Your federal family

The term of choice for “government” at FEMA:  your “federal family.”

Don’t think of it as the federal government but as your “federal family.”

In a Category 4 torrent of official communications during the approach and aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has repeatedly used the phrase “federal family” when describing the Obama administration’s response to the storm.

The Obama administration didn’t invent the phrase but has taken it to new heights.

“Under the direction of President Obama and Secretary Janet Napolitano, the entire federal family is leaning forward to support our state, tribal and territorial partners along the East Coast,” a FEMA news release declared Friday as Irene churned toward landfall.

The G-word — “government” — has been nearly banished, with FEMA instead referring to federal, state and local “partners” as well as “offices” and “personnel.”

“’Government’ is such a dirty word right now,” says Florida State University communication professor Davis Houck. “Part of what the federal government does and any elected official does is change the terms of the language game into terms that are favorable to them.”

“Family” can evoke favorable thoughts of motherhood and security. But it can also conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime.

The phrase “federal family” has been used in connection with FEMA at least as far back as 1999.

Under President George W. Bush, FEMA officials sprinkled the alliterative euphemism into congressional testimony and statements. When former FEMA Director Michael Brown promised help to hurricane-battered Floridians in 2004, he vowed that “the federal family is dedicated to staying for as long as it takes.”

During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore responded to 1999 flooding in Iowa by pledging that “the federal family is committed to providing the necessary resources to comfort every person and family devastated by this disaster and to help them return to their normal way of living as fast as possible.”

A Google search shows the phrase appearing 10 times on FEMA’s website during the Bush years. Since Obama took office, “federal family” has turned up 118 times on fema.gov, including 50 Irene-related references.

Among them: statements that the Obama administration “is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear” for storm assistance and that “the entire federal family continues to lean forward to support the states in their ongoing response efforts.”

via FEMA’S use of term ‘federal family’ for government expands under Obama.

This would be a good time to read or re-read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    This is guaranteed to backfire. Most everyone who grows up (whether they actually mature or not) wants to move away from their family, and establish their independence. Not that they ever mind getting help from their family when they need it. So long as a certain sense of distance is maintained.

  • Tom Hering

    This is guaranteed to backfire. Most everyone who grows up (whether they actually mature or not) wants to move away from their family, and establish their independence. Not that they ever mind getting help from their family when they need it. So long as a certain sense of distance is maintained.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    A brother is part of the family.

    A Big Brother is part of the Federal Family.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    A brother is part of the family.

    A Big Brother is part of the Federal Family.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Um, might want to rewrite your lede there, Dr. Veith:

    The term of choice for “government” at FEMA: “your federal family.”

    Every single example quoted in that article uses the definite article in front of “federal family”, and not a single one uses the second-person possessive pronoun. (But hey, Google it for yourself. There are 116 instances of “the federal family” on FEMA.gov, and 0 instances of “your federal family”.)

    I’m almost certain I’ll be accused of merely nitpicking, but I think the difference is significant. The government is not employing this phrase to buddy up to us citizens, or to insinuate themselves in our flesh-and-blood families. They are referring to the many different organizations that all fall under the government umbrella.

    Yes, sure, there is likely some word play going on, trying to pick phrases that focus-group well and don’t have the negative connotations that the Right Wing has been stirring up for a few decades.

    Still, I think there’s some cheap — and disingenuous — analysis going on here:

    “Family” can evoke favorable thoughts of motherhood and security. But it can also conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime.

    Right. Except that “family” is commonly used to denote a collection of related but distinct things. Google again provides an illustration:
    * The SPAM® family of products
    * The MimioClassroom Family of Products
    * The Adobe Acrobat family of products
    * The PV-WAVE Family of Products
    * The DISCIPLE Family of Products
    * The Restylane® family of products
    …And so on.

    The only reason anyone’s getting any mileage out of this language change is solely because it’s the government doing it. When people in my company refer to the corporate “family” (including all the various subsidiary companies), or to our “sister company”, it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It doesn’t “conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime”.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Um, might want to rewrite your lede there, Dr. Veith:

    The term of choice for “government” at FEMA: “your federal family.”

    Every single example quoted in that article uses the definite article in front of “federal family”, and not a single one uses the second-person possessive pronoun. (But hey, Google it for yourself. There are 116 instances of “the federal family” on FEMA.gov, and 0 instances of “your federal family”.)

    I’m almost certain I’ll be accused of merely nitpicking, but I think the difference is significant. The government is not employing this phrase to buddy up to us citizens, or to insinuate themselves in our flesh-and-blood families. They are referring to the many different organizations that all fall under the government umbrella.

    Yes, sure, there is likely some word play going on, trying to pick phrases that focus-group well and don’t have the negative connotations that the Right Wing has been stirring up for a few decades.

    Still, I think there’s some cheap — and disingenuous — analysis going on here:

    “Family” can evoke favorable thoughts of motherhood and security. But it can also conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime.

    Right. Except that “family” is commonly used to denote a collection of related but distinct things. Google again provides an illustration:
    * The SPAM® family of products
    * The MimioClassroom Family of Products
    * The Adobe Acrobat family of products
    * The PV-WAVE Family of Products
    * The DISCIPLE Family of Products
    * The Restylane® family of products
    …And so on.

    The only reason anyone’s getting any mileage out of this language change is solely because it’s the government doing it. When people in my company refer to the corporate “family” (including all the various subsidiary companies), or to our “sister company”, it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It doesn’t “conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime”.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    OK, tODD, I fixed the lead by moving the quotation mark. So you don’t see “federal family” as a euphemism? FEMA is using it to refer to themselves, as far as I can tell, not to the vast family of federal agencies. The examples you give from the corporate world have a specific structure: The _____ family of _______. I could see Congress referring to the FEMA family of disaster agencies. That does not call FEMA “a family” or “the family” as this usage does. If a corporation referred to itself as a family in this unctuous way–”the Spam family will take care of your nutritional needs”–I would find that equally euphemistic and ludicrous.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    OK, tODD, I fixed the lead by moving the quotation mark. So you don’t see “federal family” as a euphemism? FEMA is using it to refer to themselves, as far as I can tell, not to the vast family of federal agencies. The examples you give from the corporate world have a specific structure: The _____ family of _______. I could see Congress referring to the FEMA family of disaster agencies. That does not call FEMA “a family” or “the family” as this usage does. If a corporation referred to itself as a family in this unctuous way–”the Spam family will take care of your nutritional needs”–I would find that equally euphemistic and ludicrous.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Veith said (@4):

    FEMA is using [“federal family”] to refer to themselves, as far as I can tell, not to the vast family of federal agencies.

    Sigh. Yes, that’s an Al-Gore-circa-2000-esque sigh.

    You know, I get knocked a lot by people here (like Bror) for making my points using simple Google research, but typically my point in referencing a Google search is that, while it by no means constitutes actual research, even that cursory level of looking into things appears to trump the completely unsupported accusations I’m countering. So it is here.

    Did you actually look on FEMA.gov? Because I did. And here’s what I found:

    The administration, coordinated through FEMA, is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear to support the states and territories that have already been affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene … The President convened a video teleconference in the White House Situation Room regarding the impact of Hurricane Irene. Vice President Biden, Chief of Staff Daley, DHS Secretary Napolitano, Treasury Secretary Geithner, Transportation Secretary LaHood, Energy Secretary Chu, FEMA Administrator Fugate, Homeland Security Advisor Brennan and other senior White House officials participated in the call.[1]

    The administration, through FEMA, is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear to support Missouri and the other states devastated by the deadly tornadoes that occurred over the weekend and into this week. … Tuesday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano called Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to express her condolences on behalf of the federal family and to offer support for the communities affected by Tuesday night’s deadly tornadoes. At the President’s direction, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate remains in Joplin, Missouri, today to ensure that the state has all the support it needs. Today, the President sent a group of administration officials, including from his White House National Security Staff, DHS, HHS, HUD, SBA and Commerce/NOAA to the ground in Joplin to meet with state and local officials and tour the damages.[2]

    Need I go on?

    [1]fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=57478
    [2]fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=55402

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Veith said (@4):

    FEMA is using [“federal family”] to refer to themselves, as far as I can tell, not to the vast family of federal agencies.

    Sigh. Yes, that’s an Al-Gore-circa-2000-esque sigh.

    You know, I get knocked a lot by people here (like Bror) for making my points using simple Google research, but typically my point in referencing a Google search is that, while it by no means constitutes actual research, even that cursory level of looking into things appears to trump the completely unsupported accusations I’m countering. So it is here.

    Did you actually look on FEMA.gov? Because I did. And here’s what I found:

    The administration, coordinated through FEMA, is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear to support the states and territories that have already been affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene … The President convened a video teleconference in the White House Situation Room regarding the impact of Hurricane Irene. Vice President Biden, Chief of Staff Daley, DHS Secretary Napolitano, Treasury Secretary Geithner, Transportation Secretary LaHood, Energy Secretary Chu, FEMA Administrator Fugate, Homeland Security Advisor Brennan and other senior White House officials participated in the call.[1]

    The administration, through FEMA, is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear to support Missouri and the other states devastated by the deadly tornadoes that occurred over the weekend and into this week. … Tuesday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano called Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to express her condolences on behalf of the federal family and to offer support for the communities affected by Tuesday night’s deadly tornadoes. At the President’s direction, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate remains in Joplin, Missouri, today to ensure that the state has all the support it needs. Today, the President sent a group of administration officials, including from his White House National Security Staff, DHS, HHS, HUD, SBA and Commerce/NOAA to the ground in Joplin to meet with state and local officials and tour the damages.[2]

    Need I go on?

    [1]fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=57478
    [2]fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=55402

  • Pingback: Obama Administration Wants Government to Be Your ‘Federal Family’ » Kallsign Snoopys Doghouse

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