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Was it an insurrection? A coup? Should we call it domestic terrorism? Or just a peaceful protest gone awry? As a battle of politics becomes a battle for words to describe what happened in the capital and on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, Christopher Booker speaks to Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale University about why words used to describe the event today will shape its history.
There have been many discussions this week over the language used to describe the events in the capital and at the Capitol building this week.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
Its hard to find the words to describe what happened on Wednesday.
Was it a riot? Was it an insurrection? It certainly was much more than a protest.
It's often said journalism is the first rough draft of history… But what impact will the words we are using have on the way America remembers what happened in Washington this week?
Even just to describe the attack on the Capitol, know are they rioters or was it a mob? Is it terrorism? Is it insurrection? Is it a coup?
Joanne Freeman is a professor of history at Yale University who specializes in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American history. She has written extensively about turmoil in American politics.
One of the striking things about words right now is that in many ways, I think Americans don't quite have the words to describe what's going on.
This morning, I saw some people referring to what happened on Wednesday as the storming of the Capitol. And I actually object to that because storming romanticizes it, there's nothing romantic about what happened. It's not just born of passions, noble passions. It was an act with implications and repercussions. It was an attack on the government. Some people with violence in mind, it was an attack on a symbol of government that has a deep impact and above and beyond the fact that it forced members of Congress to flee in all of these ways. It's not just a peaceful expression of passion.
Yet 'passion' is a word often used.
We gather together at a moment of division, at a moment of great passion.
Senator Ted Cruz reaching for it on the Senate floor as he lodged objections to the state vote certifications on Wednesday.
Speaking as a historian who's always interested in the meaning of words in the past, in the right context, we're in one of those moments that 50 years from now, historians will look at us grappling to find the right language to talk about this moment.
Now, the other thing about language in this moment, you know, fascism, socialism, communism, even democracy, liberty, freedom, patriotism.
Looking out at all the amazing patriots here today, I have never been more confident in our nation's future.
Joanne Freeman We're in a battle of words as well as a battle of politics, particularly when you have extreme circumstances like we're experiencing right now, those kinds of words can be used as masks to mask extremism: This is democracy! This is liberty, this is freedom!
Now, here's the thing, and it's going to sound obvious, but I think it's important to realize in a democratic form of government, a democracy is grounded on public sentiment and public opinion. That's really basically where the power is. A pronouncement made from on high, meaning the national stage, a congressman, a president. Those words have added meaning and those words can be taken and are almost always taken seriously by some of the public.
It's interesting because they the words and the way the words are being used are also being used, I assume, to recruit more among the far-right. For instance, I'm thinking of tweets that we saw Instagram postings of revolutionaries inside the capital, patriots taking back the people's house.
Right. Revolutionaries, people are grabbing at moments in the past out of context and using them to frame what they're doing right. This is supremely American. Our revolutionaries did it. We are just like them. That's what we're doing.
And on the surface, you can happily sort of nod along with that. If you actually look at the reality of what happened during the revolution, what happened now and what these people are doing, no, that's not an easy comparison to make and the problem with that and this is the problem of propaganda.
How do you, how do you disprove that? Right. How do you I can say people who attack the Capitol aren't patriots. That's unpatriotic. How what do I say? If someone says, no, I feel very patriotic, I'm defending government as I see it, that's a hard these words are powerful for a reason because they're hard to refute. They're fuzzy and they have a gut impact and a profound political meaning.
Now that leads to another point, which is, there has to be accountability in a broad way right now, because if there isn't, the message is clearly, well, that was fine, that was OK. And why if you were someone who engaged in that kind of behavior and there's no impact of any kind and there's no consequences, why would you not do that again?
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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