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Posts Tagged ‘Politics and the English Language’

In my previous post, I commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” during his speech to the US Congress. I tried to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion in order to reveal what is really going on when he says something like “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel.” I would now like to draw upon George Orwell’s work to further illuminate the Israeli Prime Minister’s use of the word “friend.”

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell points out how certain kinds of words are “often used in a consciously dishonest way.” He explains that “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” As I continue to reflect on Netanyahu’s speech, it becomes apparent to me that Orwell’s insight is particularly helpful in reading that text. There are several keywords in the speech that Orwell would have recognized as “consciously dishonest” use of language, e.g., peace, democracy, terrorism, security, compromise, modernity. I intend to discuss each of these words, but for now I want to highlight that the word “friend” falls in the same Orwellian category. The Israeli Prime Minister has in his mind a very peculiar definition of “friend,” a definition that the vast majority of English speakers do not share with him, but most US Senators and Representatives do.

The common understanding of the concept “friend” necessarily involves the presence of goodwill, i.e., if a person is my friend, then, by definition, he or she desires my well-being. In other words, my friends would not want anything for me that, from their viewpoint, is likely to harm me; if they do, then they cannot be my friends. Consequently, if I was about to make a choice that, in the opinion of my friends, is bad or harmful for me, I fully expect them to do everything in their power to prevent me from making that choice. For instance, if I ask my friends for rat poison because I want to commit suicide, not only would they not comply with my request but they would also take other steps to keep me safe from myself. Similarly, if I ask my friends to lend me their handgun because I want to rob my neighbor, I will get the same reaction. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which they will actually fulfill my requests while still remaining my friends, i.e., if, for whatever reason, they sincerely believe that committing suicide by drinking rat poison is in my best interest, or that robbing my neighbor at gun point will enhance my well-being.

The lesson is clear. A commitment of unqualified support cannot be reconciled with the condition of goodwill towards the other that is inherent in the concept “friend.” If a person says to me that he or she will help me do anything that I choose to do, including acts that are immoral and/or criminal — acts that will harm me either immediately or in the long run — then that person cannot be my friend. In fact, it’s a good guess that such a person is my enemy.

In sharp contrast to the common understanding of “friend,” Netanyahu seems to believe that the United States is a friend of Israel if, and only if, it supports Israel in all its choices, including those that violate International Law. As evident by their cheers and applauses, the US Senators and Representatives are also operating with the same definition of “friend.”

Let’s look closely at a concrete example. During his speech to the US Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister made the following statement:

The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv. Now these areas are densely populated, but they’re geographically quite small. And under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, we’d — be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. (Applause.) . . . Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967. (Cheers, applause.) So I want to be very clear on this point. Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it. 

Notice the phrase “beyond the 1967 lines.” It’s a political euphemism that Netanyahu uses in place of the more accurate but politically inconvenient term, “occupied territories.” The purpose of such euphemisms is to avoid naming, and therefore confessing, one’s own crimes and misdeeds by giving them a neutral or pretty title, e.g., “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture.” In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell has a particularly scathing passage on the menace of political euphemisms. Orwell notes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Countless instances of politically deceptive euphemisms can be found in pro-Israel texts, and, as expected, I found many brilliant gems in Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Thus, when the Prime Minister says “Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines,” what he is referring to are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Golan Heights. These areas (along with Gaza Strip) were conquered by the Israeli military in the June 1967 war, and are considered “occupied territories” under International Law. Even more inconveniently, an international consensus exists on the illegality of these settlements since they are in brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions (1949), which include the following provision: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Section III, Article 49). The settlements are also illegal according to the verdict of the International Court of Justice.

In the passage quoted above, Netanyahu’s true intention cannot be more explicit, even though he tries to soften the blow by introducing several euphemisms. He uses the vague word “incorporate” since the appropriate term “annex” will sound like an illegal and indefensible act — which is precisely what he is proposing. Similarly, the phrase “other places of critical and national importance” is meant to suggest an element of rational and scrupulous decision-making, but is really a respectable sounding substitute for “any areas we like.”

Allow me to translate Netanyahu’s Orwellian statement quoted above in straightforward English: Israel is going to annex most of the occupied areas in which it has built illegal settlements since 1967, as well as any other areas that it believes to be useful or desirable. Israel has a fully justified monopoly over deciding its own borders; it will not consider anyone else’s rights, needs, or demands in doing so. The Palestinians are welcome to establish a state in the areas that will be left over after Israel is completely satisfied with its own borders.

The problem, obviously, is that the intentions expressed here are in open violation of International Law. The annexation of occupied land is prohibited according to the Hague Conventions of 1907-09 as well as the United Nations Charter. Such annexation is categorically illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Conventions (Section III, Article 47):

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

There you have it. Israel has been violating the International Law at least since 1967, the same year in which the United States and Israel became each other’s best friends. On Thursday, the Israeli Prime Minister announced to the US Legislature that his country will commit even more egregious violations of the International Law, while also claiming that Israel has no better friend than the United States. Through their cheers and standing ovations, the US Senators and Representatives declared their unanimous and enthusiastic approval for Israel’s intention to further violate the International Law; and they too believe that the United States is the best friend that Israel has ever had. Neither the speaker nor his audience seemed to have recognized any irony in this whole affair–such as the fact that lawmakers are cheering for the lawbreakers.

What can we say about a friend who does nothing to stop you from committing immoral and criminal acts but actually supports you in violating the law? The very least we can say is that this is not how the vast majority of English speakers understand the word “friend.”

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On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress. His performance, while not worthy of an Academy Award, does seem to deserve whatever is the topmost prize in the world of political chicanery.

Watching the speech on C-SPAN, I experienced a wide range of feelings, including (in no particular order) surprise, amusement, pity, distress, rage, disappointment, hopelessness, and exasperation. Most importantly, I felt a sense of clarity and understanding that bordered on enlightenment. I felt inspired, almost compelled, to say something meaningful in response to that speech.

Not being a political analyst, I will attempt to approach Netanyahu’s speech as I would any other piece of literature. Most people understand that poetic and religious texts do not disclose their full significance if they are taken superficially or literally; I would like to suggest that this insight is applicable to political texts as well, but for different reasons. As George Orwell taught us, political language is intended to conceal rather than reveal. When it comes to interpreting persuasive texts, such as political speeches or advertisements, a little hermeneutic of suspicion can go a long way in exposing what the text is seeking to hide. My hope in this venture is that such deconstructive activity will at least be a cathartic experience, even if it doesn’t accomplish anything else.

One more point. In his lengthy treatise titled “Rhetoric,” Aristotle had said that the art of persuasion relies on three main elements: ethos, pathos, and logos. Even a basic understanding of these elements can make us perceptive interpreters of political messages as well as commercial advertisements. Ethos deals with presenting one’s character to the audience for the purpose of establishing one’s credibility. Pathos deals with influencing the audience by appealing to their emotions. Finally, logos has to do with constructing arguments through cogent reasoning. All three elements are present in Netanyahu’s speech, though we are likely to find a greater emphasis on pathos than logos.

Let’s turn to our text.

Netanyahu began his speech by establishing himself as an old and trusted acquaintance. He spoke with the confident assurance of a man who knows that everyone in his audience is already, and whole-heartedly, on his side. The persona he adopted was meant to convey warmth and friendliness. Notice how quickly he took care of the ethos part of his speech.

Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town? (Laughter, applause.) And I do see a lot of old friends here, and I see a lot of new friends of Israel here as well — Democrats and Republicans alike. (Applause.)

Later in his speech Netanyahu will use the word “nostalgia” and say that he “came to Washington 30 years ago as a young diplomat.” References like these are typically intended to establish one’s credentials, to show one’s inside connections, or to convey the sense that one is not really a stranger. Notice how Netanyahu places himself and the Vice President in the same category by using a typical American expression “the new kids in town.” More broadly, this use of the pronoun “we” should be appreciated as a rhetorical device to reinforce the tacit understanding between the speaker and his audience that both of them are on the same side of the fence. As Netanyahu will later elaborate, “our side” has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it sharply from “their side.”

Netanyahu’s reference to “Democrats and Republicans alike” is quite significant. As he will suggest once again in his speech, Democrats and Republicans hardly ever agree on anything; yet, these bitter ideological and political rivals are completely united in being “friends of Israel.” Throughout the speech, he will assume and emphasize a connection between certain values (democracy, freedom, and peace) and a specific policy (support for Israel) that transcends petty divisions. It is this connection that will eventually emerge as the defining feature of “our side.”

Moving on.

Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.)

In the first four sentences, Netanyahu has already used the word “friend” four times. This is obviously one of the keywords in our text, since the speaker uses it so often. The word “friend” appears a total of nine times in Tuesday’s speech; it is meant to evoke feelings of mutual goodwill between the speaker and the audience, but without giving any impression of blatant manipulation.

Notice that Netanyahu prefers the word “friend” (which has a warm glow of affection, informality, and congeniality) over words that may reveal the economic and political motives behind the US-Israel relationship: words like patron and client, business partners, or strategic allies. Of course, Netanyahu will be somewhat reluctant to use language that actually corresponds with reality: words like abettor, accessory, accomplice, co-conspirator, partner in crime, etc.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following four denotations for the word “friend”: (a) one attached to another by affection or esteem: acquaintance; (b) one that is not hostile: one that is of the same nation, party, or group; (c) one that favors or support something; and (d) a favored champion. The first definition (a) is the most widely understood meaning of the word, but it applies to the relationship between two individuals, rather than two nations. Regarding the second meaning (b), while the United States is not hostile to Israel, most other nations of the world can also legitimately claim that status. This leaves us with the last two meanings, (c) and (d). We may conclude, then, that Netanyahu is employing “friend” in the sense of a supporter and a champion.

Consider now the connotations of the word “friend,” with particular reference to its third and fourth meanings. When we hear or see the word “friends” — as in “Friends of the Chicago Public Library” or “Friends of the Dolphins” — we assume that the persons being referred to are sincerely championing a policy or supporting a cause, on the basis of nothing but their own values. We make this assumption mainly because of the subconscious influence coming from the positive connotations surrounding the word “friend.”  In a rhetorical situation where the word “friend” is repeatedly mentioned, these positive feelings may be expected to keep at bay any doubts or suspicions that we may otherwise entertain.  In effect, our attention is diverted away from any consideration of ulterior or mundane motives, vested interests, or less-than-noble aims. We do not think that the support in question may have been given in exchange for money, privileges, and other advantages, nor do we think that deception, coercion, and threats, either explicit or implicit, may have encouraged certain persons to act in a “friendly” manner.

Referring back to Aristotle, it is easy to notice that Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” falls in the category of pathos. This can be seen rather clearly in the sentence quoted above: “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no above better friend than Israel.” Notice that this sentence is completely free of any rational argument; no evidence is needed, and none is given. What purpose does this sentence fulfill? It doesn’t convey any information; it doesn’t offer any promises; it doesn’t ask the audience to do anything. It is uttered, rather, for its sentimental value. The sentence is poetic because of its symmetrical construction, and this is precisely what makes its emotional appeal so effective.  It sets the mood and defines the context in the speaker’s favor. It’s classic pathos.

If we remain conscious of how the connotations of certain words and the internal rhythms of certain sentences influence our feelings, then we may be able to see much more in a political message than merely its shiny surface. As a typical politician, Netanyahu uses the word “friend” in order to obscure, rather than reveal, the true nature of the relationship in question. He uses this word to portray the self-serving relationship between a few key players in the Israeli and American centers of power as if it were a sincere and affectionate relationship between the ordinary people of these countries. Perhaps most importantly, this rhetorical strategy serves to mask the tremendous diversity of American and Israeli opinions by projecting an illusion of consensus and unanimity.

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