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Clear Skies Acts Abounding

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The changes in language, under the current administration, come thick and fast. Even before George Orwell pointed out that “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” people paying attention noticed the distinct and often disturbing intertwining of political purposes and language manipulation. Prior administrations had their self-contradicting legislation, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated Clear Skies Act. But Chris Mooney and Lisa Rein, in The Washington Post, recently pointed out a curious twist in the changes underway online and in print from various federal agencies in the last four months.

We already know that the central page on climate change has disappeared from the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (though, interestingly, you can still find some relevant subpages hidden away here); that a tax windfall for the rich has been labeled the American Health Care Act; that the administration has not been able to evade the term Muslim ban by calling its repeatedly barred executive order Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry.

The more interesting aspect of what Mooney and Rein turned up is not that Orwellian speech remains rampant, but that changes are often being initiated, not as a top-down directive, but from within the agencies concerned. Take the Energy Department Clean Energy Investment Center, which has morphed into the Energy Investor Center. Now, the explanation given by the department’s spokeswoman, Lindsey Geisler — that the changes “better reflect the broader focus of the project, which includes all traditional and nontraditional energy sources” — sounds typically evasive. But other sources at the agency suggested that the new label is a survival tactic more than a lightly disguised retreat from any commitment to clean energy. If you assign your project an Orwellian label, this thinking goes, you can continue to do your good work without drawing negative attention. Maybe they won’t cut your budget. Maybe they won’t notice you at all.

Similar thinking seems evident at the EPA’s former site for Climate Ready Water Utilities, now renamed Creating Resilient Water Utilities, a change that took place before the inauguration. It’s hard to know what to do with this word resilient, which pops up often in the environmental sector now. To be resilient is to withstand difficult conditions, or recover quickly from them; to spring back. What conditions, one might ask, are forcing these water utilities to develop resilience? When another page, on climate-change adaptation, acquires the title Resilience, doesn’t that imply that the climate is, indeed, under some sort of stress? Perhaps, if these changes are indeed put in place — as Daniel Holt, formerly of the U.S. Agency for International Development, believes — by “civil servants running data-driven initiatives,” resilience is a clever wink toward those of us who hope they’re still doing the research, while avoiding censure from those who want to take all those research findings to the Dumpster. And it’s hard not to admire career officials who can continue their “same work” while sending the right signals to those currently in power, like the international aid agency that now frames its development work as a matter of national security. (Which it always was, but once upon a time there was this talk about human rights.)

At the same time, it would not be far-fetched to draw some inferences from the change of Energy Investment to Energy Investor or from new tabs at the now-obscure “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” web page that feature “Opportunities for Farmers and Ranchers” and “Aggregating, Processing, and Distributing.” This language does seem to privilege those who might find personal or corporate profit opportunities in areas of government work that once purported to help a broader swath of citizens.

What I wonder about is the degree to which a change in labels — or PR-supplied headlines, or web-page titles — affects the character of the work, not now, but as the future unspools. We in academe are not strangers to such changes in nomenclature. Our undergraduates no longer concentrate in fields like anatomy, philology, or ancient languages. Mostly, we like to think that we changed the names of our fields of study when we found that the fields themselves had changed, so that biology (or zoology, or biological sciences) became more precise; philology was more properly subsumed under various branches of linguistics; classics more properly describes a field of study that both comprises cultural concerns and teaches many texts in contemporary vernacular. Social studies became the social sciences, most sociologists would argue, when institutions recognized that these fields of study met the criteria of sciences.

But I suspect that when women’s studies, baptized in the 1970s, morphed into women and gender studies or gender and sexuality studies, there was a wide and deliberate attempt to entice more men into the field. Sure enough, the term masculinist is no longer rare, and courses in queer theory and necropolitics draw students from across the spectrum. The title changed, and the content changed, but whether chicken or egg is hard to say.

Returning to politics proper, then, might we not be wary of such relabeling, not because it reflects clear shifts in policy within such a chaotic administration, but because the temporarily convenient labels might become self-fulfilling prophecies? That by calling victims of domestic violence, for instance, “victims of crime,” we could start losing sight of the particular nature of domestic violence? That as dedicated civil servants try to, as one NOAA scientist put it, “lay low,” new hires might come to see their mandate as being exactly what the agency’s website says it is — “to help people understand and prepare for climate variability and change.” In other words, not to investigate or substantiate its anthropogenic causes.

 

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