Meanings - II
by Michael Brenner on 16 Apr 2021 1 Comment



Genocide is the most heinous of crimes as recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The term has specific reference to the Nazi extermination policies. With that atrocity in mind, one might think that its use would be restricted to the most extraordinary circumstances. The opposite has happened. It has been banalized. There are no criteria to be met before labelling someone or something genocide. Rather, it now is used as a general term of condemnation and abuse – internationally, similar to calling somebody you despise a ‘bastard’ or a ‘son of a bitch.’


At present, the PRC is being accused of genocide against its Uighur Muslim population by the United States, the EU, Canada, The Netherlands – the latter two through formal legislative resolutions. The facts do not support the indictment for alleged ‘genocide.’ The Uighur population in Xinjiang has grown steadily over the past 50 years. It also has increased as a proportion of the region’s population despite Beijing’s settlement of Han peoples there. Abuses certainly are occurring. Some linguistic and religious restrictions have been imposed. This is a nasty business but has nothing to do with ’genocide.’


The loosening of standards poses awkward questions for China’s accusers. Did not the Americans engage in a de facto rolling ‘genocide’ of the native population over 250 years which involved mass expulsions, their enforced confinement in ‘reservations,’ and the degradation of their culture as well as outright killings? Didn’t the Canadians do pretty much the same with their even more draconian programs to outlaw use of native languages and to force assimilation? Both countries did exactly what we accuse Myanmar of doing to the Rohingyas.

Bringing the issue up to date, we confront the harsh reality of selective condemnation. There is an approximation to outright genocide at present: it is occurring in Yemen. There, the entire Houthi population not only has suffered enormous civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led indiscriminate airstrikes; there also is mass malnutrition and starvation due to an aid blockade and destruction of basic infrastructure which threatens to stunt an entire generation. The United States and the United Kingdom have been active partners of the Saudis in this project – providing crucial logistical support – air refueling of Saudi warplanes, weapons, targeting assistance, Intelligence and assistance to the naval blockade without which the KSA could not have conducted its gruesome campaign.


Britain, France, Italy, the Dutch, Belgium and Germany have also joined in the denunciation of Beijing for its alleged ‘genocide’ against the Uighurs. Yet, their own atrocious actions in Kenya (1950s), Algeria, Libya, the East Indies (Aceh), Congo and Namibia were of a kind and a magnitude that makes Chinese conduct – actual or imagined – look pale by comparison. The last two constituted true ‘genocide’ by any measure. Citations of these horrific events in the West are scant to non-existent (with the belated, partial exception of Algeria – and, of course, today’s Germany’s unique repentance for the Holocaust).


It is in the nature of societies to elide shameful actions in their past. The American South – whether as the defeated Confederacy, the states, or any other collective body – never to this day has apologized for its enslavement of millions of Africans over 250 years. Still, it behooves any decent government to refrain from throwing around accusations of crimes that they themselves have committed in spades.


In regard to ‘genocide,’ we see an instance that goes beyond lazy semantics and casual ignorance. Rather, it is the intentional falsification of a word to be used as a political weapon. The former facilitates the latter.




An especially pernicious manifestation of semantic abuse is Janissary words. Kidnapped words are the Janissaries of campaigns to promote an invented or inverted reality. Their original identities are obliterated. Worse, unlike the Ottoman Janissaries, figments of the past identity can be retained when its resonance is considered helpful. Words are kidnapped for two reasons. One is to slay them; the other is to exploit them. American politics offers rich examples of both variants. 


The radical right in the United States effectively took control of the term liberal and all its variants so as to tar it with strongly negative connotations. They succeeded so completely in transforming it into a political ‘dirty word’ that it has long been abandoned by Democrats. They now engage in all sorts of verbal gymnastics to avoid its designation for themselves, their ideas or their policy proposals. In the process, they expose any new coinage intended as a surrogate to similar calumnies. For example, the self-styled progressive Senator who is accused by his opponent of not having the courage of his convictions to call his ‘tax & spend’ program liberal.


Conservative itself is a Janissary word. The literal meaning is one who conserves. In politics traditionally, it has been adopted by those factions who see virtue in the status quo and are skeptical of change - especially when change is sudden and challenges established principles. There is nothing conservative about modern-day Republicans who have made a fetish of their supposed “conservatism”. They are at once reactionaries, who want to return America to a mythic past, and radicals who want to introduce basic changes in our public life. The only things they wish to conserve are the privileges and tax breaks of the upper crust. Otherwise, they are into destruction – destruction of what has been achieved by predecessors so as to clear the way for going backward to a more congenial reality.


Their socio-economic thinking in rooted in 19th century social Darwinism, their reference point is the ‘Gilded Age’ of the 1890s. Rolling back the New Deal and everything associated with it is objective number one. So-called ‘conservatives,’ once in power, also aim to fortify the arbitrary powers of the Executive at the expense of the principle of ‘checks and balances’ etched in the Constitution, in a manner never before experienced in the United States.


Internationally, they are dedicated to building a world according to American specifications through generous application of American military power. This package is diametrically different from all that transitionally has been meant by conservatism. The reactionary/radicals kidnapping of the term for their own purposes is made possible by the free and easy use of vocabulary in a literally mindless political culture. For clear thinking is impossible without logically structured language; and clear speaking is impossible without logical thinking about pattern in the discrete experiences we encounter in life.


Exploiting Janissary words normally occurs when they are seen as having a positive image that can be used to market something rather different. Reform is an outstanding example. Its emotive power stems from the implication of progress, an unalloyed good in modern American imaginations. Progress in turn implies improvement or betterment. Reform movements in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world were associated with expansion of voting rights, the breaking of monopolies, the sweeping out of office of corrupt political machines, etc. The beneficiaries in those cases were the ‘people,’ the citizens, the common folk, the little man. Today, the term reform has been abducted and put in the service of change that implies – but doesn’t necessarily deliver – greater efficiency, especially the efficiency of markets, in disregard for the well-being of flesh and blood persons.  


Nowadays, the promotion of any social change is labeled reform - whether or not its objects will find their situation improved. Market fundamentalists campaign under the banner of reform when they press for ‘flexible labor markets.’ That phrase is a euphemism for making terms of employment more onerous or simply abolishing jobs via outsourcing, sub-contracting, “gigging” and other methods of boosting corporate profits at labor’s expense. 


Workers, in the wake of labor market reform, find themselves less secure in their jobs, less well paid and recipients of reduced fringe benefits. It can be argued, of course, that the change improves the overall efficiency of the economy – the unregulated global economy as an economic unit – from which they draw greater wealth than from regulated national economies. Differential effects and system bias are ignored – as are market dysfunctions.


The dogma of market fundamentalism says that systemic efficiencies help everyone. That is not true. There is a redistribution of wealth and even opportunity. There are winners and losers – certainly in the short and middle run. Whether everyone gains in the long run depends on the intervening factors of how market power is structured and what actions are taken by governments.

In the decades preceding the financial crash of 2008, reform was even the preferred term of those advocating an end to the regulation of financial markets. They succeeded. The heaviest costs of their success - and the resulting abuse and then failure of financial markets - were borne by the general populace. Their lives deteriorated rather than improved. There was a high positive correlation between implementation of that ‘reform’ agenda and society’s moving backward by the enlightened standards of the past century. 


The United States, Britain, Ireland and the Baltics - where a combination of faith in the EMT (efficient market theory) dogma and calculated unbridling of finance - have suffered the most from the great crisis of 2008-09. Similarly, American officials and pundits talk about the vital need for ‘Reforming entitlement programs’ - itself a euphemism for Social Security and Medicare. Reform in this instance means cutting benefits, i.e. a straightforward reduction in the value of what recipients get.


Blatant untruths are propagated by the advocates of ‘reform’: Social Security is in crisis; there is no other way to fund these programs. It fact, it is funded until 2040 and there are reasonable ways to fund it thereafter - such as raising the ceiling for FICA and Medicare withholdings. An honest public discourse would not use the word ‘reform.’ Instead, it would refer to cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits so as to distribute the nation’s wealth towards other ends, persons and purposes. It remains to be seen whether the harsh lessons administered by the ‘great recession’ will sensitize us to the practice of enlisting the Janissary words Reform and Progress into causes with no legitimate claim to the words.


Their appropriation by powerful Establishment interests and their promoters not only is a form of involuntary linguistic servitude. It also saps them of the capacity to energize efforts to make changes in institutions that are crying out for genuine reform. Who talks about reform of the Federal Reserve Bank, of the Security & Exchange Commission (SEC), of the FAA, of the FCC, of the IMF, of the World Bank, of the CIA, of the Pentagon?


The term Middle Class has been completely denatured by a process of indiscriminate use. It is a complex phenomenon whose examination reveals a number of current elements in the silent campaign against truth and honesty. It has become a synonym for the great mass of Americans who figure neither among the super-rich nor live below the poverty line. Anyone earning between $30,000 and $250,000 is now declared ‘middle class’ in political parlance.


The upper bracket is drifting even higher.  One calculating reason for this status inflation is to erase the ‘working class’ from the public vocabulary. That term has acquired unsavory connotations. It implies poor and failure - notions that are linked in American minds. Rather than take steps to improve the lot of the working class, they are offered honorary status in the Middle Class. Admittedly, in our habits of what we buy and how we entertain ourselves, there indeed has been a move toward uniformity, a cultural compression.


Nonetheless, life on an annual income of $30,000 is very different in terms of health care, comfort, opportunities for children and many other ways from life on $250,000. A one-size-fits-all vocabulary elides those realities and glosses over the public policy implications. It is a self-serving tool fashioning an image of the quite wealthy as just your average Joe whose taxes should never be increased – even to the levels that prevailed before the Bush/Trump tax giveaways that greatly favored those in uppermost income brackets.


“Words were created to obscure our actions and their meanings” – Anonymous.

Sometimes it seems that way.



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top