Saturday, February 26, 2005

Strongmen and Strong Language

A post by Roger L. Simon referred to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as a "strongman." Not to pick on Roger, as this term has been in wide use for years, but the "strongman" label always makes us chuckle.

We can imagine Hosni there in the gym, dripping with sweat, working on his benchpress or clean and jerk. Or perhaps he prefers the Bowflex or one of those other, latenight abs-of-steel panaceas. What is the secret of his muscle mass development? Could he be training with Jose and Barry's pharmacists? No doubt we'll soon be seeing references to "California Strongman, Arnold Schwartznegger," or "Jesse Ventura, Minneapolis Strongman," in a publication near you.

Of course, the whole point of describing someone like Mubarak (or Khadafi, who was practically the original model for the term) in this way is to find a non-judgmental, neutral label. While accurate, "dictator" is so Cold War Era, and it might offend Hosni or Robert Mugabe to apply it to them. Clearly, "strongman" arose as an attempt to indicate in a "nice" way that the body builder rules by force.

There's something to be said for neutral language, particularly in news reports that are nominally objective. One way is to simply use the official title the dictator has chosen for himself: president; chairman; king; premier; or whatever.

The problem with this is that it allows the dictator to define himself, and these kinds of people rarely choose a title that really describes them. Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, is the exception that proves the rule, obviously due to a defective Irony Detector in the Dear Leader.

Frequently, the search for a neutral descriptor ends with the term "leader." In our view the generic "leader" should be strictly reserved for small-d-democrats. It is not a neutral term at all, as it connotes legitimacy. Even "strongman" is better than "leader" for these president-for-life types.

The word "autocrat" is certainly accurate, and it doesn't carry quite the same baggage as "dictator." "Pakistani autocrat, Pervez Musharraf," seems fair and balanced to us.

If a strictly neutral term must be used, we suggest that "ruler" measures up nicely. It is accurate and descriptive without being judgmental. Of course there's nothing wrong with being judmental in an opinion piece, so we can put aside politcal correctness and call a spade a spade.

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