Thursday, December 09, 2004

Perspective Evolution

George Carlin was directly responsible for my introduction to the nuances of the English language. My first encounter with Carlin was at an assembly at my high school in 1971. I kid you not. Carlin's star had risen (and then sunk) during the 1960's - he was a Carson favorite for many years, and then something strange happened. In the late 60's, Carlin started talking about more than the vagaries of our dialect. He started riffing on the Vietnam war with his "hippy dippy weatherman" schtick. And I believe to this day that the PTB blackballed him from mainstream entertainment venues as early as 1967. By the time I saw Carlin in 1971, he was reduced to doing noontime assemblies at (admittedly rather prestigious) high schools and junior colleges.

Before the assembly happened, I'd never really heard of George Carlin. But in the subsequent 45 or 60 minutes, my life was literally changed. As far back as I can remember, I was a student of the language. From the moment of his opening monologue, I was in awe - and a willing student at the feet of the master.

Yeah, ok. So it was a high school / junior college setting. But Carlin pulled no punches. He rolled out his "seven words you can't say on television" routine. My adolescent classmates roared in appreciation. The administrators and teachers were ashen white - many of us actually thought they'd pull the plug on him before his time was done. But they didn't. In retrospect, I don't think they knew what to do.

Either that, or they were entertained as well.

Did I mention that this was a military school? What the fuck were the people who ran that place thinking when they invited George Carlin in to entertain the student body?? (Thank heavens his career rebounded nicely from that gig.)

I digress, but I relate this story for a reason -- perspective evolution and the use of the English language. Let's think back to, oh, May of 2003. The U.S. military had rolled into Baghdad and set up housekeeping in one of Saddam's palaces. U.S. casualty rates had dropped significantly from the time of the unilateral invasion - to around 30 in the month of June. We heard reports of "resistance fighters loyal to Saddam" still kicking up a bit of a fuss, but things seemed to have calmed down from the initial shock and awe. Then something strange happened in the September to October timeframe.

The "resistance fighters" started trotting out their stockpiles of RDX in the trunks of cars, and blowing up shit (and soldiers) in the process. Casualty rates began to creep up. The Pentagon PR wonks apparently were moved to reconsider the use of the term, "resistance fighter", in press releases. Let's think about why for a minute.

For a boomer like me, the term evokes a historical connection to the French Resistance of WWII. Charles de Gaulle. Cpl. Louis LeBeau. Rick Blaine and Capt. Louis Renault. Resistance Fighter = good. Occupation Force (Nazi) = bad.

Ilsa: What about us?

Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

So, as the Iraq cake walk started to fall flat, the boys in the Pentagon who fed the lines to the boys on the bus felt they needed a new moniker to hang on the brown skinned raghead camel jockeys who were perpetrating the blowback - hence, the term "insurgent" started to creep into the media lexicon alongside the use of the word "resistance" . By the beginning of 2004, it was all insurgent, all the time.

What drove the change? PR. Public relations, as demonstrated by the Pentagon shift in semantics. Now, I don't think a lot of Fox viewers have really taken the time to look up the definition of "insurgent", but if they did, they'd find the following definition in Webster's:

\In*sur"gent\, n. [Cf. F. insurgent.]
A person who rises in revolt against civil authority or an
established government; one who openly and actively resists
the execution of laws; a rebel.

Syn: See {Rebel}.

Oooh. George Washington. Nathan Hale. Thomas Paine. James Dean.

But you have to admit, "insurgent" just rolls of the tongue with a bit more spittle than "resistance fighter". "Insurgent" sounds so Jane Fonda-ish. "Resistance" sounds Che.

Let's take this one baby step further. It's pretty easy to see how perception was altered with a minor massaging of the King's English. But let's step outside of our little Madison Avenue cocoon and peek into the Arabic media. "Street" talk in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, or even Turkey isn't about 'resistance fighters' or 'insurgents', it's about Mujahideen. English-language media always seeks to define the term as "Islamic holy warriors". Those of the Muslim faith know differently. "Mujahideen", literally translated, is the plural of "struggler". And the Islam religion is all about struggle. So the term resonates positively with those of the Muslim faith -- who, interestingly enough, comprise the vast majority of the populace in the Persian and Mesopotamian ancestral regions of the world. It's little wonder (and no accident) that most of the Arabic media describes the Islamic resistance fighters in Iraq as "mujahideen".

It's all about playing to the constituency. In the West, "insurgent" has a negative connotation. In the middle east, "mujahideen" has a positive connotation - that of one struggling against oppression / occupation / religious persecution.

Ok, then. The preceding was your lesson for today on navigating the media filters (like anyone frequenting ASZ really needed teaching). In an earlier post, I referred to it as "one man's insurgent is another man's resistance fighter".

And though I'm sure that George Carlin doesn't speak a lick of Arabic, he'd be having a field day on the Baghdad comedy circuit if he did.

Mood - Introspective
Music - "As Time Goes By", Herman Hupfeld
...with apologies for cribbing from LiveJournal...