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Political Animal

Redefinitions

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/18/2008

In my first job in professional radio, I worked as an editor in a news department run by a man who came out of sales. On the side, he recorded advertising spots for a diet firm that was almost ubiquitous on the airwaves in the late 1980s. The catch phrase for the diet, delivered by him with relish was, "It's not a diet--it's a system!"

Really, it was just a diet. But the key mechanism of this type of sales is to redefine your product to make it special and different from the glut of other products out there exactly like it.

If there's one thing the Bush administration has succeeded in doing in the last seven and a half years, it's redefining the language for its own purposes. If the president (or more likely the vice president) decides to engage in a course of action that the nation finds unpopular, the first thing he does is change the definition of what it is he wants to achieve.

We saw this right after George W. Bush was reelected, in 2004, when he said he was going to use all his supposed political capital (after another relatively close election) to "save" Social Security by moving it toward privatization.

However, the idea of "privatizing" Social Security has never been popular. The most beloved program to come out of the New Deal has long been referred to as the "third rail of American politics," and even Bush knew he wasn't immune to that amount of negative political electricity.

The word "privatization" failed miserably for Republican pollsters (like Frank Luntz, who gave us the "death tax" instead of the more accurate estate tax), and thus Republicans tried to deny ever favoring privatization, instead terming them "private accounts." When this, too, failed, the GOP tried a final bail-and-switch with "personal accounts," in the same way that real-estate agents don't sell "houses " but "homes."

The Bushies have exploited language in another way: They simply refuse to accept that common words mean what they mean. Torture is what it is, and everybody knows that. Historically, waterboarding has been torture--they knew it at Nuremberg, and the United States even used to prosecute people for it. But the president, his aides, and his allies in the Republican media have made a concerted effort to turn something that was universally accepted as a war crime into something little worse than fraternity hazing hijinks.

But despite all the evidence that has come out regarding administration-sanctioned waterboarding, "stress positions," beatings, and deaths at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the Bush administration position is to flatly state, "We do not torture," whenever asked, knowing that they will never be pinned down to define exactly what torture is.

Finally, in order to get around the Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration committed its most breathtaking act of linguistic gymnastics with global ramifications by attempting to create a whole new category of persons during wartime. By the use of the term "enemy combatants," they get access to all the special benefits a presidency has during crisis moments, while at the same time, the term creates a legal limbo into which they can throw anyone they consider an "enemy." Not for nothing did the administration go into a tantrum when Amnesty International accused Guantanamo of being the "gulag of our times."

"Enemy combatants" meant that the Geneva Conventions ("quaint," according to Bush administration lawyers) didn't apply, that habeas corpus was moot since these were supposedly nonstate actors, and that the courts and lawyers that are the hallmark of the U.S. justice system were not to be afforded, since these "combatants" were off the regular scale. And then the administration used a scorched-earth legal strategy to back up all of these decisions as far as possible.

Fortunately--and only by a slim 5-4 vote--the Bush-stacked Supreme Court has handed down the third and hopefully final opinion in a series that tells the administration it cannot summarily (even with the assent of Congress) dismiss "the Great Writ" of habeas corpus.

In the decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system, they are reconciled within the framework of law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, part of that law.

With little time left in his term, Bush must realize this is a battle he can't win. Unfortunately, it won't come as a surprise if he decides there is yet another way to redefine the law or issues to his advantage. His lawyers seem to a have a lot of dictionaries.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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