Who tricks, misleads, defrauds and lies to you, how and why.


Postby meteorite » Mon May 14, 2012 9:43 pm

Susan Delacourt, the Star's long-time Ottawa editor, finally hit the limit of her patience this month, and unleashed a superb rant on the subject of clichés, deliberately vague and misleading language, and all of the tricks the politicians tend to employ to try to conceal the fact that they are not answering the question they are being asked. She also comes up with a very neat trick to help detect this sort of thing, so listen up to her words:

OTTAWA—Warren Beatty had a great idea for a movie back in the late 1990s: what if a politician with a death wish spoke the unvarnished truth?

And so he made Bullworth, the story of a disillusioned liberal politician who decides he would rather be dead than give another speech filled with meaningless bromides.

“We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium” is the line that makes Senator Jay Bulworth snap.

So, after arranging his own assassination, Bulworth spends the rest of the movie speaking the awkward truth on the campaign trail, mainly in rap.

“You can call it single-payer or Canadian way; only socialized medicine will ever save the day! Come on now, let me hear that dirty word — socialism.”

If Beatty made the movie today, Bulworth would probably reach his breaking point when the speech writer asked him to say something about “going forward” — a clearly poll-tested, market-researched phrase that has gone annoyingly viral, here in Canada and in the United States.

President Barack Obama recently unveiled “Forward” as his 2012 election slogan, for instance, and “Forward Together” was the Ontario Liberals’ motto in last year’s provincial election campaign. Those are just two examples in a very crowded field.

On the political TV shows, “going forward” is used almost as a comma now by pundits and politicians alike — replacing the well-worn “at the end of the day,” which seems to have reached, well, the end of its day.

If you do a search for the phrase on the website, you come up with more than 70 instances of the words, or some variant of them, uttered in the House of Commons since the beginning of this year alone.

It seems clear that all these busy forward-fixated politicos missed the episode of The Simpsons more than 15 years ago, which should have skewered the word permanently in political rhetoric.

In this 1996 episode, a parody politician states at the podium: “My fellow Americans, as a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

Long ago, someone gave me a simple trick to understanding political rhetoric.

Listen to what a politician is promising to do, and then put a “not” in front of the words. If the opposite is preposterous — ridiculous, even — then you’re not hearing a promise, you’re hearing a platitude. It’s greeting-card politics.

“Focusing on the economy” is one such phrase, for instance, which is just as rampant as “going forward.” If there is anyone in elected office in Canada who is not focusing on the economy, the citizens might well be concerned. Isn’t it part of the job description for politicians?

In fact, it would take a Bulworth-style, suicidal politician to say something like: “I’m not focused on the economy, actually. I’m just here for the free helicopter rides and $16 orange juice.”

Yet all this economy-focusing keeps cropping up in analysis of what is on the minds of Canadians. Sometimes the politicos go the extra distance and say that they’re keeping a “laser-like” focus on the economy. The pollsters and the pundits, meanwhile, seeking to articulate the concerns of ordinary citizens, often say that the public just wants the politicians to “focus on the economy” — as though doing otherwise was an option.

A real focus on the economy would involve a discussion of choices: raising or cutting taxes, where to cut the budget, which kind of jobs are going to disappear, and which need to be created. Focusing on the economy isn’t a policy or a choice. It’s a platitude unless it’s accompanied by substantial talk of the options.

Similarly, economists often lament that they can’t get the political class seized with issues surrounding innovation and productivity, which are said to be daunting challenges to Canada’s future economy — going forward, of course.

The problem with these words, however, is that they too are in danger of assuming the shiny gloss of meaninglessness. It’s hard to generate a debate around a concept in which the options appear to be do something versus do nothing. Or, if you prefer, going forward versus going backward.

It’s probably too much to dream of Canada getting its own Bulworth anytime soon, a politician who will speak awkward truths — maybe even in rap.

But it can’t be too much to ask all those speech-makers and speech-writers to give us a little break from the focusing on the economy and forward movement. Emancipate the meaningless phrases — send them twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.


Obviously, Ms. Delacourt is not just experienced in her job but inclined to apply a most critical mind to it. Her advice can be followed, without qualification.

But if you need a bit of practice in recognizing and dealing with this tactic, watch the next time a newspaper (or, less likely, a magazine) prints something sufficiently embarrassing that a cabinet minister feels a response is necessary, and chooses a letter to the editor as the method of reply. Read the letter. Then first ask yourself: does this answer the specific questions raised by the embarrassing event or behaviour? Has Bev Oda (or her chosen spin doctor) every explained why she left her reserved room at the luxury conference hotel, and moved to an even fancier and substantially more expensive luxury hotel - paid for by you the taxpayer? Has she explained why she needed an on-call limousine to commute between the two hotels, and why a taxi wouldn't do? Or is the letter a complete avoidance of the issue, together with a vow of her guardianship of the nation's interest and a vague promise to be more conscientious in the future - carefully avoiding any mention of any repayment of any mis-spent monies in the process?

In fact the whole thing - whether it is by a municipal or provincial or federal politician, or a diplomatic representative denying every part of a self-evident misbehaviour by his national government, will be an exercise in misdirection, in carefully not addressing the issue while seeming to acknowledge it. Don't be fooled, you're being given the mushroom treatment.

So on the next few issues, look at what the issue is, then look at what the offending politician is actually saying about it in so many words. I find the letters to editors most revealing, but when there's a long statement the reader comments on the story will often prove quite revealing too. Especially when the partisan trolls enter the discussion to muddy the waters.

Remember the whole aim in much of this is to divert and distract you, you you won't notice that in truth the issue is not being addressed at all. Spend a little time in serious deconstruction. You may be appalled by what you find.
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