The Special-Needs Economy

From James Taranto:

“Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats have dropped the word ‘stimulus’ from their vocabulary,” the Hill reports. The news comes on the eve of President Obama’s history-making speech before a joint session of Congress, in which, as Bloomberg’s Al Hunt reports, the president is expected to propose a $300 billion “jobs plan” that “follows the contours of his $830 billion 2009 economic [CENSORED] package.”

The Hill report adds that “the House minority leader and her caucus are still pushing an economic [CENSORED] agenda,” but because the 2009 whatchamacallit was a ruinously expensive failure, “they’ve radically changed their rhetoric.” Do the Nolabelists know about this?

“Democrats are now being careful to frame their job-creation agenda in language excluding references to any [CENSORED], even though their favored policies for ending the deepest recession since the Great Depression are largely the same,” the Hill adds:

The Democrats’ signature “Make it in America” platform aims to create jobs by increasing infrastructure spending, providing financial help to struggling states and expanding tax credits for businesses, all of which were key elements of their 2009 economic [CENSORED] bill.

Recognizing the unpopularity of the 2009 package, however, Democratic leaders have revised their message with less loaded language–“job creation” instead of “[CENSORED]” and “Make it in America” in lieu of “Recovery Act”–in hopes of tackling the jobs crisis.

Pelosi is working out on the “euphemism treadmill.” Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker described this metaphorical fitness machine in a 1994 Baltimore Sun op-ed: “People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. ‘Water closet’ becomes ‘toilet’ (originally a term for any body care, as in ‘toilet kit’), which becomes ‘bathroom,’ which becomes ‘rest room,’ which becomes ‘lavatory.’ ”

Another example: “Idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” are now insults, but they originated as clinical terms referring to various degrees of low intelligence. “Retarded” became the euphemism of choice until it too took on an insulting connotation. Now there’s actually a website,, whose goal is “to eliminate the demeaning use of the R-word.” Meanwhile, the people to whom the R-word referred when it was a euphemism are said to have “special needs.”

Maybe Pelosi and Obama could take a cue from the R-worders and start a site called to eliminate that hurtful $830 billion word. For that matter, why doesn’t Obama explain that the purpose of the $300 billion he’s going to ask Congress to blow is to help the economy with its special needs? The Republicans probably wouldn’t have a response to that!


Federal Family

Minds detached from reality produce language detached from reality. From Fox News:

But before Irene fizzled, the Obama White House wanted to make sure that Irene was no Katrina and that, in fact, the president and his aides would be seen in compassionate command of the situation.

Hence the introduction of what may be the most condescending euphemism for the national government in its long history of condescending euphemizing: “federal family.”


Goodbye, lady with the lamp

A classic from Theodore Dalrymple:

Observations on gobbledegook

If anyone wants to know why British public services do not work properly, I should suggest that they look at the document containing the self-assessment rating scale of the 17 “learning outcomes” required for specialist practitioner registration by the UK Nursing and Midwifery Council. A nurse in training kindly drew my attention to this document, which she said she could not understand. Her incomprehension does her credit.

The linear “competency scale” goes from left to right, through the following points: (expert), absent, low (awareness), moderate (conceptual understanding) and high. The person in training is asked to circle which point on the scale best corresponds with his “current level and skill” for each of the 17 learning outcomes, among which are the following:

2. Set, implement and evaluate standards and criteria nursing interventions by planning, providing and evaluating specialist clinical nursing care across a range of care provisions to meet the health needs of individuals and groups requiring specialist nursing.

14. Identify specialist learning activities in a clinical setting that contribute to clinical teaching and assessment of learning in a multidisciplinary environment within scope of expertise and knowledge basis.

No doubt, when you clutch your chest as you suffer your next heart attack, it will be a great consolation to know that the nurse looking after you believes that she has a moderate (conceptual understanding) of the fifth compulsory learning outcome – that is to say: facilitate learning in relation to identified health for patients, clients and carers. What a relief to have done away with all that terrible lady with the lamp stuff!

Actually, a moderate conceptual understanding of these 17 learning outcomes is pretty good going: without undue modesty, I should put myself in the highest quartile of intellectual ability in this country, but should estimate my understanding of the said outcomes as being approximately absent.

The document is symptomatic of the deep moral and intellectual corruption that pervades the entire public service of this country, and now renders improvement of it virtually impossible. After all, the Nursing and Midwifery Council sets the tone of the nursing profession, and any person or group of people who could write a document such as the one I have quoted is beyond redemption. To entrust the nursing profession to the Nursing and Midwifery Council is thus rather like entrusting an aviary to bird-eating spiders.

We have trained vast numbers of people to write and presumably to think this rubbish. Indeed, the inexorable spread of this meaningless language is the sign of a quiet social revolution: we no longer live in a meritocracy, but in a mediocracy, for only people without talent, originality or integrity can master this language. But mastery of it is now the key to advancement, at least in the public services. The troubling thing is that the corruption has gone so far that it has become unconscious: those who produced the document from which I quote are so corrupt that they do not know they’re corrupt.

Interestingly, a consultant colleague recently tried to look up the website of the Plain English Campaign on a hospital computer. As quick as a flash, a message appeared on his screen: ACCESS DENIED: ADVOCACY GROUP. Our mediocrats may be lacking in talent and originality, but they have a sure instinct for survival: they know that plain English, and the use of words that have meaning, would be a grave threat to their position.



Dr. Daniels writes, and observes, like no other:

No crisis should ever be allowed to slip by without calls for greater public expenditure of doubtful worth, and the Gulf oil spill crisis is no exception to this golden rule of bureaucratic opportunism.

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine for 11 August, titled “Moving Mental Health into the Disaster-Preparedness Spotlight [1],” Drs Yun, Lurie and Hughes (the latter a lawyer, it seems) write:

Surveillance systems for mental health and substance abuse must be strengthened through broader intellectual investment in a conceptual framework and technical requirements.

Long experience of bureaucracies has taught me to mistrust language such as this. There is a lot of connotation in it without much denotation: intellectual investments, conceptual frameworks and technical requirements escape from verbiage generators like oil from defective wells, and end up being even more expensive. Personally I am not sure that technical investments, intellectual frameworks and conceptual requirements would not be at least as good, if not better.

Fortunately for modern bureaucracies, connotation — compassion, caring and the like — is a more powerful generator of funds than (say) likelihood of success. The authors say:

Early action to help with the disaster’s emotional impact may decrease long-term behavioral health problems.

On the other hand, it may not, especially as the long-term behavioral health problems (assuming that behavioral health is itself a defensible concept) are themselves only tentatively known: they may be this, according to the writers of the editorial, or that may be that.

They insinuate ideas like any good advertising copywriter. They talk of “psychological first aid,” for example. What is psychological first aid? Bandages for damaged thoughts, for example? A list leaves us little the wiser. It:

… addresses emotional distress, builds coping skills, connects people with support services, and promotes a return to normal routines.

What is it exactly, to address emotional distress? Emotional distress, I conjure thee to depart this body? It sounds to me either like witchcraft or a kind of wallowing in other people’s dismay.

The authors are keen on building. They want to build coping skills, as I built model cranes with engineering sets when I was a little boy. Another thing they want to build is community resilience. One might have supposed that resilience isn’t the kind of thing that is built. I think it is time a sense of humor, or at least of the ridiculous, was built.

Then there is our old friend cultural sensitivity. It seems that the Vietnamese refugees on the Gulf Coast do not have any counselors. They didn’t have many in Vietnam either, where they suffered things a thousand times worse than the oil disaster, but nevertheless seem to have thrived wherever they have been allowed to build a new life for themselves (to use for a moment the authors’ intellectual framework — or is it their technical requirement?).

Here I could not help but be reminded of a patient of mine who said he suffered terrible whiplash and a severe loss of confidence after a car went into his rear at about five miles an hour. He was too frightened now, and in too great pain, ever to leave the house.

As it happens he was Syrian by origin. “What did you do there in Syria?” I asked. “I was in the army,” he replied. “Any particular branch?” I asked.

In short he was a torturer. Unfortunately he fell foul of his senior officers and ended up at the receiving end of his former activities. But it was the impact of the car behind him at five miles an hour that really ruined his life and turned him into a living wreck.

Oh compensation, what crimes are committed in thy name!


Langue de Obama

Dr. Dalrymple inadvertently describes Obamaspeak:

Langue de bois is the French term for the special language that was spoken and written by Communist leaders and functionaries. It is hard to define but easy to recognize. It is simultaneously high-flown and supremely dull; it never descends to particulars; it confuses abstract aspiration with actual achievement; it is terminally humorless; it disguises obvious lies, and tries to preclude any opposition, by resort to pompous moral banalities and abstractions. It acts almost instantly on the mind as a general anesthetic, but without the soothing element of sleep.


Violence in all its forms

From Pat Loeb:

Local Teens Protest School Violence in All Its Forms

A sudden gathering of teenagers were expected to gather in Rittenhouse Square in center city Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon. The Philadelphia Student Union is copying a “flash-mob” style to protest violence.

The student union was expecting some 100 members to show up in Rittenhouse Square about 1:45pm to promote the group’s Campaign for Non-Violent Schools. Student Nevada Johnson says the group objects to all forms of school violence:

“Violence against schools by not giving them enough money to give a student a proper education. Violence against communities by cutting youth spaces.”

Johnson says student union wants to demonstrate that young people can come together and do something positive and not dangerous.

And I am protesting the violence against language that these students are committing by calling this violence.


Nibbling away freedom

From Theodore Dalrymple:

In his essay on the liberty of the press, the great philosopher David Hume wrote what has been many times quoted, but has never achieved the status of a cliché:

It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.

I think this is borne out pretty well by our current experience. Freedom is being nibbled away in the name of justice, security, well-being, and even of freedom itself, that is to say true freedom, not the merely apparent kind — for nothing is easier for power-hungry intellectuals to justify than the coercion that they favor to bring about true freedom.

However, Hume goes on to say something that seems to me not to be quite true:

But if the liberty of the press ever be lost, it must be lost at once.

He says this because he assumes that the only serious threat to freedom of the press comes from a despotic government desirous of imposing centralized censorship of what appears in print, and which it is be able to do by fiat. This is not so; there are other, subtler threats to press freedom.

I have noticed that whenever I used the word “Mankind” in an article, it emerges in the printed version, without my permission, as “Humankind,” a word I despise as both ugly and sanctimonious. (In the Oxfam shop round the corner from where I live there is a poster with a slogan that nauseates me: “Thankyou for Being Humankind.”) The change is made with such regularity, and in so many publications, that the government might as well have decreed it, though in fact it has not. There is, presumably, a monstrous regiment of sub-editors at work, all of like mind.

Of course the change lacks logic. If Mankind is objectionable because of its masculinity, Humankind is no better. It still contains the dread word, or should I say syllable, “man.” Nor would “Hupersonkind” be better, because of the masculinity of the syllable “son.” To eradicate all sexism from the word, it should be “Huperoffspringkind.” This is clearly ridiculous. But censorship by language reform is not a matter of logic, it is a matter of power. As Humpty Dumpty said, it is a question of who is to be master (if one may still be allowed the word), that’s all.

I am not alone the victim of the monstrous regiment of sub-editors. I get to review quite a number of books published by academic presses, British and American, and I have found that the use of the impersonal “she” is now almost universal, even when the writer is aged and is most unlikely to have chosen this locution for himself (or herself). It is therefore an imposed locution, and as such sinister.

I cannot say my role in resisting this tiny tyranny has been or is an heroic one. On the contrary: I now simply avoid the use of certain ways of putting things so that the question does not arise. I do not want to have a blazing argument with editors or sub-editors each time I use the word “Mankind” and it is changed without my permission, nor do I not want to stop writing altogether; and the matter, after all, is a very small one. How petty one would look to argue about it, how foolish to cut one’s nose off to spite one’s face if one refused to write any more because of it!

And so the censors have achieved a small victory. They will seek out new locutions to conquer.