It seems to me that our American version of the English language is robust and resilient, that is, full of meaningful expressions and hardy enough to withstand changes in society. We find that expressions or words sometimes go kinda dormant for a while and then resurface.
That’s what I have observed recently with a word once familiar in the everyday lives of most folks in this country but which faded in usage and is now making a comeback. The word is “whitewash” which may be used as either a noun, that is, the name of the substance known as “whitewash”, or as a verb, meaning the action of applying whitewash.
Whitewash is a low-cost type of paint made from slaked lime and chalk (sometimes known as “whiting”) with various other additives sometimes being used. It provides a pleasing pure white covering for wood, brick, and other materials to help camouflage otherwise unappealing surfaces. Usually applied to exteriors, it has been also traditionally been used for interiors in food preparation areas, particularly rural dairies, for its mildly antibacterial properties. Today, whitewash is still applied to trees to prevent sun scald and other conditions with only the lower trunk is being painted – and there are various other uses.
Those of us who recall the days before indoor plumbing remember how the “outhouse” – the “little house behind the big house” – was often painted inside and out with whitewash. And who can forget Mark Twain’s delightful account of Tom Sawyer’s adventure whitewashing the fence. (Those who are unfamiliar with this insightful observation of human nature may wish to Google it.)
A successful whitewash job consists of two equally important stages. The first is preparing the whitewash. If it’s too thin the resultant coating will not give the desired coverage and may actually enhance the flaws or ugly features it’s supposed to cover up. If it’s too thick it’ll likely result in clots or lumps that will peel off thus revealing areas it was intended to disguise.
Proper application is the second key element of an acceptable whitewash job. Sloppy or hurried performances give uneven coverage – laying it on too thick in some areas while giving others the proverbial “lick and a promise” won’t do the job. Yep, careful application of well prepared whitewash is the way to go.
Okay, all this may be of some mild interest, but so what? Where’s the resurgence of “whitewash”? Well, Webster’s gives other definitions of the word. As a verb: “to gloss over or conceal faults or defects of; to give a favorable interpretation or a falsely virtuous appearance of”; and as a noun, “a planned effort to hide a dishonest, immoral, or illegal act or situation”. It’s these usages that are reappearing in describing what’s been going on in Washington.
Does anyone recall the poorly conceived and sloppy attempt to “whitewash” the Benghazi murders of a U S ambassador and other U S citizens? Facts were concealed or glossed over to give an interpretation to the events that was favorable to the administration’s position on Islamic terrorism, but the “whitewash” was so thin the cover up was unsuccessful.
Another example is the “whitewashing” of “careless mishandling” of e-mails by a US cabinet member and others. As one of my college professors used to say, it was “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer” that these actions would have resulted in criminal charges being levied against me or you. However, the director of the FBI chose “to give a false, virtuous appearance” to these activities if not “a planned effort to hide dishonest, immoral or illegal acts.” Even “the most casual observer” could see through this poorly applied whitewash.
A more recent case is that of how the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) carefully prepared and skillfully applied an effective coat of “whitewash” to the questionable activities of DOJ and FBI investigators and lawyers in the e-mail case. His report glossed over faults or defects and gave a favorable interpretation to “wrongdoing” and perhaps to dishonest or immoral acts by carefully parsing legal definitions. Yep, the subjects of his investigation and their actions were whitewashed as thoroughly as Tom Sawyer’s fence.
Well, this whitewashing is neither news nor unexpected. We anticipate more of the same resulting from inquiries into questionable activities by those investigating the President, his family, and colleagues. If you think the IG report was a slick whitewash of the DOJ and FBI, just wait. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]