Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The "Washington Post’s" Eugene Robinson did not use the word “Orwellian” in his recent column on the sinister manipulation of language by the Bush administration.

Maybe that’s because John Kerry used it in a presidential debate and lost points for being too smart.

But Orwellian it is.

Here’s Robinson: “George w. Bush is no great orator, but the White House does understand how language can be used to shape reality. So when the National Security Agency’s unprecedented program of electronic eavesdropping was revealed, it was quickly dubbed a ‘terrorist surveillance program’ – as if, somehow, magically, the NSA’s computers could deduce who was unquestionably a terrorist without ever happening to overhear a single conversation involving someone who is innocent.”

That is how the (r)epublicans get to a place where House Majority Leader John Boehner can say things like, “I listen to my Democratic friends and wonder if they’re more interested in protecting the terrorists then protecting the American people.”

Actually, what Democrats are doing is protecting the American people from being accused of terrorism, something that is happening a lot with things like The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which goes after people not at all like those who made 9/11 such a big day.

What we like about this article is its focus on language. When he was just a sapling outspoken-pain-in-the-ass back in college, the highway scribe had a wonderful, and since misplaced, mentor named Rick Abel, doctor of political science.

Abel’s metier was a philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein who sought to focus his investigations upon the use of language. Among the many things he said was, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language.”

You can dedicate a lifetime to studying Wittgenstein, as Dr. Abel did, but, to abbreviate (egregiously), the philosopher found the dictionary to be a useless tool, because it is used to describe words that are, in themselves, descriptions.

Wittgenstein saw words as symbols and signs that merely approximated the “essence” of an object or an idea. The meaning of those symbols and signs change with the sentence and with what he called the “language game” in which they are being used.

An elementary and redundant example could be the hip-hop expression “word up”.

Placed within the language game of slang, violence, and overdone gestures associated with rap music, we know that “word up” does not mean we should look up in the air for a word.

So Robinson is a kind of Wittgensteinian when he takes issue with the expression “homeland security.” And Bush, god help him, is a kind of Wittgensteinian when he chooses to employ it.

Robinson says, “The word ‘homeland’ is a vivid, but relatively inconsequential example – less a true distortion than an infelicitous choice that makes us sound as if we had quaint harvest rituals and a colorful national costume. It strikes and odd note, with its vague connotations of ethnic solidarity and ancient nationalism, and gives off more than a whiff of us-versus-them. This nation does have enemies from whom we need vigilant protection, but something more like ‘domestic security’ would have done just fine, with less baggage.”

Wittgenstein might note that the government has taken a current crisis and used terms from a 1930s German word game to flesh out its profile.

Which brings us back to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (No. 119): “The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language.”

Which brings the writer to the highway scribe’s favorite mash-up of conceptual thinking, THE WAR ON TERROR.

Robinson points out that we are in fact at war, two wars justified by pulling “terrorist” from its typical "language game" bounded by the slaughter of innocent civilians in quotidian settings.

A true war on terror involves gritty police work which the administration, Robinson notes, would rather avoid admitting so that they don’t have to heed all those democratic inconveniences they’re always widging about.

“As for the rest of the phrase, terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy.”

Which brings us to the highway scribe’s favorite question: If we’re fighting a tactic, when does the war end, and when are the normal ration protected rights and privacy privileges to be restored?

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