Just a thought for the day, as I shall soon be departing these shores with the young'uns for a well-deserved getaway. Does the use of empty words serve a political purpose? George Orwell thought so. And they're being deployed with flair by conservatives today.
Clichés are always annoying, but in the wrong hands they can be downright menacing. Take the oft-seen and heard slogan, "Support Our Troops." Can anyone tell me what that injunction means? How do we express that support, in concrete terms? What, in other words, are we supposed to do, exactly?
I support our troops. I'd like to get them out of Afghanistan pronto, out of the crossfire between rival gangs of toughs. Of course the Taliban was a demented, deformed regime, with mediaeval attitudes towards women. No, let me correct that--in our own mediaeval period, women probably fared better, unless they were accused of witchcraft. Don't get your hopes up, though, about the folks now in charge, with their own quaint folkways in that respect. The current regime isn't exactly populated by feminists.
But "support our troops" in current usage seems instead to be code for "support the mission." This means that most Canadians, including me, don't support the troops. Does the phrase implicitly accuse us of lacking patriotism? Does it demand a kind of political conformity? You decide.
Another word that has been utterly emptied of its original content is "anti-Semitic." I've beaten this drum before, but let me offer a couple of recent examples. First, a friend in the opposing political camp read this article by Eric Margolis, and divined anti-Semitism in it. The French Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was described by Margolis as "backstabbing," and a possessor of "naked ambition," and "notorious aggressiveness." He is a supporter of Israel. And one of his opponents, Francois Bayrou, "won't rock the boat or give the French indigestion like hyperactive Sarko. He will keep France...France."
It's far more likely that Sarkozy's Hungarian background and name (he was the son of a Hungarian immigrant) caused him some problems among insular French electors. But the mere mention of the word "Jewish" was enough to condemn Margolis. (Is this reporter an anti-Semite too?) These aspects of Sarkozy's personality--ambitious, backstabbing, aggressive--are part of the Jewish stereotype, said my friend. Well, no, not really--if anything, the description seems to fit any ranking member of Canada's Liberal Party. But besides, must Sarkozy get a pass on these undeniable aspects of his character simply because he had a Jewish ancestor? That's just a kind of anti-Semitism in reverse, isn't it?
Then--and this has to take the cake for sheer political idiocy--right-wing polemicist Terry Glavin has suggested in a comment at his place that an earlier commenter is an anti-Semite, for calling him a "neocon." Glavin is Irish.
Last, but not least, we have the word "terrorist." It now applies, according to the Vatican, to supporters of same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose. A majority of Canadians, under this new definition, would qualify as terrorists.
The danger in all of this, of course, is the floating, ambiguous nature of the terms. It allows anyone, at any time, to have an injurious label attached to him or her. This can be done arbitrarily and maliciously, and most of us are vulnerable. It can affect our livelihoods, our ability to travel, our reputations. The use of words and phrases in this manner, which helps to enforce a rigid right-wing political correctness, is a potent weapon in the hands of the dishonest, the lazy, the incompetent, or even the careless. Contrary to the old rhyme, sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can also hurt us--and even prove fatal.