Sunday, March 27, 2011
The Massacre of Meaning
When terrorists planted bomb in a bag near a bus station killing a Scottish Bible translator studying ancient Hebrew, and wounding dozens more including six Americans -- Reuters decided it was time to explain to its audience what that peculiar Hebraic term, "Terrorist Attack" meant.
"Police described the explosion as a “terrorist attack” — Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike," Reuters elucidated. Reuter's term for a terrorist attack turns out to be "Palestinian strike", which suggests a labor rally by terrorists demanding more virgins in paradise and more euphemistic media coverage. If such were their demands, then they got their wish.
Terms like "terrorist" have been replaced by "militant". Militant does not tell us anything more than terrorist does. On the contrary it tells us much less. Terrorists carry out violent attacks, but militants can refer to anyone from zealous environmentalists to homicidal killers. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines "militant" as "Having a combative character", which covers a rough third of the human race. And a full two-thirds on a bad day. Why resort to imprecise language over more precise terminology? To avoid offending the people who plant bombs that kill bible translators, while dulling the impact of the event for their reading audience. A terrorist is a terrible person, but a militant is just worked up about something.
Vague language becomes the paradigm. Reuters isn't saying that they recommend that people say "Palestinian strike" rather than "terrorist attack", that would reveal their stake in the game. Instead they treat "terrorist" as a provincial term that might confuse their audience, explaining implicitly that the proper term is "Palestinian strike". The lesson is implicit, not explicit. An unstated correction that they are supposed to take heart.
From a fact based perspective, a bombing at a bus station is more obviously a terrorist attack, than it is a Palestinian strike, particularly as no Arab Muslims had been arrested yet. But it is not the facts that are being served here. It is the narrative. "Palestinian strike" equates to "Israeli strike". Two mirror images of the same. No difference between leaving a bomb at a bus station and hitting a bunch of terrorists firing rockets into Israeli towns and villages. One strike is as good as any other. Except that the latter get detailed coverage and the former get vague euphemisms
For that same reason comes the mention of this being the, "the first such bombing in Jerusalem in seven years", which sounds nice and peaceful. Just terrorists, pardon militants, scratching their seven year homicidal itch. The massacre of students at the Mercaz HaRav school doesn't qualify, that was done with an AK-47, but what about the trash pipe bomb just this month that took off a sanitation worker's hand? Well it wasn't "such" a bombing, was it. One was in the trash, the other at a bus station. Leave enough wriggle room and language can mean anything. If there's a bombing at a fruit stand tomorrow, it will be the first time in seven years too.
In his essay on politics and grammar, Orwell warned that "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." A study of the media corps circa 2011 tells us that we can eliminate the 'largely' altogether and just turn it into the dictionary definition. The media doesn't report on terrorist attacks because it wants to, but because it has to. They have occurred and they are by definition news. Which means they are obligated to fill out a few paragraphs mentioning them. And that they do. Muddied by the vaguest terminology they can find, along with justifications for the act, casting blame on the victim and mentioning that it's the settlements which are the true obstacles to peace.
The muddle spreads. Phrases such as "cycle of violence" or "militant attacks" come to be used by people who are in no way trying to excuse terrorist violence, and yet are unable to escape the widening degradation of meaning. Language designed to rationalize the irrational and defend the indefensible goes mainstream. It becomes part of how we think. We use words to express meaning and by taking on such ready-made phrases, we turn over the duty of understanding to their makers. When we use them, it is their worldview that passes through our lips.
Obama's own statement was a masterpiece of vagueness and word juggling. "The United States calls on the groups responsible to end these attacks at once", quoth the One. Does he not know which groups are responsible. There aren't so many, that naming them in a sentence would be laborious. But it would be politically inconvenient. That's followed by a call for "all parties to do everything in their power to prevent further violence and civilian casualties". Whoever those parties may be. It's fairly certain that one of those parties is Israel, but the rest are a diffuse unknown. The equivalence capper comes with the condolences "for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza yesterday".
But when Biden wanted to denounce Israel a year ago, he was quite clear about it, saying, "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem." The White House can be quite clear about who it's condemning and why when it wants to be. In that same essay, Orwell wrote that, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity". That is obviously true of the White House, whose vagueness grows in proportion to its insincerity.
Take the statements of Netanyahu and Abbas that Obama quoted during his UN address. "Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I came here today to find a historic compromise that will enable both people to live in peace, security, and dignity." And President Abbas said, "We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause." They both sound nice, but there are fundamental differences. Netanyahu used "I" to accept responsibility, Abbas used "We" to shift it. Netanyahu can be held accountable for failure, but Abbas can't.
Netanyahu agreed to compromise to achieve peace. Abbas agreed that "we" will work really hard to see that the negotiations achieve their cause-- whatever that cause may be. Negotiations generally achieve results. But negotiations with terrorists are only meant to serve their cause. Not achieve or effect-- but serve. The negotiations are servants of the Palestinian terrorist cause. And they will only engage in them to the service of their interests. Sabotaging those negotiations often serves the cause well too.
It's not the only possible interpretation, but deliberately vague language leads to multiple interpretations. Insincerity always needs a thousand boltholes. Escape hatches from meaning. And it is the liars and hypocrites who need to flee meaning the most.
Dante's Inferno reserved the ninth circle of its hell for hypocrites and corrupt politicians. Today we reserve the ninth for the fourth estate. And some of the fourth estate has already wound up there on its own. Which is to be preferred, the liar or the hypocrite. That depends on whether you would rather read the newspaper or listen to a White House statement. It's propaganda either way, but with different flavors of nuance. The hypocrite pretends to be moral, the liar does not. Both invert morality, but the hypocrite does it with sleight of hand.
Time Magazine's Karl Vick, who reportedly holds a standing job offer from Goebbels, ended his first paragraph on the massacre of the Fogel family with a clumsy mixture of Der Sturmer and Der Reuters, writing of the Israeli response-- "events lurched forward with something very like vengeance." Events can lurch forward with a vengeance, but that is not the same thing as the pursuit of vengeance. Vick would like to get across both meanings, while not being accountable for either.
Vick's itemized list of Israeli "vengeance" consists of condemning the massacre, approving home construction, filing a complaint with the UN, fundraising for victims of terrorist attacks and calling on Abbas' PA to stop promoting violence. As "vengeance" goes, this is really not it at all. That's where Karl Vick has to work at transforming Israeli complaints and fundraising for murder victims into horrible acts, while minimizing the crime itself.
Vick's first tool of vagueness is the Impersonal Passive Voice. The last refuge of the moral coward from his moral reckoning.
The actual killing of the Fogel family is described as "The murder by knife of three children". Who killed the children? The knife did. Blame the knife. No reference is made to who actually perpetrated the attack. Terrorists don't kill children, knives do.
The impersonal passive voice is most often used by those trying to minimize accountability. And Karl Vick determinedly goes into 'impersonal passive voice' every time the murder of the Fogel family comes up.
"The slaughter did not eradicate the family", Vick writes. Apparently the perpetrator was someone named 'The Slaughter'. Farther down, "The means of entry into the settlement". Whose means of entry? We just don't know. Still further down, Vick finally breaks down and mention that the attack may have been carried out by people, "the identity of the attackers remains unknown". Like so much else.
But Vick isn't trapped in some hopeless verbal pacifism. He can assign blame perfectly well. So long as it's to Israelis. Vick charges Netanyahu with making certain "that the attack would, in fact, have a direct impact on Israel's West Bank settlements" and making "the clearest effort to transmute the deaths of the Fogels into politics". Again the perpetrators of the Fogel's deaths are missing, but Vick shows no such reluctance when it comes to Netanyahu. But then in Karl Vick's twisted worldview, Netanyahu is "in fact" guilty of much worse than killing children, he's guilty of being the prime minister of a country fighting terrorists.
"Jewish settlers and Palestinians have clashed many times since Itamar was built", writes Vick. But why are the Jews listed first? To place the emphasis in the right place. A sentence later Vick notes that there have been three sets of murders by Muslim terrorists, and after the latest murder, five Muslim cars were torched by Jewish residents. Vick caps this off with an absurd quote from a spokesperson for the radical left-wing B'Tselem organization about Ithamar being an ongoing scene of mutual violence. Mutual violence meaning that Israelis get murdered and Muslim cars get burned. And so vagueness triumphs again.
In an article in which, Vick manages to describe the Sabbath as "enforced rest" and "enforced public silence"-- he finds nothing bad to say about the other side. When he is forced to describe their violence, he slips into passive voice and dense formalities. Thickets of words that he knows will have little impact. But when he encounters something as awful as a Jewish house or the Sabbath, then he finds properly violent metaphors to describe them.
Propaganda complicates the simple and simplifies the complicated. Context is brought to material unfavorable to the cause, while being stripped away from already favorable material. A story about a terrorist bombing needs tinkering with, but one about collateral damage in an Israeli strike against terrorists needs none. The choice of context is utterly revealing. It is the difference between reporting and promoting. The way words are used is the way that meaning is created. To massacre meaning, all you need to do is kill the truth.