A Lexicon of Polity “State” Descriptors ©


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. - TRANSCEND Media Service


This paper began as a simple rainy day pastime in which I sought to identify and list adjectives describing nations, states, and institutions. Adjectives are powerful words used to modify or describe a noun; they help convey or enhance the noun’s possible meanings and impact. We use adjectives many times a day to communicate our feelings or attitudes about a topic. It isn’t enough to discuss a topic, we benefit from immersing the topic in adjectives.

As I created a list of adjectives describing nations, states, and institutions, however, I recognized the implications the adjectives have for shaping our perceptions and conclusions. An adjective can become a stereotype, and can be used for a number of purposes. In the minds of “thought shapers,” an adjective can become a reality, guiding preferred actions, especially the demonization of a topic.

In the twisted realm of international relations known as diplomacy or failed diplomacy, there is constant competition for domination, control, and power asymmetry. Prefacing a nation, state, or institution can justify violence, condemnation, abuse, and even war and invasion. As my lists increased, I understood my pastime task yielded insights regarding critical perceptions guiding policies and actions. The result is a lexicon of descriptors prefacing polity “states.”


The concept of “State” is filled with controversy, especially as it is differentiated from government, nation, and institution. There are many different definitions of “state,” each with implications for theoretical or pragmatic use and abuse. In this paper, I use the definition “state” of the venerable Oxford Political Dictionary (OPD) as an “organized political community under one government.” The OPD points out “governments” are organizations of people, whereas “states” are non-physical persons, subject to “international law.” Of course, as is well known, “subject to international law” is a definitional reality, not an actual reality.

The concept of “state,” when applied to political governance, and to administrative and bureaucratic functions, can be prefaced by numerous descriptive adjectives. The adjectives define and describe major patterns characterizing and identifying the “state.”

The multiplicity of adjectives applied to “state” yield a fascinating lexicon, which, for better or worse, serves to illuminate a “state’s” descriptive identity and presence, even as there is debate about the accuracy of the adjective (s) applied to a “state” by itself or others.

The situation is further complicated by the reality all “states” can be described by many adjectives. “States” embody, simultaneously, many different descriptors, thus eluding a single descriptive adjective. Many governments try to portray their “state” with the most politically desirable adjective, “Democratic.” Indeed, some nations use the term “democratic” in their formal national title: “The People’s Glorious and Patriotic Democratic State of Historic ……………..!” You get the idea! It can get out of control, when turned over to zealots.

The Context of Our Times: Pretense, Image, Logo, Identity

A nation’s self-attribution of an identity descriptor such as “democratic,” and a foreign nation’s acceptance of this descriptor, is a matter of considerable conflict and tension. Nation’s announce their identity as a “state” in the most favorable descriptors, embellishing their announcements with other positive adjectives: Great, Beautiful, Famous, and Patriotic. Public relations! “State” identity uses an “advantage” heuristic.” What image does a nation wish to portray for diplomatic, commercial, or moral advantage. I created an imaginary conversation occurring in a tufted-chair government office:

Charles: Senior Foreign Diplomat: ”Yes, I know the their leader is a despot, and borders on being insane; and I know their citizens suffer much abuse and have no election options; but we need their oil, and they need our military weapons. So I say, let them call themselves what they wish if it suits their national ego.

We can defer to their deceit as long as they buy our military hardware and commercial products. It is all about the ends justifying the means. Now get the trade agreement signed and sealed, and we will worry about public opinion later. Let Sally handle the PR.”

One can imagine the inner turmoil in a young idealistic foreign-policy committee member, I call Henry. Henry was appointed at the behest of his father who was our nation’s leader’s college roommate; they both belonged to the same drinking club, and shared intimate knowledge of each other.

Henry is filled with a genuine ambition to build a different world from his jaded senior staffers. Henry favors a consistent policy, governed by a principle of “democracy,” and the enduring human values, especially justice.

Henry: Sir, I don’t understand why we have to establish an agreement with that bastard. He tortures dissidents, represses women, punishes LBGTs, and keeps shelling money to foreign bank accounts.

Charles: Yes, yes, Henry, but do not let your idealism get in the way of the real politik we face. Henry, no one is always good all the time, least of all us. I sleep at night by dreaming of an overthrow and a replacement by one of our boys who will torture less, give women a few rights, avoid talking about LBGTs, and giving us back some of the money we give him.

What did they teach you at alma mater? Did you take old George’s course on diplomacy in a time of chaos? He understood real politik.

What works for the moment, works! Good ole boy! I remember when . . . .

Henry: They taught us honesty and decency, Sir. They taught us that our nation is caught in a downward spiral of decay, rooted in inconsistent and opportunistic foreign policies.

Charles: Did they teach you survival by any means? You see, Henry, text books are written by folks in Ivy Towers. In this room, a different ethic applies, and the ethic is not governed by a morality concerned with justice, truth, beauty, and their virtues.

In this room, Henry, within these hallowed walls of civilization, we weigh advantages, disadvantages, personalities, current situations, histories, special interests, and then we prepare a series of recommendations to our “erstwhile” leaders, and their coterie of favorites. Their favorites include the First Ladies, family, mistresses, and billionaire contributors to their retirement library. We appeal to known, but unspoken preferences.

You see, Henry, our leaders seek immortality in the form of a library; that has nothing to do with consistency, virtue, and lives lost. Everything can be rationalized and excused. There are no wrongs and rights. It is about “power,” Henry.

Henry: Sir, I know it is about “power,” but it is possible to use “power” for good or for evil. There is an old Irish saying, Sir:

Touch the devil and you can’t get loose.”

With your permission, sir, I will excuse myself. I want to use what little “power” I have to make a better world. I was offered a job teaching poor kids in inner-city schools. I think I’ll take the job. And when I sleep, I will dream of bright smiling faces, beaming with joy and gratitude. In the dream, I take my father’s inheritance, and I build a school library. And in the library, I will fill it with books and papers revealing who we were, who we are, and how we have come to this place. One day, a student may read the materials, and get it! Good day, gentlemen. Door closes!

Charles: What are they teaching at alma mater? I will call Henry’s father, and commend him on his fine son; then we will get on with saving the nation, the state, and the world. Is there any more of that Sherry we had yesterday. Good stuff! Full bodied! No pretense there!

The World of Real Politik

Few “States” are limited to one adjective descriptor. That is part of the Real Politik in our world. The multiplicity of “state” adjectives poses a serious problem in foreign relations as policy makers often emphasize one pattern over another, depending upon their purposes. The deceit and hypocrisy is becoming evident to citizens who do not accept the consequences of Real Politik”.

Foreign policy makers avoid consideration of a “criminal cartel” descriptor pattern for functional purposes related to trade or to military advantage. The result is often an unpredictable response form both sides as situations demand reconsideration. The reconsideration may be un- related to the two states negotiating foreign policy, and may be imposed by other national or international conditions.

“State” descriptors have a long history. The Roman, content with their self-assigned status as a “civilized” empire, considered other people or states as “barbaric;” this amidst the savagery of the Coliseum and other arenas of death and torture. In so many ways, the “state” descriptor becomes a quick way to discuss a complex pattern with a single word. From this a lexicon of “state” descriptors arises, supported by Media.

All Western European powers pursuing colonization of foreign lands in the past and present, considered groups they assaulted, occupied, and claimed, as “sub-human;” deserving of change! Read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The acceptance of slavery across the world speaks to the extensive lexicon of “State” descriptors. “Take up the White Man’s burden …….” The “blokes”…….

I began to understand what started as a simple intellectual exercise on a rainy afternoon, a game, of coming up with “State” descriptors, actually had serious meaning and consequence. Amid struggles for identity at every level, from person to nation, “state” descriptors revealed confusion and discontent among citizens; their tolerance for “image” deceit has become a source of criticism and distrust.

How can we be so many different descriptors? All at the same time! Too much dissonance! Too much self deceit! Too much treachery! Too much fraud! Governments shape a nation’s character. Tragic!

For citizens, recognizing the tragic consequences of polity “state” descriptors accepted and used by domestic and foreign policy makers as real politk, there is growing sense of frustration. Endless justifications for “security” in the face of continued perceptions of threats from other “states” using stereotypical “adjectives” perpetuates actions miring “states” in conflicting and contradictory policies often suited to previous eras. Surveillance and monitoring become commonplace. Shadow states, deep states, criminal states become part of an array of descriptors

It is alleged the French King, Louis XIV, said “Le Etat c’est moi! (“I am the State!”). There is debate regarding this claim, but after 72 plus years on the throne, it is possible the boundaries between self and “state” had become blurred. And, of course, the belief in the “Divine Right of Kings,” was long held to be true. We can only hope this self-ordained “Right” does not apply to government leaders today, infatuated with their power, and ignorant of their actions.

Chart 1 offers a graphic display — a lexicon — of “state” descriptors. There are other descriptors deserving inclusion; however, I found myself content with this lexicon list as a beginning. More important, however, I acquired insight into the games and gambles of lives and life played by states with subtle use of state adjectives.

Chart 1:


Table 1 lists the “State” descriptor lexicon in alphabetical order. I began to include examples and soon recognized I was faced with an impossible task. It became apparent many descriptors could be applied to each “State.”

I began thinking of the United States of America, and soon concluded every descriptor in the lexicon applied to the USA. It was then I recognized the task of creating a lexicon had educational value for citizens. It is too easy to buy into government public relations efforts to push one descriptor on to the public. “Democratic” is, of course, the most positive, and government official always invoke the descriptor, even as accusations of corruption, criminal, apartheid, imperialistic, and surveillance are accurate descriptors.




















I have not included “State” descriptors associated with ideological, government patterns, or personality/dictator dominant patterns (e.g., Fascist State (e.g., Hitler, Mussolini, Franco), Communist State (e.g., Mao Tse Tung, Stalin), Inherited Dictator State (e.g., Syria); or Religious States (e.g., Tibet, Vatican). The lexicon could well add: Dictator State, Personality State, and Religion State. I also placed the term “Democratic” State in quotations. I am sure there may be some warranting a modicum of this descriptor, but the reality of our world at this time is control resides in the wealth sectors (individuals, finance, corporations, military, associations, media), and not in the hands of citizens. “They want bread, let them eat cake.”

For many nations, there is a myth citizens have a say in determining their lives in matters of governance. Citizens speak, vote, protest, and claim agency, but the “system” continues to be the source determining a nation’s direction. This is, of course, a function of the persuasive skills and talents, available to wealth and power sectors. Corruption is often hidden and silent. Even when exposed, new sources replace old, and citizens’ are asked to endure.

Forgive me, what started off as a simple intellectual pastime identifying “State” descriptors, morphed into this presentation; in the process, I grasped the sheer duplicity of governments, military, and commercial institutions. Choose an adjective! Then repeat it and repeat it, and soon, you may believe it; and then what? The French understand history: Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les memes.


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Apr 2017.

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One Response to “A Lexicon of Polity “State” Descriptors ©”

  1. Barbara Melamed says:

    This is pretty heavy. I will read it again. I wish Dr. Marsella would bring thisinto the realm of explaining the Trumpism going onin our nation.