"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." George Orwell, who introduced all three of these tenets in his classic novel of totalitarian mind control, "1984," knew a lot about how words can be twisted to mean something entirely different -- how a government can brutalize language to manipulate a populace without having to resort to the disorderly structures of democratic debate, or the more thuggish techniques of armed repression.
George W. Bush also understands a thing or two about the political power of words. Even though he may be better known for his periodic manhandling of the mother tongue, it would be unwise -- as the president himself has suggested -- to "misunderestimate" him. He and his underlings can be as Orwellian as the best of them.
In fact, the Bushies lately have shown how truly adept they are at the art of policy transmutation via syntactical prestidigitation. In one case, they accomplished a significant change in public policy without having to go through any of the normal governmental hoops and hurdles. I refer to the Department of Health and Human Services' recent announcement that it has figured out a way to "help poor mothers be able to take care of their unborn children and get the medical care they absolutely, vitally need" by expanding the ability of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to provide health services to pregnant women.
The Bush administration achieved this "humanitarian" victory simply by redefining the term "children" to include unborn children -- fetuses -- from the moment of conception. This rhetorical slight-of-hand naturally strikes some as being the administration's way of attacking the constitutionally protected right of abortion: It opens up the possibility that fetuses could, in future litigation, be classified as children with all the accompanying legal rights and safeguards.
The administration denies playing the language card, even though pro-choice activists point out a number of other options the administration could have chosen if it really did seek only to aid poor, pregnant women. For instance, it could have expanded Medicaid coverage, rather than proposing to cut it by $9 billion in this year's budget. It could have required SCHIP to include pregnant women via a simple legislative change, or sought to streamline its cumbersome waiver process, which would make it easier for states to cover pregnant women without federal interference. Or, it could have insisted on more funding for WIC -- the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program -- which already assists impoverished mothers-to-be, but might have served more of them.
Yet Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson decided that jury-rigging the English language, in effect altering the accepted meaning of the word "children," was the most efficient way to manipulate policy in the direction the administration wants it to go. All it took was a change of definition, no legal wrangling required. And having a convenient and plausible rationalization -- protecting the health of some of America's 10.9 million poor women of childbearing age -- certainly doesn't hurt Bush's ability to sell the rule modification to a skeptical public.
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney continues to ignore a plea by the Government Accounting Office that he reveal the parties with whom he consulted -- behind closed doors -- when he led the government's energy- policy task force. His tortured reasoning is that he is protecting current and future administrations from sacrificing their ability to receive unfettered advice from various insiders and lobbyists who are attempting to have their special-interest wish-lists transformed into federal programs. In other words, he says secrecy is a necessary prerequisite for the protection of openness. Orwell would be proud.
Of course, the obfuscation of language is not a new arrow in the quiver of governmental authority. And rarely is it practiced in the overtly obvious way that Orwell's masters did in his 1949 novel. Yet, within the jumble of verbal gymnastics his administration employs, George W. Bush perhaps has cleared up the final conundrum of the Clinton administration's waning days, when the aggrieved and soon-to-be impeached chief executive opined, "It all depends on what the meaning of is, is ..."
To the Bush administration, the answer seems clear: The meaning of "is" is "is not!" Isn't it?