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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/18/18

Dismantling Democracy, One Word at a Time

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Message Common Dreams

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Down the memory hole.

By Karen Greenberg


'In a set of parallel moves of betrayal, the dismemberment of agencies created to honor and protect peacefulness and basic civil liberties at home or abroad is ongoing.'
(Image by (Photo: beppesabatini/Flickr/cc))
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Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell's infamous Memory Hole.

This hit me in a personal way recently. I was asked to give a talk at an annual national security conference held in downtown Manhattan and aimed largely at an audience of college students. The organizer, who had pulled together a remarkable array of speakers, encountered problems in one particular area: his efforts to include representatives of the Trump administration in the gathering. Initially, administration officials he dealt with wouldn't even divulge the names of possible participants, only their titles, leaving who was coming a mystery until days before the conference opened.

In addition, before agreeing to send speakers, his contacts at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known by the acronym ICE, had not just requested but insisted that the word "refugee" be removed from the conference program. It was to appear in a description of a panel entitled "Refugee Programs, Immigration, Customs and Border Protection."

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It's not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn't have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word "refugee" was dutifully removed from the program.

Meanwhile, the actual names of Department of Homeland Security officials coming to speak were withheld until three days before the event. Finally, administration representatives in touch with the conference organizers insisted that the remarks of any government representatives could not be taped, which meant, ultimately, that none of the proceedings could be taped. As a result, this conference was not recorded for posterity.

For me -- and I've been observing the national security landscape for years now -- this was something of a new low when it came to surrounding a previously open event in a penumbra of secrecy. It made me wonder how many other organizers across the country had been strong-armed in a similar fashion, how many words had been removed from various programs, and how much of what an American citizen should know now went unrecorded.

To some extent, I understood the organizer's plight, having myself negotiated requests from government officials for 15 years' worth of national security get-togethers of every sort. As director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and before that of a similar center at New York University School of Law, I had been asked by more than one current or former Bush or Obama administration official to not record his or her remarks. Indeed, one or two had even asked to be kept away from the audience until those remarks were delivered.

Still, most had come eager to debate, confident that their views were the preferable ones, aware that the perspectives of many in the room or conference hall would differ from theirs, often drastically, on hard-edged issues like torture, Guanta'namo, and targeted killings. But one thing I know: not once in all those years had I been asked to change the language of an event, to wipe a word or phrase out of the program of the moment. It would have been an unthinkable violation.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don't at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Assaulting the Language of American Democracy

Tiny as that incident was, at a conference meant largely for students but open to an array of professionals, it caught the essence of this administration's take-no-prisoners approach to the language many of us customarily use to describe the country we live in. Such an assault is, of course, nothing new under Trump. After all, the current president had barely entered the Oval Office when the first reports began to emerge about instances in which language at various government websites was being altered, words and concepts being changed or simply obliterated.

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