Cynthia Oi
Under the Sun
Cynthia Oi

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Call them private,
call them personal,
Bush’s plan sets us apart

PICKING the right word, according to the late semanticist S.I. Hayakawa, is mighty important.

"To choose wrongly is to leave the hearer or reader with a fuzzy or mistaken impression," he wrote in the introduction to a language-use guide. "To choose well is to give both illumination and delight."

Few are more aware of the power of words than our political leaders. As it thumps up its crusade on Social Security reformation, the Bush administration is strongly objecting to the seven-letter term "private" when it is coupled with the word "accounts."

Never mind that the president used the phrase consistently during his re-election campaign. That was before focus groups and polls showed that people don't like it when it's linked to Social Security.

Republican officials so disapprove of "private accounts" that they've taken to calling journalists and grumbling about its use. Bush himself rebuked a Washington Post reporter for asking about "privatization plans," labeling the language as "editorializing."

The war of the words continued this week. When an AARP poll indicated deep public skepticism about the administration's Social Security proposition, Republicans cried foul language. The survey was flawed, they claimed, because it used the offensive phrase.

The president and his message machinery prefer that the accounts be called "personal."

As much as I agree with Hayakawa about word choice, in this case, I say "whatever." The more disturbing thing is the president's proposal itself, the separation it imposes among Americans.

It riles me to hear him warn an audience of young people -- carefully selected, of course, for good sound-bite and photo-op factors -- that when the time comes for them to retire, government won't be able to show them their money because the bucks will have been passed to an older generation.

That's true; money younger people pay into Social Security does go to retirees. That's how the program works, but the administration's simplification, casting the truth in bits and pieces, serves to pit young against old.

The president tells current and soon-to-be retirees that his private accounts plan won't affect their Social Security checks. No need to worry, he says, you'll get yours, as if baby boomers are so self-absorbed that they care only about themselves, that he can appease them even when the numbers really won't add up.

Personal or private, the accounts split a societal commitment that we help each other out, that as citizens of a compassionate nation, we share our fortunes and our problems together because we cannot stand alone.

The president and his spinners have no objection to using the word "crisis" whenever they can, hoping that if they say it over and over, the American people will believe there is an imminent need for drastic overhauls of Social Security and that their privatization plan is only the savior.

Social Security does need some improvements, but Bush's plan would be like razing a house when a couple of pipes are leaking. But the real danger is that it will unravel the safety net we've promised each other and abandon those who are most vulnerable.

The administration's so-called "ownership society" concept segregates us, running a chalk line between what is mine and what is yours. It alters an American identity of mutual interests and purposes, of sympathies that should permeate us as members of a whole.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com.

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