by Nick Taylor
Political language aims to make you think you know what you’re hearing or reading. Its secret is that it reserves for itself a precisely opposite meaning. “Orwellian” describes this but even the author of “1984’ might prefer a term that’s more direct: “weasel words.”
A weasel word, my Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary tells me, comes from “the weasel’s reputed habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact.” As President Trump scans the horizon for something his administration has accomplished during his first 100 days, he can brag that nobody is better at sucking the meaning out of words.
The outright lies are one thing. What may be worse are the hollow statements that shatter like empty eggshells at the slightest examination.
Take his statement on Earth Day, for example. The first paragraph opens blandly and unremarkably: “Our Nation is blessed with abundant natural resources and awe-inspiring beauty. Americans are rightly grateful for these God-given gifts and have an obligation to safeguard them for future generations.”
Then there’s an assertion that’s highly disputable, given his choice of climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency and his executive orders rolling back air and water protections signed by former President Obama: “My Administration is committed to keeping our air and water clean, to preserving our forests, lakes, and open spaces, and to protecting endangered species.”
And now the torrent of weasel words comes pouring out:
“Rigorous science is critical to my Administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection. My Administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks. As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”
“Rigorous science?” There’s no science rigorous enough to convince deniers like Pruitt. What rigorous science means in this case is what creationism means to deniers of evolution – an alternative theory. The “twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection” mean growth in the oil and coal industries will occur at the expense of the environment. “Scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks” means research that will discount man-made climate change.
The ideology upon which rigorous science does not depend? That means evidence of man-made climate change can be dismissed as ideology. “Honest inquiry and robust debate” allows climate change denial a false equivalency.
There’s not a shred of honest meaning left in that Earth Day statement. Trump sucked out every morsel. The egg is light as air, and empty.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did the same thing with her memo halting the Obama administration’s plan to give student loan borrowers a break by replacing a jumble of nine loan servicers with a single vendor – one that could be monitored to prevent the slipshod and abusive service that has kept borrowers in debt into middle age and beyond.
DeVos didn’t say the Education Department would continue to use the nine vendors, move to a single one, or just exactly what. But the memo’s weasel words tell us that student borrowers aren’t her top priority.
She wrote of improving “outcomes and experiences for federal student loan borrowers,” and in the same breath of demonstrating “sound fiscal stewardship of public dollars.” That means indebted students will have to continue to watch out for themselves.
The memo goes on to say, “We must create a student loan servicing environment that provides the highest quality customer service and increases accountability and transparency for all borrowers, while also limiting the cost to taxpayers.” And she repeats that tax dollars won’t be spent curbing abuse and illegal collection practices: “We have a duty to do right by both borrowers and taxpayers . . .”
She tells James Runcie, who’s in charge of operating the Federal Student Aid office, that she looks forward to working with “your team at FSA, as well as others, in order to acquire new federal student loan capabilities that will provide borrowers with the tools necessary to efficiently repay their debt.”
These fine sentiments look just like a fresh egg, full of nutritious meaning. But like Trump’s Earth Day message, it’s hollow. Loan consumers aren’t the priority. They never are. Debt repayment comes first, and while it would be nice if nobody ever harassed a borrower or failed to record a payment or lost a check or otherwise made paying a student loan a living nightmare, the taxpayers, not the borrowers, come first.
If the Trump administration has accomplished one great thing in its first 100 days, it’s made us careful to find the weasel words between the lines.