Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hurtful Language

Recently, part of the blogosphere has been abuzz over Noah Pollak's branding of the American Conservative magazine as "un-American." Pollak, who tried to clarify his point in this post on Contentions, said that "a magazine that attempts to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the contribution of Jews to the public debate by repeatedly referring to them as a “fifth column” is indeed an un-American publication." I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this one, who argues that calling an American "un-American" is indeed hurtful and certainly difficult to prove.

Since this discussion is centered on language and its effects, there's another term that's been tossed about by some of Pollak's critics. Sullivan, on his blog, links to a post by E.D. Kain, who also weighs in on the debate. In his rambling, unsubstantiated post, Kain argues that
The Israel Lobby is only a “fifth column” because of continued American delusions about the importance of maintaining a constant military presence in the Middle East to begin with.

It's strange that Sullivan linked to this post on the heels of his serious, justified complaint about the effect that language can have. Even though the term "fifth column" is an ostensibly harmless phrase, it's dangerous to label any interest group -- pro-Israel, pro-tobacco, pro-iPod, or whatever other interest group may exist out there -- a "fifth column." Such an accusation has, and has had, terrible, unfair connotations. And in this case, it seems to be used quite offhandedly, with not much substantiation.

Yes, "un-American" was a poor choice of words by Pollak and Patrick Buchanan alike. Branding an interest group as a fifth column is similarly hurtful, yet it could have even more dangerous ramifications.

Note to readers: This will probably be my final post until April 3rd. After that, I should be posting every day.