Wednesday, October 08, 2014

What's in a name?

French Muslims are livid about the preferred title that the rampaging be-headers in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State, have taken for themselves.

“This is not a state; this is a terrorist organization,” he added. “I call them terrorists because that’s what they are. One has to call a dog a dog. One can’t play with words.”

Ahmet Ogras, vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith

I sympathize. I've often felt similarly when watching Christianists in our midst, like Pat Robertson, appropriate the good name of my faith for oppressive ends.

Since the attacks of September 11, we seem to be stuck with the label "Homeland Security" for a bureaucracy that too often seems more interested in 24/7 snooping into our private lives than protecting us. Where'd that foreign-sounding locution come from? Josh Marshall has dug into the history of the use of "Homeland" by our rulers. He feels that the phrase carries more than a whiff of fascism, of the "blood and soil" nationalisms of the mid-20th century that led to barbarism in Europe. He first finds the usage in the 1990s in the victorious excitement at the apparent arrival of a unipolar, U.S.-led, world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he finds even earlier suggestions of the term.

... implicit in the 'homeland' terminology is an imperial vision of America's role in the world. There's defense - which is something safely beyond our borders but operating in areas of our control and dominance and then there's us proper - the homeland.

His discussion left me wondering whether the more significant linguistic anomaly in our current usage is not the still-jarring "Department of Homeland Security" but the longer standing and equally inaccurate "Department of Defense"?

That name for the Cabinet department which runs the U.S. military is actually younger than I am, having been adopted in 1949. Before that, there was the Department of War. At least consciously, until after the Second World War, we still had a pre-imperial view of our military. We thought the armed forces were more for necessary protection from foreign threats than for power projection around the world -- even though we had a long history of sending in the Marines to muck about in other people's countries, especially south of the border.

Since 1945, the foreign aims of the United States have been to win and maintain global hegemony, sometimes through institutional arrangements like the United Nations, NATO and trade pacts, but through force if necessary. This is what we "defend."

When the United States simply made "war" rather than claiming to "defend," it acted on the assumption that its citizens supported and expressed their own interests through its power projections. Imperial power projections have never really been popular, because the people of this nation have instinctively known that we scarcely face military threats. We only support wars when kept shaking in our boots. During the worst of the Cold War, continual pointing to (mostly illusory) nuclear threats served the production of terror. It should be no surprise that the long, bloody, draft-dependent military adventure in Vietnam became so unpopular; people in this country instinctively understood that a remote part of southeast Asia presented no vital threat. Since Vietnam, our rulers have understood we won't accept significant numbers of U.S. casualties except when immediately panicked.

Seen through this lens, the adoption of "Homeland Security" betrays its deeply anti-democratic character. For our rulers, tasked by their sponsors in the one percent and ideologically in accord with imperial aims, the United States and its people are just another theater of the "war" against which they "defend" global hegemony. They have to work tirelessly to keep us scared, focused on fluctuating enemies. (The terrorists understand this better than we often do!)

In most undemocratic states, the bureaucracy that is analogous to our "Homeland Security" is called the "Interior" department, charged with internal security for the rulers against not-so-much foreign challenges as homegrown opposition. Because of our peculiar history, that name, the Department of the Interior fell to the part of government that first managed lands expropriated from the native population and now is devoted to resource extraction by our oil and mineral barons.

Hence we are stuck with "Homeland Security" for the government department that pretends to protect but mostly keeps us frightened and, in a pinch, would likely be used to keep us in line.

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