“Like a fence, character cannot be strengthened by whitewash.” — American proverb.
Whitewashing turns up in much of the Ottawa news these days. The verb, to whitewash, is liberally applied to the prime minister, the Senate, various committees, many Conservative spokesmen, and nearly everyone who knew or might have known Nigel Wright.
Here are examples of this word as used on May 22:
• Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau, called on Stephen Harper to, “Tell us who gave the order to whitewash the Senate’s report on Mike Duffy.”
• Liberal MP, Marc Garneau, said, “The Senate internal committee whitewashed (the Duffy/Wright transaction).”
Marjory Le Breton, Government Senate Leader, disagreed and insisted, “It was not a whitewash.”
Rosemary Barton of the CBC said, “There are allegations the PMO may have been involved in the whitewash.”
Liberal Senator James Cowan, Senate Opposition Leader, alleged that Senator Duffy’s falsely claimed expenses were “whitewashed.”
And those are just the mentions I wrote down.
OED’s second meaning for the colloquial verb, to whitewash, is defined as: “To give a fair appearance to; to cover up, conceal, or gloss over faults.” This meaning has been known since 1762.
American Slang’s definition is even clearer: “To make something unsavory, damaging, etc., seem legitimate and acceptable, usually by falsification or concealment; to decontaminate someone’s actions or reputation.”
American Idioms goes further yet, saying, “A soothing official report that attempts to tranquilize the public.”
To whitewash has another colloquial meaning — “to skunk.” That is, when one sports team scores all the points in a game, the winners are said to have whitewashed the losers. This U.S. slang has been around since 1851.
The fence mentioned in the proverb that heads this column is a reference to Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876. In that book, Tom is supposed to whitewash a fence, but manages to con his friends into doing it for him.
Tom’s whitewash was a real substance, not a metaphor. It was a type of liquid plaster known for hundreds of years consisting of lime and water. It is still a way of concealing faults and ugliness.
Ironically, Twain’s own work has been the subject of whitewashing. Because Mark Twain (1835-1910) used the language of his time, specifically the N-word for “Negro,” some people have viewed his work as racist and/or derogatory. Tom Sawyer, along with the companion book, Huckleberry Finn, are among the most banned books in the U.S. and so the books have been rewritten with “slave” replacing the objectionable word.
Such language-cleansing has been labeled “politically correct whitewashing,” since Twain never used the forbidden word as an insult. He simply wrote in the language of his day.
The correct term for such whitewashing is bowdlerization. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) decided to clean up Shakespeare’s language by removing everything he deemed unfit for the delicate sensibilities of 19th-century women and children. Today, to bowdlerize means “to censor literature.”
Let’s return to Canada’s Senate and ask ourselves if government efforts to whitewash unsavory behaviour will be effective.
I think not. I believe such actions only make matters worse.