How words are used can be crucial to understanding and misunderstanding the world around us. The media lexicon is saturated with certain buzz phrases. They're popular -- but what do they mean?
"The use of words is to express ideas," James Madison wrote. "Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them."
More than two centuries later, surveying the wreckage of public language in political spheres, you might be tempted to murmur: "Dream on, Jim."
As we start off 2003 in the midst of great international tension, here's a sampling of some top U.S. media jargon:
Pre-emptive: This adjective represents a kind of inversion of the Golden Rule: "Do violence onto others just in case they might otherwise do violence onto you." Brandished by Uncle Sam, we're led to believe that's a noble concept.
Weapons of mass destruction: They're bad unless they're good. Globally, the U.S. government leads the way with thousands of unfathomably apocalyptic nuclear weapons. (Cue the media cheers.)
Regionally, in the Middle East, only Israel has a nuclear arsenal -- estimated at 200 atomic warheads -- currently under the control of Ariel Sharon, who has proven to be lethally out of control on a number of occasions. (Cue the media shrugs.)
Meanwhile, the possibility that Saddam Hussein might someday develop any such weapons is deemed to be sufficient reason to launch a war. (Cue the Pentagon missiles.)
International community: Honorary members include any and all nations that are allied with Washington or accede to its policies. Other governments are evil rogue states.
International law: This is the political equivalent of Play-Doh, to be shaped, twisted and kneaded as needed. No concept is too outlandish, no rationalization too Orwellian when a powerful government combines with pliant news media. Few members of the national press corps are willing to question the basics when the man in the Oval Office issues the latest pronouncement about international behavior. It's a cinch that fierce condemnation would descend on any contrary power that chooses to do as we do and not as we say.
Terrorism: The hands-down winner of the rhetorical sweepstakes for 2002, this word aptly condemns as reprehensible the killing of civilians, but the word is applied more selectively than even-handedly.
When the day comes that news outlets accord the life of a Palestinian child the same reverence as the life of an Israeli child, we'll know that media coverage has moved beyond craven mediaspeak to a single standard of human rights.
Although you wouldn't know it from U.S. media coverage, 80 percent of the Palestinians killed in recent months by the Israeli Defense Force during curfew enforcement were children, according to an October report from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
Twelve people under the age of 16 had been killed, with dozens more wounded by Israeli gunfire in occupied areas, during a period of four months. "None of those killed endangered the lives of soldiers," B'Tselem said.
Closer to home, in less dramatic ways, the concept of "human rights" melts away when convenient. Even an assiduous reader of the U.S. press would be surprised to run across some key provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations more than 50 years ago and theoretically in force today.
For instance, the document declares without equivocation that "everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment."
Perhaps the Universal Declaration passage least likely to succeed with U.S. news media appears in Article 25: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and the necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
Words expressing ideas like those are scarce in our media lexicon.
Norman Solomon writes for AlterNet, where this column first appeared. Cara DeGette's Public Eye, which regularly runs in this space, will return next week.