Don’t Call it “Nationalization!”

Harry Reid doesn’t like it when people call the anticipated government take-over of Citigroup—by virtue of stock ownership—nationalization. “It’s not nationalization, it’s protecting the taxpayers’ interests,” said Reid (D-NV) on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program last Monday. “In the bailout, the TARP, that we made sure the American taxpayer had a way of getting paid back for their investments. That’s what this is all about and it’s the right way to go.”

The Swedes did something like this a while back, and they called it nationalization. How is this different? Only the political charge of the language is different.

The Power of Words

Words have never been this powerful, at least not since Reagan brought the US out of Jimmy Carter’s malaise. Consider what we have seen:

·        The President repeating the word “catastrophe” ever and anon while working hard to make the most of that “catastrophe.” "Catastrophe" equals "opportunity."

·        Tax hikes, porky spending and nationalized healthcare redefined as “economic stimulus.”

·        Illegal alien redefined as “undocumented worker.”

·        Political propagandist redefined as “journalist.”

·        Censorship redefined as “fairness.”

The list goes on, but what we are seeing is that the meaning of words—especially those that describe the activities of the Congress and Administration—are being changed into a kind of stunted Orwellian doublethink, the expression of which masks what is really going on.

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. -- George Orwell, 1984

In the novel, 1984, doublethink is expressed through a highly stylized language called Newspeak, which was based on the idea of never being able to express a negative or disobedient thought. Here in 2009, we have our own version of newspeak, a bit cruder, perhaps, but still as insidious. We simply redefine words.

Sorry Harry: Nationalization is Nationalization

What do you call a bank where the majority owner is the federal government? You call it government-owned. You call it a nationalized institution. There is really no other way to look at it if you are being honest, and this is where we are with Citibank. The federal government is on the verge of converting its holdings in Citibank to common stock. That change would make the federal government the majority stockholder in the company with a huge say in the operation of the company and that would make Citibank a nationalized bank.

What would then happen? The likely answer is that Bank of America would go the same way. In fact, as the economy worsens, any financial institution that received bailout money would be fair game. It is the opening of a slippery slope of increased federal intervention into the power of the states and the lives of the citizenry.

Of course, the Obama Administration is trying to downplay fears of bank nationalization. In a recent news conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said this:

This administration continues to strongly believe that a privately held banking system is the correct way to go, ensuring that they are regulated sufficiently by this government.  That's been our belief for quite some time, and we continue to have that.

When asked for clarification on the President’s position, Gibbs demurred, wondering how he could be any more clear. The reporter then suggested he make a concrete statement that the President would not nationalize the banks. Gibbs’ response:

I think I was very clear about the system that this country has and will continue to have.

I think, Mr. Gibbs, you have been very clear about the message you are trying to get out to the American people, but it is a message of belief in a privately held banking system, not of your intentions toward said banking system, and no, Sir, you did not answer that question; and it is a very important one since it will affect individuals and businesses of all sizes all across the country.

The Bottom Line

This has been the case in Washington for many years now, but never has it been so critical, never has the public’s right to know the truth, as opposed to facts spinning and whirling like tops. From the repeated and, at times, Orwellian attempts to redefine the language of government to the way our politicians get around a hard question by using their own, ham-handed form of Newspeak, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The promise of transparency and openness in government will never be kept—even at this economically desperate hour.

No, the truth of what is happening in Washington will be found in the actions of the politicians, in the money trails they cannot hide and in the real meanings of words, once they are parsed out of what the politicians are telling us.

So, Harry, you can dance around the word all you like. Nationalized is nationalized! But, if it makes you feel better, you can call it “happy-fuzzy-stock-smily-face-feel-good-fluff.” How’s that?