Thursday, January 07, 2010

Leader on labels

Labels and categories

A menagerie of monikers
Jan 7th 2010
From The Economist print edition

Most labels are misleading, sometimes grossly so. Find new ones in 2010

REMEMBER the Levant? Or the Old Dominions, the Trucial States and the Far East? If so, speak softly. Labels are handy ways of sorting out countries by history or geography. But lazily conceived and out-of-date ones are offensive and misleading.

Some reek of colonialism (“Black Africa”) or lingering imperialism (“the near abroad”, Russians’ term for the former Soviet empire). Sheer diversity makes “Eastern Europe” an unhelpful way of talking about the ex-communist countries (see article). Donald Rumsfeld’s description of anti-American “Old Europe” and pro-American “New Europe” was vivid but equally wide of the mark: Atlanticism and opposition to it are present on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.

The “Far East”, as East Asia used to be called, is indeed far away from Europe but quite nearby for people who live there. “Near East” is still used in American diplomatic parlance, and the “Middle East” is a quotidian term, perhaps because people like to be central. The “Muslim world” and the “Arab world” are sometimes used as near-synonyms. But not all Arabs are Muslims, and most Muslims are not Arabs: Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country; Russia’s 9m-odd Muslims outnumber Lebanese and Libyans combined.

The “White Commonwealth” used to mean Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But their original inhabitants were not white, and their populations are increasingly multicoloured. English-speakers in India outnumber the combined total in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which we were recently upbraided for calling the “English-speaking Commonwealth”. “Latin” America is another colonial invention, one that is disdained by Brazil, the regional power today.

It makes even less sense to speak of the “south” as shorthand for the planet’s poor countries (what about Australia or Singapore?) or of the “West” as synonymous with industrialisation and political freedom—what’s “western” about Japan? “Third World” dates from the Cold War, when the planet had capitalist “First” and communist “Second” compartments. Its most recent replacement, “emerging economies”, already seems out of date, as some erstwhile star performers, such as Argentina, submerge. And the term unhelpfully lumps together hardworking manufacturers (Vietnam, say) and service-based economies (Dubai) with those blessed—or perhaps cursed—by natural resources (Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Russia). Nor do the countries of the “rich world” have much in common: Canada and Kuwait, with similar income levels, could hardly be more different.

Not wanted on voyage

Still, old labels have their uses, and new ones don’t seem to work much better. “Chimerica” for a Chinese-American power duopoly proved as illusory as the creature that inspired it; and what on earth can bankers mean when they talk of the “N11”? But others have worked better. The “Anglosphere” and the BRICs have caught on; George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” was punchily effective. The G20 (large economies) versus the G77 (poor-but-pushy countries) have proved their mettle in financial negotiations, though the latter fell out over climate talks. All those Gs are helpful, but a little dull. We prefer the animal kingdom. “Tiger” economies were instantly recognisable in the 1980s as in these straitened times are Portugal, Italy and Greece, Europe’s vulnerable PIGs. Time to add to the menagerie by naming the planet’s sloths and skunks.

No comments: