Washington Needs Clarity, Not Class Warfare

Monday, 20 Dec 2010 12:11 PM

By Kathleen Parker

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Words matter.

Just ask Google, which now has arranged for anyone to search millions of books online and track how many times a particular word has been used through the ages, thus suggesting how much we think about (and, by inference, value) certain things.

Or ask WikiLeaker Julian Assange, now free from prison and enjoying "mansion arrest," who gained notoriety as well as accolades for exposing the private words of diplomats and untold others. While some leaked cables highlight both the good and the bad that humans do, others could reveal secrets told by people who may not enjoy the protections of free speech-minded democracies.

Or ask the Republican Party, some of whose members sought to eliminate certain words from a report by the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, including "deregulation," "shadow banking," "interconnection," and even "Wall Street."

When Democratic members declined to participate in such selective wordplay, the GOP members issued their own report without the words that might have caused sensitive readers to recoil, or that might have implicated parties Republicans wished not to be implicated.

Between weaselly obfuscation and absolute transparency, we find ourselves troubled by our vast power to know and the tyranny of others whose demands for transparency infringe on our rights to not be known and to not know.

Spare me your absolute truth and I'll spare you mine.

Privacy as we once knew it is dead, we've reluctantly come to accept. We will adapt accordingly and, perhaps, keep more of our thoughts to ourselves. This would not be a bad development, though I entertain no hope that Twitter will fall into disuse. Sharing is so . . . special.

More concerning than the limits of sharing or the boundaries of transparency are the intentional manipulations of language to obscure truth. Totalitarians throughout history have relied on writing and speaking badly — that is, without clarity — in order to keep the masses confused and captive. Clarity, the enemy of deceit, is anathema to authoritarians everywhere.

Thus, when Republicans refuse to use certain words as potentially too "upsetting," they are choosing a dark path for citizens to follow. By any other name, it is dishonest. Most understand that Wall Street played a role in the financial crisis, as did unregulated "shadow banks," non-banks that nonetheless had lending powers and abused them.

Democrats are equally guilty of obfuscation through language distortion. How many times throughout the tax bill debate have you heard some variation of the following? Giving tax breaks to the rich will add to the deficit.

Pardon? How does money in someone's own pocket add to another's debt? This sort of logic is possible, of course, only under confiscatory rules of wealth redistribution.

Yet we have become quite accustomed through the repetition of this idea that the rich are somehow hurting the poor and disrupting the proper functioning of an engorged and profligate government.

Permit me to reword the issue just a tad. Let's say Joe is $100 in the hole and yet continues to spend money like a drunken fool. Mary has five bucks, which she declines to share because she has to buy food. Joe is insistent. His debt will get worse if Mary doesn't help out. This may be true, but Mary isn't convinced that helping Joe pay down his debt will do any good as long as he continues to spend. She's betting that Joe will just dig a deeper hole, and she will have less security of her own.

You see the problem. It isn't the money. It's the dishonesty of the argument.

Allowing wealthier Americans to keep the amount of money they are now getting isn't adding to the debt. Yet, the effect of this oft-repeated trope has been to demonize "the wealthy," as if they somehow have wronged their fellow citizens by working hard and achieving what everyone else wants.

Words matter, and I suspect that if the good folks in Washington would speak with greater clarity, steering away from the sort of heated rhetoric that stokes class warfare and demonizes the doers who create jobs for others, most Americans gladly would do the necessary things, including willingly helping Joe dig out of debt.

But first Joe has to be honest about his role in this predicament. Blaming the rich for Washington's problems is a distortion by dishonest brokers. And they wonder why Americans don't trust them enough to fork over more of their money?


Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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