Liberally Speaking (2/25/10)

Words matter

Feb. 25, 2010

By Steve Mount

If the news in the last few weeks proves nothing else, it is that words matter. How we say things, how we describe them, can make all the difference in the world.

When Joseph Allen Stack flew a plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, a building he knew housed IRS employees, the police and the press had a decision to make: was Stack a criminal, or was he a terrorist?

Police, trying to calm frazzled nerves, insisted Stack was nothing more than a common criminal. Muslim activists, however, began to wonder — was it only Muslims who flew planes into buildings who were considered terrorists? Within days, the debate was filling newspaper columns and blogs, with a Google search returning over 26,000 results in blogs alone.

The opinions varied, but the most compelling argument I saw was that Stack was a lone wolf, without an organization behind him, and hence a criminal. It is a close call, though, considering the scope of his cowardly and deadly act and the overtly political nature of his manifesto.

In the world of politics, words are the stock in trade, and words can easily be mangled depending on the political point of view.

If you’ve paid close attention to the news, from time to time, you will hear Republicans refer to their political foes as members of the “Democrat Party.” The first time I heard this, I just figured the speaker was ignorant, mispronouncing a relatively simple word. It turns out, though, this is part of a somewhat concerted effort to try to turn “Democratic Party” into an epithet.

Republicans who have taken to using this “epithet” are being silly. Deliberately mangling someone’s name to aggravate him or her is an elementary school tactic. Democrats who take too much offense should remember that age-old mothers’ mantra: “They only say it because it bothers you.”

Most reasonable people, having heard waterboarding described or witnessed it in action, would call it torture. Many conservatives, notably and recently former Vice President Dick Cheney, prefer to call it “enhanced interrogation.” The distinction is self-serving. Torture is illegal. Enhanced interrogation, presumably, is not.

The White House recently released a brightly colored chart, which attempts to put a positive spin on the nation’s continued loss of jobs. On half of the chart, colored Republican-red, the bars in the chart dip further and further below zero, indicating an increasing loss of jobs. On the other half, colored Democratic-blue, the bars are nearly all still below zero, but marching back up toward zero. The presumption is that soon, the numbers will be positive.

The White House line, and that of the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America project, is that this is all part of the “recovery.” There is the “Road to Recovery,” the Web site, and the Recovery Act (the short name of the act’s actual title, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009).

Republicans, though, insist on calling the law “the stimulus bill.” The point is to turn the positive word “recovery” into a negative. I’m not exactly sure what it is about “stimulus” that is negative, but both House Republican Majority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor have done this repeatedly in just the last week.

Finally, scheduled for Feb. 25 is a meeting of lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum. The president touted the meeting in last weekend’s radio address:

“I don’t want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points. Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that’s been with us for generations.”

The response from Republicans? They plan to attend, but with their words, were sure to take pot shots at the summit before it even began. Speaking on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said this:

“Republicans are ready to work. But what we can’t help but feel like here is the Democrats spell summit S-E-T-U-P.”

That the Republicans could fear a summit, a televised chance to talk out differences with the approaches of each party to the issue, tells me that what they really fear is that when they express their plan, the entire country will see how devoid it is of real reform.

Words do matter. Listen to them carefully and you will be able to divine which have worth and which are worthless.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at