Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Battle Of The Ages -- Words And Language Versus Thoughts And Ideas

Thoughts and ideas are expressed with words and language so how can these concepts, which are dependent upon each other, be in conflict? There is too much meaning placed on the words and not enough exploration of the ideas that the words represent, especially if the words sound good. If they are soothing words that make people feel good about themselves then people are unlikely to explore the real meaning. Call it intellectual laziness; this conflict is the dictator’s best friend.

Joseph Goebbels is known for having said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The rest of that quote is lesser known. He continued “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

While one should be careful in comparing anything to the evils of Goebbels and Nazi Germany, the propaganda methods that Goebbels spoke of have been used throughout history. Whether as a citizen, a consumer, a student, an employee, or a spouse (especially as a spouse!) people should be aware of misleading words and be careful not to confuse the words with the thoughts behind them. Ayn Rand once said “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” The key part of that Rand quote is “Check your premises”. What is the premise of the person saying the words and how does it conflict with what the listener or reader believes? Too often, the consumer of information assumes that he SHOULD accept the information at face value and is afraid to question it for fear of seeming an outcast, or worse, he may fear being scorned for being too stupid to understand the greater good of the propaganda that is being spoon fed to him. This fear is the propagandist’s best friend.

A good example is the current health care debate in the US. People have argued about this on many levels. The debate has taken many turns but the basic premise doesn’t go challenged. President Obama is always talking about reducing costs. Whose costs is he concerned about? Is each individual responsible for the medical costs of others? It doesn’t matter what the specifics are of a plan whose foundations are based on a false premise. Once it becomes the responsibility of one person to pay for the care of another, then everyone else has an incentive to get involved in the way we each live our lives. Community involvement is one thing but personally, if I work hard for my money, no one has the right to tell me how to spend it -- or worse – take it away from me to force me to buy a product that I don’t want. I need many things beside medical care (some people after reading my articles say it really is medical care I need the most). We all need food, shelter, a way to make a living, some entertainment once in a while, a 54 inch plasma TV and many other basic needs. Should we share the costs on those also?

You don’t reduce costs by cutting into the freedom of individuals. That is sacrosanct and off-limits. If Obama was interested in government waste and reducing debt and costs, which we all have as a burden, then he would start putting a serious investment in enforcing the border, where people coming here illegally are putting an incredible financial strain on the medical system. He would put a serious investment and effort into tort reform, so that doctors wouldn’t have to send patients for needless tests just to protect themselves. He would allow free competition across state lines for health insurance which would reduce prices. Another worthwhile idea would be to look into whether or not states should mandate insurance companies to cover non-essential procedures which provide incentive for people to get elective procedures which they may not need or want if it weren’t provided on someone else’s dime. When Obama speaks the words “save money” or “reduce costs” (and by the way if you google those phrases you’ll find that he says them almost as much as “I”), the translation is more government power and less freedom for the individual. He is like a car salesman that goes on and on with lies and faulty logic but the nightmare is that as a consumer, you don’t have the freedom to walk away from it! You are forced to buy the “car” with money that they take right out of your pocket.

Thomas Sowell once said that if the democrats came up with a plan that would mandate all citizens to jump off of a 100 story building, a week later the republicans would come up with a plan to mandate all citizens to jump off of a 50 story building. This health care debate is about whether to jump off of a 50 story or a 100 story building and before getting into the specifics of the plan, we should ask “Is it a good idea to be jumping off of buildings?”

This idea of misusing words is used in public policy debates but it also permeates our day-to-day conversation like a growing cancer. Stuart Chase, a left wing writer in the 1930s, correctly pointed out in his book “The Tyranny of Words” that words which end in “ism” tend to be misused more than most. These are words that represent concepts which can’t be defined simply, yet the mere mention of these words invokes images of pure evil in some and pure joy in others. Words such as fascism, industrialism, communism, capitalism have meanings based on emotion but not too many people actually know what any of these words really mean. One word cannot possibly define a complex political/economic system. Ask the average person to tell you the meaning of fascism and what you’ll get is something such as “evil, tyranny, bad government, totalitarian….” But not too many people can go further.

Fascism is often portrayed as the opposite of communism when in fact, they are two sides of the same coin. Fascism is positioned on the right and communism on the left and if no one questions this, it goes without further argument. In reality, however, both fascism and communism subjugate the rights of individuals, the family, self protection, religious freedom, the right to own property, and many other rights taken for granted, to the state. The state decides what you can own, where you can worship, even how many children you can have. These are not opposites -- they are basically the same! Yet if you listen to your average newscast or read your average paper, you’ll hear fascism linked with capitalism, not with its brother communism.

Capitalism is one word that is completely misleading. The term implies a society based on capital when in fact, the idea was to have a society based on freedom. It is the freedom to operate without government interference that makes “Capitalism” the true opposite of both communism and fascism. Yet the word itself has to be called into question because it implies that capital is at the root of a free society rather than the result of a free society. The term capitalism is itself, a derogatory term coined by none other than Karl Marx. He mistakenly viewed free markets as being based on capital and coined “capitalism”. People continue to defend capitalism by using the term capitalism which by its very use undermines what a free market is.

While there are some words that are misleading, others are sophisticated euphemisms. On September 11, 2001, the worst attack in American history took place on American soil. When we refer to that horrific day, we say “9-11”. There is a “pre 9-11 mentality” and a “post 9-11 mentality”. Other countries, after having been attacked, have said, “This is our 9-11”. After December 7, 1941, people didn’t call the Pearl Harbor attack “12-7”. They called it a sneak attack and said some not too complimentary things about the people that did the attack. Admiral Halsey said “Before we're through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!” While we don’t need to resort to insulting any group of people, we don’t need to pretend that reality is something it isn’t. Barack Obama refuses to even use the word “terrorism”. On September 11, 2001, people went to work and found themselves trapped in a burning building knowing they were about to die. It was just a day of work for them. They were thinking about lunch, their weekend plans, their work schedule – all of a sudden they were faced with the end of their lives. Using the phrase 9-11 doesn’t do them justice and it doesn’t speak to the evil that occurred on that day. It doesn’t sound like a Madison Ave jingle and it shouldn’t – it was the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, not a date and not a number.

Sometimes words just seem to pop up out of thin air. Some political consultant who just got out of Harvard decides that there is a new word to be used and all the networks, pundits and politicians go with the word in lock step. One such word was “gravitas”. In 2000, when Bush was running against Gore, the democrats came out and said he lacked “gravitas”. All of a sudden all the people on television were talking about “gravitas”. In the last campaign the word “transparency” was the word of the day. Politicians should stop being so political and learn how to talk to people, not by using a word such as “transparency” but by explaining how as citizens, we have a right to know what our government is doing. Words as concepts lose their meaning and we hear them without really being affected by them. As for the word “gravitas”, after a grand explosion on the political scene in 2000, it seems to have gone back into hiding. No point in bringing out the word “gravitas” when there is a democratic president who lacks “gravitas”. George Orwell understood why politicians will bring words such as “gravitas” up from the basement, dust them off and use them. He said “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy…Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Take the advice of Ayn Rand and “Check your premises” when reading, hearing or watching information. If it doesn’t sound right, don’t be afraid to question it. Look past the words and ask, where is this coming from? Why is it being presented in this way? Why now? Who has to gain from this? What is the real agenda behind this? As Orwell pointed out, political speech is designed to deceive. Read between the lines and look for what is being implied, rather than said.

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