A Kiss From a Used-Car Salesman—and why it’s important to tie Romney’s “47%” comment directly to his Orwellian lies
In a terrific article published on Friday, Slate’s John Dickerson asks: Which Mitt Romney DoYou Trust Most? Is he a cold-heartedconservative or a moderate Republican from Massachusetts? How can we know?
As for the second of those three questions—Is he a cold-hearted conservative or a moderate Republican from Massachusetts?—I think there’s a third possibility. I think he’s George Orwell.
Or, rather, that he’s channeling George Orwell. Not Orwell, the person. Orwell, the writer.
Orwell, of course, is most famous for his book 1984, in which politicians and government officials say exactly the opposite of what they mean. Thus, the term “Orwellian,” which is not limited to politicians’ statements, but which refers to the use of common language terms that have a fixed meaning, and using them to suggest exactly the opposite of what those terms actually mean—and exactly the opposite of what the speaker does mean.
Up means down, left means right, black means white. You get the picture. Some people will think that when you say “up,” you mean “up.” Others will understand that when you say “up,” you mean “down.” It’s sophistry, con artistry.
It’s also a key tactic that dictators use to gain or keep power. Hitler, of course, used it routinely. But so did Mao Tse-tung. In fact, another word for “Orwellian” was, during the Mao era, “Mao Speak.” You just change the definition of common words to mean exactly the opposite of what the words have meant. That way, you can continue to claim that you’re doing something in particular, or will do something in particular, when you’re actually doing or planning to do the opposite.
In democracies, when politicians do that, it has another synonym: lie. Or at least that’s been so until now. On Wednesday night, Romney changed the meaning of many words and phrases so that they mean the opposite of what they have meant. Not the least are the words “win” and “debate,” at least as the former normally is applied to the latter, although it was largely the news media that redefined “win,” and of course Jim Lehrer helped with the redefinition of “debate.”
But another word that underwent a quick transition Wednesday night from its normal meaning to the opposite of it is “plan.” As in, he has a plan to cover preexisting medical conditions. The word “plan” normally means, y’know, a recommendation or intention to change something from its current status. The phrase “a plan to cover preexisting medical conditions” normally means a requirement that insurance companies provide medical insurance to people who have preexisting medical conditions such as, say, multiple sclerosis or breast cancer, beyond what federal law already requires. That is, beyond the status quo.
Which is that people who have, say, multiple sclerosis or a malignant breast tumor and have had no healthcare insurance within the previous three months can get treated at the emergency room, and then maybe file for bankruptcy if the hospital actually does provide, um, treatment for these medical problems. Then again, Romney had redefined the word “treatment” even before the Wednesday debate, so I guess we now have to understand the phrase “medical treatment” to mean something like, “But you have no insurance and you need the sort of medical procedure that isn’t done in emergency rooms.” Romney already had redefined the word “plan” to mean promised goals rather than the specific, credible means of achieving them.
But that redefinition had applied only to his economic plan—a plan that he said on Wednesday night might not work, and which—although it escaped the punditry—he seemed to be admitting that he (the successful businessman!) had devised without any actual economic basis for thinking that the revenue/tax-deduction ends could meet as designed. But this second redefinition of the word “plan” was something else entirely, because by saying that he has a plan to provide healthcare insurance to people who currently are denied it because of a preexisting medical condition, he was telling them that he plans to something specific that he plans not to do. And it concerns some truly fundamental things, in some cases life or death, in others financial security or instead financial devastation.
What kind of person stands on a stage speaking to 67 million people, and just plain lies about something of that sort? Dare I say it—the kind of person who speaks derisively about 47 percent of Americans, none of whom are Bain investors, have overseas bank accounts, hire PriceWaterhouseCoopers to tally their tax returns, and have their IRA accounts in the Cayman Islands. Nor contribute to Republican PACs or attend Romney fundraisers in Boca Raton. Or anywhere else.
Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column today, uses humor to run through many, but by no means all (she’s only allowed a limited number of words per column, after all), of Romney’s bald debate-“winning” lies. And she includes the preexisting-medical-conditions one. But I think it’s Paul Krugman who, in his Times column on Friday, titled “Romney’s Sick Joke,” best highlights that this particular lie is particularly brazen and particularly pernicious. And Ezra Klein points out that Romney’s mendacity about his plan for healthcare coverage—and in this context it is indeed a plan, as that word is defined the old-fashioned way—runs even deeper.
It’s been said, accurately, many, many times now that this election will determine the basic nature of American government. But until now, that’s meant budgetary, taxing and regulatory policy. It now means something even more fundamental, in addition: Whether or not we allow a redefinition of the word “democracy.” Romney asks us to believe in America. It turns out that he means an America of the sort that George Orwell feared.
Or at least one run by a used car salesman. Read the fine print on that contract. And on that separate warranty you’ll be charged for.