Thursday, July 28, 2005

Struggle is hell

Yesterday the NY Times reported that the Bush administration is changing the way it talks about the conflict with Al Queda. (You can read a commentary on this in Slate.) We are no longer going to be engaged in a "Global War on Terror". Instead, we are in the middle of a "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism."

In recent speeches and news conferences, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the nation's senior military officer have spoken of "a global struggle against violent extremism" rather than "the global war on terror," which had been the catchphrase of choice.

This is an interesting switch. It's like they actually listened to George Lakoff. Here's what Lakoff had to say about the War on Terror in 2004.

You've said that progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror" why?

There are two reasons for that. Let's start with "terror." Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.

Next, "war." How many terrorists are there hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.

What about the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty"?

Those are metaphorical. Real wars are wars against countries, and in the "war on terror," we are attacking countries. But those countries are not the same as the terrorists. We're acting at the wrong level. Meanwhile, by using this frame, we get a commander in chief, as the Republicans keep referring to Bush a "war president" with "war powers," which imply that ordinary protections don't have to be observed. A "war president" has extraordinary powers. And the "war on terror," of course, never ends. There's no peace treaty with terror. It's a prescription for keeping conservatives in power indefinitely. In three words "war on terror" they've enacted vast political changes.

Here's an administration official in yesterdays NY TImes piece.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the National Press Club on Monday that he had "objected to the use of the term 'war on terrorism' before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution." He said the threat instead should be defined as violent extremists, with the recognition that "terror is the method they use."

Although the military is heavily engaged in the mission now, he said, future efforts require "all instruments of our national power, all instruments of the international communities' national power." The solution is "more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military," he concluded.

To Lakoff's point about the war on terror having no end, I think this thought is reflected in the switch to struggle. In a typical war, there are beginnings and endings to hostilities. War is declared. The war is over. But a struggle is much more amorphous. Struggles are ongoing. There is no clear cut event where the struggle is ended.

Furthermore, the choice of struggle over war changes the nature of the conflict. In a war, both sides are aggressors. It doesn't matter who started it. But in struggle, the side struggling, is clearly put upon. And just a gut reaction, but struggle seems like a word the left would use rather than the right. Just googling struggle I came up with a few interesting hits.

It will be interesting to see how this PR move plays out. I still believe that the name change without a fundamental policy change won't mean much. Euphemisms are typically worn out and need to be replaced if the object they refer to does not change.

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