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The Axis of Misleading Language

Last night, I realized where George W. Bush's term ``Axis of Evil'' came from, and it made me pretty angry. Bush (or rather Bush's spin doctors) are trying to draw parallels between the troublesome regimes they would like to wipe out and the Axis powers of World War Two. Bush is exploiting our historical memories of fascist Germany, fascist Italy and imperialist Japan to label (and thus justify) attacks on Iraq, North Korea, and Lord knows who else.

Think about that for a minute. Bush is comparing the small despotic states he wishes to eliminate to world superpowers who were aggressively taking over all of Europe. There are certainly a few parallels between Iraq's actions and those of Germany: Iraq did invade Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein has shown little mercy in gassing his own population to death. However, by labelling Iraq as a member of the ``Axis of Evil'', Bush is likening Saddam Hussein (and, I suppose, Osama bin Laden) to Hitler and Mussolini. That's a strong claim, and it bothers me.

Maybe I should not be so angry. People have been abusing the term Nazi'' for a long long time. Rush Limbaugh calls feminists feminazis''. We refer to those who join racist fascist gangs as neo-Nazi skinheads''. A popular sitcom calls one of its supporting charactersthe soup Nazi'' to generate some laughs. There's even a law which illustrates the degree to which we abuse the images of Hitler and Nazism. Godwin's Law states that the probability of making comparisions to Hitler or the Nazis approaches one as newsgroup threads get longer. Maybe I should not be angry at these abuses of such grim imagery. Maybe I should be happy that we are keeping these terms alive in our language, so that we do not forget who the Nazis were and what they did (unlike, say, the Khmer Rouge, whom we do forget). I guess that I should be grateful that we throw these terms around so lightly, but I am not.

The atrocities of World War Two were massive and grim. The lessons of that war are important for us never to forget -- whether we are Jewish or not. It is important to understand how fascism gained so much momentum in Europe. It is important to understand how the fascists gained such widespread public support, to understand the techniques they used to convince otherwise reasonable people that murder was acceptable. It is important to understand the mindset of the Nazi regime -- why did they think what they did? And yes -- it is important to relate those lessons of the past to our present, to look for warning signs shown by despots who murder their own people. But comparing the rulers of countries to Hitler, or grouping unallied countries together and labelling the group ``the Axis of Evil'' is not something to be done lightly.

I am bothered by the idea that we are being manipulated. Bush is using fear and uncertainty to whip up anti-Iraq fervor. Why is he doing this now? Where was the moral outrage when Saddam was gassing the Kurds? Where was the invasion then? The U.S. claims that it has evidence of Iraq's ``weapons of mass destruction'', but they refuse to make that evidence public. Many organizations have already criticised the U.S. for setting Iraq up in a no-win situation: if Iraq declared that it had weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. would invade, and if Iraq claimed to be weapon-free, the U.S. would call the Iraqi administration a bunch of liars and invade. It seems that the U.S. is intent on toppling Saddam Hussein's government, and nobody in the Bush administration seems to have moral qualms about manipulating us emotionally to get the public support he wants. As far as I am concerned, that's propaganda.

Look. I am not saying that Saddam Hussein's government does not deserve to be toppled. In some sense, it makes sense that the U.S. would want to topple Hussein, since the U.S. put him into power in the first place. I am not even claiming that this lopsided war won't be the best way to get Hussein out of power. I am saying that the decision to attack Hussein now is arbitrary and convenient, and that we the public have no basis upon which to judge what is going on. Nobody is showing us evidence that Iraq has these mysterious weapons of destruction, just as nobody was willing to show us evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the World Trade Centre bombings. Apparently, the U.S. had this evidence. Why did we not get any chance to see it? What possible security risk could this have posed? Would this evidence not have solidified support for finding bin Laden (who, as of this writing, is conveniently still at large) and either bringing him to justice or lynching him outright?

Why does the U.S. insist on making decisions without the informed consent of its citizens? Why does the U.S. insist on using propaganda techniques to presuade its citizens that we are fighting battles of good and evil?

This all relates back to language. This all relates back to the Nazis, in fact -- not because of what the Nazis did, but because of what the Nazis symbolize to us. In our culture, the Nazis symbolize pure evil. That image is very strong for us -- stronger than Satan. Labelling another human as pure evil dehumanizes that human and dehumanizes us. It eliminates any possibility of peaceful resolution to conflict -- how are you supposed to bargain with evil? All you can do is try to wipe that pure evil out by attacking it, propagating the cycle of violence. If we are serious about wanting security in our homeland, then we have to move beyond that, because the only ways that war can solve problems are through utter domination and/or genocide. Is that what we want? We dominated Germany at the end of World War One, and threw its citizens into hatred and despair. We still did not solve the problem -- lots of people argue that Hitler's rise was related to the social and economic depressions brought about in the aftermath of the Great War. We have been working to genocide our aboriginal peoples for centuries, and it still has not worked. Are these the kinds of futures we want to create?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if there is anything that is evil in this world, it is dehumanization. I don't even like the way we dehumanize the Nazis -- whether we like it or not, the Nazis were humans too. Furthermore, they were reasonable people who had families and friends, and who wanted better futures for their children. By labelling the Nazis (and contemporary neo-Nazi groups) as ``pure evil'', we are denying ourselves opportunities to understand these fascists as people, to understand why they believe the things they do, and to work on solving the root problems their fascism and racism are trying to solve.

This is a lost cause, I know. We are going to keep on abusing our language for fun. We (and our leaders) are going to continue invoking these images of good and evil to manipulate us into supporting questionable actions. I can't wait to see what new justifications the Bush administration is going to invent in support of their continued War on Terrorism. It will be a lot of fun, so long as we are not the ones being bombed.

If there's one thing I can ask of you, it's this: learn to identify empty rhetoric. Don't be complacent about your media awareness: those who would manipulate us are clever, and they are continually coming up with new ways to push our buttons. Be conscious of those buttons. Be conscious of the way that imagery is used to manipulate of our emotions. And be conscious of history. Many forces in our society would deny us our histories, calling history irrelevant in today's modern life. That is false; without understanding our past we leave ourselves open to the same tired manipulations used to hoodwink generations of reasonable people before us.