Lies in Translation
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 16, 2006
Euphemisms are the first bow to denial. They’re what give thickness to propagandists’ thesauruses and cover for politicians’ thickness. They’re deception’s slang, Ebonics to the ruling class, Oz to acronyms: they’re what procurers and flackers — PR artists, military commanders, politicians, preachers, “educators” — feed on and feed their flocks. They’re reality’s Ebola: give them enough room, and they’ll flesh-eat it and the language that described it. Remember how the more corporately ordered regime change replaced the bloody overthrow, or bludgeonish coup? How about collateral damage, or friendly fire, as if the murdering of 18 civilians by Israeli artillery last week or the senseless waste of a soldier’s life by his own trigger-freaked troops were nothing more than happy circumstances twisting an ankle. (Collateral, remember, not only means “parallel,” but “subordinate,” or inferior, which degrades the level of civilians killed in war to second-class victims, victims not worth more than the sideway glance of collateral attention.) But when an American airliner can refer to one of its planes’ crash as the “involuntary conversion of a 727,” or a hospital refer to death as “a negative patient-care outcome,” or a corporation refer to its firings as “delayering” or “restructuring” or going flexible,” it’s no longer a matter of time before reality has been up-ended. It already has: our staggering deficits aren’t only financial. We’re in the red reality wise, too.
The euphemism of the decade, of course, is “security.” The word alone is enough to fulfill the role of the reality it’s only supposed to represent. The Department of Homeland Security is a $40 billion hollow shell, a Kafkaesque castle that does nothing its name implies, and indeed may very well be impeding it. But that wasn’t the point of its creation anymore that sticking a girthy, ageing and dyspeptic “security” guard at the front desk of corporate headquarters has anything to do with protecting anything. The purpose of the thing is in the image it projects. We’re paying $40 billion a yea so the word “security” can be elevated to national prominence. That’s about it. People love it. Just as they love to see white cars with the word SECURITY emblazoned on their flanks patrolling their gated communities, their school and university campuses, their office parks. Never mind that the security “officers” could no more stop a crime than the entire 1 st Infantry Division—the Big Red One—could even slow the Iraqi insurrection, let alone stop it. The word, in the context of homeland security, is itself the problem. It masks what it cannot provide, although the word that precedes it—homeland—is a Nazified hint of how words have been diminished to serve as vassals to an image of projected power, in a country, and by an administration, to whom power projections are the extent of the goal. It’s power divorced from legitimate purpose. Use language immorally, and power’s immoral use inevitably follows.
All this is old news. What I’m getting at isn’t. The U.S. government is no longer referring to poor people going hungry. Hunger in America, in other words, has disappeared. It’s been made inapplicable. Irrelevant. Improper. Non-existent. In its place, there’s food security. This is not a joke. This is the new policy of the United States Department of Agriculture, and it was reported in this morning’s Washington Post: “Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans’ access to food, and it has consistently used the word ‘hunger’ to describe those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year. Mark Nord, the lead author of the report, said ‘hungry’ is ‘not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey.’ Nord, a USDA sociologist, said, ‘We don’t have a measure of that condition.’ The USDA said that 12 percent of Americans—35 million people—could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the USDA has determined ‘very low food security’ to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group.”
But “food security” has no relationship with the word hunger. It’s two words replacing one, and two technically positive, palatable, desirable words, the kind of words that reflect what people crave, not what people lack: food and security; the kind of words that are the exact opposite of what they’re designed to convey, if hunger is what they’re supposed to add up to. Which is just the point of castrating language into euphemistic harmlessness, or in this case, not only turning language around in a white is black sort of way, but managing to get the switch swallowed by a newspaper that ought to know better. The remarkable thing is how unquestionably the Post than went on to use the government’s new words: “The United States has set a goal of reducing the proportion of food-insecure households to 6 percent or less by 2010, or half the 1995 level, but it is proving difficult. The number of hungriest Americans has risen over the past five years. Last year, the total share of food-insecure households stood at 11 percent.”
The genesis of this linguistic monstrosity goes back to—what else—a monster: The Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies, a federal agency created in 1972 “to improve the statistical methods and information on which public policy decisions are based.” Not a bad goal. But it was to that Committee that the USDA turned in order to get a new word to describe hunger. The Committee obliged. And along the way, the actual crisis of hunger has simply vanished, because the government itself says it has no means of measuring actual hunger: “To measure hunger, the USDA determined, the government would have to ask individual people whether ‘lack of eating led to these more severe conditions,’ as opposed to asking who can afford to keep food in the house, Nord said. It is not likely that USDA economists will tackle measuring individual hunger. ‘Hunger is clearly an important issue,’ Nord said. ‘But lacking a widespread consensus on what the word ‘hunger’ should refer to, it's difficult for research to shed meaningful light on it.’”
So that’s it. Hunger has been eliminated. It’s now just a matter of security. Or, as William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian minister once had the idiocy to say (unusual, for a Unitarian), “That some of the indigent among us die of scanty food is undoubtedly true, but vastly more in this community die from eating too much than from eating too little.”