Using The Language

That is not great idea for presidents who using the language imprecisely. Many things are go after and too much of the world out there watching. Probably ill-advised to do so, but still in all, they’re out there paying attention.


And so it is, President George W. Bush found himself at the end of a tether, looking forlorn and certainly diminished by the scale of airport upon which he stood, using a hot-button word–fascist.


Ill-advisedly, one might add, but then there was no advice. He was reported to be off the linguistic leash (not a comfortable place for George) and to have written his brief message to America himself.


So, the President of the United States reintroduced us to fascism. Yep, right out there in the sun, squinting into the glare and addressing his ‘fellow citizens,’ the unedited man made himself and his notions of the world just a little more plain. Plain-spoken presidents are rare. Harry Truman was one, Ronald Reagan another, but to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush, you are neither.


Which is why there are presidential speechwriters. Which is why the departed Michael Gerson is so sorely missed among administrative operatives. Gerson could turn a phrase without distorting and insulting the faith of the world’s 1.3 billion already touchy Muslims.


George unplugged (from his wordsmiths) is an interesting phenomenon.


Fascist is also a particularly problematic word for a sitting president who has been criticized for a dictatorial approach to his own (and other) democratic institutions. A dicey choice for a man accused of repressing opposition. A singularly odd framing for a leader who’s grip on office depends upon unquestioning and fear-based nationalism.


The dictionary, a tome that may not be easily found on Air Force One, defines Fascism as


The dictatorial government of Mussolini: a system of government practiced by Benito Mussolini in Italy between 1922 and 1943 that was characterized by dictatorship, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of opposition, and extreme nationalism (italics mine) [Early 20th century. From Italian fascismo, from fascio, (see FASCIST).]


According to the transcript, Mr. Bush’s exact words were


“The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”


Characterizing an enemy in terms that fit the politics and circumstances of the moment is also a distinction of fascism. It was a mercifully short speech, 277 words that only used ‘fascists’ once, and yet it was the word heard ’round the world.


From Radio Free Europe in Prague,


The Islamabad-based newspaper “Ausaf” writes today that the words are an “insult to the religion” of Islam. The high-circulation Urdu-language daily added that “at a time when Washington gives full support to Israel in its fight against Lebanon, such words only harm the United States’ reputation in the Islamic world — a reputation that is already decreasing day by day.”


Again, according to RFE, Muslim groups in the United States have been equally critical.


“We believe this is an ill-advised term, and we believe that it is counterproductive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group.


RFE reports that Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, calls it (fascism) offensive and a far-too-broad confusion of religion and politics.


“Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word ‘fascist’ in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech.”


The president ended his airport speech with


“The American people need to know we live in a dangerous world, but our government will do everything we can to protect our people from those dangers.”


Everything, apparently, except inflaming an already volatile rhetoric with hate speech. Were ‘Fascists’ to find itself scrawled across mosques and spray-painted on walls in predominantly Muslim-American neighborhoods, what could it be called but hate speech?


And with that, Mr. Bush turned his back on a quarter of the world’s population, one one-hundredth of one percent of which is violently anti-American, and walked away. The other 99.99% of the Muslim world will be left to draw their own conclusions.