Why Words Matter
Anybody who isn’t reading Brendan Nyhan’s blog should do themselves a favor and check it out. But be warned, the donkey is alive and kicking over there. However, do understand that he’s the former editor of Spinsanity, a website that tried to separate the rheotric from the reason. A great site in its time and Nyhan’s new blog continues that tradition, albeit with a little more lean to the left.
But before I get into that, this recent spat between two liberals made me recall my recent public “word war” with the decidedly liberal folks over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.
They called me out for suggesting that the 9/11 memorial for the victims of Flight 93 called “Crescent of Embrace” is odd because the crescent is a symbol of Islam and adorns the roofs of mosques, much like the crosses on churches. Therefore, using this symbol in the title and the design of the memorial seems like a questionable choice.
Scott Lemieux didn’t agree.
His post, affectionately titled “The Shape….It’s Eeeeeeeevil!”, essentially tears me a new one and makes fun of the site. Here’s a taste.
Justin Gardner has actually been going some good work in the wake of Katrina, but then he once again proves the oddity of self-defined “centrism” by endorsing the wingnuttiest argument to come down the pike in a long time. So, apparently, we’re simply not allowed to use the shape of a crescent anymore because it’s also a symbol of Islam? (And, although I realize this distinction will be clear to most of this audience although not to a crackpot like Charles Johnson, it’s worth reiterating that it’s a symbol of Islam, not Al Qaeda or another terrorist group.) Does this mean we’re no longer allowed to refer to New Orleans as “The Crescent City?” Will Pillsbury face boycotts if it doesn’t start calling its “Crescent Rolls” “Freedom Rolls”? Good God.
Here’s my response in the comments section.
So you really think it’s out of bounds for me to simply question a design for a 9/11 memorial that’s symbolic of the terrorist’s religion? And by the way, I do say in the post that I think it should ultimately be up to the family members of the victims. No amount of trying to align me with LGF or the “Islam is a terrorist organization” crowd changes that.
Digging into your post a bit more, bringing up all the other “crescents” in the world has nothing to do with my point. The crescent as a shape is beautiful and should always be thought of as such. However, in certain cases, like a 9/11 memorial, I think certain symbols should be avoided.
And by the way, I also think any type of cross design would be inappropriate too. I don’t think they did anything on purpose here, I just wish they would have used a bit more discretion.
And actually, one more reason that I’m just thinking about now is it’s best to stay away from the shape because it’ll only reinforce the broad and clumsy connection for all of those who see Islam and terrorists as the same thing. Obviously I do not. Changing the design would eliminate this.
A couple more points.
First, if you think I’m doing a good job on the Katrina stuff, then link to it Scott. Complimenting me in one breath and then slamming my “centrism” in another makes it seem like you’re only trying to find problems with me. Imagine my disappointment when the bigger liberal sites that point to Donklephant always slam us and completely ignore our other posts that are decidedly liberal friendly.
Last, if you really think our site is an oddity, then there’s nothing I can do to convince you it’s not. But before you slam us next time, maybe you should look at what you choose to highlight about us and see if you’re being fair. I’m sure I could go through this site and find a couple posts where you’re seemingly aligned with the fringe too. People’s opinions are diverse and they don’t fit into little ideological boxes all the time. If centrism is about anything it’s diversity of opinion and if that makes it an oddity, then so be it.
Defensive? Sure, but obviously I feel justified. And after that comment, the floodgates opened with comment after comment about shapes and wingnuttery, and on and on. To be fair, most of the comments weren’t very caustic. They were simply dismissive. I could highlight a few, but if you want to have some fun, go over there and read all 41 comments. More on this later.
So onto the Nyhan/Alterman spat.
In one his latest posts, Alterman said the following.
In the name of fighting “terrorism,” the administration has sent 40 percent of the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away.
This is what Nyhan said in response to his assertion.
The phrase “in order to” clearly implies that the Bush administration wanted to “create more terrorists and let bin Laden get away.” Alterman would no doubt claim that he’s just being sarcastic, but that’s an easy excuse that allows him (and people like him) to make this sort of vile suggestion.
This was Alterman’s followup post.
The sad fact is that the Bush administration has done little about preparing the nation for another terrorist attack in the past four yearsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬?just look here and here, while it does plenty to make one more likelyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬?creating more hatred in the Arab world and more support for those who would give their lives to kill us, and less willingness to follow our leadership everywhere else. I am not saying, as a foolish young blogger named Brendan Nyhan idiotically insists, that Bush has done this because he wants more terrorism. I donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t pretend to know what Bush wants, but I would be honestly surprised if it included killing lots of brave American soldiers for no good reason. (Hmmm, Nyhan, the little language cop, professes to know what I think but have not said about what Bush thinks but has not said. Someone call George OrwellÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ or Alanis Morissette.) What I am saying, and have been saying all along, is that George Bush is so blinkered by his ideological obsessions, coupled with his intellectual laziness, personal pique, and professional incompetence, that he cannot see what is plainly before him and hence, has failed in his most fundamental duty as president: to provide for the security of the nation.
And then Alterman actually emailed Nyhan….twice!
You are making a jerk of yourself which is why I am doing you the favor of ignoring these baseless accusations on the blog. You have now twice accused me of imputing intentions to the administration on the basis of zero evidence. When I say something wrong, fine. When I say something that you (alone) interpret to imply what I mean–without any evidence whatsoever–it might be a good idea not to make a public accusation. I have never, ever accused Bush et al of what you say. And if I did believe it, I wouldn’t say it, having no evidence to support it save my own feelings. The idea that you do this in the context of playing language cop is, shall we say, ironic.
Feel free to print this. I have nothing to hide.
And the second email is equally terse.
It occurs to me that I am being accused of accusing Bush et al of thinking something they have not said by someone who is accusing me of thinking something I did not say, This same individual purports to be policing the standard of public discourse. This is, I believe, triply ironic, and perhaps quadruply ridiculous.
Now here’s the thing about this situation: over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I AM Alterman.
I’m the one who came over there and addressed the points they were making about my post. I fought with them about the meaning of what I said. And I wrote A LOT.
However, there’s an important distinction here and it’s that Alterman clearly misued his language and then didn’t apologize for it. In fact, he attacked Nyhan pretty viciously on a website that gets MASSIVE traffic.
In my case, I felt I used the language correctly, saying that the crescent “symbol” is linked to Islam and therefore feels inappropriate for the design of a 9/11 memorial. And do note that the LGM crowd immediately referred to the crescent as a “shape”, and pounded me by saying I was suggesting that a mere “shape” was evil.
My point has always been that sometimes shapes have meaning and we must respect that meaning. Very few would consider the cross a mere shape, but it actually is exactly that. But it’s also a symbol. Of course it didn’t start out as a symbol, but Christians adopted it, their message flourished and the shape became a symbol. And as I pointed out in that first comment, I wouldn’t think a cross shape would be appropriate for the Flight 93 memorial either.
My last comment over at LGM was this:
Listen guys, we can go around and around about this, but responding to all of these questions and assertions is eating up too much of time unfortunately.
However, I will offer this. If anybody wants to possibly talk to me over the phone about this, drop me an email and we’ll set a time. Yes, I’m serious about this offer. I’ll talk to whoever emails me and I’m sure we’ll have a good discussion.
The email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Naive? Maybe, but we watch people debate all the time on cable. The blogosphere isn’t the only option for reasonable debate, and that’s why I think sometimes you need to actually speak with each other to understand where somebody is really coming from. Heck, it might even make a good podcast.
By the way, I am extending the same offer to anybody here on the site. If we get into a disagreement and the blogginess of Donklephant is getting in the way, I’m more than willing to take this offline and discuss it there.
PS – I haven’t heard from anybody over at LGM.
PPS – I hope I do.