Secretary of State Dumpty Speaks


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

                                                                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief.  And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness.  Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere.  But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, politician

John Kerry, politician


It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions.   The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage.  This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery.  Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.


Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.”  Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place.  “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians.  It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.

a degraded unit

a degraded unit


We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean.  This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator.  Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage.  Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?


Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country.  Indeed?  For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles.  Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism.  According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”


This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares.  The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties.  For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say.  Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.


Politicians are of course accustomed to spin every fact and carefully craft every public statement, attempting to insure that absolutely nothing negative, embarrassing or revealing is said (a habit that unfortunately has spread to NFL head coaches).  The result is that a minimum of information is conveyed, and what there is is wrapped in platitudes and fine sounding nothing.  But there is a sort of code that can be recognized and deciphered, although it is not as precise as that used by the military, which after all must generally deal with verifiable concrete facts (collateral damage – dead innocents; degraded military unit – bodies blown all over the countryside).  Here is a sampling, many of them fairly familiar.

1. I want to spend more time with my family/explore new opportunities.  (Polls show I will not be reelected/They just fired my ass.)

2. Mistakes were made.  (I or someone under my supervision screwed up.)

3. The American people want…  (My party wants…)

4. We need to energize the base.  (We need to pander to the extremists in our party.)

5. The security of Israel is of paramount interest.  (I want to get reelected.)

6. The level of military funding is dangerously low.  (There is an armaments plant in my district.)

7. We must not infringe upon states’ rights.  (My state does not like Blacks/gays/ abortions.)

8. The other party is playing politics.  (The other party does not agree with me.)

9. We must protect the job creators.  (We must protect the filthy rich who fund my campaigns.)

10. I am for protecting life.  (I oppose abortion and support the death penalty.)

11. I am for choice.  (I support abortion.)

12. I am a man/woman of the people.  (My net worth is less than one million.)

13. I am proud to have served my country.  (I’m glad I didn’t have to work for a living/serve in the military.)

14. To the best of my recollection…  (I’m certainly not going to tell you anything incriminating.)

15. I am taking care of the people’s business.  (I am running for reelection/on a junket/lining my pockets.)

16. We must defend religious freedom.  (We must make the country safe for Christianity.)

17. I respect my colleague’s opinion.  (My colleague is full of shit.)

18. At that point in time…  (Then.)

19. We cannot afford to look weak.  (There is an armaments plant in my district.)

20. The government requires these powers to maintain our national security.  (We are the party in power.)

21. The government possesses too much power.  (We are not the party in power.)

22. This is the worst sort of negative campaigning.  (The ad is true.)

23. He is a Washington insider.  (He has been in office longer than I have.)

24. We need to bring the country together.  (Everyone should agree with us.)

25. He engages in class warfare.  (He talks about income disparity.)

26. He is no friend to the poor.  (Please believe that I am.)

27. This is a personnel matter.  (We are engaging in illegal activity.)

28. This is still under investigation.  (We don’t want to embarrass our colleagues.)

29. There are few rotten apples.  (Most of us are guilty.)

30. This bill is filled with pork.  (None of the pork in this bill is going to my state.)

31. I support free speech, but… (I support free speech unless I or my constituents find it offensive.)

32. I support the establishment of democracy.  (I support the establishment of democracy until they elect someone we don’t like.)

33. We have a zero tolerance policy.  (We can’t be bothered thinking/We don’t want to get sued.)

34. We are all in this together.  (I won’t be losing my job.)

35. I love America.  (Where else could I hold a state office?)

36. He is an elitist.  (He uses words I can’t understand.)

37. We recognize the legitimate security needs of Israel.  (We will ignore the international law we are sworn to uphold.)

38. He leaked classified material.  (He revealed something embarrassing to my party.)

39. I have not yet studied the document.  (My staff has not yet told me what I should say.)

40. We have reached across the aisle in a bipartisan spirit.  (We are voting on our own benefits.)