Choosing the Right Word

California gave America Richard Nixon. Then California gave America Ronald Reagan. Then, to make up for that, California gave America S. I. Hayakawa – the president of San Francisco State University who became one of the state’s two senators in Washington from 1977 to 1983 – and he was a hoot. During his 1976 Senate campaign, there was that proposal to transfer possession of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone from the United States to Panama. Hayakawa simply said this – “We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square.”

What? That messed up the argument either way, or clarified things. Change the words and the argument changes. The words one uses matter more than anything else. He knew that. He has an academic. His field was psycholinguistics – semantics – the theory of meaning and all that. His first book was Language in Thought and Action – that book helped popularize Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics and semantics in general. Meaning can be manipulated by mysticism and propaganda and all sorts of manipulation of common words.

The book was actually political, as noted in his preface:

The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler’s success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer’s conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language – his own as well as that of others – both for the sake of his personal well-being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.

He’d help fix that, but no one knew what he was talking about. He tanked in the polls. His donors abandoned him. He didn’t even try to run for a second term – but for a brief shining moment, America had one senator who knew how any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue could screw things up for us all. Change the words and the argument changes.

Hayakawa illustrated this by noting that adjectives, like verbs, could be conjugated – “I am assertive. You are aggressive. He’s a bully.” The words describe the same thing – like the words “childlike” and “childish” – but they don’t mean the same thing. Words matter, and last year it was this:

During his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump said his administration is “taking steps to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

Months before, on the campaign trail, Trump appeared to revel in his forceful use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” even when his critics grimaced.

Not one to be easily deterred, Trump continued his use of the phrase from the earliest moments of his presidency when he promised to eradicate the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” “from the face of the Earth” during his inauguration speech.

Even after his national security adviser asked him to avoid using the term during his speech to Congress, Trump didn’t hesitate in uttering those three words.

His national security adviser was upset:

McMaster’s reasoning, according to CNN, is that terrorists who profess to act in accordance with Islam aren’t true adherents of the religion but anomalies who pervert its teachings. McMaster argued that using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” damages the country’s ability to partner with key allies, many of whom are Muslim.

This was a matter of specificity:

“The trouble with the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is that it makes no distinction between the variants that are Sunni and Shiite, which are radically different,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. “I think there are important distinctions, and if you say ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ does that lump in groups like Hamas, for example?”

“The engine that drives policy should always be specific enough to link means to ends,” Hoffman added.

Barack Obama used the phrase “violent extremism” to separate the violence carried out by terrorists from any immediate association with theology. George Bush just after 9/11 visited a mosque and said “Islam is peace” – the terrorists’ theology got everything all wrong. Trump seemed to being saying that Western democracy is at war with Islam – not useful geopolitically and sure to inflame those who might be thinking about blowing up something else in Paris or Peoria. Even the man Trump admires knew better:

The New York Times reported that Vladimir Putin has a long history of trying not to link terrorists to Islam and goes so far as referring to the Islamic State as “the so-called Islamic State.”

“I would prefer Islam not be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism,” Putin said at a news conference in December, according to the Times.

Words matter. Donald Trump should know that by now. He held a televised roundtable on immigration that ended with this – “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room.”

They took him at his word. They came up with a plan to fix DACA and add more border security and whatnot. They took their new plan to him. He exploded. Why do we have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people, instead of immigrants from Norway?

No one expected that. No one expected the profanity, but that was a minor matter. No one expected the overt racism, but one can conjugate that too – “I was racially ambiguous. You were racially insensitive. He’s a stone-cold racist.”

So, is Donald Trump a racist? Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, who was once the New York Times’ public editor, covers how that question was handled:

The real issue wasn’t the language at all, disgusting as it was. What mattered much more was what Trump’s words really meant, and what the responsibilities of journalists were in conveying that meaning in some sensible way.

Sullivan says that some rose to the challenge:

Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times provided meaningful context in her immediate news story: “While cruder and blunter than his past public statements, the president’s comments were in keeping with his long-standing position that the United States should shift its immigration policy away from poorer, developing countries, and instead focus on carefully selecting educated immigrants, especially from Europe.”

She added that Trump “has frequently characterized Muslims as terrorists and opened his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists.'”

By evening, some cable newscasters had become far more blunt. Don Lemon of CNN flatly declared: “The president of the United States is racist.” His colleague Anderson Cooper went there, too: Trump’s words were not just “racially charged” but simply racist.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times quickly wrote a well-argued opinion piece, “Just Say It: Trump Is a Racist.”

Others disagreed:

First, they did it by noting that countries like Haiti are indeed poor and troubled, implying that the president was therefore right to disparage them.

Fox’s Tomi Lahren, never deeper than a coffee saucer, put it this way: “If they aren’t shithole countries, why don’t their citizens stay there? Let’s be honest. Call it like it is.” (Her tweet prompted Washington Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff to aptly note that nearly 9 million Americans live overseas, and CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski to wonder, “Why do you live/work in California/NYC instead of your native South Dakota?”)

And second, they did it by positing that Trump’s racism will play well with his base, which somehow makes it acceptable. Jesse Watters, a Fox host, paid tribute to what he called America’s “forgotten men and women” who surely would approve.

Sullivan was not impressed:

Excusing racism on political grounds? Justifying the disparagement of people because their countries are troubled? Making cynical arguments to encourage their audience’s worst instincts?

Media figures who do that – and there are far too many of them – dump buckets of kerosene on the flames.

That’s what Hayakawa had been saying all along, but there was this:

President Trump declared on Sunday night that he was “not a racist” and insisted that the derogatory comment attributed to him during an Oval Office meeting on immigration last week did not occur.

“I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you,” Mr. Trump said as he arrived at Trump International Golf Club for dinner with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader.

So, he’s the least racist person ever, because he says so, and everyone else is wrong:

Asked about the comments he was reported to have made, including a reference to African nations as “shithole countries,” Mr. Trump indicated that he did not say what had been attributed to him.

“Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments? They weren’t made,” Mr. Trump said, referring to two Republican senators who said on Sunday morning talk shows that the president never made – or that they did not hear – racist comments about Africa and Haiti.

And the problem isn’t him anyway:

Asked about whether he still expects to reach a deal to extend protections for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, Mr. Trump blamed Democrats for refusing to negotiate in good faith over the program known as DACA.

“Honestly, I don’t think the Democrats want to make a deal,” he said. “I think they talk about DACA but they don’t want to help the DACA people.”

Mr. Trump said there were “a lot of sticking points, but they are all Democratic sticking points.”

“They don’t want security at the border, there are people pouring in,” the president added. “They don’t want security at the border; they don’t want to stop the drugs.”

“And they want to take money away from our military, which we will not do.”

No one has ever met those particular Democrats, but no matter:

Mr. Trump said he hoped there would not be a shutdown of the government over what he said was Democratic unwillingness to compromise on DACA.

A shutdown seemed likely, and he was the one who unilaterally ended the DACA program, which could have continued as is for years, creating this whole mess:

Earlier Sunday, Mr. Trump declared on Twitter that the Obama-era program shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation was “probably dead,” while a Republican senator who attended the Thursday meeting where the president discussed immigration denied that Mr. Trump had used the word “shithole” in describing African nations.

And it was mess:

The rift over Mr. Trump’s comments, and how they have since been recounted, risked further eroding trust between Democrats and Republicans at the beginning of a critical week for Congress. Government funding is set to expire on Friday, and lawmakers will need to pass a stopgap spending measure to avoid a government shutdown on Saturday.

And lawmakers are already facing a difficult fight over the politically volatile subject of immigration, with the fates of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants hanging in the balance. Adding to the uncertain picture for those immigrants, the Trump administration resumed accepting renewals for the program over the weekend, under orders from a federal judge who is hearing a legal challenge to Mr. Trump’s dismantling of the program.

But in Congress, the battle took on an increasingly personal dimension as Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cotton essentially accused Mr. Durbin of lying about the president’s comments, even after the vulgar remarks were widely reported and the White House did not immediately dispute that the president had made them.

This was a war of words:

“I didn’t hear that word either,” Mr. Cotton said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.”

Mr. Cotton said Mr. Durbin “has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings,” an assertion that Mr. Perdue made in his own interview Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week.”

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Mr. Durbin, responded by suggesting that Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cotton should not be believed.

“Credibility is something that’s built by being consistently honest over time,” Mr. Marter wrote on Twitter. “Senator Durbin has it. Senator Perdue does not. Ask anyone who’s dealt with both.”

Change the words and the argument changes. Hayakawa was right:

Mr. Trump has a notable style when it comes to professing that he does not harbor prejudice. In 2015, Mr. Trump declared in a television interview that he was “probably the least racist person on earth.” Last year, at a White House news conference, he insisted he was “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” as well as “the least racist person.”

But as Eugene Scott notes, some things cannot be changed:

Frequent Trump critics on the other side of the aisle, including Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), called the remarks racist. “He is a hopeless and ignorant bigot,” Waters said in a statement.

But perhaps the most important reaction came from Rep. Mia Love, the only black Republican woman in Congress. Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said the comments by the leader of her party were racist.

“I can’t defend the indefensible. There are countries that do struggle out there, but their people are good people. Their people are part of us. We’re Americans,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

After Tapper asked her directly whether she thought Trump’s comments were racist, Love replied: Yes.

And that was that, and Scott adds this:

Some will surely claim that Love’s Haitian heritage influences her view of Trump, but having a bias does not mean someone is incorrect. Even Republicans who are neither black nor descendants of Haitians have acknowledged just how problematic the president’s words were.

Trump has denied using the term but acknowledged using “tough” language during the meeting. Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), who previously said that the GOP is “appealing to older white men” by and large, dismissed that defense.

“The words used by the President, as related to me directly following the meeting by those in attendance, were not ‘tough,’ they were abhorrent and repulsive,” he tweeted.

That matter is settled, and like McMaster, others note how words matter:

Rep. John Faso (R.-N.Y.) called the comments “deeply offensive” and a potential obstacle to America’s international relationships.

“President Trump’s comments regarding Haiti and Africa are wrong and deeply offensive. This type of language is counterproductive and undermines the U.S. and our relations around the world,” he tweeted.

And Scott adds this:

Trump’s latest comments, as well as previous ones, also are undermining his party’s relationship with a major constituency.

After recent elections in Virginia and Alabama, much attention focused on just how few black women believe that the Republican Party has their best interest in mind. Several black women – along with black men – told the media that they did not vote for the Democratic candidates as much as they voted against Republican candidates supported by Trump.

Countless Trump surrogates – most of them white men and/or evangelical leaders – have come out in defense of the president. But their take on his supposed commitment to diversity are likely to carry much less weight among black voters than the remarks from Love.

When the only black Republican woman in Congress says that her party’s leader holds a worldview rooted in the belief that people of color are inferior to white people, it will be incredibly difficult for the Republican Party to woo black voters to its side.

And it isn’t only black voters. Jeff Flake is quite white, and he’s not alone, but Kevin Drum has a different take on this:

The White House isn’t really trying very hard to deny Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. In fact, they seem to be kind of gleeful about it. Why?

One of the bedrock beliefs of many conservative whites is that political correctness is out of control. This isn’t just about college kids with their safe spaces and trigger warnings, either. It’s everywhere and it’s out of control. For chrissake, whistling at a woman is paying her a compliment! “Mexican day” at the staff cafeteria is meant with affection! Ebonics is just plain bad grammar!

And come on – their thinking goes – all those third-world countries really are shitholes. Everyone knows it, but only Donald Trump has the guts to just say it.

So this isn’t quite racism or sexism, as it’s really a Hayakawa semantics issue:

It’s a fundamental disagreement about what racism and sexism are. Donald Trump has a lot of fans who wouldn’t dream of using the n-word or insisting that women should stay home with the kids. In their personal lives, they’re probably genuinely decent to everyone around them. But they still feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time for fear they’ll say something the PC cops have recently banned. Or they feel like there are things they can’t say at all because they don’t have the vocabulary for it. Educated folks might carefully argue that “merit-based” immigration is the way to go because “assimilation” is harder for immigrants from “culturally disparate” countries with “low GDPs and high crime rates.” But Joe Sixpack doesn’t know those words and doesn’t know which ones are acceptable anyway. So he’s tongue-tied. He can’t say anything at all – until Donald Trump comes along. He’s basically saying that we all know those fancy words are just the liberal elitist version of “shithole countries,” and he’s giving Joe permission to say so.

Go ahead and use the words you know and ignore the faux gasps from all those liberal scolds who believe the same thing but just won’t say it in plain language. You’re no more racist than they are.

That may be what’s happening here:

Right or wrong, this is liberating for them. Trump isn’t so much appealing to racism as he is telling people you’re NOT a racist. Just imagine what a sigh of relief this brings to a lot of working-class whites who aren’t, themselves, especially racist but feel like they have to constantly watch every word they say or else they’ll be accused of it anyway. This is the appeal of Trump beyond his flat-out deplorable base.

Okay, so no one is really a racist, but Hayakawa recommended a habitually critical attitude towards language. If the majority is more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred, than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect, we are at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue. Now it’s Donald Trump. This is language in dangerous thought and action.

Jeff Flake knows this:

Sen. Jeff Flake is planning to slam President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press on the Senate floor this week in a speech that will compare the president’s use of the term “enemy of the people” to describe the media to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” Flake, R-Ariz., will say, according to excerpts of the speech provided to NBC News.

In short, words do matter:

“Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake plans to say in the Senate remarks.

“It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even (later Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev forbad its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin to for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader,” Flake will say.

“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful and repulsive statements.”

This is very simple:

“I don’t think that we should be using the phrase that’s been rejected as too loaded by a Soviet dictator,” Flake said.

Change the words and the argument changes. Hayakawa warned us all, and then he was forced to leave the Senate, perhaps because that argument was too esoteric. Jeff Flake won’t run for reelection, perhaps for the same reason. But it’s still a good argument – and Trump really is a racist.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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