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I like the government’s new euphemism for lying: ‘lack of transparency’.

A long time ago, in graduate school, I wrote a paper on James Boyd White’s book, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community. White’s theme suggested that we would enter a period where corruption of powerful institutions advances as the language they use becomes less meaningful. In Politics and the English Language and 1984, George Orwell suggested that corrupt power depends upon radical uncertainty, which results from no stable truth.

Orwell wrote about a dystopian, totalitarian place where government would say whatever it wanted, then later change the meaning of the words to fit whatever purposes it had at the moment. Words no longer served to connect past truths with present reality or future intentions. In Orwell’s world, dishonesty was so rampant that words had no meaning at all. When people read 1984, they may think, “Thank God that can’t happen here.” We’re watching it happen, right now.

We are not talking about simple euphemisms, over-selling, partisan spin, fibs, partial truths, or other flavors of political speech we’ve heard for a long time. In the case of Jonathan Gruber and Barack Obama, we encounter political dishonesty designed to grant government control over major areas of our lives. “Promise them anything,” is the political operator’s M.O.

Listen to President Obama’s claims in support of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, compared with his explanation of those claims shortly after people received their insurance cancellation notices in the mail. You think, “No person acting in good faith would justify his behavior this way. No person who cared even a little about the truth, or about the integrity required to keep promises, would talk this way.”

Then you hear Jonathan Gruber say blithely that lack of transparency was necessary to pass the law. You think, “Lack of transparency! How is straight-out lying something you call lack of transparency?” As dissemblers have always known, once you go down that path, you have to start lying about your own lies. Justification of dishonesty is inherently dishonest.

Especially rich is Gruber’s reference to “the stupidity of the American voter.” Apparently when you think the victims of your law and of your dishonesty are stupid, you can live with your own lack of integrity more comfortably. How much does it weigh on your conscience when you lie to your dog? If lying is necessary to get your law passed, so be it. That’s why we elect political leaders. They do lousy things for the greater good.

I’ll tell you, though, lying on this scale does far more harm to the greater good than anything that might happen, or not happen, in the area of health care reform. Lying on that scale corrupts everything. It ruins institutions, infects social cohesiveness, destroys trust, and of course renders language meaningless. When words lose their meaning, nothing has meaning. Only power remains.

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