The Semantics of Illusion

By now, I’m betting most of us have seen comedian Jon Stewart serving Jim Cramer with a scolding on The Daily Show that was very satisfying in its seriousness. Stewart lashed out at Cramer, the host of Mad Money on CNBC, for the irresponsible behavior of Cramer and his cohorts in the financial press over the past few years. Cramer’s responses ranged from apologies, to brittle defenses, to lame excuses, to pleas for forgiveness, all with his tail stiffly between his legs. At some point in the second half of the show, Stewart ventured beyond sharp wit into practical wisdom:

But isn’t that part of the problem? Selling this idea that you don’t have to do anything. Anytime you sell people the idea that sit back and you’ll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don’t you always know that that’s going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work. That we’re workers and by selling this idea that of “Hey man, I’ll teach you how to be rich.” How is that any different than an infomercial?

At that moment, I hoped that the studio audience would give Stewart a standing ovation for a statement so refreshing in its common sense that it seemed almost revolutionary. Yet not a peep could be heard. True, it must be considered that the crowd was probably in a state of rapt attention at not only at the overdue humbling of one TV personality, but also at the rare serious form of another. And so it was understandable that they did not want to risk breaking the taut string of interrogation that was keeping Cramer squirming on the hook.

But I still can’t shake this thought: if the truth of Stewart’s statement was the equivalent a bucket of cold water in Cramer’s face, it must have been a tidal wave onto the audience. That is, I can safely bet that many of the people in that crowd – us – had bought into that same infomercial, the idea of getting something for nothing. And we’re now feeling pretty stupid about it.

It was easy to be fooled into thinking that our financial system was a legitimate enterprise with “solid foundations.” After all, the system seemed to work well for our parents. When it was our turn to invest, we were dazzled (and confused) by complicated terms typed on elaborate contracts printed on expensive letterhead, which were pushed across a rich mahogany table by men in crisp, clean suits with large salaries and offices in glassy skyscrapers. If that wasn’t legitimate, what was? And as a famous man once said, most people usually cannot conceive that those in power “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Yet there is more to it than that; this was – and continues to be – much more complex than a run-of-the-mill scam. How could a country built with such brave, valiant effort be seduced into such a lazy, irrational mode of thinking? Not the idea that we could make money without working, but the idea that we could do it legitimately, legally, and morally? There are plenty of possible reasons, but I’d like to discuss something that is easy to overlook: the power of words.

As the public relations industry matured throughout the last half of the twentieth century, powerful institutions with a lot to lose became increasingly adept at manipulating the semantics of our popular discourse. Take our government, for example. Violent, bloody interventions into other countries came to be known as “defense,” anyone who opposed our foreign policy could be labeled a “terrorist,” and whenever “democracy” was mentioned, it was sure to be paired with “capitalism” – to list a just a few examples.

Perhaps a few people noticed at first, scoffed, rolled their eyes. But it wasn’t enough. Before long, we had unconsciously digested these terms more palatable to the powers-that-be and started using them with a straight face, just as their creators intended – nowadays, you’d probably be laughed out of the room of you called the Department of Defense by its more archaic, politically incorrect name: the War Department.1 The victors not only have the power to write history, but construct the language that tells that history.

It is little secret that many of those in government move back and forth between Washington and Wall Street. So it is not much of a surprise to find out that our business moguls also understand the huge potential of words. Just as our government had ensnared hundreds of formerly useful words and turned them into their zombified foot soldiers, so too did Wall Street invent their own Newspeak (which, in Orwell’s words, “was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.”) and co-opt the English language to meet their ends.

With plenty of money to spend on PR, the titans of Wall Street transformed what seemed like brash, risky bets into “aggressive portfolios.” The winnings of these bets are now regarded as “returns.” And of course, the term “gambling,” so loaded with the baggage of addiction and broad public scorn, is rarely ever broached.

As Wall Street became more criminal, the words that they used to describe what they were doing became more complex. This more recent era of looting saw the birth of “credit default swaps,” “collateralized debt obligations,” “structured investment vehicles,” and “mortgage backed securities,” all very professional-sounding but utterly incomprehensible terms (even to the bankers themselves!) that served to hide an underbelly of shady trading that grew shadier by the day. The more often we heard these phrases, the more that they were uttered by knowing, professional faces, the fewer questions we raised.

There are many tasks ahead of us if we wish to return to a sane, sustainable mode of living. One of those tasks is to make a concerted effort to mean what we say. We must reinvigorate the words that we have left prey to PR spinsters and politicians to be used to manipulate our thinking. And sometimes, we must capture the words that the oligarchs themselves invented. How can we do that? By following Wall Street’s example: using them over and over and over again in our conversation and writing – in the context that suggests the meaning that we’d want for them to convey.

Let’s take the term “invest,” for example. In the 2009 edition of the Random House Dictionary, the first three definitions of the word are as follows:

   1. to put (money) to use, by purchase or expenditure, in something offering potential profitable returns, as interest, income, or appreciation in value.

   2. to use (money), as in accumulating something: to invest large sums in books.

   3. to use, give, or devote (time, talent, etc.), as for a purpose or to achieve something: He invested a lot of time in helping retarded children.

Dictionaries list several definitions of one entry in a numerical order based on their perceived order of importance. Because most dictionaries these days tend to be descriptive (reflecting how the language is actually used, “ain’t” included) rather than prescriptive (prescribing how the language should be used, “ain’t” excluded), the definition’s placement usually correlates to its how often it is used, which creates a numerical scale ranging from the everyday to the archaic.

In the spirit of the sobering bucket of cold water that is the global recession, I believe we should begin the process of pushing the #3 definition up to the #1 spot, through the means of verbal and literary labor. Why? To put it simply, the first two are narrow definitions which imply self-serving motives, while the third is more open and entails any possible range of motives, from the most selfish to the most altruistic. In today’s world, the #1 definition of “invest” exists mostly in the realm of the abstract, in a Matrix-like sea of digitized numbers; what is “invested” in has no face, no heart, and nothing for you to hold. Like a gambler and his dice, the average investor has no emotional connection to his investments outside of their capacity to make him money. Speaking of investments strictly in dollar terms is just one symptom of the diseased mentality that got us into this mess in the first place.

The third definition of “invest”, on the other hand, is very capable of referring to the real, the tangible, and the concrete. That “something” referred to could be to amass a personal fortune, but it could also be a host of other things – educating your child, taking charge of your health, bettering the relationship with your parents (Acknowledging the cynics in the audience: yes, it could also be world domination). While definition #1 only has fearful hope to keep the investor and his investments together in hard times, definition #3 has room to consider a sense of honor, personal obligation, or love (qualities which are especially useful in hard economic times). While definition #1 entails only risks, definition #3 entails risks and responsibilities.

When we as individuals accept more responsibility for our actions, the nation as a whole will benefit. How can we act more responsibly? Using words that meant to communicate, not to conceal, would be an excellent start. When we can speak more directly and frankly with each other, when the carefully constructed facades are torn away by clear logic, we’ll be able to see that our economy does not need an investment of more money, but common sense. We would accept, as Mr. Stewart said, that our wealth is work, and that we certainly can’t get something for nothing.

  1. The Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense in 1949, only one year after the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was founded. []

Jeff Gore is a freelance journalist based in Athens, GA. He is a frequent contributor to Flagpole Magazine and has also been published in the Orlando Sentinel and the Orlando Weekly during his formative years in central Florida. Read other articles by Jeff, or visit Jeff's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on March 21st, 2009 at 11:07am #

    The reason why it was not a tidal wave to the audience was probably because it came as no surprise to them. I can’t be the only one who has noticed the almost complete absence of ethics among the present generation of journalists, without regard to country or political views. The level of manipulation, distortion, self-censorship and, frequently, barefaced lying is astounding! The internet has actually made things worse, inasmuch as it has allowed both writers and bloggers to hide behind anonymity or pseudonyms. The inevitable result is that few now believe anything they read in the media. That, of course, may ultimately prove healthy, but in the interim, we are all reduced to soviet-style reading between the lines, trying to figure out what truth the lie is trying to conceal.

  2. HR said on March 21st, 2009 at 12:23pm #

    Not to mention terms like business “parks”, industrial “parks” and “parkways”, hospital and corporate “campuses”. We’ve become so conditioned to misleading Chamber of Commerce phrases that we don’t even think about them. During the late 80s and early 90s, streets named Data Drive, Commerce Circle, Trade Center Drive, Mercantile Drive and such sprang up in Rancho Cordova, CA as “light industry” and insurance companies moved in to the gold dredger tailings south of U.S. 50. It was truly sickening.

  3. Brian Koontz said on March 22nd, 2009 at 6:32am #

    Words derive naturally from the will. It isn’t a lack of the proper words that causes even the “left” to use ruling-class propaganda – it’s a simple desire for that left to align themselves with the ruling class.

    The ruling class controls virtually everything in the society – from the justice system to the educational system to the economic system. The reach of the ruling class can NEVER be escaped from, no matter how one might immerse themselves into TV (corporate-controlled), video games (corporate-controlled), or sporting events (likewise). Someone who resists the ruling class is an outcast, an outlaw, not only outside the mainstream but fundamentally outside society itself.

    Given the choice, a large majority of Americans choose to align themselves with, or at least politely acquiesce to, the ruling class.

    Too many people believe that resisting the ruling class is a mere matter of a political position, or speaking the right words, or holding a sign up and marching through a street. That does nothing in and of itself. Only when that is part of a larger personal movement in oneself (and parallel social movement in society), part of a process of *becoming* that outcast, is that valuable.

    If this is not recognized, then all that will happen with this “change in language” is different words spoken, without any changes to the *structures* of social reality. The people who speak the different words can congratulate themselves on their “hipness” and “political awareness” and life will go on like always.

  4. bozh said on March 22nd, 2009 at 8:48am #

    brian k, yes
    for me [because of my nervous system] it wld be better to parade/shout/hold placcards around a destroyer; at least, i’d feel better.
    who can get mad at so much steel?
    US is not governed on streets or by dissenters/lower classes.
    while hobos seem to be out of it completely; followed by prisoners, indigenes, and other ‘low life’

    caveat about “low”! low in the eyes of the highs.
    no protest had ever, as far as i know, even deterred a war let alone delayed or stopped, once it’s under way.
    this is in toto controled by the uncle.

    let’s please do away with dysphemistic label “ignorance” that some people use to incorrectly depict reality.
    noone is ignorant. USans are people; thus, feel/behave/think just like russians, indians, turkmen, chinese, et al

    US, because its wealth, was able to use it to delude amers. nazis have done that to possibly 90% of germans.
    italy has done that to italians.
    and all peoples i know of have over millennia gone thru this.

    it’s important not think of amers as a separate specie; light onto the world; the noblest, etc.

  5. kalidas said on March 22nd, 2009 at 2:08pm #

    May as well put P.T. Barnum’s face on the dollar and get it over with.