Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Devil Made Me Do It

The comedian, Flip Wilson. popularized the expression, "The Devil made me do it," said while in the guise of his female alter ego "Geraldine." This is the view that some leaders or nations take to justify military actions. They represent themselves as being is forced by events not under their control to do things that they would otherwise not want to do. Today in my morning paper, the headline for a story on the invasion of Gaza by Israel read "Palestinian rockets pull tanks into Gaza." This use of "pull" suggests a direct causal relationship, unmediated by any thought by Israel's leaders, between rockets being sent into Israel by Hamas soldiers and the tanks rolling into Gaza." The Devil Rockets made Israel's otherwise well-behaved tanks to start rolling into Gaza.

I don't mean to be passing judgment on Israel's actions but rather to comment on the language used in the headline which Israel is not responsible for. A classic example of this deflection of blame for one's actions is neatly captured in a near-legendaryphrase in the passage:
1998 marks one-hundred years since the explosion aboard the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor that triggered the Spanish-American War.
I found this quote at The World Socialist Web site using the search terms "bombing of the Maine triggered" trying to find the particular linguistic construction "X triggered Y." It seems that the verb phrase "triggered the Spanish-American War" and "sparked the Spanish-American War" (a common alternative -- check the World Library Journal's comments at Amazon.com) have become frozen for all time.

William R. Hearst is represented in some quarters as the architect of the Spanish-American War. If you can believe the Sparknotes account of his battle with Joseph Pulitzer for circulation of their respective New York Newspapers, Hearst exploited "Yellow Journalism" to gain subscribers. In the process he allegedly used his power to help stir up the people in support of the U. S.'s going to war with Spain over Cuba. The artist Frederic Remington went to Cuba at Hearst's behest to provide pictures he hoped would help him sell newspapers. According to this site,
[Frederic] Remington reported back to Hearst that the rumors were overblown. To this, Hearst famously replied, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
The essential linguistic point is that countries are presented by their leaders and the press through their linguistic choices as something like bombs that outside forces must set off before they will explode, i. e., take action.

While preparing my book on The Language of Politics, I ran across a July 11, 1093 issue of U. S. News and World Report that did its best to pound the drums of war by way of helping to promote Ronald Reagan's initiating a war against Nicaragua. One passage in the set of stories devoted to Nicaragua is priceless.
No one in Washington wants to send Americans to war. But events in the region could force Reagan's hand.
This is a classic instance of "The Devil made me do it." In language very similar to the headline that prompted this blog, the article said
A rush of developments in the first days of summer rekindled fears that U. S. military forces could be drawn into combat in Central America.
So, Israeli tanks are pulled and U. S. military forces are drawn into combat. Note also the sense of urgency of this passage (due to "rush"). The article later told of events that could
... compel Reagan to resolve the apparent inconsistency in his policy
and events that could
trigger greater U. S. involvement, perhaps even participation [in the guerilla war in Nicaragua]
The magazine goes on to say that
... events on the ground are forcing [Reagan] to expand the role of the United States
Sentence after sentence represent Reagan as having little or no freedom of action. Only the bad guys have freedom of action. This is how every free nation goes to war.

This was clearly true of George Bush's invasion of Afghanistan, an effort I applauded, and his invasion of Iraq, an effort I deplored. In both cases we had a devil and in both cases Bush represented himself as being forced to act. This goes back to a fundamental American myth, namely that we are a peace loving nation that goes to war only when we are forced to. Lyndon Johnson phrased our actions in Vietnam in this way. And Reagandid so during his Presidency as well.

Generally speaking, Presidents paint the enemy in extremely negative terms. Reagan called the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire" and more recently George Bush referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea "The Axis of Evil," borrowing language from WWII ("The Axis" consisting of Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Reagan. Since then we have gone to war in Iraq and are at loggerheads with Iran and North Korea. It is, of course, their fault, not ours since other nations force our hand. The USA is, of course, not the only nation that uses "the devil made me do it" rationale to defend its actions. It seems built into the human psyche. It is, of course, important therefore to listen carefully to what Presidents say and how syncophantic reporters write and talk so as not to be taken in by this devil made me do it defense of indefensible actions.

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Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Do you know of any studies that correlate this type of language usage to the actual influence it has on public opinion?

10:00 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In a word, "No," This would be impossible to measure. However, it can't hurt to appeal to the "devil theory" when attempting to mobilize opinion in support of a war. But there have to be actions against the good guys as well. Actions don't come with their interpretations -- people have to characterize them to give them significance. The two work together. In 1964 there was a purely fictious attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Notice the language at BBC site "This triggers start of pre-planned American bombing raids on North Vietnam." I say it was a fictitious attack on good authority but will not say who told me. Check out this Wikipedia account of the incident, called the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident. Here reference is made to the reality of the attack's being hotly debated.

In LBJ's case, a lot of his rhetoric came out of desperation as support for the war crumbled. Bush doesn't even bother much to attempt to defend his Iraq war knowing, I suspect, that he has shot his wad on this one.

12:25 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In a word, "No," This would be impossible to measure. However, it can't hurt to appeal to the "devil theory" when attempting to mobilize opinion in support of a war. But there have to be actions against the good guys as well. Actions don't come with their interpretations -- people have to characterize them to give them significance. The two work together. In 1964 there was a purely fictious attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Notice the language at BBC site "This triggers start of pre-planned American bombing raids on North Vietnam." I say it was a fictitious attack on good authority but will not say who told me. Check out this Wikipedia account of the incident, called the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident. Here reference is made to the reality of the attack's being hotly debated.

In LBJ's case, a lot of his rhetoric came out of desperation as support for the war crumbled. Bush doesn't even bother much to attempt to defend his Iraq war knowing, I suspect, that he has shot his wad on this one.

12:27 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

You have at least one typo: U.S. News & World Report, I presume, was not around in 1093.

That aside, you make an interesting point. If you follow the implications of their language logically, then we don't really need a President, or any other politician for that matter. If something happens, the logical result is what the leaders would have been forced to do anyway. Of course, they wouldn't use that kind of language in a situation where they would want to take credit.

2:32 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Oh yeah, and you might want to avoid using the phrase "shot his wad," as it sounds obscene to me and probably many others.

2:34 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Actually, Kelly, I was trying for a double entendre between the original meaning which had to do with the wadding used with muzzle loaded rifles (remember the topic was Bush and his war) and the meaning you suggest (Bush has acted as President as if suffered from an excess of testosterone).

11:27 PM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Does "to blow one's wad" not also mean to spend all one's money?

7:36 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another typo, a Period in the first sentence (see the asterisk - *): "The comedian, Flip Wilson.* popularized the expression..."

While I'm here, I'll be a little more pedantic. I'd have written the sentence as: "While in the guise of his female alter ego "Geraldine," the comedian Flip Wilson popularized the expression, "The Devil made me do it."

It reads better.

9:19 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Ah, yes, the double entendre. Well then, you did well if that's your intent.

9:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

mister pregunta, yes it does. It seems that "wad" has a wad of meanings. One can say, "I have a wad of 20's in my pocket," or "I have a wad of tissues/clothes/grass in my hand" but not "I am dating a wad of women."

12:40 PM

Blogger Theo Clark said...

I think you are incorrectly using the phrases "forced hand" and "the devil made me do it" interchangeably.

The expression "the devil made me do it" is used to absolve one of personal responsibility - usually jokingly - by stating that one had no control over one's actions as one had been possessed by the devil. Whereas forced hand absolves one of peresonal responsibility as one was only left with one possible course of action.

An analogy for illustrative purposes: If one kills someone else in self-defence (assuming allowing oneself to be killed is not a choice), one's hand was forced. Whereas one might argue the devil made me do it if they just randomly kill someone for no apparent reason.

All the examples you cite are of the first kind. The governments/leaders would all say their hand was forced - as the Reagan example you cite specifically says. It's not forced by some supernatural power (the devil), but rather forced by only, literally (in their mind at least), one possible course of action. Further to this, they are justified in saying their hand is forced if they are left with only two choices of action but one choice is, as far as they are concerned, one they could never make (eg, the not allowing oneself to be killed analogy I used earlier). Whether this applies to the conflicts you cite is debatable but they are all examples of (supposed) forced hands.

I also think you're creating somewhat of a strawman argument with some of the examples you cite. You need not be so literal, and allow for the metaphorical use of language (eg, pull, triggered, forced).

And one final point viz: "Generally speaking, Presidents paint the enemy in extremely negative terms." How should they refer to "the enemy"? (I grant you that often their rhetoric can overuse weasel words, but I find it hard to come up with anything nice to say about North Korea…)

All the best and I really enjoyed your post on begging the question.

9:56 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

theo, you make an excellent point about the distinction between "TDMMDI" and "forced hand" accounts. Of course, the former is a joke but so is the latter. In self-defense cases, there are always choices that can be made. Suppose that someone comes at me with a knife but I have a long stick at hand, and crack him across the skull knocking him silly for a second. I retrieve the knife. At that point I have many choices.

But Presidents always have choices. In the Central American case, Reagan had many choices but was represented by the right wing magazine as if the choices were being reduced to one. In fact, he did take a different course of action.

In the case of the Iraq war, Bush had the choice not to invade. As it turns out that would have been the correct choice. His military was in shambles; the two no-fly zones kept him from attacking the Kurds and Shittes; and he had no WMD. We could have taken the wait and see attitude in regard to Saddam and terrorists for quite a long time. It was Israel, not us, that was in danger from terrorists funded by Saddam. He was a secularist and had no interest in Islamic fundamentalists like OBL and others. He was bribable. Bush had choices but when he went to war he represented himself as being forced to do so. The reality is that his internal devil made him do it.

Check out the current New Yorker. His internal Devil, namely Cheney, and others have been pushing for a bombing attack on Iran to wipe out their capacity to make nukes, including for a while, use of nukes to take out underground bunkers (we don't even know the extent of). Our human intelligence in re Iran is terrible. Most of our military is opposed on military and political grounds but Bush is impatient with diplomacy.

IMO, there is usually a Devil (made me do it) behind almost every choice of going to war. They are almost never justified. WW1 and 2, yes. Korea, maybe. Vietnam, not at all. Grenado, no. Panama, no. Somalia, sort of. Bosnia, yes. Kosovo, a weak yes.

So, ultimately, you are wrong. The "forced hand" is the public face of the actions of someone with an internal Devil.

8:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I throw my pronouns around loosely. Sorry, but I think you can figure out who the he's and his's are.

In my recounting of wars, I should have added others. Spanish-America war, no. And then there are all the other nations that go to war that we need to assess the need for to evaluate my possibly overstrong claim about wars rarely being justified. Just looking at the cases at hand, it looks like my claim is wrong. It is more like 50-50.

8:33 AM

Blogger Theo Clark said...

Respectfully, I think the distinction between TDMMDI and "forced hand" ought to be kept.

Forced hand means one was in control of one's actions, it is just that one had no choice but to act.

TDMMDI means one wasn't even in control - one had become possessed.

Also, I was careful to point out I am not opining as to whether any of the examples you cite are actual examples of a forced hand (as opposed to the people involved claiming they were). My point is that no leader has claimed that they were the victims of demonic possession, or a mental breakdown even. (Maybe Reagan was hoodwinked by his astrologer though - "the stars made me do it!")

10:32 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Language guy, it's kinda hard to be a colloquist & a linguist at the same time, huh?

2:23 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Theo, you are taking my "devil" theory way too literally. People have their privated demons. Nixon was very, very paranoid and the result was Watergate. Beorge Bush junior's demon is hard to pin down. It is some combination of shame at his father's weakness in failing to take out Saddam the first time, his hatred of left of center persons deriving from experiences as Yale during the anit-war period and resultant disdain for Europeans, sjournalists, academics, and others, many of whom like me despise him, his right wing Christian views (they are demonic in their own right), and a vainglorious Savior complex according to which he will make America safe from terrorism even if he has to wreck our civil liberties in the process. I would have thought that my use of "devil" was clear. L>T seems to have noticed the problem.

11:24 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

It seems to me we are discussing a broad variety of claims that one party can make to influence the range of choices another party must make. We might call these lack-of-control claims. Whatever we choose to call them, they would include claims like the following:

-"my/our choices are restricted" (e.g.: we have no choice; we only have one choice; we have exactly 2 choices but one of them is unacceptable),
-"somebody else is in the driver's seat" (e.g.: the devil made me do it; it was somebody else's decision),
-"it's outside my/our authority or jurisdiction" (e.g.: you'll have to speak to the boss; sorry, not my department; it's out of my hands)
-"I/we lack the ability" (e.g.: I don't know how; I have a bad back; I am not strong enough; I am not smart enough; I am too dumb; I didn't study that; I can't be relied on; I am crazy; I don't have a steering wheel)
-"That's asking too much", (e.g.: I can't take the risk as I have a wife and kids...you don't; that's would be against policy/the law, etc.)

Such claims often may be reasonable, but just as often, they are either conscious or unconscious applications of realpolitik straight out of the game theory play book. In short, these are examples of using weakness to achieve strength. Of course, success in extracting the strength from the weakness depends entirely on the ability to make a claim that the other party must consider credible. If the other guy is not likely to consider the claim credible, the tactic does not work as intended.

This type of tactic, in conjunction with the more sincere use of such claims, is a fascinating topic that comes up again and again in human struggle. And not just in Bush politics.

For example, a few decades ago, I had just started working in a strange town. I had just received my paycheck but there was no bank nearby where I could cash it. But there was a local grocery store that had a policy of allowing payment from paychecks, so I went and gathered up a couple bags worth of groceries and proceding to the cash to pay. After the cashier had rung up my charges, I presented her with my check and my ID, etc., and at that point she excused herself and went to the manager for approval. When she finally came back, she said that she couldn't cash my check because I was from another town. I was in a desperate situation, so I asked to see the manager.

I spoke to the manager and showed him that I was a good risk. I had lots of ID. I was gainfully employeed. I even put him in contact with my employer. There was really no information that he might need that I couldn't provide. But still, he wouldn't play ball. As I said, I was desperate, so I pressed the issue. I asked him why he wouldn't agree to cash my check, given that my credentials were probably better than a large percentage of the locals. At that point he made a lack-of-control claim. He said he couldn't cash my check. I asked for clarity. He again said he couldn't, and he pointed to a sign saying that checks could only be cashed with the authorization of the manager, and since the manager didn't authorize it, he couldn't cash it. Huh!? He just tried the lamest piece of circular reasoning I had ever encountered. He was the manager, so his lack-of-control claim was clearly bogus.

Actually, such a claim might work on the grounds that a person saying such a thing is implicity bolstering the original claim with a more effective "I-am-crazy" or an "I-am-too-stupid" claim, which might threaten to frustrate efforts to challenge the credibilty of the claim.

Anyway, his claim was a clear example of the "lack-of-control" variety, and it normally might have frustrated me, but, as I said, I was desperate. How did I do that? Up to that point, most of the conversation was just between the two of us. I figured he might not mind acting stupid in front of a person he expects not to see again. In a nutshell, I managed to get some of his more educated looking customers involved and asked him to repeat his circular argument to them. It seems that that was the right was to challenge the credibility of his claim, because he ended up letting me pay for my groceries with my paycheck. I think it was a good thing for him, too, because I ended up doing business with him many times afterwards. Why would I go elsewhere?

Anyway, here is my question: Lack-of-control claims get bad press, but would we honestly want to do away with them?

2:12 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Priceless, pregunta. I love to confront the "its (our) policy to..." objections by functionaries. Where there is a manager I normally win. But actually having the manager say "no" and then say "if the manager, he can't say "yes" beats anything I have dealt with. Often with owners I point out that it is they that make the rules so it is they who can change them. That usually works if I am taking a reasonable position.

8:04 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Another variation on the same theme is when somebody sets up the excuse beforehand so people won't even question them.

For example, when an employer starts crying hard times a few weeks before pay review time. Of course, if your company is falling on hard times, there is no point expecting a significant raise.

These "preadvertised" lack-of-control claims are often extremely effective, because they are often not called into question at all.

8:51 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

It seems to me that most people unwittingly fall for alot of types of arguments. I have been among them.

Nothing more frustrating then not being able to get around someone.

Hanging around here is good education(?)in arguing.

Now if I could just keep from putting my foot in my mouth.

12:53 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Geis,I'd like to add you to my blogger q&a (language hat is posted today.) If you're interested, would you drop me a note at:

10:06 PM


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