The Destruction of Meaningful Language

William Krehm

It is getting ever more difficult making sense of the antics of President George W. Bush. He and his military are sinking into an inability to grasp what is happening around them. It all started as a seemingly innocent exercise of absolutist power, but what began as a self-assured exercise in routine professional omnipotence is well on the way towards becoming a disconnect with what is going on in a world that he had to rebuild in his own image.

A whole generation of American generals are not content to criticize their President for the dreamt-up role he assigned to the Al Quaeda in Iraq. They have come to question whether he has not lost his ability to assess and put into a coherent picture what he and his predecessors have been engaged in for as long as the joint duration of the two wars, with still no end in sight.

The New York Times Op-Ed section (3/12/06, "Has He Started Talking to the Walls" by Frank Rich) wastes no time in coming to a disturbing conclusion: "It turns out we’ve been reading the wrong Bob Woodward book to understand what’s going on with President Bush. The text we should be consulting instead of The Final Days, the Woodward-Bernstein account of Richard Nixon talking to the portraits on the White House walls while Watergate demolished his presidency. As Mr. Bush has ricocheted from Latvia to Jordan in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed the troubling behaviour of a president who isn’t merely in a state of denial, but is completely untethered from reality. It’s not that he can’t handle the truth about Iraq. He doesn’t know what truth is.

"The most startling example was his insistence that Al Quaeda is primarily responsible for the country’s spiraling violence. Only a week before Mr. Bush said this, the American military spokesman on the scene, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, called Al Quaeda ‘extremely disorganized’ in Iraq, adding that ‘I would question at this point how effective they are at all at the state level.’ Military intelligence estimates that Al Quaeda makes up only 2% to 3% of the enemy forces in Iraq, according to Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News. The bottom line: America has a commander-in-chief who can’t even identify some 97% to 98% of the combatants in a war that has gone on longer than our involvement in World War II.

"But that is not the half of it. Mr. Bush relentlessly refers to Iraq’s ‘unity government’ though it is not unified and can only nominally govern. After that pseudo-government’s prime minister, Nuri Maliki, brushed him off in Amman, the president nonetheless declared him ‘the right guy for Iraq’ the morning after. This came only a day after the Time’s revelation of a secret memo by Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, judging Mr. Maliki as ‘ignorant of what is going on’ in his own country or disingenuous or insufficiently capable of running a government."

Not Meeting with the Right Guy

"In fact the President was so out of it, that he wasn’t even meeting with the right guy. No one doubts that the most powerful leader in Iraq is that anti-American, pro-Hezbollah cleric Moktada al-Sadr, without whom Mr. Maliki would be on the scrapheap next to his short-lived predecessors, Alyan Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Sadr’s militia is far more powerful than the official Iraqi Army, that we’ve been helping to ‘stand up’ to at hideous cost all these years. If we’re not going to ‘Take him out’ as John McCain proposed this month, we might as well deal with him directly rather than with Mr. Maliki, his puppet. But our president shows few signs of recognizing Mr. Sadr’s existence.

"In his classic study The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell wrote of how World War I shattered and remade literature, for only a new language of irony could convey the trauma and waste of that conflict. Under the auspices of Mr. Bush, the Iraqi War is having a comparable if different, linguistic impact: the more he loses his hold on reality, the more language is severed from meaning altogether.

"When the president persists in talking about staying until ‘the mission is complete,’ even though there is no definable military mission, let alone one that can be completed, he is indulging in pure absurdity. The same goes for his talk of ‘victory,’ another concept robbed of any definition when the prime minister we are trying to prop up is allied with Mr. Sadr, a man who wants Americans dead and has many scalps to prove it. The newest hollowed-out Bush word is ‘phase.’ As if the increasing violence were as transitional as the growing pains of a surly teen-ager ‘phase’ is meant to drown out all the unsettling debate about two words the President doesn’t want to hear, ‘civil war.’

"When news organizations, politicians and bloggers had their own civil war about the proper usage of that designation last week, it was highly instructive – but about America, not Iraq. The intensity of the squabble showed the corrosive effect the president’s subversion of language has had on our larger culture. Iraq arguably passed beyond civil war months ago into what might more accurately be termed ethnic cleansing or chaos.

"We have all taken to following Mr. Bush’s lead in retreating from English as we once knew it. It took us far too long to acknowledge that the ‘abuses’ at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere might be more accurately called torture. And that the ‘manipulation of prewar intelligence might be more accurately called lying. Next up is ‘pullback,’ the Iraq Study Group’s reported ‘euphemism’ to stave off the word ‘retreat’ (if not retreat itself)."

It is true that once games begin with language of the mighty and the most learned who are supposed to be the models for our consciences and our minds, there is no stopping. And to appreciate the ghastly implications of that, we must go back long before the sorry shortcomings of Abraham Lincoln’s latest successor.

Two closely braided causes – political and military idiocy and economic interest – brought the Americans into Iraq. It was one of the inevitable consequences of the deep faith in an ever expanding and ever more deregulated market, that has not only been taken over by its financial sector, but is under the compulsion to go on growing. This constraint comes through options and derivatives and their countless variants projected into the remotest future. And then, discounted for present value, it is incorporated into today’s and to-morrow’s stock prices. For, failing that, the options that high executives are rewarded with become worthless. But this forward lean of the economy causes it sooner or later to fall on its face. That and the thirst hallowed by the religious belief in a self-balancing market. That article of the official faith is supposedly proved with a misapplication of differential calculus that assumes that all economic agents are of such infinitesimally small size that nothing they do individually or leave undone can possible affect prices and the market. This in the world of our mega financial mergers! And if you can swallow that anything that Mr. Bush can come up with is small-time stuff. What drives the show is the need for world expansion of the American financial system and its imitators abroad.

The Bush phenomenon has to be taken back to its initial roots – that in fact were dealt with by Keynes and the Roosevelt government to lift the world out of the world depression. All that has been buried far deeper than the regulatory six feet. The American economic historian Douglass North has reached the conclusion in examining violent regime changes that when there is a drastic change in the distribution of the national income, the old political alliance that presided over the previous revenue apportionment breaks up and a new one reflecting the new distribution of economic power takes over. Then the language, economic theory, and much else are reshaped. Our media are overflowing with the trickle-down myth, and the brazen growth of the financial sector over the rest of the economy. Coming from an indifferently educated Southern politician, that should be less astounding than the readiness of highly educated economists to swallow the illiteracies of the creed of the self-balancing market that led many American politicians and military leaders to lie their way into the Iraqi adventure. Undoubtedly the cost of it all will be further thousands of innocent lives of many races throughout much of the world. It was all foretold in the shameful abandonment of their Vietnamese allies in the unforgettable shots of the last departing US helicopters leaving their Vietnamese supporters as they took off never to return.

William Krehm

-- from Economic Reform, January 2007