Ignorance is Strength: The Trump Administration’s Creepy War on Language
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This article first appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.
This hit me in a personal way recently. I was asked to give a talk at an annual national security conference held in downtown Manhattan and aimed largely at an audience of college students. The organizer, who had pulled together a remarkable array of speakers, encountered problems in one particular area: his efforts to include representatives of the Trump administration in the gathering. Initially, administration officials he dealt with wouldn’t even divulge the names of possible participants, only their titles, leaving who was coming a mystery until days before the conference opened.
In addition, before agreeing to send speakers, his contacts at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had not just requested but insisted that the word “refugee” be removed from the conference program. It was to appear in a description of a panel entitled “Refugee Programs, Immigration, Customs and Border Protection.”
The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the United States didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.
Not once in 15 years had the government asked me to change the language of an event. It would have been an unthinkable violation.Meanwhile, the actual names of Department of Homeland Security officials coming to speak were withheld until three days before the event. Finally, administration representatives in touch with the conference organizers insisted that the remarks of any government representatives could not be taped, which meant, ultimately, that none of the proceedings could be taped. As a result, this conference was not recorded for posterity.
For me—and I’ve been observing the national security landscape for years now—this was something of a new low when it came to surrounding a previously open event in a penumbra of secrecy. It made me wonder how many other organizers across the country had been strong-armed in a similar fashion, how many words had been removed from various programs, and how much of what an American citizen should know now went unrecorded.
To some extent, I understood the organizer’s plight, having myself negotiated requests from government officials for 15 years’ worth of national security get-togethers of every sort. As director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and before that of a similar center at New York University School of Law, I had been asked by more than one current or former Bush or Obama administration official to not record his or her remarks. Indeed, one or two had even asked to be kept away from the audience until those remarks were delivered.
Still, most had come eager to debate, confident that their views were the preferable ones, aware that the perspectives of many in the room or conference hall would differ from theirs, often drastically, on hard-edged issues like torture, Guantánamo, and targeted killings. But one thing I know: not once in all those years had I been asked to change the language of an event, to wipe a word or phrase out of the program of the moment. It would have been an unthinkable violation.
The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.
Tiny as that incident was, at a conference meant largely for students but open to an array of professionals, it caught the essence of this administration’s take-no-prisoners approach to the language many of us customarily use to describe the country we live in. Such an assault is, of course, nothing new under Trump. After all, the current president had barely entered the Oval Office when the first reports began to emerge about instances in which language at various government websites was being altered, words and concepts being changed or simply obliterated.
Since then, the language of an America that the president and his associates reject has been under constant attack. Some of those acts of aggression were to be expected, given the campaign promises that preceded his election. Take climate change, which Donald Trump called a “Chinese hoax” long before he filled his administration with rabid climate deniers. The Department of Agriculture was typical. Its new officials excised the very word “climate change” from their website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to the palpably deceptive “increase nutrient use energy.” Across the board, in fact, .gov websites replaced “climate change” with vague words like “resilience” and “sustainability.”
CDC officials were simply reading the tea leaves, ridding their budget requests of key words, now poison in Trump’s Washington, describing their mission.But you don’t have to focus on the urge to obliterate all evidence of climate change, even the words to describe it. Other alterations have been no less notable. For starters, as at the recent conference I attended, there has been a clear rejection of language that connoted the have-nots, the excluded, and the marginalized of our world. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, this year’s budget request carefully excluded such descriptors from its mission and purpose statement. Originally incorrectly reported as a policy decision to ban certain words from use at the agency, CDC officials were simply reading the tea leaves of the new administration and quickly ridding their budget requests of key words, now poison in Trump’s Washington, describing their mission. These were words suddenly seen as red flags when it came to the use of government funds to help the less fortunate or the discriminated against. Examples included “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus”—and with science now in disrepute for its anti-fossil-fuel findings, also discarded were the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The disavowal of marginalized groups and of the vulnerable in society, including those “refugees,” has hardly been limited to the CDC. It also reared its head, for example, in the mission statement of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, where the label “nation of immigrants” was dropped from its mission statement, which now reads:
“US Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”
Given the latest news from the border of children being torn from their parents and the president’s recently reported cabinet rant about not yet securing the border effectively, no one should be surprised that “security” and “values” have trumped “immigrants” and inclusion in that mission statement. So, too, has such a mindset left its mark on another agency created to help out those in need. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, led by Ben Carson, has ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.” In other words, the onus is being put on the individual rather than the government.
Trump is hardly the first president to discover the importance of language as a political tool that can be self-consciously used for practical ends. Barack Obama, for instance, banished both the name “war on terror” for America’s unending post-9/11 conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa and “Islamic extremist terrorism” for those we fought—even though that “war” went right on. Still, the current president may be the first whose administration hasn’t hesitated to delete terms tied to the foundational principles of the country, among them “democracy,” “honesty,” and “transparency.”
Putting a fine point on the turn away from core values, for instance, the State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and backed away from the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.” Similarly, the US Agency for International Development’s mission statement veered away from its prior emphasis on “ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential.” Its goal, it now explains, is “to support partners to become self-reliant and capable of leading their own development journeys” largely through increased security (including presumably the purchase of American weaponry) and expanding markets.
Alongside a diminished regard for the very thought of inclusiveness and for helping impoverished nations improve their conditions through aid, the idea of protecting civil liberties has taken a nosedive. President Trump’s first appointee to head the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, Rear Admiral Edward Cashman, for example, took the words “legal” and “transparent” out of the prison facility’s mission statement. In a similar fashion, the Department of Justice has excised the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”
Meanwhile, in a set of parallel moves of betrayal, the dismemberment of agencies created to honor and protect peacefulness and basic civil liberties at home or abroad is ongoing. At the moment, for instance, less than half of the top positions at the State Department have been filled and confirmed. The fallout is clear: Ambassadors to countries of major importance in current tension-ridden areas and the very concept of diplomacy that might go with them are missing in action. That includes the ambassadors for Libya, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. Meanwhile, in the first year of the Trump era, nearly 2,000 career diplomats and civil servants were pushed out of the department and, by the time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went the way of so many Trump appointees, top posts there had been halved. In an Orwellian world, agencies stripped down to bare minimum staffs and leadership are that much easier to tilt and turn in grim new directions.
Similarly, the Trump administration has all too often endeavored to disavow or obliterate facts. It’s not just a matter of endlessly reported presidential lying and misstatements, but of a wholesale disregard for reality that can again be seen at government websites where factual information of all sorts has been tossed down the memory hole. References to climate change disappeared from the White House website on Inauguration Day 2017. Many references and links to climate change put up during the Obama years were, for example, quickly removed from the State Department’s website, and other agency websites followed this pattern.
Similarly, the White House website wiped out pages focused on federal policies toward people with disabilities, leaving only this message for interested citizens: “You are not authorized to access this page.” Nor does the administration evidently feel any responsibility to issue reports to the public on its activities, including those that might damage respect for Americans worldwide. Recently, the Trump administration missed a deadline for reporting on civilian casualties resulting from US drone strikes, a yearly requirement established by President Obama in 2016. A White House spokesperson explained that such a reporting requirement was “under review” and could be “modified” or “rescinded.”
“The secret of propaganda,” Hitler’s propaganda minister once said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing.”Such an approach to what should and shouldn’t be known about and available to citizens from a government still theoretically of, by, and for the people has regularly been described as fascist, Stalinist, totalitarian, or authoritarian. But more important than any labels is the recognition that, whatever you might call it, there is indeed a strategy at work here. This is, in fact, a far less ad hoc and amateurish administration than pundits and politicians assume. Trump associates like to talk about the in-the-moment quality of present White House decision-making, but the concerted, continual, and consistent on-message attack on words, phrases, and language that offends those now in office seems to contradict that notion.
What we are evidently living through is a coordinated attack on the previous American definition of reality. The question is: Where do such directives come from? Who has identified the words and concepts that need to be deleted from the national lexicon? However unknown to us, is there a virtual minister or ministry of propaganda somewhere? Is there someone monitoring and documenting the progress of such a strategy? And what exactly are the next steps being planned?
Whatever the circumstances under which this is happening, it certainly is a bold attempt to use language as a doorway that will take us from one reality—that of the past 250 years of American history and its progression towards inclusion, diversity, equal rights for minorities, and liberty and justice for all—to another, that of an oligarchically led transformation focused on intolerance, racial and ethnic divides, discrimination, ignorance (rather than science), and the creation of a state of unparalleled heartlessness and greed.
It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. Goebbels had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he once said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”
Consider this a word of warning to the wise. Perhaps instead of hurling insults at President Trump’s incompetence and the seeming disarray of his presidency, it might be worth taking a step back and asking ourselves whether there is indeed a larger goal in mind: namely, a slow, patient, incremental dismantling of democracy, beginning with its most precious words.
Samuel Levy, Hadas Spivack, and Anastasia Bez contributed research for this article.