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Monday, 27 November 2006
Traps - Human Experience Filtered and Mediated by Human Linguistic Constructions
Topic: Perspective

Traps - Human Experience Filtered and Mediated by Human Linguistic Constructions

To put things in perspective -
General Semantics is an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) during the years 1919 to 1933. General Semantics is distinct from semantics, a different subject. The name technically refers to the study of what Korzybski called "semantic reactions," or reactions of the whole human organism in its environment to some event - any event, not just perceiving a human-made symbol - in respect of that event's meaning. However, people most commonly use the name to mean the particular system of semantic reactions that Korzybski called the most useful for human survival.

Advocates of General Semantics view it as a form of mental hygiene that enables practitioners to avoid ideational traps built into natural language and "common sense" assumptions, thereby enabling practitioners to think more clearly and effectively. General Semantics thus shares some concerns with psychology but is not precisely a therapeutic system, being in general more focused on enhancing the abilities of normal individuals than curing pathology.

According to Alfred Korzybski himself, the central goal of General Semantics is to develop in its practitioners what he called "consciousness of abstracting," that is an awareness of the map/territory distinction and of how much of reality is thrown away by the linguistic and other representations we use. General Semantics teaches that it is not sufficient to understand this sporadically and intellectually, but rather that we achieve full sanity only when consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.

Many General Semantics practitioners view its techniques as a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion.

Philosophically, General Semantics is a form of applied conceptualism that emphasizes the degree to which human experience is filtered and mediated by contingent features of human sensory organs, the human nervous system, and human linguistic constructions.

The most important premise of General Semantics has been succinctly expressed as "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined."
Got it? "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined." We may need a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion. Our experience of the world is determined by human linguistic constructions - they allow us to think about things. Words are the medium of thought. Words matter.

That is why, on Monday, November 27, this mattered - "On the Today Show, NBC announced to the world that the violence in Iraq can now be labeled a civil war Monday morning. NBC assured us that they didn't just come up with that label. It asked many people and held careful deliberations."

Yeah, well, duh. Out here the Los Angeles Times had made the shift a few days earlier. Of course, there's this video and transcript, Dana Priest of the Washington Post saying that newspaper avoids "Civil War" language because what passes for a government in Iraq says there's no such thing going on, and it's their country after all. And our administration over here says there is no such thing going on. Mark Finkelstein here covers the back and forth at NBC - retired General McCaffrey and the White House saying the term is "Nonsense." It is just not a civil war. The White House view - "The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week." So stop this nonsense.

But it is too late. Newsweek editor and columnist Fareed Zakaria is on it -
We're in the middle of a civil war and are being shot at by both sides.

There can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence.

… To speak, as the White House deputy press secretary did last week, of 'terrorists targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government' totally misses the reality of Iraq today. Who are the terrorists and who are the innocents?
Okay does it matter? Edward Wong in the Sunday New York Times thinks it does -
In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days - beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people - reinforces their assertion.

… "It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war," said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis," published by the World Bank in 2005. "The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945."

On Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, insisted that the Iraq conflict was not civil war, noting that Iraq's top leaders had agreed with that assessment. Last month, Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for President Bush, acknowledged that there were many groups trying to undermine the government, but said that there was no civil war because 'it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader.
Okay, fine. But what about CNN's Michael Ware talking to Kitty Pilgrim on the previous Friday -
Pilgrim: Michael, the Iraqi government and the U.S. military in Baghdad keep saying this is not a civil war. What are you seeing?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, firstly, let me say, perhaps it's easier to deny that this is a civil war, when essentially you live in the most heavily fortified place in the country within the Green Zone, which is true of both the prime minister, the national security adviser for Iraq and, of course, the top U.S. military commanders. However, for the people living on the streets, for Iraqis in their homes, if this is not civil war, or a form of it, then they do not want to see what one really looks like.

This is what we're talking about. We're talking about Sunni neighborhoods shelling Shi'a neighborhoods, and Shi'a neighborhoods shelling back.

We're having Sunni communities dig fighting positions to protect their streets. We're seeing Sunni extremists plunging car bombs into heavily-populated Shi'a marketplaces. We're seeing institutionalized Shi'a death squads in legitimate police and national police commando uniforms going in, systematically, to Sunni homes in the middle of the night and dragging them out, never to be seen again.

I mean, if this is not civil war, where there is, on average, 40 to 50 tortured, mutilated, executed bodies showing up on the capital streets each morning, where we have thousands of unaccounted for dead bodies mounting up every month, and where the list of those who have simply disappeared for the sake of the fact that they have the wrong name, a name that is either Sunni or Shi'a, so much so that we have people getting dual identity cards, where parents cannot send their children to school, because they have to cross a sectarian line, then, goodness, me, I don't want to see what a civil war looks like either if this isn't one.
Well, as many have pointed out, this may not matter, really, except to the politicians and those who want us to continue whatever it is we're doing in this post-war war (and that may be an accurate but odd semantic construction in and of itself.). Note Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings - Civil War, Or The Failure Of Reconstruction? Who Cares?

But if you're going to think about how to make thing even a bit better, what words rattle around in your brain that could possibly settle into anything like a coherent policy? What are you working with here?

Maybe these folks just skipped the civil war thing and moved a step or two beyond that - to your basic chaos. Iraq looks like a failed state, with a government that is powerless to control its own factions. And there may be no movement to install "something else." Who is fighting for that, really? We have general lawlessness and every man for himself, or every sect, or tribe, or whatever. Christopher Hitchens sees the whole region disintegrating (and that may be the right word) in his Monday item, From Beirut to Baghdad - The Ghastly Predictability of Nihilist Violence.

So, we're fighting Islamic fanatics there so we don't have to fight them here - and all that stuff that looks like a civil war is just background noise. That would lead you to one set of approaches. Or we have a civil war, with two distinct sides - Sunni and Shi'a - and that needs attention. That would lead you to another set of approaches. Or we have unstructured nihilistic violence - internecine war with no clear objectives, or just criminal thuggish crap. That would lead you to yet another set of approaches.

It does seem to be a matter of how you conceptualize it. Words matter.

But out here in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday morning brought an overarching, and arch, solution proposed by Jonathan Chait - Bring Back Saddam Hussein.

What? It seems this was meant to provocative.

Digby at Hullabaloo assumed so - "I assumed he was making a Swiftian modest proposal. I read his piece to be a satirical left hook to the notion that the Baker Commission was going to find some magical solution to the Iraq quagmire and conclude that the only formula that would work would be to put Saddam back in charge."

But the he saw Chait on Chris Matthews "Hardball" explaining that he was engaging in "a little bit of hyperbole but I think there's something to it" and "maybe we should put it back where we found it."

So he was sort of serious? Chait did say "almost everyone with a brain says we shouldn't have gone in the first place" but then admits that he was for the war but on different grounds - because he thought "weapons of mass destruction were the rationale" and "I didn't pay attention to, I confess, I didn't pay much attention to the possibility of a completely failed state. When the Bush administration talked about democracy I thought they were lying the way they lie about everything else that they do."

Well, maybe they were serious.

The there's this -
Matthews reminded him that in 1991 Baker and Powell had warned about the break up of Iraq if the US invaded and admitted that he got tired of hearing about that and now knows they were right. Chait, however, disagrees. He says that the post war was "bungled as badly as you could have, they had no plan, Rumsfeld threatened to fire the next general who said, 'what do we do about Iraq' in the post war. They didn't have enough troops, they broke up the Baathist bureaucracy, they broke up the army, they did it as badly as you couldn't have, so you know, I think what they could have had was a stable, you know ... last vicious dictatorship.

Matthews asked if he would have gone with the INC and Chait responds, "No, no, I thought what they would do all along was keep the Baath Party in place, get rid of Saddam, get rid of his sons..."

Matthews interrupted as he always does and moved on to another point, so perhaps Chait had something else to say, but I have to admit I was astonished by his point of view throughout the exchange. I had thought his op-ed a rather unsubtle piece of satire and it turns out that it was only barely exaggerated version of what he thought should have happened to begin with and what he still thinks should happen now. He's making a real argument.
Maybe he just got caught up in his own words.

Digby notes there was Jonathan Chait, in The National Review in October of 2002 saying this -
When asked about war, they [liberals] typically offer the following propositions: President Bush has cynically timed the debate to bolster Republican chances in the November elections, he has pursued his Iraq policy with an arrogant disregard for the views of Congress and the public, and his rationales for military action have been contradictory and in some cases false. I happen to believe all these criticisms are true (although the first is hard to prove) and that they add more evidence to what is already a damning indictment of the Bush presidency. But these are objections to the way Bush has carried out his Iraq policy rather than to the policy itself. (If Bush were to employ such dishonest tactics on behalf of, say, universal health care, that wouldn't make the policy a bad idea.) Ultimately the central question is: Does war with Iraq promote liberal foreign policy principles? The answer is yes, it does.

Liberals and conservatives share many foreign policy values in common: encouraging democracy and capitalism, responding to direct aggression, and so on. That is why, for instance, both overwhelmingly supported overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war era, though, liberals have centered their thinking around certain ideals with which conservatives do not agree. Writing in these pages in 1999, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer identified three distinctly liberal principles: advancing humanitarian (rather than merely national) interests; observing international law; and acting in concert with international institutions, such as the United Nations. Krauthammer cited these three principles in order to dismiss them. I disagree. Underlying all three is an understanding that American global dominance cannot last unless it is accepted by the rest of the world, and that cannot happen unless it operates on behalf of the broader good and on the basis of principles more elevated than "might makes right."
Back then was back then. Now it may be time for a friendly dictator. Or maybe that was "really" the idea back then.

But we need to get some democratic western values in that region, right?

Digby -
Indeed, it was the official liberal argument in favor of the war. Only realist misanthropes and dirty hippie throwbacks argued that the democratic domino theory was a crock. We were borderline racist and hated America for even suggesting that it might be just a tad unrealistic.

To be sure, Chait based his argument most fully on the WMD threat, but for all his skepticism about Bush's honesty in other areas, it apparently didn't cross his mind that they might lie about that. Neither did it occur to him and all the other liberal hawks that Saddam might have had good reason to exaggerate his arsenal for regional or domestic purposes, something that the thin gruel Powell presented to the UN and the continuous debunking of "proof" (as with the aluminum tubes and the drone planes) should have made thinking people at least consider.

But now we find out that certain liberal hawks (or Chait at least) always had their own "cakewalk" fantasy. The US was going to invade, get rid of the WMD, install our own friendly dictator and then get out. Who knew?

… But it does raise the question: do liberal hawks think that this is still a solution to the problem? Chait indicated that he was exaggerating to get people "thinking." But perhaps his "bring Saddam back" was as serious a piece of advice as his earlier exhortations that liberals should support the war. I would suggest that it has just as much merit.
Ah, but it is a solution. And the words spin on…

Chait was on with Tucker Carlson also -
We've learned that there are worse things than totalitarianism and one of them is unending chaos... My argument is not an entirely cynical argument... One of the things that foments chaos is the expectation of chaos, when people's behavior changes, when they don't see any established order, and one of the few things we'll be able to do, I was sort of supposing, would be the return of Saddam Hussein - he has high name recognition, people know who he is, they know what he's capable of doing and you have, it's still a recent enough that he was in charge of the state, that you still have the Baath army units and the infrastructure to put in place. So I was hypothesizing that this may be the only force capable of actually ruling the country, not that we want that by any means, it was horrendous, but simply that you have order, I mean it might be the best of some very, very, bad alternatives.

Carlson: Best for us. It seems to me the one thing about Saddam, as deranged as he may have been, he did have something to lose, he didn't want to die, and he wasn't a religious nut, he was incredibly brutal. Does that tell us something about what we would need to do in order to secure Iraq. I mean, he killed people with poison gas, Was that something he had to do? Was that required?

Chait: No I don't think so. But look, he's psychotic so you can't assume that anything a psychotic man does is something he rationally had to do. And he would still be psychotic if he was in power. There would be no doubt about it. I mean, it certainly would be better for us - we wouldn't have the Iranian influence and you wouldn't have Iraq becoming a potential terrorist haven, both things that threaten us a great deal, if we had Saddam in power. You would have someone who would brutalize his own population but again you're getting that right now anyway and you might be getting less of it if he returned.

Carlson: Obviously we're not... because there is a civil war, and according to NBC it officially begins today, that kind of implies we ought to pick a side. And in fact pick a strongman to preside over the country in a less brutal way than Saddam did, but in a brutal way nonetheless and keep that place under control? Should we pick a side?

Chait: I don't know. I think I'm probably like you. You read all these proposals about what to do with Iraq and there all people who specializing in the topic and know more about it than I do and probably more than you do and it just doesn't sound that convincing and when they pick apart the other guy's proposal, when they say "here's why we need a strongman and here's why partition won't work" and you say "that makes a lot of sense" and the other person says "here's why we need partition and why the strongman won't work" and that seems right also, so that sort of the mode I'm in. I just don't know what to do. The only time anyone seems convincing is when they say why everything else won't work.
Yep, words are funny that way. Alfred Korzybski knew a thing or two.

And Digby says this is all "chickenshit nonsense" -
This guy makes a living as a pundit. He wrote an extremely provocative article saying that we should re-install Saddam (or some other strongman.) And then he cops out by saying he's confused because the "experts" don't have any easy answers.

This kind of thinking has permeated the establishment from day one. Plenty of people said in advance that the war was a mistake for exactly the reasons that Chait is now so surprised by. Nobody listened to them then and nobody is listening to them now. In fact, they were and are derided and marginalized. Today allegedly liberal pundits are rather seriously discussing the merits of installing friendly dictators now that their fantasies failed to become reality. How ridiculous.
Words can do that. No one agrees on the terms we should use.

At the end of his interview with Chait, Matthews said something like "what's going on with you guys at The New Republic? You're going liberal." Chait said, "We've always been liberal."

Digby - "Mark my words, soon it will be said that when the going got tough the liberals said we should bring back Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows that the left are totalitarians from way back."

It will be a war of words.

And what of that publication, The New Republic? Their new issue is devoted to "What To Do About Iraq" and it seems it all depends on how you frame the problem. There are two pieces, both by political science professors. They are puzzling.

Kevin Drum suggests that they are "diametrically opposed and yet still manage to contain not a single glimmer of intelligent thought between them." As in "James Kurth suggests we obliterate the Sunnis because they've been such bastards, while suggests we obliterate the Sunnis because they've been such bastards, while Josef Joffe suggests we team up with the Sunnis in order to annoy Iran. Neither writer even remotely explains how we're supposed to accomplish either one of these goals."

But seem to have bought the "civil war" construction. That's the thing now. That's "the word" (or words). And it's a matter of which side to choose for which reason.

And George Packer in the same issue seems to use the Hitchens semantic construction - we not dealing with civil war, but something like nihilist violence. And it may be time to think about saving those who stuck by us -
Those Iraqis who have had anything to do with the occupation and its promises of democracy will be among the first to be killed: the translators, the government officials, the embassy employees, the journalists, the organizers of women's and human rights groups.

... If the United States leaves Iraq, our last shred of honor and decency will require us to save as many of these Iraqis as possible. In June, a U.S. Embassy cable about the lives of the Iraqi staff was leaked to The Washington Post. Among many disturbing examples of intimidation and fear was this sentence: "In March, a few staff approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate." The cable gave no answer. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue visas.

... We should start issuing visas in Baghdad, as well as in the regional embassies in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla, and Basra. We should issue them liberally, which means that we should vastly increase our quota for Iraqi refugees. (Last year, it was fewer than 200.) We should prepare contingency plans for massive airlifts and ground escorts. We should be ready for desperate and angry crowds at the gates of the Green Zone and U.S. bases. We should not allow wishful thinking to put off these decisions until it's too late. We should not compound our betrayals of Iraqis who put their hopes in our hands.
So choosing sides in the civil war is moot. It really is beyond that now.

Drum -
On moral grounds, it's hard to conceive of any argument against Packer. The only question is: Is it practical? Can we actually do what he suggests? How would we address the obvious security problems inherent in a relocation program?

The only way to know is for people with experience to study the issue and create a plan. But what are the odds that anyone in the Bush administration will ever allow this to happen?
The odds are nil. Of the three ways to put this into words - we're fighting Islamic fanatics there so we don't have to fight them here and all that stuff that looks like a civil war is just background noise, or we have a civil war, with two distinct sides and the needs attention, or we have unstructured nihilistic violence - the Bush administration will only credit the first semantic construction. You can only think in the words that you allow yourself to use. It's a funny trick, or maybe it isn't so funny.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006 06:54 PST home

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