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Archive for the tag “political language”

Will the real maverick please stand up

American political terminology is sometimes lost in translation, and perhaps sometimes lost even in American English.

New York City News Service: Mavericks Lost in Translation:

Both Senator McCain and Governor Palin also routinely describe themselves as mavericks – a term said to have originated from 19th Century Texas statesman Samuel Augustus Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle.

Katz defined maverick as “a quintessentially made-in-America word for someone who often goes his own way.”

But John McCain and Sarah Palin still seem, to most observers, to be branded Republican, unlike Colin Powell, the true maverick, who felt free to follow a different herd. And after being forced to destroy his own reputation by lying publicly for the party cause, who can blame him?

Colin Powell – The Real Republican Maverick : Clips & Comment:

What did Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell do when Dick Cheney and George Tenet fed him bad information and sent him to the United Nations a la Adlai Stevenson? He waited an appropriate amount of time because he’s a gentleman, he packed up Dick Armitage, and left the Administration that stabbed him in the back and left him out there hanging. Now that was Mavericky. Not relying on the broken down Republican Party, Powell took his own counsel this weekend and endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Someone in the alt.usage.english newsgroup remarked that terms like “maverick” and “renegade” seemed to have favourable connotations in the USA, at least among some sections of the population, whereas in other parts of the world they were viewed more negatively, with their implications of disloyalty.

It also casts more doubt on the research findings of Jonathan Haidt, who said that conservatives placed more value on loyalty as a moral value than liberals do (see Notes from underground: The moral high ground — or is it?), because it seems that in the US it is people who like to portray themselves as conservative who have a positive view of terms like “maverick” and “renegade”, where the former means someone with no particular loyalty, and the latter means a turncoat — someone who is positively disloyal.

US election campaign rhetoric

As I’ve said elsewhere, the US presidential election campaign has reached the boring stage, in which mud-slinging has replaced rational debate on policies. But some people seem to find it more worrying than boring, especially when it comes to things like this

OPINION Blog | The Dallas Morning News:

It’s increasingly worrying that John McCain and Sarah Palin are embracing the acceptability of campaign tactics that play to the most racist and intolerant tendencies among their supporters. John McCain knows that Barack Obama has no links whatsoever to terrorism, and yet he’s doing everything he can to create that linkage. And he’s unleashing Sarah Palin to do his dirty work while McCain claims to be above this condemnable form of negative campaigning.

Hat-tip to Scyldings in the Mead-Hall who says: “I’m sorry, but intentionally or not, it sounds far too much like the tactics of a certain rabble rousing housepainter from Munich.” And tactics familiar to those of us in South Africa who lived through the National Party regime of Verwoerd, Vorster et al.

I haven’t been following it all that closely. Much of the rhetoric flying around now does not come from the candidates but from their “campaigns”, and their supporters engaging in juvenile tactics of misspelling names in laboured political puns.

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it dozens of times, people claiming that Barack HUSSEIN Obama is a Muslim. That’s about as convincing as saying that Sarah Palin is a Muslim because she’s the governor of Al Aska.

I read newsgroup headings about the RePUGs and the GOP’ukes and the DemocRATs, and I think of all the benefits that the Internet had brought mankind — that infantile insults like these can be transmitted around the world instead of being confined to late-night seedy bars.

So I take this kind of rhetoric with a pinch of salt.

I remember that at one time the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh, was charged with terrorism and that one of the items on the charge sheet was that he had said that Brigadier “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel of the Security Police (a nototious torturer) should be shot. It was a casual throwaway remark that anyone could make, and to treat it seriously as evidence of a conspiracy to kill him seemed ridiculous.

The courts thought so too, and ffrench-Beytagh was acquitted.

And so I’m inclined to think that this kind of rhetoric by the US presidential “campaigns” is just silly season hype.

But then I remember that Robert Kennedy was murdered while campaigning. And Martin Luther King, though not a candidate, was murdered a few months before.

So perhaps it’s more chilling than I thought.

US election campaign rhetoric

As I’ve said elsewhere, the US presidential election campaign has reached the boring stage, in which mud-slinging has replaced rational debate on policies. But some people seem to find it more worrying than boring, especially when it comes to things like this

OPINION Blog | The Dallas Morning News:

It’s increasingly worrying that John McCain and Sarah Palin are embracing the acceptability of campaign tactics that play to the most racist and intolerant tendencies among their supporters. John McCain knows that Barack Obama has no links whatsoever to terrorism, and yet he’s doing everything he can to create that linkage. And he’s unleashing Sarah Palin to do his dirty work while McCain claims to be above this condemnable form of negative campaigning.

Hat-tip to Scyldings in the Mead-Hall who says: “I’m sorry, but intentionally or not, it sounds far too much like the tactics of a certain rabble rousing housepainter from Munich.” And tactics familiar to those of us in South Africa who lived through the National Party regime of Verwoerd, Vorster et al.

I haven’t been following it all that closely. Much of the rhetoric flying around now does not come from the candidates but from their “campaigns”, and their supporters engaging in juvenile tactics of misspelling names in laboured political puns.

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it dozens of times, people claiming that Barack HUSSEIN Obama is a Muslim. That’s about as convincing as saying that Sarah Palin is a Muslim because she’s the governor of Al Aska.

I read newsgroup headings about the RePUGs and the GOP’ukes and the DemocRATs, and I think of all the benefits that the Internet had brought mankind — that infantile insults like these can be transmitted around the world instead of being confined to late-night seedy bars.

So I take this kind of rhetoric with a pinch of salt.

I remember that at one time the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh, was charged with terrorism and that one of the items on the charge sheet was that he had said that Brigadier “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel of the Security Police (a nototious torturer) should be shot. It was a casual throwaway remark that anyone could make, and to treat it seriously as evidence of a conspiracy to kill him seemed ridiculous.

The courts thought so too, and ffrench-Beytagh was acquitted.

And so I’m inclined to think that this kind of rhetoric by the US presidential “campaigns” is just silly season hype.

But then I remember that Robert Kennedy was murdered while campaigning. And Martin Luther King, though not a candidate, was murdered a few months before.

So perhaps it’s more chilling than I thought.

Style and substance

Apart from the paragraph quoted below, there is very little in this article that I agree with.

But this paragraph captures my disquiet about Barack Obama.

Attempting to discern true meaning from Obama’s speeches gives one the feeling of having been trapped in a sort of verbal quicksand. Hair-pulling levels of frustration await any effort to find any specific meaning. A sensation of lethargic sinking into an abyss of abstract gibberish awaits the mind looking for specifics..

blog it

A couple of months ago a British commentator remarked that if Obama became US president, it would be a presidency of style rather than substance.

A British commentator (I can’t remember if it was the same one) said exactly the same about Jacob Zuma.

Zuma attracted support from a conglomeration of disparate interests who were dissatisfied with the status quo, and that made Zuma “electable”. And the same thing seems to be happening with Obama.

But if either becomes president, which of their supporters’ interests will prevail. Change can be for the better, or for the worse, but which way will it go?

All one sees on TV are soundbites with empty slogans.

Cosatu supported Jacob Zuma, but will Jacob Zuma support Cosatu?

Hat-tip to Small Dead Animals.

A new history of the Liberal Party?

In a recent article Paul Trewhela calls for a new history of the Liberal Party

There is a major unmet need for a further serious, comprehensive history of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, especially while the younger of its former members (and some of its seniors) are mostly still alive and available for interview. Its neglect is a failing of the historians working on South Africa, and leaves a serious breach in an important and needed tradition. The current major history is Liberals against apartheid: A history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-1968 (Macmillan, London/St Martins Press, New York, 1997), written by a former senior leader of the party, Randolph Vigne.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether a new history could add enough to Vigne’s work to find a market and make a useful contribution to South African history. The Liberal Party was always a small one; it never gathered a large membership, partly because its ideas were not popular, and partly because of repression by the National Party government. What is amazing, however, is that most of the political ideas that the Liberal Party stood for have been embodied in the present South African constitution. That in itself makes its history worth recording, though whether two histories are needed is a moot point.

One of the reasons a new history is needed, according to Trewhela, is the prejudice against the word liberal, which is just as prevalent in the new ANC-ruled South Africa as in the old National Party-ruled one.

It is all the more needed since in present-day South Africa the language of power now replicates the language of power of the apartheid regime, in the violence and uncouthness of its diatribe against the word “liberal”. One need only glance at the language and categories of thought available weekly on the State President’s personal website, ANC Today, to get a measure of this… All the issues of cruelty and obfuscation which gave concern to George Orwell in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” of 1946, rise up in their sinister unclarity.

And there Trewhela has a point. Ignorance of the meanings of “liberal” and “liberalism” is rife. One only has to look at recent blog and general web postings to find examples. Take, for example, a blog post by Mpush a few months ago, entitled Liberal equivocations:

Liberal politics in South Africa, on top of their bankrupt political vision, have an uncanny habit of working themselves into tight a corner. First it was the DP (Democratic Party) ‘Fight Back’ campaign during the 1994 South African democratic election whose cynical tone rubbed most black South Africans the wrong way. Then in 1999, the DP merged with NNP (New National Party) to become DA (Democratic Alliance), and could only come up with a bland ‘South Africa Deserves Better’ slogan to fight elections with much success.

This embodies many of the current misconceptions, misperceptions and misinformation about South African political history. First of all, it is debateable whether the Democratic Party could accurately be described as “liberal”. The “fight back” campaign (which was in 1999, not 1994) was a blatant attempt to woo the white right with “swart gevaar” tactics. The message was clearly that people who were “gatvol” after five years of democracy should “fight back” against it by voting for the Democratic Party, which, it implied, would restore the status quo ante. There is no way that this kind of behaviour could be described as political liberalism. And shortly after the election, the Democratic Party united with the rump of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance, and was responsible for introducing the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, which is very far indeed from being liberal. The Liberal Party stood for “one man, one vote” when it was unfashionable and dangerous to do so. The crosstitutes stand for “one politician, one vote” and to hell with the electorate.

Similar misconceptions and wrong information are found in the following, posted on a “white right” blog: ZAR: How the CIA defeated Apartheid & placed the ANC

The NP probably got a higher percentage of the black vote than did the Pan Africanist Congress, a relic of Cold War history, which received scant support in the election. Also disappearing into oblivion was the Democratic Party (DP),which was nothing more than the reconstituted old Liberal Party that Allard Lowenstein had backed. Once banned by the primitive white racist South African government, and later reinvented as the Progressive Party with the help of Harry Oppenheimer, the DP was basically the personal vehicle of Helen Suzman, who spent as much effort fighting the ANC as she did apartheid.

Faced with such monumental ignorance, perhaps a new history of the Liberal Party is needed — but would the people who write such rubbish bother to dispel their ignorance by reading it? If they haven’t learned it from Vigne’s book, it is unlikely that they would learn anything from a new history.

So let’s turn to people who might be expected to be better informed, like Barney Pityana, the principal of the biggest university in the country, in his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture:

The white liberal establishment, including white opposition parties in the apartheid parliament, the media, and institutions like the SAIRR [South African Institute of Race Relations], as well as NUSAS could not be entrusted with the task of liberation. They too were part of the movement that imprisoned the mind of the black people and created false hopes about what they might accomplish while at the same time participating in and enjoying the fruits of an evil system.

Their vision of South Africa was based on exploitative values, and the integration they espoused would entrench inequalities. There was also a connivance between all these forces: the apartheid regime and their Bantustan collaborators, and the liberal establishment, all had one thing in common: they applied and derived comfort and sustenance from a system of racial oppression, then they dared to believe that self-respecting black people would wish to be co-opted to their grand design, and finally to have their response to the condition of oppression programmed. That had to be rejected.

Now it is true that in this Barney Pityana does not mention the Liberal Party. It is also true that in its beginnings in 1953 it was mostly white liberals who started the Liberal Party (whether they constituted an “establishment” remains a moot point) and that initially it was largely white people who spoke for blacks, for example Margaret Ballinger, who was a “Natives Representative” in the South African parliament and so was indeed a white person who spoke for blacks. She was, however, elected by black people to speak for them, until even that voice was silenced by the National Party regime when it abolished the “Native Representatives”.

What changed the Liberal Party, however, was the introduction of simultaneous translation equipment at party congresses in the early 1960s. Black members, who had hitherto passively listened to eloquent debates in English, suddenly found their voice, made themselves heard, and had a real influence on party policy, and especially the policy of “one man, one vote”. Some of the more conservative white members left and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party, which adopted a francise policy that was nonracial, but reserved the vote for the rich and educated, effectively moving the criterion from race to class.

Perhaps what is needed is not another party history, but a discussion on what constitutes liberalism. Paul Trewhela’s proposal, however, has the effect of reinforcing what Barney Pityana is talking about, since he seems to be concerned only about the white members of the Liberal Party who formed the African Resistance Movement and turned to violence. That was a purely white-initiated movement, which was marginal to the Liberal Party as such.

What is missing from Vigne’s history, and it would appear, from Trewhela’s proposed history, is the role of black liberals. Why is it that in South African political discourse, the word “liberals” is almost invariably preceded by the epithet “white”? Barney Pityana does it, but so does Paul Trewhela — if it is not stated explicitly, it is understood.

In Vigne’s history black liberals play bit parts. They flit across the pages and disappear off them almost as quickly as they appear.

And yes, I agree with Barney Pityana and Steve Biko that there were (and are) white people who try to speak for black people and thereby suppress the voice of black people (as, of course, I am doing in this article!) I just question whether such white people are necessarily liberals. To characterise the Democratic Party in its “fight back” campaign in 1999 as “liberal” is stretching the word “liberal” way too far.

But we do need, somehow, to clarify the term “liberal” and the idea of liberalism, and to make a distinction between liberals (of any colour) and pseudo-liberals.

_____

Last year, when Yahoo removed my web pages on the Liberal Party, I posted some of this information on my blog at Notes from underground: The Liberal Party of South Africa

Liberalism, neoliberalism and neocons

Since electronic communication made it possible to communicate regularly and frequently with people in other continents I’ve discovered that many Americans seem to regard “classical liberalism” and neoliberalism as the same thing.

For most of my life I’ve regarded myself as a Liberal, and was for a time a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party until it was forced to disband by the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act.

But I was (and am) a political liberal, not an economic liberal. I had always thought that “classical liberalism” was primarily political liberalism, and though there was sometimes a connection with laissez faire economics, it was not a necessary connection. Neoliberalism refered to economic liberalism, pure and simple.

A recent post by Dionysius Stoned, on Foucault, Governmentality and Neoliberalism, has, however, helped to clarify things for me. In this post Dionysius Stoned says:

Lemke points out that Foucault’s lectures suggest two key points of disjuncture between classical liberalism and neoliberalism. The first concerns the relation between the state and the economy. Here Foucault points out that if classic liberalism, resting on “the historical experience of an overtly powerful and absolutist state”, had seen in the latter the role of ‘defining’ and ‘monitoring’ market freedom, this conception is “inverted” under the neoliberal model. Here, rather than the “state supervising the market,” the market becomes the organising principle underlying the state…[n]eoliberalism removes the limiting external principle and puts a regulatory and inner principle [of the market] in its place”. The second difference relates to the basis of government. Arguing that neoliberalisim takes as its “central point of reference and support” the figure of homo economicus, Foucault discussion goes on to show how this conception nevertheless departs from that of classic liberalism. Following off from the prior shift that recodes the social as the economic, neoliberalism enables the extension of economic precepts, “cost benefit calculations and market criteria”, to a whole spectrum of human practice. This conception of homo economicus – honing in on an image of an economically motivated individual who always makes decisions on the basis sound (“rational”) cost benefit analysis – no longer resembles that of the classic liberal philosophers. If the latter, moving from a reductive conception “man’s nature,” had believed that the “freedom of the individual is the technical precondition of rational government” – which government could not constrain without calling into question its own foundation – neoliberalism would no longer take as its point of reference “some pregiven human nature.” Lemke explains:

Neoliberalism no longer locates the rational principle for regulating and limiting the action of government in a natural freedom that we should all respect, but instead it posits an artificially arranged liberty: in the entrepreneurial and competitive behaviours of economic-rational individuals. Whereas in the classic liberal conception, homo oeconomiscus forms an external limits and the inviolable core of governmental action, in the neo-liberal thought of the Chicago school he becomes a behavioristically manipulable being and the correlative of a governmentality which systematically changes the variable “environment” and can rightly expects that individuals are characterised by “rational choice”

Now I’m not an economist and some of Foucault’s terminology is way beyond me (I can form no clear conception of a “discursive field”). But translating it into the terms of a discipline closer to home — theology — that tends to confirm what I have long thought: that neoliberalism is idolatry, because it seeks to make man bow down and worship economic forces and give them rule. It pretends not to do this, of course, by using the rhetoric of “rational choice”, but tends to assume that a “rational” choice is one governed mainly  by economic values and considerations.

Then there is another blog post, by “The Antidote”, on the subject of South Africa’s neoCon spin factory, from which it appears that neocons are practically indistinguishable from neoliberals. As with classical liberalism and laissez faire economics, I am not sure that there is a necessary connection between neocons and neoliberalism, but they seem to coincide most of the time.

And if you remove the “neo” it seems to make little difference either. American “liberals” and “conservatives” alike seem to have a penchant for bombing countries where the name of the capital city begins with B.

Moral equivalence

About 7-8 years ago someone I was having a discussion with in an electronic forum said that he rejected “moral equivalence” arguments. I wasn’t sure what he was on about, and so asked him what he meant.

His explanation wasn’t very clear but it didn’t worry me much until other people started saying the same sort of thing. It didn’t appear to be just a random phrase, but something that was part of the regular jargon of a group or subculture, which knew what it meant so well that it was like a shorthand expression for a whole complex of ideas. Because their own inner circle know what it meant, they saw no need to explain it to outsiders either, and so seemed reluctant to explain it.

But the meaning I pieced together from the kinds of things they were saying were not pretty.

It seems that the “moral equivalence” that they reject is roughly based on the old proverb “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — in other words, that there should be no double standards in judging — that there should be one law for rich and poor, black and white.

But those who reject it seem to be saying that what is bad when done by someone else is good when done by me.

Well, I know the feeling.

It’s so easy to confess other people’s sins, so hard to acknowledge my own.

I think for myself.
You are argumentative
He is a bigot.

But to think that when I do something it’s OK, but when someone else does it it’s bad is not just a rejection of moral equivalence, it’s an acknowledgement of moral turpitude.

Don’t we need a new political language?

Katrina Vandenheuvel writes, in a piece entitled Don’t we need a new political language? about the habit politicians have of likening their opponents to nasty dictators of the past.

But journalists are at least as much guilty of this kind of hyperbole, a recent example being the reports on the feath and funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, where he was described as “butcher of the Balkans”, “mass murderer”, and was said to have “orchestrated” the wars of the Yugoslav succession, and killed 250000 people.

Where do they get this stuff?

Is this sort of exaggeration particularly common in the USA, or does it happen in other places as well? IT’s hard to tell, sometimes, because so much of waht we read here in South Africa is syndicated from US columnists and wire services. But the falsehoods seem to be getting bigger and more obvious.

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