Monthly Archives: July 2012

Why Language Matters in An Election Year

There is never a time when what one says and how one says it matters more than in a crucial election year.

The words, and the slurs, candidates use reflect their attitudes, beliefs and values. They act as a barometer of their integrity, compassion, intellect and honesty. Perhaps more than that, words and suggestive sound bites shape how the electorate thinks and acts in the voting booth. There are loaded words, coded words, and so-called gaffes which tell us a lot about those who aspire to the most powerful position in the world. We must pay close attention to them.

It was ever thus. In a recent History News Service blog, author Rosemary Ostler pointed out that when Thomas Jefferson ran against President John Adams he was dubbed a “Franco-maniac” because he sympathized with the French Revolution. Anti-Jefferson newspapers predicted an American Reign of Terror if he were president. One editorial warned that “the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” A rumor even spread that, if elected, Jefferson planned to confiscate Bibles.

More recently FDR was labeled “the Soviet candidate” for his New Deal policies. (Today President Obama is frequently called a “socialist.”) John Kerry was accused of “looking French,” thus being insufficiently American. Now President Obama has been accused by former candidate Newt Gingrich of having a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” world view while others posit that he is promoting ideas “foreign” to American history, culture and values.

That word “foreign,” or the insinuation of it, keeps cropping up as the political rhetoric intensifies in the run-up to November. For example, former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff in the Bush ‘43 White House, John Sununu, said that the president needs to “learn how to be an American,” a strange admonition coming from someone born in Cuba of Spanish and Palestinian parents.

The allegations suggesting dangerous foreign ideas and infiltration have spread to others in the Obama Administration in an alarming reprise of McCarthy-ism. Rep. Michele Bachmann has gone so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s respected aide Huma Abedin of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the U.S. government.

These hostile, unfounded references to otherness – to being a dangerous outsider – have deeper meaning when one is in a heated battle with a likeable black incumbent. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante wrote in an essay entitled “Identifying Racist Language: Linguistic Acts and Signs,” the “contextualization of speech is itself a political act.” Dr. Asante, arguing that incipient racism is still prevalent in American culture, claims that “offensive speech is deliberate public or private language intended to ridicule, post a threat, or belittle a person” because of their cultural or racial origin and political belief. “Use of such language is usually intended to create discomfort in the persons to whom the language is directed.”

Dr. Asante’s 2003 essay seems prescient. “The offending speaker believes his own discourse because he or she has never explored the information in an objective manner. … This person sees reality from the standpoint of major distortions of reality. … The speaker is sure that his or her information…has something to do with intelligence and ability and morality and God.”

Aside from the ideation of otherness transmitted via loaded language that suggests being foreign and thus threatening, there is something else to be considered: What do words mean? When are they coded?

No one explained this idea better than social critic Noam Chomsky. In a 1986 interview captured in the 1992 book Stenographers to Power he said, by way of example, that the term “national interest” is used to connote something that’s good for us. “However,” Chomsky noted, “if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as what’s in the interest of the entire population; it’s what’s in the interests of small, dominant elites who command the resources that enable them to control the state. … The term “special interests,” he continued, is used…to refer to the general population.”

“This is [how] the framework of thought is consciously manipulated by an effective choice and reshaping of terminology so as to make it difficult to understand what’s happening,” Chomsky said. Understanding this point explains why during the Vietnam War the term “pacification” was used for mass murder, and why after World War II we no longer had a War Department but rather a Department of Defense. It’s why we refer to civilians killed in military operations as “collateral damage.”

The point is that when politicians tamper with the truth through distorted or evasive language, when they speak pejoratively about people with cultural backgrounds, skin colors and beliefs that differ from their own, when they omit information and create illusion in negative ads and stump speeches, when they insinuate that which is not true, we are all at risk of losing our common goals and aspirations.

That is why we must be vigilant against offensive, delusional speech that impedes the expression of ideas. No less than our democracy is at stake.

Never Again? What About Syria?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria. Until recently it seemed largely absent from the news beyond the occasional CNN crawler or obligatory New York Times piece on a Sunday. Now that it’s being framed as a civil war, which means it could go on for a long time, I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to be emotionally battered and sneaking around on the street begging to buy some bread.

I keep imagining a baby suckling the last remnants of life from the breast of its dead mother, or an old woman waiting for her husband who may never come home. What is it like, I wonder, to be tortured in a Syrian prison, or to be shot at close range along with everyone else in your community? What is the last thought that goes through your head when that is happening?

According to the United Nations, children are now being used as human shields while the atrocities of the Syrian regime continue. What is it like to be a father looking upon that? How does one contain the terrible terror beating in your chest when you tell your children to stay away from windows and doors, to try falling asleep in a mattressed corner? How do you say to them, “I can’t go to the store for milk, there is no more milk,” or kiss them with a fiercely whispered “I love you more than my own life”?

How maddening must it be to watch unarmed blue-bereted UN peacekeepers witness the violence day after day while their suited superiors in New York, safely sequestered in council chambers and plush offices overlooking the East River spout diplomatic inanities as the slaughter continues?

We must take “bold steps” former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now special envoy to the region has said. Recently, expressing “grave concern” at escalations, Mr. Annan demanded that both sides “take all steps to ensure that civilians are not harmed.” How ridiculous such proclamations must sound falling on Syrian ears full with the shattering sounds of mortar attacks.

Recent press reports from abroad, where the crisis has been covered more vigorously than in the U.S., state that Annan has admitted his plan to end the conflict failed. He wants the U.N. and the international community at large to increase pressure on Syria to ensure its implementation, an unlikely scenario, or to discuss other options that could be undertaken to stop the bloodshed.

But it’s clear that diplomatic efforts are ineffective. U.N. observers have come under fire during massacres and have been refused access to the sites they are meant to examine. Current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that U.N. patrols have been regularly obstructed and deliberately targeted. Annan has threatened further “consequences,” meaning more sanctions, a pathetic strategy in light of failed U.N. attempts to curtail Assad’s murderous tactics.

One must wonder: If it were a question of access to other parts of the region for our own “vital interests,” or if Syria had a commodity we wanted, say oil, or if we had military interests there as we do in Bahrain, would the so-called civilized world still be dabbling in sanctions? Or might we together have found a way to destroy the barbaric Assad and his brutal regime? (If we can get Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gadafi, why not Syria’s Satan?)

After the Holocaust, the world proclaimed “Never again!” Samantha Power, Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University reminds us of this in her forthcoming book Again and Again, an examination of American responses to genocide since the Holocaust.

But then came Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda. “Never again!” we said. Still, people in those countries for whom we did too little too late learned all too quickly that the promise of “never again” counted for little. And they were not alone, says Powers. “Notwithstanding a promising beginning, and a half-century of rhetorical ballast, the American consensus that genocide is wrong has not been accompanied by a willingness to stop or even condemn the crime itself,” she says. “Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last fifty years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted “Never Again” is in fact “Again and Again.” The gap between the promise and the practice of the last fifty years is dispiriting indeed. How can this be?”

How indeed? It is a question I ask myself every time I think about what is happening on the streets of Syria while here at home we seem more concerned with sports, Dancing with the Stars, and the endless sputtering of political candidates who would be king.

Where in all that clutter is the wail of crying children, the grief of bereft parents, the terrifying sounds of slaughter, and when do we mean, once and for all, Never Again?