ON LIES, DAMNED LIES, HISTORY, AND THE LEGACY
OF WORD LAUNDERING
by Chris Frazier
George Santayana wrote that “history is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” The “official history” of all nations is gorged with lies so that its citizens may look beautiful and pure when staring into a mirror. The U.S., an especially vain and conceited nation, loves to see only beauty and purity when it stares admiringly at its own reflection.
As a wordsmith, I have been in love with English, my native language, since those golden days as a toddler when my mother and paternal grandmother read sweet bedtime stories to me. True, English is a thief that brazenly steals words from every other language on earth. Perhaps that is one reason I love it so. Each theft makes it richer, deeper, more descriptive, more precise, and, in an odd way, binds US to THEM; thief to source. This sort of theft, like imitation, may be one of the “sincerest forms of flattery.” It is also a “victimless crime.”
But the endless servings of perverted and corrupted language by government and its allies, the corporate media, fill mass graves with victims. Unfortunately, that is not mere hyperbole. Like the diner in Edward Hopper’s brooding masterpiece “Nighthawks,” inspired by the national gloom and despair that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this eatery never closes on the 24 hour “news” cycle.
Language, properly used, has the power to shatter our mirror, a worthy and necessary goal for adults wishing to be free, self-sufficient, thinking, and fully-realized persons. But we are having none of that for the moment. The myth of Narcissus, whose name was apparently derived from a Greek word meaning “sleep” or “numbness,” teaches us about the danger of becoming too enamored of our own reflection. Such narcissism can lead to death, the fate of Narcissus. We are so anxious to avoid the horror and migraines dreaded by Snow White’s wicked queen that we will accept the rape and mutilation of our language. Each and every day, the corporate media hand us bloody giblets of our English. These media are largely conduits for what various “elites” choose as our snacks. (What makes them “elites” is a profound mystery, although they behave like aristocrats who believe themselves entitled to such a status.)
In the judicial system, a messy institution largely off-limits to critique in this culture, language has been pickled. “Legal” words resemble nothing less than gremlins and trolls that populate our nightmares. Thus, a special dictionary, separate and apart from the kind we ordinary mortals consult, is required. Of course, there is no need to consult this special dictionary unless you are curious about how the lawyers and judges plan on diddling you. Try to accept the fact that the odds always favor the house, and the robes and suits run the house. On the other hand, if you just have to know when to expect the old “bend over,” do buy the book. But the sacrosanct judicial system is best husked and horsewhipped in a separate flailing . For the moment, it is enough to point out that the “law” buggers us with words for the same reasons that other government entities do. These enterprises are engaged in controlling people through the exercise of raw power. This is no apples and oranges comparison.
For now, I limit myself to the linguistic machinations of our War Department (euphemistically re-named the “Defense Department” in 1947), enshrined in a massive and ugly building called “The Pentagon” because it has five sides. It could just as easily be called “The Pentagram,” although employees of the military establishment might be offended that some among us associate a pentagram with “Satan worship.” Such employees prefer the notion that they are actually “defending” us from Satan’s “evildoers.” To avoid giving offense on this basis, let’s merely acknowledge that the “military-industrial complex,” regardless of its place of residence, is a barking mad fiefdom where euphemism is the corrupt tool of a few deranged (but well-positioned) fanatics with moby playthings to kill as many human beings as possible. The majority of employees resident in the Pentagon are mostly drones, satisfied to be drawing steady paychecks and “following orders.” (These drones are not to be confused with those OTHER drones that kill hundreds of civilians in remote Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other venues filled with the devil’s own legions.)
The British author and essayist George Orwell often turned his searing gaze toward the corruption of our language by governments, particularly, but not exclusively, by the totalitarian regimes. In the process, he gave us such chilling words and phrases as “Big Brother,” “unperson” (someone whose past has been deleted from public records and memory), “doublespeak,” “doublethink,” “Newspeak,” and “thought police.” Orwell saw that governments, by manipulating language through propaganda fed to us by the corporate media, alter how we perceive events and respond to them. This, he noted, applies equally to so-called “democracies.”
In his 1946 essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” the author of “1984″ and “Animal Farm” observed: “Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists-is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse- into the dustbin, where it belongs.”
Orwell drove the nail deeper, saying that “a man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… [I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better…” And U.S. citizens are particularly adept at imitating parrots.
The late Col. David Hackworth, who fought in Korea and served four tours in Vietnam, said: “I think [euphemisms] put a face on war that removes the tragedy, the violence.” This is a strange and deluded thought from a man, affectionately known as “Hack,” who could properly have been called a “war lover.” Hackworth, whose name is an ironic, even grisly play on words, founded the U.S. Army’s “Tiger Force,” officially the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade (Separate), 101st Airborne Division. During the Vietnam War, “Tiger Force” went rogue on a grand scale. Ask most U.S. citizens about this outfit, and they will assure you that, like Sgt. Schultz in “Hogan’s Heroes”: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know N-O-T-H-I-N-G!” But in defense of such citizens, the corporate media was largely incurious (high talk for apathetic; don’t know because don’t want to know) about war crimes when committed by US rather than THEM. This is because such media, “embedded” (in bed) with “our troops,” consider it their patriotic duty to withhold aid and comfort to “the enemy” of the moment and to protect that gilded mirror and our image as reflected by that mirror. Disclosure of war crimes by US would provide aid and comfort to THEM. It also poses a “threat to national security” because U.S. citizens might just awaken, wipe the slumber from their eyes, and take some interest in all the murder and torture supposedly committed for their benefit.
In any event, “Tiger Force,” under the command of a Hackworth subordinate, decided to follow its founder’s admonition to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas.” Between May and November of 1967, some members of this “elite” unit (a corporate media euphemism bestowing elevated status for reasons unexplained) routinely tortured and murdered prisoners, murdered unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including old men, women, and children, cut off the ears of their victims and made necklaces of them, scalped victims, beheaded at least one baby, and raped girls and women. None of this found its way into print until 2003 when the Toledo Blade ran a series of articles exposing the horrors thirty six years after they occurred. Of course, the Army learned of it thirty years earlier after receiving reports from “whistle blowers” in the unit. But ignoring it was preferable until the Blade got a whiff and formally requested Army records.
All this is to say that the military, and other limbs of the federal octopus, routinely lie by commission, omission, and euphemism. Of course, this is all for our own good. Euphemism, perhaps more aptly called “mindfucking,” is an aspect of propaganda used every day as a kind of sanitary napkin to absorb the blood of mutilated language. It is also used to keep us mentally and emotionally numb. So we accept most events of the world, no matter how catastrophic, as though we were the Eloi of H.G. Wells’s novel “The Time Machine.” Wells portrayed this far into the future race as people lacking curiosity, intellect, and the will to resist aggression directed against them. Evolution, or devolution, thoroughly pacified these people.
In his book entitled “Propaganda,” published in 1928, Edward Bernays put it plainly, employing no euphemisms. In frigid Orwellian prose, he wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
“Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas, and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons-a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million (roughly three hundred million since Bernays wrote ‘Propaganda’)-who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
“It is not usually realized how necessary these invisible governors are to the orderly functioning of our group life.”
Bernays, in his day one of those “who pull the wires which control the public mind,” was boldly declaring that we, the stupid masses, need these “invisible governors.” We need them, he insisted, because only they can “govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas, and by their key position in the social structure.” In other words, we must meekly submit to this manipulation if we “are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” Thinking and questioning the prevailing orthodoxy is blasphemy; perhaps even treasonous. We are far too irrational to order our own affairs.
Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, learned much about what he called “the engineering of consent” and creating “necessary illusions” from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. “Uncle Sigi” tutored his nephew, “Eddie,” about the powerful animal impulses lurking in the unconscious, and nephew “Eddie” developed potent and cunning techniques for exploiting them to control the dangerous masses. Sometimes called “the assassin of democracy” today by the few who have heard of him, Bernays worked with President Woodrow Wilson to change the pervasive anti-war thinking of most U.S. citizens vehemently opposed to entering World War I. Always the “invisible governor,” he fed false stories of ghastly German atrocities to the press and coined the slogan “To Make America Safe for Democracy.” However, the slogan was attributed to his client, Wilson, and is now permanently fixed in the “official history” of World War I. Seldom does anyone ask how going to war could have made America “safe for democracy.” Perhaps one of the true motivations for entering “the Great War” lay in the fact that large U.S. corporations emerged from it with massive wealth.
When Bernays finished developing and executing Wilson’s sinister propaganda program, public opinion in the U.S. changed so dramatically that most citizens clamored for war with Germany. It was of no importance that the U.S. had no legitimate grievances against Germany. The moody, intellectually detached president was so impressed with his 26 year old propagandist that he invited Bernays to accompany and advise him throughout the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Bernays accepted. Of course, it was the oppressive terms of the peace agreement as they pertained to Germany that led to the rise of National Socialism and World War II.
Bernays went on to advise other U.S. presidents, among them Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as most major corporations, becoming wealthy in the process. Although Bernays was Jewish, his ideas were a major source of inspiration for Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels who developed Adolph Hitler’s massive, hypnotic, and effective propaganda program.
The masses are so easily manipulated by the likes of Bernays that we doom ourselves, as George Santayana warned, of repeating history’s lessons because we do not learn from them. Freud might have said that nations, like people, are afflicted with a repetition compulsion.
Karl Kraus, the German H.L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce, was an essayist, playwright, poet, and satirist. He wrote: “Children play soldier. That makes sense. But why do soldiers play children?” Kraus also wrote: “Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.”
Soldiers do play children, to deadly effect, but unfortunately, language has become the handmaiden of thought. This is so because of “the invisible governors…who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” Just as it is worth repeating the disturbingly accurate and cold-blooded observations of Bernays, so, also, is it worth repeating the wise observations of Orwell: “Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists-is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
So, what would a sampler of military euphemisms include in this era of perpetual war, perpetual lying, and “change we can believe in?” Watching television news these days, I am overwhelmed with nausea and a keen sense of being injected with drugs manufactured for some grotesque latter-day mind control experiment by C.I.A. or some other gung-ho paramilitary outfit of Dr. Strangeloves.
Reporters and television bobbleheads routinely chant that “the Pentagon said this” or “the White House said that.” I cannot recall ever hearing a building utter one syllable, although it does seem to occur rather frequently in cartoons, comic strips, and comic books. It is interesting to note that comic books have undergone an upgrade of status to something called a “graphic novel.” Is this intended to make us feel, when reading such nonsense, that we are entitled to declare our devotion to true literature rather than say: “I think I’m going dumb?! Will you please get me to a hospital?”
The corporate media simply can’t bring themselves to say that “our troops,” intelligence agencies (a true oxymoron), and “private contractors” are torturing people all over the world. Using the word “torture” is unthinkable to them; even unbearable. Thus, we are now told that one of “the evildoers” or “illegal combatants” has been subjected to (God forgive me) “harsh interrogation techniques.” (The military, itself, chooses to call various forms of torture “enhanced coercive interrogation techniques.”)
Since when did subjecting another human being to simulated drowning (euphemistically called “waterboarding”) become merely “harsh?” Using racial and ethnic slurs and/or threatening someone with a slap or punch MIGHT qualify as merely “harsh.” But making someone think and feel that he is being drowned by having water shoved through his nose and down his throat while strapped, head tilted back, to a board is merely “harsh?” What happens to our sense of conscience and moral outrage when we start believing that torture is merely “harsh?” Worse still, what happens if the word “torture” just disappears from our vocabulary or becomes an “unword” having no meaning?
Of course, we do not kidnap “evildoers” and “illegal combatants.” We subject them to something called “extraordinary rendition.” What the hell do those words mean? How is one to feel “special” if a hood is shoved over the head as he is dragged onto an airplane and whisked away to a foreign hell hole for days, weeks, or months of torture by sadists in the pay of the U.S. government? What are we to think when it is discovered that the victim had nothing to do with that
mobile enterprise known as “terrorism?”
Many “evildoers,” “illegal combatants,” and helpless civilians are slaughtered in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and God knows where else by “private contractors.” These macho action figures, whose rippling biceps are provocatively displayed in black versions of the old Nazi Brown Shirt uniforms, are actually “mercenaries” who enjoy playing soldier and murdering for fun and profit. Best of all, these freebooters and marauders can commit all kinds of crimes in “war zones” and seem to be exempt from provisions of the Geneva Conventions, laws and treaties against torture, and most other forms of legal restraint. But best of all, they get paid a hell of a lot better than regular soldiers. I rest easier at night just knowing these sociopaths are fighting for “our freedom” with their AK-47s far away from my neighborhood. (Of course, we know they were “deployed” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to keep poor, hungry, homeless black folks “pacified” at gunpoint. So, it’s quite possible they will be coming soon to some jerry-rigged “theater of operations” near me or thee in the event that martial law is declared because some ingrates choose to engage in unruly acts of civil disobedience and other forms of legitimate protest.)
Having now used the term, just who decided to call a war zone a “theater of operations?” Is someone selling tickets and pocketing the money? If so, are any taxes due on this sort of income? Are the performances any good? How many sequels may we expect? But we were discussing torture a bit earlier.
Sleep deprivation, a marvelously effective form of torture, is now called “sleep management.” Of course, using such a euphemism makes it sound like some poor soul is merely going to be treated for sleep apnea, insomnia, or some other medical disorder. We are apparently to believe that somebody hounded by sleeplessness is finally going to get a good night’s rest, full of sweet dreams, thanks to “our troops.”
But that isn’t the way it goes. An “evildoer” or “illegal combatant” will be thrown into an icy room, most likely in his briefs, a room so small that he can’t stand up, an exposed, high-wattage light bulb burning constantly in the ceiling, and loud “music” (heavy metal or the like) blaring constantly. After a time, the music MAY stop, and the “evildoer” or “illegal combatant” may actually manage to fall asleep on a concrete floor or set of springs without a mattress. Once he manages to achieve unconsciousness by nature’s command, thugs will barge into the room and awaken him. The music is turned on again, and the cycle repeats until madness ensues. This is “sleep management,” military/C.I.A. torture style.
“Mild, non-injurious physical contact” is a euphemism meaning that an “evildoer” or “illegal combatant” lucks out and manages to suffer nothing more serious than a dizzying slap, punch in the gut, or broken limb. In other words, he gets off easy due to the kindness of strangers.
At least during President Richard Nixon’s administration, C.I.A. hit teams were called “health alteration committees.”
“Friendly fire” means a solider is killed by one of his own comrades, intentionally or accidentally. (As preposterous as it sounds, “friendly fire” has also been called “accidental deliverance of ordnance equipment” when death is administered to many soldiers by bombs dropped from planes.) No one has ever explained (to my knowledge) what is “friendly” about being shot to pieces with a rifle or blown up by a drone, conventional artillery fire, or a “smart” bomb fired by somebody wearing a uniform just like the one on the dead guy. Before leaving this particular topic, it might be useful to point out that a “smart” bomb is actually as dumb as what is regularly blown out the rectums of mammals and other critters. So the word “smart,” in this context, is just another absurd über-euphemism. On the other hand, excrement can be valuable for nurturing gardens, fertilizing lawns, and helping crops to grow.
While not a phrase typically used by the military, the corporate media are fond of describing the violent, pre-meditated homicide of a (usually) civilian man or woman as a “brutal murder.” Until I started hearing this phrase over and over again in television crime reporting, it had never occurred to me that murder could be anything but brutal. So, why call a murder “brutal?” Is there any other kind?
For some perverse reason, I am unable to put the phrase “non-operative personnel” out of my head. This euphemism means “dead soldiers.” Soldiers are dying somewhere everyday. I believe that the most uninformed among us are probably wise to this. So, why not say, “the bodies of seven dead soldiers” were found today near…” instead of “the bodies of seven non-operative personnel” were found today near…?” What was it that the late Col. David (“Hack”) Hackworth said? “I think [euphemisms] put a face on war that removes the tragedy, the violence.” Yes, come to think of it, perhaps “the tragedy, the violence” on the face of war can be removed by the deployment of euphemisms. Having now considered the notion, I feel somewhat better knowing that soldiers atomized in combat are not dead, after all, but merely “non-operative.”
If there is an award for the most repulsive military euphemism, it should go to whoever coined the phrase “collateral damage.” This refers to the killing of innocent civilians by drug-crazed, adrenalin-pumping jet jockeys or foot soldiers, sometimes just for target practice. (Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s common for fighter pilots and combat soldiers to carry stashes of prescription “uppers” for those long missions when sleep isn’t possible and it may be necessary to stay alert for several days?)
Closely related is the term “soft target.” This does not refer to a fat “evildoer” or “illegal combatant.” Rather, using Wikipedia’s definition, it means “unarmored/undefended targets needing to be destroyed. For example, a soft target would be an automobile, a house, or assembly of people.” Historically, these “houses” are often occupied by unarmed civilian families and their friends. Likewise, “assemblies of people” routinely include worshipers at mosques, wedding parties, and people en route to birthday parties or other celebrations. Exactly why they are “needing to be destroyed,” thus becoming “collateral damage,” is never clear. When pregnant women and children are shot and killed, great efforts are undertaken to conceal the true identity of their killers (sometimes by prying U.S.-manufactured bullets from their bodies) or by pinning their deaths on “evildoers” or “illegal combatants.”
One of the better known military euphemisms is the I.E.D., not to be confused with the I.U.D., although both serve the ends of contraception but in distinctly different ways. The I.E.D., an “improvised explosive device,” is a home-made bomb. Why not call it that?
Other choice and bizarre military euphemisms include the following:
“Permanent pre-hostility”- peace.
The witless invasion of tiny Grenada by U.S. airborne soldiers before sunrise- “pre-dawn vertical insertion.”
“Unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life”-killing.
“Freedom fighters”-the good guys.
“Terrorists”-the bad guys.
A strange departure from all this “deployment” of euphemism, however, is the military’s growing use of the term “warfighter” as a substitute for “soldier.” One interpretation for this substitution is that it might tend to give the soldier a sense of exalted status as more than merely someone with special training to kill “evildoers,” “illegal combatants,” and civilians who get in the way.
This might be the right time to start calling kevlar (bullet-proof) vests, a/k/a body armor, “reinforced undershirts.” By adopting this euphemism, it could help those wearing them to reduce their anxiety about getting shot. On the other hand, these vests are worthless against home-made bombs.
What are we to do about this relentless campaign of word laundering and verbicide? Is it true, as Bernays said, that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society?” Are we sweating, irrational draft animals who “must cooperate” with an “unseen mechanism of society” that “constitute(s) an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country?” Are we incapable of living as a thinking, reasoning, “smoothly functioning society” without the hidden intervention of “invisible governors” who turn us into Eloi, program us to be robots by the manipulation of our language, and lead us repeatedly into senseless wars and unnecessary consuming for the profit of a few? The answer is “no.” We are among the most capable, creative, and resourceful people on this planet.
It is time to read something of substance. It is time to reason and to THINK. It is time to reject propaganda in all its forms, abandon the corporate media, and discover the wealth of information available and vital to our understanding of this world and the ways in which it actually works. This information is housed throughout the Internet, and our “governors,” visible and invisible, are terrified of it. The first duty of a citizen is not to vote but to become informed.
Wipe the sleep from our eyes, seek out these “governors,” call them out of the shadows and corporate suites, look them in the eyes, and declare: “You and your horse. I can think, I can reason, I can make my own decisions, I can govern myself, I’m not a draft animal, and I’m not a slave.” Then, for good measure, chant the Howard Beale mantra.
Channeled by the late Peter Finch, Beale was the mad visionary and anchorman from the Sidney Lumet masterwork “Network.” Covered by a seedy trench coat, Beale thrust and waved his hands over shaggy, touseled hair, called on everybody to reject manipulation by the “elites,” and shouted again and again to his rapt viewers: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” Perhaps Beale wasn’t so mad after all.