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A Turn of Phrase

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Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” He was correct, of course. Language is the currency of ideas and ideas are the fuel of progress. That is why imprecise or inaccurate or intentionally misleading language is so dangerous. It turns an instrument of illumination into an instrument of subtle partisan persuasion.

We live in an environment where newspapers are receding into the news background, television makes no distinction between what we used to call “hard news” and “commentary,” and those who pay attention to the news at all get their information from comedians. In a recent online poll by Time Magazine, respondents named The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart as the most trusted newscaster since Walter Cronkite.

In this unfortunate yet very real climate, language becomes an even more potent weapon. In that context I read an article that few Americans will notice and I was distressed (but not surprised) at the intentional choice of language in a supporting quote. 

The California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation. Their website says that their mission is “to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians.”

Given their mission, it is understandable that the group has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the brief, they argue their belief that the minimum coverage clause in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is constitutional.

Kathleen Sullivan, an attorney for the endowment, is quoted as saying, “The court should grant review and reaffirm Congress’ authority to ensure that its regulation of the interstate health market is effective.”

Since the law has been passed, Ms. Sullivan’s language is technically accurate, though troubling in the larger sense. The question we need to continue to assert is whether or not Congress had the right to make a market, not whether or not they have the right to “regulate” a market. Lightning bugs are fun to watch; lightning is destructive.