Decoding Language, part I

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday it was reported that Ketchum, a public relations firm, had placed a September 11 Op-Ed by president Vladimir Putin into the New York Times, which Buzzfeed editors characterized as “controversial.” The Times‘ public editor promptly issued an explanation, the editorial page editor stating that “[v]ery few Op-Ed articles have received as much immediate attention;” hyperventilating patriots were “horrified” that the journal was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States” by printing Putin’s dangerous sorcerer’s incantations. Max Fisher declared that it contained “undeniable hypocrisy and even moments of dishonesty” — which begs the question as to why anyone would therefore be surprised to see it in the Times, which employs a scribbler such as Thomas Friedman. Such fact-checking is indeed welcome, no doubt, but there have been episodes where it would have been much more helpful. Justin Elliot writes that Ketchum has a history of placing articles at the behest of the Kremlin, with the goal of, among other things, promoting Russia “as a place favorable for foreign investments.” So, what we have learned here, hardly news, is that governments will do anything they can to further their interests, including influence campaigns in foreign media outlets.

Despite the predictable howling from those still clinging to an outdated, fanatical cold war ideology, in its substance the Op-Ed was banal, the only striking element being that it was — supposedly — penned by a foreign head of state. In its tone rather conservative, called “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” it claimed that “there is every reason to believe it [gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” It should be clear that Putin, as a head of state with clear interests at stake in events unfolding in Syria, and capable of marshaling vast resources for a propaganda campaign, should no more be taken at his word than anyone else. However, while the evidence from the UN has still not been presented, and no chain of custody has apparently been established for whatever weapon(s) was (or were) used, such an explanation should be seen as no less plausible than the claims of the U.S. government (which possesses little credibility itself on this matter) as to the nature of its “proof” incriminating the Assad regime.

Words often have several meanings depending on the context, and here “controversial” simply means “that which does not toe the Party Line” — the Party Line being that the Syrian government unambiguously carried out the recent August 21 attacks on the Damascus suburbs — rather than “that which sparks robust debate,” or “that which is unsupported by evidence.” Such a definition creates the circumstances for some startling leaps in logic, and discipline can be enforced to such a degree that if the Party Line dictates that the Earth is flat, stating that it is in fact spherical will be considered “controversial.”

Other words are often, and have always been, employed, not for their intrinsic meaning, but rather for their utility as ideological cudgels against opponents. John Schindler, former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer who now teaches national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, theorizes that Edward Snowden and Wikileaks are likely fronts for an elaborate Russian intelligence operation (a rather convincing dissection by Tim Cushing of this conspiracy theory may be found here). Notwithstanding that such a scenario is possible, and shouldn’t be completely ruled out, Schindler’s theory is reminiscent of the paranoia to which intelligence agencies themselves can fall prey, while assuming the worst of their adversaries, leading them to erroneous conclusions, due to their own ideological bias. He believes that journalists mediating the slow trickle of revelations gleaned from leaked documents are waging a “propaganda offensive,” and “have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.”

The operative phrase here is “radical activism,” and it is meant, among other things, to differentiate what people like Poitras, Greenwald and Barton Gellman are doing from the “authentic” and “objective” journalism which would be more to his liking. The phrase is in fact a smear, and as a smear, it carries little content, but is intended to vilify political opponents in order to marginalize and discredit them. The tactic is a staple of ideological warfare with a long tradition, the palette of insults offering such terms as “communist,” “isolationist,” “liberal,” “anarchist,” “traitor,” and countless other epithets, the purpose of which is to render objects of vilification, and the ideas represented, toxic by attaching stigmata, thereby isolating them, and preventing any substantial debate on the issues themselves. What the words actually mean, or whether the objects of scorn actually demonstrate such qualities, is wholly irrelevant.

One could, for example, ask whether it is not the policies themselves that are extreme and not those criticizing them — but that would require a modicum of honesty. A brief overview of some examples of this and past U.S. administrations’ “radical” policies will suffice: John Yoo’s radical executive theories, which authorize the president to act virtually without constraint, the global rendition and torture network initiated after the September 11 attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now acknowledged by anyone with a pulse to have been illegal and immoral, the highly destructive consequences of which are still resonating in the region, the continued deployment of nearly two thousand nuclear warheads, including the latest nuclear posture review, which retains the doctrine of “counterforce” and a hypothetical first strike capability, the Kennedy administration’s terrorist campaign against Cuba, the near destruction of Indochina, the Reagan administration’s arms transfers supporting a campaign to destroy parts of Latin America, including the more recent expansions of a presidentially authorized UAV assassination program and sprawling surveillance/security state, to name just a few. If these aren’t considered “radical,” then the word indeed has no meaning, and can be used for whatever purposes one wishes.

The National Security Agency’s invasive, global spying network, not to mention U.S. intelligence agencies’ collaboration on more offensive “cyberwarfare” capabilities, exemplified by the Stuxnet virus (along with Israel), appropriately takes its place among such extreme policies. Regarding the ongoing NSA disclosures, I have seen some who are of the opinion that such secret information must be kept “out of the hands” of “radicals” (meaning, the public), the responsible gentlemen like General Keith Alexander presumably being the more appropriate guardians of an aggressive surveillance apparatus — such a person is incapable of even entertaining the possibility that the radicals do indeed already have control of the apparatus, as they seem to be the ones running it.

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