June 03, 2005
Gulag Gulag Gulag
EJ Dionne blasted Amnesty International in his column today for choosing the word "gulag" and letting the president obscure the issue with faux-indignation. Dionne misses the point. Amnesty's report didn't contain anything particularly new and stunning, at most it was a more comprehensive rundown of the situation than we've yet seen. Normally framed and delivered, it would've elicited a few articles, a quick flurry of blog posts, a McLellan obfuscation, and finally faded into obscurity. But the word gulag threw the Bush administration into such a tizzy that the news is still talking about the article, its contents, and whether or not America's actions have truly reached "gulag" levels. And that's why they used the word.
Now TNR is writing snotty comparisons between Stalinist Russia and America, Republicans are loudly trying to discredit Amnesty, and lefty columnists are condemning the word choice but endorsing the content. On the bright side, they're all talking about Guantanamo. In this case, all press is good press because the primary aim is forcing it back into the news. And, let's be honest, this is more press than Guantanamo has received in years. Amnesty chose their word perfectly.
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But the word gulag threw the Bush administration into such a tizzy that the news is still talking about the article, its contents, and whether or not America's actions have truly reached "gulag" levels
Nope, using the word gulag gave Bush a way to defuse the issue and it gave the punditry an excuse to be dismissive of valid charges.
Posted by: michaelw | Jun 3, 2005 3:52:15 PM
It seems that few leftists are considering whether it is a fair comparison or not and are more concerned about how it promotes the agenda (or aides the opposition). It is all about the 'war' and nothing about the truth.
Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 3, 2005 3:53:49 PM
Huh, your sentence "It is all about the 'war' and nothing about the truth" reminds me of something...
"On Thursday in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cheney described Saddam as a "man who provided safe harbor and sanctuary to terrorists for years" and who "provided safe harbor and sanctuary as well for al Qaeda."
In June, Cheney said "we don't know" whether Iraq was involved in 9/11.
In September 2003, Cheney said Iraq under Saddam had been "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
Ah, right, that was it.
Posted by: Ezra | Jun 3, 2005 4:00:16 PM
There is a reason why Godwin's law was introduced. Perhaps there should be something similar when comparisons are made to Gulags...?
Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 3, 2005 4:18:04 PM
Bob, when Ezra posts something genuinely original and insightful about how a group's word choice succeeded in shifting the terms of debate, don't complain that he didn't post on some other thing.
Posted by: Neil the Werewolf | Jun 3, 2005 5:02:35 PM
Amnesty chose their word perfectly.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 3, 2005 5:12:12 PM
gu·lag also Gu·lag n. (from Dictionary.com)
1. A network of forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union.
2. A forced labor camp or prison, especially for political dissidents.
3. A place or situation of great suffering and hardship, likened to the atmosphere in a prison system or a forced labor camp.
Since Ezra's (and AI's) use of the word gulag conforms to a dictionary definition of the word, and since I have pointed out said dictionary definition, then according to the rules of the debate as spelled out by countless right-wing letter writers and comment posters, this argument is won by Ezra and is now closed.
Thank you all for your participation. I look forward to the next debate, which I will win by defining the term "disassembling."
Posted by: Stephen | Jun 3, 2005 5:16:22 PM
I needed the laugh!
Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 3, 2005 5:34:21 PM
First, it is my understanding that the Offending Word did not actually appear in the text of Amnesty International's report. It was uttered verbally by the group's secretary general Irene Kahn. Dionne seems to suggest otherwise.
Second, Dionne's column included the following definition of "gulag": "As my Post colleague Anne Applebaum noted in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Gulag," it eventually came to refer to "the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties." These included "labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women's camps, children's camps, transit camps," Applebaum wrote. Gulag also came to stand for "the Soviet repressive system itself," including "the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.""
This rather broad, even all-encompassing definition seems to describe rather neatly some of the offenses committed by the U.S. and its allies at Guantanamo and other prison facilities and secret torture rooms around the globe (destruction of families, years in exile, unnecessary deaths, etc.). So whence Dionne's contention that Ms. Kahn had engaged in unwise and unwarranted hyperbole? It seems to me that Dionne (via Applebaum) has undone his thesis in the course of defending it.
Posted by: zeke | Jun 3, 2005 7:08:58 PM
The GULag, or Chief Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps, dealt exclusively with people convicted of "political crimes". There were arrests based on accusations, trials in which the defendent was represented by counsel, and definitive sentences.
The prisoners lived in harsh, primitive conditions, but they weren't tortured, and they were released when their sentence was over.
Realistically, the whole legal procedure was a sham, but it existed. The US doesn't even have that much "window dressing".
Gitmo is worse than the GULag.
Posted by: Bryan | Jun 3, 2005 9:08:14 PM
I couldn't agree with you more. Amnesty is learning the lesson that Republicans discovered in 1994 with the Contract with America - be loud and persistent if you want any change or publicity.
Posted by: Austin | Jun 4, 2005 12:43:47 AM
Care to try "dissembling"? Not taking apart but sleight-of-hand. Gulags kept, for the most part, nationals not foreigners. International concerns were fewer.
Posted by: opit | Jun 4, 2005 12:47:20 AM
Each definition Stephen provided includes the word labor camp. Gitmo is horrendous, but not a labor camp.
Posted by: Michaelw | Jun 4, 2005 10:36:53 AM
I agree the Gitmo and Abu Gharib don't fit the labor camp definition. But AI's use of the word gulag got people talking about the report. Otherwise ti would have never gotten much main stream media attention.
I posted about it here:
Posted by: Sonny | Jun 4, 2005 12:54:44 PM
MicahelW - not exactly. The third definition said "prison system or a forced labor camp". I think most of us would agree that Gitmo, Abu Gharib, etc qualify as a prison system.
Posted by: MattR | Jun 4, 2005 2:45:54 PM
I'm not a fan of the 'here's a dictionary!' form of explication. The aspect of the gulag system that is most identfied with modern use of the term is its placing of prisoners out in the middle of nowhere. The use of the Guantanamo Bay leasehold territory -- a genuine 'non-place' in terms of jurisdiction -- seems to fit this usage pretty damn well. And I'd still like to know if Diego Garcia holds prisoners...
Posted by: ahem | Jun 4, 2005 4:32:46 PM
Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 10:48:36 PM
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