2006/06/30

Language is not neutral

The latest Media Matters analysis of how the media discusses the Iraq War (Lengthy piece at 40 kilobytes) illustrates a very old problem. Language is not neutral. It takes a considerable amount of time, thought and conscious effort to describe issues in a truly neutral or even in an effectively partisan manner. This would not be such a serious problem if it were not the favorite pose of the media, which can be described as "A pox on both your houses!" The mainstream media likes to pretend to be the harried housewife in the driver's seat who turns back to the two squabbling kids in the back seat (The Democrats and the Republicans.) and says "Stop fighting! You're both at fault!"

During the case of Jack Abramoff and his extensive political contributions to the Republican Party, several media outlets tried to claim that the scandal was a bipartisan one, with both Democrats and Republicans being equally at fault. Problem is, this framing of the story had a "Procrustean bed" quality as the Democratic connections to Abramoff had to be invented wholesale. As Howard Dean pointed out, there simply were no such connections. Wolf Blitzer, who was interviewing Dean when Dean claimed this, was obviously upset to hear this because it messed up his nice, neat storyline and required that he adjust his story to account for reality. The story as a whole really took a bizarre turn when the Ombudsman of the Washington Post not only refused to correct a reporter who had claimed that "both sides were to blame," but even insisted that Abramoff was an equal-opportunity giver. "L'il Debbie," as she was sarcastically named, finally admitted that she was wrong to defend her thesis and that Abramoff made contributions exclusively to Republicans.

So, when mainstream "respectable" media outlets use Republican "talking points," these points take on a more persuasive air as they appear to be coming from neutral, objective reporters who have taken a "pox on both your houses" attitude. When these reporters describe an anti-war speaker as being against "the troops," or as being "anti-military" when the speaker is actually just against the Iraq War (Not all anti-war speakers are pacifists, many of them just oppose this particular war.) it's a way to put down the speaker without blatantly, openly taking sides.

Point number three is especially pernicious. The claim that Republicans make is that "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." When we actually consider what that phrase might mean, it appears to suggest that if that "front" goes well and Iraq calms down and US casualties decrease, then America is winning the WOT (The War on Terror). If on the other hand, Iraq continues to be a chaotic mess (As it has in the aftermath of the elimination of Zarqawi, formerly the "Emmanuel Goldstein" of Iraq), then the WOT must be going poorly.

Clarification: Back during World War II, it was meaningful to say that Okinawa was the "central front" in the War in the Pacific because the loss of Okinawa severely hurt Japan's ability to continue fighting and enabled American B-29 bombers to more easily hit Japan. Would the loss of Iraq impact worldwide terrorist activities in the same fashion? It's not at all clear that it would.

The first point, that "victory" in Iraq would mean that terrorists worldwide would have to ratchet down their deadly activities, is plainly false. If the Iraq War goes poorly for the other side and order is brought to that frantic country, any foreign fighters, whether they are jihadists or terrorists or whatever else one wishes to call them, would simply disperse to their countries of origin or they would assemble in whatever country they felt was the next target.

There is no reason whatsoever to presume that they'd all go down fighting and that the ranks of the jihadists/terrorists would therefore be thinned. An Egyptian has absolutely no reason to sacrifice himself to hang onto territory in Iraq. He'll remain in Iraq as a jihadist only for as long as he feels he's helping "the cause" and hurting "the enemy." If and when the Iraq War ever ends, the rest of the world will probably experience an upsurge in terrorist activities. The collapse of the "central front" for the enemies of America's efforts there would very likely be bad news for other regimes in the Middle East as many thousands of now-seasoned fighters would then be freed up for fighting elsewhere.

It's very bad news for Americans that mainstream media persons feel obliged to mindlessly parrot Republican talking points like this. The talking point that Iraq is a "central front" gives American citizens the impression that the fighting there is contributing to peace efforts elsewhere. Actually, as BTC News points out, terrorist activities worldwide have increased every year since 2002. Whatever else the Iraq War is accomplishing, it is clearly not making the world safer.

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