Thursday, June 12, 2008

Language and Exceptionalism

Andrew Sullivan hems and haws with his readers over whether to apply the dreaded scare word "empire" in the context of the US occupation of Iraq. Sullivan sets forth the context as he sees it:

[T]he US, without a second UN resolution, invaded a country, destroyed its regime, enabled chaos and near civil-war, and then helped establish a divided, but elected, government and wants to retain 50 bases in defense of that government. 50 bases. And yet the government itself seems deeply ambivalent and divided about this, the opposition strongly opposed, and Iraqis leery ... The troops were sent to Iraq to remove what we were told was a serious threat to the security of the US in Saddam's regime. Saddam's regime has passed away, the WMDs have been revealed as paper tigers, and yet still the troops remain. We were told this was to avoid chaos; but now we are told that even if chaos is averted and some stability restored, the troops must stay. The stated reason? Anti-terrorism. And what if the Iraqi government says it can control internal terrorism? Why would we need 50 bases then?
While the reader whose correspondence tripped off these agonized musings invoked the name of Noam Chomsky -- surely a name to send all respectable people scurrying and the argument-ender to beat all argument-enders -- I am willing to up the ante here and apply some of Chomsky's characteristic thinking to this question of word choice: if Venezuela or Cuba had done precisely the same things the USA has done in a foreign country, would Andrew Sullivan (or anyone else) flail thusly over diction?

It's difficult to prove one way or another, but I strongly suspect the answer is no. Concerning Venezuelan policy in such a case, it would not raise hackles to declare it an example of empire or empire-building. Colonialism would also fit, with or without neo-. Expansionism would enjoy wide and untroubled release.

This thought experiment seems to me valid and useful regardless of its origins. It exposes the exceptionalism that wants to euphemize what "we" do. Pursuing the best possible policies in Iraq and beyond needs to start with speaking and thinking clearly -- and this subsumes the fact that the word empire is no more an argument-ender than is the name Chomsky.

Cf. Politics and the English Language.

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