Hearts & Minds

From Ali Eteraz at The Guardian:

Growing up and then attending college in America’s deep south, I was taught that when it came to the English language liberals were like Humpty Dumpty. What with their “deconstruction” and “post-modernism” and “relativism” those leftists – linguistic anarchists! literary terrorists! – could make a word mean “just what I choose it to mean”.

Meanwhile, conservatives were the mature and staid and serious “defenders” of “the canon” and “the great books” and “the classics”. They believed that words had certain fixed, even sacrosanct, meanings that were rooted in religion, tradition and western mores.

Then I graduated and encountered the Bush administration.

Conservative in garb, southern in style, jingoistic in jargon, it was Osama bin Laden to English. All of a sudden I saw not just an absolute disregard for language but a complete subversion of it. Everyone from GW Bush down to his staff and political appointments traduced our lingua franca and left me feeling utterly disoriented.

It is worth considering some of the crimes against English that Bush conservatism wrought.

There was, for starters, the term “compassionate conservatism“. It should have immediately rung a warning bell. Here was a leader whose mantra was an insult to his own philosophy. Hint: if you need to put “compassionate” before “conservatism”, you are signalling that regular conservatism is brutal or indifferent. (Incidentally, some Muslims object to the use of the term “moderate Muslim”, because it wrongly implies that the average Muslim is an extremist).

Putting aside the seven minutes of silence that occurred on one of the most tragic days in American history – to what can those be attributed except a lack of coherent words? – one ends up in the arena of law enforcement, where the Bush administration turned English into a laughing stock.

The most serious error was the term “war on terror.” On September 18 2001, the Rand Corporation requested the government not to refer to our response as a war, as it would confirm the narrative that al-Qaida wanted to establish. And how can one wage war upon a feeling? A war on terror is as farcical as a war on pain or a jihad on arousal. “War on terrorism” is not a whole lot better because a) it doesn’t have the requisite ring and b) most of what we’ve done in response to al-Qaeda constitutes collaborative police action and doesn’t fit the traditional definition of war. The unsexy, but correct, term should have have been “counter-terrorism“.

The terror errors accumulated. Faced by a group of killers who fancied themselves modern-day Saladins and sought revenge for the occupation of Jerusalem, President Bush went ahead and called his response, yes, a crusade.

This was followed by the foolishly named “Operation Infinite Justice” – a theological phrase invoking God – which was the first title given to the operation in Afghanistan. It was eventually renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom” when someone realised that Muslims believed in God as well. By then, however, the damage had been done.

Then, as the United States tried to “win the battle for the hearts and minds” of Muslims, we gave our operations such conciliatory names as “Operation Hammer” and “Operation Mountain Fury”.

Read the rest here


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