Saturday, January 22, 2005

False equivalence alert

The top headline on the home page of the Washington Post at this moment is a link to a story on the linguistic aspects of the debate over Social Security.

This headline commits a classic error of "fairminded" liberal journalism, namely suggesting a false equivalence between the tactics of the two parties. The headline reads, "No 'Private' and No 'Crisis' In Social Security Debate. GOP and Democrats shy away from hot-button words on contentious issue." Thus phrased, the headline suggests that the Democrats and Republicans are both playing equivalent word games, with the Democrats rejecting the use of the word "crisis" and the Republicans rejecting the declensions of the word "privatization."

Unfortunately for the benighted soul on the Washington Post web site staff who wrote this headline, any such suggestion of equivalence is, to put it bluntly, total bullshit. Insofar as one compares the Democrats' effort to eliminate the word "crisis" from the debate to the Republican effort to eliminate the word "privatization," the two are not at all parallel. On the one hand, the Democrats reject the word "crisis" to describe Social Security's funding situation because the Republicans are using it to create a sense of anxiety where none should be there. On the other hand, the Republicans have decided to eschew the word "privatization" -- which not only accurately describes what they want to do, but which (not coincidentally) they themselves have also used for years -- because it focus group tests badly.

But the way the WaPo headline frames the article, the two efforts are equated on the grounds that they are both "semantic issues." In fact, both of these semantic points are of Republican provenance, the one accurate, the other demogogic. The Republicans are backpedalling on the accurate usage, and the Democrats are exposing the demogogic usage. There's nothing at all equivalent about these two "refine wording."

What makes the headline on the home page even worse is that the article itself contains no discussion of the Democrats' attack on the word "crisis." Mike Allen's article is actually a very useful cataloguing of how the Republicans are trying to switch linguistic horses in midstream, to move away from the language of "privatization" which has been at the center of right-wing thinking about Social Security for over a decade.

Update, 8:14 pm: The headline has been dropped from the top spot on the page and the link now reads simply (and more accurately) "Semantics Is Key To Social Security."

No comments: