The word “evening” can have several meanings. As a common noun it refers to the part of a 24-hour day that fades into night. That is the sense most people will give to the word in the title of this article. But language, especially when condensed into the headline of a news item, can be fraught with ambiguity.
The word evening can also be a gerund, a form of a verb that has been turned into a noun. In this case the verb is to even. To make matters more confusing, the word even most often occurs neither as a noun nor a verb, but as an adverb, serving “to add emphasis to show that something is surprising or extreme.” To clarify the differences, here is a perfectly common sentence containing all three examples of even.
“Even by the end of the evening the team had not succeeded in evening the score.”
All language is ambiguous. In the sentence above, there is enough context to clarify how even and evening are being used. Context is the key to reducing the ambiguity of any word, phrase or utterance. But even then (note the adverb here), context can only reduce, not definitively remove ambiguity. Behind every utterance or statement is both a possible failure of accuracy and a shifting relationship of trust between the emitter and the receiver.
The ways of abusing the inherent ambiguity of language are myriad. We are all guilty of it, sometimes consciously and often unconsciously. And though no hard and fast rules exist, one guideline we can suggest is to beware of sentences that contain more than one example of even as an adverb.
I mention this after having read the op-ed in the New York Times by US Senator and former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who offers an example of excessively “evening” an assertion. The lawmaker and private equity operator wants his readers to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the verge of using nuclear weapons. After this dreaded event – or perhaps before it – the US will, in his estimation, be justified in engaging in the kind of total war he thinks the US can win against an already weakened Russia. He appears to hope it won’t actually be nuclear but he clearly wants it to be total.
To prove his case concerning Putin’s intentions, Romney offers this sentence, complete with two “evens”: “Even the C.I.A. director, William Burns, has warned of the possibility that Mr. Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon, even if there is no “practical evidence” right now to suggest it is imminent.”
Romney’s odd use of even
Why did Romney need to begin that sentence with even? He could have simply stated Burns’s warning as a simple fact, though the fact itself had little substance because it evoked “a possibility” rather than a reality. He perhaps senses that no one will trust Romney’s word alone. Burns, as head of the CIA, represents a higher authority. If Burns deems it possible, it must be more than possible, perhaps inevitable.
Now, I could have played the same game as Romney and added a couple of evens to the preceding previous sentence to give it more impact. It would read like this. “He clearly wants his readers to believe that Burns represents an even higher authority than Romney himself and that if Burns deems it possible, it must be more than possible, perhaps even inevitable. If you weren’t persuaded by my original sentence, you will certainly be convinced by that one. With a little effort, anyone could outeven Romney. I submit that we include in future dictionaries this new definition of the verb to even: “to introduce unjustifiably a speculative idea with the adverb even with the intent of making it more credible.”
This act of excessive evening – by multiplying the number of speculations pushed to an extreme by the use of “even” – happens to be one in a catalog of outstanding rhetorical devices used for the purposes of a certain type of propaganda. In Romney’s assertion, it seeks to convince us that something we know to be annoying or illegitimate isn’t just annoying or illegitimate but should be thought of as evil incarnate. To make his point about the extreme actions we should be preparing to execute, Romney needs to establish as undeniably real his speculative assessment of Putin’s evil intentions. It must stand in the reader’s mind as undeniable truth.
This strategy becomes clear in the sentence that follows his doubly-evened assertion: “We should imagine the unimaginable, specifically how we would respond militarily and economically to such a seismic shift in the global geopolitical terrain.”
Romney disingenuously calls “unimaginable” exactly what he and many others can and should imagine. Calling it unimaginable is classic hyperbole. If it truly were unimaginable, he wouldn’t have imagined it and certainly wouldn’t suppose that his readers might be willing to take it seriously. But when he insists we “should imagine” – stated as a moral imperative – what he means is that he wants us to accept as probable what is clearly improbable. He wants us to imagine as a fact what he imagines, even if it contradicts our own values and good judgment. In other words, he wants us to accept something that is objectively and morally atrocious. This framing of the issue as a moral imperative incumbent on all Americans was already present in the title of the article: “We Must Prepare for Putin’s Worst Weapons.”
From speculation to historical truth
Despite his propagandistic intent, Romney does say a number of things that make sense. Here is one revealing example. “By invading Ukraine, Mr. Putin has already proved that he is capable of illogical and self-defeating decisions.” That is a reasonable assessment of the apparent state of play around the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the truth of the statement is more general than Romney wants to admit. He could have cited any number of examples that prove his point about American leaders as well. Former President George W Bush did precisely that last week, when he denounced “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”
Bush, of course, corrected himself by immediately blurting out “I mean Ukraine.” But historically, no invasion has been more literally unjustified than Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Bush has never apologized for the crime, not even admitting it was an error. Before the invasion, Putin at least took several hours to explain in considerable historical detail – much of which has been validated by historians and geopolitical analysts from George Kennan to John Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger – the facts that he felt justified his brutal, clearly illegal and possibly self-subverting act of war.
Romney’s chop logic consists of using the fact that because a particular leader – Putin, in this case – has demonstrated the capacity to make one self-destructive mistake, we should suppose that he is ready to make a far more extreme mistake. Rhetoricians would cite this as a specific example of overgeneralization with a dose of false causality. In this case it asserts that something less extreme makes something more extreme inevitable.
Any honest observer of history should have noticed by now that hardly a politician exists, now or in the past, who was not “capable of illogical and self-defeating decisions.” Putin is no exception, but does that merit not just imagining but expecting the unimaginable: nuclear war? If you believe Putin is Satan incarnate, you have not just imagined the unimaginable, but elevated to the status of a quasi-inevitable truth.
The Cold War ended, but its mindset endured
For a reason future historians will need to tease out, despite the monumental events that have taken place over the past 30 years that began with the first President George Bush declaring a “new world order,” recent US administrations seem to be locked into a worldview that was dominant in the 1950s and 1960s at the heart of the Cold War. With no literal political iron curtain or physical walls and militarized borders in Europe, the idea that the West itself was divided into two opposing camps should have disappeared from people’s cultural framework. In Europe, it did. But the struggle to adapt one’s ideas to a new reality appeared to be too much of a challenge for American politicians.
Romney offers a perfect example of this when, with this metaphorical logic, he updates the notorious domino theory. For historical realists even at the time, the domino theory was already absurd, but it became a necessary part of American expansionist policy. Here is Romney’s modern version of it : “Failing to continue to support Ukraine would be like paying the cannibal to eat us last. If Mr. Putin, or any other nuclear power, can invade and subjugate with near impunity, then Ukraine would be only the first of such conquests.” Putin is clearly interested in meddling in geopolitical affairs, largely for economic reasons (i.e. trade relationships). He has never shown a developed taste for conquest.
The obsession the US has had since the Second World War with controlling events in the furthest corners of the world on the pretext that without that control the entire world order would collapse like a series of dominos, should have disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist menace. So, many have reasoned, should NATO have disappeared. The domino theory nevertheless made its appearance in a more simplified form during Bush’s Middle East wars with this famous formulation: “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.”
In his new version of the domino theory, Romney appears to sense that thanks to the complication of the current war in Ukraine, Putin’s – i.e. Satan’s – reach is already diminished, That is why Romney cleverly adds to the list of potential cannibals “any other nuclear power.” He most certainly isn’t thinking of India, Israel, France or the UK. The Middle Kingdom is in his sights. He knows how important it is to keep alive the prospect of US military action against China, the other “evil empire,” at which American nuclear weapons will in the future be aimed.
Romney continues with perhaps the most worrying facet of his strategy. “Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon would unarguably be a redefining, reorienting geopolitical event. Any nation that chose to retain ties with Russia after such an outrage would itself also become a global pariah. Some or all of its economy would be severed from that of the United States and our allies.” A psychologist might detect that Romney is unconsciously counting on or hoping for Putin’s “illogical decision” of using nuclear weapons simply to provide the means of discrediting every nation in the world that refuses to fall in line with US policy.
Reviving Joe McCarthy’s bag of tricks
Always faithful to Cold War rhetoric, Romney manages in his op-ed to unearth another precious relic of that extraordinary moment in American history known as the McCarthy era. I’m referring to the feverish anti-communist campaign spearheaded in the early 1950s by Senator Joe McCarthy. At a broader political level the staging, production and broadcast of a campaign that was destined to mark US political culture profoundly in the ensuing decades was the handiwork of the two Dulles brothers: John Foster, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Alan, whom Truman had nominated director of the CIA where he remained until 1961, when he was forced to resign following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The political culture known as MCCarthyism was coordinated at another level by J Edgar Hoover, the head and virtual lifetime dictator of the FBI. It occasionally benefitted from the valuable input of Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations. This group of ideological engineers colluded to foster a quasi-murderous zeal, eagerly put on display in the media, designed to brand any non-conventional thinker or economic actor as a traitor.
The group employed its linguistic creativity to produce insults implying treason such as “egghead,” “pinko” and “commie.” Eggheads were simply useful idiots who spent too much time reflecting on issues. The bald, intellectual Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, apparently provided the model for the egghead moniker. Thinking too much distracts from the essential task of opposing the enemy. Pinkos and commies were the enemy.
Romney hasn’t forgotten the lessons or even the vocabulary of his youth. Today he boldly forecasts apocalyptic punishment for a heinous category of nations he groups together as “Russia and its fellow travelers.” In the golden age of McCarthyism the zealots applied the label “fellow travelers” to individuals who weren’t quite communists or communist sympathizers, but who failed to conform with the mob mentality they were promoting. Now, seven decades later, Romney innovates by applying it to entire nations. He relishes the idea that once the US has meted out all the appropriate punishments to these refractory rebels, they will suffer “much worse.” He is referring not to random individuals, but to every nation that has resisted aligning with the sweeping sanctions the US has imposed on Russia. Those nations in question today represent approximately two-thirds of humanity.
Drawing on the hallowed Puritan tradition of hellfire preaching from the pulpit, Romney leaves no doubt about where his thought processes are heading as he imagines the weeping and gnashing of teeth these fellow travelers’ will be condemned to experience. “It could,” he tells us, “ultimately be economic Armageddon,” adding this proviso, “but that is far preferable to nuclear Armageddon.” In other words, all these nations have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They accordingly merit the Armageddon the US intends, with the zeal of an Amazon drone, to deliver to their doorstep.
Romney is careful to remind his readers that he does have vestiges of humanism that temper his Savanarola style fatalism. Out of humanitarian pity, the suffering inflicted on the untold masses across the globe hopefully may be merely economic instead of nuclear. Count on the Americans to hold back and not pull the trigger, if it is at all possible. Still, at the back of Romney’s mind, it is difficult not to hear an echo of Donald Trump’s notorious question, “if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?”
Before concluding, Romney unearths one more synonym to describe the villains inside or outside Russia whose depravity has prevented them from embracing the forthcoming American Apocalypse. The same people he called fellow travelers he now refers to as “enablers.” They too clearly merit a punishment commensurate with their crime of non-conformity with the geopolitics of the United States. “Mr. Putin and his enablers,” Romney warns, “should have no doubt that our answer to such depravity would be devastating.”
What does Romney mean by “devastating?” Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and now even Ukraine – that might have been spared war through negotiations – all stand as witnesses to the very real capacity of the United States, through its typically inflexible foreign policy, to wreak devastation on an unrivaled scale. Qualms do not appear in abundance in recent or even ancient US history.
Every politician in the US knows that voters have no means of understanding anything that happens beyond the nation’s borders. Their own problems or simply ambitions are too important to justify the effort required to show an interest in other people’s struggles. If, as is happening today, encouraged by their media to empathize with a specific group of people identified as friendly, white and seemingly appreciative of US ideology, Americans will demonstrate sympathy and offer support, but will remain steadfastly indifferent to and unaware of the deeper causes of the tragic scenes presented for their viewing.
What the American public wants to hear and what their media naturally agrees to serve up to them is the kind of vision Mitt Romney has put forward in his op-ed. Since the beginning of the Cold War, it has consisted of reminding Americans that their accumulated wealth, mobilized by generations of politicians to ensure the capacity for devastation on an unheard of scale, serves as the means not only of ensuring a “world order” consistent with American beliefs, but also as the effective means of holding in check all those who express the slightest doubt about the justice of that order.
The original Cold War turned around the easily identified contrast between, on one side, a bundle of professed ideals that included doing good while promoting a dominant culture of Judeo-Christian theistic capitalist individualism and, on the other, evil, amoral, atheistic communist collectivism indifferent to the needs of its own citizens. It was from that distinction – theological, economic and cultural, in living color on the American side and in black and white on the Soviet side – that McCarthyism drew its energy.
The ideological anemia of the New McCarthyism
Growing up in the 1950s as a Mormon with a father who was once a credible candidate in the Republican presidential bid, Romney unconsciously assimilated all the memes associated with McCarthyism. His discourse today reveals that the McCarthyite spirit is still alive and kicking. The singular problem today is that all the supposedly rational reasons for condemning Russia that existed during his school days have disappeared.
The folksy democracy of his youth, celebrated in Frank Capra movies, has morphed into a shameless oligarchy. The wealth of the nation, once made available for ambitious social projects and infrastructure, is now controlled by a smattering of hyper-wealthy individuals focused on expanding and defending their wealth. Like American politicians, they have learned to follow the old cultural models and pay lip service to the official religion when required, perpetuating the image of the US as a good Samaritan Christian nation committed to individual liberties and the general welfare. The fact that Pope Francis is routinely called a socialist or communist – i.e. a fellow traveler – to the extent that he categorically condemns militarism and preaches human solidarity, shows that in the official ideology the faith that separated God-fearing America from atheistic Russia is now focused on the business interests of the nation rather than the teachings of the New Testament.
Today Russia is neither officially atheistic, communist nor collectivist. But it still manages to qualify for the title of embodiment of evil. Thanks to a mysterious cultural reflex, it is still Russia – and therefore the Antichrist – that appears in Americans’ minds as a font from which evil will always exude. And so Romney, the “moderate politician” (meaning blandly representative, conformist and self-satisfied) is free to develop his not very moderate apocalyptic reasoning as if we were back in the 50s and he belonged to the John Birch Society, deemed extremist even by Republicans at the time. Moreover, he expects it to work, and so apparently does The New York Times.
But, in the meantime, various streams of more or less polluted water have passed under the bridge. Times have changed. It isn’t certain that the American people are as interested in nuclear brinkmanship as politicians like Romney and Biden seem to be. Even the American public may lose patience at some point. Biden’s own ratings are one indication. Americans do not trust any of their institutions and, according to recent polls, have already lost confidence in what the media call “the direction of the country.” Some call that not so much the trend of the moment but the arc of history.
Romney’s ultimate solution to the complex problems that face us consists essentially of promising future devastation if our will should not be done. But for a good part of humanity including many Americans, that devastation has already begun and is running its course. The consumer society that has long been the ultimate aim of the American Dream is experiencing some serious problems fulfilling its mission of loyally consuming the widest range of consumables. Romney evokes the very real danger that Putin, if pushed too far, might resort to a nuclear response. He’s right about the risk, which is why responsible members of the governing class should also be inclined to focus on assessing and finding the means to reduce that risk rather than exacerbating the tension and the sense of desperation among the people that simply increases it.
Like many voices in the Western media today, Romney may believe that Putin has become a psychiatric case. Promising devastation is probably not the most appropriate solution a decent psychiatrist would recommend.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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