Before I became an internet pundit, I occasionally wrote letters to the editor. I had a few published but was always annoyed with the end results. I gave it up when the Picayune so twisted my meaning on a long-forgotten subject that a conservative friend asked if I’d defected to his side. He was disappointed to learn that I had not jumped ship.
That was a long way of saying that I’m quoting a letter to the editor by 33 prominent writers. In this case, the meaning is clear. They want the New York Times and their MSM colleagues to use different language to describe the Trump scandals:
Please stop using the Latin phrase “quid pro quo” regarding the impeachment inquiry. Most people don’t understand what it means, and in any case it doesn’t refer only to a crime. Asking for a favor is not a criminal act; we frequently demand things from foreign countries before giving them aid, like asking them to improve their human rights record.
That is not a crime; the crime is President Trump’s demand for something that will benefit him personally. But using this neutral phrase — which means simply “this for that” — as synonymous with criminality is confusing to the public. It makes the case more complicated, more open to question and more difficult to plead.
Please use words that refer only to criminal behavior here. Use “bribery” or “extortion” to describe Mr. Trump’s demand to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, making it very clear that this is a crime. The more we hear words that carry moral imputations, the more we understand the criminal nature of the act.
As you know, I rarely, if ever, make moral arguments. In this instance, the strongest argument is for clarity. The Trump-Zelensky call reeks of extortion and attempts to bribe the latter with money already allocated to his government by Congress. It’s also called wire fraud. Those are all words that people understand. Latin is for legal eagles and Catholic clerics. It does not soar with the vox populi, I mean, general public.
Words matter. Language is important, especially in this age of obfuscation, truthiness, and newspeak. George Orwell summed it up best 73 years ago in his classic essay, Politics and the English Language. Here are a few pertinent passages. I’m snipping some specific examples to boil Orwell’s argument down to its essence.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. <SNIP> Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
News reporters should keep it simple and leave the lofty language and exaggerated metaphors to the pundits. Above all else, skip the Latin and call a bribe a bribe and extortion extortion. Enough with the quid pro quos.
The last word goes to Kiwi rock demigod Dave Dobbyn: