"Siddharta Obama" Photo: Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung
In a popular video on YouTube, George Carlin aims his caustic wit at the dread political scourge of euphemisms. “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language,” he kicks off his rant.
Our “public discourse” is, and to some extent always has been, polluted by an epidemic of euphemisms. This category overlaps with the category of political correctness, but it typically serves rightwing, not leftwing, ends. It also overlaps with kitsch, the category that Milan Kundera brilliantly analyzes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”
The essence of this definition applies equally to euphemisms. Both kitsch and euphemisms serve to shield us from unpleasant truths — in other words to disguise reality.
Kitsch is everywhere where fake prettiness — or pretty fakeness — silences authenticity. It is at social gatherings, cocktail parties, academic conferences; it saturates interactions between salespeople and customers, and inspires the decor of every shop in the mall. It is the impulse that sustains the tourism industry. It is the regulating principle of institutional norms, whether in the intellectual, the political, the cultural, or the business world.
Kitsch is what coheres a consumer capitalist society, with its ubiquitous product-advertisements and self-advertisements (for the self has become but a product to be sold). In fact, power-centers in any advanced society will impose a regime of political and ideological kitsch on the population, for power has to lie in order to extract some semblance of consent from its subjects.
Kitsch, in short, while pretending to exalt all that is wonderful and pleasant in life, manifests the anti-human. Where social atomization happens, so does kitsch. Where power happens — and bureaucracy, and the state, and “the free market,” and atomizing totalitarian tendencies of whatever sort — so does kitsch. And in the realm of political kitsch, the use of euphemisms is indispensable.
George Carlin mentions a few. Consider the evolution of the old, honest, direct World War I concept “shell shock”. In World War II shell shock morphed into the more innocuous term battle fatigue, then during the Korean War it was called operational exhaustion, only to become post-traumatic stress disorder in the Vietnam era, or simply PTSD now. So, from shell shock to… an acronym.
This history exemplifies the role of power-structures in the ideological sphere, namely, to squeeze the life out of life — and out of language, and out of dissent, and out of anything that can potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of institutional relations. This is as true of academia as of politics. The imperative is to propagate appealing myths at all times; but if it proves necessary to acknowledge the existence of something negative, at the very least change its name so that it becomes inoffensive and boring. (Ideally, put a positive spin on it as well, so the bad thing magically becomes good.) Eradicate every vestige of humanity; that is the imperative.
We can all easily think of examples. Torture is enhanced interrogation; slaughtered children are collateral damage; a coup d’état is regime change; terrorism we carry out is counterterrorism; invasion of another country is self-defense; destroying a country is stabilizing it; and imposing reactionary regimes on hapless populations is spreading democracy.
Job-destroyers are job-creators; the right-to-scrounge is called the right-to-work; the destruction of public education is “education reform”; destroying social programs and the welfare state is “austerity”; massive corporate welfare is the free market; workers’ mutually destructive competition for jobs and wages is a flexible labor market; renting yourself to a corporation is finding employment; police terrorism is called unnecessary force. The list could go on for pages.
But it isn’t only current political realities that are whitewashed. Rather, a country’s entire history is effaced, replaced with a mess of kitsch and euphemisms. This may be a truism, and we may know it, but it remains very difficult to extricate ourselves from all the subtle wordplays and techniques of indoctrination that have been used to make us think well of our society and its history.
For instance, the recently published book The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, at times may well strike the reader with the force of revelation, while simultaneously embarrassing him for having overlooked the truths it brings to light. Why do we use such bland terms as plantations and slaveholders? Because they’re euphemisms — though we don’t even know it.
Plantations were simply slave-labor camps, and we should follow Baptist in consistently calling them such. (The word “plantation” is actually appealing, quaint, pretty, conjuring images of a lovely countryside ruled benevolently by a paternalistic lord.) “Slaveholders” were enslavers, and we should call them such. Slaves were constantly tortured; that was part of their daily routine, to force them to work harder and submit to white supremacy. Half the country was a torture machine for slave labor, while the other half financed and profited from it.
The kitsch exists on a broader scale too. As Baptist makes clear — and as we all should have explicitly recognized long ago — slavery was not some marginal, economically backward thing; it was the very foundation of the modern American economy and the global industrial economy. It was an astonishingly efficient and effective way of producing cotton, such that from the perspective of economic logic it was irrational for slavery to be made illegal. Nothing is more modern than slavery and the economically productive dehumanization it entails.
The funny thing about kitsch, though, is that sometimes the truth is buried in it, peeking out ironically, only requiring a bit of excavation. Barack Obama, Marco Rubio and their ilk are right: America is an exceptional country. No other country was founded on, or owes its prosperity to, wholesale genocide of the native population together with centuries of enslavement of human beings. (It’s exceptional in other ways too, though they probably aren’t what Obama has in mind.)
It’s hard to look at one’s own country semi-objectively, because one is immersed in a miasma of kitsch and euphemisms. They are absolutely everywhere; they are the air we breathe as citizens, workers, and consumers. But if we can cut through the thick poisonous atmosphere of deceit and indoctrination, we may find that everything is upside down, and appearance is the opposite of reality.
We may find that in our society, as in a stagnant pond, the scum floats to the top. We’ll realize, with the historian Albert Prago, that “in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.” Perhaps we’ll learn to look with contempt on the leaders and the “successful” — the institutionally obedient, the non-questioners, and the greedy, the vulgarly ambitious, the rich — and admire the downtrodden for their struggles and their stoic survival.
So, whenever a person in a position of authority opens his mouth, we should ask: “What is the reality that is being kitschified here?”