Following up on my post "Rhetorical testosterone and analytical hallucinations" (7/1/2010), Linda Seebach sent a link to a column in which Mark Steyn complained about president Obama's "passivity" ("Obama's lazy tribute to Daniel Pearl", 5/21/2010):
Like a lot of guys who've been told they're brilliant one time too often, President Obama gets a little lazy, and doesn't always choose his words with care. And so it was that he came to say a few words about Daniel Pearl, upon signing the "Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act." Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002. That's how I'd put it. This is what the president of the United States said:
"Obviously, the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world's imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is."
Now Obama's off the prompter, when his silver-tongued rhetoric invariably turns to sludge. But he's talking about a dead man here, a guy murdered in public for all the world to see. Furthermore, the deceased's family is standing all around him. And, even for a busy president, it's the work of moments to come up with a sentence that would be respectful, moving and true. Indeed, for Obama, it's the work of seconds, because he has a taxpayer-funded staff sitting around all day with nothing to do but provide him with that sentence.
Instead, he delivered the one above, which in its clumsiness and insipidness is most revealing. First of all, note the passivity: "The loss of Daniel Pearl." He wasn't "lost." He was kidnapped and beheaded. He was murdered on a snuff video. He was specifically targeted, seized as a trophy, a high-value scalp. And the circumstances of his "loss" merit some vigor in the prose. Yet Obama can muster none.
As Linda notes "the passage hovers right on the brink of tipping over from passivity as a behavioral trait to passive as a linguistic category". But the phrase "the loss of Daniel Pearl" doesn't even contain a verb, much less a passive one. And the phrase that Steyn prefers, due to its lack of passivity, is a passive sentence: "Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002."
It's worth looking more closely at what's going on here. Here's a bit more context, from the "Remarks by the President at the Signing of the Freedom of the Press Act", 5/17/2010:
All around the world there are enormously courageous journalists and bloggers who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the critical issues that the people of their country face; who are the frontlines against tyranny and oppression. And obviously the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is, and it reminded us that there are those who would go to any length in order to silence journalists around the world.
In my opinion, "the loss of Daniel Pearl" is certainly an insipid way to describe what happened on Feb. 1, 2002 in Karachi. A stronger phrase that could have been substituted directly is "the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl" — and it's easy to think of others.
Why did Obama (or his speechwriters) decide go with the wimpy "loss of Daniel Pearl" instead? Steyn thinks that it was a political choice: that Obama "reflexively … lapses into sentimental one-worldism", which led him to omit mention of the agents and motives as well as to gloss over the nature of the crime.
But it seems equally possible to me that it was simple euphemistic habit. People often use "loss" in place of "death", much less "murder"; or talk about someone having "passed on" or "left us" rather than "died". And there was another possible reason to leave out the rest of the gory details. As Mark Steyn argues later in his column, Daniel Pearl's assassination
… was nothing to do with "freedom of the press." By the standards of the Muslim world, Pakistan has a free-ish and very lively press. The problem is that some 80 percent of its people wish to live under the most extreme form of Sharia, and many of its youth are exported around the world in advance of that aim. The man convicted of Pearl's murder was Omar Sheikh, a British subject, a London School of Economics student, and, like many jihadists from Osama to the Pantybomber, a monument to the peculiar burdens of a non-deprived childhood in the Muslim world. The man who actually did the deed was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed in March 2007: "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi."
Daniel Pearl was a journalist, but his execution was not an attempt to stop him from writing the truth or to dissuade others from doing so. Rather, as Steyn says, "the story did get out; the severed head is the message; the only misconception is that that's a misconception".
"H.R. 3714 – the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act of 2009", according to the official summary,
Amends the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to expand the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to include:
(1) a description of the status of freedom of the press in each country reviewed in the report;
(2) identification of countries in which there were violations of freedom of the press; and
(3) in countries where there are particularly severe violations of freedom of the press, whether such governments participate in or condone such violations and the actions such governments have taken to preserve the safety and independence of the media and ensure the prosecution of individuals who attack or murder journalists.
Thus the bill was about evaluating the role of governments in violating or protecting press freedom, and not about responses to terrorists, Islamist or otherwise.
Still, "the loss of Daniel Pearl" was a weak phrase. "The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl" would have been a stronger one. "The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl by Khalid Sheik Mohammed" adds an explicit agent, though it still doesn't identify the religious ideology that motivated him. None of these phrases is either "active" or "passive" in the grammatical sense, though the last one is not far from the passive-voice sentence "Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by Khalid Sheik Mohammed". What Mark Steyn thinks that the president should have said, "[Daniel] Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002", is another passive-voice sentence.
Re-framing one of those sentences in the active voice — e.g. "Jihadist Muslims decapitated Daniel Pearl on video in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002" — wouldn't make it any stronger or more forceful. It wouldn't move it any further away from "passivity", in the sense that Mark Steyn used that word. All it would do is to change the focus, so that the sentence is no longer (so easily construed as being) about Daniel Pearl.
Mark Steyn's linguistic argument strikes me as entirely valid. Whether for political reasons or just out of euphemistic habit, Barack Obama chose a rather insipid way of referring to Daniel Pearl's beheading. And Steyn is also right, I think, to observe that the decision to name a press-freedom bill for Daniel Pearl doesn't directly engage the ideology that motivated his murder, and therefore made it inappropriate (or at least unnecessary) for Obama to name the murderers or their motives.
And although Linda thinks Steyn "hovers on the brink" of citing passivity as a grammatical category, in fact he doesn't do this. Nor does he bring gender stereotypes into the discussion.
In contrast, Paul J.J. Payack and Kathleen Parker are unreflecting victims of a deeply confused alignment of completely unrelated oppositions: vivid vs. insipid ways of using language; active vs. passive voice in sentence construction; clarity vs. obscurity about agency, responsibility, and motives; and male vs. female sex.