NBC suffers attack of the Humpty Dumpties

One of the reasons the Right and Left can’t talk to each other is that we speak two different languages, and it’s especially difficult to translate between them because both use the same words. Old fuddy-duddies that we are, conservatives use the traditional, restrictive, dictionary definitions. Liberals, on the other hand, view words as imprecise but useful analogies.

For example, Adoph Hitler was a nationalistic world leader popular with the military. So is George Bush. Et Voilà — Bush is a Nazi. The most central characteristics of Nazis — conquest and absorption of territory, violent racism and the murder of tens of millions — need not be present to make a perfectly satisfactory equivalence for your basic moonbat (a dog has four legs, a couch has four legs; come, darling, let us fornicate upon the doberman).

Hence anything a white person does that pisses off a non-white person is racism. Anything a man does that makes a woman uncomfortable is rape. It is a language of perpetual hysteria. Dramaqueenglish.

The problem with this linguistic tic — aside from making it impossible for the differently politicized to communicate — is that using grand words to describe somewhat less grand situations trivializes things that are really very serious and can lead us toward solutions that are really very inappropriate.

I first noticed the problem during the Kosovo war. “Genocide” was then often used to mean forcible evacuation based on ethnicity. Genocide, proper, is one of the scariest ideas in the Big Book of Scary Shit. Being uprooted from your home is bad, but it’s not the same as being dead — along with your entire extended genetic family. If we ever need to talk about the attempted extinction of a whole bloodline, what shall we call it? If our words are fuzzy, how do we fight bad ideas?

So now NBC has declared Iraq to be involved in a civil war. Apparently, civil war now means “a really big mess.” Huh.

Our military (can we at least agree that military people are best qualified to define the terms of war?) requires a civil war to have the following five characteristics:

1. Both sides aim to conquer territory and build a nation.
2. Both have a functioning government.
3. Each must be recognized as the legitimate government by at least some other countries.
4. Both have regular armies.
5. They are engaged in major military clashes.

How many of these conditions are present in Iraq? Yes, that’s right. None of them. A bloody mess it may be, but it’s not a civil war.

Yoohoo! Media dudes! Wake up and smell the electrons. You ain’t Walter Cronkite, and this ain’t 1968. You’re more of a Humpty Dumpty, really.

Remember what happened to him?

I couldn’t bear to shorten it to the traditional quotation, so here’s the whole passage from
Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

‘Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, ‘for to get their wages, you know.’


  1. alice
    Posted November 29, 2006 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    My word. I have watched the media skirts and the empty-headed politicos these past few years in wonder, and have often thought we have fallen through the looking glass.

    Must be that the 60s throwbacks are in the final stages of VD or acid poisoning.
    And thanks to their tutelage in all learning institutions, the little oysters await in a row to talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing wax–Of cabbages–and kings–and why the sea is boiling hot–and whether pigs have wings.

    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

    He took his vorpal sword in hand:
    Long time the manxome foe he sought —
    So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
    stood awhile in thought.

    And as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling throught the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

    One, two! One, two! And throught and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.

    “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    come tomy arms, my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
    He chortled in his joy.

    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mom raths outgrabe.

    “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—-“

  2. Posted January 30, 2007 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    One of these days I’ve got to read this fracking book.

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