Saturday, March 29, 2008

Linguistic Legerdemain

I seem to have had another experience of Jungian synchronicity this morning while reading Charles Simic's New York Review piece, "The Troubled Birth of Kosovo," against the background of the deteriorating situation in Basra. One particular sentence by Simic leapt out at me:

At some point in 1998, or perhaps earlier, the State Department decided to take the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army—whose members were being armed from Albania, where the US already had a military and CIA presence—off the US list of terrorist groups, and to describe its forces instead as an insurgency.

While on the surface this seemed like a rather low level of nit-picking over criteria for category membership, the following sentences in Simic's paragraph made it clear that our policy was framed in such a way that appropriate actions were defined on the basis of such category membership. This, in itself, is not particularly distressing, particularly in light of Gerald Edelman's hypothesis that the very nature of consciousness (including the sense of self) can be traced back to a capacity for forming categories and recognizing members of those categories. However, one of the beauties of consciousness is that those categories are never rigidly defined; and one has to wonder just how flexible we have been (or can be) where critical matters, such as foreign policies involving hostile agents, are concerned.

Today, almost ten years after the Kosovo decision, the very idea of an opposition between terrorist and insurgency has an absurdist ring to it, particularly since we now tend to refer to Iraqi militias that oppose our presence in their country, such as the one organized by Muqtada al-Sadr that is flexing its muscles in Basra, as "insurgents" (not to mention the recent finding that there was "no direct link between Saddam Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network" of terrorism). To invoke another piece of terminology from the Balkans, it is clear that al-Sadr sees his Mahdi Army as a "Liberation Army;" but I doubt that we shall see this analogy explored by the mainstream media. Rather, our media continue to invoke the language of stability and point to the role that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is playing in achieving or restoring (depending on how pessimistic or optimistic the report is) that stability. On the other hand, when we read Al Jazeera English, we get a somewhat different perspective on stability:

Meanwhile, fighters loyal to the Shia leader [al-Sadr] rejected the prime minister's call to disarm.

"Sadr has told us not to surrender our arms except to a state that can throw out the occupation," Haider al-Jabari, a member of the Sadr movement's political bureau, said.

On Thursday al-Maliki said that Basra residents would receive a "reward" if they handed in "heavy and medium-size weapons".

However, in Baghdad an official from al-Sadr's movement said Iraqi soldiers had attempted to hand their weapons over to him.

"We told them they should keep their arms. We gave them a Koran and they went back," Salman al-Afraiji said.

This is all a bit reminiscent of the neoconservative reality-is-what-we-say-it-is premise. Neoconservatism of course was predicated on the assumption that the "we" was the United States; and "we" could dictate reality by virtue (sic) of being the only superpower. In other words "we" have forgotten that having more guns did not entitle us to dictate reality in Vietnam any more than it entitled the Russians to do so in Afghanistan. By all rights it is time for us to stop dictating reality and start perceiving it and, more importantly, perceiving it in terms of categories that are more flexible than those we have been trying to engage over the last ten years. After all, human consciousness has the power to synthesize new categories when the available repertoire is inadequate; but it may be asking too much for the workings of national governing bodies to have the same "cerebral capabilities" as those of the human brain!

No comments: