INSIDE THE BELTWAY: Call a dog’s tail a leg, and how many legs will he have? Now guess how many pols aren’t sure

If there is a single mantra that should be memorized and repeated internally by every Washington PR practitioner, it should be the great maxim of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the modern scientific study of semantics. ’Words,’ Korzybski said, ’are not things.’

If there is a single mantra that should be memorized and repeated internally by every Washington PR practitioner, it should be the great maxim of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the modern scientific study of semantics. ’Words,’ Korzybski said, ’are not things.’

If there is a single mantra that should be memorized and repeated

internally by every Washington PR practitioner, it should be the great

maxim of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the modern scientific study of

semantics. ’Words,’ Korzybski said, ’are not things.’



It is a powerful statement, and one wishes it were better understood

these days, not just by PR-minded lobbyists, but by columnists,

speechwriters, senators - just about the whole political

establishment.



Korzybski could have educated some of the senators who took up a great

amount of time debating - once again - the American Legion-backed

proposal to amend the Constitution so as to make it a crime to

’desecrate’ the American flag.



It took two stalwart conservatives, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and

Charles Robb of Virginia, to set them straight. Byrd talked about the

sanctity of the Constitution’s First Amendment, but it was Robb -

fighting a right-wing ex-governor in a tough re-election contest - who

was the real profile in courage. A Vietnam veteran, Robb spoke

eloquently about the difference between words and symbols like flags and

flag burning, and real things, like liberty, free speech and even dying

in war for those things. Robb and Byrd prevailed, once again.



Author Frances Fitzgerald, whose Fire in the Lake helped expose the

folly of the Vietnam War nearly 30 years ago, gives support to

Korzybski’s maxim in her current book, Way Out There in the Blue. It’s a

devastating review of the efforts by military and defense industry

lobbyists to convince lawmakers to build a system of missiles that can

destroy incoming enemy warheads. It’s the ’Strategic Defense Initiative’

to its backers and ’Star Wars’ to those realists who understand it won’t

work - no matter how many billions of dollars are burned up.



You can call something a missile defense system, but as long as the

things described by those words don’t and can’t work, they’re still just

words.



Abraham Lincoln pre-figured Korzybski when his cabinet debated an early

Emancipation Proclamation before there was anything in place to enforce

it. ’If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs will he have?’ he

asked, and back came the answer: five. ’Wrong,’ said Lincoln, ’he’ll

have four, because calling his tail a leg won’t make it a leg.’



So keep your eye on the campaign finance reform debate. George W. Bush

and George Will both want you to believe that campaign dollars are

speech, but if we know anything, we should know that words are not

things - or vice versa.



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