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Words Make the Man

The language we choose tells others a great deal about us. For example, my wife jokes that I’m one of the few living speakers of American English who visibly suffers real pain when he accidentally dangles a preposition, or says, “To who?” or really, any of a litany of offenses against a perfectly-useful Latin-infected Germanic tongue. This suggests that, at best, I’m a pedant fighting a romantic rear-guard action to preserve a particular state of a living tongue; at worst, it suggests I’m a prig; and likely, it suggests something between the two.

Similarly, people who refer to a single person as “they,” or cannot bring themselves to accurately describe another person by sexual characteristics also broadcast important things about the durability of their connection to reality.

The importance of language in how we define and perceive reality is of inordinate importance to those in my profession, who have a bad tendency to see the world as a series of word-locks (often of our own creation) to which we fashion word-keys and word-lockpicks as needed. It is also singularly important to politicians, because except at war, their entire job is to [effect things/change things/spend money/take money/make pretend money/pretend the existence of money/create or destroy relationships] through words. This is why, to take an easy example, former Senator Tom Coburn would return to his obstetrics practice every weekend and eventually fled The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body: Only truly awful people like lawyers and politicians would want to live in a bubble in which we pretend that our words make the world anew.

(One can also tell a great deal about a person from the length of his throat-clearing; taking, purely for example, 261 words, not including a parenthetical, to begin to get to a point suggests that the writer is perhaps too enamored of his own prose.)

The words our governing class of the moment uses to communicate with what it perceives as its subjects has long been one of my favorite bugaboos, precisely because it tells us a great deal about how our would-be rulers see us and them. As I said three years ago:

But what Islam and immigration have in common is not so much race (though they can both be proxies for race) or xenophobia (though again, this does influence at least some fraction of those concerned by these things), but rather a well-deserved reputation for being untouchable subjects by our political elites.

The language we are allowed to use to describe these problems — and the language we are not allowed to use — is a both a symptom and a signal of the larger issues.

Let us take the word alien. Alien derives from the Latin alius, other; skipping the usual French transmission of Latin to English, it originally had nothing to do with extraterrestrials and simply meant strangers to one’s land.Thus, early American laws on foreigners — even ones who would become American — referred to them as aliens. Over time, this usage persisted so that until very recently, we referred to legal aliens (strangers here legally) and illegal aliens (strangers here not-legally). To call someone or something alien is not to engage in racism or any actual sin; it is simply to describe a thing using slightly arcane language.

Starting a few decades ago, it became more fashionable to refer to these strangers as immigrants, a word that is technically both accurate and inaccurate.

An immigrant (Latin: migrare, to depart, which then became migrans, one who departs, combined with im which prefix means into as opposed to e, from) is one who departs his place to come into ours. The connotation of immigrant, however, is somewhat more permanent than alien, which refers to one who is a stranger for any length of stay. Nevertheless, Americans are not all Latin buffs, so we ran with it.

In the last decade, someone decided that immigrant sounds racist and othering (a portmanteau that a just God will punish with the Fires of Hell), and that illegal immigrant is somehow worse; and all of a sudden, American politicians of both parties explicitly or implicitly declared that calling strangers who come into our land outside of our laws either of those words was racist thoughtcrime.

Similarly, over the last decade and a half, American political leaders have been at great pains to pretend that Muslims who kill people in the name of Islam and subscribe to a system of Islamic belief that has roots at least in the 18th if not 8th century, and whose actions are supported by between ten and fifty percent of Muslims worldwide, are not, in fact, Muslim; and to call them Muslim is that great of American sins, racism. (Islam, like Christianity, perceives itself as a universal faith, which means one open to all races, but it is thoughtcrime to note that, as well.)

Americans may not be amateur etymologists, but they are not actually fools; they understand that this is not an attempt to be polite — something that even Yankees unconsciously do — but rather an attempt to control conversation, thought, and action. It is nothing new to remark on how the left likes to control thought through the control of language; a clever fellow named Orwell remarked on it in a nearly eponymous essay decades ago. It is something new to see the nominal right engaged in it as well. It suggests that at some point, solving problems became less important than not making people upset that you recognized them.

But not only does this convey a profound sense of unseriousness — anyone of even minimal intelligence knows that it’s hard to fight a thing if you won’t call it by its right name — it is also a subtle but profound announcement that We are not like (by which we mean, “are better”) than you rabble. It says, We do not worry about the same things that you do, and to worry about those things, to call them by their right names and express concern, is racist and honestly isn’t nearly as important as making sure politically-connected individuals and corporations get rich. It also says, Trust your betters, morons.

Despite (and arguably because of) the amazing swamp-clearing powers of Bad Orange Man and his surprisingly survival-adept band of competent people and situationally-competent nitwits, this condition has not merely not improved, it has worsened.

Thus, let us speak of Christians, by way of speaking about English.

A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE has said one can tell a lot about a people based on how their language sounds when yelled out on a battlefield. A great language, whatever the virtues of its people and their martial prowess, is capable of eloquence and pithiness by turns, but by its own rhythm. Attempting an English version of Cicero or Leonidas only works insofar as one can abide by — or even stretch — English’s rules of construction and formation. This is why children’s insults, which are by turns elaborate and abrupt, often sound so amusing to adult ears, and why so many portmanteaux and neologisms die aborning every day in this great land.

This is no less true for politically-correct speech, a concept that regained currency in the 1980s and 1990s (and fueled the brief, too-short careers of Andrew “Dice” Clay, Morton Downey, Jr., and other leading lights), disappeared for a while, and made a roaring comeback in time for an orange buffoon and the antagonist of The Wizard of Oz to face off for the Presidency. “Gender non-confirming bi person of color,” for example, is the sort of code to which college students (marked generally by immature brains and an excess of free time) might thrill, but the rest of us are basically fine with “woman.” On the other side of that coin, “mozzarella head,” might suggest “pasty person with soft if delicious brains and no real integrity,” but it really just sounds like you’re trying for insults and cannot create them.

“Christian” is an easy word with a well-defined meaning: It means “someone who worships [Jesus] Christ.” It is succinct and carries a definition on which, broadly, everyone agrees, even if the particulars sometimes cripple that agreement quickly.

It is not uncommon, especially in older texts, to see the archaism “Christ worshiper,” which conveys the same meaning. This is because in English, a sufficiently specific noun may act as the direct object of a gerund or verb-based noun. Lotus eater, for example, means “one who eats lotuses.” “Christ follower” means “one who follows [the teachings of] Christ.” And so on.

It is very hard to change this structure, which while archaic, is well-rooted in our mother tongue. For example, referring to someone as a “flesh eater” does not mean “one who eats in the presence of or on top of flesh”; a “devil worshiper” does not pray to the God of Hosts while surrounded by the angels He evicted to darkness and emptiness for all eternity; and “Easter worshiper” does not mean “one who worships [something] on Easter.” Were this otherwise, we would refer to the poor souls killed in New Zealand some weeks ago as “mosque worshipers” or “Friday worshipers,” when the proper term is Muslims; this is because either of those terms would suggest they were worshiping a place or a day, rather than God as they perceive Him.

The massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was thus an opportunity to publicly emote for politicians who ordinarily couldn’t give a rat’s anus for anyone they cannot see in their own mirrors. Their response was not to mourn dead and wounded “Christians,” but instead “Easter worshipers.”

I do not care what convoluted newspeak a group of apostates, atheists, agnostics, and Obamaists use to describe Christianity, so long as they don’t follow up that description with weaponry, and neither should you. The Church teaches that without Christ’s freely-chosen Grace, Hell awaits, Jews being the only notable exception on the theory that God keeps His promises; the supermajority of this crowd has made their choice and they’re in for one Hell of a surprise when the actuarial tables catch up with them.

But given that the damned involved are former Presidents, incompetents who would have stepped over their own mothers to be President, and major media cretins, you should care what they think about you, because the consequences are coming soon to a policy decision near you.

AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush reassured the nation that true Muslims could not have perpetrated those mass killings, because Islam means “peace.” Those of us who had paid attention in any of our world history classes from birth through college scratched our heads and more or less as one, said, “Wait, doesn’t Islam mean submission?” Not to be outdone by a Republican executive, both parties began offering that Islam is a (possibly the) religion of peace, pace all those two Christians bombing abortion clinics and that one Jewish guy who killed a bunch of people at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Also the Crusades. This became a mantra to the point of mockery in conservative circles.

And rightfully so. I was (and am) a fan of the former President’s, but this struck me as one of the most insulting possible things to say at that moment. It belittled Islam — a faith that whatever its merits, quite logically postulates that if that conception of the Divine is accurate, face-to-the-ground submission is the only rational response — and it belittled the American people, because it suggested that some large fraction of us were ticking time bombs, one bad translation of Arabic away from gunning down a mosque.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with the numbers.

As Pew put it in an accompanying blog post, assaults were only about a quarter of the 400 hate crimes perpetrated on Muslims in 2001, almost all of which were in the last quarter. Harm to an innocent, whatever the motivation, is by definition a terrible wrong, so there are 400 real wrongs on display in this data; but for perspective on the awfulness of the plague of violence with which our political class was faced, in January of 2001 alone, in Los Angeles only, there were 230 felony assaults. In the People’s Republic of New Jersey in 2002, there were 433 carjackings— that is, more carjackings in a single state (granted, the Capital of Carjacking and Superfund Sites) than there were anti-Muslim hate crimes of every kind in the heat of the post-9/11 trauma.

It is by definition impossible to prove a counterfactual, but even taking arguendothe highly questionable and still-mysteriously-unproven assertion that words inspire borderline and not-so-borderline people to go kill a lot of people, it appears that at least 400 times, someone overcame our ruling class’s word choiceand committed mortal sins on the basis of the (at times perceived) religious belief of their victims; and yet, it was only 400 times, a number roughly equal to the number of homicides in Detroit in 2001. The operational theory was therefore that the ordinary, non-violent humans and the borderline-violent humans are too stupid to understand circumlocution, but the marginal number of violent thugs can see right through it, and if we’re not careful, the majority will join the margin.

There is and was a great deal to be said for neither antagonizing nor insulting predominantly or exclusively Muslim allies whose territory we would need for staging grounds and whose intelligence operations, however unsavory, would make our own more effective; but there is even more to be said for not treating the people who put you in office as itchy-fingered psychopaths eager to burn their doctors and neighbors alive because Mooooooslim.

As much as has changed since 2001, this has not.

THIS LEADS TO THE CRUX of the problem with “Easter worshipers.” Our governing class is composed of people of fading religiosity, increasingly tenuous connections with their Christian countrymen, and all of the noblesse oblige and class awareness of a stereotypical-if-historically-ridiculous movie medieval monarch and none of the fear that sent kings crawling across their islands on pilgrimage to save themselves and their subjects from excommunication. I use the phrases governing classand ruling classtongue-in-cheek; they do not use those terms at all, except to try to live them.

The term “Easter worshiper” is detached, analytical, jarring, silly, clumsy, and more likely to incite than calm; but it’s the sort of thing a group of would-be technocrats would say while analyzing the subjects on whose dial settings they’re working. Hm, careful, mustn’t let Group A know that the mice who died in Group S are Christian mice, they might riot or refuse to eat the infused pellets.

Put very simply, our representatives — our public servants— are increasingly our rulers, in their perception if not always in fact. Representatives or servants will feel a connection to those who put them in power, and will understand that acting in the governed’s interest is acting in their own. Rulers will do what they feel right for their subjects, knowing that they themselves need never feel those policies or the consequences. A representative fears for his own skin, on the day he rejoins the governed; a ruler fears the mob.

Standing alone, “Easter worshipers” is jarring, weird, and a one-off. As part of a larger data set, it suggests that the people who govern and imagine they govern us increasingly believe they rule us.

Thomas H. Crown writes “T. Crown’s Musings,” a blog.

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