I need not remind you that what we imagine we know about the past tends to be what victors of the past wanted us to believe. Ever since barons, of one sort or another, came into existence, they made sure to hire and overpay the most talented bards to sing their praises. In our day, we have the media. Running an attractive media outlet costs far more than consumers are willing to pay, and modern barons are happy to sponsor those who tell their side of the story.
I have just been to Cordoba, Spain. There are many reasons to visit Cordoba, one of which surpasses every other. True, you may not share my tastes, but the Mesquita in Cordoba is the most sublimely beautiful building I have ever visited! To my mind, neither the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg nor the Acropolis in Athens nor any Gothic cathedral hold a candle to the Moorish Mesquita in terms of transcendental architectonic harmony.
The Moors were defeated and driven out of Spain, and most of us are unaware of the remarkable scientific and artistic supremacy and – not least – relative tolerance that had characterised Moorish culture in Spain during what is known elsewhere in Europe as the “dark ages”. “We won”, as it were, and we are telling our story now, a story that centres on Western moral superiority, on the one hand, and Islamic religious fanaticism and brutality, on the other. The story is no more true than innumerable other fanciful concoctions spun out of ignorance. The ghastly war crimes committed by US soldiers in Vietnam, for instance, do not mean that US Americans are cruel monsters.
Now, telling a fib is not as straightforward as you might think. After all, incorrect facts can be gainsaid, although the correction will often only be found on the last page, in small print and long after the entire population has taken the venomous bait. In the long run, though, a mainstream news outlet would not want its reputation to be tainted as fallible, so journalists and speech writers need a more indirect approach, which is where their semantics come into the picture, their choice of words.
If you are up against a brutal dictator, and there are many of those, you may be engaging in political activism, but as soon as your authorities get on to you, they will not convict you of political activism but of “sedition”** or “incitement” for the simple reason that no self-respecting country will admit banning “political activism”. In the news, your friends will hear about a “rioting mob”, rather than about a “crowd of demonstrators”. Nobody wants to be part of a “mob” and most people are reluctant to have anything to do with a “riot”. Serious opposition to your country’s authorities will not be labelled a “rebellion” – since anyone can easily be sympathetic of a rebellion against a tyrannical regime – but as “treason” or “terrorism”.
In fact, even in a country that does not have a tyrannical regime, you risk being indicted of treason if you are some Mr Nobody who exposed your country’s war crimes. On the other hand, presidents who harm their countries past the point of no repair are very rarely accused of anything at all.
Mind you, semantics – the words that are used to describe, in this case, your political opposition – matter not only to you as a dissident, but to all who attempt to bring down tyrannical regimes. No country is an island, not even North Korea. Your country will have financial, military, strategic and other ties to other countries. The US, for instance needs to keep its military bases in a large number of minor countries and will not risk disrupting relations with a regime that has taken draconian measures against “terrorists”.
As for the rest of us, those who believe that the occupants of the White House are – ehem – whatever-we-believe-they-are, we are all “conspiracy theorists”. Those of us in favour of some redistribution of income and wealth are “populists”, and analysts who expose the inefficiency and financial extravagance of the US health system are elitist, and their arguments are merely referred to as a “narrative”, i.e. something distinctly dubious.
Israel refers to all who have the slightest sympathy for the Palestinian cause as anti-Semite. Makes my blood curdle, in fact, because I very much resent being called a racist.
Unfortunately, those of us who are referred to as populists, conspiracy theorists, elitist or anti-Semite are often no better. Referring only to myself, I have on occasion vehemently stated that so-and-so was a racist, a fascist or for lack of anything more precise, a bastard. Only recently I referred to a very prominent person as a hooker, on these very pages. I can’t say I very much regret having done so, because letting off steam feels good. My words were less elegant, though, than those used against me, and would have no other effect than to make it clear that I loathed the object in question, and that was not really my aim, which was to make the reader share my loathing.
Any political movement that is referred to as populist, elitist, anti-Semite or based on conspiracy theory will probably never seriously get off the ground, so semantics do matter.
**A recent case from a so-called Democratic country is that of Catalonia: Although the separatist movements earned a majority in Democratic elections for the second time in a row in December 2017, the Spanish authorities have indicted the separatist movements’ leaders on charges of “sedition”.