Euphemism has been the leading quality of American discussions of the war in Iraq. This was plain in the run-up to the war, with the talk of "regime change"—a phrase welcomed by reporters and politicians as if they had heard it all their lives. Regime change seemed to pass at a jump beyond the predictable either/or of "forced abdication" and "international war of aggression." Regime change also managed to imply, without saying, that governments do, as a matter of fact, often change by external demand without much trouble to anyone. The talk (before and just after the war) of "taking out" Saddam Hussein was equally new. It combined the reflex of the skilled gunman and the image of a surgical procedure so routine that it could be trusted not to jeopardize the life of the patient. It had its roots in gangland argot, where taking out means knocking off, but its reception was none the worse for that.
Are Americans more susceptible to such devices than other people are? Democracy exists in continuous complicity with euphemism. There are so many things (the staring facts of inequality, for example) about which we feel it is right not to want to speak gratingly. One result is a habit of circumlocution that is at once adaptable and self-deceptive. "Their own approbation of their own acts," wrote Edmund Burke of the people in a democracy, "has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favor." Since the people are not always right but are by definition always in the majority, their self-approbation, Burke added, tends to make them shameless and therefore fearless. The stratagems of a leader in a democracy include giving the people a name for everything, but doing so in a way that maintains their own approbation of their own acts. Thus a war the people trust their government to wage, over which we have no control, but about which we would prefer to think happy thoughts, gives the widest possible scope to the exertions of euphemism.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs"
At the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich on revolutionary euphemism (no subscription required):