December 02, 2005

We Have Always Been At War With Oceania

The upcoming Canadian election has brought out an interesting example of linguistic sleight of hand for political purposes. Language Log reader Chris Culy has pointed out that Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper is playing fast and loose when he makes claims like these:

[The Liberal party]... that has been named in a judicial inquiry, a royal commission, been found guilty of breaking every conceivable law in the province of Quebec with the help of organized crime... CBC News.
We've seen the Gomery report, we heard the Gomery testimony, we've heard testimony of reports of money-laundering, kickbacks, brown envelopes of illegal cash, threats and intimidation. And this went on for years. I don't think I need to say more. That's the definition of organized crime where I come from, but I'll at least give them boldness for trying to pretend it never happened. CBC News

What Harper refers to are improprieties in the administration of what is know as the Sponsorship Program, the subject of a recent report by the Gomery Commission. The extent of the corruption is disputed, but it seems clear that high-ranking members of the Liberal party were involved in some significant funny business. What is misleading is the attempt to connect this misconduct with organized crime, which makes us think of the Mafia and other, similar, ethnically based criminal organizations with a reputation for violence. In fact, there is no evidence of any connections to organized crime in this sense. The misconduct seems to have involved various politicians, bureaucrats, and business people and to have been organized only in the sense that some of these people conspired with others. There is certainly much political fodder here for the opposition parties, but Harper's references to organized crime represent an attempt to turn the corruption into something worse than it is.

Indeed, the very name of the Conservative Party is arguably a linguistic trick of the same sort. Once upon a time the Progressive Conservative party was one of the major parties in Canada. When the PC government fell in 1993, the party very nearly disintegrated and ceased to have much political influence. Meanwhile, the Reform Party, founded in 1987 by disgruntled Western Canadian right-wing politicians, grew into an increasingly influential party of national scope. In 2000 the Reform Party morphed into the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, popularly known as the Canadian Alliance, which in turn, in December of 2003, merged with the residue of the Progressive Conservative party and assumed the name Conservative Party of Canada.

What many people consider misleading about the assumption of the Conservative name is that the old Progressive Conservative party had a rather different character from the new Conservative party, which is really the Reform Party under a different name. The Progressive Conservatives were moderate and pan-Canadian. The Reform Party was a good bit farther to the right and attracted the support of extremists such as the Heritage Front, a neo-Nazi group. It was also associated with Western Canadian discontent with Ottawa, opposition to distinct status for Quebec, and opposition to the policy of official bilingualism. A number of leading members of the Progressive Conservatives, most notably former Prime Minister Joe Clark, strongly opposed the merger and refused to join the new party. By taking on the name of the much smaller party which it absorbed, the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance attempted to give itself the warm and fuzzy image of the Progressive Conservatives.

The United States strives for leadership in all fields, so it is not surprising that a much more egregious example of linguistic sleight of hand for political purposes is US President George Bush's baldfaced lie that "We do not torture" (CNN). The evidence that the United States is engaged in systematic torture is so overwhelming that few people, even politicians, could say such a thing with a straight face. Bush is no doubt relying on his administration's widely criticized attempt at limiting the scope of the term torture to the imposition of pain comparable to that of major organ failure.

Lest it seem that I am picking on the right wing, I note that the same phenomenon can be observed on the left. Does any thinking person really believe that university "diversity" programs are about diversity? Admitting a suburban upper-middle class black man increases diversity but admitting a rural Nigerian or a woman from a poor family in Appalachia doesn't? The reality is that "diversity" is just another name for "affirmative action". When affirmative action became unpopular, its proponents renamed it in an attempt to make it more palatable.

Examples of this sort abound. A couple that I've mentioned here before are the redefinition of anti-Semitism by Arab anti-Semites and the resistance to characterizing the genocide in Darfur as such. George Lakoff (better picture here) in various publications discusses other examples.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 2, 2005 10:44 PM