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Op-Ed

Want to destroy democracy? Pervert language

November 10, 2022

Our biennial elections have become less an exercise in democracy than periodic gorging on junk food.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

A friend who just spent three months in Vietnam made a lot of friends there. English is a required course, starting in elementary school, and to graduate from high school they have to hold a conversation with a native English speaker and record it and present the recording to their teacher, or hold the conversation in their teacher’s presence.

“All you have to do is sit on a park bench and within 10 minutes someone will approach you and ask if (s)he can talk with you,” he said. Many of his young “students” became friends, and still keep in touch by email.

One day he found himself explaining our system of democracy and elections to a puzzled student. It didn’t make any sense to her.

“How should I know who to choose to govern us?” she asked.

An excellent question this week. Our biennial elections are making less sense every time they roll around. They seem less an exercise in democracy than periodic gorging on junk food.

For the past six years, discussion of substantive issues has been drowned in a sea of vituperation, lies, intolerance, breast-beating, and phony appeals to simmering hatreds and boiling hot religion. Each time around, those who would benefit from our elections “system” crank up the heat on their so-called enemies, trying to cast differences of opinion as heinous offenses against God, directed by Satan.

I am so damn sick of it, and I ain’t the only one.

Ancient Greek rhetoricians had a word for this sneaky, dishonest campaign language: paradiastole — the “reframing,” or redescribing, of a vice as a virtue, and vice-versa. It’s been on brazen display for months, reaching a vomitous conclusion as the elections approached — as it does every two years.

It’s no secret that our nation has become more polarized since venom became our political coin in 2016. Less commented upon is that this has been wrought by perversion of the very nature of words.

Time was, a moderately educated human could distinguish meanings of words along a sort of sliding scale: “cowardly” at one end, say, and “reckless” at the other, with other shades of meaning in between: timorous, or uncertain, courageous and bold. But in today’s poisoned rhetoric, shades of meaning are obliterated. If you’re not for “freedom” you’re a “communist.” If you acknowledge that racism and its effects still trouble us, you’re a “socialist.”

Thus, vice is cloaked under a false virtue: I’m not racist; I’m standing up for my White heritage. I’m not a greedy, illegal polluter; I’m trying to cast off the oppressive hand of government regulation.

Forty-two states have prohibited or are trying to prohibit teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools. This is not only racist, it’s an attempt to portray the teaching of history as subversion, know-nothingism as “patriotism.”

How else to explain how Herschel Walker can be heading to a runoff? Why men and women can run for high office by claiming that God is on their side — and get away with it?

It reminds me of the story — probably apocryphal — of the rookie reporter who had to write a second-day news story about the Johnstown Flood. He began it: “God looked down today on a scene of awesome destruction …” and was interrupted by his editor, who said: “Forget the flood. Interview God.”

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