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In the Land of False Cognates

On Translating Securityspeak into English

by KEVIN CARSON

One might wonder, reading the American “national security” community’s pronouncements, if they refer to the same world we live in. Things make a little more sense when you realize that the Security State has its own language: Securityspeak. Like Newspeak, the ideologically refashioned successor to English in Orwell’s “1984,” Securityspeak is designed to obscure meaning and conceal truth, rather than convey them. As an example, take these 2010 remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, Senior Fellow and Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Daremblum, after praising Senators Lugar and Dodd for their promotion of “national security and democracy” in Latin America over the years, warned of the threat of “radical populism, which has taken root in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.” Perhaps most alarmingly, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has formed an alliance with Iran, “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” The Nicaraguan government, having “returned to its old ways,” occupies a Costa Rican river island in defiance of an OAS resolution.

Chavez’s alliance with Iran, in particular, is “the biggest threat to hemispheric stability since the Cold War.” The Chavez regime poses a “serious threat to U.S. security interests.”

Wow! Sounds like a lot of bizarro-world gibberish, right? But if we break it down and translate it a bit at a time, we can actually distill some sense from it.

First, we have to remember that in Securityspeak, “democracy” doesn’t mean what it does in English. You probably think of democracy as meaningful control by ordinary people of the decisions that affect their daily lives. The false cognate Securityspeak term “democracy” sounds the same, but can cause great confusion. It actually refers to a society in which the system of power is disguised by the existence of periodic electoral rituals in which the public chooses between a number of candidates, all selected from the same ruling class. These candidates may argue a lot, but it’s all about the 20% or so of secondary issues on which the different factions of the ruling class are divided among themselves. The 80% of primary issues, on which the ruling class agrees — issues that define the basic structure of power — never come up for debate.

When the structure of power itself comes up for debate — when people start talking about, say, the concentrated ownership of land, or export-oriented development policy — it’s a sign that “democracy” is in danger of being replaced by “radical populism.” That’s a matter for the CIA or Marines to deal with. The whole point of Securityspeak’s version of “democracy” is to safeguard the fundamental structure of power by distracting the population with the illusion of choice.

It’s also important to keep in mind that in Securityspeak, the label “state sponsor of terrorism” — by definition — cannot include the United States. That’s because actions by the Sole Superpower and Hegemon to promote “democracy” cannot — by definition — be terroristic. Actions to promote “radical populism,” on the other hand, can.

As in Newspeak, actions that are considered laudable when practiced by one side are reprehensible when practiced by the other. Take, for example, the Nicaraguan action of occupying Costa Rican territory in defiance of an OAS resolution. That same action — defying an OAS resolution — was entirely commendable when practised by the U.S. (i.e., the mining of Managua harbor as a means of combating “radical populists” thirty years ago).

Consider labeling the Iran-Venezuela alliance the “biggest threat to hemispheric stability since the Cold War.” You’re probably thinking he put that qualifier in there so U.S. actions during the Cold War wouldn’t count. After all the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s democratic government in 1954, installing a military regime that terrorized the country for decades. It backed Central American death squads that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and (starting with the overthrow of Brazil’s government in the 1960s and proceeding with Kissinger’s Operation Condor in the 1970s) put military dictators in power in most of South America.

But those things wouldn’t count anyway. When the United States overthrows government after government, with domino chains of military coups putting pro-U.S. dictatorships in power throughout most of the hemisphere, that’s protecting stability, not threatening it. It’s all for the sake of defeating that “radical populism,” which is by definition a threat to stability.

And in Securityspeak, saying a Venezuela-Iran military alliance is a “threat” doesn’t mean they might attack the U.S. and invade its territory. It means they might be able to fight back when the U.S. attacks them — that the U.S. might not be able to defeat them and put a stop to the treat of “radical populism.” In other words, they might get away with taking land away from oligarchs and patrons and distributing it to the people who actually work it, and their economies might start serving the interests of the people who live there instead of Norteamericano corporations. And that would be bad.

Similarly, “national security” refers not, as you might expect in English, to the security of the American people. It refers to the security of the American state and the coalition of class interests that controls it. Economic populism is indeed a threat to “national security” in this sense. American economic elites are the heart of one of the opposing sides in the age-old conflict between those who own the world, and those whose blood and sweat enriches those who own the world. When a functionary of the American state like Daremblum refers to a “threat to national security,” he means a threat to the ability of the hemisphere’s owning classes to extract wealth from the blood and sweat of the rest of us.

There — that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.