With a little more than a year left in his presidency, his milquetoast legacy has been embodied by his greatest skill: wordcraft. Obama’s team has continued, if not exacerbated, most Bush era policies, simply rebranding them in order to appease and confuse the public into compliance.
When Obama’s cabinet dropped the term “enemy combatant”, it was a purely symbolic move to distance itself away from the Bush Guantanamo era. Unfortunately, over 140 men still remain rotting away in the notorious prison despite what they’re now called on paper. And when these prisoners go on a hunger strike, it’s now called a “long term non-religious fast”.
As journalist Glenn Greenwald reminds us, altering the names of policies doesn’t change the fact that they’re still happening:
“The Obama administration…makes only the most cosmetic and inconsequential changes – designed to generate headlines misleadingly depicting a significant reversal – while, in fact, retaining the crux of Bush’s extremist detention theory.”
Obviously this rebranding tactic wasn’t invented by Obama’s PR team. Propaganda was propelled with the advent of PR genius Edward Bernays and later Nazi mastermind Joseph Goebbels, whose powerful techniques have been perfected and employed for decades by governments worldwide. Disturbing Newspeak phrases that absolve their pillaging and mass murder have permeated society and warped our interpretation of reality.
“You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
Beyond war, in today’s cut throat capitalist world overrun by neoliberal doctrine, there’s a language of dehumanization employed towards everything, spoken among the elite class and policy heads in order to keep things running efficiently.
As the Guardian points out, the term “cleansing the stock” is actually used to describe excess human beings by parliamentarians. After all, you can’t afford to actually feel emotion, empathy or sorrow for the paupers at the bottom of the totem pole.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to the natural world, the language is even more crude. According to journalist George Monbiot,
“Nature is “natural capital”. Ecological processes are ecosystem services, because their only purpose is to serve us. Hills, forests and rivers are described in government reports as green infrastructure. Wildlife and habitats are asset classes in an ecosystems market. Fish populations are invariably described as stocks, as if they exist only as moveable assets from which wealth can be extracted – like disabled recipients of social security.”
All of these devaluing terms have seeped into mainstream consciousness, dutifully repeated by media figures and then, by us.
Words hold tremendous power, and if we don’t reclaim our language and start seeing people instead of “militants”, drone victims instead of “bug splats”, or natural splendor instead of “green infrastructure”, then the voiceless are destined to be silenced forever.