Fighting Words

Burned Out

Nuke this journalistic cliché.

“Fuel.” What a nice, reassuring word. Our remotest ancestors began to become civilized when they learned how to gather it from kindling wood and how to keep it burning. Cars and jets are powered, at one remove of refinement, from fossil “fuels.” Quite often in literature, it is used as a synonym for food or drink. Those who condescended to help the deserving poor at holiday times are often represented as donating “winter fuel,” in the form of a log or two, to the homes of the humble. Varying the metaphor a bit in his Bright Lights, Big City, Jay MacInerney described those who went to the men’s room for a snort of Bolivian marching powder as having gone to the toilet to “take on fuel.” Further on the downside, a crisis of fuel would be a crisis of energy, or power.

This is fuel as a noun, if you like. As a verb, however, it has become a positive menace. Almost anything can be “fueled” by anything else, in a passive voice that bestows energy and power on anything you like, without any concomitant responsibility or attribution. “Fuel” is also a nice, handy, short word, which means that it can almost always be slotted into a headline.

This is the only possible excuse for a pull-quote that appeared in bold type inside the New York Times on March 2: “U.N. report could fuel American fears of weapons duplicity” (note that the Web version of the article does not include this quote). This was perhaps an attempt to clarify an overly complex sentence by Richard Bernstein concerning a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which provided clear evidence of Iranian concealment in the matter of inspections.

But the agency’s report is virtually certain to be seized upon by the United States as further evidence of what Washington characterizes as Iranian duplicity in concealing what the United States believes to be a nuclear weapons program. The same report, on a news page and not bodyguarded by any “news analysis” warning, goes on to say that repeated discoveries of cheating and covert activity mean that “the credibility of Iran has been harmed.” Just look at the syntax. Plain and uncontroverted evidence is “seized upon” by those who “characterize” as true something that nobody has the nerve to deny. The slack and neutral language of the headline reinforces the pseudo-objectivity of the article, whereby things that are only latent or deductive (the “fears,” by no means all of them American, that Iran might be up to something nasty) are “fueled” by something that is real and measurable. Since the critical matter here happens to be the enrichment of uranium for “fuel,” one can see that words are becoming separated from their meaning with alarming speed. The same goes, as it happens, for the lame word “credibility.” In this instance, it is assumed without any evasive or qualifying words that the Iranian mullahs do possess a stock of it and that this mysterious store of credibility could be “harmed,” presumably by such corrosive and toxic agents as mendacity. (Could undeniable mendacity “fuel” a “perception” of the entire absence of credibility? Not in any article on the subject that I have so far read.)

However, and on the opposite side of the page or ledger, it is repeatedly asserted that some things do indeed “fuel” a perception of other things or, sometimes, the thing itself as well as the “perception” of it. For example, I would like to have a dollar for every time I have read that the American presence in Iraq or Afghanistan “fuels” the insurgency. There must obviously be some self-evident truth to this proposition. If coalition forces were not present in these countries, then nobody would or could be shooting at them. Still, if this is self-evident one way then it must be self-evident in another. Islamic jihadism is also “fueled” by the disgrace and shame of the unveiled woman, or by the existence of Jews and Christians and Hindus and atheists, or by the publication of novels by apostates. The Syrian death squads must be “fueled” by the appearance of opposition politicians in Lebanon or indeed Syria. The janjaweed militia (if we must call them a militia) in Sudan must be “fueled” by the inconvenience of African villagers who stand in their way.

This confusion between the active and the passive mode is an indicator of a wider and deeper reticence, not to say cowardice. I wrote last week about the way that the phrase “Arab Street” had been dropped, without any apology, when it ceased to apply in the phony way in which it had first been adopted. But extend this a little. Can you imagine reading that “the American street” had had its way last November? In all the discussion about the danger of offending religious and national sensibilities in the Muslim world, have you ever been invited to consider whether Iranians might be annoyed by Russian support for their dictators? Or whether Chinese cynicism about its North Korean protectorate is an interference in Korean internal affairs? There is a masochistic cultural cringe somewhere in our discourse, which was first evidenced by those who felt guilty at being assaulted in September 2001, or who felt ashamed by any countermeasures. Though it will take a much more profound discussion before all of this mental surrender is clarified and uprooted, a brisk war on the weasel word “fuel” is needed in any case.