A favorite buzzword today is “socialism.” The strict definition, as I remember had to do with government ownership of the means of production. Under socialism, the government would make shoes, baseballs, tanks, airplanes, automobiles, coffee cups, and condoms. In real life, people use the word more loosely. Folks usually use it to disparage some government activity they don’t like. So we hear about socialized medicine, socialized schools, socialized insurance, etc. But we don’t hear about socialized military, socialized police departments, socialized military aid, or the socialized School of the Americas/WHINSEC. In my experience, people usually try to justify such socialized government functions by claiming they’re more efficient than the private sector. Turns out the efficiency of government operations appears to depend on whether you like or don’t like them.
With that in mind, I will join the club of people who use the term “socialized” loosely and refer to socialized linguistics.
Should the federal government be in charge of our words? Is it a proper function of government to tell us what words do and do not mean? Should citizens be required to refrain from using words not authorized by the government?
When I was a little kid, we had a secretary of war. When our country sent armed troops into battles against the armed troops of other countries, we called that war. But Pres. Truman decided to change that concept. He re-named the war in Korea a mere “police action” despite the fact that to my knowledge no North Korean or Chinese communists were cited for parking violations or sold tickets to the Policemen’s Ball.
We don’t have wars any more, at least officially. Congress hasn’t done its job of declaring a war since Dec. 1941. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we now longer have secretaries of war; the government now calls them secretaries of defense.
Defense used to mean protecting yourself from being attacked. No country has attacked us since 1941, at least in a declared war, although a navy ship was attacked by an ally who insists the attack was accidental. (Come to think of it does an incident become an accident because and when the government calls it an accident?)
But nowadays, “defense” means anything government officials want it to. We’re told we “defended” ourselves from attacks by such superpowers as North Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan despite the fact that none of those countries had troops, tanks, airplanes, warships and nuclear weapons pointed at our homeland just minutes away from all-out invasion. Apparently our politicians want us to believe we are “defending” our country from being disobeyed by third-world countries who don’t do everything our politicians tell them to do.
I used to think a terrorist was someone who killed or maimed innocent people in order to instill fear in masses of people. But the federal government refused to apply that term to the guys who killed and maimed innocent Nicaraguans in order to instill fear in masses of Nicaraguans. The government instead referred to those murderers as “freedom fighters.” Comedian George Carlin got it right when he asked, “If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fires, what do freedom fighters fight?”
I get a kick out of folks who refuse to consider Ku Klux Klanners as terrorists. One frequent responder to these cyberpages is content to refer to them simply as “racists,” apparently on the assumption the worst thing the Klan has done is poorly implementing affirmative action progams.
Apparently, our government isn’t the only one to play around with the word “terrorist.” Last December our local newspaper reported Israeli officials consider Palestinian little kids who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers as terrorists. But the government refuses to apply that term to right-wing Israelis who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. When asked whether a soldier should open fire on Jewish rock-throwers as they do with Palestinian rock-throwers, Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Yoav Mordechai reportedly answered, “I assume…you wouldn’t expect the brigade commander to open fire at a Jew standing in front of him.” Apparently, Israeli’s apartheid policy extends not only to territory but also to language.
Israel’s not the only Middle Eastern nation to treat the word as a light switch to be turned on and off at one’s convenience. Syria’s dictator doesn’t use the word terrorist to describe government troops but only those who fight government troops. The situation has become more complicated with reports that al Qaida may have really moved into Syria and opposed the Assad regime.
In the olden days, an enemy combatant was someone in the military uniform and carrying the weapon of a country at war with the US. In the W administration, an enemy combatant was anyone held prisoner without due process at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib. You didn’t have to don a uniform or grab a weapon to become an “enemy combatant.” The US government simply bestowed that title on you whenever it felt like it.
A lot of folks got to their new venues through a process we used to call “kidnapping,” capturing and holding innocent people against their wills. That term is sooooooooo 20th century. Now, governments don’t kidnap; they perform “extraordinary rendition.” So instead of executing people for kidnapping, we employ them in the federal government.
The Obama administration added to the fun by bestowing the title “militant” posthumously on any adult male standing near enough to be killed along with the target of a US drone fired from a site in Nevada.
In the old days killing innocent people was considered murder. Nowadays, such actions by government officials is now called, “terminate with extreme prejudice.”
I recently watched the 1939 movie “Gunga Din.” One of the characters is beaten and threatened to be thrown into a pit of snakes unless he revealed the location of British troops. We used to call that action “torture.” Now, the government tells us to call it “enhanced interrogation.”
The late investigative reporter I.F. Stone used to say, “Governments lie.” He wouldn’t be allowed to say that these days. He’d have to refer to such behavior as “disinformation.”
I’m interested in how readers see government use (or should I say abuse?) our language. Should we require our government officials to use it or should we let them make up their own language? In other words, should English or governmentese be our official language?