The Personal Is Ideological


April 15, 2005


Browse in Language

I’m looking at a letter I received last fall from the Social Security Administration. It’s a statement of my account: how much I’ve contributed, how much I will get each month when I retire, how much my family would receive if I were to die. It is a bit unsettling to see my life reduced to numbers this way. (The record of annual earnings shows why my mother once remarked to my then-girlfriend that my brother was “the practical one.”)

Still, it is comforting to know that my work has not gone unnoticed, and that a reward, however humble, awaits in my old age. I’ve been saving these statements for about five years now, ever since I was married. It never once occurred to me that they would have any significance outside my own household. Yet now they are at the center of the political brouhaha over Social Security; and specifically the attempt on one side to fence off the language commons so as to steer the debate its own way.

A bit of background for our visitors from abroad. For decades, the ideological Right in America has been touting the advantages of a privatized social security system. By that they mean a system in which Americans put money into private investment accounts managed on Wall Street; that’s in contrast to the current system, in which a government agency basically puts the money into safe government bonds, with minimal overhead along the way. President Bush has been among the enthusiastic privatizers. He talked about the issue in both his Presidential campaigns, and he has devoted much of the time since his victory last November to pursuing that goal.

But at some point the President’s message managers discovered a glitch in their spin. The word “private,” which is among the most cherished in their vocabularies, wasn’t doing well in focus groups and polls. So they have launched a linguistic jihad to banish the word from the Social Security debate. Now they are talking about personal accounts, not private accounts. Personal accounts. Got that? The Administration scolds journalists who stray off the verbal formula. The President accuses them of “editorializing” when they cast a question terms of privatizing Social Security or even just private accounts.

And of course, the Administration blames the confusion on those nefarious liberals who are bent on deceiving the American people. “There’s been a concerted effort on the part of Democrats to spread misinformation” said a spokeswoman for the National Republican Committee. “The word ‘privatizing’ has unfortunately seeped into the public dialogue.”

This argument is a bit awkward considering the years that the Right has spent calling the President’s approach precisely that. The libertarian Cato Institute had a “Project on Social Security Privatization” until Republicans prevailed upon it to change the name. (It’s now the Project on Social Security Choice.) Rightward magazines such as the National Review persisted in using the words “personal” and “private” interchangeably, at least until a few months ago.

Did I mention the President? A stock speech from his 2000 campaign declared that the government should “trust Americans by giving them the option of investing part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts.” I guess he was just being ironic.

It must gall the advocates of a privatized Social Security system to have to bite their tongues on a word that, in their minds, represents the central sun in their system of belief. (I’m waiting for a reporter to ask the President why, as a matter of principle, he is so much against privatizing Social Security.) And I suppose Democrats can take heart. When the Right starts to back away from a first principle in this way, it suggests a movement that is lapsing into expediency if not outright retreat.

But that’s not my concern today. Nor is it the arguments against turning Social Security into a system of private accounts. (My own contribution to that debate is here: ) The issue here is language, and how the Administration is trying to win the debate by controlling the words in which it is conducted.

Let’s go back to the statements from the Social Security Administration. They are addressed to me, just as yours are addressed to you (if you are in the system.) They include a detailed rundown of my own Social Security account, and no one else’s. They record the contributions I have made and the benefits I or my survivors can expect to receive. All this information applies specifically to my case. It is much like the statements I receive for my mutual funds and IRAs, except that the money is in the Social Security system instead of the stock market or bank certificates of deposit.

In other words, what I have is a personal account. It is my own share of a larger pool, much as my mutual fund account is my share of that larger pool. The Social Security fund faces an uncertain future; but anyone who thinks the same does not apply to the stock market is a sheep waiting to be shorn. So if a personal account is all the President is proposing to give us, then he’s promising something we already have. The difference between his proposal and the present system is not that one is personal and the other is not. It’s that his proposal would put part of the personal account into Wall Street — which is to say, into the private marketplace.

That distinction is crucial in this debate. If we cannot use the word “private” then we cannot make it, which means we cannot have the debate. Clarity, as well as honesty, depends upon unfettered access to the full resources of language. It depends upon language remaining an open system, which permits the greatest richness of expression and has the greatest capacity for truth.

With open software, glitches can be corrected and errors exposed. When there’s a problem with Linux, the open source computer operating system, any user can poke around and devise a fix. The best fixes can go back into the community so that the whole system evolves. With Windows by contrast, fixes must go through the Microsoft bureaucracy, and who knows when they will come out, if at all. So too with language. In an open system, people can devise new words to convey new thoughts or old thoughts better. They can object when the words used by people in power do not match up with reality, and insist upon more truthful ones.

Freedom of language is central to freedom itself. Dictators commandeer the language even before they rewrite the history. This is what makes the creeping enclosure of language so ominous. Corporations literally are claiming ownership of words. The MacDonald’s corporation alone claims trademark rights to some 131 words and phrases, including “Always Quality”, “Always Fun”, and “Made for You.” Will Burger King, say, be able to demand royalties if someone describes a politician’s lies as “whoppers”?

The question is not far fetched. When I was a reporter I received threatening letters from attorneys for both the Coca Cola corporation and the National Association of Realtors, because I had used the words “coke” and “realtor” in stories without capitalizing them. This violated their trademarks, they said; and if the violation continued the consequences would be grim.(What they didn’t say was that they could lose their exclusive trademark rights if the terms became common parlance, the way aspirin and Kleenex did. That’s why they sic their lawyers on the tiniest infraction.) The Master Card corporation actually sued Ralph Nader during the 2000 campaign because one of his ads was a take-off on the company’s “priceless” ads.

While corporations seek to own English, the relentless spread of the corporate global economy is wiping out entire languages; and with these, the unique knowledge and ways of seeing the world that they contain. People who study such things say that if humanity gets through the new century with half of the languages it has now it will be doing well. English is a commercial language; the belief system that underlies the global economy is encoded in it to a large degree. A product is a “good” by definition, for example, regardless what it is. There are no bad goods, just as there is no word for bad growth.

As English becomes the global language, the capacity of thinking and expressing noncommercial thoughts, especially in matters of economics, diminishes accordingly.If that sentence gave you pause, and made you reflect on the difference between commercial and economic, that is evidence of what I’m talking about. Much as a genetic monoculture is vulnerable to disease, a linguistic one is vulnerable to myopia and outright lies. An American President cannot enforce such a monoculture through trademark rights — not yet, at least. But the current one and his cohorts are close to the corporate culture that seeks to do that, and their instincts run the same way. What they can’t do with lawyers they try to achieve with bullying and relentless spin.

The U.S. media hasn’t been a bastion of freedom in this repect. A quick Google search shows that media references to “personal accounts” and “private accounts” are about equal over the last month. That hardly qualifies as evidence of a liberal media conspiracy of which the White House chronically complains. Last weekend I happened upon an NPR interview with John Snow, the Treasury Secretary. The reporter kept saying “personal accounts” in a way that suggested a chastened schoolgirl trying to demonstrate that she had learned her lesson.

To privatize Social Security, the Administration is in effect trying to privatize the language to exclude that word. In the process it is demonstrating why both are bad ideas.