Words, Words, Words….

Words matter.

In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.

Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.

It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”

Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.

Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.

The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.

As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”

We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking:  excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”

Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised  that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”

The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”

The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”

The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”

Or perhaps “infested.”


  1. Those who believe the terms “Climate Change” and “Global Warming” are interchangeable would be less confused and against the realities had someone(s) not changed the wordier “we are destroying the environment” to “Global Warming”.

    Those who believe “ACA” is good and “Obamacare” is bad are uninformed; many prefer to remain uninformed so they can continue to blame President Obama for the continuing escalating health care costs.

    The term “Citizens United” as a misnomer, escalated to the level of oxymoron, needs no explanation but the reason for enacting it certainly does. Those benefiting from Citizens United is how the White House became “infested” with its current “vermin”.

    Those words on the back of Melania Trump’s military jacket speak loud and clear to the nation and to the world as to the foundation of our current administration. Words do hurt; they often leave deeper scars than those “sticks and stones”.

  2. It’s hard to handle when you don’t control the “words” that fit your political ideology. You can thank Crooked Hillary’s “deplorable” word for that.

  3. Trump and Company have elevated this form of deceitful propaganda to new heights, but they were not the first in my lifetime. I recall the first time I encountered official word substitution. It was during the Vietnam War, when wounded and killed civilians were referred to as “collateral damage”. More recently, the state of Florida also removed “climate change” and “global worming” from all of their official sites. This was during Jeb Bush’s term.

    Most galling of all to me are those in the weather forecasting business who have been self censuring themselves for decades while reporting massive flooding, droughts, hurricanes and never, NEVER, using those words “climate change” and “global worming”.

    It takes two sides to play this “alternative reality game”… a powerful overlord and a cowardly underling.

  4. The Trump/Pence administration is scrubbing government websites at the behest of the Koch brothers who own significant claims to coal. It’s also why Indiana is the new Alabama, although, Alabama just “won” the Amazon HQ trap. Can’t wait to read about the transformation…

    The massive network set up by the Koch’s through investments in our public universities creating institutes, centers, etc. was primarily targeted to offset progress or the liberalization of USA, Inc. The shrinking budgets of higher education allowed the Koch’s to find shills for hire. Their credibility is added by their credentials.

    Reagan/Thatcher brought us neoliberalism or the privatization of the public sector. One need only look to the health/wellness sector to see how well this works out. Profit over people.

    Next on the chopping block is/has been education which is now being merged with the labor department. At least this will cast off any dispersions about how the GOP mindset looks at education—job training—obedient workers.

    “Nike could manufacture shoes back in the USA if we didn’t have the stupid minimum wage and all those crazy laws to protect workers and the environment.” #MAGA

    As most pointed out yesterday, we’ve been a Fascist country probably since the beginning of our formation, but the outright confiscation of our public sector took place after WW2.

    What happened in the 30’s and 40’s to the field of psychology? Does Sigmund Freud ring any bells? The question yesterday was aimed at the German people. What happened to them and why didn’t the good moral people take a stand against evil?

    Prior to Freud’s discovery about the intricacies of the human mind (including the ability to do evil), our government used education and the media to construct a society of informed citizens. Informed and enlightened.

    Post Freud and post-Germany showed that humans can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. That with the slightest manipulation (use of propaganda), humans could do terrible things to their brothers and sisters.

    From yesterday, Rhonda writes, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that advertising (which works pretty much the same as propaganda) grew into the huge industry it is today.”

    The Godfather of Public Relations, Edward Bernays, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He also studied his Uncle’s work. He came to the USA and worked with the government and industry to shape what we call “marketing and advertising”. He also assisted the CIA when they were formed.

    Within a short period of time, we went from “informed citizen” to “consumers”. We consume the news in 30 minutes or watch cable TV…no critical thinking required. They tell us how it is. If you don’t like it, change the channel and find another one which tells you what you want to hear…

    Very smart people can choose to help the oppressors or work with the oppressed. As Goebbel’s knew, the truth is the enemy of propaganda. Truth tellers are the real enemy of the state. 😉

  5. One can frame an issue, but the frame is the important thing – how you frame it. I see the outlook of djt framed in ‘him’ and nothing else. He is his own god. And he needs to be put in a frame – something like the framing of the cell work in Camp #5 in Guantanamo Cuba. Trump,Pence & Co. for Guantanamo in 2018!

  6. Todd Smekens PARTIAL post YESTERDAY
    June 22, 2018 at 6:50 am

    “MSNBC, CNN, Fox News are all distractions while the Donor Class and their puppets steal us blind. The young people are wondering why the masses are asleep at the wheel. They’re fixated on the “boob tube”.

    Todd, I record daily on my DVR MSNBC, CNN and FOX to exercise my analytical mind:
    I check FOX occasionally to see what and how the enemy is doing.
    The FOX “friends”, sitting in a semicircle, the gorgeous young, long-
    legged women, legs crossed, short skirts, stiletto heels,
    all color-coordinated often with one man fully dressed,
    telling lies, obviously arranged to keep the attention of the
    Then I click to CNN for Cuomo whose style is appealing especially
    when he gets into a heated argument with some scripted guest…..
    Weary of all of the above, I click to MSNBC,
    Rachel Maddow (sometimes frenetic)
    Lawrence O’Donnell (always intelligent)
    and Brian Williams (always calm and focused)
    Of all of the above, I find Lawrence O’Donnell to be most critical of Trump in compelling ways….
    Todd Smekens, if you don’t like Lawrence O’Donnell’s analysis of news events, I suggest that you haven’t watched and listened to him, or that you have a favorite news analyst. I’d like to know who that is, please.

  7. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Trump is a crass and crude real estate salesman from NYC with zero ethics and morality out to take from anybody and everybody all of the time without exception. We’ve known that for decades as he built that brand and added celebrity to his list of non-accomplishments. What we’ve learned is that some of us can be trained to find all of that indistinguishable from a President. That doesn’t happen naturally. People are born smarter than that. It’s the purposeful creation for political and business ends of a few people led IMO by the Koch Bros. It’s pure curruption powered by enormous wealth and a total disregard for the country and more importantly all of the people of the world outside of the cabal.

    Can democracy stop them? We don’t know yet do we. Democracy wasn’t designed considering absolutely pervasive mass entertainment media and Edward Bernays and greed the magnitude of the Kochs religion. The slight threads of possibility on the horizon are the upcoming elections and Robert Mueller. The Kochs et al know that too and will be spreading their money far and wide to prevent losing what is to them the Holy Grail, infinite wealth and power.

    Now or never.

  8. Noted consumer advocate and author Ralph Nader on Friday offered a sharp retort to Laura Bush and Michelle Obama in response to the former first ladies levied criticism at the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policy that separated immigrant children from their families.

    “Would be nice if Laura Bush and Michelle Obama had expressed similar heartfelt concern for the tens of thousands of children killed or seriously maimed by the wars of their husbands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” he tweeted.

    “Collateral damage” has become the new euphemism – We are are sorry, but you are still dead. Bush the Younger in Iraq War 2 and Obama in Syria and Libya have created millions of human casualties, no apologies provided for these brutal assaults. Mercy is not allowed when we are the “Exceptional Nation”.

    The United States has conducted approximately 550 drone strikes in Libya since 2011. During a four-month span in 2016, for example, there were approximately 300 drone strikes in Libya, according to U.S. officials. 2016, that was when the Nobel Peace Prize Winner was President. Just as refresher the War against Libya began in 2011.

    You for sure will not find FOX, MSDNC or CNN reporting on the assault on Libya, certain words are scrubbed and then there are entire stories that are scrubbed and then some like Stormy Daniels that never go away.

  9. Of course one may argue that those who first framed the debate chose words to foster their own views of the environment, tax policy, war and peace etc., and that the current craze by Trump’s regime is merely a reaction to do the same due to the people’s choice in 2016. As for the Memory Hole with which Smith became acquainted in 1984, it was here before Orwell wrote about it. (See slavery, broken treaties with Indians etc.) Language management for effect comes and goes, but its effects are perfectly described by Goebbels as cited by Sheila today. He was right; we in general don’t even know this subversive plan is in effect.

    For an in-depth study of framing language I recommend that fellow contributors read George Lakoff, a retired professor from UC – Berkeley and a cognitive brain scientist who treats framing
    and manipulation of language extensively in his books, and lately, his blogs. Parenthetically, he earned his doctorate at my alma mater, IU.

  10. OMG; let me know how much of Trump and our daily horrors you see in “Downfall”, memories of it still haunt me. I watched so many programs on the History Channel about Hitler and WWII that much in it was familiar to me. Some medical researchers watched numerous old films of him and tried to make medical diagnoses from symptoms they saw, many believed he had Parkinsons’s. When I watched other films later I saw the hand tremors I hadn’t noticed before. His unstable mental condition near the end is easily seen in the historic newsreels; Trump started out evidencing mental instability.

    November seems so far away.

  11. Trump appears too befuddled to frame the message, but he owns the microphone and is adept at repeating whispered words. But with Stephen Miller as the wicked whisperer of the White House, the spewing of hate filled messages with twisted uses of words will continue to worsen. Even with his cruel and tone-deaf tactics on immigration, Miller has not yet alienated Trump. That, I believe, is because he shares Trumps sadistic views and, like his boss, is lacking in any emotion related to empathy. That deficiency is common to serial killers, and both would look at that accusation as a compliment. And yet neither could do it alone. They need, and they’ve got, the support of enough like-minded Americans to make their hate fest seem semi-acceptable, at least to the base.

    Who knew that after the election Trump’s supporters would become even more deplorable? With Steve Schmidt (John McCain’s campaign manager) leaving the Republican Party, and George Will sounding like he is about to (on most days), there are growing signs of hope. Trump’s ham-handed handling of immigration will continue to haunt him and his party, perhaps long enough to elect a House of representatives that can obstruct his most vile long-range plans. America may yet be saved from the Trump putsch and even his Orwellian plot.

  12. Thank you once again Sheila!

    How interesting it is that the subtle changes to the traditional spiel that our government agencies use to describe what they do have been made largely without most people noticing them. Just another example of the ongoing assault on virtually everything that we hold dear ideologically in this country at we normally don’t even take the time to think about since we look at them all as givens, matching up with our own general ideas on what this country is about.

    In my particular case, I guess I should blame it on my late Mom, the newspaper journalist, who taught me to always look at more than one source for news and impressed upon me at a fairly early age the necessity for critical thinking in regard to anything that I heard, saw, or read. The newspaper she used to work for before I was born, The Indianapolis Star, is a mere shell of its former self and what’s worse is that it has no viable competition in regard to news being conveyed via newsprint in this city and county. She would be horrified at the paltry nature of the current “Indy Star” and what passes for news that is contained within it.

    Unfortunately, we have, in many ways, allowed ourselves to be dumbed down both through acts of commission where we don’t really care about what’s going on in the world or in the rest of the country or perhaps in the next neighborhood and don’t read about it and also via acts of omission on the part of those that purport to be journalists and do not convey any credible or usable information so that informed citizens could make decisions on what is going on and what needs to be done about it for themselves.

    The first step in moving towards an autocracy or dictatorship, and many who frequent this blog have eloquently commented on numerous occasions, is putting a stranglehold on the press and then, in varying degrees, laying on top of that propaganda that is conveyed to either subtly or overtly, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group being a great example of the latter obviously among other purported news outlets, to manipulate our thinking for a given end. We as Americans do not really have much experience with this onslaught of propaganda and it’s perfectly obvious when you look at all the people that take what the current occupant of the White House and his minions, both within his Administration and those outside of it, most notably at Fox News, convey on an everyday basis as gospel truth.

    What we’re dealing with today makes me remember how my late Mom despised the commentary by Eric Severide that came at the end of Walter Cronkite’s 30 minute CBS News program that we, more or less, watched every night. She was always adamant that there was no place for his commentary on a nightly news show because we should be able to make up our minds ourselves as to what we think about a particular issue or issues and that we didn’t need someone telling us how to think. It is humorous in many ways, and also quaint, to recall what she used to say quite frequently given how thoroughly integrated commentary is into what we call news coverage today.

    Today, we all lineup with our favorite news programs, mostly on cable but many also from the web, and normally follow those that agree with our own personal perceptions of what reality is. This is probably only human nature but by doing so its costs are real in this country where some people only watch Fox News and nothing else, some people watching MSNBC and nothing else, or CNN, and also programming that perhaps no one should watch. You have to look it anything that any one says with a jaundiced eye where you need to take the next step and check out what they’ve been saying and see for yourself whether or not it’s truthful are not.

    Right now there’s a controversy over the latest Time magazine cover that shows Donald Trump staring down at the now familiar photograph of a crying little girl that through a photo juxtaposition represents all the children that have been separated from their parents, rightly or wrongly. That magazine cover was the result of an editorial decision by the editors of Time magazine and their individual committee of editors that decided upon using it.

    I know a little bit about that process because my maternal grandfather was the photo editor of the Indianapolis Star from the 1930s through the late 1960s and decided upon, probably also with an editorial committee, what photographs were to be used on a daily basis to be published in the newspaper. Journalism is a subjective business just like virtually everything else is. People make decisions on what goes in a magazine, a newspaper, or on a web site and every time they make a decision on whatever they’re going to use it is subjective.

    Nevertheless, there is a big, big difference between what journalists do as editors and what propagandists blatantly do when they twist the facts for specific reasons that are other than journalistic. Having said that, however, means that whenever their human beings in the loop in any capacity we run the risk of having things skewed because humans are in the decision-making loop and they make their decisions up on the criteria that they’ve been trained to use as journalists and as editors because there in the business of selling newspapers, magazines, and web sites. There a lot of factors that go into this that most people don’t think about and I wouldn’t either had I not been exposed to this at an early age via my dear late Mom and my Grandfather.

    Mom’s advice to me was to always check multiple sources and many times I read things that I totally disagree with in doing so I gain a broader picture of what is really happening and it also gives me insight into what people that disagree with my assessment of what is happening are thinking and how they arrived at their reactions to it. I think that’s the way things used to work until they were hijacked and continue to be hijacked with us all basically ending up as near pawns in the process because we either were not trained for critical thinking or we don’t have the time, the inclination, or perhaps the educational background to make an accurate decision on the importance and accuracy of what we’re reading.

    In keying that I’m not casting dispersions on anyone but rather how insufficient our educational system has been and continues to be to prepare us as citizens of this country. I just lucked out having a journalist as a Mom and who was very committed in a serious way in discerning what the truth really was. She was also a fairly consistent rider of letters to the Editor of the newspaper when I was a kid when she disagreed with an editorial stance that was enunciated in the newspapers This was a person that also wrote the crossword puzzle editor to cajole him into making the crossword puzzles harder so that’s kind of where I’d come from, a really fluky environment but it helped me to learn and that’s what we all need to do is learn. To be informed citizens that means you’ve got to read and listen and analyze what you are reading and listening to so that when you vote you make the right decision.

    Ultimately we are responsible for the mess that we are currently embroiled in as a country and we’re also responsible for fixing it. Every voice should be heard regardless of their ideological orientation because that’s the American way just as it always has been. Being that way represents one of the great strengths of this country and we have to preserve it at all costs and also get back to the point where we can agree to disagree and out of that come perhaps down the road a consensus which is been the engine of the growth of this country since its very beginnings. It all hinges, however, on us being smart shoppers when it comes to getting news and other types of information that we read or hear every day.

  13. It isn’t that Trump and is ilk are “smart.” They aren’t. It is that we are dumb…dumb enough to buy the drivel from Fox News. Fearful enough to attach to mob mentality. Lazy enough to let ourselves be led instead of educating ourselves and facing reality.

  14. BBC is one of my main sources of news, both domestic and international. The outsiders looking in are often very pointedly taking a different perspective. It is always challenging and thought-provoking.

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