Robert Fisk: Some people will do anything to avoid blame


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The Independent Online

I am no happy reader of Canada's National Post, but am driven to report to you that a recent graph in the paper suggests that "the term 'Palestinian' became popularised as a marker of identity after the Six Day War of 1967".

Since Jordan had long ago annexed the Arab West Bank and since Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once claimed that Palestinians did not exist, I guess that makes sense. But it does seem a bit much that we get to recognise a Middle Eastern people only when the victims have been occupied by someone else's army. After all, we recognised the French for centuries before the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. And while it might be said that the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths didn't get much of a look-in until the Romans invaded Germania, no one in Italy doubted that Gauls existed before Vercingetorix.

But wait. The National Post, another journalistic flagship for the Israeli state in a foreign land, doesn't quite say what it appears to say.

The term Palestinian, you will notice, wasn't "recognised" after 1967. It was "popularised". And it was "popularised" not as a "national identity" but as a "marker of identity". This may be due to the ignorance of what is to be found on Google (whence the paper appears to have sucked this tosh) or to its own gutlessness. But you get the point. After 1967, the Palestinians came to be "popularised" as Palestinians in the same way, I suppose, as Walt Disney "popularised" Mickey Mouse. Of course, being "popularised" didn't make him real. It's a new way of using language – not to manipulate in order to lie, but to hide behind it in order to avoid personal responsibility or say things which may provoke others to call you racist, anti-Semitic, uncultured or, an old favourite of mine, "pre-judgemental".

Indeed, as your Middle East correspondent swoops around the world, trying to write reports in decent English, I bring you other bad news from the snowy wastes of urban Canada. I have, for example, just opened my copy of the Toronto Star to discover how a city police officer – a certain Detective Paul Lentsch, whose name must surely now become indispensable to all semanticists – wanted to express his feelings about a probable arson attack. A resident of the burnt-out building, the paper suggested, may have been involved in contract killings in the US. But here comes Detective Lentsch's arrival in linguistic history. "We've put a lot of time into this house this month," he announced. "It's concerning." It's what? Let's have that again. IT'S CONCERNING. Well, blow me down. I always thought to "concern" was a transitive verb that took a plain old-fashioned object. But what is the object here? "It" – ie the burnt-out house – or the reader who perhaps should be "concerned"? But certainly not Detective Lentsch. If he had any feelings on the matter, he would surely have said "I am concerned", although even that might be regarded as a somewhat mild reaction to an arson attack. But nope, our favourite detective simply didn't want to express a personal opinion about crime.

Same goes, incredibly, for the Toronto Star's music critic when it comes to, well, music. Murray Perahia's performance of Brahms's piano music on CD is greeted by critic John Terauds with these words: "Veteran American pianist Murray Perahia compels with crisp, purposeful playing." Yes, but what is he "compelling", for God's sake? Again, to "compel" is a transitive verb. It needs an object. Is it us who are "compelled"? Or Mr Terauds? More likely, Mr Terauds doesn't want to commit himself. No personal views please.

And since corrupted English travels west to east across the Atlantic, let's take a look at the Quebec government's "family minister" Yolande James, who has just banned religious instruction in child daycare centres. Christmas trees are OK, even nativity scenes – providing the kids aren't told the identity of the baby in the manger. Bing Crosby is OK. "Silent Night" is not. Canadian Jews and Muslims are equally offended.

But hark to Ms James's message. "All questions touching the transmission (sic) of faith – that is, teaching religion itself – do not belong (sic) within the publicly funded daycare system."

Ho hum. Religion, it seems, is something that can be passed on, caught, a disease that might infect others. The transmission of Aids, for example, certainly doesn't belong to daycare centres. But religion? And note the "belong". This "transmission" cannot "belong" because it might become a part of school. Culture's great. God's out. But I loved the fact that Ms James was so conscious of her own gobbledegook that she had to explain that "transmission of faith" actually meant "teaching religion". Call Detective Lentsch at once.

But there's no stopping this stuff. Prince Edward Island, hitherto a quiet Canadian Atlantic province, was described in a 1999 government report as suffering from "a strong cultural norm of 'sameness'". Down, readers, down, I know how you feel. Those Canadians in PEI were all bloody whities, weren't they? Wretched descendants of Anglo-Scots-Irish ancestry. But relax, all is OK. Because now, according to Kathy Hambly, director of a local chamber of commerce, "every street you walk down offers a different ethnic experience". The key words, of course, are "street" and "experience". Immigrants tend to settle in areas together – streets rather than homes – while their presence gives us an "experience", something culturally good, no doubt.

I am a strong supporter of Canada's multi-ethnic society. What gets me is the happy-clappy way in which these government apparatchiks force their multiculturalism on the world at the cost of destroying the English language.

I shall end with the worst of all recent linguistic crimes. My old letter-writing chum Max Pieper brings to my attention the outrageous attempt by a liberal Jewish writer, Ilan Gur-Ze'ev to diminish the importance of the Jewish Holocaust in order to explain Palestinian suffering. I give you this key paragraph – do not ask me to explain this, for I have no idea what it means – as an example:

"The Holocaust is not merely a historical episode. It is first and foremost an expression of the fundamental histories of experience taking place in the dialectic between Eros and Thanatos, which we duplicate in an ecstasy that has been domesticated to a state of smug 'normality'."

O reader, this does not compel. But call Detective Lentsch. It's concerning.