Losing the Battle, Spinning the War
by Stephen Cox | Posted April 04, 2011
March was a time of judgment on the American official language — the language spoken by the people considered most qualified to sling words around: politicians, media operatives, public educators of all kinds. The official language was weighed in the balance, and found wanting. It proved grossly unequal to the challenge of such mighty events as the Japanese earthquake, labor unrest in Wisconsin, and the political embarrassments of government radio. And then along came Libya.
As usual, the commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish. About Wisconsin he did what he ordinarily does; he tried to get into the fight, while also trying to stay out of it. A violent proponent of unions, and an eager recipient of union funds, he still hopes to win the electoral votes of all those states that are in financial turmoil because of the demands of public employee unions. So he acknowledged the states’ budget problems, and then he said, “It is wrong to use those budget cuts to vilify workers.” A little later, when asked to state Obama’s position on the continuing turmoil in Wisconsin, his press agent repeated that inane remark.
Of course, nobody was vilifying workers, even if you are crazy enough to equate workers with government employees. What some people were doing — and suddenly, such a lot of people — was trying to keep the unions that represent people employed by state and local governments from bankrupting their employers. Obama’s feckless verbal feint would have turned into a factual rout if some White House correspondent had asked the obvious question: “What vilification are you referring to?” But nobody seemed able to do that.
The commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish.
Meanwhile, union shock troops were occupying the capitol of Wisconsin, trying to prevent its legislature from voting. These vilified workers caused over seven million dollars of damage. Yet even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a rightwing personality on a rightwing channel, was willing to call the Wisconsin actions “peaceful.” You see what I mean about the official language not being adequate to the crisis? Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful? Of course not, but only one person in the media, a volunteer bloggist whom Yahoo! News, in a fit of common sense, allowed on its site, made a point like that. Congratulations, bloggist. You have linguistic qualifications that none of the media professionals can equal. But they’re the ones who are getting paid.
Among this country’s most influential purveyors of the American official language is National Public Radio. I’m calling it that because it is currently attempting to deny its identity as government radio by calling itself by a set of non-referential initials: it just wants to be known as good ‘ol “NPR.” Well, sorry, alphabetical agency: we all know the smell of a government medium. It comes from the money it tries to cadge from the taxpayers.
In early March a highly paid government-radio official was caught on video telling some “Muslim” potential donors that “NPR” would actually be better off without government help, presumably because it would no longer have to pay any attention to the majority of the American people, whom he suggested were ignorant and stupid and susceptible to the racist propaganda of people who actually, believe it or not, would like a smaller government. He identified the tragedy of America as the fact that its educated elite (clearly typified by himself) was so small and uninfluential. Those were the views that Mr. Ron Schiller, senior vice president of National Public Radio, expressed concerning the citizens of the United States, who (perhaps tragically) put the “N” in “NPR.”
Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful?
Schiller was forced to resign immediately. His brief public statement assesses his behavior in this way: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”
Again we see the limitations of the official language, which proved utterly incapable of specifying what went wrong with Mr. Schiller, who might be offended by his remarks, or why anybody might be offended. In short, the official language was incapable of answering any question that anyone who read his statement would probably ask. And it created new and damaging questions: Why did you make statements that were not reflective of your own beliefs — that is, lie? By the way, what are your beliefs? Do you actually believe that other Americans are smart but you are dumb, yet for some reason you keep maintaining the opposite? If so, how does that happen?What were you thinking, anyway? But no one in the high-class media found the words to ask such simple questions.
Now we come to the terrible events in Japan. Again, Obama was in the vanguard of our linguistic forces. And again . . . Here’s what he said about the earthquake and tsunami, on March 11 — in prepared remarks, presumably edited by numerous White House word wizards, who were struggling to get exactly the right tone. “This,” Obama said, “is a potentially catastrophic disaster.”
Gosh, this thing is so bad, something really bad may happen.
When the president is attacked and captured by his own language, what can we expect of his assistant priests, the writers and readers of the “news” media? The answer is, Even worse. And we got it.
Particularly impressive was the horror-movie approach, with the Japanese cast as Godzilla: “Operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 scrambled ferociously to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor” (AP report, March 11). I have trouble picturing anyone tamping down heat orpressure, but it’s even harder for me to picture someone doing it ferociously, unless that someone is a monster trying to rescue its offspring from the accursed humans’ nuclear experiments.
But maybe the ferocious beings were actually the talking heads of American TV. On the selfsame day, March 11, Fox News’ late-night guy was calling the earthquake and tsunami “one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind.” Fox News’ Rick Folbaum called it “the fifth worst earthquake in the history of earthquakes, folks.” Yet again, the official language just isn’t up to the task. It ought to be able to distinguish between “the hundred years since earthquake records have been scientifically kept” and “the history of earthquakes” or “the history of mankind,” but evidently it can’t. Under communism, hundreds of thousands of people in China lost their lives in natural disasters — but we have no words to speak of them, do we? Or maybe, just maybe, we never read a book, so we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout things like that. In either case, the problem lies with words. We can’t use them, and we can’t read them either.
After Folbaum made his immortal declaration, his colleague, Marianne Rafferty, consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that? What would you have to be paid to make such a statement before an audience of educated people, or even just people?
The worst thing is that words are related, in certain ways, to thoughts; so if you don’t have thoughts . . . Some examples:
“Is Japan getting the assistance it needs?” That’s the question that Wolf Blitzer asked the Japanese ambassador to the United States (March 12, CNN). I thought it was a little strange that Japan, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet, should be the object of that question. But never mind. In reply, the ambassador noted, somewhat vaguely, that his prime minister had ordered one-fourth of the nation’s armed forces to help the people currently starving a moderate distance north of Tokyo. That apparently satisfied Blitzer. He didn’t say what you would have said: “What! Why isn’t he mobilizing the entire army?” He didn’t say what you would have expected him to say: “Wait a minute! What’s your God damned army for, anyhow? We can get our correspondents into the disaster zone — why can’t you get your army in? And if you can’t, why don’t you air-drop supplies? In short, Mr. Ambassador, what the hell are you talking about?” But I guess Blitzer couldn’t think of those questions. After all, he’s merely one of America’s most famous interviewers.
Marianne Rafferty consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that?
“There’s the sense that they’re in this together, and they’re just trying to get along as best they can.” That’s what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 14, describing Japanese people waiting hours for government water, only to have an official tell them that the government had run out of water and they would have to wait an undetermined number of additional hours in line. He liked the way the victims remained stolidly in that line. He thought it was good that they didn’t complain. Yes, in subsequent days of reporting, he did begin doing what any normal information-processor would have done right away: he criticized the Japanese government for its lies and incompetence, at least about the lurking threat that we all fear, nuclear reactors. But he never questioned his favorable view of the people’s passivity (the media word was “calm”). It just wasn’t in him to make the connection between the people’s passivity and the government’s incompetence. Again, he didn’t have the words. I assume that he didn’t have the thoughts, either.
Here’s another instance. “You wonder how any government could deal with such a thing,” intoned Shepard Smith, a Fox News figure momentarily stationed in Japan, on the evening of March 15. He was referring to the combination of the nuclear issue and the disaster relief issue, both of which the Japanese government was supposed to “deal with.” Personally, I didn’t “wonder” about that. I suspect that you didn’t either. Any responsible government could find out how to deal with such problems. There are known procedures for addressing dangers in nuclear power plants, and disaster relief is not an unknown science. This wasn’t World War II. But maybe the Japanese official class is like our own — so tied up in its own linguistic incapacities that it can’t formulate an efficient thought.
Now to Libya. I’ve recently written two reflections about Libya for this journal, so I can hit the ground running. What everyone with a brain is still laughing about is President Obama’s address to the nation on March 28. Generally, watchers identified the most risible part of the speech as Obama’s denial that he intended to get rid of Qaddafi. Admittedly, he wanted Qaddafi gone; yet, he said, “broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” He couldn’t find the words to say “ousting Qaddafi,” so he said “regime change.” If you’ve got the magic decoder, you’ll understand this. But you still may not understand his policy.
By denying his lust for regime change, he costumed himself as a dove. Unfortunately, that made the hawks wonder whether he really, truly, wanted Qaddafi out. (They’d heard double-talk before.) So on the next day, he back went on TV, to express his satisfaction that the members of Qaddafi’s inner circle supposedly “understand that the noose is tightening.” Ah! Now we are the executioner with the noose. So both the hawks and the doves are happy, right? Well, maybe not.
The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing.
You can tell when somebody is really dumb, or is really desperate for the attention of people in Washington: that person is eager to go on TV and defend nonsense like this, which nobody else could possibly defend. Thus Bill Richardson, once Clinton’s ambassador to Monica Lewinsky, then governor of New Mexico, now television expert on constitutional law, informing CNN that Obama was acting purely in order “to avert a humanitarian disaster” when he started bombing Libya. Asked whether the president shouldn’t have consulted with someone in Congress before going to war, Richardson said there was no need: “This is not a war powers situation.”
You see! You see! There it is again. The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing. So we are forced to watch this strange, slow shifting of vehicles around the used car lot, as political salesmen try to find some piece of junk that the suckers will buy: “this is not a war powers situation. ”
Imagine Libyan planes and rockets bombarding the New Jersey coast. Would that be a war powers situation? Would it turn into one if its goal were regime change? Or would it still be a mission to avert a humanitarian disaster, and therefore immune from legislative review?
But here’s the real stuff. In his address to the nation on March 28, President Obama tried to calculate the scale of the humanitarian disaster he was trying to avert, without the help of long (or even short) consultations with Congress: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."
I know, I know — you can’t resist the unintentional humor of “a city nearly the size of Charlotte,” as if anybody knew, or cared, how large Charlotte (North Carolina?) might be. The desired impression was: Whoa! That big, dude? Then I guess we gotta go to war! The real impression was: Not!
But there are so many other things to notice:
The image that simply makes no sense: try to picture a massacre that reverberates.
The modesty that presidents get whenever they know they’re in trouble, and “I” just naturally transforms itself to “we.” (Were YOU waiting? Did YOU know?)
The Victorian prissiness of “suffer a massacre.”
The pathological specificity of “one more day” and “nearly the size.”
The moral stupidity of “stained the conscience of the world,” which literally means that if some bad thing happens, everyone in the world becomes guilty of it. (All right; you think I’m just being sarcastic. Then tell me what the phrase actually means.)
And finally, the breakdown in thought and grammar evident in the goofy progression of verbs: “If we waited . . . Benghazi could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated.” To see what’s happened here, insert some normal words into the various grammatical slots. Like this: “I knew that if I waited, you could write me a check that would have made me rich.” Huh?
Anyone who knew grammar would have fixed that one up, but as we know, Obama, the world-famous author, has no knowledge of grammar, never having mastered even the like-as distinction, let alone verb progression. But examine his inability to distinguish the meanings of “could” and “would.” The president was forced to admit that he had made a decision, that what he did wasn’t inevitable, and that he wasn’t, like Yahweh, absolutely certain about the future. That’s how “could” got into that abominable sentence. Yet at the same time, he wanted to imply that he was certain about the future: why else could, or might, “we” have made the decision we made? So he put in “would.”
And that solved his problem. So far as he could tell.
Don’t blame him. He speaks only the official language.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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