IS THAT THE WORD I WANT HERE?

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2011 by Ed

Listening to various members of Congress argue in favor of recent legislation declaring the United States a battleground in the open ended war against an enemy – a concept, really – that cannot be defeated, I am stunned to realize that in the past decade American politicians have failed to discover just how goddamn creepy it is when they refer to this country as "the Homeland."

That term, popularized by George W. Bush in the immediate wake of 9-11, always stands out like a sore thumb in my mind. It is like an air horn going off in the middle of a piano recital. I do not think this is because I am overly sensitive to choices people make in the use of language; I think it is because "Homeland" sounds dissonant, clumsy, and totally unrepresentative of any concept one might reasonably associate with the political culture of the United States. It sounds more like the kind of language used in fiction and nonfiction alike to mark unmistakably those who stand in opposition to the American Way: Japanese and their Home Islands, godless Communists and their Motherland, evil Nazis and their Fatherland, and so on.

OK, so aside from facile observations about how a word sounds like other creepy words, what's the problem here? Isn't this sufficiently interchangeable with generic terms like "nation" or more common specific phrases like "American soil" or simply the United States? No. Look no further than the basic definition to see some of the problems:

Dictionary.com:
1.one's native land.
2.a region created or considered as a state by or for a people of a particular ethnic origin: the Palestinian homeland.
3.any of the thirteen racially and ethnically based regions created in South Africa by the South African government as nominally independent tribal ministates to which blacks are assigned.

Merriam-Webster:
1 native land
2 a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin

Hmm. "Homeland" has to do with the idea of being "native". Well, the last time I checked there is no common ethnic, cultural, or racial origin in the U.S., and to say that our country is "an area set aside for people of a particular national origin" is at once head-slappingly obvious and incorrect. After all, national "origin" implies membership at birth, which of course is only one aspect of American citizenship.

Calling this The Homeland makes no practical or rhetorical sense, unless of course one's conception of America is as a land of a single cultural (European) and racial (white) identity. Some people think that way – hell, throw in our single religion (Christianity) and you've pretty much summed up the Tea Party and Christian conservatism. But here in reality American culture and citizenship are defined by shared ideals and values. Ideals and values are about as far away from the idea of identity based on soil – that America is the patch of dirt on which it is situated – as you can get.

There is a very simple reason that no American citizen or resident calls this country The Homeland. We don't call it a homeland because it is more than that. Other nations might be crass enough, in the American chauvinist's way of thinking, to define themselves by history, borders, and patches of land, but not us. Until now, that is. What we're seeing is a symptom of a political class relying increasingly on jingoistic appeals and language and a population learning how to define itself, its nation, and its citizenship in the basest terms – you are One of Us or One of Them. You Belong or you are The Other. It's the mindset of a populace that is warming up to the idea of arbitrary arrest and detention of its own members in the name of order, security, and preservation of the social order.