A euphemism for Unspeak?
March 21, 2008
The New York Review of Books contains an essay, by David Bromwich, entitled “Euphemism and American Violence“, which unaccountably fails to climax with a rousing recommendation that NYRB readers rush out and buy Unspeak. Even so, it is an interesting read, touching on many examples that I’ve discussed in my book and here at unspeak.net, and a few I haven’t: I particularly liked Bromwich’s reading of Condoleezza Rice’s invocation of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”.
The main problem with the essay’s approach, as I see it, is already right there in the title. Like just about everyone who reaches for George Orwell’s essay in order to discuss contemporary political language, Bromwich assumes that “euphemism” is a sufficient description of what is going on. But it isn’t. After all, one of Bromwich’s own prime examples, the phrase “global war on terrorism”, is not exactly euphemistic, because calling something a “war” does not constitute an attempt to make it sound nicer than it is. To euphemize a campaign of killing, you instead call it a “conflict” or an “incursion” or an “intervention”1 — or, indeed, a “struggle”, as in the short-lived Global Struggle Against Violent
Euphemism Extremism. But GWOT or TWAT or “war on terror” is obviously designed to sound as apocalyptically grandiose and world-historical as possible.
Perhaps this is still euphemistic in some way, in that it lends a rhetorical illusion of logic, homogeneity and necessity to a grab-bag (or smash-and-grab-bag) of different actions: but if so, this is a very specific reason for the choice of language. (Another reason for the specific formulation “war on terror” was, as I argued in Unspeak, to conflate state and non-state actors indiscriminately, thus writing a cheque for unlimited remodelling of the world by force.) Bromwich, apparently still in thrall to Orwell’s vague talk of “cloudy vagueness” in political language, misses such concrete policy implications of the rhetoric: apparently, it’s useful just because it’s not “definite”; it creates a “mood”, as do all “euphemisms”. And thus Bromwich’s critique of euphemism is infected with the blurriness of euphemism itself.
To assume that everything is “euphemism”, moreover, is to ignore the rhetorical current, just as useful, of its opposite: dysphemism, when you pretend that things are worse than they really are — a strategy nicely packaged up in phrases such as “terrorist suspects”, “bogus asylum-seekers”, and perhaps most notoriously, “axis of evil”, about as far from a euphemism, in one direction, as it is possible to get.
For a moment, the naked cynicism of dysphemistic rhetoric was gloriously revealed the other day, when John McCain started blabbing about how Iran was training and arming Al Qaeda. Now, I do not actually think, as my friend Jeff Hussein Strabone argues, that this betrayed “ignorance” on McCain’s part. I suspect, rather, that it just showed how thoroughly he has internalized the propaganda lesson that calling people “Al Qaeda” gives you carte blanche to launch bombs at wherever they might be; and that it handily reinforces the fiction that “Al Qaeda” is actually a homogeneous global force that poses an existential threat to the American way of life, etc; as well as the more specific fiction that “Al Qaeda” has been the enemy all along in Iraq. It would be tediously restrictive to save the term “Al Qaeda” for the groups or groupuscules that actually claim that brand for themselves; so “Al Qaeda” becomes the preferred globally applicable bogey-label to mean “bad guys to whom we can do anything we like” — and in that sense it is quite understandable that McCain should have made the slip he did.
Notable, too, that his corrected version called the Shia forces allegedly backed by Iran instead “extremists”, which was part of the abortive G-SAVE slogan and constitutes the most helpfully wide definition of “people we’d like to kill” — because, after all, a war just against Osama’s gang didn’t quite offer the planetary scope required. And that brings us back to why “war on terror” has always been the publicly preferred version of what is known internally to the military as the “global war on terrorism”, because restricting the target to terrorism would have made it even harder to pretend that Saddam Hussein was part of the same picture. But no one could deny that he was a perpetrator of “terror”.
So. Euphemism? That’s not the half of it. As unspeak.net commenter SW argues incisively: “Perhaps ‘euphemism’ is a bit of unspeak as well — the audience consists of passive mooks lulled into acquiescence by the sweet words, which are chosen only because they sound better, not because they are doing any work.”
Final quiz: is Bromwich committing any amount of euphemism, or alternatively Unspeak, himself when he refers to the administration’s announcement of the TWAT as “launching their response to Islamic jihadists” — and if so, how much?