Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The semantics of Donald Rumsfeld

From today's Washington Post:

Last weekend, while other Americans were watching football and eating
leftover turkey, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ended the Iraqi

It was easy, really: He declared that the insurgents would,
henceforth, no longer be called insurgents.

"Over the weekend, I thought
to myself, 'You know, that gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to
merit,' " Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, said of his ban on the
I-word. "It was an epiphany," he added, throwing his hands in the air.


Encouraging reporters to consult their dictionaries, the
defense secretary said: "These people aren't trying to promote something other
than disorder, and to take over that country and turn it into a caliphate and
then spread it around the world. This is a group of people who don't merit the
word 'insurgency,' I think."
(Check out the full column by Dana Milbank.)

Actually, I was more inclined to look up the word "caliphate" in my dictionary. Turns out it's just another word for an Islamic dominion, the sphere of influence claimed by an ideological leader. Sorta the middle eastern equivalent of "presidential democracy." Hmm.

Although, pausing to actually do as Rummy instructs, I find that "insurgent," at least according to Merriam Webster, has a vaguely nonviolent conotation -- "esp: a rebel not recognized as a belligerent."

Most interesting is the fact that Rummy's frequent incursions into the realm of geopolitical semantics seem to be about as effective as this war he and his chums continue stumping for. As Milbank notes, "This summer Rumsfeld tried to change the 'war on terror' to the 'global struggle against violent extremism,' or GSAVE. President Bush ended that plan."

Now, as a good semiotician, I should probably be asking, "What's the Defense Secretary trying to accomplish by changing the lexicon?" and "What's that dastardly semiotic terrorist's despicable plot this time?" But, strangely, I want this time to take him at his word.

Consider: Rumsfeld gets it into his head that "insurgent" carries with it some embedded semiotic content evoking legitimacy. He thinks these bastards aren't legitimate (and of course we needn't dissect *that* very simple seme). Ergo, they shouldn't have a legitimatizing signifier applied to them.

Behold, thus is born a new signifier: E.L.I.G.

But wait a minute -- hasn't Rumsfeld just shot himself in the foot here? After all, nothing works better to legitimize a group or organization than an acronym.

(Tangential note: "Here and Now" on NPR also touched on Rummy's little Scrabble game today (RealAudio format). There the host makes note of the fact that President Bush is avoiding the word insurgent too, using, among other terms, "Saddamist." I was struck by the host's refusal to give the neologism any kind of false phoneticization, and instead let it roll off her tongue as "sodomist." Now there's a way to undermine Hussein. The administration must be taking cues from the South Park movie...)