Monday, February 8, 2010

Strategies of Confusion: Duckspeak in Homeless World and the Mayor's Office effort to misinform

Duckspeak is a Newspeak term meaning literally to quack like a duck or to speak without thinking. Duckspeak can be either good or "ungood" (bad), depending on who is speaking, and whether what they are saying is in following with the ideals of Big Sister. To speak rubbish and lies may be ungood, but to speak rubbish and lies for the good of "The Party" may be good. In the appendix to 1984, Orwell explains:
Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak […]. Like various words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.1
A less literary term covering much the same ground as duckspeak is "thought-terminating cliché," which was used by Robert Jay Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

A thought-terminating cliché ― "safe ground" being the prime sedicious example in Homeless World Sacramento ― though valid in certain contexts, is applied as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic in a way that is thought-terminating.

Quoting Lifton, "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any analysis."

The term safe ground began as a term meaning a parcel of property where homeless people might safely, legally camp without fear of being harrassed or rousted by the police.  Meanings applied to the term have since expanded rapaciously.  Below are at least some of the meanings now given to the term safe ground [or, Safe Ground; or SafeGround] by the several ideologically-totalist nonprofit organizations in Homeless World:
  • A parcel of property where homeless people might safely, legally camp without fear of being harrassed or rousted by police.
  • The effort to bring about a safe, legal place for homeless people to camp. [Also known by the rarely-used (abandoned?) original name: Safe Ground Campaign.]
  • A national effort to cause a revolution in America that would end capitalism, cease technological progress, guarantee jobs for everybody (and, incidentally, create a safe, legal place for homeless people to camp. [Also known more expansively as the Safe Ground Movement ― which is associated with the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, formerly known at the Communist League.]
  • An illegal encampment, used as a focus of protest. [For example, the encampment that was on C Street, on property owned by Mark Merin.]
  • A utopian plan or vision of a legal campground or community of domes or sheds where homeless people might reside.  ["Eden" being an example, here.]
  • Formerly known as A Moveable Sleep, a program where homeless people camp at a variety of locations, moving every night to (possibly) not violate Sacramento County's strict anti-camping ordinance.
  • An organization of unknown organizational status and without declared administration or persons responsible for it. [See the Safe Ground website.]
  • "Protecting the rights of homeless people."  The presumptive assumption that all homeless people are indebted to safe ground and its benefactors for their well-being. This "claim" has donation-gathering [i.e., donor-swindling] "benefits."
  • Last-resort places where homeless people can get shelter on very cold or rainy nights, necessitated by the collapse of Winter shelter. [Delany Center and Trinity Cathedral being sites I'm aware of.]
  • Update 3/6/10:  According to the first line of the introduction to a 75-page report from the National Coalition for the Homeless: "The journalist Lisa Ling presented a special report for the Oprah Winfrey Show in March of 2009 focusing on Sacramento’s tent city along the American River, now known as Safe Ground."  Thus, Tent City is now known RETROACTIVELY as Safe Ground. Sheesh.  Before long, everything will be called Safe Ground, including cattle feces, chicken soup and hair pins.
At the mayor's office, it was determined that they would obscure the truth about homelessness in their Conference of Mayors Report.

This is what the report said [which you can find in "Hunger and Homelessness Survey, December 2009," on the page numbered 42 (or, on page 45 of the 100-page download)]:

Profile of Homelessness in Sacramento:

Sacramento reported a 31 percent decrease in the number of homeless individuals on a single night in January 2009 compared to January 2008. This decrease was attributed to the city’s success in increasing the number of permanent housing units available for chronically homeless single adults. However, Sacramento reported a 14 percent increase in homeless families during this same period. City officials attributed the increase to a combination of unemployment, foreclosures, and cuts in state funding for social services. One Sacramento shelter reported a 300-person waiting list for persons in families. The unmet need for shelter could increase in 2010 as budget issues have prompted the city to discontinue funding for emergency shelter. The housing crisis has also made it more difficult for the city to build additional permanent supportive housing units.

Sacramento was awarded approximately $6 million through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). The city will use this money to prevent homelessness among at-risk families and move families that are in homeless shelters into permanent housing. One bright spot in the housing crisis is that the number of vacant housing units is making it easier to find and lease rental units for homeless families.
The mayor's office, in the person of Andrea Corso, defends this misinformation that creates a complete misimpression about homelessness in Sacramento.

Ms. Corso emailed this sentiment defending the indefenseable:
The information submitted by Sacramento was the DHA Report on Street Count 2009. You are correct that the 31% decrease is for chronically homeless individuals--as indicated by the following sentence in the summary. We would be happy to see the word "chronically" also inserted in the first sentence.

The same report also reports a 14% increase in families who are homeless. The DHA street count definition does count those in transitional housing as homeless.
The TRUTH [which ought to be of some interest to Ms. Corso and our Harvard Divinity school-graduate mayor], is that the numbers of homeless individuals increased [though less than 5%], according to the 2009 Street Count stats the report referenced, and that the idea that Sacramento was ground zero of a Hooverville of families was a total lie, perpetuated by the Bee and other media - local, national and international - last spring. [See the SacHo blogpost "The Sacramento Homeless Emergency That Wasn't There."]

The not-funny thing is that last spring-fading-into-summer the mayor mostly wasted a million dollars extending last year's winter shelter into summer to (I thought) obliterate the Hooverville image of Sacramento to make our metropolis seem more appealing to business interests (and, thus, create jobs).

I wrote the mayor and the unfortunate Ms. Corso in response to the Corso email:
The point of any summary of data should be to reflect the circumstance the full data represents most accurately in order to best enlighten others. The point should decidedly not be one of playing with statistics to misinform.

Whereas it is understandable that there has been a focus to house the chronically homeless, the overall circumstance relating to homelessness in Sacramento did not improve in a significant way such that a 31% drop in a subset of the data should have been the lead detail of the mayor's summary.

The summary should have been written to provide a correct impression to readers -- who include experts on homelessness minutia and the lay public.

I believe that what happened comparing the situation on the street, 2009 vs 2008, assuming that the data is fairly accurate, is that homelessness increased slightly and that homelessness among families increased slightly but was significantly mitigated by an increase in transitional housing availability.
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1 From wikipedia's entry on Duckspeak on its page List of Newspeak words.

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