The Age of the Wordfact

No politician or statesman ever makes a mistake any more, no matter how completely his plan may he reversed in the event. This circumstance leads JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, Harvard econom ist, to bring forth a new term, the “wordfact.”"It means,”he explains, “that to say that something exists is a substitute for its existence. And to say that something trill happen is as good as haring it happen.”Mr. Galbraith is the author of THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY and THE LIBERAL HOUR.

AFTER the loss of New York and Long Island to Howe in 1776, General Washington made no effort to picture this misfortune as an important gain for the Continental army. Lincoln was similarly remiss after the debacle at First Manassas. In 1919 Wilson succeeded in persuading a clear majority of the Senate to vote in favor of the Covenant of the League of Nations, although not the necessary two thirds majority. Nothing whatever was made of this moral victory.

Things are different today. In June of 1960 President Eisenhower returned from a trip to the Pacific which would seem, superficially, to have been an unparalleled disaster of its kind. Japan, which was the principal object of his tour, had been beset by violent riots over the visit, and in the end it had been forced to urge him not to come. With the aid of his press secretary, however. the President was able to report on his return that the trip had been a success. A small number of Communists, acting under outside orders, had made things a trifle sour in Japan. But that was because they knew how powerful was the impression Mr. Eisenhower made on his trips to other lands, and they determined, as a result, that no such impression would be made on Japan. This was not the first time this kind of thing had happened. Two years earlier, Communists in South America had been forced to take similar preventive action because of the overwhelming appeal of Mr, Nixon to the Latin populace.

Some will perhaps conclude from this comparison that Mr. Eisenhower (and also Mr. Nixon and Mr. Hagerty) has a deeper and more perceptive insight into the ultimate meaning of events than did Washington, Lincoln, or Wilson. After all, the battles of Long Island, of Bull Run, and over the League all occurred in wars that were eventually won. Such a conclusion would be wrong. The earlier Presidents operated, in fact, without the help and support of one of the most important modern instruments of public administration. Just possibly they would not have used it, but the issue is academic, for it had not been invented. I refer to the institution of the “wordfact.”

The wordfact makes words a precise substitute for reality. This is an enormous convenience. It means that to say that something exists is a substitute for its existence. And to say that something will happen is as good as having it happen. The saving in energy is nearly total.

There is a distinct possibility that the inventor of the wordfact was an editor or a newspaperman. But whatever its origins, it has come to have present-day importance less in journalism than in government. A press that fully accepts the institution is essential to its employment, but one of the principal functions of the modern public leader is to find the language which adequately improves the reality. Where once it was said of a statesman that he suited action to the words, now he suits the words to the action. If past action (or inaction) has failed to produce the desired result, then, by resort to wordfact, he quickly establishes that the undesired result was more desirable than the desired result.

Lest any of this seem farfetched or complicated, let us remind ourselves of some of the achievements of wordfact in these last years. We agree, of course, that any manifestation of anti-American sentiment abroad is the work of a misguided minority. And until last summer there was no misunderstanding that could not be cured, no resentment that could not be alleviated, no fear that could not be dissipated by a smiling visit of two days to the capital of the country. It would then be stated with appropriate solemnity that the visit was a success; the papers would report that it was a great success; the problems then were presumably gone. Perhaps never before in history had diplomacy become so simple.

But not even traveling has always been necessary. By a bold use of wordfact, we were long able to convert South American dictators into bulwarks of the free world, although on occasion it was thought necessary to drive home the point by decorating them. The recent rise of military regimes in Asia is not a setback for democracy. Rather, it reflects the natural and inevitable difficulty in these countries of basing government on the consent of the governed.

Here at home it is no longer easy to think of unemployment as a misfortune. It reflects the introduction of needed and desirable slack in the system. No properly run economy can be without it. The drastic decline in farm income in recent years has become a manifestation of the vitality of the market system. Though farmers have been leaving their farms at an unprecedented rate, the forces making for this migration have been favorably described by the Secretary of Agriculture in a book with the agreeable title Freedom to Farm. Bad television programs were strongly defended early this year by the Federal Communications Commission as a precious manifestation of the freedom of speech. The networks found this a more than satisfactory substitute lor any improvement in their programs. They are said, as a result, to be coming up with autumn offerings of unparalleled banality and horror. One hopes that some Sunday afternoon they will have a statesmanlike salute to the principal modern architects of the wordfact.

However, as an indication of what can be done by skillful deployment of the wordfact, with the aid of an acquiescent press, it is unlikely that any recent event matches that of the ill-fated U-2. Until Francis Powers made his unpremeditated landing, the sending of military or paramilitary aircraft by one country over another without the permission of the latter would have been considered a somewhat provocative act. (Even now the appearance of such planes over the United States would not be regarded with any real warmth and enthusiasm.) To have an aircraft shot down in the course of such an excursion into another country would have been regarded as a serious misfortune from which little comfort or reward of any kind could possibly be gleaned.

Yet in the days immediately following the last flight of the U-2, by the massive use of wordfact all of the relevant circumstances were changed. Flying planes over other countries became a kind of fifth freedom, to be justified, not without sanctimony, by the secrecy of the other country. The information gained justified the danger incurred and the mistrust aroused among our friends. Indeed, the flights would have to continue. The loss of the plane had proved, as nothing else, the weakness of the opposing defenses. The flights were then suspended, and this became an act of wise restraint. At this stage, the information being gathered ceased to be important as compared with the clanger involved and the discomfort and mistrust created among our allies.

SUCH is the service of wordfact in transforming misfortune into fortune. But it has at least an equal value in transforming inaction into action. Thus, for a year and half now, a cabinet committee headed by Vice President Nixon has been dealing with the problem of inflation. This it has done all but exclusively by denouncing it, and so great has been the fury of its denunciation that it has not deemed it necessary to propose any concrete remedies of importance. In recent years, medical care for the aged has become a major political issue. As this is written, both parties in Congress are endeavoring to make a record on the issue. Records are made not by enacting legislation but by indicating an all but uncontrollable desire to enact legislation. Yet there is a difference, which is recognizable to those who are old and ill and faced with a terrible medical bill. Strong statements in favor of school integration and voting rights for Negroes are a widely accepted substitute for progress, and much less complicated in practice. To most congressional and campaign strategists, it would be considered little short of eccentric to inquire what might be accomplished. The important thing is to find the form of words that will satisfy, and if possible inspire, the Negro voters. One imagines, incidentally, that the invasion of the lunch counters by Negro students is related to the discovery that much of the civil rights discussion is purely inspirational.

On occasion, as when Republicans opposed slavery and Democrats favored alcohol, political platforms in the past have been a guide to ensuing action. But these, too, have been taken over by wordfact. In those hammered out this summer at Los Angeles and Chicago, little thought was given to whether the good things mentioned in them could or would be done. It would have been a jarring note had anyone on either platform committee asked: “Are we sure we can keep this promise?” (It was a jarring note at Los Angeles when Paul Ziffren, the California Democratic national committeeman, said that it was less important to write platforms than to get them enacted.) In the case of the platforms, the people appear to be fully aware of the use of wordfact. As a result, they pay them only the most perfunctory attention. It is unfortunate, but words have value only if they have some nexus, however tenuous, with action.

This truth is well illustrated on a global and tragic basis by the discussion of disarmament. Here it is all but taken for granted that no one means what he says, that proposals are made for their effect on public opinion and not on the arms race. And, as a result, people have ceased to pay any attention to the proposals. Civilized survival may in this instance depend on our ability to redeem this problem from the practitioners of wordfact.

BUT the redemption had better be general. To some extent, of course, it is automatic. It cannot be supposed that the vast verbal fallout of recent years is intrinsically attractive. It is certain to breed a reaction. Convention viewers doubtless saw the beginning of such a reaction this year in the massive inattention that was accorded these wordy proceedings. One sees it also in the tendency to assume, when the government explains that all is well, that something must be wrong.

In part, the control of wordfact requires only that our leaders be slightly more sensible in their approach to the American people. It would be to their own interest. When President Eisenhower described his trip to the vicinity of Japan as a success, he was fooling no one capable of consecutive thought. He did risk giving the impression that he was susceptible to such nonsensical conclusions. And certainly he revealed an unflattering attitude toward the gullibility of the American people.

This, to some xtent, was their — or our — fault. We have come to suffer nonsense gladly, and pompous nonsense far too gladly. Elaborate rationalizations of failure should not be met by bored silence or even by a fishy stare. They should be greeted by loud and vulgar laughter, followed immediately by equally uncouth speeches and letters and, if nothing else is possible, by scribbling on walls. All who proclaim good intentions should be immediately asked for their program as to performance. Speeches of candidates for public office this autumn should be scrupulously clipped and saved — and sent to them at intervals over the next couple of years with a request for a progress report. Four years from now, when the parties meet to write their programs, a large number of articulate citizens must be on hand to inquire what in hell happened to the pious promises of 1960. They should have this year’s copies in hand.

Perhaps, having organizations for almost everything else, we should have an organization for enforcing election promises and for fingering the man who imagines that he can make his record with words. At a minimum, however, we must reconstruct our hierarchy of political delinquency. The most serious delinquent, the man now to be marked for extinction even before the Florida free-loader, is the man of any political faith or persuasion whose talk shows any sign of being unmatched by intention. The windy liberal should go, along with the windy conservative, and, as a liberal, I devoutly hope that he will go first. And while dealing kindly with all who confess honest error, we should make a special bipartisan onslaught on any man who defends his mistakes by saying that the unintended was better than the intended and that it was really planned all along.