Cunning Linguists

I’m not sure how many of you were aware, but Bush has been in Australia for the past 24 hours and earlier this afternoon gave a speech in front of our federal parliament. There was nothing in the speech we hadn’t heard before (you can read the full speech here) and the only excitement came when two Greens senators began heckling Bush mid-speech. Bob Brown (the leader of the Greens) was the first, apparently criticising Bush’s commitment to the Iraqi people (listen here) the second was Kerry Nettle, apparently criticising a proposed free-trade agreement between the two nations (listen here), essentially Australia’s “reward” for committing troops to Iraq. Later on, Bob Brown shook George Bush’s hand outside parliament while Kerry Nettle attempted to hand some documents to Bush (which I think had something to do with an Australian unlawfully held at Guantanamo Bay) which he refused to accept.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I was going to start a topic about “Republican linguistics” a few days ago, but decided to hold off until I heard Bush’s speech to parliament. I’m glad I did, because it merely reinforced what I already realised: that the Republican Party, by unceasingly referring to grand, general, idealistic humanitarian principles in speeches and liasons with the media, have been able to continually hoodwink citizens of their own nation and of the globe into believing that the party, in some significant way, hold a commitment to them. The principles I refer to are, primarily, freedom, liberty (similary concept to freedom but pertaining more to human rights) and democracy.

This policy works for several reasons:

Firstly, to paraphrase a famous quote from a top-ranking Nazi official, “if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it”. That is, by saturating speeches with references to the party’s commitment to freedom, liberty and democracy, the hope is that, eventually, people will begin to believe - almost subconciously - that the administration does hold a stead-fast commitment to these concepts. To define what I mean by “saturation” we need only look at the speech gave in parliament today:

  • He used the words “democracy” or “self-government” a total of 9 times.
  • He used the words “liberty” or “liberation” a total of 5 times.
  • He used the words “free” or “freedom” a total of 21 times.

So that’s 35 words - nearly 2% of his entire speech - referring directly to the principles he wants so dearly to be acknowledged to uphold. Literally every 50th word in this speech was effectively some derivative of the words “free”, “liberty” or “democracy”: who could fail to be won over by such propagandistic repetition?

Secondly, purely by repetitiously referring to these principles, the administration has been able to instate itself - in the eyes of many (including their own) - as the sole, global defender of these principles. By effectively referring to them more than any other political body, not only are they seen as being more “committed” to them than any other body, but the terms are slowly beginning to be recognised and acknowledged to be defined by many only on the Republican’s terms. The concept of democracy becomes their definition of democracy, the concept of liberty becomes their definition of liberty and the concept of freedom becomes their definition of freedom. Because their semantical hold on these principles is so monopolistic globally, anyone who attempts to use these principles in any other way can easily be derided as being, in actual fact, against them in some way (see the part on dichotemisation). To use an example, somehow democracy, freedom and liberty have semantically, under this administration, become intertwined with the quite separate tennets of societal-individualism and free-market capitalism. To be free and democratic, all of a sudden, a nation must reject the possibility that the needs of the society, as a collective whole, are equal to those of any given individual and that they must be able to sell their capitial to foreigners whenever they want? When did freedom and democracy ever necessitate those conditions? Why are people who reject these stipulations all of a sudden being labelled undemocratic or anti-freedom? Why are we hearing about the imminent arrival of laissez-faire capitalism in Iraq as though it’s a necessary stage of Iraq’s liberation and democratisation and why is no-one batting an eyelid when these sorts of concepts are subliminally linked in such a manner? Because the Republicans are in power and because we’ve allowed them to hijack the definitions of these words, that’s why.

The subtle, semantical redefinition of these principles is similar to the redefinition of patriotism and the linking of Iraq to terrorism in the build-up to the Iraq war. All of a sudden, after September 11, patriotism meant standing there waving a flag, knowing that the president should not be criticised and accepting that, whatever happens to you or the society around you, the president is doing it all in the name of “good” (and “democracy” and “liberty” and…). Whatever happened to the definition of patriotism and democracy envisaged by the founding fathers, which explicitly includes the committed involvement of the citizenry in the system of checks and balances - which necessarily includes criticism of the government? How did the US public allow their patriotism - traditionally one of their greatest strengths as a people - to be degenerated under the current administration into a such a debased, perverse weakness? And it’s exactly the same with the Iraq/terrorism link: put the words “Iraq” and “terrorism” (or, say, “patriotism” and “close your eyes and take directions”) in the same sentence often enough, and eventually - once again almost subliminally - the public will begin to associate them as if they were ever in any way related. Why is it - even after the flimsy evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups has been shown to be false or fraudulent - we allow Bush, Howard or Blair to continue to link the two concepts in speeches with virtually no danger of reproach? Why is it that, invariably, when a news-reader presents a story on Iraq, the caption “War on Terror: Update” continues to sit above his right shoulder? Because we’ve been hoodwinked, that’s why: we’ve allowed the administrations in the US, the UK and Australia to set the agenda and, purely from their incessant repetition of key-words, have allowed them engage in debates using their definitions of these key-words and subtly intertwine otherwise unrelated concepts to the extent that we have come to associate such concepts as inextricably related when they are - even upon shallow analysis - demonstrably not.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m re-reading 1984 at the moment, but I see something distinctly Orwellian in all this. What else but doublethink could explain why we recognise - based on the availble evidence (or complete lack of?) - that the issues of Iraq and terrorism are unrelated, but still allow politicians to implicitly and explicitly link the two without so much as blinking an eyelid? How can we applaud Bush’s commitment to “democracy” and “liberty” in full consciousness of his involvement in the Florida debacle, the Patriot Act, or Camp X-Ray? When Bush responded to the protests of senator Nettle with the quip “I love free-speech!” why was it that my own politicians applauded him - as though he was in any way sincere in this remark - when they knew full-well that protests (set up in similarly Orwellian sounding “Free-Speech Areas”) were forcibly pushed back far, far away from parliament house and the US Embassy, and that - for the first time ever in 102 years of Australian Federation - Parliament House was closed to the Australian public, purely upon the insistance of Bush’s own secret service? Once again it’s because we’ve allowed these “grand, general, idealistic humanitarian principles” to be hijacked by these people and allowed them to serve them up on their own terms, using their own, twisted definitions. We’ve been blinded by their grandiose language to the extent that we can no longer recognise their deeds.

Returning to the “I love free-speech” comment though, I will make my next point: that by having these buzz-words near at hand, the Bush administration can deflect criticism and make a dash for their psuedo-principled “high-ground” any time criticism is directed at their policies. By responding to Senator Nettle’s vitriol with a vague comment like “I love free-speech” Bush achieves two things:

  1. Even though he has made no attempt whatsoever to respond to the criticisms, he has been able to deflect them.
  2. He has been able to take the higher-ground - to “stand upon a semantical soap-box” if you like.

Now although Senator Nettle was in many ways stupid to afford him the opportunity to take the high-ground like this, it doesn’t mean we should let him stay perched there. Besides, there is a case history of the current US administration deflecting criticism in this way: namely, by deferring to the general principles they speciously wrap themselves in, every time they are posed with a question they have no ready answer for.

In a similar vain, for instance, when Laurie Oakes (an Australian political analyst) interviewed George Bush recently (incidently the only media contact he was allowed during his brief visit) he explained to the President the sorts of protests many Labor MPs were likely carry-out during his address (i.e. refusing to clap, wearing white arm-bands etc.) in response to US policy. To this, Bush could only reply “It means that democracy’s alive and well” before launching into an unrelated spiel about the braveness of Australian troops in Iraq. By replying with merely “It means that democracy’s alive and well” instead of, say, defending the policies that were being protested against in the first place, Bush is simultaneously able to defuse the criticisms directed at him and suggest, patronizingly, that these protests contain no more significance than as having a largely incidental role in a much greater democratic process - a process, incidently, he sees himself as the primary fighter for. When anti-American, Shiite protests began to emerge in Southern Iraq, the response was similar. Rather than acknowledge the root causes of this anti-Americanism, address how they may be resolved or address the implications they may have on the future stability in Iraq, Bush merely said:

“Freedom is beautiful and when people are free they express their opinions. They couldn’t express their opinions before we came, now they can. I always said [that establishing] democracy is going to be hard. It’s not easy to go from being enslaved to being free. But it’s going to happen because the basic instinct of mankind is to be free… So sure, there are people who express their opinions, and we welcome that.”

(See here.)

Once again: criticism deflected, Bush exhaulted (as the cheif proponent of these “beautiful” principles) and the actions of the Iraqi people patronized as being little more than incidental to a far greater, psuedo-metaphysical cause spear-headed (or so they’d like to think) by the Bush administration. The criticisms and complaints made by the Iraqis go completely unheeded, when surely the “acknowledgement” of free-opinions is every bit as important as the speech itself (what good is free-speech if, having been ignored by the relevent parties, it cannot possibly make any difference to the society around you?). Any questions about the uncertainty of the future of Iraq or of the undesirable living-conditions that exist there now, are often responded to in a similar way, with the flexible, all purpose" “but they’re ‘free’ now”.

Once again, the question must be raised: how can we allow this administration to completely deflect criticism just by putting a few words either side of the terms “freedom”, “liberty” or “democracy” and allow them to take the high-ground on these principles (as though they are the only ones interested in protecting them) again, again and again? Why is no-one taking them to task whenever such a meaningless, cop-out answer is provided?

Next on the list of linguistic tactics (though it is more “logical” in nature than “linguistic”) is the rampant use of “Dichotomisation”, present both in the administration’s ideology (including speeches) and policy. No example of this dichotomisation is more famous than Bush’s “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists line”. By systematically erecting arteficial dichotomies such as this, the administration is immediately able to set the moral agenda, establish themselves as the sole authority of this moral agenda and allow the general public to wallow in the sentiment that, given this dichotemic frame-work, those who disagree with the administration must disagree with the general principles the Republicans claim to be steeped in. It may sound like a rather extreme idea - that the establishment (or propogation) of a dichotemic mentality could snow-ball into the idea that disagreeing with one area of Republican thought means that you are against the Republican Party in general and, by extension, everything they stand for - but one need only look at the bitter sentiment popularly disseminated against the French as an example of what this simplistic, dichotemic mode of thinking can “slippery-slope” into.

When France rejected the war resolution offerred by the US, it wasn’t merely an issue of policy disagreement, it became - for many people - an affront to the Republican party, the people of the US and - more broadly - the principles possessed by both. The “with us or against us” mentality had been driven in so deep that, should a nation such as France have the temerity to block a single US policy, it quite simply - via this dichotemic “logical” extension - became perceived as a direct indication that they were “against” the US in general. And this is the danger of such dichotemisation: debate becomes impossible, as you are cast into an all or nothing situation (that is, you either agree with everything we say, or you don’t). Opposition to the Bush administration needs to go to great lengths to undo this mode of thinking, by pointing out, for instance, that one can oppose the current administration - or even the widely held ideals of the nation as a whole - and still consider themselves a full-blooded patriot. Similarly, one must point out that in most policy decisions there is no simplistic “black-or-white” scenarios, but rather wide expanses of grey, which can only be made more clear by constructive, pertinent debate.

Anyway, my reasons for writing all this are quite simple: basically, for all the claims of “stupidity” or “ignorance” levelled at the Republican administration (and Bush more specifically) they are all, for the most part, cunning linguists, astute orators and quite well drilled in how to verbally manipulate a population. They have a number of identifiable tricks up their sleeves and these represent just a few.

The Bush administration stands upon the legitimacy of their moralizations. By making these moralisations transparent, and by bringing them down to a level upon which debate on policy merit can be rendered possible, the platform on which the administration stands becomes all the more shaky. Perhaps once this platform is removed, they will be forced to actually debate policy, and the beneficial or detrimental implications of such policy, rather than being allowed to stand on their soap-box, preaching abstract ideals where - for the most part - they have done far more to destroy them than propogate them. If it is possible to expose these subtle, yet highly-influential tactics for what they really are - namely abstract ideologies that they have done little in the way of policy to preserve - then exposing the Republicans as the charlatans they really are becomes a possibility, and removing them from power in 2004 almost certain.


(Note: I’m going to clean this up a bit - there’s a lot I want to add and a few bits I want to remove - and present it as a “proper” article at some point. Input would be appreciated. :wink:)

JP, great article. Just out of curiousity, what’s the Australian media like? Is it biased? This site seems pretty good.

Didnt Bush use Crusade after 911 and pre Iraq and with terrorism untill they realized their targets were muslims who didnt like to hear the word cursade?

I think your article is exremely well thought out and very good.

I’d just like to pose one question, is it possible that you/we have read too much into politicians speeches? Most (if not all) of politicians speeches are not written by that politician. A speech writers aims, no matter what political affliation, is not to hoodwink the public, but to write an effective speech. Is it so far fetched an idea that someone could literally write what they mean, and not be trying to fill it with complex implied concepts and meaning. Is it not possible that alice in wonderland is just a story to be taken at face value, not as some pyschodelic acid trip, it really could just be what it claims to be, a childerns story. A speech could just be a speech. Occum’s razor…

~ps, sorry if this sounded like a bit of a rant, it wasn’t intended to be :evilfun:

Yes and no. It was actually Europeans who complained

Been here 5 minutes and I already see someone from my fair city! Dece!