By and of itself, the word anti seems innocuous. Etymologically it derives from Greek meaning opposite. Nowadays it is more at against. So when anti- prefixes another word it denotes opposition to what the other word represents. Sometimes the meaning is benign, such as with antacid: an agent that neutralizes excess acid. Oft the word expresses opposition to pernicious forces and hence we have antiwar, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-globalization. The term anti-globalization is an unfortunate one in that very few people actually oppose globalization.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn recently wrote, “But perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read in years is an essay by John Ralston Saul in the March issue of Harper’s magazine. Saul argues from a historical and economic perspective that globalization is on the verge of collapse and we are about to see the rebirth of nationalism.”
For me, alarm bells went off at the mention of His Excellency John Ralston Saul, CC. His Excellency is from deep within the culture of corporate capitalism and elitism. Much of his writing is excellent — as is the writing ability of other liberals like Todd Gitlin and Christopher Hitchens — but deeds speak louder than words. There is no need to disparage personalities. It suffices to point out that when words and deeds don’t match then there is a word for that. More interesting was the “hopeful thing” that a “globalization” teetering on collapse and its replacement by “nationalism” represented.
It was clear from the subsequent text that the globalization Burstyn referred to was the corporate variety, which favors the unimpeded flow of capital and places investor rights above the rights of the local population.
That words presented in a vacuum have connotations that might supersede their denotation becomes apparent when presented in the framework of a text. This left me confused about the word “nationalism” as it was not explained.
Nationalism? This word has much negative connotation. George Orwell wrote, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. Albert Einstein considered, “Nationalism is an infantile disease… It is the measles of mankind.”
Burstyn explained, “Perhaps I should have used a word less loaded with history — such as regionalism or local sustainability. I was simply referring to the revival of a think and act local mentality.”
Some activists describe themselves with the prefix anti-something; others will eschew a characterization of themselves as anti-something. Thus antiwar activists may prefer to describe themselves as pro-peace. Anti-abortionists prefer to self-describe themselves of pro-life.
Anti can obviously be wielded as a prefix of derogation and be used to attack individuals. Ad hominem — or name-calling, as it is known colloquially — is outside the boundaries of rational discussion and should be disregarded in intellectual discourse. Social activist Noam Chomsky said in the NFB documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media that there is no defense against this mudslinging. To be called an anti-Canadian, for example, places the accused in the defensive position of having to refute the charge. Said Chomsky,
I don’t mind the denunciations, frankly; I mind the lies. I mean, intellectuals are very good at lying; they’re professionals at it. It’s a wonderful technique. There’s no way of responding to it. If someone calls you an anti-Semite, what can you say? I’m not an anti-Semite? If someone says you’re a racist, you’re a Nazi or something, you always lose. The person who throws the mud always wins because there is no way of responding to such charges.
As Chomsky noted, denying the anti-something accusation is ineffective and mudslingers “always” win by this odious tactic. If true, then it can be reasoned that people will do their best to avoid being maliciously labeled. Mudslinging would threaten the expression of free speech and free association. The current hullabaloo surrounding a Hollywood blockbuster has drawn the wrath of many critics who denounce the film as anti-Semitic. Controversy has probably helped fill the box office coffers but cinema-goers had to risk being smeared as anti-Semitic for viewing a film so labeled.
As Aesop argued many centuries ago, the false iteration of something will bring about a diminished future response to it. A lie told too often will lead to a truthful later rendering being disbelieved. Anti-Semitism through overuse undercuts its own effectiveness.
Nonetheless, the term anti-something has been latched onto by other national governments to shake off legitimate opposition to governmental policies. It is not surprising that the Nasdaq News would run a headline: “Anti-US Sentiment Intense In Fallujah Area.” Yet it was somewhat surprising to read Maureen Dowd’s recent piece “Mired in a Mirage,” where she wrote, “The administration does not want to admit the extent of anti-American hatred among Iraqis.”
Surely people are naturally anti-whoever or -whatever is killing them and it is therefore unfair to label the victims as anti-their-killers. But the characterization is more unfair, to be anti-the-killers and opposed to the theft and occupation of one’s country cannot be portrayed in any plausible fashion as anti-Americanism. If the word anti is going to be applied with any legitimacy here it must be applied to the killers. After holding the Iraqi population victim to the lethal UN sanctions and raining down the cowardly Shock and Awe attack on a disarmed country, the most appropriate target would be to label the American government and military as anti-Iraqi.
Yet this is tu quoque and one cannot convincingly rail against ad hominem on the one hand and employ a variant with the other hand.
It is facile to brush aside policy-directed criticism with callous insouciance. However, imperialistic arrogance is as likely to incur ill favor among allies as enemies. Tarring friend and foe alike with the same anti-American brush is futile in the long run and will leave the empire isolated. Earlier I chronicled the opposition to American policy among South Korean youth even though US forces are stationed in South Korea purportedly in defense of an invasion threat from the north. An article in the Los Angeles Times observes that the increasing Chinese economic strength coupled with “antipathy to U.S. hegemony and arrogance” has fueled a growing South Korean preference for Chinese language learning in place of English.
So the US policy is setting it up to be a pariah in the world. Yet it continues to act unilaterally and cast invective to the opposition voiced by friends. France and Germany are derided by the preposterous epithet “Old Europe” and the level of calumny reached such ludicrous levels that the word French became replaced by freedom.
It appears a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The French government (for whatever reasons) and the French citizenry were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. The French called for the futile UN weapons inspections to be given more time. The US and UK rejected extended inspections confidently proclaiming their surety of the Iraqi threat. American and British leaders’s cocksure proclamations withered in the wind of truth and yet these characters, their mendacity exposed and blame shunted on to the intelligence community in a brazen repudiation of Trumanian ideology, continue to spout their nasty aspersions on detractors. The New York Times even stooped to heaping blame on the French.
To prefix an ethnic group or nationality with anti- and then wield it against someone should raise all kinds of red flags to the persons receiving such communication. Despite the efficacy of such mudslinging, the temptation to sling mud back must be controlled. Sinking to the same level would only grant greater plausibility to the original mudslinger. It is Chomsky who exposes the tautology of the calumny underlying the negative anti typology. As an American and a Jew it is difficult to credibly label him as an anti-American or as an anti-Semite. So the insidious twist is to label Chomsky and others like him as self-haters. But certainly Chomsky knows well that there is a proper response to ad hominem: it is to expose name-calling for what it is; to point out its empty underpinnings; and to note the evasion of an issue. This Chomsky does most incisively. When mudslinging becomes recognizable, the credibility of the mudslingers is undermined.