Posts Tagged ‘Osama Bin Laden’

More on “taking responsibility” and other hackneyed phrases

Monday, June 13th, 2011
(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

My call to arms a few days ago (“Orwell watch #9:  ‘I take full responsibility for...'”) was picked up by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beasthere.  The passage he highlights:

I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions. As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Sure would be nice if we could we could drive this phrase into late-night comedy, wouldn’t it?  This expression has been due for the slaughterhouse since the IRA mayhem in the 1960s, and has made its small contribution to dulling our sense that words have meaning, and are meant to convey our feelings, thoughts, and intentions – not conceal them.

Language fails

Meanwhile, the post generated some interesting conversation over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. I was singled out, rightly, for a little criticism from Art Durkee:  “Calling [Osama] bin Laden‘s death ‘liquidation’ is also pretty Orwellian, it seems to me. Let’s call a spade a spade: it was a retaliatory political assassination.  But then, a great deal of political euphemism is and always has been Orwellian.”

Liquidation is indeed a strange term – did he dissolve into water? “Liquidation” sounds like the final sale at a failing bookstore, anyway. A colleague corrected me when I said “murder,” arguing that murder was a legal term, calling for the prosecution of the murderer.  One is at a loss – what neutral term can one say nowadays? Osama bin Laden’s “offing”?

Art’s p.o.v.:

“I don’t think there is a neutral term. I think you have to call an assassination what it is.

I think we have to be honest when murder is murder, and not whitewash it. (The best argument, for example, that I’ve heard against the death penalty is that it means that murder is criminalized for anyone to commit except the state.) Similarly, assassination needs to be called what it is, and acknowledged as the political tool it has always been, sanctioned or otherwise.

History may show if this particular sanctioned assassination (sometimes called a ‘sanction,’ or ‘termination with extreme prejudice’) was the right and good thing to do. Lots of people are claiming that already, but they’re also ignoring what making someone into a martyr can do. It’s a tricky call, and those who set policy ought to lose sleep over it.

But that’s the whole pattern that Orwell pointed out, isn’t it: the neutralization of language into mechanical, denatured, unemotional, technical terminology that allows one to deal with humans as dehumanized. Turn people into inhuman statistics, and you can sleep at night when you talk about ‘collateral damage,’ or ‘friendly fire,’ for example. Do that kind of neutralization of language enough, and you dehumanize yourself as well, Orwell warned.”

And so did Mark Twain, in ‘The Way Prayer.'”


Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Taking responsibility, or accepting blame?

“I came here to accept the full responsibility for what I’ve done,” New York Rep. Anthony Weiner said at yesterday’s press conference, following his disclosure of unseemly online relationships with women.

But does he?  And what exactly does “take full responsibility” mean?

This verbal formulation, which surfaces most frequently following terrorist attacks or sexual confessions (à la Weinergate) always troubles me.  But not for the reasons cited on NPR, which seems to focus on the voluntary nature of the disclosure:

Doesn’t taking responsibility have to involve volition if it’s to be meaningful? What does it mean if you don’t have any choice? For Weiner, the image of the emperor having no clothes was about to become upsettingly literal. The existence of physical evidence — a child, let’s say, or a cache of photos and messages including a photo of himself literally holding up a sign with an arrow pointing to his own head that says “ME” — makes it hard to credit either man with much of anything other than not fleeing to Mexico or changing his identity. So … well done?

What [Arnold] Schwarzenegger seemed to mean by “taking responsibility” was partly the acceptance of the actual, tangible consequences of parenthood. For Weiner, it’s more complicated. What are the material consequences of his behavior that he’s now taking responsibility for? He’ll be publicly excoriated, but that’s only because he was found out, so what kind of a consequence is that? What kind of a consequence is it when the worst thing that happens to you because of something you did is that people treat you as having done it?

Taking responsibility exactly for what?

Does he take full responsibility for, say, the 21-year-old Seattle student Genette Cordova whose life and whose studies have been disrupted as she prepares for finals and was forced to drop a class? “I’m really upset. I feel like he’s a person of power and influence, who can make a statement and make all this go away,” her mother said when his actions still represented a choice rather than an inevitability.

In my book, “taking responsibility” is more than a synonym for “apologize.” It means actually doing something to ameliorate consequences.  Will he, for example, intervene with the college authorities on Ms. Cordova’s behalf?

I am always troubled in this usage when a terrorist group “takes responsibility” for a brutal attack that leaves people dead.  Do they comfort the bereaved?  Raise a fund for widows and orphans?

When we “took responsibility for” the liquidation of Osama bin Laden, in the terms that were bandied about several weeks ago – did we even sponge the blood off the walls of the hideout?  Do we take responsibility for the future of the children who watched the killing?  (How careful we are to call this a “killing” rather than a “murder or assassination” – why so much care on these phrases, but imprecise banalities on others?)  Please note:  I am not arguing for or against the necessity of what happened – I am pointing to the language used to describe the decision.  And, for that matter, Osama bin Laden “took responsibility” for a lot of killings on his own.

"We will weather this."

Doesn’t this really mean “accept the blame for”?  Or “takes credit for”? Or “confesses guilt”?

In the case of terrorists, I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions.

As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Such phrases further the disjunct between words and actions – a chasm that already widened when Weiner was onstage weeping, and apologizing over and over, as if he had given names under torture, or crashed the car while drunk … yet when one looks at the photos from Twitter and Facebook, he hardly looks troubled or tormented.  He looks like he’s having a good time; he’s smiling and joking.  He is in full control of his faculties.

“We will weather this. I love her,” he said of his marriage, making his longstanding, premediated behavior sound like a force of nature – an earthquake, or a hurricane, perhaps.  The photos remind one that this wasn’t a momentary slip-up or the result of uncontrollable passion: it was a series of actions coolly considered, uninterrupted by his marriage almost a year ago.

I have to concur with NPR:

Maybe if public apologizers were better at just being sorry, we wouldn’t need “I take full responsibility for my actions” in the first place.

Orwell Watch:  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #8:  “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6:  “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Postscript on 6/13:  More on “taking responsibility” – and some nice pick-up from Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Beast – over here.

On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

I arrived in Kraków yesterday – or perhaps today, I’m not smart enough to untangle the time differences.  I spent a good part of the afternoon reacquainting myself with old haunts and half-familiar streets. The city is awash with images of its native son, John Paul II, who was beatified on May 1. Photographs are in windows, banners on the streets, and large biographical displays mark two sites I’ve passed so far.

May 1 was also the national screening of PBS’s In the Name of Their Mothers, about Irena Sendler and the women of Żegota, who saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death during the Holocaust. I’ve written about it here and here and here and here.  Alas, I doubt the film got much attention; it unexpectedly vied with President Obama’s announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I strongly suspect the latter event got the upper hand. But May 1 is significant for other reasons.

My lighter airplane reading was Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. I didn’t hold out much hope for this modest, yet reasonably expensive ($40) book with the clumsy title – but the newly translated biography-of-sorts by Anna Mieszkowska is so far the only work that exists in English. Fortunately, the book so far has proven much better than my subdued expectations. For one thing, a good deal of it is written by Sendler herself, from letters, memoirs, and recollections she left behind.

A spider or a Rorschach test?

So what else is May 1? It is also marks the celebration of Divine Mercy this year – a custom instituted by the late pope, who, in another mysterious link, died on the eve of the Polish visionary whose writings caused the celebration.

The event is linked with Sendler, too.  From Mieszkowska’s book:  

A period of mass executions began at Pawiak Prison. Every morning the cell doors opened, and those called out never returned. “I once found a small, damaged picture with the words ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ I hid it, and had it with me all the time.”

The footnote to this text says: “This picture, which she described as the most valuable object in her life, Irena posted in a letter (describing its history but not leaving a return address) to Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Poland.”

Skinner: Kind of a hero herself

Somewhere I heard the story that the pope returned it to her later, and she gave it back to him, and it’s in a museum somewhere. I can’t remember.

Mary Skinner, the filmmaker behind In the Name of Their Mothers (and kind of a hero herself) told me the image was a signal the women of Żegota sent to each other and left for each other – sometimes just to buck themselves up.

Turning away from the dark side

In any case, I keep the image in my wallet, reminding myself of their example, and not to be such a sissy. When a member of the Polish literati saw it, he acted as if I had shown him a spider. Well he asked.

All this links with a current Science article about Phil Zimbardo’s work on heroes – that’s right, Zimbardo of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. His latest work explores the basic idea that “anyone can be a hero,” he said.

At age 78, he has reinvented himself as a social entrepreneur, leading a new project that will attempt to turn the Stanford Prison Experiment and other studies of the dark side of the human psyche into a force for good. Last year, Zimbardo founded the Heroic Imagination Project … “Our ambition is to seed the world with heroes,” Zimbardo says.

A different kind of military hero

He’s putting his money where his mouth is:

“This is my new mission in life,” he says. He chipped in $30,000 of his own money to start the project and has since raised nearly $250,000 more from other donors. He’s considering auctioning off some of his art and wine collections. “I grew up in abject poverty in the South Bronx,” Zimbardo says. Now that he has nice things, he says he’s willing to give them up if that’s what it takes. Zimbardo seems to have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the challenges of his grand new experiment – and the shot at redemption. “It’s rescued my career from being Dr. Evil to being Dr. Good,” he says.

Some other good stuff he’s done is here.

At one point, Phil was asking for examples of heroes. I suggested Irena Sendler, of course. I also suggested someone I’m proud to consider a relation: my grandfather-in-law Brigadier General Kendall Fielder, who resisted the orders for the confinement of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.  (He was also the highest ranking officer exonerated after Pearl Harbor.)

G'night from Kraków and Wawel

Greg Robinson, who has written about him in two of his books about the Japanese internment, explained heroism this way:  “You never know who will have a moment of grace, and under what circumstances.”

Ah, I hear Wawel Cathedral tolling midnight …  in the which reminds me I’m in Kraków…

Martin Luther King quote goes viral: Fake? Not really…

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

His quote ... kind of

This quote went viral on the internet, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

‎”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Penn Jillette:  Not him

Penn Jillette: Not him

The citation was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but a number of people came forward to debunk it.  A Salon article attributed the quote to famous magician Penn Jillette. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic wrote, “Out of Osama’s Death, a Fake Quotation is Born.” But when I (silly me) posted the quotation on my Facebook page and heard about kerfuffle, I found someone who indeed attributed the quote to MLK’s 1963  Strength to Love.

Who better to ask than Clay Carson and the folks at Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, home of the King Papers Project?  The crackerjack editorial team responded within minutes.

Here’s the real quote, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love:

The mysterious Ms. Dovey

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

“Mangled to a meme in less than two days,” concludes McArdle in a follow up piece.  Ground Zero for the brouhaha is Jessica Dovey, a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to kids in Kobe, Japan.  Her Facebook page had the King citation, introduced with her own musings.  The quotation marks got lost in a tweet.

But thanks, Jessica, we like the thought.

Big on quotes himself

Postscript:  Just got an email of clarification from Tenisha Armstrong of the King Institute:

Just to follow up: I have not been able to substantiate the first part of the quote, but that doesn’t mean King did not say it. I did find a King quote that expresses a similar sentiment:

“This story symbolizes something basic about the universe. It’s meaning is not found in the drowning of a few men, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, draft of Chapter VIII in Strength to Love, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Papers 6:507.

The published version of the quote was a little different: “The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Strength to Love.


Postscript on 3/5:  The previously unknown Jessica Dovey, with a photo taken from her Facebook page,  gets a Q&A in The Atlantic here.  Of all things.

Postscript on 3/5:  Stan Szczesny commented on John Donne‘s famous “No Man Is an Island” passage from his sermons in the comments section below.  Tenisha Armstrong of the MLK Institute’s editorial team replied with the following:

Quotable John

Thanks, Stan. Your rememberance of this apt quote by John Donne reminds me of how frequently King quoted from Donne’s work. The Donne quote you posted is from “Meditations XVII” (1624). In King’s 1960 sermon, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” a version of which King had preached as early as 1954, he discusses how everybody is “tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, where what affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Of Donne, King says:

“Strangely enough I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made; I didn’t make it that way, but it’s like that. And John Donne recorded it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ And then he goes on toward the end to say: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Only by discovering this are we able to master the breadth of life.”

Quote from Volume 5 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Threshold of a New Decade,” January 1959-December 1960, p. 577.