Saturday, June 02, 2012

Killing by another name...

Newsweek's current issue knows how to get the reader's attention with the cover headline "How Obama Learned to Kill," but somehow the article inside goes all wobbly when it comes to describing the president's ordering death sentences in the Middle East.

In the Newsweek story we learn that Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico and ringleader of terrorists in Yemen, isn't "killed" at all in an American missile attack.

He is "eliminated."

To parse the difference, "killing" is what the president and our government did; "elimination" is what happened to al-Awlaki. It's similar to the difference between using the active and passive voice.

Obama ordered the killing of Al-Awlaki. (Active)

Al-awlaki was eliminated. (Passive...we don't know who did the eliminating). By the way, professional basketball teams are "eliminated" from tournaments. So far, none has been killed.

George Orwell in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language" wrote, "... political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." One example he uses reads like front page news. "Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called 'pacification'."

Well, actually, it is now called "elimination" and we use robotic drones to do the dirty work, but you get the point. "Pacification" is what we had in Vietnam, 15 years after Orwell's death. Today it is "elimination" and it takes place in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan. Tomorrow, no doubt,  our government will be eliminating in Iran.

There's more Orwellian mind-twisting in the Newsweek story, much of it created by our government's "intelligence" strategists. Drones are sent to "eliminate" "signature" targets — those that bear the "signature" of being terrorist gatherings. Never mind that weddings and harmless tribal meetings have the same "signature." Willy-nilly, the signatures of those attending invite death warrants.

They become "collateral damage."

As Orwell notes, "...every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one's brain."

One could easily extend the anesthetizing metaphor to our military, political, industrial, communications culture today. Indeed, the language we choose to use, to read and listen to anesthetize us all.

Orwell went on to write about such a society in his classic "1984." It's worth reading and rereading.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Metaphors we die by....

I sent a shorter version of my "Speaking of offensive names, drop 'The Civil War'" post to The Oregonian as a letter to the editor after the paper editorialized in favor of the recent State Board of Education decision to force high schools do drop stereotyping names for sports teams.

Much to my surprise the editorial page editors printed my 150-word letter on Thursday. And to my equal surprise only one friend and my mother-in-law (who is, I should be quick to note, is also a friend) mentioned seeing it.

I think this speaks to the demise of the print medium. Or to my demise in reaching out to friends.

I actually addressed my comments to The Oregonian editors. I noted the media's role in perpetuating the use of "Civil War" to describe a mere collegiate rivalry. Sure, I wanted the paper's readers to mull over my modest proposal, but I really, REALLY, did want The Oregonian editors to consider dropping the term, just as they took the lead 20 years ago in dropping the use of Native-American names that describe sports teams.

Perhaps the most notable example is the "Washington Red Skins." Sports fans here have managed somehow with having Washington's NFL team referred to simply as "Washington" on the Oregonian's sports page.

So, in the few years left in which The Oregonian still clings to relevance as a means of communication, it could once again lead us to stop equating athletic rivalries with war.

While its editors are at it, they might look at the use of war terminology to describe political campaigns (war rooms, attack ads, war chests etc.) and government programs (War on Drugs, War on Poverty etc.)

Sadly metaphors have a way of unrealistically defining our expectations. Wars, government programs and political campaigns are won or lost...or so we are led to believe. There is no in-between. But were the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars won or lost? What of Afghanistan two years from now? And do wars ever really end for those who fight in them or are victims of them? Consider the rate of suicides among returning Iraq veterans....just for starters. Wars kill long after they "end" or are "won" or "lost."

And because of the flood of war imagery in our discourse is it wonder that compromise becomes increasingly difficult in our impressionable, emotional society?

The Oregonian, and the media in general, need to choose metaphors far more carefully. Who knows, it might even help them survive....

P.S. in today's Oregonian (5/28) is a letter supporting my letter. It is from William C. Woodcock of McMinnville.

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