“Political language,” wrote George Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
That grim assessment is as accurate in America today as it was in Britain in 1946 — but sometimes a little truth does creep through in our political speech. A politician or lobbyist, caught off-guard with an ill-considered talking point, will occasionally and unwittingly expose a self-serving agenda or unpalatable plan.
This week, I stumbled upon not one but three such moments, each a Freudian slip more revealing than the last.
1. That new law is almost certainly less altruistic than it sounds. At the end of October, New York enacted onerous new regulations on Airbnb, the popular peer-to-peer vacation rental service, making it illegal to rent an entire apartment for less than 30 days.
The law was marketed as an attempt to maintain affordable housing by prohibiting landlords from converting their properties into profitable short-term rentals. In reality, it’s a scheme by the hotel industry to legislate smaller competitors right out of business.
In fact, says Mike Barnello, a hotel executive who oversees four hotels in New York City, the new ban “should be a big boost in the arm for the business, certainly in terms of the pricing.” Oops.
The meaning of this slip was not lost on Airbnb. “They say a gaffe is unintentionally saying what you really believe,” said Airbnb representative Nick Papas, “and the latest gaffe from the hotel cartel makes it clear that the New York bill was all about protecting the hotel industry’s bottom line.”
2. Overgrown government is self-serving and self-perpetuating. A Texas judge, Magistrate Joe Licata, went viral last week thanks to an offhand comment he made in court.
Licata was at a hearing for Robin Clearey, who is caught in a vicious cycle: she can’t afford to pay fines for traffic offenses and get her driver’s license in order if she can’t work, but she can’t work if she can’t drive there. So she drives to work to earn money to pay her fines, but if she’s caught driving, she gets even more fines or jail time—which in turn makes working to pay the fines impossible.
In the hearing, Magistrate Licata warned Clearey that if she didn’t pay all her fines, she’d continue to be arrested every time she was pulled over. A frustrated Clearey replied, “That’s nothing to me,” because she’s constantly arrested anyway.
“It’s nothing to me either,” Licata answered. “It’s job security.”
In that moment, Licata unintentionally illustrated how self-serving overgrown government becomes. Those heavy fines over petty and nonviolent offenses that are doing so much damage to people like Clearey are almost certainly an example of policing for profit, and now that her local government has seized this unjustified power, it has become self-perpetuating. The fines bolster government payrolls, so government employees like Licata have zero motive to even consider getting rid of them.
3. Government rarely cedes power it gains. One of the most troubling ideas to come out of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign was his support for some sort of national registry for Muslims. It’s since become unclear how serious he is about implementing this or exactly what it might look like.
Still, one detail that has too often been overlooked is why the registry’s supporters believe it to be legally and politically possible. The answer is that our government has done this sort of thing before, and one Trump surrogate, Carl Higbie, perhaps accidentally made that link during an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. “We did it during World War II with [the] Japanese,” he said, citing the infamous internment camps where Japanese Americans were held.
It seems unlikely this is the sort of connection the president-elect wants made — his team has been downplaying the idea of a religion-based registry since the election — but the slip-up was telling and technically correct. In fact, the Supreme Court decision supporting those internment camps, Korematsu v. United States, is still on the books, while an invasive, Bush-era screening program for Muslim immigrants operated until 2011 (well into Obama’s first term) and was never declared unconstitutional.
These are the sorts of dangerous precedents that could be used to justify the religion-based registry Trump has suggested. It’s rare government willingly cedes the power it gains.