The G-File

When Words Lose Their Meaning

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The president would like to think the Islamic State isn’t Islamic, and that we aren’t at war with it either.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including the millions of poor souls staring at their TV like a big dog whose food bowl has been moved, disappointedly expecting me to be on today’s installment of Outnumbered),

People ask me all the time, “Isn’t it awfully early to be drinking straight gin like that?”

I’m kidding. Only British hookers and Martin Landau in Rounders drink warm gin straight.

#ad#But they do ask me, “Hey, when’s your next book?”

I’m often tempted to make my first response, “Did you buy my last book? Because if you didn’t, who the #$%^ are you to nag me to write another one? It’s because of people like you I can’t have nice things.”

But right before I start looking for places I could non-fatally jam a ballpoint pen into their upper torso, I realize this is uncharitable. The problem, you see, is that people who don’t write books don’t know what an unending, unyielding ass-ache they are. I’d compare them to a non-stop flight in a middle seat between John Goodman’s sweaty former body double who’s now jobless because he “let himself go” and a runny-nosed, cotton-candy-loving small child who is hard to distinguish from a deadly pathogen vector.

But I can’t make that comparison — because writing a book is worse than that. You see there’s nothing “non-stop” about writing a book save the constant yearning to either reach the destination or the unending sound of the siren on your shoulder counseling you to give up and beach the ship. Even though you’re often surrounded by people, you’re always alone in that community-of-one called “the author of your unfinished book.”

It’s more like a years-long journey with constant layovers, cancelled planes, and rerouting through Newark. Every time you push away from the keyboard, it’s like deplaning just long enough to see if Wolfgang Puck Express has finally decided to more accurately rename itself “Bowel Stewery on the Go.”

I know what you’re thinking right now: “Stewery isn’t a word.” To which I ask, “That’s your objection to this rant?”

I am sure there are people who love writing books. They probably aren’t deadline pundits on the side. They’re probably the kind of people who only wear sweaters perfectly tied around their necks and who have only happy memories of spending summers at the beach eating noodle salad with good friends. (“Are the good friends in the noodle salad? Because that’s dark, man, even for me.” — The Couch).

The Rectification of the Names!

As the guy with the shovel despairingly said from the bottom of a deep pit in the woods, “How did I get started on this?”

Oh right. I meant to say earlier, I am crawling like Andy Dufresne on his exodus from Shawshank toward an idea for a new book. It’s just an idea. As Marcus Aurelius (the Richard Harris version) might say, it’s a dream. I can only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it might vanish.

In the course of my developing this whisper-of-an-idea for a book, my AEI colleague Michael Auslin pointed me to a Confucian concept called “the rectification of names.” Maybe you know all about it because you’re a smarty-pants Confucian scholar, which would be an interesting twist on who I imagine you, my “Dear Reader,” to be. But it was new to me and it’s really an exciting idea because it connects a lot of different exciting ideas into a potentially fully functional Death Star, I mean book, idea.

Anyway, the gist is that society goes ass-over-teakettle (to borrow a phrase from the academic literature) when names no longer describe the things they are assigned to. Take it away Confucius:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

Now, I’m just starting my reading on all of this and, so far, I don’t much care for the way the concept was used to justify castes and classes in feudal China or any of that jazz. And, yes, I am aware that a similar concern was in fact a central point of my last book (Now out in paperback, noodle-salad-eaters). It’s central to Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” — never mind to 1984 — and Ludwig Wittgenstein had much to say on the subject as well. And anyone who ate funny brownies in college has grooved on the relationship between words and reality (and the puzzle of the Skipper & Gilligan’s limited wardrobe).

#page#But I very much like the idea that societies get themselves into trouble when language becomes a tool not for describing reality but concealing it.

This is one of the many reasons I loathe the self-described pragmatists who insist they want to solve problems by getting “beyond labels.” You cannot solve problems if you cannot describe the problem — and the solution — accurately. Try fixing a flat tire with a wet hamster. Now, call the hamster a “tire iron.” Has it gotten any easier? Shakespeare tells us that a rose by another name will smell just as sweet, but if you can’t tell sh*t from shinola, your shoes are going to smell awful.

#ad#When Facts Are Treason

The disconnect between names and the named becomes most pronounced in totalitarian societies where words become weapons of the State. When language ceases to be a tool for labeling reality and higher truths and becomes one for upholding the agenda of a regime, the society rots and invites revolt. Try as they might, tyrants rarely have much success at persuading miserable people they are happy or hungry people they are full. As a result, regimes feel required to tighten their grip on society even more. Use of the wrong word — or the right word the wrong way — becomes ever more damning evidence of disloyalty or treason. And you know what? The tyrants are right: It is disloyalty and treason to an evil regime to accurately tell the truth.

I think there’s something very profound about the Chinese idea that revolutions are primarily an effort to bring about the rectification of names; that the demand for justice is first and foremost a demand that words and reality come back into alignment. Nothing is more infuriating than to be told not to believe your lying eyes — or your empty stomach. Take a moment to ponder various revolutions around the globe over history and ask yourself if there isn’t something to that.

One last point before I fulfill my obligation to put some news-related content in this “news”letter: Free societies are not immune to this problem, it’s just that we have better antibodies. We have more opportunities and mechanisms to get words and things lined up properly. In a society where children won’t be beaten or executed for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, the nakedness of the emperor will be a much more frequent topic of conversation.

But that just means it takes longer — and more work — for names to get messed up. Who can dispute that political correctness is, to a large extent, an organized effort to keep truth from being applied to the problems of reality? Who can deny that our politics is shot through with words that don’t line up properly with what they are supposed to describe?

They’re Not Islamic, They’re Not Even I-Curious

For instance, my column from yesterday is on the president’s contention that the Islamic State is not Islamic. The assertion fits perfectly with the extended philosophical throat-clearing you just waded through. I mean talk about letting names and things wander off from each other!

Imagine, just for the sake of argument that, say, the State Department’s Jen Psaki sat down to interview an Islamic State fighter over coffee.

Psaki: “Hi. What’s your name?”

Mohammad: “Mohammed.”

Psaki: “Were you named after your father?”

Mohammed: “No. I am named after the One True Prophet Mohammed.”

Psaki: “Interesting. So what’s the name of your organization?”

Mohammed: “The Islamic State.”

Psaki: “Oh, that’s exotic. What does that do?”

Mohammed: “We have sworn to Allah that we will bring about a global caliphate as he commands us through Mohammed and the Koran. Inshallah, we will kill the pagans, Jews, and infidels and convert the Christians to the one true faith.

Psaki: “Oh my, that sounds like quite a project. So, let me ask you, what religion should I put down here, Mohammed.”

Mohammed: “I am Muslim. I will give my life for Islam. It’s right there in the name: Islamic State.”

Psaki: “Well, I can see that this will just remain one of those mysteries. I’ll just put down agnostic.”

#page#Large-Scale Counterterrorism Operations Are Hell

Sadly, only after I wrote my column did I learn that not only does the administration insist that the Islamic State isn’t even a smidgen Islamic — as the president might say — but we aren’t at war with it either. “If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with [the Islamic State], they can do so, but the fact is that it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts,” Secretary of State John Kerry explained yesterday.

#ad#“We’re engaged in a major counterterrorism operation,” he told CBS, “and it’s going to be a long-term counterterrorism operation. I think war is the wrong terminology and analogy but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity.”

Okay, wait a second. I can understand — no matter how ridiculous I think the claim may be — the argument that we are not at war with the Islamic State. I can certainly understand the argument — again, even though I reject it — that we don’t want to pay the terrorist group the “compliment” of saying we’re at war with it.

But hold the phone. John Kerry is saying that “war” is the wrong analogy? Really? It is okay to analogize the fights against poverty, cancer, climate change etc., to war, but we can’t analogize sustained bombing campaigns with coordinated ground offensives to it? Oh my stars and garters. It’s like the effort to get rid of the Islamic State is the Moral Equivalent of Pension Reform.

It gets worse. Olivier Knox of Yahoo News asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “What does victory [in the fight against the Islamic State] look like here?”

Earnest earnestly replied, “I didn’t bring my Webster’s dictionary with me up here.” Meanwhile, the disconnect between names and things has gotten to the point where a senior administration official thinks Saudi Arabia is “galvanized” against the Islamic State because it has an “extensive border with Syria.” Except for the fact that it doesn’t, this is a very powerful point. So much for Mark Twain’s observation that “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” 

Of course, the administration is simply following the president’s lead. Given how rabid Kerry, Hagel, and others were just a few weeks ago, it’s pretty obvious that Obama has told his team “opstay ayingsay arway.” In his heart the president just doesn’t like words like “war” or “win.” That’s why he “ended” the Iraq War. That’s why when asked to explain what “destroy” means he said it meant to reduce to a manageable problem. That’s why the administration keeps talking about mitigation. That’s why they long ago replaced the “War on Terror” with “overseas contingency operations” and rogue states with “states of concern.” Hey, maybe we should just start calling it “the Islamic State of Concern”?

This of course reminds me of Winston Churchill’s famous line, “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall mitigate on the beaches, we shall degrade them on the landing grounds, we shall reduce them to manageable problems in the fields and in the streets . . . ”

Really, anyone can play. Release the dogs of overseas contingency operations! Haven’t you read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of Mitigation”?

Look, as I suggest in my column, there’s room in a war for bending the truth if it helps win the war. The problem here is that when you’re bending the truth that you’re even at war, what truths are worth telling? As I wrote last week, I still think Obama’s greatest concern isn’t how to conquer — or even “manage” — the Islamic State or terrorism in general but how to find the right words that will rescue him from political hassles, responsibility, and blame. Rather than say he misjudged the Islamic State, he told Chuck Todd he never even called them the “Jayvee” team, which was a lie.

If Obama’s theory of the world is right, this may all work out for him. If jihadism is a minor nuisance that we can manage without much distraction or effort, then his word games might even make sense. But if we are really facing a more substantial and long-term threat, then his word games are not just stupid, they are dangerous because they put further distance between names and reality, between problems and solutions.

I am not a fan of the philosopher Carl Schmitt, but I always liked his line, “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” I don’t think it captures anything like the whole truth, but it does capture an important truth: To stand for something requires standing against something. If you stand for democracy, you must stand against tyranny. If you stand for truth, you must stand against lies. It is a tactical and strategic question whether we need to go to literal war against the Islamic State. But if we are not figuratively or spiritually at war with what the Islamic State stands for, then, my God, what do we stand for?

#page#Various & Sundry

Oh, and on that point, here’s my column on the importance of national honor.

As I mention in the Dear Reader portion of this “news”letter, my scheduled appearance on Outnumbered has been moved to next Friday.

#ad#Adjust your stock portfolios accordingly. More diapers are sold to adults than to babies.

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