Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Language - a tool to transform different into dangerous, Daily Star, February 2, 2008.

Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer and co-founder of Conflicts Forum which engages with Islamist movements broadly, was interviewed by Christian Porth, Daily Star, February 2, 2008 “If thought corrupts language,” the English author George Orwell wrote in his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”


Tracing the origins of Western attitudes toward power and its use, Crooke detailed how the experience of Germany’s Weimar Republic had an extraordinary influence on thinkers in the West. “What was wrong with Weimar? Well, for people like Leo Stauss [godfather of modern neoconservatism] and the Chicago School, it was too tolerant and it therefore it had a tendency to come apart and turn into a mess rather than coalesce. So that the only thing to protect it from these sorts of threats was to have a very strong unifying element.”

And that’s where fear came in. “There was the need to have an enemy, an enemy that was presented in terms of being in black and white, of having no grays, of being an absolute enemy. And there was a very strong trend that power therefore was simply and essentially about destroying alternatives to your power.”

“Language, then, became a tool of power and not only in terms of the nation-state but as a means of communication, not as a means of understanding, but to use language to make somebody else’s identity, to make the Islamist’s identity that they have or tried to create as an alternative to the Western identity, appear repellent, appear unattractive, distorted and to be ridiculous,” Crooke said. “So there was a real effort to create a language that defined them in terms that no one would want: ‘You’re going back to the 7th century, they hate modernity, they hate freedom.’ Well, no Muslim living in middle-class, secular Muslim society wants to go back to the 7th century and he doesn’t want to ignore modernity; we all like our telephones and so on. So it was intended to undermine and erode and destroy their sense of identity.”

“So language is then destroyed as a tool for mediation and mediation itself is a target for those using power. Like Carl Schmitt said, ‘the mediators, these are the queasy liberals that don’t understand the struggle.’”

[It's not just the international affairs regarding Islam or communism that gets sabotaged when our language is fouled and our critical abilities demeaned.

For one, the internal political discourse becomes uncivil as it has in the US and threatens to do in Canada. If we can no longer say "honourable men (and women) disagree about this," if opposing parties frame debate in terms of which position is more treasonous, then democracy is impossible. That's one reason why we have such difficulty "exporting democracy," as both Martin and Harper liked say, to places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another impact of the black-and-white approach is that our own internal psychology is fed through the same linguistic meat grinder. One result, in my opinion, has been a sharp decline in both abilities and informal institutions that foster conversation, deliberation, and the play of ideas.

I think this problem goes back farther than Crooke suggests. One of the discoveries of the McCarthy era was its antecedents in the Salem witch hunts which had their roots in the Inquisition.

Unfortunately, our discussions of imperialism tend to leave out the empire of the Roman Catholic church. But in a context where we are urged to either love it or hate it, maybe that's for the best. -jlt]

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