A common perception may have been that writing human history is a mere description and explanation of events. We know better now, however, that even the driest facts are colored by the language and ideology of those doing the writing.
An explication of the events of the past may appear to paint a clear picture of the way they occurred, with the benefit of hindsight. But there always is interpretation, and the words we use to describe those events are never without meanings that are not merely neutral, but pack an emotional twinge.
Our own nation was born of revolution, a revolt by colonial patriots who were oppressed and exploited by British governance. We all learn that in our school textbooks. The words “revolution” and “patriot” will always carry a positive connotation when we read our history books.
In the more-complex world of today, however, when we have violent conflicts taking place on several continents, it is the not only the victors but the modern proliferation of the news media that will help determine how the history books are written years from now.
For example, the media rarely use the terms “revolutionaries” or “patriots” when describing the conflicts taking place in various locations on our planet. And that’s not only because it has always been difficult for Americans to understand someone else’s nationalism.
In the Ukraine, in the midst of what could be called a war of secession, it is clear the major media have settled on “pro-Russian separatists” to describe the rebels seeking a homeland closely allied with Russia.
“Separatists” is fairly recent terminology. We did not use it to describe the southern states that seceded from own union back in 1861, an action that led to our civil war. The southerners who fought then were rebels.
“Separatist” seems politically neutral, as opposed to “insurgents,” “militants” or “extremists,” though that may change now that the Russia-backed rebels have been linked to shooting down a commercial airliner.
In Iraq, most media refer to “Islamist insurgents” as those fighting for control of the nation. The fighters for ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also are called al-Qaida-inspired extremists or Sunni militants. Just as in the Ukraine, the insurgents are never called revolutionaries or patriots.
The Kurds in northern Iraq, fighting as nationalists to create their own homeland, could accurately be described as “separatists,” but they are not. They are fighters or patriots, defending their territory against the ISIS advance and opposing the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.
Perhaps Iraq will end up with three states: one Kurdish, one Sunni and one Shia, just like a century ago.
In the Middle East, where in the past two weeks some 425 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed, it is hard to understand all the bloodshed without knowledge of the region’s history, especially dating to Israel’s creation in 1948. Since then, Palestinian nationalists have sought a homeland.
Hamas is the Islamist faction of Palestinian leadership; President Mahmoud Abbas represents the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. The media refer to “Hamas militants” as responsible for the start and continuation of the recent fight, though most of the dead Palestinians, or Gazans as the BBC calls them, were civilians.
In Africa, the group Boko Haram wants to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, though half the country’s population of 170 million is Christian. The civil war has left more dead than any of the other conflicts, but takes a media back seat to Iraq, Israel and the Ukraine.
Boko Haram fighters are referred to as “extremists” more often than insurgents, since they clearly are not separatists. They are revolutionaries, for sure, but you will never read or hear them called that name.
The world is not on Boko Haram’s side and rightly so. Human Rights Watch says the group killed more than 2,000 civilians in an estimated 95 attacks during the first half of this year.
Libya has such a weak central government since the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi that the groups fighting for control are not called insurgents or rebels. The media merely explains that two or three “militias” are battling for control of the nation. Clearly, a civil war is in progress but falls under the radar of major world events.
It is difficult to say how history will treat the world’s current major conflicts. I guess much depends on who wins the fights and who captures the battle for world opinion.
The similar terminology of the media makes you wonder, though, if there isn’t some guy in back room somewhere deciding what words to use.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.