Revolution #166, May 31, 2009
Language That Lies
Language That Lies, Part One
Language can be a tool to describe and uncover reality. And it can also be used to distort and hide reality. Perhaps the greatest qualification of the current president of the imperialist system in the U.S., Barack Obama, is his skill in that latter deceptive use of language.
Let's take one key phrase from Obama's May 21 speech on national security—"prolonged detention." Say the phrase. Sounds like a medical condition, doesn't it? As in, "I'm sorry, boys, Timmy can't play today—his prolonged detention is acting up again." Or: "Side effects may include headaches and high blood pressure. In case of prolonged detention, go to an emergency room or see your health care provider immediately."
In fact, Obama was demanding the power to lock people up in prison and deny them any access to the courts for as long as he, or anyone else in power, wanted to. But if he had said, "Today I am asking for the power to preventively imprison anyone who I think will 'pose a threat to national security' at some time in the future, and to deny them access to trials or other legal recourse…" well, that might have provoked a different response.1
Great communicator? Naw—just another political prevaricator.
Language That Lies, Part Two
There are few institutions that make a bigger deal out of claiming to objectively describe reality than the New York Times. Here, from their front-page "news analysis" of Obama's May 21 speech, is a good example of what they deem objectivity:
"In the reductionist debate in Washington, either any sacrifice must be made to win a pitiless war against radicals, or terrorism does not justify any compromise with cherished American values." The Times then goes on to commend the supposed "middle course" being pursued by Obama. Let's leave aside the ten thousand questions begged by the phrase "cherished American values," and focus instead on the Times' picture of the "reductionist debate" that supposedly is dominating the discourse. To read this, you would think that the two people dominating the airwaves have been Dick Cheney on the one side and, on the other, some fierce and uncompromising opponent of preventive imprisonment, military kangaroo courts, torture and all the other repressive measures that have gone along with the so-called War on Terror.
In fact, that very morning—as it has been for weeks now -- the debate was between Cheney and Obama, and the entire media acted as if those two positions were the ONLY acceptable terms of debate. In short, those like Cheney who would fairly openly and without apology imprison, torture, repress and kill anyone they deem a "threat"; and those who, as former Bush official Jack Goldsmith approvingly put it of Obama, would make some changes in that program but would focus those changes on "the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol and rhetoric." In the real world, the voices of those who actually oppose these measures are rarely given significant exposure; and almost never is a truly radical, let alone revolutionary, voice allowed into the arena.
The Times coverage does have one positive element. It reflects that a section of people who hated the repressive moves of Bush, and who supported Obama in the belief that he would end those policies, now not only feels betrayed but is making those feelings known, on the internet and, increasingly, more broadly in society (see article on West Hollywood press conference). The Times evidently feels that this must be spoken to, even if in a distorted and obfuscatory way. Clearly, the exposure of the lies and of manipulation by both the political representatives of this system and their stenographers in the media must be stepped up, and it must increasingly be accompanied by political action.
1. The phrase "pose a threat to national security" was in fact used by Obama to describe those who would be subject to "prolonged detention," even if there was not sufficient evidence of any actual crime to charge and try them in a court of law. And Obama said in that same speech that the duration of the "War on Terror," which serves as his rationale for requiring such extraordinary powers, will "in all probability" go on for at least ten years. [back]
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