Sherman: The dangerous words of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

At 16, I found myself at a fire department in Kidderminster, England, with a friend of mine. The firefighters took us for a ride in the truck, let us use the Jaws of Life, hold the hose and wear their turnouts. I guess that’s what happens when two 16-year-old girls show up in miniskirts and lip gloss (the age of adulthood is 15 in the UK). Afterward, I told my friend’s mom that she “wore the cute fireman’s pants.” Bright red and mortified, my friend screamed, “Trousers! The American means trousers!” Apparently, pants means underwear to the British. 

Words matter. Unfortunately, when words mutate in the modern world the effects are rarely limited to a comedic gaffe. Rather, the evolution often follows this pattern: label the enemy, invest in fear, subtract freedom, increase power. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In 1999, Moscow was ravaged by a series of bombings that were promptly blamed on the Chechens. Though many have speculated these bombings were actually carried out by the FSB (formerly the KGB), it has never been proven who was behind the attacks. So we can speculate about corruption on the part of the Kremlin but when a country is controlled by a handful of billionaires and notable thugs, investigative journalism is a life or death game, and no one has lived long enough to dig to the bottom of that conspiracy.

Russian television labeled it the “Chechens” and war began – a war that enabled a young Vladimir Putin to claim power under the guise of protecting the people from the enemy, the Chechens. Soon, the label morphed to “Chechen Extremists” in order to pacify those parts of the population who might be sympathetic to Chechens in general. And then, as tends to happen when words evolve, Chechen became synonymous with terrorists. In the eyes of the Kremlin (and out the lips of the state-sponsored Russian television) Chechens were terrorists. Period.

But that was almost 20 years ago, right?

Currently, Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. Since the attempted coup last July, Turkey has shut down more than 130 media outlets on the basis of supporting terrorism and there are presently more than 150 journalists behind bars. Journalists used their freedom to spread ideas that were unpopular within the government. Media outlets were able to destabilize the government by dissemination of information. This made truth, news and those who brought it into the public light the enemies of the state. Or, to put it in more analogous terms, a crisis occurred and the government seized the opportunity to strip away individual rights and lock up those with whom it did not agree.

Journalists became activists. Activists became accomplices. Accomplices became terrorists. Another mutation of words in the era of fake news.

But that’s halfway around the world, right?

Donald Trump has referred to Muslims as dangerous and said he would implement an entire shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. He has progressed to using the label of Muslim Extremists and even begun to use the word Muslim synonymously with terrorist. But his mimicry of ’90s Putin isn’t the end of his wordplay. He has moved against the media and journalists with a ferocity not witnessed in prior administrations. He’s labeled stories he doesn’t like and networks he doesn’t like as “fake news” with the intention of undermining credibility. He’s accused journalists of undermining the authority of the White House and he has flat-out called the media the enemy of the people.

But those are just words, right?

At the University of Oregon, we have a diverse group of students, faculty and employees from all over the world. My daughter’s favorite playmate is from Pakistan and her mother is here on a student visa. My next-door neighbors are from India and our closest friends in the complex were on a visa from South Korea. Each of us wears a label of some sort and each of us represents a word at risk. Now, it is a mutation of the Muslim label and a distortion of truth. Now, it is journalists being arrested for documenting protests and it is news organizations being shut out of White House gaggles. Now, it is lies under oath and dismissals of those who might investigate. Now, we are still in the stage where the enemy is given a name. Soon, the rights we value will be handed over under the guise of protecting us from that enemy.

But it’s just four years, right?

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Esther Sherman

Esther Sherman