To intentionally obfuscate an issue is to do something that makes it nearly impossible for someone to see the point clearly. It is to insert fogginess into something that should be quite clear. It is a malicious act to confuse and bewilder someone.
Obfuscation is a word which comes from “late Latin,” that segment of the Latin language that became more of an intellectual language than a spoken language. Merriam-Webster says of it:” Late Latin obfuscatus, past participle of obfuscare, from Latin ob- in the way + fuscus dark brown.” It intrigues me that the reference is to that which is “brown.” I would have expected “black”, but the intention is, obviously, that what is being obfuscated is foggy, but not totally hidden. Kind of like a “brown out” is a diminishing of power, not a total loss of power. Interesting.
Obfuscation can take many forms. But the one I want to focus upon today is verbal obfuscation, specifically what Paul Krugman called “crude obfuscation.” In his New York Times column this week, Krugman makes the point that some people are intentionally passing out the information that the poor among us are doing better. In fact, says Krugman, some say that the financial situations of the poor in America are “improving at a reasonable rate.”
In order to make this claim, Krugman points out that those writing these outrageous articles intentionally use nominal numbers in a way that makes them sound like they are real values. They are not corrected for inflation. One of the articles he quotes indicated that the income level for the bottom 1/5 of the nation have increased by 186% since 1979. Therefore, it leads the reader to believe that things are going along just swimmingly for the poverty-stricken people in our nation. What a joke. Take a walk through an urban community in which most of the residents are unemployed or minimally employed, or drive out to a rural community where nobody is employed and the people are just barely surviving on community assistance, reduced value food stamps and church food pantries. Those numbers include little children and many, many elderly folk.
Such crude obfuscations, to use Krugman’s words, are journalism at its worst. The intentional use of known-to-be incorrect figures is not only professionally misleading…it is immoral and downright disgusting. The result of such inappropriate reporting is the confusion of the populace, and that is not what journalism is all about. Someplace in there, the word truth is supposed to have relevance.
Intentional obfuscation is what parents do with they talk about storks delivering babies and Santa Claus coming down the non-existent chimney. (We used to hang our stockings over a furnace grate, absolutely convinced that it was the same thing as a chimney. And Santa got there by ….?)
It is what clergy do when they ignore biblical scholarship and continue to teach congregants that Moses came down from the mountain bearing actual slates of stone with words written on them by God, or that there was a real boat with two of every animal in existence on it which Noah steered through the floods. (What about the two black ants that were housed in the same place as the two anteaters?)
It is what attorneys do with they convince a client that he should take a settlement (assuring a payment to the attorney) when she knows very well that he has a solid case that could end up favorably with a little work.
But the crude obfuscation that Krugman identifies in his column is far more demonic. It is intended to mislead people into support for action which undermines the capabilities of poor people to survive. For children of poor people to fail to thrive. For legislators to avoid or reject legislation to improve the well-being of poor people and divert their funding capabilities to those who already know what it feels like to be comfortable, and for whom hunger may mean missing a pre-dinner appetizer.
Photo Credit: Raekwon