In politics, words are vital - so why are they so abused?

The political season is about to arrive, and one of my harmless pastimes is to keep track of how one can tell at what stage we are in the summer and fall of this particular and recurrent discontent. I have a couple of scales that illuminate the advancement of the campaigns, but before I get into the nitty-gritty of the current excess in lying, obfuscation, and misuse of language, I think we might consider certain inalienable truths.

The first is that political language is not only laughable, it is important. This is only one of many contradictions the citizens of a democracy have to face. Still, speaking clearly and forthrightly about the issues of our time, as they say in Pol-speak, is necessary because it is how we go about determining who is going to get re-elected and, as a kind of byproduct, who might pass some laws that theoretically reflect what we, as a people, think is real.


Language is at the heart of this process. (Process, by the way, is brought to you by the Dead Word Archive. What is more meaningless than, say, the peace process?) Of course, the abuse of language and the general hashing of it is something I like to keep an eye on.

It is one of my pet theories that the Soviet Union tanked because its writers were never allowed to say what they thought to be true, since writers, as engineers of the soul, were supposed to help out with the glorification of the state just like any other worker.


This made Soviet society blind, and, like the enormous, blind leviathan that it was, it blundered into the usual chaos and dissolution that comes when a society discovers that reality has its own structure and that this structure is different from what the current doctrine says it is.

From the point of view of political language, this was the worst-case scenario: The country was falling apart and no one dared say a word, and if you can't say a word, how can you tell what is real and what is bogus, what is made up and what is genuine? Now, you may say that we don't have to worry about fear and repression in a free society, but I think that there are some signs out there in Political Land that are not totally reassuring.

The first sign is the subject of a book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, by Diane Ravitch (Knopf, 272 pages, $24), who describes the way in which "sensitivity review committees" have gone about making blacklists of words. The bureaucrats, whether in publishing or in the cubicle ranches of the state, have decided that many words can not be used because they might offend someone, and this lack of offense is the item that is most valued these days.

For instance, in an exam given by the New York State Regents, the texts of well-known authors were changed, without the authors' knowledge or permission, to be less offensive to students who were taking the test. In a short piece written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "most Jewish women" was changed to "most women." In an excerpt from Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza, "gringo lady" was changed to "American woman." If someone was described as "skinny," he became "thin"; "fat" became "heavy."

Of course, you can say that this is something that has been hatched up in the academy, and since the academy is so crazy and so remote from everyday life, we don't have to worry. As everyone knows, however, trends that begin in the academy have a nasty way of becoming more generally applicable.

In a nutshell, this attempt to be nice is not limited to textbooks and various academic speech codes, it is something that is part of our current operating political language. Why didn't Connecticut's Sen. Joe Lieberman say that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was "nothing but a hick governor from a jerkwater state who got away with spending money like a drunk sailor because he was so dull he put the electorate to sleep"?

It might be useful to consider an additional reason why candidates are so careful about the words they use and why they generally avoid telling the truth. This is a reflection of the moralization of politics. No longer does one have a political point of view, but a moral one, and who wants to listen to someone who is morally suspect? So what this means is that there are two political languages, the one we speak in public, and the one we speak in private, and one of Dr. Nova's pet theories is that when you spend a lot of time blabbing in public and not saying much that anyone can get his teeth into, you end up with reality being addressed in the shadows.

Under the circumstances, the shadows are far more interesting than the blab we have to endure in the public end of the political season. ("The governor of the state of Vermont is a good man. I am not saying he is not a good man. I am saying that he is not conversant with the complexity of foreign policy," etc.) And, in the current political cycle, to whom does one turn to see what is going on in the shadow-world of politics? Well, you would have to be living on Zork not to know that the man of this national cycle, and some previous, regional ones, is Karl Rove.


Rove, as he appears in Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush (PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $15), written by a literary tag team of Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon, is a kind of Prince of Darkness, which is appropriate, I guess, to the shadows. But as someone who admires success and competence, in politics and anything else for that matter, I have to say that Karl Rove is good at what he does. And, if there is much enmity toward him from what is known as the political press, it is because of his competence.

It is not that he has a mind that is good for detail, but something far more important: He has a mind for significant details. It is this that makes him such a dangerous adversary. He is James Carville on steroids. Rove is a master at direct mail, at raising money, and at grooming candidates to say little and to make sure that the real fighting, the down-and-dirty, gloves-off stuff , is done by groups that run "issue ads" and generally cause grief without it being directly attributable to the candidate, who is speaking the language of sensitivity committees. Not pretty, but there you have it.

Now as to how far we are into the Season of Discontent, here are some scales. You could make a list and quantify things, so as to make a kind of chart, but that might be unfair to the politicians. In any case, the first thing to keep track of is that, as the political season advances, so the number of words used in political discourse will shrink until there is only a handful of them (health care, Iraq, civil unions). That is the first sign. The second sign is that as the number of words and phrases shrinks, their meaning will become increasingly vague. Then Carl Rove, and others like him, will go to work in the shadows.

Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of The Good Son.