Retailing and Retelling

by G. Murphy Donovan (July 2013)

I suppose you could argue that all language is political at least to the extent that writers or speakers do not necessarily share the same assumptions, or motives, as readers and listeners. Then, of course, there is the problem of euphemism, a kind of polite mendacity. We seldom say what we mean for fear of being mean.  Phrasing like “politically correct” is at once a cliché and an oxymoron. Things political are seldom correct.

And when political language becomes news; it’s a safe bet that the thought police have unleashed the howling dogs of rhetoric. Several recent examples come to mind.

Early in Barak Hussein Obama’s first term, John Brennan was unleashed to CSIS to lecture assembled scholars on the correct usage of language associated with all things Islamic. Any politician who aspires to cook the rhetorical books does well to start with the academy and government subsidized think tanks. Sympathetic Press coverage helps too. Redundancy is reinforcement.

At CSIS, Brennan sought to sever any linkage between Muslims, terror, and jihad in Washington – and elsewhere. The then White House advisor actually argued that the very term jihad had many meanings, including ritual “cleansing.” There was more than a grain of literal truth to the Brennan claim: the Arab attack on New York was indeed a bath, a bloodbath. The Brennan spin on the word “Islamist” was a kind of housecleaning too, an attempt to alter history and minimize future threats.


Thought police understand the value of consistency and repetition. Any lie repeated often enough, as Joseph Goebbels was fond of saying, assumes a life of its own. When President Obama was asked subsequently about jihad in Mumbai, he almost quoted the Brennan CSIS pitch verbatim. Truth is a function of retailing and retelling.

Still, Brennan’s early assignment was more than a bit of a stretch. Most terror, certainly the strategic variety, originates with Muslim groups or countries. Global terror is now accompanied by intramural carnage as the Arab “spring” morphs into an Islamic winter. The cold winds of irredentism, some say religious fascism, still blow across Africa, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Turkey.

Withal, you might think that any attempt to separate Islam from terror, or Muslims from backward looking Islamists, would be dead on arrival; a little like trying to reboot modern history, a little like painting Catholics out of the Inquisition or absolving German, French, and Scandinavian quislings for the Holocaust.

Never underestimate the power of persistent political spin and the capacity of fearful journalists to forget and conform.

There was a time when English language style manuals were confined to good usage not politics. The other day, the Associated Press (AP) issued a revised style manual which could have been written at the Executive Office Building – or at the CIA. Two revisions prominently tack with political winds blowing from the White House and the Intelligence Community: revisions to terms such as “illegal immigrant” and “Islamist.”

AP will no longer use the adjective ‘illegal’  to describe immigrants who enter the country in violation of law, nor will the term be used to describe those who remain with expired visas. Thus the 9/11 hijackers, many of whom were visa overstays, might be described today as students, guest workers or martyrs, but not criminals. After all, not a soul, no Arabs nor Muslims, have been convicted of anything associated with the Twin Towers massacre after ten years of diligent investigation. Arabs, especially Saudis, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The word Islamist is also about to go the way of the Yo-Yo too. Apparently, such loaded language might suggest religious zeal; implying that imperial terror and global political crimes might be traced to prophetic admonitions, the Koran, Muslims, or political Islam. The logic of revision here is similar to the doublethink associated with terms ‘illegal immigrant.’ Labeling any negative deductions about terror as presumption or guilt by association is a kind of rhetorical preemption. 

Surely genocidal terrorists, nee Islamists, have no more to do with intolerant clerics or religion than a stroke might have to do with brain damage. And why shouldn’t logic have the same elasticity as language? Truth is simply what you are willing to believe, isn’t it?

Rhetorical acumen is not without rewards. Brennan is now the Director of CIA, a position from which he may become Chef de Cuisine in the analytical kitchen too. Brennan is cut from the same cloth as his predecessor, David Petraeus. The erstwhile general was a reliable soldier in the appeasement wars until he literally stepped on his crank. Before Paula, there were hijabs, instead of helmets, on US soldiers in Afghanistan.

And Brennan is not without domestic institutional allies either. In January, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) petitioned AP to have the word “Islamist” stricken from the vocabulary of journalism. And now the AP style manual is revised to suit those religious sensitivities. Any organization with the hutzpah to merge adjectives like ‘American’ and ‘Islamic’ in their title is a force to be reckoned with. Secular America and theocratic Islam share values in the same sense that prey and predator share.

Surely the Brennan spin, the CAIR complaints, and the now revised AP Style Manual are cuts from the same cloth. Cause and effect for such cultural drift is seldom obvious. Yet, the substance and logic of all three arguments is remarkably consistent – and consistently wrong. Withholding judgment about theocratic political movements grants pernicious religion equal standing with secular democratic government.

But now it’s a done deal. So let’s give credit where credit is due. AP copy is used in 17,000 newspapers and by 5000 TV outlets worldwide. Their product services 120 countries. The Associated Press might be the most profitable non-profit multi-national wire service on record. Any victory there in the global war of words is a big win.

Corks are popping over at Langley and the fellaheen at CAIR are crowing over the AP capitulation. Words matter. Language is the vehicle for cultural values. And strategic mendacity, like truth, is a value of sorts.  John Brennan and the editors at AP would do well to remember that political decay begins when great nations stop doing all those things that made success possible.

The rot begins with rhetoric.


G Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer.


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