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Terrorist Language

Glen Newey

'We tortured some folks,' Barack Obama admitted the other day, in a speech hailed as an unflinching mea culpa for the post 9/11 'enhanced interrogation' programme. It's not the first time Obama has reached for the F-word. In a speech in New Britain, Connecticut, earlier this year, Obama addressed the spiny question of the US's yawning inequality. 'There are folks at the top who are doing better than ever... we understand that some folks are going to earn more than others.' Happily, the president was battling to make sure 'hardworking folks' got a rise. They included the good 'folks who are cooking the meals of our troops, or washing their dishes, or cleaning their clothes. The country should pay those folks a wage you can live on.'

In fact, Obama folks away at the drop of a ten-gallon hat, as this anthology of his F-moments highlights. In Obama's case, it probably has its roots in the rhetorical idiom of a cerebral man who knows he's confronted with non-intellectuals and feels the need to reach down by feigning the common touch, something that he has less of than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. The initially defensive device has ossified into a tic.

'Folks' in US English manages to blur the edges of whatever context it washes over. In its juxtaposition of the homey and grim, 'We tortured some folks' vaguely recalls Philip Larkin's 'They fuck you up/Your mum and dad'. Like 'mum', 'folks' syrups whatever it touches. It does this regardless of whether the folks are good guys, like the hard-working Connecticutters, or bad hats like the suspected al-Qaida detainees waterboarded under CIA interrogation ('waterboarding', which sounds like a marine sport, used to be called 'water board torture'; three Japanese soldiers were executed after the Second World War for practising it on US prisoners of war). Asphyxiating people with sodden towels? Hey, we were just fucking with folks.

Maybe Obama's been reading Philip Roth. In The Plot Against America,the gentilisation programme to which American Jews are subjected after Charles Lindbergh is elected as a fascist fellow-traveller president is called 'Just Folks'. Urban Jews are dispatched to down-home farmsteads to chomp on hog roasts and hominy grits with bacon in the hope of 'Americanising' them.

Is there anything that 'folks' couldn't gild with faux hominess? 'Sure, the SS gassed some folks,' or 'Hey, we know Agent Orange gave some folks birth defects.' What name should be given to this rhetorical sugar-coating? 'Euphemism' seems, well, euphemistic. The best tag for it may be Jeremy Bentham's: 'terrorist language'.


Comments


  • 5 August 2014 at 4:29pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    In the non-torture examples there's also, I think, a hint of the focus group in 'folks.' There's a scene in The Thick of It when two SPADs debate whether to use 'families' or 'people'. I imagine something like that went on with the droner in chief.

  • 5 August 2014 at 9:25pm
    JWA says:
    Doesn't folks also carry with it a sense of a shared society - of particularly people who shared values? When 'folks' are tortured - the implication is immediate equivalence - that torturer and victim have the same implicit values, but circumstance just happens to have placed them on opposite sides. A quick change in power relations and they could easily swap roles. Ditto thee rich folks and the poor folks - the implication surely being that they both want the same thing, and would act the same way (rather than seeing their status as a consequence of whatever values they actually hold). It seems it is most often used when bullies, of whatever kind, need to be 'humanised'.

    Oddly I can't think of an equivalent term in British English - no one uses 'fellows'. Maybe in time, 'peeps' will catch on.

    • 14 August 2014 at 3:50pm
      aikmania says: @ JWA
      Caught this thread just a tad late (I only visit the LRB blog site once every few weeks or so), but isn't the British English equivalent of 'folks' not simply 'folk'? It's certainly a common enough word in Scotland and the North ("there's nowt so queer as...", etc.).

  • 6 August 2014 at 7:24pm
    CJDM says:
    I think 'folks' is accurate. He could have used the word 'humans' in all those cases as a generalization of people, which is basically the intention in each sentence. Had he specified that they've tortured some terrorists, we would be now ranting about the use of the word 'terrorist' as a justification for torture.

    • 6 August 2014 at 8:24pm
      gotnotruck says: @ CJDM
      WELL I KINDA WONDER IF YOU ALL MAY HAVE TORTURED A FEW YRSEF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. FUNNY, AIN'T IT? THAT BRITS STARTED HATIN GOOD OL US AFTER WW2 WHEN YOUSE GUYS GOT RID OF YOUR COLONIES. AND I UNERSTAN FROM A BRIT FREN, WHO GREETED ME AT HIS TABLE AFTER A LONG TRIP ACROSS THE ATLANTIC, THEN GODARFUL HEATHROW, BY ASKING, "SO YOU'VE BEEN TORTURING PEOPLE." NOT A QUESTION. I DID THE REFLEXIVE TRYING TO TURN TWO WRONGS INTO A RIGHT, SED, "SO DO YOU". RIGHTO HE SHOULDA SAID. BUT DINT. INSTEAD "YES" ACCOMPANIED BY A SMILE. WHAT I SHOULD HAVE SAID WAS NO I HAVEN'T TORTURED ANYONE RECENTLY BUT IN YOUR CASE I'M WILLING TO MAKE AN EXCEPTION. BY THE WAY, I NOTE THE LURB IS NOW FOLLOWING NOUVEAU YUCK SLIMES BY USING "MOST IMPORTANT" AT THE BEGINNING OF SENTENCES. WHY NO MORE ADVERBS? EH? WOT? WHO CARES BOUT WHAT A BLUDDY WOG HAS TO SAY.

    • 6 August 2014 at 9:24pm
      denismollison says: @ gotnotruck
      gotnotruck -

      Taking your post at face value (and I'm not sure I should take anyone who posts in all capital letters at face value - it's the online equivalent of shouting), what is your point?

      I think I'm probably a typical LRB reader in being even more outraged when Britain tortures people or is implicit in it than I am when our allies such as the US do.

      If we (typical LRB readers) are hard on Obama it's perhaps because he has been such a huge disappointment, completely unable to stand up to the militaristic vested interests in the USA. But we're hard on our own disappointing politicians too.

    • 6 August 2014 at 9:25pm
      denismollison says: @ denismollison
      Aplogies, "implicit" should read "complicit".

    • 17 August 2014 at 1:12am
      gotnotruck says: @ denismollison
      I USE CAPS BECAUSE I'M GOING BLIND. SORRY. AS FOR "TORTURING FOLKS," YES IT IS IN YOUR LANGUAGE. (OUR LANGUAGE.) MY FATHER'S GREATEST GIFT TO ME, AFTER HIS WONDERFUL LIFE AS A SCIENTIST, WAS THE 13 VOL OED. I LOOKED UP "FOLKS" AND CAME UP WITH TWO DEFINITIONS: FIRST, "COMMON PEOPLE": MANY TORTURED WERE, SINCE AFGHANS TURNED OVER ENEMIES TO W'S SOLDIERS, THOUGH THERE WERE REAL TERRORISTS AMONG THEM. AND THERE WERE PROTESTS ALL OVER THE US. I WAS IN CHAPEL HILL, NC AT THE TIME OF THE INVASION. NOT ONLY WAS THERE A LARGE DEMO, BUT UNDER THE "STOP" OF EVERY "STOP" SIGN AT THE CORNER OF EVERY ST. OR ROAD, WAS WRITTEN "THE IRAQ WAR!" I.E. "STOP THE IRAQ WAR". THE SECOND DEFINITION IS "A PEOPLE, NATION, TRIBE". I'M AMAZED THE LRB DOESN'T CONSULT THE OED, FULL THIRTEEN VOLS.

      THEY'RE PROBABLY NOT ONLINE. HOW MUCH WE'VE LOST BECAUSE OF THE INTERNET, BEGINNING WITH JOBS. I'M HORRIFIED AMAZON IS IN BRITAIN. YOUR BOOK STORES WILL CLOSE, AS THEY HAVE IN NYC.

      ASK HARPER COLLINS TO REPRINT "VIOLENT POLITICS" BY WILLIAM POLK. HIS THESIS IS THAT COUNTERINSURGENCIES BEGINNING WITH "AMERICA'S INSURGENCY AGAINST BRITAIN", NEVER SUCCEED, UNLESS YOU'RE ON YOU'RE OWN TURF. HE GOES ON TO COVER SPANISH GUERRILLAS AGAINST NAPOLEAN, THE MAU MAU REBELLION, FRENCH IN ALGERIA, FRENCH IN VIETNAM, THE AMERICANS TAKE OVER IN VIETNAM, THE FIRST TWO BRITISH WARS IN AFGHANISTAN, RUSSIANS IN AFGHANISTAN. SYKES PICOT AND IRAQ - FRANCE AND BRITAIN. US IN IRAQ, WHICH INFURIATED EVERYONE. IT HAD BEEN PUT TOGETHER ORIGINALLY BY THE FRENCH AND BRITS, THEN A BRITISH WOMAN UNDER CHURCHILL, DREW THE LINES OF A COUNTRY INCLUDING SUNNIS, SHIIA, AND KURDS. SADAAM HUSSEIN HAD HELD IT TOGETHER, WE SHOULD NOT HAVE LET IT FALL APART. SAME WITH QUADAFFI. BUT NOW DO YOU REALLY NOT WANT A STRONG MILITARY WHEN SO MANY TERRORIST GROUPS ARE ON THE SAME LAND MASS AS EUROPE. AND IN AFRICA. HOW ISLAM WENT INTO SPAIN AND CREATED GLORIOUS ANDALUSIA. ("THE MOOR'S LAST SIGH"). I KEEP NAGGING EUROPEAN COUNTRIES TO RAISE THEIR MILITARY BUDGETS. THE BAD OLD U.S. CAN'T DO IT ALL.

  • 6 August 2014 at 8:04pm
    Metta4 says:
    I think that if Obama had used the simple term 'people', as in "we tortured some people", the reality of the act would have been reinforced. In my view, the word 'people' would humanise the persons being acted upon and lend the subject matter a more serious tone. 'Folks' adds a homely fuzz to a deadly serious matter. It feels to me to be dismissive of the gravity of events in this context, whatever Obama's reasons for using it.

  • 7 August 2014 at 12:31am
    bevin says:
    Think volk, just as Homeland (as in Homeland Security) makes sense as Heimat.
    These are kitsch politics.

  • 7 August 2014 at 1:26am
    BogusGuy says:
    War is Peace, and Islam is the Religion of Peace... what Orwell didn't know!

  • 17 August 2014 at 1:15am
    gotnotruck says:
    I AGREE. PLEASE READ MY REPLY ABOVE.

  • 20 August 2014 at 5:32pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The question about using “folks”, especially Obama’s use, needs both etymological and political parsing. As to the former, “folk” has been around a long time and has had some specialized uses in the US (and possibly in the UK). First, while it is obviously derived from the German “Volk” (as in Volkswagen or “peoples” car), in the US “folk” has never had the politically tinged usage that came about during the Third Reich era, where Volksgemeinschaft (peoples community) referred strictly to “ethnically pure” Germans. Numerous NSDAP agencies, including foreign-settlement and welfare agencies, used it as a prefix. The nearest related meaning to this kind of political usage in the US would be “popular/populist”, a usage which has its counterpart in the Russian words derived from “Narod”.

    There was a time, roughly from the late 19th century through the end of WWII when “folk” was used as an adjective to describe various objects of study by American and British anthropologists: folk medicine, folk beliefs, folklore, etc. Sometime in the 1960’s this got upgraded to the Greek-based suffix, “ethno(s)”, as in ethno-botany, ethno-music, etc. Such silly things, where an apparently more learned term replaces a perfectly useful older one, happen all the time. Blame it on the aspiration of academics and other intellectuals to use more “elevated” or “technical” language.

    On the other hand, in popular American culture around the same time (late 1950s, early 1960s) the term “folk music” described a wide variety of performers and performances that embraced simple four-part harmony groups playing acoustic guitars and banjos (e.g. the Kingston Trio), and then took in the new wave of protest singers (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan). If you went to a record store, you would also find “sentimental nationalist” groups like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers filed under folk-music. Besides having roots in southern blues, country music, and some church music, American folk music of the time was distinguished by not sounding like either black R&B music (Ray Charles, James Brown) or rock-and-roll (which had the branches of doo-wop, Motown sound, crooners with back-ups, garage rock, surfer stuff, boy-groups, girl-groups, “bubble gum” pop, and the metastasizing Phil Spector “wall of sound” approach, among others).

    I’m 70 and have been around, and in my US travels I hear people (folks?) saying things like “he’s good people”, or “he’s just plain folks”. I’ve heard it down south and in upstate New York and in my childhood home state of Maryland. Disregarding the simple grammatical mistake as to number, the meaning is obvious: a person so described is down-to-earth, straightforward, and even reliable. He or she is not pretentious or affected. This is the use favored by American politicians, especially when referring to themselves while campaigning, though they are manifestly not “just plain folks”, while many of them are as ill-informed as just plain folks and greedier and more immune to shame than the rest of us.

    Obama’s extension of this term to people who are victims of various government policies does seem a bit odd, and the explanation offered that he’s being “folksy” in order not to be tarred by that dreadful American brush of being too cerebral is probably the correct one.

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