Translating 8 of the Media's Code Words to Reveal Their Imperial Mindset


"If thought corrupts language," George Orwell once reasoned, "language can also corrupt thought." This is how the immoral can seem banal, the cruel sanitized and the trite profound. In his time these nuggets of discourse included, "bestial atrocities," "iron heel," "bloodstained tyranny," and "free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder."

Today these terms seem corny, foreign or both, but in the late 1940s they passed for insight and conventional wisdom, and one had to more or less parrot them in order to be taken seriously. Orwell lamented the hollowness of these human propaganda conduits, which we generally call “pundits”:

One often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being [say these terms] but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

This tedium isn't just an offense to originality, but to the fabric of democracy itself. Through repetition and folksy appeal, oft-repeated expressions become not only intellectually corrosive, but political weapons. They allow, as he put it, "the words to chose the meaning, not the other way around."

And so it still goes in 2016. Here are eight toxic euphemisms American empire uses to numb us to its brutality.

1. “Muscular foreign policy.”

Actual meaning: Supports more mechanized violence against far off peoples.

Examples: Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she announced a willingness to use more imperial violence than Obama and the Serious Foreign Policy crowd was elated.

Political purpose: To employ macho-sounding euphemisms to sanitize the fact that our political leaders are ordering someone to order someone to order someone in an air-conditioned room to remotely bomb someone 5,000 miles away. There is, of course, nothing tough about doing this.

2. “Stronghold.”

Actual meaning: Civil area controlled by government we don’t like.

Example: “Stronghold” is used in many contexts, but the most common is when the New York Times and others employ it to describe any part of south Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah. In addition to being a militia, Hezbollah is also a civilian political party that is popular in Beirut, so when ISIL blew up a civilian shopping center in Beirut, killing 43, many were shocked and disgusted the Times would refer to victims of an ISIL terror attack shopping for fruit as being in a stronghold. After much protest, the headline was changed and the Times issued a non-apology. The reality is, for years the New York Times and many other outlets have used “Hezbollah stronghold” to refer to civilian areas of Lebanon, though it’s typically done in the context of Israel bombing civilians, not ISIL.

Political purpose: To “militarized” civilians U.S. and its allies kill and thus excuse their crimes.

3. “Populist.”

Actual meaning: Democratically oriented politician who scares elites.

Examples: Domestically, we see it used to slander Bernie Sanders, but it's most frequently used to smear elected governments the U.S. doesn’t like, namely socialist governments like Venezuela's.

Political purpose: In perfect Orwellian fashion, the goal is to turn the entire notion of democratic government on its head and phrase it as a bad thing. Populism, or appealing to what is popular, thus becomes a pejorative and not desirable. The fact that Hugo Chavez is elected with 63% of the vote is somehow evidence of a system gone wrong rather than one that’s clearly doing its job by serving the people.

4. “Developing economy.”

Actual meaning: Poor country the West plans to exploit in the form of heavy interest on loans, cheap and unprotected labor and raw materials.

Example: ChinaIndia, all of Africa and Latin America.

Political purpose: The term is actually more offensive than “third world” because it treats other countries like children—or in this case teens—who are in some type of adolescence, only to reach first-world adulthood in some vague, unknown timeframe. In the interim, they must take out large loans from the IMF and let American and European corporations have access to their natural resources.

5. “Regime.”

Actual meaning: Governments the U.S. and its allies don’t like.

Example: Saddam regime, Assad regime and Gaddafi regime, all of which we attempted to overthrow.

Political purpose: The use of “[Dictator X] regime” is a way to anthropomorphize an entire political system, thus making regime change seem effortless and personal in nature. If only we could kill the main bad guy, the rest of the war will be simple. In a 2006 paper, former Obama aide and economics professor Cass Sunstein laid out the importance of what he called the "Goldstein Effect,” based on Orwell’s book 1984. In it, a character, Emmanuel Goldstein, is used as the face of a far-off enemy and helps motivate people to fight perpetual war. Sunstein insists that “the ability to intensify public concern by giving a definite face to the adversary, specifying a human source” was essential to rally the public around an enemy.

While it’s clear Saddam et al. ran their respective countries, reducing their entire civil societies to one evil face made selling the destruction of said country much easier to an increasingly war-weary public. “But these are all bad men,” you say. Well yes, but so are the men who run the Saudi and Egyptian governments, yet they’re almost never referred to as the Salman regime and Sisi regime; instead the media refers to them as the Saudi and Egyptian “governments.” This belies any objective notion to the term. While theoretically useful, "regime" is almost always used to prejudice the reader against governments the United States deems unfriendly to our interests.  

6. "Stability."

Actual meaning: Neoliberal economic order and NATO hegemony are unchallenged.

Example: "Mr. Sisi has brought stability to Egypt,” says the Economist of murderous dictator.

Political purpose: To try and pass off unsavory governments, leaders and economic systems as, at the very least, predictable. To business-minded types, this is the ultimate virtue since investments require some ability to model out five, 10 years down the road. Therefore, the simple act of keeping unrest at bay is seen as a positive quality, even if, as in the case of Sisi, it requires extrajudicial killings, jailing journalists and snuffing out democracy. As Morgan State professor Dr. Jared Ball once said in the context of policies directed at inner-city communities, “What they want is 'stability', not freedom. Blacks walking around with their fist up, not stable. Blacks killing each other, stable.”

7. “No-fly zone.”

Actual meaning: The right to fly over another country's territory unimpeded for surveillance, bombing and transport, and control of other party's efforts.

Example: No-fly zones in Libya and Syria.

Political purpose: “No-fly zone” is texbook Orwell because the phrase itself implies it’s a suspension of war rather than an escalation. A no-fly zone is not actually a no-fly zone. It's an “only one country flies here” zone and that country, more often than not, is the United States. No-fly zones involve the destruction of another country’s air capacity, typically targeting military installations and aircraft. The no-fly zone in Libya involved weeks of sustained bombing that killed hundreds. According to a 2013 Pentagon estimate, a no-fly zone in Syria would involve a greater sustained air assault and as much as “70,000 servicemen.” But none of these messy facts are mentioned when politicians like Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton bandy around the term because they assume, rightly, that most people don’t actually know what a no-fly zone entails.

8. “Boots on the ground.”

Actual meaning: A boot is announced to be on the ground when a U.S. president sees that there's no political damage in public opinion to announcing putting military boots on the ground. Otherwise military actions take the announced form of terms that include trainers, experts, civilian aid, rescue missions, and drone surveillance missions.

Example: Obama promises no “boots on the ground” in Iraq.

Political purpose: No term better captures the combination of imperial arrogance and pseudo-leftism that defines the current center-left discussion of foreign policy than "boots on the ground.” Somehow opposing boots on the ground, or the deployment of American soldiers, became enough to render one a “dove” despite being totally okay with using drones, F-22s and cruise missiles to kill people from afar. There were no boots on the ground during Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, or 9/11, but certainly no one considers these events dovish in nature.

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