"Why Using the Right Names for Things Matters"
by Daniel Larison
Substack.com (August 11, 2021)
"When you use the right names, you chip away at self-serving deceptions.".
Jonathan Katz spoke with Emma Green at The Atlantic about the resistance he encountered to using accurate language while writing a piece about Haiti and possible U.S. intervention there for an unnamed publication. Katz ended up taking the piece elsewhere, and Foreign Policy would later publish it. Here is the relevant exchange:
Green: You wrote recently about an incident where you got an assignment for a national outlet—you don’t name it. You were supposed to be writing about the recent assassination of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse. You used the word occupation to refer to the role that the U.S. Marines played in Haiti from 1915 to 1934. And your editor questioned you on that word.
As a caveat, I should say: I think there are a lot of well-educated Americans who don’t know much about the history of the U.S. presence in the Caribbean. And it’s an editor’s role to add nuance and push back and ask dumb questions.
Still, that story struck me because it seemed like you were encountering a reflexive resistance to telling the story straight. The assumption is that if you’re using this kind of loaded word, one that gets tossed around in academic circles, you’re not telling it straight. You’re bringing an accusatory, ideological lens to bear on history. Why do you think that reflexive desire to shy away from naming things exists at national outlets?
Katz: That period of time was officially called “the U.S. occupation of Haiti.” There are letters from occupation officials referring to themselves and saying, “On behalf of the American occupation, thank you for the fruit basket.” Stuff like that. That back-and-forth with this editor reflects a tendency to try to downplay the most egregious parts of America’s past. To a certain extent, we’re seeing that in domestic conversations as well with the 1619 Project and America’s history of racism.
This is how an empire has to operate. If you keep in mind all of these individual moments and string them together into a narrative, the conclusions that one can draw aren’t very friendly to self-identity and national identity—to the imperial project.
As Katz pointed out in his follow-up article describing the pushback he received, the U.S. referred to the occupation of Haiti as an occupation to defend itself against the accurate accusations of the crudest sort of colonial domination. A hundred years ago, it suited the government to call it an occupation because that word at the time made the policy seem less brutal and exploitative than it really was. It was, as Katz notes, a “euphemism.” If it happened today, it would probably be called a stabilization mission or a humanitarian intervention to avoid too much scrutiny.
That resistance to calling an occupation by the correct term is a familiar one. Even when it involves a policy from decades ago, there is a strong desire to deny that the U.S. did things like that to other countries. Americans love to tell ourselves that this is something that other countries do, and that we are different. After all, we’re the benevolent hegemon, or so the hegemonists would have us believe. Marilyn Young described this mentality in one of the essays published in the new collection, Making the Forever War:
The United States has not been an aggressor, because, by definition, it does not commit aggression. The hostility of others to the United States cannot, again by definition, be a response to American actions, because the United States does not invite hostility but only reacts to it. What the United States claims it intends, rather than what it does, should persuade any fair-minded observer of the righteousness of its policies.1
In much the same way, the Iraq war is rarely described in the U.S. as an illegal invasion or a war of aggression, because accurate labels of what the U.S. has done clash too sharply with foreign policy elites’ idea of what the U.S. is. The cheerleaders for the Iraq war insisted on dressing it up as self-defense, albeit of the “anticipatory” variety. Even at the height of the pro-war frenzy, they had to make people believe that we were the ones being threatened by a weak, impoverished dictatorship on the other side of the world, no matter how preposterous that claim might seem to everyone else.
We see the same word games and denial when there is a coup and Western media outlets don’t want to call it a coup because of the target’s political views. Elsewhere in the interview Katz recalls the opposition he encountered while working for the Associated Press when he wanted to describe the overthrow of Aristide as a coup. Much the same thing happened in 2019 in Bolivia when Morales was removed from power by a coup. Almost no one in Washington dared call it by its correct name, and those that did were attacked as pro-Morales stooges.
Sometimes the U.S. government chooses to pretend that coups aren’t coups, since a coup is supposed to trigger a cutoff in military aid and it is easier to deny the coup than it is to follow the law. The Obama administration’s gutless response to the 2013 coup in Egypt falls into this category. There are other times when Americans choose not to call coup by its proper name because they approve of the results of the coup. As a general rule, if a coup topples an Islamist, a socialist, or someone else considered “anti-Western,” Westerners will go to great lengths to defend the coup while simultaneously arguing that no coup occurred. In some cases, the U.S. is sponsoring the coup or supporting the coup plotters and therefore has an incentive to deny the obvious. This happened in Venezuela in 2019 when Guaido launched an ill-prepared coup attempt, and John Bolton declared that it couldn’t be a coup because Guaido had been deemed the “legitimate president” by other governments.
Using the right names for things is important. If it were not, there would not be so much resistance to doing it when it concerns the past and current actions of political actors. Invaders declare themselves liberators to conceal the truth of what they are doing, and aggressors construct absurd arguments to justify their aggression. Coup plotters are desperate to be seen as legitimate because they know they aren’t, and occupiers wish to dress up as do-gooders and benefactors to mask the fact that they are dominating others by force. Nationalists want to whitewash the record of what their government has done, and imperialists want people to forget the crimes on which the empire was built. When you use the right names, you chip away at their self-serving deceptions. [emphasis added]
Immediately after the invasion of Grenada by the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, I, as an unknown Vietnam vet, was moved to write an opinion piece denouncing the administration's obvious intention to exploit the invasion's success to picture the Democrats as the party of surrender. The piece was picked up by the Washington Post, whose liberal editors were happy to take advantage of my status as a "simple" Vietnam vet as an excuse to run an article criticizing the administration. However, there was one problem. I referred to the invasion as an "invasion" and, as the senior editor I dealt with explained to me, the administration didn't like people to refer to the invasion as an invasion and, I inferred, the supposedly almighty Post did not like to be yelled at by the Reagan administration over "trivia". So, at the Post's request, I changed "invasion" to the administration's own hilarious euphemism: "pre-dawn vertical insertion"--including the quotation marks to get the message across.
I'm sure the Post and the Times today, not to mention other media outlets, like to avoid ruffling feathers when it's "unnecessary". As Confucius explains, this path has unfortunate consequences: “If names are not rectified then language will not flow. If language does not flow, then affairs cannot be completed. If affairs are not completed, ritual and music will not flourish. If ritual and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties will miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, people lack the wherewithal to control hand and foot. Hence a gentleman’s words must be acceptable to vocalize and his language must be acceptable as action. A gentleman’s language lacks anything that misses.”
Reply Feral Finster
Crap, I see you beat me to the Confucius reference.
It seems to me that the phrase "occupation" was at least at one point in time intended to convey that a military presence in a foreign state was more limited than the traditional implication of a foreign military presence: conquest. In other words, the term "occupation" implied that the presence of American troops would be temporary, and that the US was not attempting to formally annex Haiti. Obviously, the word has understandably developed negative connotations since then, but if I were a foreign national I would surely prefer an occupation to an annexation.
This brings me to a slightly different point: the term "Occupation" has been used to describe Israel's control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights. While this term still has plenty of currency among those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, it seems to me that it is no longer accurate. Israel has controlled these territories for 54 years, and nearly 750,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (all settlers who lived in Gaza prior to the infamous 2005 "pullout" were relocated at American taxpayer expense to the West Bank.) Giant Jewish civilian settlements exist in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Clearly, the intention of Israel is not to temporarily keep troops in these regions with an intent to remove them at a later date. Israel has annexed these territories. It is not an occupation. These territories are part of Greater Israel, and Greater Israel is an Apartheid State.
This is important because the solution to the problem depends on what the problem is in the first place. If the problem is an "occupation" then the answer is simple: remove the foreign troops. Rightwing Zionists would contest the political status of these territories, with the likes of Ariel Sharon and John Bolton claiming they should be annexed by Jordan and Egypt, thus preventing the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But still, that would "end the occupation" from their perspective at least. But if the problem is "apartheid" then the answer is also simple: grant Arabs living in these regions full Israeli citizenship including full civil and political rights.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations these days frequently employ both "end the occupation" and "apartheid" rhetoric. I see the point they're making and most people cannot be faulted for not thinking through the specific problems with using both terms. But it has to be one or the other.