Notes on Terminology

Photo by bixentro | CC BY 2.0

Climate Crisis
, Not “Climate Change”

My next-to-last CounterPunch essay (“Someone Tell a Reporter: the Rich Are Destroying the Earth”) elicited a smart criticism from a senior scientist:

“Please stop using the phrase ‘climate change.’ I am a 78-year-old, Ph.D. physicist who has been talking about the CLIMATE CRISIS for more than 35 years. To me, the mild, innocuous sounding phrase ‘climate change’ is like experiencing fingernails scratching on a blackboard! To show how silly the phrase is, would you ever consider renaming the ‘opioid crisis’ by calling it’ ‘opioid change’ instead? It does sound kind of silly! George Monbiot was on Democracy Now at the end of August and he said it beautifully! Calling what is happing to the earth ‘climate change’ is like calling a foreign invasion ‘unexpected guests’. Go George! George likes ‘climate breakdown.’ I always use ‘climate crisis’ although the real description is ‘climate catastrophe.’ I urge you to abandon the phrase climate change and use the more descriptive phrase Climate Crisis.”

The physicist is 100% correct. We’re talking about the Greenhouse Gassing-to-death of life on Earth (a crime that will make the Nazis look like small-time gangsters), speeding us to the unlivable benchmark of 500 carbon parts-per-million by 2050 if not sooner. “Climate change” just doesn’t quite capture that. It’s like calling a full-scale coronary attack “heartburn.”  It’s like calling the rise of the Third Reich “the emergence of a right-nationalist government prone to racial bias.”

Corporate, State-Capitalist, and Imperialist Media, Not “Mainstream Media”

Reflecting on the physicist’s welcome correction on “social media” recently, I received some other smart comments on terminology. “Speaking of irritating terms,” a left historian wrote me, “here’s one – MSM, so-called ‘mainstream media’ is a big one. There’s nothing mainstream about it, it’s corporate media, or top down managed propaganda for profit in service to the military surveillance big pharma industrial complex…”

Precisely.   I have written and spoken against this deceptive term “mainstream media” many times (read my 2015 Havana talk “On the Nature and Mission of U.S. Corporate Mass Media” here). During the Cold War, we never called the two Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia or Soviet state television and radio “mainstream Russian media.” We called them “Soviet state media.” By the same token we should never call the dominant corporate and commercial U.S. media “mainstream American media.” It is owned by a small number and super-powerful oligopoly of giant corporations who process, represent, and interpret current events, history, politics, culture, “entertainment,” and society through the selective and narrow filters of business-friendly state-capitalist, nationalist, and imperial ideology.

It’s more insidious and dangerous than the Soviet media system ever was. The censored and propagandistic nature of Soviet media was an openly acknowledged and widely understood fact in Russia itself.  You could read the censors’ initials on the bottom of the front page of each daily Pravda. U.S. corporate and commercial media, by contrast, masquerades effectively as an independent “free press.”  It has gone far beyond anything the Soviets remotely imagined when it comes to creating brilliantly crafted but highly propagandistic, ideology-riddled “entertainment” content.  (Dominant U.S. media manufactures mass consent to prevailing power and oppression structures more effectively with its entertainment wings than it does with its news and public affairs wings.  Hollywood beats CNN in that and other ways.)

School Massacres, Not “School Shootings”

More suggestions followed on terminology. “May we run with ‘school massacres’ instead of “school shootings?” wrote Brian Carlson. Good point. Yes, “school shooting” doesn’t really make the grade when it comes to describing an incident in which a maniac with military-style weaponry descends on an educational institution – an elementary school (Sandy Hook), high school (Marjorie Stoneman Murphy) or a university (Virginia Tech) – to slaughter unarmed students and teachers. “Massacre” is more like it.

Oil “Spills”

“While we’re at it,” Keith Porteous wrote me from Canada, “I do not accept the term, ‘oil spill.’ You spill a glass of milk.”

Yes, the Exxon Valdez “spilled” 11 million U.S. gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.  Oops, grab some paper towels!

There have been numerous other giant “spills” before and since that epic criminal act of pollution.

“Spill” seems like an absurd level of understatement. I’m not sure what the better term is here – maybe “spew.”  The Exxon Oil Spew some feels more appropriate.

“Spew” applies more aptly to the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, when British Petroleum (BP) not so much spilled as spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

The Intercept recently reported that the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline has already spewed five times during its first six months of operation.

The American War on Southeast Asia, Not “the Vietnam War”

Here’s one that has long bothered me as an historian: “the Vietnam War.” It’s a very misleading phrase. What “Vietnam War?” Try “The U.S. Criminal and Imperial Crucifixion [Chomsky] of Southeast Asia.” It was the American War ON Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1975, Washington killed from 3 to 5 million Southeast Asians (with Laotians and Cambodians included) in a war of imperial aggression fought completely on Asian soil.  Just one CIA torture program in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, killed more than two-thirds the number of U.S. troops who died during the arch-criminal U.S. assault known as “the Vietnam War.” American history’s official liberal- imperialist film documentarian Ken Burns naturally kept this deceptive phrase as the name for his recent “P”BS series on the U.S.-imperial war on Southeast Asia.

“The American Counter-Revolution of 1776”

Since I’m on history, I’ll mention another one: “The American Revolution.”  As the prolific historian Gerald Horne suggested in his important 2014 book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, the American Declaration of Independence and subsequent “revolutionary” war were motivated in no small part by the wealthy white U.S. Founders’ belief that the North American Black chattel slave system (on which North American fortunes depended) could not survive without their separation from the British Empire. To no small degree, the “American Revolution” was the first slaveowners’ secession in U.S. history. The second one occurred in 1861.

The colonists’ triumph over London brought a significant expansion of slavery and of the slaveowners’ control over their Black subjects in the new republic. The American “revolution” was also a disaster for the nation’s indigenous people. (It’s not for nothing that the “revolution’s military leader and the new nation’s first president George Washington was known to the Iroquois as “Town Destroyer.”) Horne reflects darkly on short- and longer-term consequences that do not fit well with the dominant national sense (shared even by many left historians) of the “American Revolution” as a democratic, forward-leaning development:

“there is a disjuncture between the supposed progressive and avant-guard import of 1776 and the worsening of conditions of Africans and the indigenous that followed upon the triumph of the rebels. Moreover, despite the alleged revolutionary and progressive impulse of 1776, the victors went on from there to crush indigenous populations, then moved overseas to do something similar in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, then unleashed its counter-revolutionary force in 20th-century Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Angola, South Africa, Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua and other tortured sites too numerous to mention.”

The white North American settlers’ counter-revolution was a great slavery-expanding and genocidal, “Indian”-removing/-killing (ethnic cleansing) success.

Forced Labor and Torture Camps, Not “Plantations”

Since I’m on slavery and history, I’ll mention another terminological peeve of mine: the use of the word “plantation” to describe slave labor sites in the antebellum U.S. South.  “Plantations”? Try “forced labor camps” or even “torture sites.” Historian Edward Baptiste’s prize-winning book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (2014) chronicles the appalling violence and terror inflicted on millions of Black Americans kept in bondage over the eight decades between U.S. national independence (1783) and the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Baptist is rightly critical of those who tell you that “the worst thing about slavery as an experience was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens.” The slaveowners denied those rights egregiously, of course, but they and their overseers also murdered Blacks in huge numbers and “stole everything” from surviving slaves through “the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire…” The Half Has Never Been Told tells the horrific story of how, over a generation, the infant U.S. South grew from a thin coastal belt of burnt-out tobacco plantations into a highly profitable continental Empire of Cotton. This remarkable and rapid expansion relied on ferocious white violence including mass-murderous Indian Removal, forced slave migrations, the endemic fracturing of slave families, and ubiquitous systematic torture. The cotton-baron slaveowners (“planters”) used vicious methods to extract production from their Black workers:

“In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in ‘stress positions,’ burning, even waterboarding…descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds.”

“Plantation” (defined by Google as “an estate on which crops such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco are cultivated by resident labor”), doesn’t cut it.

You can tour onetime “plantations” in the U.S. South today, viewing “planters’” great mansions and slaves’ nicely kept cabins. There is little sense provided of the Hellish misery imposed on the people whose forced labor underpinned (as Baptiste shows) the United States’ emergence as a major capitalist state.

Capitalocene, Not Anthropocene

I have been replacing “anthropogenic” with “capitalogenic” in my writing on “climate change” – I mean the climate crisis – for some time now.  This is for the simple historical reason that it is only in the relatively recent capitalist era that human society has been wired for the endless accumulatio of capital rooted in the relentless commodification of nature, including human labor power.  The concept of “the Anthropocene” (denoting an era in which human activity has altered Earth systems) has rich geological validity and holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for the climate crisis. Still, we must guard against lapsing into the historically unspecific and class-blind uses of “anthros,” projecting the currently and historically recent age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity on and in nature. As left environmental sociologist Jason Moore reminded radio interviewer Sasha Lilley three years ago, “It was not humanity as whole that created …large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzen today. It was capital.”  And it is only during a relatively small slice of human history – roughly the last half-millennium give or take a century or so – that humanity has been socially and institutionally constructed wreck livable ecology. Humanity, yes, but only humanity under the command of capital, is the culprit.

(Neo)Liberals are Not “Socialists”

A final terminological matter. The remarkable gun reform movement that arose after the Parkland, Florida high school gun massacre last month elicited some strange and revealing comments from National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre. LaPierre responded to  renewed and escalated calls for gun reform after the Parkland horror by going to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to give a classically hard-right and paranoid-style speech denouncing liberal and moderate gun control advocates as  “socialists”. He concluded his unhinged oration with the same ridiculous advice he gave in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre five years ago: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

This time though, LaPierre went beyond the gun issue to tackle other and, he felt, related aspects of government and society.  He worried about national intelligence leaks and alleged liberal media bias. He criticized the FBI.  He trumpeted “free market capitalism” (no such thing has ever existed) as the source of America’s “greatness.”  He railed against American universities he accused of advancing a socialist revolution by assigning the teachings of Karl Marx. He manically claimed that:

“during the last decade, the Obama decade…a tidal new wave of new European-style socialists…seized control of the Democratic Party… a party that is now infested with saboteurs who don’t believe in capitalism, who don’t believe in the Constitution, who don’t believe in in freedom, and who don’t believe in America as we know it. Obama may be gone but their Utopian dream marches on. President Trump’s election, while crucial, can’t turn away the wave of these new European-style socialists bearing down upon us … How about Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bill DeBlasio, Andrew Cuomo, Corey Booker, Christopher Murphy and Keith Ellison? … they hide behind labels like ‘Democrat,’ ‘left-wing,’ and ‘progressive’ to make their socialist agenda more palatable, and that’s terrifying.” (emphasis added).

For what it’s worth, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “socialism” as: “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property; a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

That’s a decent “mainstream” (oops) U.S. definition of the term with one critical flaw. Socialists are not opposed to all private property. They oppose private ownership of the means of production, investment, and distribution. People get to own their own guitars, shampoo, and hockey sticks, etc. under socialism.

My strand (I almost said “brand”) of socialism is more rank-and-file, radical, and democratic than the Merriam-Webster definition. It includes workers’ control of production, popular control of government, peoples’ control of investment, and the radically democratic and environmentalist remaking of economic, social, and political life.

Those differences aside, it’s a ridiculous stretch to say that that neoliberal Wall Street Democrats  like Barack Obama, the Clintons,  Kamala Harris, Andrew Cuomo, Joe Kennedy III, and Corey Booker or even more “progressive” Democrats like  Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and (on the not-so leftmost fringe) Bernie Sanders (who was willing to call himself a “democratic socialist” in 2016) advocate government ownership (or any other form of the socialization) of the means of production.

For his part, as I recently explained on Truthdig, LaPierre should stop hiding behind labels like Republican, “freedom”-defender, and “free market capitalism” and make clear his real agenda: fascism.

Who has most consistently called mere bourgeois and corporate liberals and neoliberals “socialists” in Western political history?  Fascists, that’s who.

If you want to see American-style fascism in propagandistic operation, look at this. and this.

More on the real meaning of that loaded term in a future essay.

Help Street keep writing here.


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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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