Sunday, March 8, 2009


tendentious [ten-DEN-shəs]
adj. having or showing a definite tendency; biased

[From Latin tendentia ("inclination, leaning") from tendere ("to stretch, aim")]

Tendentious and tendency are etymologically related to tenet ("principle, doctrine, dogma") and tension ("a stretched condition"). In Latin, tenet literally means "he holds." It is the third person singular of tenere "to hold, to keep, to maintain." My understanding of this etymological evolution comes from the idea that in order to hold something, one has to use effort, or stretch oneself. So to hold onto something too long causes tension; a belief you hold onto is a tenet; the direction of your tenets is your inclination or tendency; and when you have a clear bias, you are tendentious.

While the word bias can be neutral or even positive -- Mother Teresa was biased in favor of the poor -- tendentious seems only to be used in the pejorative sense. Here is an example, this from the outspoken Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., speaking at the inauguration of the D.C.-based think-tank, the China Studies Center:
To deal effectively with China, Americans need to understand it in terms of its own complexities and authentic aspirations. This is unlikely to be achieved by officials engaged in writing narrowly focused and highly tendentious reports mandated by Congress to justify the single-issue agendas of our military-industrial complex or, for that matter, our humanitarian-industrial complex.

Mr. Freeman has been in the news recently. President Obama nominated Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, "a center of strategic thinking within the U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence." That did not sit well with some conservatives, who believe Freeman's tenets are insufficiently democratic. Here is the take of the National Review to his appointment:
Charles Freeman is a career diplomat, a Saudi apologist, and a savage critic of Israel. He also argues that Beijing did not strike down the Tiananmen Square protesters with sufficient swiftness. Barack Obama proposes to make him head of the National Intelligence Council. It’s an abominable appointment.

EDIT (3-11-09): Chas Freeman, it turns out, will not be a part of the Obama NIC, according to this NY Times report:
WASHINGTON — Charles W. Freeman Jr., the Obama administration’s choice for a major intelligence post, withdrew his name on Tuesday and blamed pro-Israel lobbying groups, saying they had distorted his record and campaigned against him. Mr. Freeman had come under sharp criticism for his past statements about Israel as well as for his association with the Saudi and Chinese governments.

No comments: