Sunday, November 26, 2006

To hell with the homeland

Prior to the September 11th attacks, I had never heard my country referred to as the “homeland.” Shortly after, I started hearing this word bandied about by Boosh Administration officials, and then the media caught on and started using it. It was as if this was a well-known, traditional word that had always been used. Not long after this, the term “homeland security” cropped up, well before the actual creation of a Department of Homeland Security.

I have always used the term “my country,” and I think I’m probably in the majority in that regard. So this bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand caught me completely by surprise. I had a negative reaction to it from the get-go. “Homeland” sounded to me like something from a World War Two movie, in which a German officer might say, “We must defend the homeland at all costs, mein Kapitan!” On reflection, I guess it was the “land” part of the word that bothered me, because, of course, the Nazis used the term “Fatherland.” And the Soviets, I believe, referred to their country as the “Motherland”—at least when it was being attacked by Hitler. “Homeland” has that feeling to it—there’s something old European about it, with a sprinkle of xenophobia.

As it happened, James A. Bartlett had the same reaction I did, and wrote a good essay about it in 2001, which also confirmed my suspicion that the term had rarely been used before in American public life. Bartlett decided that the term was sentimentalist manipulation, and cautions that it implies an anti-democratic point of view. I think there are definite nativist overtones as well.

I find it very curious that the word suddenly popped up after the 9/11 attacks, and gained a complete and dominant currency within weeks. It hardly seems likely that this idea came out of nowhere. Why “homeland security,” then, and not simply “internal security”? I would speculate that the neo-cons, the power behind the scenes, would prefer a term emphasizing American exceptionalism, our separation from the rest of the world. This is precisely where American foreign policy ended up—as a “go it alone” policy of arrogance and isolation, rejection of the UN and international law combined with a sense of an American mission to refashion the world in its own image.

The “home” in “homeland” also implies fear and defensiveness, framing 9/11 as the violation of our home by foreign enemies, and therefore requiring a reaction of distrust to anything not sufficiently patriotic or “home”-like. The faint totalitarian echoes of the word imply obedience to authority as well.

I am hereby declaring a boycott of the term “homeland.” I refuse to use it when referring to my country. I think it’s another ploy to change the way we think about ourselves and our traditions of free thought and speech. In any case, it’s another ugly reminder of the attempt by an authoritarian political movement to refashion our language, and thereby influence our minds.

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