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The Rising Tide of Rhetoric

"Words are magical formulae. They leave finger marks behind on the brain, which in the twinkling of an eye become the footprints of history. One ought to watch one' s every word." – Franz Kafka

February 26, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

I watch the various national news programs on television because that's part of what I do for a living, although I get the honest news from a myriad of better sources. While listening to political talk shows lately I keep hearing certain words and phrases being used as if they mean the same thing to everyone. They don't. Often those words have no common meaning; some have no real meaning at all. Here's just a few...

The phrase "America's vital interests" – usually preceded by "securing" and followed by "in the region" – will be intoned at least once during any discussion of our military adventures around the world. It showed up, as one might expect, in President Bush's State of the Union address in January. "We will continue to defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf," spoke our Leader in forceful tones that drew a standing ovation from the nation's elite who gathered in Washington for the annual ritual.

We have just two real "interests" in the Persian Gulf; a steady supply of oil and the nation of Israel. We're determined to protect both, and the sovereignty of any other nation or people is always secondary to those interests. The Cheney/Bush administration has made our national position towards foreign oil quite clear to the world with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, in case anyone still had doubts. The unknown thousands of innocent Iraqis who died from American bombs dropped onto their towns and neighborhoods during the last five years certainly got the message. Surviving members of their families also got a message they'll never forget – and never forgive.

Our "vital interests" don't seem to exist in our own land anymore; they're always in some resource-rich country outside of North America and Western Europe where US-based corporations want to extract the local resource. Brown-skinned people usually live in those countries, and we have a long history of disregarding the rights of people whose skin is darker than the standard shade of Yankee. The next time you hear talk about "America's vital interests", try asking yourself if those so-called interests are vital enough to kill for...

"Public service" is a phrase every candidate uses when describing their political career. I heard Barack Obama the other day talking about "...my twenty years of public service..." as he recalled the path that led him to this point in history.

When you get paid for doing what you were hired to do, that's called a job. There's no real service when there's a paycheck, perks and benefits involved; it's just a phrase meant to imply some sacrifice by the worker. Even when politicians donate their time to a cause they receive a tangible benefit; their time earns votes, which are just as important as money to a politician.

Some politicians claim to be public servants because they could make more money elsewhere, but even the wealthiest ones accept all the perks and benefits that come with the position. The closest thing to public service in our society can be found among firefighters and police officers, or in volunteer groups that do important work in their community. But there are no public servants among elected officials who see themselves as Leaders and Deciders...

"Democracy" is a word that has lost much of its meaning in America. We no longer have a truly democratic government; for decades now, only about half of all eligible voters have cast a ballot during any presidential election.

Of course, that's one of the conditions on which our Republic was founded. The first political party in America was the Property Party; it wasn't actually called that, but in most jurisdictions voting was restricted to Caucasian males who were also owners of property. Our Senators were not even elected by the public until 1914; prior to that they were chosen by the legislature in each state.

The extension of voting rights to all citizens is a fairly recent development that peaked a few years ago and is now declining, as a growing number of citizens are denied the privilege of voting. Members of the Republican party have been purging voter registration lists in states across the country, but the Democrats managed to disenfranchise two entire states during this year's primaries. Call our election process anything you want, but it isn't the democracy that most of us think of when we hear that word...

What does "conservative" actually mean in today's weird political mix when the talking heads on television ask the circular question, "Do conservatives think that John McCain is conservative enough?" That word had meaning once: it stood for a belief in a small federal government, prudent spending of public money and minimal interference in the private lives of citizens.

That's not how Republican administrations have behaved while in the White House during 28 of the past 40 years. Today, military spending is essentially unlimited while the Dept. of Homeland Security is a massive federal agency that reads our email and monitors our phone calls. There's no classic Conservatism remaining under the neoconservative dominance of the Grand Old Party...

The word "liberal" has disappeared from the vocabulary of people who once wore that label with pride. It's mostly an insult now, implying that the insulted one wants to spend public money on free health care for illegal immigrant babies. Folks with classic liberal tendencies now prefer the more respectable label of "progressive" to describe their political views.

That's not surprising, as Liberalism is headed for the same semantic junkyard as Socialism. The core of those belief systems is buried under ugly images of failure invoked by the very sound of their names. It doesn't matter that both movements held high ideals and tried to improve the lives of the poor; they were defeated by naked Capitalism in a winner-take-all battle, with most of North America as the prize...

And that leads us to "socialized medicine" – a phrase that most commentators pronounce with the same sense of distaste they use when saying "venereal disease" or "serial killer". You can hear their inner shudder as those words provoke visions of bare-walled waiting rooms and doctors working with crude instruments.

The truth is that all medicine is socialized. Every society pays, one way or another, for the cost of healing its sick. For those who can afford health insurance the American medical system is expensive but good. Those without insurance have a different perspective, one that is shared by as many as 40 million people.

We claim to have the best health care system in the world, but other countries – Sweden, for one – can make that same claim. When it comes to measuring a health care system it doesn't matter if it's a privatized, socialized, or some public/private hybrid structure. The bottom line has to be the collective health of the citizenry. Based on that standard, our system doesn't rate all that highly, whatever name we call it...

Americans can no longer afford the low level of political discourse that dominates our national dialog. Words are powerful tools that need to be used wisely, but our politicians won't improve their vocabulary until we insist that they start speaking the plain and simple truth. It would help if we citizens start doing that ourselves.