Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tomayto, Tomahto

In Munich today, Vice President Joe Biden assured attendees at a security counsel meeting that to avoid future conflicts America would act “preventively, not preemptively.”

Forget for a second that “preemptive” and “preventive” mean the same thing—that dictionaries list the one as a synonym for the other. Speakers are often permitted to stipulate a more limiting definition of a word for the sake of argument—even of the same word—as we do when we say, “My mother was not a real mother to me.”

By way of clarification, Biden stated, “America will not torture.” A big difference, then, from former President George W. Bush, on October 5, 2007, that “This government does not torture people.”

Contrary to what appear to be superficial similarities between the two declarations, and generously assuming either or both were honestly meant to be true, there are differences in the statements that we can construe as significant:

One. The tense. “Does not torture” is the present tense—typically, English speakers use a form of “to do” in front of “not” to indicate a present negative. Present tense is used not to convey what is happening right now—for that, we use the present continuous: “This government is not torturing people”—but rather it conveys general practice—“I dance all the time,” but “I am dancing right this instant.” Without the “not,” “do” in front of a verb is sometimes used as an intensifier—I do assure you.

“Will not torture” is future tense. More obvious than the English present tense, future tense conveys future action—but opens the possibility, if only by insinuation, that America has tortured in the past.

Next. “This.” Bush said, “This government does not torture.” An interesting use of the word “this” as a substitute for an indefinite article—such as “a” or “the”—of a possessive pronoun—such as “my” or “our.” Bush’s use is particularly interesting in light of the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the government, this government, does send and has sent detainees to foreign governments who do torture.

Strictly speaking, then, Bush’s statement would not be a lie if in fact torture were limited to this government’s simply shuffling off detainees to other nations to do the dirty work for us. (I use “us” intentionally because here in the United States of America we the people are the government, sometimes a point of pride for me—though not in this case.)

Similarly, Biden’s use of “America” leaves open the possibility that America is not averse to letting other “less ethical” nations do this dirty work for us. Further, “America” is a bigger generalization than “this government,” more inclusive and also more abstract, since “America” is equally an entity and an idea, whereas we usually think of “government” as more an entity than an idea.

As an abstract generalization, though, the statement “America will not torture” could easily be contradicted if, for instance, Insane Clown Posse produces another album or Michael Bay directs another movie or Two and a Half Men has a seventh season on CBS.

Third. Bush’s statement quite properly has a direct object: “people.” “This government does not torture people,” as opposed to torturing animals or alien life forms. Biden’s statement omits a direct object. “America will not torture” does not specify any recipient or object of the verb “torture,” so its meaning is broader—but also imprecise enough to convey multiple meanings—or, in effect, little particular meaning at all. Since, as a verb, “torture” is transitive (i.e. it requires a direct object), the statement “America will not torture” is grammatically comparable to the statement “America will not notice.”

To be fair, Biden did follow the promise with a further clarifier: “We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice.” My sincere hope still is that the Obama administration will effect more than a “new tone” in its policies—“tone” meaning merely a manner of expression in speech or writing—and although I’m not holding my breath for Obama/Biden to be perfect, or even radical, I do expect them (despite marked similarities in world view and corporate sponsorship) to be some substantive improvement over Bush/Cheney ... not just a kinder, gentler form of conservatism, i.e. the same old thing.

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