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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/17/18

Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, Dismantling Democracy, One Word at a Time

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The forcible separation of parents and children for "months or longer" under any circumstances, even for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, would have to rank high in the annals of cruelty and heartlessness. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced recently, the U.S. now has just such a "zero tolerance" policy at that border. No more "smuggling" (as the AG put it) of children into this country, though we're largely talking about parents and kids, even toddlers, fleeing grim violence in their homelands. The Trump administration considers such a stance a "deterrence policy," though -- typical of the Trump era -- it's based on a false statistic. Such separations have, in fact, been going on in a less official fashion since the administration took office. And don't even blame Jeff Sessions for the policy. We now know that the urge to rip children out of the arms of their parents comes directly from the White House, from the heart, such as it is, of one Donald J. Trump.

As Michael Shear and Nicole Perlroth reported in the New York Times recently, a presidential rant at a cabinet meeting against the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, that almost caused her to resign, was in part over this very matter:

"One persistent issue has been Mr. Trump's belief that Ms. Nielsen and other officials in the department were resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children when families cross illegally into the United States, several officials said. The president and his aides in the White House had been pushing a family separation policy for weeks as a way of deterring families from trying to cross the border illegally."

TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg has already written for this site on the staggering numbers of children displaced by Washington's wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, who are now, of course, denied any hope of sanctuary here (another kind of zero-tolerance stance of the Trump era). Today, however, she focuses on a different kind of Trumpian separation policy, one directed at divorcing us from the very language we speak, the words we normally use to describe reality, which are now to be officially banished to the borderlands of our consciousness. Tom

Down the Memory Hole
Trump's Strategic Assault on Democracy, Word by Word
By Karen J. Greenberg

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

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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