Words matter, sometimes for the wrong reason, and often not because of what they actually mean but because of the subliminal baggage that some communications guru think they carry.
Two current cases:
Rudy Giuliani’s ludicrous decision (and it seems clear that this was a decision, not a slip of the tongue) over whether President Obama loves America has set off a brouhaha that will not end until every major Republican figure has been asked whether he or she believes that Obama loves America. I’m not sure this is the best use of everyone’s time or mental energy.
In my humble opinion, there are only a few acceptable answers to that question, including:
It’s a stupid question. Ask me something else.
President Obama says he does love America and I take him at his word as I would hope he would take me at mine. If we can agree on that, we can move on to the question of how to make America a better country, where our views may differ and the differences might be worth knowing, except for the fact that if I do run for president, I will be running against someone other than Mr. Obama who, if I understand the situation correctly, cannot run for the office again during his current lifetime.
To quote Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Giuliani, who I am explicitly not saying is stupid or evil because I’m no expert on such matters, has declined to retract his statement. But he did clarify that he did not mean to impugn or question Obama’s patriotism because “he’s a patriot, I’m sure.” It’s just that Obama criticizes America so often that it makes him seem more of a “critic” than a “supporter.”
So, to do this gibberish the kindness of taking it seriously, after explicitly saying that he is not retracting his “doesn’t love America” statement, he pretty much retracts it (how do you square “I’m sure he’s a patriot” with “he just doesn’t happen to love his country”?) and then suggests that the essence of loving one’s country is to decline to criticize it, even when it is wrong.
Giuliani, so far as I know, hasn’t actually said that, rather than criticizing America, Obama should adopt the famous approach associated with the maxim: “My country, right or wrong.” But in looking up the origins of that statement, I find that both of those to whom it is usually attributed acknowledged that “my country” might be wrong, but it remains “my country.” The second of the two versions, attributed to U.S. Sen. Carl Schurz (R-Missouri) in 1872, goes like this: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
That works a lot better does it not?
The second case (which is closely associated with the first and which Giuliani philosophized about during his non-apology tour) is the question of why Obama refuses to say that the Islamic State group (hereafter ISIS) — or Al Qaeda before it — should be referred to as “Islamic terrorists.”
Obama routinely goes out of his way to separate his denunciations of these murderous groups from references to their Muslim identity or to Islam, the religion in the name of which these groups routinely justify their actions. Obama’s preferred term is “radical extremism,” which, if you look at it closely by itself, is two words that mean practically the same thing and say almost nothing specific.
Republicans have been complaining that he ought to call them “Muslim (or Islamic) terrorists.” They say that’s more accurate. I can’t really disagree, although, like most two-word buzzphrases, it raises more questions than it answers. Still, their objection is not really about accuracy. It’s just another way of calling Obama a politically correct weenie.
The reason Obama prefers a vague term, especially versus one that mentions Islam or Muslims, is obvious. It hurts the feelings of Muslims and makes them feel disrespected and makes them fear that they will become targets.
On the other hand, on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” during a discussion of these word choices, NBC played tape of former President George W. Bush and even the neocon hero Vice President Dick Cheney using almost exactly the same language. As in:
Obama: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Obama: “All of us recognize that this great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify violence towards innocent people that is never justified.”
George W. Bush: “All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true face of Islam.”
Bush: “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
Dick Cheney: “This is, by no means, a war against Islam.”
It would be, shall we say, interesting to know whether anyone who is now complaining that Obama shrinks from linking the terror to Islam made the same complaints against Bush and Cheney.
When moderator Chuck Todd turned to columnist Michael Gerson, who worked in the Bush White House, to comment on the high level of rhetorical overlap, Gerson replied:
“You are right. There is a remarkable consistency between the previous administration and this one, and for a certain reason. Because the rhetorical saying we want is free people against violent extremists, not a war of civilizations or a war of religion…. And any future president will do this. I promise. You have Muslim allies in the war on terror. You can’t alienate them, you know, the Jordanians or the Turks or others. These are important allies. And your language matters.”
Well of course that’s true, and of course it is most or all of the reason that Bush, Cheney and Obama said those things. But on another level this is also just another example of how comfortable we have become with the idea that none of these guys say what they mean and that some kind of message marketing logic explains what they do say.
The idea that Obama is going to explain the true message of Islam — not only us but to the Muslim world — and differentiate this message from the errant version of those who have “perverted” or “distorted” it is pretty funny.
But there’s another problem. Over the weekend, I read this really enlightening but scary piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood titled “What ISIS Really Wants.”
Wood is steeped in Islamic doctrine. If you read his long, fairly frightening piece, you may conclude that there is a solid basis in Islamic holy writings and tradition for the ISIS idea of seizing territory, appointing a Caliph who comes from the proper holy tribe of Islam, and calling on true followers of the Prophet to flock to the caliphate and fight.
That’s not to say that ISIS stands for the one true interpretation of the prophet’s message. As Wood writes,
“Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment.
“But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, ‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects ‘what their religion has historically and legally required.’ Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.’ ”
He also writes that:
“Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”
Giuliani has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, which amounts to a non-takeback takeback. (Warning, non-subscribers may not be able to access the full piece.) It begins:
“There has been no shortage of news coverage—and criticism—regarding comments I made about President Obama at a political gathering last week in New York. My blunt language suggesting that the president doesn’t love America notwithstanding, I didn’t intend to question President Obama’s motives or the content of his heart.”
It’s a little hard to reconcile that with a blunt statement that Obama doesn’t love America and doesn’t think America is “exceptional,” but Giuliani would like to shift the frame to friendly advice about how Obama needs to speak differently “in a way that draws sharp, clear distinctions between us and those who threaten our way of life.”
Also, after I posted the early version of this piece I found that Washington Post Fact-Checker Glenn Kessler had taken Giuliani’s statements about all the nice things about America that Obama doesn’t say and found a lot of places where Obama said exactly those things, for example specifying on many occasions that he loves America and that he views it as exceptional. He gave Giuliani’s statements “four Pinocchios” which translates as “totally false.”