The relativity of language

James Rothenberg

Barest facts: On January 6, a rally turned into a march which turned into a breaching of the Capitol grounds and then a riot at the Capitol itself, the violence of which led to Trump’s second impeachment on the charge of Incitement of Insurrection.

As insurrections go, this was one of low political clarity. It was not designed to overthrow or destroy the existing government. Its representatives were a diverse group of right wing America-firsters, bible thumpers, white supremacists, and people who believe anything they haven’t heard before, with overlapping between these too-generalized categories.

How do we describe what happened? How do we describe anything? Language is very flexible. Take the sentence; Revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge is not a dish. It’s an act, and acts can be performed with a coldness. Dishes are not performed, but they can be cold. Here language is used creatively to excite the reader’s interest.

Language has a purpose that’s dependent on the perspective of the user. Take the word, sedition, from the Latin seditio meaning separation, extended to ‘separation from authority’. Lawful authority does not come down from the heavens. It is claimed by Earthly creatures, but it is not always just. Incitement of resistance to an illegal war is an act of sedition, but it takes lawful authority to make sedition a punishable crime.

Sometimes language is insufficient as a descriptor. This is where mathematics takes over, as is the case with quantum phenomena. Describing the quantum world in everyday language has led to metaphysical interpretations claiming proof of old world mysticism. This is because the words of ordinary, macro life are unsuited to describing phenomena on a quantum level which obeys quantum sense but disobeys common sense.

George Orwell never could have imagined the term, Orwellian. And if he had, never how robust it has become. Authority has become so adept at propaganda — a policy driven use of language — that standard usage of language across ideologies is nearly obsolete.

Language can have a double-standard aspect to it, distinct from the double-cross of the “white man speaks with forked-tongue”. It is using different language to describe similar events, depending on where they are and who is involved.

Just recently, Mohamad Safa, Lebanese permanent representative to the UN, had this to say:

“If the United States saw what the United States is doing in the United States, the United States would invade the United States to liberate the United States from the tyranny of the United States.”

He was referring to the language used by Washington when it backs the very thing that took place at our Capitol when it is directed against a target country. In Hong Kong, Ukraine, and in the color revolutions it is not an insurrection, but democracy in action.

Writer Harold Pinter, taking on American imperialism in his Nobel Acceptance speech, took language used as pablum to its heights:

Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people,’ as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.’

Language can be used selectively. Take the word, regime (a form of government). The US refers to enemy states as “regimes”, and the people within are said to be “living under a regime”. They may live under an authoritative regime, a socialist regime, or a communist regime. We don’t live under a regime here, certainly not a capitalist regime.

Language can be used to twist meaning. We have a Defense Department with a Secretary of Defense. We used to have a War Department with a Secretary of War. That was until 1947. Since then we have gone strictly on the offense. Confusing, until you get the gist of it.

We seem to suffer from a superiority complex. We have legitimate interests all over the world. What are all those “interests” we always hear about? Are they ever explained to us? China and Russia have no interests at all, even in their part of the world.

If capitalism is such a superior form of societal organization, why is it that a few socialisms can’t be tolerated? Even more puzzling — if we wanted to puzzle over it — since we have a mix of capitalism and socialism in our country, why are we still demonizing socialism in the highest echelons?

Identity divisions (red/blue, pro-abortion/anti-abortion, pro-queer/anti-queer, over-educated/under-educated, citizen/immigrant, Anglo/Hispanic, White/Black, White/indigenous, Black lives/Blue lives) are everywhere evident.

But what is less understood, and accounts for the demonization of socialism, is the question of class. Here is Noam Chomsky:

We don’t use the term “working class” here because it’s a taboo term. You’re supposed to say “middle class”, because it helps diminish the understanding that there’s a class war going on.

No matter what happens in Washington, the governance of our country will follow the directives of capitalist elites. They may compete against each other, but no movement by the lower or working class that threatens their positions will be tolerated.

I recently heard a political elite make the claim that there are no oligarchs in our country. I don’t recall who it was, other than it was a man, but it’s unimportant. It could have been anybody, because anyone in a similar position would have the same outlook. No oligarchs here! There’s that language flexibility again.

James Rothenberg, of North Chatham, writes on US social and foreign policy.

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