Voice

What's in a name?

The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.  

In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:

You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "

He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today's "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.

The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").

The new term is -- are you ready? -- "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables).  Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.  

You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Bibi meets Barack (again)

I suspect some readers are expecting me to comment on today's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but I actually don't have that much to say about it. I think it's a largely meaningless public relations exercise, a kiss-and-make-up session designed to show that U.S-Israeli relations are still just fine and intended to keep "pro-Israel" dollars flowing into the Democratic Party's coffers in the run-up to the November mid-terms. I don't expect Bibi to make any serious concessions today and I doubt Barack will put any serious pressure on him. Instead, look for lots of smiles and handshakes, accompanied by frothy statements about "shared values" and "unbreakable commitments." Then you can switch channels, turn the page, or head for a different website.

There is only one big question here: is there going to be a genuine two-state solution or not?  In other words, is Israel going to withdraw from most of the lands it occupied in 1967, end the siege of Gaza, and permit the Palestinians to establish an independent state of their own on those lands, including a capital in East Jerusalem? If so, then the rest of the Arab world will recognize it, its stigma as an occupying power will end, and U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world will improve significantly. It won't solve all our problems, of course, but it would be a major step forward.

If a two-state solution fails, however, then Israel will become a full-fledged apartheid state and will increasingly be seen as one. It will face growing international censure, liberal Israelis will be more inclined to emigrate, and the United States will continue to pay a significant price for the "special relationship." 

President Obama understood all this when he took the oath of office, but he's been in full retreat mode ever since his Cairo speech in June 2009. Unless today's meeting yields some unexpected results, it's mostly a waste of time. And time is running out.