Saturday, September 02, 2006

When Language Degenerates Into Purrs and Growls

The frequently brilliant Matthew Yglesias comments here about how the term "Islamofascists" both reflects and perpetuates a laughable degree of historical ignorance and disregard for logic. Actually it's even worse than he thinks. On NPR on Friday, Brian Lehrer hosted an installment of his "What Have We Learned Since 9/11" series, and when the topic of "Islamofascism" came up, I heard a caller say (paraphrasing):

I don't know why we're so worried about what the terrorists think about the words we use. I'm sure that back in the 1930s the Germans and Italians didn't like it when we called them Fascists. But if that's how people behave, that's what we have to call them.

And to my dismay, neither Brian Lehrer nor either of his two guests--experts on the history of the Middle East--corrected the caller. Evidently there is a portion of the population that doesn't realize that words like "Fascist," "Nazi," and "Communist" are not generalized insults invented by Americans but are actual names of political movements. (I wonder if George W. Bush is among them.)

Am I deceiving myself, as aging curmudgeons so often do, or was there actually a time, not so long ago, when people generally assumed that political terms have meanings rather than simply being used the way cats use purrs and dogs use growls, to express vague feelings of affection or anger?

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