When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When is a "reform" a reform? New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent mulls some of the ways that language is used to spin perceptions in modern politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he says, "may yield the most linguistically volatile issues confronting Times editors, but I've encountered a ferocious tug-of-war between advocates of each of the following as well: Genital mutilation vs. genital cutting ('would you call ritual male circumcision "genital mutilation"?'). Liberal vs. moderate ('you're simply trying to make liberalism look reasonable and inoffensive' as in calling Michael Bloomberg a 'moderate Republican'). Abuse vs. torture ('if the Abu Ghraib victims had been American soldiers,' The Times 'would have described it as torture'). Partial birth vs. intact dilation and extraction (the use of the former demonstrates that The Times 'has embraced the terminology of anti-abortion forces'). 'Iraqi forces' vs. 'American-backed forces' ('aren't the Sunni insurgents Iraqis?'). Don't get me started on 'insurgents,' much less homeless vs. vagrant, affirmative action vs. racial preferences, or loophole vs. tax incentive." And, he adds, "Hijacking the language proves especially pernicious when government officials deodorize their programs with near-Orwellian euphemism. (If Orwell were writing 'Politics and the English Language' today, he'd need a telephone book to contain his 'catalog of swindles and perversions.') The Bush administration has been especially good at this; just count the number of times self-anointing phrases like 'Patriot Act,' 'Clear Skies Act' or 'No Child Left Behind Act' appear in The Times, at each appearance sounding as wholesome as a hymn."
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