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Meakin Armstrong: The War and the Word Games

January 16, 2007

Much of that Presidential power comes from proper use of words: “We have nothing to fear but ____ (finish the sentence).” “The buck stops ____” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this ___.”

meakin.jpgEven George Bush has come to realize he needs a new plan for the war in Iraq. He reluctantly consulted with military leaders and various experts. Went to Camp David to search his heart. Spoke softly to his personal Jesus. Probably nibbled (carefully) on a pretzel then snuck a secret beer from the secret, Secret Service fridge.

And did nothing.

He hemmed (just a bit). Maybe he sat in the “bunker.” He hawed. Cadged yet another secret beer from that secret-Secret fridge.

When the press came by, he stood up straight. Sucked in his gut and looked Presidential. Or tried to. More weeks passed. A few soldiers died, but can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

Then…

Drum roll. . .

Que the dappled lighting effects! Roll Camera!

And?

George? What’s he saying? We would Stay the Course—but with additional force. Before Bush’s thudding and weasely speech from the White House library (a library, you see, because he’s been studying up on the war) the Bush lackeys weather-ballooned a word from the depths of their darkest think tanks—surge.

This so-called surge is an escalation; that’s a word redolent with the Vietnam War and you bet that bottom dollar it resonates with the dentures set. “Surge” on the other hand is a third-rate soda, a suck-ass alternative to Mountain Dew

Surge: Bush was going to surge forward; it would be a power surge. With this surge, we would thus defeat the insurgents. Put on your seat-belt, Laura (because we’re running through those Stop signs–again): Your Commander-in-Chief feels a surge coming on!

Stay with me on this because words are magic. And the Great and Terrible George Bush needs some magic right now—he’s he’s lost his X-factor mojo, that strange force that hovers over a President like a nimbus.

All presidents need their Brand X. Kennedy—lots of it. Clinton, when he was working a room (and keeping his pants on) had it, too. Even Reagan had it when he chuckled. FDR oozed it. Lincoln: tons.

Robert Coover in his brilliant novel A Public Burning (“surges with brilliance! ”— Meakin Armstrong) said that Presidential X-factor was the embodiment of Uncle Sam. When a President gets his Uncle Sam up, he can’t be defeated.

Much of that Presidential power comes from proper use of words: “We have nothing to fear but ____ (finish the sentence).” “The buck stops ____” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this ___.”

Some Presidential phrases last. Others fade like a street corner high (A thousand points of light; a bridge to the twenty-first century). But it’s the other phrases—most of them from the darkest heart of lobbying mecca, K Street that are most insidious: No Child Left Behind, Death Tax, Defense of Marriage Act, and so on.

The United States has always been a product of words, gimcrack phrases, and addle-brained notions. You knew about evil ones such as “Manifest Destiny” “Separate but equal” and “Are you now, or have you ever been a Communist?” But seemingly innocuous, market-driven descriptors such as surge turn the black into white and the horror into good. They are the bastardized product of a pasty-faced man such as Frank Luntz.

Luntz understands language and its power. He’s the man who redefined “logging” as a “healthy forest” initiative and “oil drilling” as “energy exploration.” He and those of his ilk turned “liberal” into an insult. His types made their Republican cohorts use the same descriptors for the legislation they were pushing—Partial birth abortion, instead of late-term abortion. Did you even know that “partial birth” was a Republican spin? Many people don’t. Say something over and over again, and it becomes true.

But back to the surging present—what happened to surge? Dammit, it was market-tested. It was beautiful. It was promulgated from on high. It even soared through the media and infested the headlines.

Instead, the old Vietnam-tested term, “escalation” is taking hold. Does that mean the Democrats waking up to the word game? Hopefully. Even Sen. Kennedy seems to have woken up. He said, “An escalation, whether it is called a surge or any other name, is still an escalation”

This so-called surge is an escalation; that’s a word redolent with the Vietnam War and you bet that bottom dollar, it resonates with the dentures set. “Surge” on the other hand is a third-rate soda, a suck-ass alternative to Mountain Dew.

January 27 is the date to protest this war and this ESCALATION.

Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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