Joseph Kay, American Renaissance, June 27, 2014
Almost 60 years ago George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” noted how clumsy English can befuddle the brain, especially with regard to political thinking. Alas, those who twist English for political gain have grown more expert, and despite the pernicious consequences of this trickery, nobody seems to notice.
Contemporary examples of political brain muddling must run into the dozens but let me offer only a few illustrations from the hot-button area of racial politics.
At risk. This is a label typically applied to minority youngsters involved in low-level crime who seem destined to a life of serious lawlessness. “At risk” has grown in popularity while “juvenile delinquent,” an older characterization that implied a modicum of personal responsibility, seems to be fading. “At risk” suggests a medical susceptibility, perhaps akin to a genetic vulnerability to cancer, so that without early intervention, at-risk youngsters might “catch” the “disease” of drug dealing or carjacking.
This is like catching the flu after a subway ride. The at-risk miscreant just seems to have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time by, for example, growing up in a single-parent home in public housing where untold others are likely to catch the same diseases. Ironically, of course, letting these at-risk youngsters roam freely means that untold innocents are now genuinely at risk from their criminal behavior. One can easily imagine the headline, “German tourists assaulted by at-risk youths.”
Barriers. These are standardized tests–the SAT or GMAT, for examples–that prevent “minorities” or even women from admission to schools or from getting a job. In the past, people failed tests; today, members of certain groups encounter insurmountable barriers. The idea of “a barrier” thus pushes aside the test-takers’ inadequate abilities and puts the onus for failure on the test itself.
The common sleight-of-hand argument is that sub-par scores on these “barriers” correlate with personal traits (e.g., race) and backgrounds (e.g. poverty) so, ipso facto, the tests are assessing something other than ability. It is especially useful for the word “barrier” to conjure up visions of the disabled struggling to enter a restaurant without a wheelchair ramp. Just as we have legally eliminated such obstacles for the handicapped, we must banish barriers to those who have long been short-changed by society–we must offer them a “reasonable accommodation” in the language of government.
Community. Technically, this is a social group of any size whose members live in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. In contemporary political discourse, “community” is almost exclusively used to define African Americans or Hispanics (as in “the black community” or “Hispanic community”), a usage reinforced by the close association of “community organizer” as somebody who works among poor people, usually blacks or Hispanics. “Community” is almost never used for whites as in “Irish community” or “Italian community.” Implied in “black community” is a degree of cohesion, sense of identity, and cooperative behavior that one finds among the Amish or Mormons, a situation best captured by the German word Gemeinschaft.
Needless to say, life in many black neighborhoods is plagued by rampant crime, uninhabitable public space, predatory feral youngsters, and broken families, and more closely resembles the Hobbesian state of nature: a “warre of every man against every man.” Gratuitously invoking “community” is a deceptive way of putting a favorable, self-esteem boosting gloss on horrific conditions, many of them self-imposed. It also bestows a degree of legitimacy on those self-designated, almost never democratically elected rabble rousers who claim to “speak for the community.”
Under-represented. As employed in contemporary racial politics, the term sets the stage for quotas and set-asides. The term suggests that all people–actually groups–are identical in ability, so any group discrepancy must be the result of some vague, often never-specified unfairness. A typical use of the term would be that African Americans are under-represented in university physics departments and, like unequal political representation, this is a correctable defect. Of course, as it is endlessly noted–albeit quietly and always privately–the term is used asymmetrically: There is never a correctable racial imbalance where blacks dominate, as in professional football and basketball. The over-representation of African Americans in these sports is attributed to ability and hard work, traits that, by implication, are largely irrelevant to positions that require high levels of intelligence, such as being a professor of physics.
Under-served. This term is usually a synonym for any group of poor people but unlike “the poor,” it implies that something is lacking in how they are treated and, by inference, this “something” can, and should, be provided by the government. In fact, most of the “under-served” already enjoy copious government benefits–everything from free food to free cell phones–and a more accurate expression, at least in many instances, might be “lavishly over-served.”
The term is sometimes used to justify education-based racial preferences, as in admitting more minority students into medical school since these future doctors will presumably practice in areas that are medically “under-served.” The concept also helps eliminate any implication that poverty is substantially self-inflicted; the poor are poor because they are denied their fair share when dividing up the grand pie.
Homeless. America once had bums, winos, and hoboes, but they have all been promoted to the ranks of “the homeless.” This word was once reserved for people whose homes had been destroyed by a natural disaster such as a fire or hurricane. A wino is, indeed, without a home, but it is because of his own failings. To say he is “homeless” suggests it is not his fault–that he is, instead, very badly “under-served.”
Downtrodden. This word literally means trampled into the dirt by others. Who in America is actually being trampled into the dirt? This is another word in the “under-served” family of distortions that blames society (that is to say, whites) for personal failure (usually that of non-whites).
There is far more here than wooly thinking. Each term arrives with ample, almost invisible baggage that infiltrates the brain and ultimately shapes behavior. In effect, accepting this vocabulary easily concedes victory to the statist Left. Imagine a Tea Partier demanding an end to programs for at-risk youngsters living in under-served communities? And only the most cold-hearted conservative could object to lowering barriers so minorities can attend college.
Deceptive phraseology is perfectly legal and hardly limited to the Left. What is remarkable is the ease with which it occurs–we surrender our wallets without any resistance at the first sign of the muggers. Rooting for “our side” is akin to cheering on a team of perennial losers. Our competitors just invent a politically advantageous vocabulary as the game moves along, and we happily embrace their intellectual home-field advantage. Perhaps in terms of courage and tactics we are an at-risk, under-served community.