Today's Dirty Word: Coup

Paul Greenberg

8/10/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

When is a coup not a coup? When it's "a complex and difficult issue." That was the unconvincing word from White House press secretary Jay Carney when he was asked about Egypt's latest coup. Poor Jay Carney. He may be the least credible White House press secretary since Ron Ziegler, who had the sticky job of defending the indefensible Richard Nixon as the truth closed in on his boss during the late unpleasantness known as Watergate.

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When is a coup not a coup? When it's "a very fluid situation," according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, demonstrating that you can always count on Foggy Bottom to evade a question.

When is a coup not a coup? To quote the president himself, who's supposed to be a great speaker, when it's "a transition to democracy." The way dictatorship leads to freedom? That rationale sounds like a party slogan out of George Orwell's 1984." Who says our leader doesn't have a sense of irony, even if unintentional?

By now, in its eagerness to avoid calling a coup a coup, this administration has turned the English language every which way but loose. By my ringside count, it's lost three falls out of three with the language, but keeps coming back for more punishment. Rather than accept the simple meaning of a word.

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Last week, our secretary of state was still dutifully echoing the administration's line, explaining that a coup is no coup when it's just "restoring democracy." That was John Kerry speaking during a stopover in Pakistan. Presumably with a straight face. The show, or rather farce, must go on.

Webster's defines coup as "a sudden decisive exercise of force whereby the existing government is subverted," which would seem a fairly accurate description of what happened in Egypt on July 3, 2013. But when mere reality collides with the official line, it's reality that must give way.

Why? Because if the administration admitted that a coup is a coup, then it might have to respect American law, to wit Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which decrees that no American aid shall be granted "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree." Which is what happened in Egypt. But since the administration isn't about to cut off billions in American aid to the one institution now holding Egypt together, it's had to scramble to ignore the obvious.

When the law gets in the way of this administration's desires, it doesn't try to change the law -- that would be too forthright -- but the language. So it covers the subject in verbal fog and hopes nobody will notice. Naturally, everybody does. But anything is better than acknowledging the simple truth. However obvious.

To borrow a construction from Miss Gertrude Stein, linguist extraordinaire, a coup is a coup is a coup. No matter how many times the White House, the State Department, and all the king's horses and all the king's equivocators deny it.

Better to sound ridiculous than to use a dirty word like coup in this officially democratic age. That may be the root of the White House's problem. It seems to assume that all coups are alike, and all are to be condemned alike.

A look at the derivation of the word coup might lend some needed perspective: Coup is short for the French coup d'├ętat, literally a blow of state. The first use of the term seems to have been in connection not with the overthrow of a legitimate ruler but with the restoration of his full and rightful authority:

When the young Louis XIII, all of 8 years old in 1610, succeeded his assassinated father, Henry IV, to the throne of France, his mother, Marie de' Medici, became regent. But the real power behind the throne and the villain of the story was her fellow Florentine, the notorious schemer Concino Concini, whose fine Italian hand was much resented both at court and throughout France.

So when Louis achieved his majority at 13 and chafed at the interference of this interloper, his boon companion the Duke of Luynes arranged to have Concini dispatched by the Royal Guard on a bridge over the Seine. (The official version was that the hated Concini was killed attempting to escape. Some things don't change in the annals of political intrigue.)

The story may be a little more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that it had a happy ending. Louis XIII would become king in more than name and go on to be known as Louis the Just -- but not before having the grace to thank those who had removed this inconvenient obstacle from his royal path. ("From this moment on I've become king.") He then had the good fortune, and good sense, to choose as his prime minister one of the great statesmen of French history: Cardinal Richelieu.

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I am indebted to the Jewish Daily Forward's word man, who writes under the name Philologos, for the essence of this brief excursion into the history and etymology of coup, a noun that's gone from description to accusation, from neutral definition to forbidden word. Just as coups have gone from exceptional events to regular habit, as in Latin America and the Middle East.

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Lest we forget, Turkey was transformed into a modern state by a military dictator called Kemal Ataturk, who brought a secular regime into being out of the wreckage of the decadent old Ottoman Empire in the last century. Egypt will be fortunate indeed if the coup staged by its current military rulers turns out half so well. For that matter, Turkey will be fortunate if it can stay a secular regime as its Islamist leadership sends that country back into an oppressive past.

The moral of this story: Not all coups are alike. Each deserves to be judged on its own merits -- and demerits. But to do that would require sophistication and candor, and this administration has shown little of either when it comes to the not-so-simple politics of the Middle East.