The stray dogs of Sochi will take comfort that they are not, in fact, being shot or poisoned to death, but instead are destined for a Better Place. Reporters who had worried that the dogs were headed for the great collective farm in the sky had their fears alleviated by Sochi spokeswoman Alexandra Kosterina, who said: “They have a special shelter for the stray dogs and they make a medical examination of them.” A medical examination that ends in a stopped heart, perhaps, but nothing’s perfect.
I wanted to thank Ms. Kosterina for reminding us that euphemism and doublespeak and bafflegab know no international boundaries. Just when we’re convinced that our greatest treasure is the hot air contained in our own legislatures and council chambers, we realize it is a global resource in abundant supply. We will never reach peak bull.
“Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy,” Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre said, shortly before his government moved to cut short debate on the bill he was introducing. There was, alas, no bolt from the sky. This was not the first time the Conservative government had curtailed debate even while singing the praises of debate. Not the second, either. Nurse! We might need a tourniquet over here. We’ve got some of democracy’s lifeblood on the floor.
“Voting is to democracy what free speech is to liberty,” Mr. Poilievre continued as he introduced the new bill. The Fair Elections Act, which was not actually named by George Orwell, will muzzle Elections Canada’s ability to encourage voting in this country at a time when voting, you may have noticed, is about as popular as root canal. It seems that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand was in danger of having his lifeblood boil over as he considered the possibility that he would be rendered officially voiceless. The Conservatives’ proposed legislation, he said, “would take the referee off the ice.”
I think perhaps the Tories misspoke and didn’t mean to say that free speech is the lifeblood of democracy, but rather that free speech is the gin of democracy and Canadians can’t handle their booze, so we’re all cut off.
I don’t mean to single out members of our federal government, even if they run around with targets on their backs. Bafflegab and doublespeak echo through town halls and stump speeches across the land. I used to work at Hansard in the Ontario Legislature and soon realized that “my honourable friend” can sound exactly the same as a shiv slipping through the dark.
Perhaps, along with the other proposed changes to citizenship rules, we could give new Canadians a guide to the true meaning of certain words and phrases, to spare them years of puzzlement. I could write it, since I’ve already started a list.
“Elites,” for example, are people who give money to the other party; “base” means people who give money to my party. “Taxpayers” are people who vote for me, and “hard-working taxpayers” are people who allow me to put signs on their lawns. “Respecting the taxpayer” means building stuff in swing ridings, and “squandering taxpayers’ dollars” means building it anywhere else. “Downtown elites”? That stands for “owns a coffee grinder, and possibly a bike.”
It is instructive to watch British politicians at work, since they are as agile as fencers with euphemism. It’s hard not to be “tired and emotional,” for example, at the end of a long day in a Parliament that contains several bars. The master of the game was the late Tory minister Alan Clark, who, when pressed to admit that he’d lied to Parliament, would only confess to being “economical with the actualité.”
Which is why it’s so extraordinary when you hear the unvarnished truth from their mouths – not in public, of course, never to voters, but it still gets out. “F*** the EU” is not a sentiment you’ll hear at an embassy reception, but it was the judgment of a high-ranking U.S. State Department official, Victoria Nuland, whose private phone conversation about the uprising in Ukraine was leaked this week.
Likewise, it was only when Mark Halperin and John Heilemann published Double Down, their memoir of the 2012 presidential election, that we learned Bill Clinton thought Barack Obama was “luckier than a dog with two procreational appendages.” Yeah, you’ve got me there. He didn’t say “procreational appendages.” Family newspapers call for their own euphemisms.
Language is a funny thing; there’s no standards council to call foul on empty rhetoric. It’s odd that our advertisements are more carefully scrutinized than our political discourse, especially as they increasingly become the same thing. Say the words “gravy train” enough times and your neighbours will swear there’s a stop just two blocks from their house.
Language, Ambrose Bierce wrote, “is the music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.” Which might be worth remembering the next time a hot and comforting wind blows by.