Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Phrase Warp

A gaffe, Michael Kinsley once famously said, is when someone accidentally tells the truth. Now, anyone who is anyone quotes Kinsley's statement "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."

In that spirit, consider a new term: "phrase warp." That, we'll argue, is intentional distortion of an expression- and it is one reason Mitt Romney, once he is nominated, will be difficult to defeat. In a column in USA Today, Romney argued that the upcoming election will pose a choice between what he terms an "Entitlement Society" and an "Opportunity Society" because

in an Entitlement Society, government provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk. In an Opportunity Society, free people living under a limited government choose whether or not to pursue education, engage in hard work, and pursue the passion of their ideas and dreams. If they succeed, they merit the rewards they are able to enjoy.

In remarks prepared for delivery the next day in Bedford, New Hampshire, Romney expounded on this theme, contending

Once we thought "entitlement" meant that Americans were entitled to the privilege of trying to succeed in the greatest country in the world. Americans fought and died to earn and protect that entitlement. But today the new entitlement battle is over the size of the check you get from Washington....

In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing-the government.

An entitlement program, however, is "the kind of government program that provides individuals with personal financial benefits (or sometimes special government-provided goods or services) to which an indefinite (but usually rather large) number of potential beneficiaries have a legal right (enforceable in court, if necessary) whenever they meet eligibility conditions that are specified by the standing law that authorizes the program." Thomas Edsall notes

Romney and his aides have designed his rhetoric to define pretty much all spending on entitlements, including provisions for the injured, unemployed, sick, disabled or elderly as benefits to the poor who, Romney implies, are undeserving. And it doesn’t matter whether the money to pay for these programs comes from employer and employee contributions and not just tax revenue — they are all under suspicion.

There is no telling whether Romney's phrase warp will become commonly accepted in the media. But the implications for the 2012 elections are enormous, given parallel circumstances a decade ago.

One reason the Bush Administration claimed for launching Gulf War II in 2003 was possession by Sadaam Hussein of those rarely-defined "weapons of mass destruction." Obviously, no such weapons were found. But if chemical and/or biological weapons had been discovered, the Iraqi dictator still would not have developed weapons of mass destruction. "Weapons of mass destruction," we were led to believe (without any explanation) included biological and chemical weapons. In reality, however, biological weapons are clearly, and chemical weapons are likely, not weapons of mass destruction.. Wolfgang KH Panofsky wrote in 1998

Nuclear weapons can increase the total explosive power that can be delivered in military payloads by up to a factor of a million. The weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about a quarter of a million people, had an explosive power about one-tenth that carried by a modern nuclear weapon....

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is well understood. If a 1-megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded at optimum altitude over a large city, little would be left standing or alive within five miles. A firestorm could be ignited, further extending the range of destruction. In a large-scale exchange, lethal fallout would cover an entire region.... If virulent BW materials were to be widely distributed over an exposed population, then the ratio of potential lethality to the total weight of the material could be comparable to that of nuclear weapons. However, for this horrifying scenario to occur, the materials cannot be dispersed by a single-point explosion, but instead must be spread by an appropriate mechanism such as spray tanks or by "fractionating" a missile's payload and dispersing separate mini-munitions over a wide area. Moreover, survival of BW material depends critically on local meteorological and other conditions which define the delivery environment. The survival of agents is generally of short duration and effects are delayed for days. Fortunately, there is no operational experience and test data are limited....

There is little question that the lethality of chemical weapons-as measured by per unit weight of delivered munitions-is lower by many orders of magnitude than it is for nuclear weapons or the undemonstrated and inherently uncertain potential of biological weapons. Thus, it is misleading to include chemical weapons in the category of WMD; "weapons of indiscriminate destruction" or "weapons of terror" might be a more appropriate designation.

The Bush Administration could have acknowledged that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program but argued that most evidence indicated that it did possess biological or chemical weapons. But then the hawks could not have conflated biological/chemical weapons with nuclear weapons, and Condoleezza Rice could not scare Americans with visions of mushroom clouds.

And so the phrase warp, wherein non-WMD could be termed WMD, took over. Similarly, entitlements would as appropriately be termed "earned benefits." Still, even entitlements include only Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security rather than the entire social safety net that Romney infers. If his manipulation of the language succeeds, it will not be only President Obama's second term which will be endangered, but far more importantly, the vision of the late Hubert H. Humphrey:

the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.


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