Roger’s Rules

Semantic sabotage, or Words that Need a Holiday

I have been thinking of compiling a list of words that I used to like but that have been made suspect or unusable because of the semantic sabotage that has been practiced upon them. It would, I fear, take quite a while to complete, but that is no reason I shouldn’t offer a quick first installment featuring two words that have been much in the news: “stimulus” and “proportion.”

It wasn’t that many weeks ago that you could still use “stimulus” without communicating a sense of fiscal irresponsibility and fondness for socialism. Today, alas, whenever I hear the word “stimulus,” especially in conjunction with the word “package,” I know that the speaker is using the agreed upon code words for “plundering taxpayers, present and future, in order to shore up wasteful government programs and failing industries.” The reality of the process–the fact that government reaction to finding itself in an economic hole is to order everyone to dig deeper–is plenty depressing all by itself. But it adds insult to injury that a perfectly good word has been rendered hors de combat by being enlisted in this latest effort to enlarge the role of the government in your life.

Then there’s the word “proportion” and its cognates (“proportionate,” “disproportionate,” etc). You might think that the situation in the Middle East is conspicuously unsuited to produce comic thoughts, but I confess that I find it grotesquely comic that entities like Hamas are given a free pass to bombard Israel with rockets while Israel is instantly condemned when it defends itself. Why is that? Ed Husain, Britain’s latest candidate for the title of “moderate Muslim” (see what I mean about the list being a long one?), took to the pages of The Guardian to express his outrage over “Israel’s massacre of innocent Palestinians in Gaza.” Andrew McCarthy drew my attention to Melanie Phillips’s tart rejoinder:

The vast majority of Gazans who have been killed were Hamas terrorists. According to today’s UN figures, 364 have been killed of whom only 62 were civilians. Israel has been targeting only the Hamas infrastructure and its terror-masters, as detailed here. While some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable, Israel is clearly attempting to minimise them. It is Hamas which deliberately targets Israeli civilians when it fires its rockets and detonates its human bombs specifically at Israeli civilian targets. It is Hamas which deliberately turns its own civilians into targets by siting its rockets and other military equipment under apartment blocks and in centres of densely crowded population. Hamas tries to kill as many Israeli innocents as possible; Israel’s military operation is conducted solely to defend its people against such attack and is designed to minimise the loss of civilian life in Gaza. To draw an equivalence between the two is obscene.

Quite. But that obscenity is the media’s staple crop when it comes to Israel. It’s a specimen instance of what Andrew McCarthy has called “disproportionate idiocy.” Israel is surrounded by fanatical regimes whose rulers deny its legitimacy and its right to exist. For the last 60 years, the Arab world has lost no opportunity to strike out at Israel. No week is complete for the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without a histrionic threat to destroy Israel. What would you do if a neighboring country kept lobbing high explosive into your neighborhood while another country a bit further away punctuated its all-out effort to acquire nuclear arms with periodic threats to exterminate you? If you wrote for The New York Times you would recommend that Israel “Fight Fire With a Cease-Fire,” refraining “unilaterally and absolutely” from fighting back even if Hamas continues its aggression. Most of us, though, would react exactly as has Israel: by fighting for survival. I think of a saying that was often of the lips of my late colleague Samuel Lipman: “It’s such strange animal: When attacked, it defends itself.”