In “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” a 1959 movie starring Harry Belafonte, the apocalyptic World War IV has virtually ended life on earth. Belafonte’s character is one of the exceptions. He was trapped deep inside a coal mine in central Pennsylvania during the war and managed to escape after it was over only to find no one alive. Depending on how you feel about central Pennsylvania, this is either a very bad thing or a very good thing.
What does it have to do with Connecticut in 2011? While there are no coal mines in Connecticut (to the best of my knowledge anyway), it turns out that even in pre-apocalyptic Hartford people have already been mostly relegated to the ash bin. In the marbled halls of power in this state you are not a person; you are a consumer.
Are the specific word choices made by government officials simply what popped out of an automated search through thesaurus.com, or do they indicate a mindset that we should note? In some cases it could be not more than a consequence of inattention during 9th grade English class. In other cases, perhaps we would be well-served to parse Statespeak mindfully.
There are many examples of Statespeak from public transcripts. Here’s one of my favorites to give you a sense of common usage from remarks by a former commissioner, “. . . my opinion would be we’d be wise to have a few members from the general public who don’t represent this Health Department or a Hospital or the Hospital Association, but are simply consumers.”
The quotation doesn’t actually deny that members of the general public are people, it merely assigns them to the bin marked “simply consumers.” So, you and I are reduced to the artless role of corporate enablers. We all should be aware that, according to the Citizens United decision of the Nine Wise Souls, corporations are people, too. So, really, seeing ourselves as consumers is only an example of people helping people. Who could argue with that?
Well, no one among the elected in Hartford would fail to see corporations for what they are, cash machines, and not what they have been declared to be. Let’s work it through. If consumers are people and people enable corporations and corporations are people, is it also true that corporations enable consumers? You’d think it would be a good idea, but the jobless recovery doesn’t seem to support that notion.
The other little bit of Statespeak that’s embedded in that remarkably loaded sentence fragment above is the implication that a hospital and the Connecticut Hospitals Association are special interests which must at least appear to be balanced by – consumers. But, are they special interests? Nooo. In Statespeak, they are stakeholders.
Here’s an example of this usage by the same commissioner. “. . . . to provide us a broader base of stakeholders for purposes of getting more subject matter expertise, and our application talks about the need and the plan for the DPH to contract out for a lot of this stuff.” Of course if the goal is to contract out “a lot of this stuff” why then the need for more stake holders with their broader base of subject matter expertise? But that could be carping. The germane point is that hospitals and the CHA aren’t labeled special interests, though they are clearly special and certainly self-interested. They are stake holders. What troubles me is that people aren’t seen as stake holders; beyond their ability to consume they don’t even exist.
You’d think that public figures might be concerned that someone in Connecticut would notice this sort of yes-means-no speech. They aren’t. They have a work-around exemplified in this quotation: “I will see what I can do to insure that more transparency can be brought to the process.” It’s easy once you catch on. Transparency in Statespeak means there’s no way in hell they’re going to let anyone see what they’re actually doing.
In fact the group that began with avowals from everyone from commissioner to water bottle carrier that their process was going to be completely open now meets for meaningful decisions in “executive session.” That, my friends, is second level Statespeak for there’s a guard on the door and don’t bother to knock. It may not always mean residents, i.e., consumers, are about to get bait-and-switch, but don’t bet against it.
Language is sometimes used casually and it isn’t fair to analyze all usage through a microscope. But, when certain words or phrases become euphemisms for the opposite of their plain language meaning, it may be important to peel back the label and probe for the mind-set. Is it really important that people have been replaced by consumers and special interests have been replaced by stake holders in meetings that turn from transparent to opaque? Who could possibly care? Voters maybe? Taxpayers maybe?
Of course Statespeak, the movie, isn’t going to end the way “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” does with Harry, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer walking hand-in-hand-in-hand toward a better future. What I mostly hope is that the stake that stakeholders wield won’t be driven through the collective consumer heart of Connecticut’s residents in an opaque process we may not even notice.
Jeremy George is a Connecticut resident.