Doublespeak is Alive and Well in America
by Dennis Baron

Since 1974 the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has presented an annual Doublespeak Award as “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Previous winners include both of the presidents Bush, as well as Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, the Defense Department, the tobacco industry, and the National Rifle Association.

The winner of NCTE’s 2005 doublespeak award is Philip A. Cooney, former chief of staff to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Last Spring the New York Times reported that Cooney, who had previously spearheaded the oil industry fight against limiting greenhouse gasses, “repeatedly edited government climate reports [to] play down links between such emissions and global warming.”

Cooney is a lawyer with an undergraduate major in economics and no scientific credentials whatsoever. When he went to work for George Bush he used his equally nonexistent literary skills to revise reports on climate change so that they soft-pedaled the effects of industrial pollution. In his emendations Cooney morphed certainty over the damaging effects of greenhouse gasses into mere possibility: It might happen. It might not. Don’t worry about it.  And he demonstrated the administration’s commitment to diversity by cutting an entire paragraph which warned that higher temperatures contribute to glacial melting, which in turn would have a negative impact on Native American tribes dependent on hunting and fishing.

Although critics were calling Cooney’s intervention “political science,” the White House, which considers global warming a theory, not a fact, insisted Cooney’s changes were “scientifically sound.”  The Times editorialized, “This is hardly the first time this administration has tinkered with the truth.... It's sad to think of a White House run by people who believe that a problem can be edited out of existence.” 

But editing problems is exactly what the Bush White House does best. FEMA head Michael Brown did “a heck of a job” editing hurricane Katrina out of existence, and George Bush approved that message.  Bush also praised another member of the White House editorial board, Lewis Libby, for working “tirelessly on behalf of the American people.”  Before the felony indictments that forced him to resign, Libby and “former Hill staffer” Karl Rove fed stories to the investigative stenographic team of Woodward and Novak, stories editing out opposition to another scientifically-sound Bush initiative, the war in Iraq.

George Bush, Cooney’s former boss, was also a nominee for the Doublespeak award. A recent Doublespeak winner in his own right, Bush got almost as many votes for the award this year as Cooney did – the committee counted the ballots twice to make sure that Bush actually lost.  As for Philip Cooney, three days after he was outed he left the administration in what the White House characterized as a “long-planned departure.”  And three days after that, he went to work for Exxon.

Don’t get me wrong, the NCTE Doublespeak Committee is not a bunch of rabid activists – we don’t make laws, like federal judges. But it is our job to interpret public discourse, and that’s why I want to mention two other Doublespeak nominees. First, there’s section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the part where the FBI can require libraries to furnish lists of what Americans are reading, while at the same time forbidding libraries from saying they’ve been asked for that information. That’s a clear abridgment of the First Amendment, despite the fact that the USA Patriot Act prohibits investigations based solely on activities which are protected by the first amendment, activities like – for example – reading.

The Committee also considered the merits of Pennsylvania House Bill 177, which established a Select Committee in the state’s House of Representatives to protect students and faculty "from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy."  How do you do this?  Well, according to the “Academic Bill of Rights,” on which the Pennsylvania law is patterned, you do it by imposing ideological orthodoxy.  According to the AAUP, the Academic Bill of Rights “infringes academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it.”  All the more reason to resist current attempts to market this bill to a number of legislatures besides Pennsylvania’s.

Both the Academic Bill of Rights and its Pennsylvania offshoot effectively challenge the power of instructors to decide what goes on in their own classrooms.  In science, this leads to mandates to teach the conflicts, a phrase co-opted from humanist pedagogy and used to bolster only one scientific “conflict”: teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.  That is exactly what’s happening in Kansas schools.  In November, 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education, already on record as opposing both the Big Bang and the teaching of evolution, revised its definition of science, downgrading the certainty of evolution into mere possibility.  The wording had read, “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.”  But “natural explanations” was edited out of the state’s new science standards, opening the way for explaining the world in supernatural terms.  The new Kansas science standards include both the pros and the cons of evolution, though other theories like relativity and quantum mechanics are left unchallenged – for now.

Worse still, Dover, Pennsylvania, teachers are being told to read their students a statement which asserts that evolution is just a theory.  Students are referred to the creationist textbook, “Of Pandas and People,” to find out what really happened during that first big bang, when God took six days to create DNA and fake the fossil record.  Dover teachers are rebelling, parents are suing, and the town just voted out the school board that edited intelligent design into the biology curriculum.

As for higher education, the Academic Bill of Rights declares, “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate” (emphasis added).  Let me take a moment to protect myself from any members of Pennsylvania’s new House Committee on Un-Academic Affairs, which met in Pittsburgh just before the NCTE conference was held there, by reading this brief statement into the record:

  • Intelligent design provides an alternative explanation for why Hamlet is so troubled.
  • Read “The Cat in the Hat” to understand why Hamlet should not have killed the uncle who was after all only concerned for his nephew’s well-being.
  • I am a card-carrying member of the National Council of Teachers of English, and I know at least five other people who are members too.

The George Orwell Award

Speaking of 1984, since 1975 the NCTE has given out the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, recognizing “writers who have made outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse.”  Previous winners include Seymour Hersh and Garry Trudeau.

The winners of the George Orwell award for 2005 are Jon Stewart and the writers and cast of “The Daily Show.”  Now the primary source of news and political commentary for many Americans, “The Daily Show,” broadcast on Comedy Central, regularly skewers our public officials in both the red and the blue states, though lately more the red states, for their unwavering commitment to hiding the truth.

Jon Stewart doesn’t spare his media colleagues either.  Appearing on CNN’s “Crossfire” in October, 2004, Stewart called hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson dishonest “partisan hacks” who were “hurting America” by staging theater rather than serious political discussion.  When Carlson accused Stewart of bias too, Stewart shot back, “You’re on CNN.  The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”  “Crossfire” has since been replaced by a show where Wolf Blitzer makes crank phone calls to political puppets.

In a report on Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, the Watergate leaker who set the bar for wannabes like Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert doubted whether the media could break a story like Watergate today.  Colbert said, “It just no longer has the credibility.” “The media?” Stewart asked.  And Colbert answered, “No, the truth.”

We used to say during the heady days of the Nixon administration that political satire was dead, because what was going on in Washington was more absurd than any satire.  But Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Samantha Bee, Rob Corddry, Stephen Colbert, and the other “reporters” and writers for the “Daily Show” have shown us that satire is not only possible, it’s required in order to see through the haze that clouds our public discourse.

George Clooney’s film “Good Night and Good Luck” reminds us of a time when loyalty oaths and other public avowals of patriotism were required not just for movie makers and reporters but for government employees, librarians, and teachers in public and private schools and colleges as well.  But this isn’t 1954, when Ed Murrow risked losing his sponsors, his viewers, and his job to stand up to Joe McCarthy and his fellow red-baiters.  We live in an age when Jon Stewart & Co. can ridicule the hypocrisy of our political culture in front of millions of cheering TV fans while network executives laugh all the way to the bank and administration officials act as if nothing is wrong. 

Even so, teachers and librarians everywhere know that Orwell’s big-brotherism remains alive in the land.  The Pennsylvania Select Committee, the USA Patriot Act, which is currently up for renewal, and the actions of everyone from White House employees to school boards bent on rewriting both the science and the humanities curriculums to impose ideological orthodoxy, should reinforce our conviction that unpopular and even distasteful opinions are the ones that most need First Amendment protection.  Many of us still fear that our jobs may be on the line should the thought police decide we’ve said too much.  That’s why NCTE gives out annual awards for public doublespeak and for those who expose it.  Nominations are now being accepted for next year’s competition. Good day, and good luck.