Thursday, April 15, 2004

Insurrections, Uprisings, and Revolutions.....Oh My!

The partisan political extremists are having a fun time parsing the current round of newspeak. The recent events in Fallujah are a tragic playing out of our worst fears about the military occupation of Iraq. When lives are being fed into the machine of war, it is my guess that pure outrage keeps coming up against language and the role of language in society.

Bill O'Reilly sounded off against the major media, as he always does, by taking them to task on their labeling of the events in Iraq last week as an "uprising." The popular newsman was a little perturbed to find that a number of newspapers were covering the violent struggle with cleric Sadr's militia by using the word uprising in the headlines of their stories. With his high school teaching background so firmly instilled in him, O'Reilly turned to the dictionary to make his case.

"Look in any dictionary," O'Reilly said on his radio show, "and in the definition you find for uprising you will see the word 'popular.'"

Indeed, he is correct. For instance, Mirriam Webster defines uprising the following way: "an act or instance of rising up; especially : a usually localized act of popular violence in defiance usually of an established government." A quick look at the American Heritage Dictionary will find this definition: "A sometimes limited popular revolt against a constituted government or its policies; a rebellion." A few isolated pockets of resistance around a large country like Iraq do not constitute an uprising goes O'Reilly's logic.

His solution? He claims that he would have no beef if the media had used the word "insurrection." O'Reilly did not go on to define insurrection, and so I had to do a little digging myself. I will confess that I had always thought of insurrection and uprising as almost interchangeable synonyms, but upon my investigation I grudgingly had to concede the difference. Though Webster's and American Heritage define the terms in just about the same way, the definitions of insurrection in both dictionaries are lacking conspicuously the word "popular." The American Heritage defines insurrection as, "The act or an instance of open revolt against civil authority or a constituted government."

Michael Moore, on the way left of the political spectrum, is also putting on his scholar's cap to weigh in on the language debate swirling around last week's firefights with his latest message on his website. He mentions Orwell and gives some blustery corrective vocabulary lessons. He corrects the use of the word “contractors” as putting a nice spin on the actual “soldiers of fortune,” who are doing “mercenary” work in Iraq right now. He also chides us for talking about Halliburton as a “company,” as he would rather we use the term “war profiteer.”

The jury is out about how right he is, although Salon.com has an interesting article on just what a lot of those “contractors,” we keep reading about in the news are doing in Iraq. However, I was most interested in the Moore’s statement, “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ or the ‘Enemy’ they are the REVOLUTION, they are the minutemen and their number will grow.” I love Michael Moore, but I have to correct him. If he thinks that the militia of Sadr is the “Revolution” then it would hold that they should also embrace the title of “insurgents.” As we learned in our first partisan vocabulary lesson today, revolt is a part of the definition of an insurrection, which happens to be made up of “insurgents.”

The fulcrum of all of this parsing is popularity and we know from our last election in this country that popularity does not determine the outcome in governance, and looking at history it does not determine the outcome in revolutions either. After all, early reality shows on TV show learned quickly that if the audience was left to vote the participants off the shows didn’t turn out all that exciting.

Early in the Iraq war last year, I remember a great debate about whether or not the American forces were encountering “fierce,” resistance as reported by the major media outlets. The right wing was furious, saying that anybody reporting fierce resistance, “just wanted the war to go badly.” My thoughts were basically this: If I want to get down a street that I originally thought it would take me twenty minutes to go down and it now takes me two days to get down that street because people are shooting at me, I would call that fierce resistance. But hey, what do I know?

There is drama somewhere in all of this. And certainly comedy, but just the wordplay is not enough. I think is speaks somewhere to our deep desire, in a time of crisis, to either overstate, or understate the point. Hey, look at what we have done to the massacre, the murder, and the tragedy of the events of September 11, 2001. We call it 9/11, obfuscating into a numerical code because we cannot deal with its power. Or we call it the “World Trade Center Attacks,” it being better to think of an inert building being flown into. Also, we term all of the current events in the Middle East as a “War” and include 9/11 as the inciting even, thereby conveniently folding the death of all of those people into the collateral toll of a battle fought by volunteer forces.

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