March 4, 2006
"But if thought
corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can
spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know
-- George Orwell,
"Politics and the English Language"
progressives, the late English essayist and novelist George Orwell is
highly regarded for his perspicacity in revealing the importance of
language in propagandizing and indoctrination. In his epic novel 1984,
Orwell described an upside-down world where "War is Peace," "Freedom is
Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength." Progressives are well aware of how
language can be twisted to convey inside-out impressions; thus, the
"killing of civilians" is dubbed "collateral damage," "aggression" is
"preemptive war," and "an ethnically cleansed town" is "a settlement."
A few weeks ago, I
engaged in a dialogue with a progressive writer about the terminology used
in his articles. I noted that he had initially used the term "insurgents"
in quotation marks and afterwards the term was used without quotation
marks. I asked, since "insurgents" is a preferred designation of
imperialists and their corporate media, why the writer used this word
without quotation marks later in the article. I also asked why the writer
did not refer to those struggling against the occupation as a
"resistance". Furthermore, I asked why the writer referred to US or
"coalition" forces but not "occupation" forces.
right about my being inconsistent in my use of quote marks around
"insurgent". While you’re right that it is the term of the western media
(the "imperialists" use "terrorist" these days), it is also the term used
by many commentators whom I respect, ...
being problematic, I don’t feel comfortable with "resistance" either. In
my view, they constitute a mixture of neo-Baathists and Islamists who are
fighting both US occupation and shia dominance.
The writer puts
forth a valid reason to avoid the term "resistance". But the writer could
have used an alternative term such as "anti-occupation forces" instead.
Problematic was that the writer consciously made a decision to use the
tendentious language of the corporate media, which is wholly embedded in
the invasion/occupation of Iraq.
The writer backed up
the decision by citing identical usage by other progressive commentators.
Seizing upon the fact that a number of progressives use the terminology of
the corporate media as an excuse for one’s own dipping into the
imperialist glossary is distressing for the victims and opponents of the
In the egalitarian
universe of progressivism, a brilliant Massachusetts Institute of
Technology professor has attained exceptional prominence. Noam Chomsky is
an intellectual who wears many hats. But in two fields, in particular,
Chomsky stands out: linguistics and US foreign policy. Therefore, as an
outstanding linguist with a keen mind attuned to US policy at work in the
world, one would expect the terminology used by Chomsky to be very
precise. Yet, even Chomsky has incorporated some of the lingo of the
corporate media into his repertoire.
In a recent
interview in Korea, Chomsky’s comments on geopolitics were insightful as
always. But Chomsky decided to refer to the Iraqis fighting the US-UK
occupation forces and their Iraqi collaborators as "insurgents".
There is also right
now the insurgency which is violent and brutal, but it was elicited by the
invasion. Iraq hadn’t had any suicide bombers for probably a millennium,
but now they have them all the time. The U.S. intelligence and the Israeli
and Saudi intelligence have analyzed very closely the foreign fighters in
Iraq. There are very few. It is maybe 10 percent of the insurgents.
According to the
to be termed an "insurgent" one must be fighting against an established
civil authority and unless one gives credence to elections held under
occupation then there is no legitimate authority in Iraq. Moreover, given
the widespread scope of killing, destruction, and mayhem reigning in Iraq,
there certainly is no appreciable established authority -- or any entity
that has been able to establish authority. How then does one justify the
use of the term "insurgent"?
parallels is also revealing. Were the maquis also insurgents, or
were they French resistance fighters? Were the Milorg insurgents,
or were they Norwegian resistance fighters?
The maquis blew up
infrastructure, killed the enemy and civilian collaborators, and were
considered terrorists by others. Jacques Hardy, a self-described
"Resistance man" in Belgium and the mountains of Auvergne, says, "I was
what the Americans now call a 'terrorist.’ However, according to the
latest American terminology, anyone who is against American Nazism or
against American terrorism is called a 'terrorist.’"
In an earlier
interview, Chomsky did distinguish between a resistance and insurgents:
"The Iraqi people have resisted and it’s a very impressive resistance. I’m
not talking about insurgency. I’m talking about popular, non-violent
resistance under bitter conditions." 
While Chomsky refers
to the anti-occupation forces in Iraq as "terrorists" and "insurgents", he
doesn’t shirk from identifying the terrorism of the occupation forces.
Chomsky states that it is US terrorism that spawns the terrorism of the
anti-occupation forces in Iraq and elsewhere.
state that US terrorism gives rise to terrorism is ideologically flawed
because it sets up an equivalency between the two terrorisms. To escape
Chomsky’s equivocation, it would suffice to state that US terrorism spawns
armed resistance against it. How to define the armed resistance
subsequently is of lesser relevance.
Chomsky knows well
what he communicates. He is the co-author (with Edward Herman) of the
seminal book Manufacturing Consent, which elucidates how propaganda
permeates "democratic" societies like the US.
Given that Chomsky
is a two-time winner of the Orwell Award which recognizes "Distinguished
Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language," it leaves one
somewhat nonplussed that he would use a designation that he acknowledges
as being imprecise.
On the use of the
term "insurgents", Mickey Z., author of The Seven Deadly Spins,
notes the bias in the language: "The language we use, of course, has an
impact. If you want to protect the American homeland, you’re a patriot. Do
the same in Iraq and you’re an insurgent."
He acknowledges the reluctance of some writers to accept terms such as
"resistance" and "rebels", and imagines that some writers would reject
even the term "anti-occupation forces." "However", says Mickey Z., "it
certainly would be a worthwhile effort to encourage progressive writers to
be more aware of their word usage and I’d support such an effort."
Columnist Rick Salutin notes the term "insurgents" has an insidious
implication; "it’s vague, and covers over something specific and
unsettling: incipient civil war among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish
communities."  This became more poignant following the
suspicious bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra on 22 February, which
ignited a wave of confessional violence across Iraq. 
If there is truth to what Salutin says, then some progressive voices are
benefiting imperialists by accepting their designation of the combatants.
Whatever label one
chooses to affix to those people who fight against the overwhelming
firepower of the occupation forces in Iraq, indisputable is that it is the
violent invasion and occupation of Iraq that instigated the antipathy of
the population and the violent backlash. Since one would not exist if not
for the other, it is exceedingly unfair to label each side identically.
This equivalency in labeling both sides as "terrorists", along with the
pejorative labeling of "insurgents", gives way to the evil aims of
occupation of Iraq will likely not cease until a groundswell of American
people rises up and demands a stop to the carnage. Demonizing the victims
of terrorism is not only partisan but it may delay the necessary upsurge
of the antiwar movement. More people would die as a result. That is a
point worth considering when using language.
lives in the traditional Mi’kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova
Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:
A Glossary of
Dispossession by Paul de Rooij
of the Iraqi Occupation by Paul de Rooij
Propaganda Stinkers: Fresh Samples From the Field
A Glossary of Warmongering
 Noam Chomsky
interviewed by Sun Woo Lee (2006, February 22). "Korea
and International Affairs,"
 An interview by
Andy Clark (2005, December 18). "Chomsky
on Terror and Iraq."
Available at Information Clearing House.
 Mickey Z. does find that when trying to reach a larger audience, "it
sometimes becomes necessary to fall back on mainstream terms in the name
of introducing ideas not presented in the corporate media."
 On the difference between the insurgents and the occupation with its
collaborationist forces, Rick Salutin writes: "Have you noticed a lack of
parallelism? The insurgents are always bombing other Iraqis (or Muslims),
and don’t get bombed back. But the targeted mosques are Shiite, and the
targeted police or Iraqi army centres largely recruit Shiites, ever since
the U.S. dissolved Saddam’s army after the invasion. Counterpose to that
the humungous U.S. attacks on cities like Fallujah in the 'Sunni
triangle,’ normally assisted by Iraqi troops who are mainly Shiite or
Kurdish. Sounds like tit-for-tat to me." (2005, October 7). "Iraq’s
 The corporate media quickly depicted the bombing of the Golden Mosque
as the work of Sunni insurgents. New York Times editors decided to
play up the "sectarian violence" in the ensuing chaos. Editorial, (2006,
February 24). "New
York Times, with same facts, changes Iraq conflict from 'civil war’ to
having 'endangered future,’"
therawstory. Dahr Jamail, noting Shi’a-Sunni solidarity, asks the
important question of who stands to benefit from the bombing. (2006,
February 24). "Who
Iraq Dispatches. The final outcome, however, may lead in a
direction contrary to the divide-and-conquer intent of imperialists
pushing for a civil war. Dahr Jamail and Arkan Hamed quote, Muqtada Al-Sadr,
"arguably the second most influential Shia cleric in Iraq": "It was not
the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi, God’s peace be upon
him, but rather the occupation (forces) and Ba’athists...God damn them. We
should not attack Sunni mosques. I have ordered the Al-Mahdi Army to
protect both Shia and Sunni shrines." (2006, February 25). "Mosque
Outrage Also Brings Solidarity,"
Jamail's Hard News Publications