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Words of War

It was all planned: A column full of jokes about things that have the word “French” in them. About how we should change those words. Freedom dressing. Freedom Canadians. Freedom kisses. Freedom doors. Freedom poodles.

Seems silly to write that now. Because those doors, those poodles, those kisses, those bombs, those deaths, those calls to carnage have nothing, nothing at all to do with freedom.

By the time this is printed, war will have been made. Complete with a newly minted language to justify it.

 

I want to thank the leaders here today, and many others, for stepping forward and taking leadership and showing their resolve in the cause of peace and the cause of justice.

—President George W. Bush

 

And who are those stepping forward, taking leadership and showing resolve in the cause of peace and justice? They are, according to the president, the ones endorsing the United States policy toward Iraq.

I don’t think he meant the millions of others worldwide, including the broad coalition of religious leaders from the United States who sought—and were denied—a meeting with President Bush.

To many Americans, his words will mean that the real patriots, the real servants of justice and peace, are those who support a war in Iraq.

To many other Americans who have worked long and hard—“stepping forward, and taking leadership and showing their resolve in the cause of peace and the cause of justice”—these words are a patent exclusion, a line drawn.

 

While the specter of war is haunting the world, we are witnessing now what may be called an international apartheid of language; a language that labels and defines, and divides values and virtues, and segregates nations in two categories of good or evil.

—Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti

 

Every time I see an American flag posted in a shop or in someone’s home, I wonder if we speak the same language. Or if, in the language we speak, we mean the same thing.

Just by writing that sentence, I can anticipate responses assuming that I am unpatriotic and ashamed of our flag.

That is not what I meant at all, of course. But language is becoming trickier to use if you actually want to be understood.

What I mean is, we may not speak the same language because there are so many different languages to listen to—all of them English.

There are so many different languages to listen to, and some of them are lies.

There are the essays and editorials in newspapers and magazines that require you to sit and read, stop and think, weigh the arguments set forth. There are the television stations ready to go forth with their own air strikes, vying for viewers with an aim to claim a chunk of the market.

There are the Web sites and word-of-keypad referrals from friends that can keep you step-stoning all over the electronic media. Or you can listen to the radio waves’ range of long, thoughtful newscasts to the top-of-the-hour two-minute squibs or the right-wing frenzy of too many drive-time radio hosts.

There are so many different languages to listen to, and some of them lie.

 

The great enemy of clear language is in insincerity. . . . In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. . . . But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

—George Orwell,
Politics and the English Language

 

How do you tell the lies from the truth?

It’s not the same as having a crystal ball. No one, not those who support this war nor those who oppose it, can predict exact outcomes. But whipping up fervor to save face or declare war or justify preordained decisions or appear strong or appear patriotic is not the same thing as reasoned, thoughtful and sometimes complicated discourse.

A bumper-sticker mentality is much easier to support because the issues appear so much less complex or deadly. If we can keep things simple, we can save the time we Americans need for so much that’s so important to us: television and the shopping mall.

It’s not that I don’t like television or that I don’t go to the mall. I do. It’s not that I haven’t seen reasoned arguments in support of this war. I have.

But the language we listen to shapes the language of our thoughts. It’s easy to sell anything if you describe it with marketable words. And simple sells.

 

Oversimplification was always one of the factors behind the failure of poetry and prose . . . but when it is the dominant characteristic of the discourse of the
policy-makers, it ends up in many forms of fanaticism and fundamentalism. Coupled with invincible superiority and a sense of sanctity, simplification might be, as history teaches us, a recipe for fascism. That’s why the rhetoric of them/we or either with us or with evil is not just an irresponsible jargon, but an act of war.

—Mourid Barghouti

 

Much of the language that has drummed up domestic support for this war is jingoistic, filled with glib comparisons of Saddam to Hitler, or appeals to our sense of vulnerability since 9/11, or facile assurances that through our actions, God will bless America.

Maybe, just maybe, such comparisons flatter the Iraqi leader, create a false sense that it’s possible we can be made safe and insult a God whose blessings are not a national right.

But now we are set on a course to kill. That is the language, we are told, that will make ourselves understood.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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