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Politi-speak: Who Needs Clarity?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I get paid to listen to people (mostly politicians) talk at length while saying as little as possible. They often hide behind mind-numbing words to obscure what they really mean. When I hear a politician promise "transparency," he or she most likely means it as much as Barack Obama meant that his vaunted "most transparent administration in history" would be forthcoming and accountable. When candidates talk up "comprehensive immigration reform," they don't want to reform immigration law; they want to gut immigration law. When pols talk about leadership, they're usually telling voters exactly what they want to hear.

At a recent editorial board meeting, San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz asked California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins what she meant by a good reform when she talked up plans to raise revenue to pay for state transportation infrastructure. She answered: "Constitutional protection of revenue" -- that is, preventing the governor or Legislature from raiding new money raised from gas taxes or other fees for other purposes. Later Atkins tweeted, "Hopeful we can set aside rigid ideology & consider serious proposals to provide new funding stream that benefits CA." Atkins had a mere 140 characters yet used "new funding stream" instead of new T-A-X-E-S.

I think that's one reason some voters like Donald Trump -- not that I am one of them. In a world of equivocation and politi-speak, Trump speaks American. He uses the word "tax." He says the Iran nuclear pact is the "dumbest." The Iraq War was "a big mistake." The way Obama pulled out of Iraq also was a mistake. There's no ambiguity.

Policy wonks throw around phrases, such as "public-private partnership," that mean nothing to voters. Trump has his own term -- "the deal."

Language evolves with the governing class. This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown, formerly known as Gov. Moonbeam, signed a bill to remove the word "alien" from the labor code. He's two years behind the Chronicle, which dispatched most uses of the term "alien" in 2013. The Chronicle's style guide directs staff to reference such immigrants as "living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission." Stories in many newspapers no longer distinguish between illegal and legal immigration.

Trump, by the way, could not work at the Chronicle. He calls those in the country illegally "illegals."

While Democrats and newspaper style conventions are scrubbing words such as "alien" from the immigration lexicon, universities are adding words for gender. Starting this fall, the University of California will have six gender categories. Application forms no longer will ask which gender you are but will ask how you define your gender. Possible answers: male, female, trans male, trans female, gender queer/gender nonconforming and different identity. Bruce Jenner becomes Caitlyn, and within months, there are four new gender boxes.

This shows how long I've lived in the Bay Area: My first thought was not, Why not just male or female? It was, Why not just have a third category -- say, "untraditional" or "it's complicated" or, better yet, "none of your business." And really, doesn't "gender queer" -- a catchall category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, according to Wikipedia -- cover "different identity"? Couldn't they at least have limited the choices to five?

"UC is working hard to ensure our campuses model inclusiveness and understanding," quoth UC President Janet Napolitano. "Inclusiveness" is the word institutions use when they will not indulge dissenting opinions. She added: "I'm proud of the work we've done so far, but it doesn't stop there. We must continue to look at where we can improve so everyone at UC feels respected and supported." "Everyone" means everyone who agrees with the new regime. That's "diversity."

Academia is even worse than politics. Last month, I watched a U.S. Senate hearing on campus rape. An Amherst College graduate named Dana Bolger caught my attention as she scolded: College "survivors of gender-based violence are still unable to access their right to education." What does "unable to access their right to education" even mean? Is there a right to not be raped in college but no right outside the university? And can you imagine a friend who was raped or molested telling you that she was a victim -- er, "survivor" -- of "gender-based violence"?

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