Ultra-problematic

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published August 12, 2005, issue of August 12, 2005.
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‘Thousands of Israeli ultranationalists rallied Tuesday against a Gaza pullout,” began a Reuters news dispatch on Wednesday, August 3. Is this an accurate or a biased description on Reuters’s part?

“Ultra” is an odd prefix because it can have either a positive, negative or neutral connotation depending on what word it goes with. On the other hand, if we call someone “ultra-honest” or “ultra-efficient,” clearly we are praising him. If we say that a new technology is “ultra-modern,” we are not necessarily either for or against it. And in still in other contexts, especially political ones, “ultra” is pejorative. Labeling a politician “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” is rarely meant as a compliment. Rather, the implication is that while being conservative or liberal may be perfectly acceptable, being “ultra” is not. This is one reason that very observant Jews dislike being called “ultra-Orthodox,” since the word “Orthodox” in such a combination seems more analogous to “conservative” or “liberal” than to “honest,” “efficient” or “modern.”

“Ultra,” which in Latin means “beyond” or “on the far side of,” has had such multiple senses in English and other European languages for a long time. Its transition from a neutral, largely geographical term, as in such coinages as “ultramundane” (beyond the physical world) or “ultramarine” (beyond the sea), to a negatively used political one began with the French ultramontane. Originally meaning “beyond the mountains” and denoting all of Italy beyond the Alps, ultramontane came to refer in the 17th century to those elements in the French Catholic church that supported the absolute authority of the Pope in Rome while opposing any autonomy for the French clergy. Inasmuch as ultramontane denoted an extreme pro-Papist, its prefix was interpretable as meaning “beyond” not just geographically but politically, as well.

It was only with the French Revolution, however, that “ultra” in the political sense came into its own. Having the example of ultramontane before them, the more moderate revolutionaries, especially the faction grouped around Georges Jacques Danton, took to calling the more radical revolutionaries les ultrarévolutionnaires, or simply les ultras, while referring to themselves as les citras, from the Latin citra, “on the near side of.” The actual coiner of the phrase seems to have been Danton’s comrade, Camille Desmoulins.

“Ultra” was popularized further by the Counterrevolution, the period of royalist reaction in France that followed Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Reinstalled in power, the French royalists were at first dominated by the figure of King Louis XVIII, a younger brother of Louis XVI, who was executed by the revolutionaries in 1792. (The second eldest brother, Louis XVII, as he was called by the anti-revolutionary nobility, died in 1795.)

Conciliatory in his policies toward the deposed revolutionaries and the Napoleonists, Louis XVIII sought to establish a constitutional monarchy. In this he was opposed by a faction, led by the youngest of his brothers, the Count of Artois, that called for a return to absolute monarchy and that came to be known as les ultraroyalistes. By 1820, Louis XVIII had ceded control of the French government to these ultraroyalists, as they were now known in England, as well. After Louis’s death, the Count of Artois ruled as Charles X from 1824 to 1830. Then he was unseated by a popular uprising.

Yet although this put an effective end to ultraroyalism in France, it was only the start of “ultra”’s political career. By the end of the 19th century, the English language had such words as “ultra-Anglican,” “ultra-democrat,” “ultra-episcopal,” “ultra-federalist,” “ultra-liberal,” “ultra-radical,” “ultra-Protestant” and a host of others, and the number has grown steadily ever since.

But let’s return to our original question: Is it accurate of Reuters to refer to the anti-disengagement protesters in Israel as “ultranationalists”?

On the face of it, such a description seems fair enough. After all, many of these protesters do, after all, come from an extreme end of the Israeli political spectrum, and many Israelis who would consider themselves, too, to be Israeli or Jewish “nationalists” look at the anti-disengagement activists, with their call for mass civil disobedience and military insubordination, as being beyond the pale of political acceptability. If this is not “ultranationalism,” one might ask, what is?

And yet there is something troubling about Reuters’s usage. A quick Internet check reveals that, to date, Reuters’s news articles have used the expression “ultranationalist Israeli” 4,020 times and “ultranationalist Jew” 839 times, while not using “ultranationalist Palestinian” even once. Can this be called anything but biased?

But perhaps, you might object, Reuters uses other “ultra”-terms for Palestinian extremists. What about them?

Indeed, what about them? For example, Reuters likes to call Palestinians who kill Israelis “militants.” Are there any Palestinian “ultramilitants” in Reuters?

Not one.

Perhaps, then, “Palestinian ultra-Islamists”?

Not one, although there are plenty of “Taliban ultra-Islamists” and a smattering of “ultra-Islamists” from Chechnya and other places, too.

Maybe just “Palestinian ultras”?

Not one.

For Reuters, it seems, only Jews can be “ultra” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s pretty ultra itself. Ultra-anti-Israeli, in fact.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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