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Hermeneutics Are Not a Substitute for Clarity!

Kim Petersen, www.dissidentvoice.org

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 better."


-- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" 


Among 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. 


The writer responded,  


You're probably 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, ...


Despite "insurgents" 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 violence. 


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. [1] 


According to the dictionary definition, 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"?  


Drawing historical 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." [2] 


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.  


Nevertheless, to 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.  


Language is important. 


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." [3]

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." [4] 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. [5] 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 imperialists. 


The murderous 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. 


Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi’kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org.


Related Articles  


* A Glossary of Dispossession by Paul de Rooij
Glossary of the Iraqi Occupation by Paul de Rooij
* Propaganda Stinkers: Fresh Samples From the Field
by Paul de Rooij

* A Glossary of Warmongering by Paul de Rooij




[1] Noam Chomsky interviewed by Sun Woo Lee (2006, February 22). "Korea and International Affairs," Monthly JoongAng 


[2] An interview by Andy Clark (2005, December 18). "Chomsky on Terror and Iraq." Available at Information Clearing House

[3] 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." 

[4] 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 vanilla insurgency," Rabble 

[5] 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 Benefits?" 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," Dahr Jamail's Hard News Publications 

:: Article nr. 21224 sent on 05-mar-2006 02:26 ECT


Link: www.dissidentvoice.org/Mar06/Petersen03.htm

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