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Paging George Orwell!

Wired blog Danger Room is reporting that Donald Rumsfeld is proposing creating an agency within the government for the purpose of promulgating propaganda. Sharon Weinberger, the author of the article, quotes Rummy as follows:

“We need someone in the United States government, some entity, not like the old USIA . . . I think this agency, a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, pods are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities. We do not with any systematic organized way attempt to engage the battle of ideas and talk about the idea of beheading, and what’s it’s about and what it means. And talk about the fact that people are killing more Muslims than they are non-Muslims, these extremists. They’re doing it with suicide bombs and the like. We need to engage and not simply be passive and allow that battle of competition of ideas.”

* * *

In Rumsfeld’s view, the free press can co-exist with government sponsored/produced/paid news. “It doesn’t mean we have to infringe on the role of the free press, they can go do what they do, and that’s fine,” says Rumsfeld. “Well, it’s not fine, but it’s what it is, let’s put it that way.”

Frankly, I am astounded that anyone who has ever been associated with the Orwellian nightmare that is our current administration would have the nerve to suggest a plan so blatantly ripped from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It screams to be called Minitrue, and should probably be referred to as such should this plan ever go anywhere.

Now I know, some of you are saying, “Well, shouldn’t the government be able to get its message out there to the masses?” And of course, the government has numerous ways of doing so: White House press briefings, photo ops, appearances by representatives of the administration on the Sunday morning talk shows, et cetera. That is kind of the point: if the government wants to get its side of the story out there, it has numerous legitimate means of doing so. Planting stories in the media — including alternative media like blogs and podcasts — without making clear that the story was written by some government agency instead of an at least nominally neutral reporter is just disturbing.

Hey, I know! The administration could start its own newspaper and blog, in order to get its unfiltered story out to the people. They could call it The Truth. Better yet, they could use that phrase’s Russian equivalent:

Pravda.

jane doe


“I acknowledge that mistakes were made.”
–Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales

Isn’t the passive voice a wonderful thing? It’s a way to appear responsible, without actually taking any responsibility. A handy rhetorical tool for those in politics, and one which we got to see in use just today, as our Chief Rationalizer for the Undermining of the Constitution, also known as the Attorney General, tried to justify the political firing of eight U.S. Attorneys while at the same time pretending he had nothing to do with it.

“Mistakes were made,” certainly, but when phrased that way, it leaves open the very important question, who by? Please, tell us, exactly who made these mistakes? You? Karl Rove? The alleged president? The American people, by voting these weasels into power? I submit to you, my nonexistent readers, that there is a world of difference between saying “mistakes were made,” and admitting that “I made a mistake.”

In fairness to Gonzales, he is hardly the first political-type to try to weasel out of a tight spot using the passive voice, and he certainly won’t be the last. Examples abound of this sort of creative use of the passive voice in politics. I seem to recall someone in the Reagan administration saying it in connection with the Iran-Contra affair, and others have used similar words in similarly awkward or appalling political situations.

And there are good reasons why we see so much of this from the mouths of politicians. A rather startling percentage of politicians are lawyers, after all, and while law students are generally urged by their writing instructors to use the active voice, those same instructors will be the first to tell you that the passive voice can be your friend when you want to accurately describe the facts in a brief without making your client look guilty of whatever he or she (or it, in the case of corporate clients) has been accused of. Consider the following example:

Imagine you are representing a defendant in a civil lawsuit in which one party is being sued for, hypothetically speaking, shooting the plaintiff in the face while the plaintiff and the defendant were out hunting after having a few beers. Which of the following sentences would you rather include in your legal brief?

“Plaintiff was shot in the face while hunting.”

–OR–

“Defendant Cheney then accidentally shot the plaintiff in the face.”

The first option acknowledges that the plaintiff was shot in the face, but provides no information about who pulled the trigger. Conversely, even putting in the word “accidentally” in the second statement doesn’t help our poor defendant out very much there, does it?

In fairness to the Republicans (and make a note that I am trying to be fair to the slimy bastards), Democrats are probably just as guilty of abuse of the passive voice. In the face of reporters trying to get Hillary Clinton to admit that she was wrong to vote in favor of the Iraq war, the most I have heard anyone get from her is an acknowledgment that “it was a mistake” — not that she made a mistake. (Shame on you, Hillary. You’re not fooling anyone with half a brain and that will work against you, since you’re not running for the Republican Party’s nomination.)

Some reporters push the issue, but it seems like many more dutifully repeat what is said to them without further inquiry. And of course, on Faux News, they just stick to whatever talking points they’ve been handed by their Republican Party overlords. We need to start forcing the issue when we are confronted with politicians trying to passive-voice their way out of a sticky situation. Otherwise, mistakes will continue to be made, and responsibility will continue to be ducked.

jane doe


John Amato, over at Crooks and Liars, has posted a video from MSNBC from yesterday, in which Dana Priest of the Washington Post in essence says her paper does not label the current situation in Iraq a “civil war” because the government doesn’t use that label. Yes, you read that right. They are, in essence, refusing to call a duck a duck because the government won’t, without questioning for one moment the White House’s own motivation for avoiding the term. Newspeak is alive and well, friends and neighbors!

jane doe

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