Christina Waters

A Few Good Words

"At this moment, peace, that word so glibly appropriated by all sides, feels soiled, tired, and beaten-up."

So says artist Sushma Joshi, summing up the reaction of many Americans battered by escalating political rhetoric. "Security," writes journalist Mary Louise Pratt, "is one of those words, like 'celibacy' or 'short' that invokes its opposite. As soon as you mention security, you suggest there's a danger, or a potential danger. Otherwise the subject wouldn't be coming up. So talking about security is one of the most effective ways to cause fear."

More and more words have acquired strange, new inflections. "Imagine you are a U.S. state governor or corporate CEO who wants to slash spending, fire employees, close branches or plants, and avoid pension obligations. How can you put it across; how can you minimize the 'turbulence'; how can you sugarcoat this bitter pill?" asks political scientist James Scott. "It will help if you call it 'streamlining.'"

Consider the phrase "shock and awe," a recent military appropriation of terms describing altered states of consciousness. "Twist and Shout." "Shuck and Jive." Even the rhythm of the phrase plays with emotionally charged memories and associations. "Shoot to Kill." Just in time for the upcoming election, a new book, "Shock and Awe: War on Words" reappropriates that phrase – and many more, providing a bracing antidote to prevailing polit-speak. The first publication from the über-alternative New Pacific Press, "Shock and Awe" is the brainchild of University of California, Santa Cruz's Institute for Advanced Feminist Research. Inquiring minds numbed by the voodoo of media propaganda will find refreshment in this slender text, composed of essays, photographs and poems. As history is busily rewritten by battalions of script-writers and strategists, the contributors to "Shock and Awe" are passionate about reclaiming a few good words.

The motivation for this compilation of "the political trajectory of words" sprang from a seminar on Feminisms and Global War. "It was a call to take back language that had been so debased in the aftermath of 9/11," explains IAFR Director Helene Moglen. Moglen, who also holds a Presidential Chair in Literature at UCSC, was amazed at the vigorous response from over 75 contributors. While acknowledging the leftist perspective of "Shock and Awe," Moglen insists that "the meanings of words are dependent on who has the power, and the right definitely has had the power lately." Co-editor Jennifer Gonzalez, a visual historian at UCSC, recalls the book's inception. "We had something of the Orwellian concern that our mass media and even political discourse was becoming an intolerable form of "newspeak."

For Moglen et al., the elasticity of language has become shaped and frozen by those in control – hence the "war on words" of the book's subtitle. Organized as meditations upon single words or phrases, the book offers a diversity of styles. Some, like the illumination of "the Disappeared" by Angela Davis, lace taut historical lessons with controlled anger. Others – the opening poem by L.R. Berger, for example – resonate with equal helpings of humor and defiance. Co-editor Anna Tsing helpfully includes the passage from "Alice in Wonderland" which has immortalized the very issue of words and their ownership. "When I use a word," says the reigning Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean." To wit, George W. Bush's use of the expression, "evil-doer."

The political right, through such wordcraft as "partial birth abortion," managed not only to spin the political platter their way, but in the process generated slogans with the sort of instant sex appeal adored by the media. Soon the airways were clogged with journalists repeating these sound bites and unwittingly reinforcing the perspective of the dominant political party. UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff is another academic exercised by the implicit agenda embedded in public discourse. The linguistic "frame," as Lakoff calls a given metaphor of choice, gives potent spin to the conversation. Yet most people rarely look past the debate in question to notice that the delivery system, in this case the rhetoric, is what actually twists, skews, and spins the point in a particular direction. If words are the arrow, then the linguistic metaphor – the frame – is the bow. Gonzalez agrees that viewed in stride with Lakoff's work, "Shock and Awe" might be thought of "as a new framing device which serves to reclaim meanings for words that had been usurped by the mass media and the Bush administration."

At best, repeating the linguistic context of the party in power perpetuates a lopsided perspective and at worst, it succeeds in complete, if invisible, distortion of the issues. Psycho-linguistic metaphors give underlying shape to the landscape they describe. But all rhetoric is designed to shape and control from a chosen agenda/position. So what is "Shock and Awe"'s agenda?

As a collection of meditations, "Shock and Awe" performs its own deft retelling, reclaiming and revisiting of pithy words, by resetting the metaphorical thermostat. The claim is not that the words have been restored to something like a "true meaning," but that each passage offers a "corrective" lens through which to look. Providing "alternative genealogies" of words, the contributors invite us to become reacquainted with some old friends, former linguistic allies which have become battered out of shape by ill (make that "Republican") usage. Words like "airport" and "security" have been co-opted by ideologists with hidden, often imperialistic, agendas – whereas the contributors are ostensibly more forthright in copping to their own attitudes.

Make no mistake, the left can spin with the best of 'em. Kerry notes that Bush is "sending our kids to war," and the listener pictures a group of bloody children carrying AK-47s. Clinton contends, "I did not have sex with that woman," and suddenly we are asked to accept a definition of "sex" that flies in the face of common sense. Nonetheless, Moglen agrees, the more illegitimate the government, the more defensive its rhetoric. Hence the euphemistic urge to create such Hallmark moments as "collateral damage." Or the warm and fuzzy, "friendly fire" in place of "accidental killing of soldiers by their own comrades." Think of those linguistic spin maestros, the Mafia. From this underground culture pundits extract such useful terms as "hit" (rather than murder) and "contract" (again a murder, but one set within the frame of a legal obligation). And consider the fictional Corleone spin on "family." At what point does euphemism start to decay and erode into out-and-out deceit?

"Shock and Awe" succeeds in considering words that have been held hostage by what the editors consider to be abusive agendas. There is occasional nostalgia for past usage as well as rage over linguistic rape. Moglen's own contribution to the book riffs on the word "family," and in it she notes the curiously "melancholic urge" on the part of both the feminist left and the "Moral Majority" right to return to the idealized nuclear family of the past – even long after such a family unit has dissolved in the cauldrons of civil rights, personal choice, gay liberation, as well as the darker realities of poverty, drug abuse, job loss and terrorism. "It has always been the role of the family to create this deep sense of longing for something that never existed," Moglen believes. Like a June Cleaver mom in starched shirtwaist dresses and pearls.

Through creative reframing and intellectual black ops, "Shock and Awe: War on Words" hopes to liberate value-charged words and restore them to their original power. The point, says Gonzalez, is "to change the terms of the discussion so that other positions might be possible." Whether or not such a retrospective agenda overcomes the odds, it certainly provides that most potent political tool of all – thoughtful examination.

The Pre-Emptive Prophet

"Something has gone extremely wrong with American politics."

After you think, "duh," thank Saul Landau, who has put his veteran political instincts to work once again in The Pre-Emptive Empire: A Guide to Bush's Kingdom (Pluto Press, London, 2003), a brisk scouring of the ideological circus that is the Bush Administration.

An Emmy award-winning filmmaker and longtime analyst with the Institute of Policy Studies, Landau has authored dozens of gutsy, incisive commentaries on the state of international politics and is currently a professor of communications at Cal Poly in Pomona. After three decades of watching the world scene Landau isn't afraid to point out that our emperor-in-chief wears no clothes.

Gathered into a bracing bouquet of essays (many of the chapters are expanded from articles written for Progreso Weekly and Pacifica Network News) Landau's book offers a full-throttle crash course in just how we got into this mess. His probe is aimed both at the politically savvy and at those Americans whose grasp of foreign affairs and world politics is skimmed from cable news sound bites and government propaganda.

The book, which has a Foreword by George McGovern, tracks the Bush administration's imperial aggression in order to make the world free for democracy (whether it likes it or not). Bush-league imperialism quotes the New Testament early and often, before bludgeoning its detractors with Wild West clichés. It's a simple case of us against them, and of doing unto them (the pre-emptive part of Landau's title) before they do unto us.

Landau cites chilling instances of what our failure to question authority has cost. His overview of 9/11 and its costly harvest of government disinformation is illustrative. At no point did the Bush administration ask why the World Trade Centers were attacked.

"Shouldn't people in power have asked that question and debated it before rushing madly around the world with troops, missiles and extreme belligerence?" Landau wonders. Instead came the barrage of TV hyperbole, spin doctoring and the granting of "billions of dollars to the President to use as he wished."

In a section entitled, "The Empire Strikes Back," Landau details a historically accurate fable of just how the interests of national security have been used to pad federal payrolls, abbreviate civil rights and escalate our tax debt into a war perceived by former allies as ruthless and unjust. Landau knows that the Orwellian atmosphere of waging war to preserve peace is the perfect smokescreen for the Bush administration's mission of world domination.

"Our infrastructure, such as the Department of Homeland Anxiety, keeps people feeling misled and isolated," the author joked in a recent interview. Landau has watched the US agenda of world domination bloom, after the Cold War, into a landscape of official lies. "If left unquestioned, big lies turn into axioms and then into destructive policy -- cold war or hot war," he writes.

What would it take to stop this empire? "Well," Landau sighs, "the press could start doing its job. Someone said recently that if you embed reporters with the military what you get is presstitutes." Drum roll.

Seriously though, Landau mocks the press as "privatized Ministries of Propaganda," and deplores the "brevity of explanation and paucity of facts," fed to the American public by the mainstream media."

The book originated partly because "people just weren't quite grasping the breadth of all this," Landau told me. "I mean, who would declare a war without an exit strategy?" The result is what Landau calls "an abstract war" -- a war that can neither be won nor lost. Despite the fact that Iraq posed no documented threat to the US, Landau notes, W approved the daily pounding by hi-tech ordinance, while government spinmeisters tinkered with historic facts to make Saddam look more "evil."

"The American empire can no longer maintain even a façade of compatibility with the foundations of its Republic," Landau points out, noting more than once that our Commander in Chief was not duly elected. "[T]he Supreme Court selected him."

According to Merriam-Webster, a republic is "a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law." No wonder Landau sees the US republic degraded into empire. "The push to destroy Iraq marks the onset of America as the Rome of the 21st century, the sole and exclusive enforcer of its order." Sure the Pledge of Allegiance needs reexamination. But not in the way the media has reported. "For accuracy," Landau jokes, "the phrase should now read 'to the Republic for which it used to stand.'"

"We are beginning to look uncomfortably close to those Nazi war criminals we helped to bring to justice at Nuremberg," Landau says. "Crimes against humanity included waging an unjust war -- that's what the Nazis were accused of waging. And that's what George W. Bush is waging in the name of the American people."

"The Pre-Emptive Empire" powers through the sobering impressions of Landau's many tours to Cuba, Latin America and the Middle East. Iraq certainly wasn't the first place Bush's political ancestors tried out their neo-imperial agendas. Landau's memory adroitly serves up numerous examples of our previous efforts at Yankee-style nation-building, e.g. the 20 years in Nicaragua that multiplied into long decades of dictatorship and includes recollections of Rumsfeld's missions to Iraq in the 80s as Reagan's emissary -- missions in which Rummy helped Saddam defeat Iran by facilitating sales of chemical weapons to Iraq. Landau spells out the human cost and the cultural implications of such reckless economic policies as the International Monetary Fund and NAFTA. The book lays out the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and examines Cuba's success in bucking the tide of US commercial culture.

Among its robustly detailed analyses is Landau's linking of current security doublethink to anti-Communist defense hysteria of the 50s. "Long after the Soviet Union turned into an ally," Landau explains, "we kept in place all of the security organizations we'd erected during the Cold War." Bush gives lip service to spreading freedom abroad, while Ashcroft & Co. curtail it here at home.

"Cowardly" Democrats are not spared Landau's contempt in The Pre-Emptive Empire. Ditto the American opiate-of-choice -- consumerism -- that Landau believes has anesthetized our political instincts. Landau manages to soften his disappointment with our collective bad faith, but just barely. The book's final chapter concludes with an impassioned call to activism, to take back the historical stage from the Texan dictator and his praetorian hawks of war. Landau urges reader to "become an actor in your world, in your time and join other participants whose efforts have brought about some victories for justice and equality."

Right on, but haven't we been there and done that? I point out that many Baby Boomers have grown cynical seeing how little was actually accomplished by those years of protesting and rallying. Landau isn't buying it.

"Former activists misread the amount of time it takes to accomplish social justice. It takes much longer than most people are willing to realize. Generations sometimes. We may not see the fruits of our efforts in our lifetimes. I believe that my doing these things will set an example for others, and at least I will go to my grave knowing that I participated in the history of my time."

Christina Waters, PhD, writes for alternative publications in the San Francisco Bay Area and lectures in philosophy at UC-Santa Cruz.

Bikini Watch

Immediately after New Year's it begins, those ominous warnings about overindulging, about piling on the pounds during the "holiday season." It starts with little subliminal murmurings about tight waistbands on your favorite jeans. The magazines murmur. Television commercials murmur. The mirror murmurs.

Then the murmurings grow louder. You want to look good in those tiny halter tops, don't you? Ads start appearing offering discounts on “Bikini Season” spa packages designed to get you into shape in time for warm weather fashions. Suddenly, (usually around tax time, April 15 or so) the warnings harass our every waking moment. Oh my God! summer's almost here. Is your body ready for a bathing suit?
Even adult women who know better start feeling self-conscious about eating anything that has actual substance, e.g. bread. We feel guilt if we actually eat breakfast. The ice cream in the freezer is regarded with the same disgust and terror as a rogue strain of ebola.

This is the time of year when many of us start wondering whether we really want to go through the mental trauma and the psychological stress of 1) locating the bathing suit; 2) trying it on; and 3) buying a larger size, or simply 4) leaving the country and changing our names.
In our fat-phobic culture a sense of genuine horror greets the prospect of wearing a bikini in public -- mind-numbing, hyperventilating horror that cine-meisters like John Carpenter and Stephen King would covet. Why is this? Well, there are many reasons, but two biggies come to mind. There is a reality disconnect between what we see in magazines and on TV -- the perfect skin stretched tautly over fat-free bones and what actual living human females look like.

The image worshipped is rarely the image embodied. The other problemo involves the biological necessity of eating to stay alive. Food -- can't live with it, can't live without it. Yet food is the sworn enemy of the bikini. Food is the evil villain that fills out our curves and conceals our bones. Without Demon Calorie we could all make Calista look quite tubby, thank you. Without Demon Calorie we wouldn't need to agonize about our stomachs bulging and our thighs jiggling. Without Demon Calorie we'd be . . . dead.

Ah, there's the rub. Our eyes say "I'm too fat," our bodies say "feed me." At its worst during the traditional "beach season," this culturally induced contradiction between body image and body need exists all year long. How many Thanksgiving dinners have been ruined by the guest who says, "Oh, I really can't eat that," as you offer the heirloom dish you've slaved over for days.

I'm not encouraging pig-out behavior. I'm talking about the enjoyment of a home-cooked meal, having a good appetite. When I was a kid I remember reading about the secrets of Jackie Kennedy's svelte, designer body. It was simple, really. She chain-smoked (off-camera) and only lunched on champagne and chilled asparagus. Perhaps the strategy that kept the former First Lady an enviable size 6 needs no commentary, save for the old Gloria Vanderbilt mantra about how one can never be too thin, or too rich. (The truth is, as every welfare mother knows, that it helps to be rich in order to be thin unless you choose bulemia, which is not our topic today.)

There are billions of reasons why women hate their bodies. Almost all of them stupid. And billions more why they hate feeling the heaviness of their bodies, that downward drag of gravity that kills their sense of lightness and joy. But the issue here is the sort of maniacal crash diet consciousness that strikes right before the summer. That "I've got to lose those five pounds or die" mindset. Even if you're not actually cutting out the Sara Lee, there's a constant vigilance, sort of a self-induced internal surveillance toward food consumption that sets up shop in our psyches. The enslavement to regulating food intake takes over many, many females every May and June.

I'll confess I hit bottom in terms of this fun-killing attitude during a vacation in Mexico a few years ago when I refused a cold beer for fear that drinking it would destroy the flat lines of my stomach. If Christy Turlington had a flat stomach, then by God, so would I.

The silliness of it all is that many of us have absolutely no desire to wear a bikini. As a serious swimmer I scoff at bikinis, which tend to fall off if you're actually trying to swim, much less body surf some nice waves. So I do the one-piece thing. That cuts out some of the agony of the tummy. But there are still thighs and upper arms mocking us and crying out to be trimmed into what Linda Hamilton showed off in Terminator. Who among us, men and women alike, didn't lust for her buffed, cut and ripped biceps and triceps? After the movie came out, I was catching up on my movie gossip reading and found out that Hamilton got that way by giving up all plans for a real life and spending five hours a day, five days a week working with a trainer. For three months! You do the math.

Back to the rest of us. Since we don't have a premiere or a world tour coming up, just a day at the beach, we can calm down. Or can we? If you're over 40 you probably join me in chuckling at the very idea of worrying over whether you're thin enough. We're all adults, right? We know that our self-esteem isn't tied in to our dress size? Don't we?

Well, an informal poll of my adult women friends convinces me that no, we do not know that. So invasive is our thin-and-thinner conditioning that years after our alleged bikini prime we still agonize every summer over the sins of the flesh. God forgive us, we may actually have put on a few pounds since high school. Some women keep those 10 extra pounds after they have children. Many of us actually have the bodies of grown-up girls, rather than adolescent boys. Yet along with poor Lady MacBeth, we wail that no ocean can wash away our wickedness. Bless me father for I have sinned I ate lunch today.

Listen up. Even though you plan to go to the beach with your friends next week, you've still gotta eat. Food is one of the sensual enjoyments of being alive and surely one of the most pleasant, and often memorable rituals we share with our fellow humans. Besides, when was the last time a man told you, "Whoa babe, you're not really going out there with that tummy?" Exactly. So the whole propaganda machine, I've decided, is really run for women, by women. To which I say, girlfriend, get some new material.

Christina Waters is a contributing editor of Metro Santa Cruz.

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