I saw acclaimed Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk speak last night in San Jose. He had much to say about the perception by the Muslim world of America’s goals (“cultural, social, economic and military domination”), the injustice of the occupation of Palestinians (“there will be a one-state solution, I fear”), and the hopelessness of the “AfPak” venture (“it’s a cliché but it’s true that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires”). (As an aside, it may very well be true that Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires, but perhaps this graveyard’s inhabitants lived a rich and full life?) All in all a pessimistic talk, but with a tinge of dark humor,  including an impersonation by Mr. Fisk of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to provide some levity. Fisk even thinks the crux of the problem is that the West no longer believes in anything while the Muslim world very much does, oddly paralleling a prominent conservative argument. (As for Fisk’s beliefs, he considers journalism his religion.) Though Fisk has defined government in unromantic terms – “it’s about power, not good and bad guys” – and calls for the dismantling of the American imperial apparatus, he also suggests Western nations send their doctors, engineers and teachers abroad instead of soldiers, making him more a secular humanist progressive than libertarian.

Fisk began his talk with an engaging spiel about the abuse of language in mainstream journalism. “Collateral damage,” “road maps,” “peace process,” and all the rest. In each of these cases, he notes the implicit and inappropriate analogies, arguing that the language distracts from the true nature of what’s going on. I’m not convinced this goes as far as he thinks in misleading the thoughts of news consumers, though given his status as wordsmith I’m not surprised he’s so sensitive to it. I’m certain readers, e.g. of the Wall St. Journal, who come across the term “collateral damage” know just what that means (if they’re reading an article on such a subject it’s likely a self selection process is in the works which involves familiarity with the term to begin with) – they just don’t let it shake either their conviction that the war is necessary or, less confidently, “man, war is hell.” In either case, the compartmentalization of war in the mind’s file room, as something requiring a different set of language than that which applies to a local town killing spree, precedes the actual makeup of that language.

I’ve only recently looked into the subject, but Fisk sounds like he’s implicitly adopting the views of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who believed, essentially, that language determined thought. John McWhorter tackles the recent uptick (“uptick” being another word Fisk skewers, incidentally, as in “uptick in violence”) in interest in Whorf’s views here. McWhorter writes:

Americans have a plethora of terms referring to psychology–complex, affect, syndrome, superego, compensation. Yet who would say that it’s the English language that makes us sensitive to these things?

In Fisk’s case, I doubt it’s the use of “collateral damage” that spurs insensitivity to foreign innocents’ death, but rather vice-versa. If peace and justice activists had their druthers, and “collateral damage” was replaced with e.g. “civilian deaths,” it’d make little difference in the anti-war effort (though it might make temporary waves). You’d soon hear cue-providing elites privy to the “biased” reporting of “anti-American” newspapers lambasting the language of “moral equivalence.”