What You Should Think About Doublespeak

November 14, 2007

“Democracies are dependent upon wonderful language.”

–Norman Mailer

Even though I believe they are an enormous negative influence on the course of events in and beyond the borders of the United States, I retain a measure of sympathy for those people who proudly acknowledge being “dittoheads.” For the uninitiated, the term actually refers to a form of admiration for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Because there came a time when the most sycophantic of his callers might gush on through a whole segment with insubstantial flattery, it has become customary for supportive callers to simple say “dittos” as a means of expressing that admiration without eating up a big chunk of airtime.

Yet the term has another resonance as it applies to the core audiences of righteous indignation specialists like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. These individuals could not possibly be sustaining their popularity through insightful analysis of political realities. If they were indeed insightful, then we would be living in a world where Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden kept each other’s private numbers on speed dial, ozone layer depletion was just an environmentalists’ hoax, and high end tax cuts always insure that an economy will grow like gangbusters.

No matter the number or severity of falsehoods passed off as fact or errant predictions passed off as reliable foresight, pundits catering to the dittohead legion retain their popularity. Clearly part of this is similar to what motivates even more despicable movements that thrive on hate. Rather than demonizing a race, a range of ideologies, often bundled together under the “lib-er-al” umbrella, is the target for hostility. Stirring up negative emotions is a sinister and sleazy, yet nonetheless effective, way to engage the interest of some people and build up a sense of community.

Yet I believe there is something more to all that nonsense than merely a bunker mentality and the sense of belonging that comes from sharing some perspective mainstream media consumers “don’t get.” Perhaps, just as a recovering alcoholic has useful insights into the problems of chronic drunkenness, I possess useful insights into the problems of embracing the dittoheads’ worldview. At no point was I absolute and orthodox in this embrace, but I can recall a time when politics seemed to make more sense to me because I gave serious consideration to the arguments proliferating through conservative talk radio.

I believe part of the appeal is analogous to the popularity of pagan faiths in a more primitive time. Given that the world is innately complex, it provided security and personal satisfaction for people to embrace nice neat little stories to explain mysterious natural phenomena. The politics of the modern world is also innately complex. Responsible civic discourse embraces these complexities and does not substitute the easy myth for the difficult study. Yet dittoheads are not at heart intent on responsibility in their civic discourse. Instead it is the security and personal satisfaction of a coherent narrative that keeps them coming back again and again to the same wells of misinformation.

Part of what enables narratives replete with misinformation to remain coherent is the perversion of language. In its best moments, political speech serves to provide clarity. The Declaration of Independence, FDR’s address following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” oratory — these landmark moments in the history of American political discourse were glorious in no small part because they said what they meant and they meant what they said. There is great power in honesty. This is all the more true in arenas where it is uncommon, like American politics.

Yet there is also great power in duplicity. A man who made no secret of outright hostility to social welfare policies, a man who never met a death warrant he didn’t like — that man rose to power wearing the label “compassionate conservative.” There are in fact compassionate conservatives in the world. Yet they earn that moniker through deeds that display genuine compassion. Today simply talking about compassion seems to be enough to persuade a significant portion of the public.

Karl Rove may have about as much governmental savvy as a dented can of succotash, but his understanding of how to deprive political leaders of popularity may be unrivaled in our times. As he worked his black magic in Texas, anyone at all supportive of a homosexual public figure was characterized as “a pawn of the gay agenda.” Likewise, the 2004 Presidential campaign was only the most recent in a series of maneuvers by which he managed to make a combat veteran cited for valor under fire seem like a coward unworthy of the public trust.

George Orwell is perhaps the most well-known of writers to warn of growing disconnects between political speech and political action. Particularly haunting are the parallels between his darkest narratives and the rise of deliberately misleading terminology in our own time. “Homicide bomber” gave me more mirth than fear, since it was a clumsy effort. The intent to kill is already implicit in the term “bomber.” “Suicide bomber” conveys additional meaning by explicitly articulating the fanaticism of murderous terrorists. “Homicide bomber” is just plain redundant.

Yet not all of today’s newspeak is so clumsy or ineffective. Immigration policies offering a reasonable path to normalization of undocumented alien workers are routinely characterized as “amnesty.” How many critics of reform would find a a $5,000 fine amidst a long series of additional hurdles and penalties the same as getting a free pass? Likewise, even as many Democratic politicians cravenly invite parasites from the health insurance industry into their plans for health care reform, these proposals substantially dependent on private enterprise are still branded as “socialist” by critics.

However, the most dangerous in all the bunch is the nonsense word “Islamofascism.” This term seems to have been crafted with the express purpose of perpetuating the American myth that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were partners in crime. As part of the campaign to shoehorn justification for the Iraq war into some sort of coherent national security policy, the public is being deliberately misinformed about the nature of religion and governance throughout the Middle East.

In point of fact, Al Qaeda has long had the goal of dismantling secular regimes in the Middle East. In fact, years before 2001, bin Laden himself declared that it would serve the purposes of his group if the United States could become bogged down in bloody occupations in that region. Given that the Taliban actually did support Al Qaeda and refused to cooperate with counterterrorism efforts, there once was a tiny nexus where authoritarians and radical terrorists were actually in alliance. Yet elsewhere the relationship is uniformly adversarial. Apart from being oil money playboys who turned to fundamentalist religion before taking center stage in world history’s most recent episode of violence, another link between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden is that they both believed strongly that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go.

In the end Islamofascism serves as a way to blunt understanding of the Middle East. Curiously enough, it is never brought to bear on thinking about the Saudi regime, but Iran is a favorite target of its users. In the end it serves to simplify matters so that people can feel as if they’ve adopted a coherent and useful perspective even as they have actually stopped well short of understanding the complexities of the region. By failing to recognize the various antagonistic relationships between terrorist organizations and working governments throughout the Middle East, conservative pundits dumb it all down to a “white hats and black hats” scenario that presents a mix of shaky alliances and outright enemies as if they were all part of one coherent faction with a single agenda. This serves the immediate needs of White House officials, but it undermines the national need to deal with realities in a hotbed of geopolitical chaos.


What You Should Think About Satan

October 31, 2007

“I do not fear Satan half so much as I fear those who fear him.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

As the nation’s very young go from door to door in search of candy and the nation’s young-at-heart venture off to costume parties, it seems to me an opportune moment to discuss the subject of my favorite Rolling Stones song. Satan has a curious place in American culture. Never more than a minor player in Christian scripture, some sects have transformed him into an immensely powerful and important figure just short of being God’s equal in cosmic stature.

It seems that cultural austerity outside of church was not enough for the Puritans — establishing stronger contrast between the mundane and sacred demanded particular intensity from religious services. They incorporated the drama of fire and brimstone into their routine existence. Perhaps some audiences do find the hyperbole of devil-obsessed preaching more gripping than sermons about peace and love. Yet there is a downside to dwelling on theological evil. It all too often provides cover for actual evil to be done in the world.

Any sensible perspective on some of America’s earliest colonial communities makes it easy to see that professional witch hunters, with their zeal for torture and execution, were a real blight on society. Reasonable people should not need be told that witchcraft was a fiction spawned by the press of heavy stones or the touch of hot irons rather than a reality generated by broomstick-riding bringers of pestilence. Pagan traditions may be undergoing some resurgence in modern times, but earnest believers in practical wizardry are just as ridiculous as the devout Christian convinced his mojo would enable him to walk on water.

Yet the blight of Puritanical extremism continues to leave marks on modern American culture. Among the worst of these marks is the continued popularity in some sects of religious teachings that villanize other people. Links between Lucifer and Satan have much more to do with interpretations of scripture than any content therein. However, the tale of Lucifer holds that the fallen angel suffered after claiming the power of God for himself. Is there no lesson here for mortals who presume to judge the saved and the damned by their own haughty sermons?

Clearly that lesson exists, yet it is equally clear that this lesson is widely ignored in many circles. Ancient literature is largely ambiguous about subjects like premarital sex, homosexuality, and the sanctity of human zygotes. Not only have preachers and their flocks presumed to have absolute answers about matters like this, many go the extra mile to proclaim they have knowledge of who surely must be damned to Hell. In a very real way they presume to wield power that their own most sacred texts specify in no uncertain terms should be the domain of God alone.

It seems in faith, as with politics, all too often engaging dark human emotions enables leaders to cultivate popularity that they could not find by relying on honest rational discourse. Those of us who do not follow the teachings of any organized faith may find it odd to suggest religious activity should be more rational. Yet the only real difference between talking about faith and talking about any other subject is that faith is bounded by assumptions that are inherently beyond the scope of empirical verification. Within those bounds, surely there is value in remaining rational. After all, no theists deny that reason and related faculties are God-given gifts, but any particular institutional teaching or interpretation of scripture is clearly the product of mortal efforts.

The same is true of many other belief systems that feature some being to serve as the primary focus of evil. Having similar roots in religious history, Islam and Christianity also have strikingly parallel narratives on many subjects. Shaitan is not exactly a fallen angel, but he was condemned for his pride in the face of the supreme being. In Islam, he serves as an agent of the temptation to stray from whatever path is thought to be pleasing to Allah.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics do not approve of bombing crowded civilian markets. Yet in terrorist camps and a few other dark places, some people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. An overwhelming majority of Christian clerics do not approve of bombs exploding in civilian markets either. Yet in some dark places, people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. The common thread begins by linking other human beings with the Devil, then asserting a duty of mortals to carry out judgements by playing God.

“God is love” is another common thread that runs through monotheistic traditions. In fact, it is said of many faiths that their essence could be distilled to that single sentence. Though he is merely a minor character various scriptures, Satan becomes prominent wherever clerical leaders make the choice to abandon a message of love and seek personal popularity by advancing a message of hate. Those who call for their followers to abandon compassion, mercy, and humility have elected to advance a message that cannot credibly be associated with the deity they claim to revere.

In some ways it seems that the root of much evil is the predisposition of some groups to characterize other groups as evil. Hatred is by nature unreasoning, but many times it is not spontaneous either. It can be cultivated, and this cultivation is a skill unto itself. The pages of history are littered with gratuitously bloody wars, brutally oppressive regimes, and campaigns of terror all driven by divisive beliefs that characterize other ethnicities, faiths, or nations as fit targets for violence in light of their evil natures.

No ethnicity is predominantly evil. No nation is predominantly evil. Not even any faith of significance is predominantly evil. There is real evil in the world, and often it is in the actions of those inspired by arrogant leaders commanding others to stamp out what they have judged to be evil. Our laws, and even our armies, may rightly be put to use preventing harm or neutralizing threats posed by those who do harm. Given a rational fact-based approach to assessing threats, exercise of power in this manner will tend to make the world a better place.

To the degree that our laws or our armies are put to use fighting evil, we run a very real risk of perpetrating very real evil. Whether you look to one of the world’s most sacred texts for personal guidance or you look at them all as collections of stories infused with ancient wisdom, there is something to learn from studying Satan. Those ancient stories speak pointedly to the folly of presuming mere mortals are fit to substitute their judgement for divine judgement. Even if taken only as metaphor, it is clear that a Hell on Earth tends to be the consequence of framing the exercises of power as some sort of quest to smite evil.

I believe there is also something to be learned from studying how mere mortals invoke Satan and related concepts in their teachings. If you do practice a faith, and along the way you seek wisdom from clerics involved with that faith, pay careful attention to the frequency and context of their talk about the Devil. If that theme is common, if it is used as a means to inflame hatred, if the echoes of it drown out appeals to peace or tolerance or love . . . then you would do well to look elsewhere for wisdom.

One can only speak generally when talking about an entire large group of people. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on making other human beings suffer. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on killing other human beings. I am in no position to prove to theists that the Devil does not exist. Yet I do know, as history proves with relentless consistency, that a fixation on attacking others labeled as “evil” brings much pointless killing and hatred into the world. If Satan does indeed exist, he can only smile at each instance when a preacher demands the faithful take it upon themselves to judge in the name of the divine, then act against others based on those judgements.