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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

December 6, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 31

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Say that again -- only this time in Latin

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I haven't thought of my Latin teacher for years. A pity. She was not the most exciting person in the world, but she said one thing which, though I didn't have a clue what she meant at the time, I am finding to have more meaning every day. Latin, she said, was a dead language. English was a living one. So?

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She preferred the Latin, she said. I think I'm beginning to figure out why.

You have to listen very hard these days to grasp what's really being said. It's all in English but not the English you and I once thought we knew. In fact most of it, at least some very important parts of it, do not seem to mean at all what they did when I first learned the words.

As a result, I find that I simply do not completely understand the news anymore. At least, I have to listen to it with what some critics call "a hermeneutic, or attitude, of suspicion." What used to be "dead" is now, it seems, coming to life with a "vengeance."

For instance, "mandate" used to mean something like impressive authorization. Now it apparently means any amount of support a little over 50-50.

Or "patriot" meant someone who embodies the best values the country had to offer. Now it means a law that can shred the most important parts of the U.S. Constitution and call it legal.

Then, the other night I heard that we had "freed" Fallujah, which, apparently, means gutted it, leveled it to the ground, destroyed its water and electrical systems and left its returning refugees homeless. It will take at least six months, analysts say, to restore the utilities alone. And for this they are supposed to be grateful to us.

Troubling, too, is the difficulty of being able to tell who to listen to when you don't know the definition of "torture" anymore. Amnesty International and the International Red Cross -- the organizations that anybody on either side would have a hard time proving to be "radical," "hysterical," "political" or "biased" -- say that the United States has sunk to using torture in our handling of prisoners. We say we aren't, of course. But since we refuse to accept the authority of the International Criminal Court, in this case no one may ever be able to define the word with precision.

Finally, I read that we are now sending new troops into Iraq and enlarging the contingent of soldiers there from 138,000 to 150,000. How? Well, it gets confusing. But it all has something to do with language.

The trick is in the new presidential vocabulary. When you read the fine print, it means that we are sending 12,000 new troops over but the troops already there who have completed their obligations to the Reserves are not being replaced. It's called "extending a tour of duty." That means that people who enlist for a specific length of time simply don't get out when their tour is over.

That way you don't have to have the draft you said you wouldn't need. Instead, you keep soldiers there by authoritative fiat, rather than by voluntary enlistment. This means that our "voluntary army" is only voluntary till we need them. Or, in other words, we have a draft. See the language trick?

Or think this one through: The president says that it is the era of "pre-emptive war." He says that means that we can go anywhere we want to attack any groups we decide are a threat to the United States, with or without the permission of the United Nations or the sovereign nation in question. It is now permissible, necessary, to attack any group we think might want to attack us. Whether we have sure proof of that, or not.

And we can do it because the president said so.

So what happens if President Putin subscribes to the Bush doctrine and invades the United States to eliminate Chechen terrorists that he says are here. Now, do we still support that doctrine or not?

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Or even better than that, consider this one. Imagine that some power now invades the United States to stop us from "terrorizing" the rest of the world with our nuclear bombs, our space spyware, our military airfields within striking distance of powers whose political philosophy is different than ours. How are we to react to the invasion? Do we fight them in the streets as the Iraqis are us -- and so become "terrorists" by our own definition. Or do we simply roll over, grateful to be "freed" from the terrorism and intimidation of those Americans among us who resist the invasion?

See what my Latin teacher meant by a "living" language, those whose words stay always in flux. Or as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says in rather a scornful tone to Alice: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean."

From where I stand, it's beginning to look like Humpty Dumpty was on to something. But that worries me. You see, I read another comment about the political use of language once. This one says: "We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, law-breaking, withholding and concealing truth. We can and must write in the language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, scorn, and the like, toward those who disagree with us."

Know who wrote that one? Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Never mind what the government is not telling us, or what they're lying to the media about in press conferences. The truth is that what they are telling us may be every bit as bad.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line.
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