language, other topics, politics

Paris, 11/13


I was having lunch Monday (with Andy Cohn) at a French restaurant, Liaison, in solidarity: Liberté, égalité, gastronomie! Afterwards I find myself wondering what to make of the horrible events of last Friday in Paris, and how to even frame the questions we have to ask and eventually answer.


I begin with a topic I have written about before but may require some additional consideration: how to talk about acts of terrorism. My answer: as little as possible.


When horrific events of this kind – whether terrorism or mass murder – occur, American media respond in unison: talk about nothing else for a week, and then…drop it, and get back to the reality shows. Both parts are dangerous. It may be tempting to be part of the audience after such tragedies – perhaps hearing the litany over and over is in some way cathartic – but we need to understand that being coddled in this way does us no good.

Terrorism is a speech act expressed through nonverbal action. In that, as I have said, it differs from war, which has primarily physical and literal aims. The terrorist’s aim is not all that different from that of the five-year-old jumping out at his little sister from behind a door, yelling “BOO!” – inculcating fear. But terrorism is, needless to say, not nearly as cute.


Terrorism is primarily a form of communication, like other activities designed to provoke emotional responses in their targets. It is speech uttered via physical channels, not unlike flag-burning (or rape, for that matter). Its aim is to persuade: to convince victims to be afraid, to realize their weakness, to give in and give up. In Austin’s taxonomy, it is probably an exercitive, “the giving of a decision in favor of or against a certain course of action, or advocacy of it.” Searle’s alternative taxonomy would probably place acts of terrorism under directives, which are “attempts by the speaker … to get the hearer to do something.” So they work like forms of persuasion, demands, or orders. Acts of terrorism, just like more typical speech act types, are functional just in case a set of real-world conditions for their appropriate use is met. One important such condition is that the speaker have the power to enforce the action.


Every time an exercitive or directive speech act is repeated, it gains force – the power of a chorus as opposed to a single speaker, “we” versus “I.” So every time an act of terrorism is reported, it becomes more potent. With each repetition, hearers, viewers, and readers become more forcefully persuaded of the message the terrorists are seeking to convey: be afraid of us, be very afraid.


So it is not hyperbolic to argue that media hysteria around terrorist acts aids and abets their creators in their aims: to weaken and demoralize the enemy, us, to cause the enemy – the other – to lose faith in the ideals that have been most precious to them: freedom, democracy, and equality. Our media may be the fourth estate, but constitute, when dealing with terrorism, a fifth column.


Then what is to be done? I am not advocating legislation against the reporting or public discussion of terrorism , which is contrary to the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and even more dangerous to our values than media hysteria. Such laws would be unenforceable and just what the terrorists want. Ideally I would like to see the media come to their senses, if they have them: understand that if you don’t have anything new to say, don’t say it. Endless repetitions of scary stories at first terrify, but after a while we tune them out and our opinion of our public media, already about as low as opinion can get, sinks still further. So the media’s typical game in the long run does it no good. (This is equally true of non-speech horrific events, like mass murders, which our media treat very similarly.) But I doubt that the media is capable of this level of intelligence.


Since legislation is the wrong remedy, there has to be another way to encourage the media to lie low when acts of terror are under discussion. I would suggest an ancient but effectual punishment: shame. Privately we should band together or work individually to tell news sources to SHUT UP ALREADY when they are reporting the same information for the millionth time. No information would be lost. Almost without exception, each repetition adds nothing new, and provides nothing more than the encouragement of fear and despondency. We have to tell them that we will…yes, we will…we promise…turn it off. And if they are unresponsive, we should do so. That ought to put the fear of God in them, and they will begin to take Grice’s Cooperative Principle, and in particular his Maxim of Quantity, as seriously as it deserves to be taken.


A second question brought up by the events in Paris may sound cynical: who benefits from such an event, among the presidential candidates. This turns out to be a complicated question with ambivalent answers.


The Democrats had scheduled their second candidates’ debate for the evening of Saturday, November 14. Why a party that wants people to tune in and pay attention would schedule a debate at that time eludes me. Since Iowa holds the nation’s first primary, and the debate was held in Des Moines, and conflicted with a really big college football game in Iowa (and Iowa is especially maniacal about college football), the Democrats would seem to be playing their favorite game, Let’s Shoot Ourselves In The Foot. The fact that the events in Paris had occurred less than a day earlier only exacerbated an already problematic situation.


It is unsurprising that Paris upstaged Des Moines (as it always will), and the Democratic candidates didn’t deal with the unexpected situation very well. One function of campaign debates is to showcase the differences between the candidates for voters who are apt to vote in a Democratic primary. But another, perhaps even more important, is to show the party’s candidates off to undecided voters and encourage them to vote Democratic in the general election. Then the extraordinary circumstances under which the debates were held should have inspired the candidates to match the memorable moment with unforgettable rhetoric.


If anything, the solemn circumstances brought out the worst in them. They started off with the usual clichés about terrorism; each talked about how macho they were and their opponents weren’t. They had nothing new, comforting, or supportive in that moment of distress. Still, the Democrats came out looking better than the Republicans, not because they were better, but because the opposition was so very much worse.


Within the Democratic ranks, I think Hillary Clinton came out ahead, because of her experience and knowledge. She won points over Sanders and O’Malley because she understood and was conversant with global issues and campaign discourse had suddenly turned global. As long as national economic policy was the pivotal concern (as in the first debate), Sanders arguably had an edge, and he displayed deep competence. But once the conversation turned to the international crisis, he had nothing to say and didn’t say it very well.


As for O’Malley – well, I am currently thinking he’s a creep. Even though he has no chance whatsoever (he gets 4% of the vote in his native Maryland), he kept trying to bond with Sanders (who mostly wouldn’t play along) to pick on Clinton. His shining moment came when he went into a long tirade about her “big gaffe” during the first debate of calling the Republicans “enemies.” The Republicans aren’t enemies, he said. We have to work with them. (But if they won’t work with us, how can that happen?) More importantly, for women, Republicans are the enemy, and if O’Malley remains too obtuse to see that, there’s no hope for him whatsoever. (Also he should smirk a bit less.)


But the Democrats covered themselves in glory compared to the other party. The shocking thing about the rhetoric of the Republican candidates and their supporters is that the more they claim to loathe the terrorists, the more they come to resemble them. ISIS wants a world where there is profound inequality – between the sexes, between religions, in every way that inequality can exist – as long as ISIS is on top. The Republicans want a world in which there is profound inequality, as long as they are on top. ISIS has contempt for freedom – of speech, religion, or anything else. The Republicans display the same contempt. So it was no surprise that the first words out of the mouths of the Republican powers were, just as they were in the aftermath of 9/11, demands to rein in free speech, impose secrecy, and gut the Bill of Rights. Two of the Republican candidates, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush (valiantly trying to man up), have proposed that we admit only Christian refugees. Mutatis mutandis, ISIS would urge the same. There is an unholy trinity under formation between sworn enemies who are in fact fast friends if not fraternal triplets: the American Republican Party, European radical rightists like Marine LePen, and the leaders of ISIS. The Republican “Christians first” is all too reminiscent of the attitudes of this country’s leaders during the Nazi Holocaust, when they refused to give Jews asylum here.


Disconcerting too, though not surprising, is the speed with which the Republicans have identified the new enemy in a new other. Perhaps realizing that the kick-the-Latinos game was a potential problem, they adroitly swung around 90 degrees — from facing south to facing east — to find a new, safer scapegoat. Voilà! Events provided them with a whole new set of immigrants to attack! Life is good!


If there is anything to be gained from the Paris catastrophe, it is what we can learn from the American response to it.


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