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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Massacre of Meaning

When terrorists planted bomb in a bag near a bus station killing a Scottish Bible translator studying ancient Hebrew, and wounding dozens more including six Americans -- Reuters decided it was time to explain to its audience what that peculiar Hebraic term, "Terrorist Attack" meant.

"Police described the explosion as a “terrorist attack” — Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike," Reuters elucidated. Reuter's term for a terrorist attack turns out to be "Palestinian strike", which suggests a labor rally by terrorists demanding more virgins in paradise and more euphemistic media coverage. If such were their demands, then they got their wish.

Terms like "terrorist" have been replaced by "militant". Militant does not tell us anything more than terrorist does. On the contrary it tells us much less. Terrorists carry out violent attacks, but militants can refer to anyone from zealous environmentalists to homicidal killers. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines "militant" as "Having a combative character", which covers a rough third of the human race. And a full two-thirds on a bad day.

Why resort to imprecise language over more precise terminology? To avoid offending the people who plant bombs that kill bible translators, while dulling the impact of the event for their reading audience. A terrorist is a terrible person, but a militant is just worked up about something.

Vague language becomes the paradigm. Reuters isn't saying that they recommend that people say "Palestinian strike" rather than "terrorist attack", that would reveal their stake in the game. Instead they treat "terrorist" as a provincial term that might confuse their audience, explaining implicitly that the proper term is "Palestinian strike". The lesson is implicit, not explicit. An unstated correction that they are supposed to take heart.

From a fact based perspective, a bombing at a bus station is more obviously a terrorist attack, than it is a Palestinian strike, particularly as no Arab Muslims had been arrested yet. But it is not the facts that are being served here. It is the narrative. "Palestinian strike" equates to "Israeli strike". Two mirror images of the same. No difference between leaving a bomb at a bus station and hitting a bunch of terrorists firing rockets into Israeli towns and villages. One strike is as good as any other. Except that the latter get detailed coverage and the former get vague euphemisms

For that same reason comes the mention of this being the, "the first such bombing in Jerusalem in seven years", which sounds nice and peaceful. Just terrorists, pardon militants, scratching their seven year homicidal itch. The massacre of students at the Mercaz HaRav school doesn't qualify, that was done with an AK-47, but what about the trash pipe bomb just this month that took off a sanitation worker's hand? Well it wasn't "such" a bombing, was it. One was in the trash, the other at a bus station. Leave enough wriggle room and language can mean anything. If there's a bombing at a fruit stand tomorrow, it will be the first time in seven years too.

In his essay on politics and grammar, Orwell warned that "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." A study of the media corps circa 2011 tells us that we can eliminate the 'largely' altogether and just turn it into the dictionary definition. The media doesn't report on terrorist attacks because it wants to, but because it has to. They have occurred and they are by definition news. Which means they are obligated to fill out a few paragraphs mentioning them. And that they do. Muddied by the vaguest terminology they can find, along with justifications for the act, casting blame on the victim and mentioning that it's the settlements which are the true obstacles to peace.

The muddle spreads. Phrases such as "cycle of violence" or "militant attacks" come to be used by people who are in no way trying to excuse terrorist violence, and yet are unable to escape the widening degradation of meaning. Language designed to rationalize the irrational and defend the indefensible goes mainstream. It becomes part of how we think. We use words to express meaning and by taking on such ready-made phrases, we turn over the duty of understanding to their makers. When we use them, it is their worldview that passes through our lips.

Obama's own statement was a masterpiece of vagueness and word juggling. "The United States calls on the groups responsible to end these attacks at once", quoth the One. Does he not know which groups are responsible. There aren't so many, that naming them in a sentence would be laborious. But it would be politically inconvenient. That's followed by a call for "all parties to do everything in their power to prevent further violence and civilian casualties". Whoever those parties may be. It's fairly certain that one of those parties is Israel, but the rest are a diffuse unknown. The equivalence capper comes with the condolences "for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza yesterday".

But when Biden wanted to denounce Israel a year ago, he was quite clear about it, saying, "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem." The White House can be quite clear about who it's condemning and why when it wants to be. In that same essay, Orwell wrote that, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity". That is obviously true of the White House, whose vagueness grows in proportion to its insincerity.

Take the statements of Netanyahu and Abbas that Obama quoted during his UN address. "Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I came here today to find a historic compromise that will enable both people to live in peace, security, and dignity." And President Abbas said, "We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause." They both sound nice, but there are fundamental differences. Netanyahu used "I" to accept responsibility, Abbas used "We" to shift it. Netanyahu can be held accountable for failure, but Abbas can't.

Netanyahu agreed to compromise to achieve peace. Abbas agreed that "we" will work really hard to see that the negotiations achieve their cause-- whatever that cause may be. Negotiations generally achieve results. But negotiations with terrorists are only meant to serve their cause. Not achieve or effect-- but serve. The negotiations are servants of the Palestinian terrorist cause. And they will only engage in them to the service of their interests. Sabotaging those negotiations often serves the cause well too.

It's not the only possible interpretation, but deliberately vague language leads to multiple interpretations. Insincerity always needs a thousand boltholes. Escape hatches from meaning. And it is the liars and hypocrites who need to flee meaning the most.

Dante's Inferno reserved the ninth circle of its hell for hypocrites and corrupt politicians. Today we reserve the ninth for the fourth estate. And some of the fourth estate has already wound up there on its own. Which is to be preferred, the liar or the hypocrite. That depends on whether you would rather read the newspaper or listen to a White House statement. It's propaganda either way, but with different flavors of nuance. The hypocrite pretends to be moral, the liar does not. Both invert morality, but the hypocrite does it with sleight of hand.

Time Magazine's Karl Vick, who reportedly holds a standing job offer from Goebbels, ended his first paragraph on the massacre of the Fogel family with a clumsy mixture of Der Sturmer and Der Reuters, writing of the Israeli response-- "events lurched forward with something very like vengeance." Events can lurch forward with a vengeance, but that is not the same thing as the pursuit of vengeance. Vick would like to get across both meanings, while not being accountable for either.

Vick's itemized list of Israeli "vengeance" consists of condemning the massacre, approving home construction, filing a complaint with the UN, fundraising for victims of terrorist attacks and calling on Abbas' PA to stop promoting violence. As "vengeance" goes, this is really not it at all. That's where Karl Vick has to work at transforming Israeli complaints and fundraising for murder victims into horrible acts, while minimizing the crime itself.

Vick's first tool of vagueness is the Impersonal Passive Voice. The last refuge of the moral coward from his moral reckoning.

The actual killing of the Fogel family is described as "The murder by knife of three children". Who killed the children? The knife did. Blame the knife. No reference is made to who actually perpetrated the attack. Terrorists don't kill children, knives do.

The impersonal passive voice is most often used by those trying to minimize accountability. And Karl Vick determinedly goes into 'impersonal passive voice' every time the murder of the Fogel family comes up.

"The slaughter did not eradicate the family", Vick writes. Apparently the perpetrator was someone named 'The Slaughter'. Farther down, "The means of entry into the settlement". Whose means of entry? We just don't know. Still further down, Vick finally breaks down and mention that the attack may have been carried out by people, "the identity of the attackers remains unknown". Like so much else.

But Vick isn't trapped in some hopeless verbal pacifism. He can assign blame perfectly well. So long as it's to Israelis. Vick charges Netanyahu with making certain "that the attack would, in fact, have a direct impact on Israel's West Bank settlements" and making "the clearest effort to transmute the deaths of the Fogels into politics". Again the perpetrators of the Fogel's deaths are missing, but Vick shows no such reluctance when it comes to Netanyahu. But then in Karl Vick's twisted worldview, Netanyahu is "in fact" guilty of much worse than killing children, he's guilty of being the prime minister of a country fighting terrorists.

"Jewish settlers and Palestinians have clashed many times since Itamar was built", writes Vick. But why are the Jews listed first? To place the emphasis in the right place. A sentence later Vick notes that there have been three sets of murders by Muslim terrorists, and after the latest murder, five Muslim cars were torched by Jewish residents. Vick caps this off with an absurd quote from a spokesperson for the radical left-wing B'Tselem organization about Ithamar being an ongoing scene of mutual violence. Mutual violence meaning that Israelis get murdered and Muslim cars get burned. And so vagueness triumphs again.

In an article in which, Vick manages to describe the Sabbath as "enforced rest" and "enforced public silence"-- he finds nothing bad to say about the other side. When he is forced to describe their violence, he slips into passive voice and dense formalities. Thickets of words that he knows will have little impact. But when he encounters something as awful as a Jewish house or the Sabbath, then he finds properly violent metaphors to describe them.

Propaganda complicates the simple and simplifies the complicated. Context is brought to material unfavorable to the cause, while being stripped away from already favorable material. A story about a terrorist bombing needs tinkering with, but one about collateral damage in an Israeli strike against terrorists needs none. The choice of context is utterly revealing. It is the difference between reporting and promoting. The way words are used is the way that meaning is created. To massacre meaning, all you need to do is kill the truth.

15 comments:

Leah said...

Awwww....gee.....Daniel, didn't ya here, A tornado is just a sneeze......
Yes, it is angering to here terms that let off the guilty and incriminate the innocent....
Hats off to another great article of truth!

Kim said...

I linked here from CFP. Exceptional dissection and elucidation on how language is used to obscure, skew, and misrepresent reality at will by many in the press who have a clearly formed agenda before they begin to spew....er, report.

Miriam said...

Great post. Well written as usual. if the topic wasn't so serious, i'd say some of your lines there were hilarious.

ex:

"The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines "militant" as "Having a combative character", which covers a rough third of the human race. And a full two-thirds on a bad day."

Hah! so true!

Question: Have you or anyone ever written about the islamization that is going on globally? I mean various authors write about one country or two countries, but has anyone ever just laid it all out globally (China, England, Ethiopia, Sudan, etc etc)?

Edgar Davidson said...

Daniel,

As you say some media outlets said the attack was "the first such bombing in Jerusalem in seven years". But in the UK almost every media outlet went even further and desribed it as the first terrorist attack in Jerusalem for 7 years. You pointed out several other more recent attacks (and there are many more) and I am sure it would not have been hard for the media outlets to do a simple check. But my impression of the media coverage was what they were effectively saying was "..the Israelis should be really thankful they are getting off so lightly .." So you see, it clearly was not a terrorist attack at all, but merely a reminder to the world of how lucky the Israelis are not be targeted more often.

Edward Cline said...

This article makes one wonder how Karl Vick and Reuter’s correspondents (and their home office editors) would have covered an event like Kristallnacht if they were somehow sent back in time to Germany in November 1938. But one wouldn’t wonder for long. Doubtless Vick and Reuters would turn it all around and blame the Jews. After all, the unleashed violence against the Jews, their homes, and their synagogues would have been portrayed as a “natural reaction” of Germans to the assassination of a German (and Nazi) diplomat in Paris by a German-Polish Jew.

Kristallnacht might have been portrayed as a “’German strike’ against a hostile Jewish population which has for a long time waged a war of resistance against the larger German culture and its politics, culminating in the cowardly murder of a career diplomat in the City of Light. There are unsubstantial reports that, upon hearing of vom Rath’s death, Jews passed out candy in celebration and danced in the streets of their enclaves. Of course, the retaliatory fervor of the Germans went a little overboard, and the instigators and participants in Kristallnacht remain to be identified. But darker days are ahead for Germans and Jews alike unless Germany’s Jewish leaders adopt a more conciliatory stance with the government and unless the Jews in the cities adopt a more tolerant policy towards their non-Jewish neighbors. A handful of prominent Jews were reportedly arrested by authorities and taken to special camps to be interrogated about a possible conspiracy to assassinate members of government, but a spokesman for the government denied this was true…. “

Journalism standards have not simply declined since 1938; they have disappeared altogether. And the brainwashed hacks being turned out by the likes of the Columbia University School of Journalism (and its ilk throughout academia) virtually ensure that those standards will not see a revival any time soon.

Great article, Daniel, and thanks for citing Orwell’s essay. It’s one of my favorites.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

thank you leah and kim

miriam, I do that all the time

edgar, exactly

edward, that wasn't an uncommon interpretation of events at the time

Lemon said...

I often wonder if the reason America and Britain did nothing to help stop transportation to concentration camps was because they were hoping to appease Hitler by letting him kill off all the Jews, just as they now are hoping to appease the mohammed worshippers by letting them destroy whatever pleases them.

Edward Cline said...

Daniel: I know it wasn't uncommon. That Vick-ish news item was just off the top of my head. I'm a novelist, I write fiction, and fictive news items come naturally to me. I think the king of dissimulation in that period was Walter Duranty.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

he certainly took home the prize for it

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

lemon, more like they at best didn't care one way or another, or allowed Hitler to help them out with something they wanted done anyway, but weren't willing to do themselves

Sérgio said...

Now, why isn´t that prick expelled from Israel for hate incitement? He´s no journalist, but an anti-jewish demagogue. Send him back to the euro-trashland he belongs to.

Anonymous said...

How can the "enlightened" west get rid of Jews in our days of political correctness, when even a dirty arab murderer gets a nice sanitized neutral denomination? Take a page from the Goebbels manual (just like you said), dehumanize and blame the Israelis as non existing rats who deserve what they get, aka, destruction from the face of the earth. The parallels to the 30s are so astounding that one has to be blind and deaf not to see them. Since it has been tried and not successful, we must conclude we have the 70 nations coming on to Jerusalem to destroy us.

Keli Ata said...

It never ceases to amaze me that reporters would such biased language in hard news stories. It's bad enough in an editorial but in a news story?


I read the article article but the beginning--Reuter's "clarification" of terrorist attack as an Israeli term was incredible. Naturally it makes Israelis sound extreme; overeactive.

I'm just shaking my head

Lemon said...

Orwell warned it was happening.
It has been going on for a long time now.
Killing people in war is called collateral damage. People are made into things.
It is all over the place.
Propaganda is alive and well, in words and in images as well.

mazalart said...

And I though that I knew a little bit about writing...

Daniel, you can can publish the first lexicon for reading between lines, and then "The Idiot's Guide to Implying Self Suggestive Miss-truths"

Just keep the latter out of the wrong hands - not too many of the younger generation of journalists know how to write. It seems that all of the talent has gone to work in advertising.

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