, or in economic response. you cant bluff through a crisis when everyone already knows your bluffing. the worst part being that i think our leader is immune to any idea that anything he does might not be good.

  22. EL Rider Says:

    One example of an “overseas contingency operation” would be going to the Sofitel when Le George V lost your reservation.

  23. Artfldgr Says:

    the “G” teams think so.. 🙂

    Putin’s Internet Goon Squads Exposed

    [kim has an interesting piece up on american thinker today as well]

    (maybe i am getting the hang of short? nah, probably just providence)

  24. nyomythus Says:

    the whole reason we are worried and over 100 million people were torturted to death last century are because of words. Only word with grand authority can do that — see Holy Scriptures.

  25. huxley Says:

    The point is well taken. Our President is easily the most gifted person holding this office in decades. He has enormous command of language and facts.

    No, Obama is merely the most gifted at conveying that impression, and it works for quite a lot of Americans.

    This is an peerless orator who somehow doesn’t know how to pronounce “Orion”, an extraordinary intellect who is unaware that JFK’s meeting with Khruschev in Vienna was a disaster and therefore a terrible model to emulate, an authority on constitutional law who is unclear that passing specific tax legislation to target specific individuals to expropriate funds they acquired legally is unconstitutional, and that’s just off the top of my head.

    No, good sir, Obama has bamboozled and hoodwinked you.

  26. SteveH Says:

    Obama is the Chauncey Gardener of politics.

  27. Beverly Says:

    Only partly. He does have malign intent, whereas Chauncey had no intent other than to get along with the rest of the humans.

  28. Beverly Says:

    I also agree that words have enormous power, IF the people listening are primed to accept them (IOW, the Americans who voted for Obongo, as opposed to our enemies overseas).

    Orwell had it all figured out, this mass psychology thing.

    Which is why I think we should really work hard to put a rocket up their fundament whenever we catch them twisting things around. Shout them down, ridicule them to death, use their ****-busting tactics. No quarter.

  29. csimon Says:

    Personally, I think the entire Obama administration is a “man-caused disaster.”

  30. Maquis Says:

    One of my fellow commenters at HotAir thinks that “man-caused” disasters is too sexist, and suggested Anthropomorphic Disasters. Myself, I feel that “disasters” is a relative term, as one nation’s disaster is another nation’s street dance party. So I submit in keeping with the non-offensive spirit of the new administration we should use the phrase Anthropomorphic Relatively Significant Events. ARSE for short.

  31. FredHjr Says:

    Their manipulation of language to obfuscate reality works because our population increasingly is losing its mental acuity. Even the so-called educated elites in our country would not even bat an eye at this new name for the jihad declared against us back in 622 A.D. Vapid, slothful, proud (of what, I am not sure), and venal. This should be shameful in any normal context, but apparently we not living in normal times or surrounded by a normal culture.

    I fear that things really are that dire.

  32. SteveH Says:

    The use of MAN alone is perfectly fine as long as its used in reference to a destructive circumstance. See MAN Made Global Warming for proper instruction of when gender seperation is acceptable.

  33. What Will the Next Terrorist Attack Be Called: 12/12, Bombing of Boston, What? « The Crowbar Says:

    […] 26, 2009 at 10:46 pm (Musings) (Obama Administration, Postmodernism) Splendid post by […]

  34. waltj Says:

    I’m at a loss as to why people seem to think Obama is sussposedly so “intelligent”. Because he sounds good (when his teleprompter is working, that is)? Because he graduated from Harvard Law? Please. Con men sound good, too. That’s why they can finagle people out of their money. Credentials are nice, too, but I’ve run across more than one idiot with Ph.D., MD, or JD after his name. From good schools, too. It’s what you do after you get the sheepskin that counts. Obama has basically done nothing except get elected to ever-higher office without actually doing any discernible work once he got there. As far his command of facts goes, clearly that does not include those “facts” contained in the U.S. Constitution about bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. And he taught, what, constitutional law? It would be funny if it weren’t so disastrous for the country.

  35. waltj Says:

    Yikes. supposedly.

    Spellcheck is my friend, spellcheck is my friend…

  36. Don Janousek Says:

    I dunno. My brothers and I are very proud of the military service of our father and display his flag in tribute every Memorial Day and 4th of July, but the prospect of going around saying, “Hey, my Dad fought in the Big One, Overseas Contigency Operation II, just doesn’t quite do it for me, ya know? And “MAN-made disasters?” Rather sexist, isn’t it? As long as we’re using Newspeak, I nominate “Self-Concious, Carbon-Based, Bi-Pedal, Mammalian Being-Caused Disasters.” Do I have a second on that? (George Orwell must be roaring with laughter wherever he is right now!)

  37. Oblio Says:

    Beverly is right. We need to adopt a “forward” policy with respect to progressive gibberish, rhetorical base-stealing, and bad faith.

    Make no concessions. Challenge every assumption. Make them defend their positions with facts and logic. Make them name the consequences of their policies and take responsibility for them. Demand commitment to a position. Do not fall for the tu quoque head fake. Do not assume they are defining words the way you are; as OB says, they have their own special definitions.

    The progressive self-image depends on the assumption that they are the intelligent and well-intentioned party. This assumption should be challenged; the worst people I have known have styled themselves as “progressive.”

  38. Don Janousek Says:

    neo-neocon: While I’m not that familiar with the Newspeak in its therapy version, I did spend some fourteen years in the rehabilitation field after my practice of law, so I am familiar with those terms. I once encountered a freshly-minted Master’s recipient from the Rehab Institute at Southern Illinois University who, in her first real life report on a client, referred to someone who used a wheelchair to get around as “ambulatorialy challenged.”

  39. Artfldgr Says:

    just so we all know where this is going, and why the race hate, the religion hate, etc..

    hitler wasnt implementing his own ideas… nor was stalin, or mao.. this next thing we are heading to is intended to fulfill engels words.

    “All the other large and small nationalities and peoples are destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm… these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character… [A general war will] wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.” — Friedrich Engels, “The Magyar Struggle,” Neue Rhenische Zeitung, January 13, 1849

    hitler and stalin were only fulfiling engels.

    we are gearing up.. obama just got his internal army of the young, like putin has nashi. puten has created service and military corps of youths as of this week, and so obama will.

    they are going to throw the reactionaries at each other letting them exterminate each other in a huge shoa/holocaust…

    that is if they can get that far again.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

Monthly Archives


Ace (bold)
AmericanDigest (writer’s digest)
AmericanThinker (thought full)
Anchoress (first things first)
AnnAlthouse (more than law)
AtlasShrugs (fearless)
AugeanStables (historian’s task)
Baldilocks (outspoken)
Barcepundit (theBrainInSpain)
Beldar (Texas lawman)
BelmontClub (deep thoughts)
Betsy’sPage (teach)
Bookworm (writingReader)
Breitbart (big)
ChicagoBoyz (boyz will be)
Contentions (CommentaryBlog)
DanielInVenezuela (against tyranny)
DeanEsmay (conservative liberal)
Donklephant (political chimera)
Dr.Helen (rights of man)
Dr.Sanity (thinking shrink)
DreamsToLightening (Asher)
EdDriscoll (market liberal)
Fausta’sBlog (opinionated)
GayPatriot (self-explanatory)
HadEnoughTherapy? (yep)
HotAir (a roomful)
InFromTheCold (once a spook)
InstaPundit (the hub)
JawaReport (the doctor is Rusty)
LegalInsurrection (law prof)
RedState (conservative)
Maggie’sFarm (centrist commune)
MelaniePhillips (formidable)
MerylYourish (centrist)
MichaelTotten (globetrotter)
MichaelYon (War Zones)
Michelle Malkin (clarion pen)
Michelle Obama's Mirror (reflections)
MudvilleGazette (milblog central)
NoPasaran! (behind French facade)
NormanGeras (principled leftist)
OneCosmos (Gagdad Bob’s blog)
PJMedia (comprehensive)
PointOfNoReturn (Jewish refugees)
Powerline (foursight)
ProteinWisdom (wiseguy)
QandO (neolibertarian)
RachelLucas (in Italy)
RogerL.Simon (PJ guy)
SecondDraft (be the judge)
SeekerBlog (inquiring minds)
SisterToldjah (she said)
Sisu (commentary plus cats)
Spengler (Goldman)
TheDoctorIsIn (indeed)
Tigerhawk (eclectic talk)
VictorDavisHanson (prof)
Vodkapundit (drinker-thinker)
Volokh (lawblog)
Zombie (alive)

Regent Badge