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     Volume 4 Issue 57 |August 5 , 2005 |

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Food For Thought

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Farah Ghuznavi

The growing use of euphemisms as accepted conversational currency is getting increasingly out of control. Terms such as the ubiquitous "collateral damage" are adopted, in order to use sanitised terminology to disguise ugly truths. There seems little doubt that straight-talking contrary to President Bush's claims, is becoming increasingly unfashionable.

There are, of course, degrees and extents of obfuscation involved. At least with terms like "creative accounting", you have the option of using more honest terminology i.e. "tax avoidance/evasion". But the number of terms currently in use which are simply weasel-words to describe negative or embarrassing actions is mind-boggling! Some are even made up for a specific occasion e.g. "wardrobe-malfunction" to describe Janet Jackson's public flashing of her bejewelled breast, which led to such shock (if not awe) across the US. Apart from anything else it was clearly no "malfunction", but a rather tacky publicity stunt…

Among such linguistic innovations, a particularly obnoxious one is "friendly fire", which risks trivialising quite a serious matter. "Avoidable disaster" would be far more accurate. And if one were bent on retaining the alliterative aspect, "serious screw-up" would be more appropriate than "friendly fire"!

The Italian public clearly thinks so, since they are finally refusing to take this "phenomenon" lying down (unlike the British and the Canadians, in the past).

There has been a furore in Italy after the Italian Secret Service agent Nicola Calipari, was shot dead by US soldiers at a checkpoint. Calipari was killed while travelling with the Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, whose release he had negotiated from hostage-takers in Iraq.

The Italian PM told Parliament that while he disagreed with some of the US military's conclusions about the shooting - they admitted no wrongdoing - it would not affect his friendship with Washington or the deployment of Italian troops in Iraq, because "Our friendship with the United States has overcome more difficult tests than this one"! I cannot help wondering if Nicola Calipari's family would agree…

Such military shenanigans aside, the principle behind "friendly fire" appears to be emerging elsewhere and reaching new heights. It was recently revealed that the College of American Pathologists in the US (which routinely sends virus samples to labs around the world so that they can test their ability to identify different strains of diseases correctly) mistakenly sent out samples of the deadly Asian flu virus as part of its testing kits, to more than 3700 laboratories around the world. The mistake was discovered by a Canadian laboratory, which raised the alarm, and damage control measures have since been undertaken, but it is unimpressive - to say the least - that the mistake could have been made on such a scale. One can only hope that those responsible will be sufficiently chastised to ensure that this variation does not occur as frequently as "friendly fire"…!

Nowhere is the use of weasel-words more evident than in the corporate sector, where playing with words has become an art form. I should make it clear at the outset that I'm not referring to businesses that genuinely retain high standards in their treatment of their workers, their customers and the environment. There are a significant number of such organisations and they must be given credit for their efforts.

Nevertheless, although the idea of "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) is much talked about these days, there is also evidence to show - as the Economist magazine has noted - that many large corporations which trumpet their measures to support fair trade or combat child labour, nevertheless undermine CSR through unfair practices in other areas of their operations. It has therefore been suggested that corporate claims regarding CSR need to be carefully examined, rather than cursorily rubberstamped - particularly since many corporations get a great deal of mileage in public relations terms out of their "charitable" or "socially responsible" activities.

One area of corporate behaviour where there is relatively little room for debate about sordidness of practice is that of "lobbying". While not limited to corporate interests, this is one form of behaviour where powerful corporations have reaped rich dividends. If practised in any developing country, lobbying would be bluntly (and rightly) referred to as a form of corruption, namely bribery. And it becomes self-evident, when considering the methods taken by corporations to influence policy - for example, tobacco companies providing free trips and entertainment tickets to key politicians - that is what it should be called in the western world as well! Questions over Dick Cheney's links with Halliburton, and the endless string of scandals which have singularly failed to end the corruption and greed of such corporations, amply illustrates this unholy nexus of politicians and corporate interests.

Internal questioning isn't welcome either. A Japanese executive, who queried his firm's illegal dealings in 1974, was banished to a shed, given an empty desk and told to clean the car park! For the 31 years since then, that is what Hiroki Kushioka has done, save for one hour a day when his boss visited the shed he worked in. In a rare happy ending, he has deservedly won a £70,000 settlement.

With regard to influence-peddling, the US has a well-established system for corporate and other interest groups to lobby policymakers. The basic trade-off is simple, with "incentives" provided to politicians in order to secure the legislation desired, with exemptions, loopholes and financial breaks. The intermediaries between the two sides - namely the legislators who are in constant need of election funds and the business interests trying to influence them - are the lobbyists.

Access peddling has blossomed into a $4 billion industry, with 14,000 registered lobbyists and at least an equal number who are unregistered (The Independent). The money pours in not only from the US but from all around the world and in 1998-2004 foreign companies spent $620 million on gaining influence in Washington.

Nor do lobbyists always do the right thing even by their clients! A recent scandal in Washington concerned a Native American tribe in Mississippi, who have grown rich on the operations of casinos on their tribal lands. Deciding that they needed some allies in Washington to help protect their wealth from competitors, they chose to retain the services of Jack Abramoff, the so-called king of Washington lobbyists.

Over the next two years, the Native Americans paid Mr Abramoff and his colleague around $15 million for their services. But not only was $7 million of the money used to service the lobbyists' own financial interests (i.e. paying off debts etc), the scorn with which they viewed their clients was also made evident in a series of e-mails, referring to the Native Americans as, among other things, "troglodytes" and "monkeys"!

The massive fraud has also cast a dark cloud over the house majority leader, Mr. Tom DeLay, who is closely associated with Abramoff. Senator John McCain has described the entire affair as "a tale of betrayal", distinguished only by the lobbyists "insatiable greed" and their "utter contempt" for their clients. Perhaps it is time to reflect on the Bard's words and take comfort from the fact that whatever euphemism is used, garbage by any other name still has as foul a stench…


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