Monday, 17 September 2007

The 'surge' effect (part 2)

The tale of how the "surge" became the surge is similar to how the "war on terror" became the war on terror: the political language seeped into the mainstream as commonly accepted expressions. Once the media started using them, those political phrases dominated in the public arena. (Albeit, the 'war on terror' became much more commonly seen outside of quotes than 'surge', and its connotations and political effects have been stronger.) The term "surge" is more than just a neutral catch-phrase used by the White House and the media, though opposed by the Pentagon — probably on technical grounds. Rather, it is a variation of the Bush administration's newspeak and Iraq war spin.

Presently, the "surge" has gotten to a point where it isn't even within quotation marks in a news article, similar to what happened with the also politically-spun "war on terror". Unlike that "war", the surge has a less evident political bias in favor of the Bush administration. But still, says Gal Beckerman in a very informative Columbia Journalism Review article, words like 'surge' are worthy of labels of Orwellian proportions:

The Bush administration has aggressively refined the art of distilling any new initiative presented to the public into a single word or phrase that at once defines the idea while obscuring its various downsides. Orwell coined the everlasting expression for this: newspeak. The phrase “war on terror” is perhaps the administration’s crowning achievement in this realm.

With the post-9/11 "war on terror", the Bush administration created a public mentality of wartime and exploited those fears for its own political gain. The "war on terror" gained widespread usage and allowed the spin-doctors in the White House a great advantage: tilt the debate their way by using phrases like the one implying a global fight against an omnipresent terrorist enemy. In a war there are two sides, and if people didn't support Bush, so the logic went, then they must support the terrorists. The same thing applies to the "new way forward" and the "surge". If one doesn't support the plan, isn't one against progress? The "war on terror", of course, isn't a real war. But presenting it as one allowed the Bush White House more political power and popularity.

How is using the term "surge" any different from "troop increase" or even "escalation"? Surge implies a short-term effort that produces an effect, not connoting the dryness of 'troop increase'. A surge not only suggests an increase numerically. Surge sounds positive, and its definition implies upward movement, a rush of progress. A linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, George Lakoff, argued against the Bush administration's "framing" of the Iraq war debate for its own benefit: "The word "surge" indicates a short-term increase in force that has an effect and naturally goes back to its previous level. . . . To use the word "surge" is to subscribe to Bush's misleading frame." Furthermore, using "surge" in place of "troop increase" doesn't directly remind people of the fact that more men and women in uniform will have to be sent to a place where reports of deaths flow into the news stream daily. "Surge" also sounds a bit like "insurgent", linguist Deborah Tannen notes. The need to take one's mind off of the fact more soldiers will be sent to Iraq and remembering that the fight is against the insurgents and terrorists is a reminder the White House never ceases to vocalize, making "surge" the ideal word for its Iraq plan.

On the other hand, "surge" could actually imply a hike in the number of troops sent to Iraq, something Americans are hesitant about. A surge of progress, or a surge of American lives to be lost? The word at least carries a subliminal effect, which explains why few have questioned its use to represent such a unpopular policy. Some in the public may not even realize the political connotations "surge" and other political catch-phrases carry. "New way forward", on the other hand, is obvious in its connotation. "Stay the course" is a warning to those in the anti-war fringe to stick to the plan, or things will get much worse in Mesopotamia, not to mention the terrorists will win. Those "defeatists" who want the terrorists to win are accused by the White House and GOP of advocating "cut and run". By and large, the White House uses the propaganda-esque "new way forward", the media uses the spin-worthy "surge", and the Democrats use either "surge" or the slightly negative-sounding "escalation" to describe the increase of 21,500 US troops in Iraq.

See also: Part 1.


cwilcox said...

Interesting stuff. I had always used quotes around "war on terror" and "surge" in a more sarcastic reference. Like, yeah, right this war is about terror...uh huh!

clearthought said...

Yes, it's important not to give slanted political spin terms like 'war on terror' validity. I almost always include them in quotes or devil's quotes/semi quotes (i.e. '...').