By A.D. Freudenheim

2 September 2002

With September 11th, 2002, just around the corner, I find myself upset by the reductions of important aspects of American history and policy into overly-simplistic slogans. Few things are more dangerous than jingoism, and few countries are likely to be as dangerous as America when enthralled to jingoistic slogans.

The most obvious and egregious current example of unfortunate slang is the way the terrorist attacks that occurred one year ago this September 11th have been reduced simply to "911." Too many people speak only of "911," refer to "911" as a noun, a discrete object. Others write about "911" with varying forms of punctuation between the two numbers, but leave the reference as just that. And, of course, the media have added to this trend, since it is very much in their interest to be able to reduce important events to simple terms; they perceive it as adding to the impact of their stories to make such heavy and loaded references. I have no doubt that calling the worst attack ever to take place on American soil by such an abbreviation is appealing - and it conveniently requires no use of words like "attack," "terrorism," or "death" while implying all of them.

But as with most slang, it allows the oversimplifications to cloud the nuances of the event - and there were nuances, if we choose to see them. It makes it easy not to distinguish between an attack by an amorphous group of terrorists and an act of war by another sovereign nation. The slang makes it easier to think about those who hate us in the broad terms of which we should be wary - "the Arabs," "the Muslims" - rather than in the narrow terms that should apply: a very specific band of crazy, radical, fundamentalists. Never mind that the slang also clouds the date for all of the positive things that happened, such as women who gave birth to much loved children on that day, and whose children may now feel that through an accident of birth their celebrations have been taken away. Just as we often forget that December 7th was supposed to be a day that would live in infamy, not every September 11th will be like this in the future. Though we are wise to take security precautions on this first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we should also beware of oversimplifications that reduce our understanding of the tragedy to its least complicated form. Doing so offers little help for the grieving and no help for the dead; it only makes us more likely to act out in anger against those we perceive as responsible.

Similarly, the Bush administration's unsubtle way of reducing references to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the slang "Saddam" is a jingoistic way of demonizing him. If President Hussein and Iraq pose the threat that Mr. Bush's administration so consistently asserts, then there is a danger in reducing this threat to a simple, hate-able name. We may get overly caught up in the need to "get Saddam," with perhaps less thought to the consequences of taking on someone like "President Saddam Hussein." In fact, under the last president Bush, we suffered a similar fate with a nation rallied to the cause of defeating "Saddam" (pronounced, by Bush Sr., much like "Adam") that lead to a war that was simultaneously quite successful in its narrow aims (freeing Kuwait) and very much a failure in broader terms (toppling Hussein's dictatorial hold on Iraq and changing the balance of power in the Middle East).

Jingoism is a mid-nineteenth century term that was coined to describe the aggressive nationalism needed to rally the troops, creating a frenzy of emotion in the midst of war and demonizing the enemy; such sloganeering has proven quite effective in corralling national sentiment for questionable causes. What has been less effective are attempts at reversing the jingoism when the need for it is gone. The transition to calling Japanese people "Japs" during World War II was by all accounts easy, and made even the horrific act of rounding up and interning Japanese Americans - completely denying them their Constitutionally-protected civil rights - that much more palatable to non-Japanese Americans. By contrast, it took more than 30 years of post-war Japanese-American relations to wipe this nasty nickname from our common vocabulary, even as Japan became our largest trading partner and one of our strongest allies.

Language is powerful, and deserves to be used carefully and treated with respect. More pointedly, and more simply, we should be wary of the motives of those who would encourage us to use simplifications in the place of nuance and generalizations instead of specificity - whether they are journalists out to earn a living and jerk a tear, fundamentalist Muslim Arabs whom we believe intend us harm, or stately and wealthy Protestants who believe their mission is to protect us against our own better judgments.

Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.