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Meaning Strangled



Compared to its British original, American English has always been loose and easy, as in “Hey, buddy! Gimme a beer!” These days our language is being systematically strangled not just by cliché'“Cool, dude!”'but by egregious misuse. And since language expresses arguments and critical thinking, it only makes sense that when language suffers, so does intelligence.

This isn’t a case of stupid comments, which are spouted without a whole lot of thinking beforehand. Those are all too common, as when Vice President Dan Quayle said, “The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history'this nation’s history'We all live in this century. I don’t live in this century.” The man probably needed some air.

We’re talking about deliberately stupid comments, where it seems clear that the person speaking had plenty of time for forethought. Let us count the ways language has been mangled of late.

A favorite on both sides of the political spectrum has been comparing your adversaries, real or imagined, to Adolf Hitler’s butchers and henchmen, the Nazis. The trend had its probable start on the TV show Seinfeld, which dubbed uncooperative restaurant workers “soup Nazis.” It was hardly funny then; it’s less funny now. So it was that University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill called 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns.” Not to be outdone, Dr. James C. Dobson, America’s reigning high priest of “family values,” compared embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi experiments in concentration camps, all while suggesting that those Nazi experiments could have given us “discoveries … that benefited mankind.” When the Anti-Defamation League asked for an apology, the good doctor refused.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got in on the act way before Churchill or Dobson with its 2003 campaign comparing steak dinners to “Holocaust on Your Plate.” Here, too, the Anti-Defamation League, along with plenty of other people, scratched their heads in outrage. In a press release, PETA explained that, “Just as the Nazis tried to ‘dehumanize’ Jews by forcing them to live in filthy, crowded conditions, tearing children away from their mothers, and killing them in assembly-line fashion, animals on today’s factory farms are stripped of all that is enjoyable and natural.” But since when were animals, which are not human, in need of “dehumanizing”?

PETA made a lot of the fact that the creator of its campaign was Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, but apologized for the campaign two years after it was introduced'sort of. Adding to its list of tasteless publicity stunts, PETA’s now busy comparing animal abuse to the slavery and abuse of African-Americans. “Black people have really had enough of being compared to animals by white people,” said Southern Poverty Law Center director Mark Potok. “Now to be compared to animals by PETA? They seem to be extremely slow learners.”

It’s not language alone that’s being abused and mocked. History and the memory of those who suffered its worst travails are mocked as well. But that hardly matters to people who put their agendas first among all other considerations.

It should hardly surprise us now that President Bush has no clear strategy in Iraq. With these words spoken more than a year ago, we knew his agenda was as muddled as his language: “There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ’em on!