By letterhead | August 13, 2007
When I was a kid, in Boston in the early 1970s, bumper stickers of the “England Get Out of Ireland” variety were not uncommon. And my mother, an Irish ex-pat, while never overtly militant, very much enjoyed playing the spirited and nationalistic records of groups like the Wolftones. We sang with pride about the IRA chasing the Brits out of the Emerald Isle. “And the Black and Tans, like lightning ran, from the rifles of the IRA!”
All the while IRA bombs were wreaking havoc in London. But that was never spoken of. As a youngster, I hardly even knew to connect the two.
Which brings me to the current t-shirt tumult, in which the principal of an Arabic-based New York City public school led a group that offered young girls t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Intifada NYC.” The principal resigned in the uproar, basically saying that she had only wanted to empower the young women to “shake off oppression,” but underestimated the “historical association” between the word “intifada”and violent uprising.
Now back to the Irish metaphor: a green white and gold “Free Ireland” t-shirt in Boston in 1973 would have earned smiles of approval. Wearing same t-shirt in downtown London in 1973 would have earned one an interrogation at the very least, and depending on the wearer’s personal circumstances, maybe even a quick and unceremonious deportation.
The point: context matters. The site of the current Intifada t-shirt furor can’t be but a few miles from the site of the World Trade Center attack. Of course people are sensitive.
Second point: naiveté has no place in the discussion. Hyperventilating bloggers like Alif Sikkin need to step back and approach the issue with a bit more humility. He lambastes Americans for misunderstanding Arabic words, as if Westerners deliberately twisted their meaning.
That argument is pedantic nonsense, and totally disingenuous.
The word “intifada” has been co-opted by Muslim militants: from the Palestinians in their two Intifadas (1987 and 2000) against Israel, to the Syrian group Fatah al-Intifada that is responsible for bombings in Lebanon, to the “Intifada En France.”
The global Intifada narrative is being written primarily by Muslims, not Westerners.
Their grievances may be legitimate. Some even see their methods as justified. But legitimacy and justification are totally beside the point in a responsible debate about language. That debate must investigate the source of the momentum behind the transformation of Arabic words in the world consciousness.
Same applies to the word “jihad.”
The group Hamas claims in the eighth article of its Charter: “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Koran its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.” And the twelve point program of the militant Muslim Brotherhood includes No. 9 “To support jihad wherever possible,” and No. 11 “To exploit the Palestinian ’cause’ as part of a global strategy, and to foment enmity towards the Jews and Israel as a rallying point for Muslims.”
A West Bank militarist group called “Islamic Jihad” sponsors armed resistance against Israel. The Pakistani-based MMA vows to wage jihad in Kashmir. The PBJ in Indonesia is a group of 200 self-scribed “jihad bombers.” The Bangladeshi “Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami” has expanded beyond its home turf and is now recruiting in Southern Thailand, fomenting an Islamic separatist movement there.
The site historyofjihad.org provides a complete overview of the militancy associated with “jihad” dating back to the year 620 C.E.
So Mr. Sikkin and those who want to lay the blame for linguistic misunderstanding and general thick-headedness at the feet of Westerners alone are just plain wrong. To be sure, Westerners are thick-headed about a lot of things Eastern, but this is not one of them. Militant Muslims bear more responsibility than Westerners for co-opting the meaning of “jihad” and “intifada.”
Look, a “faggot” will never again be just a bundle of sticks. The word “gay” will never simply mean happy. And “queer” will never just mean “different.” Never ever. To say nothing of “fairy.” (We are lucky, in fact, to still retain quotidian uses of “pansy” and “fruit.”)
I doubt that the term “niggardly” (def: cheap, stingy) will ever regain common usage as it is too close to an epithet. The Confederate flag symbolizes war in defense of slavery, and as such it will never be simply a banner of Southern “states rights,” nor should it be.
And finally, what of the poor swastika? This 3,000 year-old sun symbol carries a powerful and positive meaning in Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Even in a grand Catholic cathedral in Ireland – St. Coleman’s in Cork – there are swastikas in the mosaic floor tiles. But the swastika will be never be simply a symbol of power and good luck, and will probably never regain any positive colloquial associations or common usage in the West.
Barking about dictionary definitions and claiming that the linguistic mis-attribution is the fault of ignorant Westerners who can’t tell the difference between a clockwise swastika (Nazi) versus a counter-clockwise swastika (mostly everybody else) is… it’s worth repeating: pedantic and disingenuous. (Especially since the two were interchangeable in early uses.)
Like it or not, reality intrudes on and changes language all the time, and we are left to deal with the aftermath as best we can. Sometimes the cost is that words and symbols fall out of common usage because they can no support productive dialogue.
Seen in this light, selling “Intifada” t-shirts to teenagers in an Arabic school in NYC is, at best, clumsy and insensitive. It calls to mind another recent symbolic dust-up: the “Brown is the New White” t-shirts that Macy’s recently withdrew from stores. Like the Brooklyn principal who sincerely wanted to empower her students, the maker of the “Brown is the New White” t-shirts had a celebratory vision:
“We are taking over the world so everybody better watch out!!!!!!! (Ha ha ha! just kidding!) NO! It’s hard to ignore the fact that Latinos are everywhere now… its [sic] hard to pick up the newspaper and not read about Latinos in politics, music, art, design, etc. It’s just shining a little light on that in a funny way. That’s it.”
Since the t-shirt deliberately plays on racial power dynamics, the result (one might say predictably) was a storm of outrage on all sides of the power equation: anger from the left, the right, immigrant’s rights groups, and some Latinos that it was racist and poorly thought out; anger by yet other Latinos at anyone who co-opted their right to be ironic. It turned into a sociological-racial Rorschach test.
In reality, however, the literal reason for the global dominance of white Western culture is that white Europeans, for several hundred years running, mercilessly slaughtered, conquered and pacified their social and spiritual “inferiors.” So in a purely literal sense, the t-shirt is saying that that’s the legacy “Browns” are taking over. The writer’s cheeky empowerment and attempt at being edgy is actually pretty uninformed, ham-fisted and dumb.
For language buffs, these two controversies provide yet more evidence that our modern mindset is in the full-on throes of Baudrillard-ian delusion. (Like we needed any more evidence?) Symbols have replaced reality. They now are reality.
The factual basis of the controversy (the word “Intifada” on a shirt offered to teenagers by a moderate, peace-loving public school principal with a record of fostering productive religious dialogue) is meaningless. A t-shirt is not a bomb, but people treat it like one because a symbolic detonation is as good as the real thing. It is the real thing.
Circumstances and facts are lost in the volley of symbolic rhetoric about deliberate provocation, endorsements of violence, Islamist propaganda, Western hostility to the East, political theater, clashes of civilizations, the struggle for Western values, a competition between secular and religious institutions, etc., etc.
The symbolism is what we see. The symbolism is what we react to. The symbolic content is what dominates our thinking and our reasoning.
In all honesty, my gut reaction is that it makes me nostalgic for the non-threatening conformity of school uniforms. (That sentiment, in turn, will be denounced as a symbol of my authoritarian urge to squash dissent and free expression. And so the ante is upped once more.)
Consider the following sentence: Don’t be niggardly with that gay swastika!
That earthquake you feel in your brain is symbolism grinding against literalism. Beyond the benign literal meaning of words ["Don't be stingy with that happy good luck symbol!"] lies a powerful psychological and symbolic realm ["nigger, faggot, Nazi!"]. Here, language is freighted with so much symbolic weight that it squashes all other possible meanings and interpretations. Symbols of power provoke the same response as power itself. Symbols of intolerance function in the same way and provoke the same reaction as intolerance itself.
Unfortunately, this is the psychological and linguistic default by which we now live. Symbolic power governs how we relate both to each other and the world around us, and it’s quite unhelpful and immature to deny it. The best thing we can do, under the circumstances, is to understand the dynamic, show some self-restraint and stop poking sticks at the beehive.
The Irish national airline (Aer Lingus) has removed the Wolftones’ music from all in-flight audio programs, ditto state-run RTE radio stations. The Aer Lingus move came after a Northern Irish Protestant hardliner compared it to playing an Osama Bin Ladin recording on an Arab airliner. Nationalists say it’s folk music, a part of Irish culture and heritage, and only advocates legitimate revolution against a criminal occupation. In the end, no matter how great or Irish the songs may be, or how much we may enjoy raising a pint and singing them, their time as a public rallying cry has passed. It only serves to exacerbate wounds that have barely started to heal. So in the interest of maintaining a fragile psychological peace, the Wolftones were taken out of circulation in these particular venues.
So here too, we can put away the t-shirt for now, as well as the blame please, and all get back to the issue of teaching our kids algebra so that Am-ur-ica doesn’t lose its competitive edge to the Chinese and Indians!
No, but seriously, given our woeful state of public discourse, we need to learn how to better use, interpret and respond to the power of symbols. Rhetorical brinksmanship and symbolic scorched-Earth policies are no-win situations for all involved. We need to fess up to that, and then find a way out of this linguistic corner into which we are painted, before we slaughter each other – or are all brain dead from inhaling the fumes.