Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Talking to the walls

As an adendum to my last post, I'll mention Frank Rich's comments in last Sunday's New York Times opinion page. While he's a little too doggedly insistent on a direct relationship between language and reality for the tastes of this semiotician, he does make a good point.
The newest hollowed-out word to mask the endgame in Iraq is "phase," as if the increasing violence were as transitional as the growing pains of a surly teenager. "Phase" is meant to drown out all the unsettling debate about two words the president doesn't want to hear, "civil war."
The incredible thing here is that propaganda seems to have collapsed to its weakest form, euphamism. Rich is right when he draws the connexion between "phase" as Bush uses it and the transitory manifestations of teen angst. It's the shortest distance between the word and all available association in the mind of the average American I think; just as the shortest line between the meme "civil war" and all available associations is the war between North and South.

(Kofi Anan joined the "civil war" bandwagon Monday, BTW.)

And on the sanctioning of "civil war" by NBC, Rich had this to say:
In the case of civil war, it fell to a morning television anchor, Matt Lauer, to officially bless the term before the "Today" show moved on to such regular fare as an update on the Olsen twins. That juxtaposition of Iraq and the post-pubescent eroticism was only too accurate a gauge of how much the word "war" itself has been drained of its meaning in America after years of waging a war that required no shared sacrifice. Whatever you want to label what's happening in Iraq, it has never impeded our freedom to dote on the Olsen twins.
This is one of those things that now goes without saying to the point where it becomes profound once said. The majority of readers and writers in the blogosphere have never experienced a war whose immediate, local manifestation was shared sacrifice: the rationing of aluminum, the donation of pantyhose, &c. No doubt Rich will have already received irate emails saying our shared sacrifice is the absense and occasional death of our boys overseas; and while maybe we should all be a little more in tune with the fact that many of our fellow countrymenandwomen are shedding blood over there, most of us aren't. And while most of us (I sincerely hope) aren't actually doting on Mary-Kate and Ashley, we certainly do have other concerns.

To a great many of us, I suspect, it matters not whether the situation in Iraq is civil war, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, insurgency, tribulations, quagmire, boondoggle, farce, tragedy, travesty, or otherwise. For many of us, the volume may as well be muted: the reports all sound the same, and are all accompanied by similar footage of mangled humvees and Arabs brandishing AK47s.

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