Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sounds good, but that isn’t the way it works, at least not in politics.
Politicians use code words so interest groups will think the speaker supports their concerns, while at the same time their words appear reasonable and innocuous to others. We are brought up to hide the true meaning of certain words with deflection and euphemisms, and sometimes we’re so afraid of reality, we won’t name it at all.
In the Harry Potter series, everyone but Harry and Dumbledore denies the dark side of human nature by calling their nemesis, “He who can’t be named.”
As a columnist, I’ve been warned against using the words “global warming.” Now I’m told I mustn’t say “sea level rise” either. Coastal flooding is OK. You can even talk about sinking land, but the terms “global warming” and “sea level rise” have become so inflammatory that agencies like North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Division had to come up with alternative language before their commission could issue new regulations.
The grand daddy of all inflammatory words is “taxes.” The tea party has turned the word into a political booby-trap. Taxes, however, are how a government pays for its services from garbage pickup to national defense. But then “government” is also a bad word these days.
No society can function with out some form of government and some way to pay for it. So why can’t Americans have a civil discussion about how much government is absolutely necessary and what kind of taxes are needed to support it.
We just celebrated the Fourth of July, the day our country declared its independence from the English crown. Our first government was established under the Articles of Confederation, but the individual states argued amongst themselves and refused to fund a central government. The new nation was simply too weak to hold together.
The Founding Fathers recognized the problem and convened in Philadelphia to solve it. The subsequent debate gave birth to the U.S. Constitution, a declaration that provided for a strong central government and the ability to tax the states in order pay for it. In explaining the need for taxes, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, described taxes as “... the price of liberty, peace, and the safety of ... posterity.”
Could a gathering such as the Constitutional Convention take place today? I doubt it. A similar meeting today would have to include corporate CEOs, private NGOs, lawyers, politicians, businessmen and other special interests. And in today’s world of instant communication and worldwide coverage, participants would be closely watched by their peers to see that they upheld those interests.
Participants would then attempt to disclose their sympathies to these groups without actually declaring them to the general public. Whatever the subject -- climate, taxes, immigration, social values -- it’s unlikely the participants would or could negotiate in the interests of the country as a whole. In the end they would simply “kick the can down the road.”
The conveners could attempt to keep the meeting out of sight and away from the media similar to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. The first Pugwash gathering was held in July 1957 and brought together scientists, scholars, and public figures from all over the world to discuss global security in the nuclear age. It won a Nobel Peach Prize for its efforts.
However, Pugwash has never been able to shake off charges of elitism and secrecy. Should our nation debate its critical issues in a closed discussion, the public would never accept it, but time is running out. The climate is changing. Floods, drought, fires and windstorms, are on the increase, and here we sit, unable to even agree on words with which to discuss it.
We can no longer continue to fight among ourselves. Leaders at all levels must say what they mean, and mean what they say.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.