[eDebate] Article on misuse of the term "fuel"
scottelliott at grandecom.net
Fri Mar 11 14:39:12 CST 2005
Some of you Kritik types may want to use this in order to go off on some tagent.
Nuke this journalistic clich?.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, March 7, 2005, at 2:41 PM PT
"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
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
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.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to
Slate. His most recent book is Love, Poverty and War. He is also the author of A
Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq and of Blood, Class and Empire.
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