Wednesday, December 06, 2006

George Orwell and George W. Bush

No irony of George W. Bush’s misbegotten presidency ranks as strange and surprising as his impact on the English language. Few men so terminally tongue-tied have so shaped political discourse. Phrases like “compassionate conservatism,” “faith-based initiatives,” “war on terror,” “axis of evil,” “evil-doers,” “shock and awe,” “mission accomplished” “heckuva job Brownie,” and “food insecurity” (the administration’s new term for “hunger”) have tumbled from the lips of this chief executive and molded public debate in the past half-decade.

Previous presidencies, like Franklin Roosevelt’s or John Kennedy’s, nudged the usual pedestrian blather of Washington, D.C., towards poetry. Bush’s impact on American English is most extraordinary because of its lack of musicality, it’s clunky simplicity, and its utter dishonesty. There was been no more sinister example of “Bush-speak” than the Pentagon policy labeled “extraordinary rendition.”

This maddeningly opaque double talk concealed a deep betrayal of American law and moral standing. As reported in a February 2005 issue of the New Yorker, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born engineer, lived the sadistic experience of extraordinary rendition. Officials arrested Arar at John F. Kennedy Airport in September 2002, as the McGill University graduate returned from a vacation in Tunisia en route to his Canadian home. Officials had placed Arar on the U.S. Watch List of Suspected terrorists not because of anything he had done specifically, but because he had worked with the brother of another suspect. Airport security handed Arar over to a “Special Removal Unit” which flew the young man to Syria, one of our purported enemies in the Iraq War and in Lebanon. Once there, Syrian secret police whipped Arar’s hands with two-inch thick electric cables and kept him in a windowless underground cell Arar later likened to a grave. After slightly more than a year of interrogation and torture, Arar would be released without charges.

The United States has not only rendered prisoners to secret locations in Syria. Another choice location for such detainees during the first three years of the war on terror was Egypt, where, according to one state department document, prisoners are frequently “stripped and blindfolded; suspended from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; subjected to electrical shocks; and doused with cold water [and] sexually assaulted.” Terror suspects, never given a trial, have on the behalf of the United States, been hanged by Egyptian officials, while one told later investigators he had suffered electric shocks to his genitals administered by Egyptian guards, and was hung upside from his limbs and left in a cell while kept in filthy water up to his knees. Our torture subcontractors in Egypt make the Army amateurs responsible for the human rights abuses at Abu Ghareib look like Red Cross volunteers.

To be fair, the policy of extraordinary rendition was not invented by the Bush White House, but actually had its origins in the mid-1990s as part of the Clinton administrations’ failed attempt to destroy Al Qaeda. The Bush White House, however, fully embraced this tactic, a shockingly candid Dick Chaney rationalizing such methods as trip to what he called, evoking the movie Star Wars’ Darth Vader, as a trip to the “dark side” necessitated by a ruthless enemy unbound by any ordinary moral constraints. It was, tragically, also a dangerous policy that gave a green light for the United States’ battlefield enemies to torture American soldiers. Extraordinary rendition also rested on the fatally flawed notion that useable information could be obtained through torture. During the mid-1300s, during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, Gentiles in several German communities tortured hundred of Jews into confessing that they had caused the Black Death through magic. Similarly, torture over the ages has coerced confessions of witchcraft, sexual liaisons with the devil and other outlandish supernatural fantasies from victims eager to tell tormentors what they want to hear.

The story of extraordinary renditions actually represents a rare triumph for journalism in the days of Bush. It took publications like the Washington Post and the aforementioned New Yorker to reveal the policy and call it what it was: outsourcing torture. Renditions endangered American democracy not just because they represented a complete abandonment of due process, but also because the phrase itself represented an assault on truth and meaning.

Language provides a frustratingly imprecise instrument even when people communicate with the purest of intentions. Otherwise, debates such as over the meaning of the Constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” would never have been necessary. A clear and present danger arises, however, when the powerful use language not to express ideas but to cloud reality. Again, this is not a tactic invented by George Bush and his minions. Bush’s predecessor in the White House once famously quibbled over the meaning of “is.” Bush’s battles with the English language, however, have too often been true acts of war, with real body counts, such as when he claims to “defend life” in the stem cell controversy while condemning Parkinson patients and similarly tortured souls to an early, agonizing, and unnecessary death.

The case of extraordinary renditions aside, too often the press in the past five years has collaborated with Bush’s Orwellian obfuscations. By January 22, 2004, the American CIA warned the administration that Iraq was sliding into civil war. By February 9, 2004, 109 Iraqi Kurds died in a car bombing set off mostly like by Iraqi Sunnis in Irbil. A wave of suicide bombings undertaken by Iraqis against their fellow citizens took 104 lives in Basra on April 21 of that year. February 22 of 2006 saw the bombing of the Golden Mosque, a highly revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, by Sunni extremists.

With the exception of little-read liberal bloggers, few voices dare call this war by its true name. With painful slowness, media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Time Magazine quietly started using "civil war" to describe the conflict in Iraq. The same month as the Golden Mosque bombing, even Fox News, an administration echo chamber, backhandedly acknowledged reality, though with typical mind-bending News Corp spin. During a debate on Iraq’s sectarian violence, viewers saw the on-screen caption: “All-Out Civil War in Iraq: Could It Be a Good Thing?” Meanwhile, the bloodshed spun out of control, with 1,666 bombs piercing the Iraqi sky in July alone. In spite of this intense, continuous violence between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites within Iraq, it took three years for the first major American broadcast news outfit, NBC, to call events in Iraq a “civil war.”

Why the endless dithering over this label? The tenth edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives a breathtakingly simple definition of “civil war”:

A war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.

By this simple, blunt criteria Iraq was in civil war less than a year after the American invasion. Yet a widespread use of the term did not take place. This was not for reasons of linguistic precision. As James Poniewozik of Time Magazine admitted in a December 3 column, the mainstream media rolled over and accepted the administration’s doublespeak on the war because:

the media business was, and is, existentially scared. TV audiences and print readerships are shrinking, along with media payrolls; nightly newscasts and newspapers wonder how much longer they will exist, much less thrive. The Administration has played on that fear of irrelevance, freezing out big institutions in favor of friendly local outlets and allies. A Bush aide told reporter Ron Suskind that journalists were an ineffectual ‘reality-based community.’ Were the mainstream media dying? The ebullient Bushies seemed to answer, “They're already dead!”

What is mind-boggling is that this media cowardice remained even after Bush’s incompetence stood in its full, sorry nakedness after Katrina. Thus, the president was recently able to mask the destruction of habeas corpus rights, first enshrined in English law in the Magna Carta almost eight centuries ago, under the innocuously-named “Military Commissions Act” of 2006. This law gave the president the right to declare American citizens “enemy combatants” and to hold them without trail as part of the war on terror. My hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, thought the death of an 800-year-old civil liberty so irrelevant that they crammed the story reporting the president’s signature of the Military Commissions Bill on page six.

As Poniewozik sadly confesses, the media only found the chutzpah to call a spade a spade, and a civil war a civil war, after Bush and his Republican army suffered their Waterloo during this past November election. This sudden discovery of courage, however, also bodes ill for those who pray that the media will serve as an independent institution that relies neither on government directives or temporary swings in public opinion for guidance. Today’s Washington press corps are unworthy peers of the journalists who have died covering the war in Iraq and sorry inheritors of the mantle once held by Elijah Lovejoy, an Illinois abolitionist who spoke truth not just to power but also to fickle, panic-stricken mobs, a stand that cost Lovejoy his life.

Lovejoy’s neighbors in the town of Alton felt the subject of slavery was too dangerous to openly discuss and threatened the publishers’ life unless he kept silent on the subject. On the night of November 7, 1837, 20 of Lovejoy’s supporters kept company with him as he guarded a brand new press to be installed at the offices of his newspaper, The Observer. The crowd drew the attention of Lovejoy’s angry opposition, which chunked rocks at the warehouse windows. When Lovejoy’s friends responded by throwing earthenware pots at the mob, gunfire erupted. One man climbed a ladder planning to set the warehouse on fire. As Lovejoy and a friend tried to stop the arson, someone in the crowd fatally shot the publisher. The assembly rushed inside the warehouse, shattered the press and threw the parts into the river.

Today’s reporters face far less danger within the United States than Lovejoy, but where he once bravely stood, his modern peers quaver. What James Madison once described as the “tyranny of the majority” threatens freedom no less than a deceptive, power-hungry White House. How much comfort can we take from a press that meekly whispered truth to power because of a momentary shift in the polls? Sixty-three percent of that same public told pollsters after the 9/11 attacks that they believed they would need to give up “some personal liberties in order to feel safe” according to the Roper Center. How long will the press corps’ tentative courage stand should there be another terror attack and the voting public again rallies almost unanimously to the banner of this president or some other future demagogue willing to manipulate fear to achieve political advantage?

Journalists can’t be fully blamed fully for failing to check the power of a president who sees language as a tool not to enlighten, but to conceal and frighten. But they should at least be counted on to be guardians of the language. Free speech can survive only if we agree that words have agreed-upon meaning, that war isn’t peace, that freedom isn’t slavery, that ignorance isn’t strength. How odd it is that Charlie Chaplain, the star of so many silent movies, showed the power of language dedicated to truth at the close of his 1940 classic The Great Dictator.

In the movie, Chaplain plays a Jewish barber who eerily resembles the title character, a fascist despot clearly patterned on Adolf Hitler. Through a series of mishaps, the barber has switched places with the dictator and is given a chance to address his conquering army during a national radio address. In the script, Chaplain addresses soldiers, but his words could as easily be aimed at journalists today. He says, in part:

Don’t give yourself to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel: who drill you . . . treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your heart. You don’t hate: only the unloved hate, the unloved and the unnatural

. . . Don’t fight for slavery. Fight for liberty. In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke, it is written that “the kingdom of God is within man” — not one man, but in all men, in you. You have the power: the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate, with intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to men’s happiness . . . In the name of democracy, let us all unite.

That’s a tall order. Sadly, we bequeath you a world as corrupt and violent as the one we inherited. Against the journalist who would fight for Chaplain’s contrasting vision of justice are elites who have on their side wealth, police power, and institutional inertia.

But you, who will be broadcast and print reporters in the near future, come to the table not altogether empty-handed. You come into this world knowing that you and you children deserve so much better. And on your side are arrayed youth, energy and time. Earlier journalists battling slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and the rapacious exploitation of robber baron capitalism in the late 19th century, lived in a more sinister world and faced bigger challenges and they re-recreated that society.

The changes they wrought were not always revolutionary, but each reform made life more decent and livable. But your time is fleeting and the window of opportunity for you to change even a small part of this unjust world rapidly closes.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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