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A meaningful transition

The sense of an ending

Barack Obama yesterday described his telephone conversation with Hosni Mubarak thus:

[W]hat is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.

This is an interesting use of belief, which works both as a rhetorical softener (what is “clear” is not that Mubarak must go; what is clear is Obama’s “belief”), at the same time as it introduces a note of personal insistence into the demand of power. It also invokes an idea of clarity (clear belief), of implacable accuracy and truth.

More mysteriously, what about this requirement that “an orderly transition must be meaningful”? What exactly would count as a meaningless transition? And who is judging the meaning? The Egyptian anti-Mubarak demonstrators? The Egyptian arseholes pro-Mubarak demonstrators? Excited members, perhaps, of an aspirant military junta (to whose rule a transition would certainly be meaningful from their point of view)?

The demand for a “meaningful transition” resembles structurally (though you might consider it less purely vicious) the previous US régime’s call for a “sustainable ceasefire” in Lebanon. In both cases the adjective is simply code for “acceptable to me and my friends”. It is clear, after all, that the final arbiter of whether a transition in Egypt is going to be meaningful is, um, Barack Obama. I hereby call on members of the Unspeak™ Community™ to join me in a vigorous rearguard action against such metahermeneutic imperialism.

  1. 1  democracy_grenade  February 2, 2011, 9:57 pm 

    I like that Obama only “believes” that “an orderly transition… must be peaceful…”

    Yes we can (cautiously speculate about the meaning of the word “orderly” even without having a Merriam-Webster immediately to hand).

  2. 2  sw  February 3, 2011, 1:59 am 

    It’s all fair and true – one could also take him to task for “indicated” (not “said”, “told”, or “forced into his earhole” . . . indicated, kind of like a serious suggestion, one that is open to some interpretation because it is something of a gesture).

    But then again, there is the entire line to consider. Looking at each word along the way is like ooh-ing and aah-ing at the blood dripping from Spartacus’ sword: one might prefer to watch the whole sweep of its deadly edge. In this case, it finds final purchase in the soft tissue with a short, sharp “now”. “Meaningful” and “peaceful”, “indicate”, and the opaque clarity of “belief” are rhetorical energisers, building power but necessarily ambiguous, creating the potential energy for the final thrust of “now”, at which point the hapless victim, Hosni Mubarek in this case, spews crimson. (I have become committed to understanding the world through the filter of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, where somebody trying to perpetrate unspeak would be stabbed through the head, while an enormous, glistening man would roar as an epitaph, “The Gods have seen justice done, you fuckhead!” and the women in the crowds would strip off their tops to jiggle their bosoms as applause. It really is a much better world than the one we live in now.)

  3. 3  Steven  February 3, 2011, 10:50 am 

    I want to live there.

  4. 4  info  February 18, 2011, 5:06 pm 

    while your book was interesting
    and i am assailed every day with the decay of meaning
    even if not deliberate
    this article
    is a surprising load of tosh
    i believe is is a load of tosh
    i could not understand the points made

    i think that on the contrary
    Obama’s statement is a master piece of subtlety
    a) of course it is Obama’s belief, it is incorrect to say anything else, any management or effectiveness course teaches that you cannot make bald statements or value judgements only statements of how things impact upon yourself, there is no implication of implacable moral high ground, it is a simple clear and accurate statement

    b) it is perfectly clear what “meaningful” means and who would judge it, those who ask for change will judge whether or not it is meaningful, and meaningless would be the same regime in different clothes ie. led by the vice president say, you seem particularly stupid on this, you avoid mentioning the only group which could make the judgement

    c) and once again i think you have spent so much time thinking this way that you are now unable to see simple and clear meanings, “sustainable” means “not finishing”, it doesn’t mean “acceptable to me or anyone else”, i think your thinking is so twisted you are going up your own arse

    d) which is evidenced by your alarming neologism “metahermeneutic imperialism” which the criticism herein exposes as itself totally meaningless

    you need to take a holiday

  5. 5  Steven  February 18, 2011, 6:01 pm 

    I’m glad you found “metahermeneutic imperialism” alarming.

    you need to take a holiday

    Tell me about it.

  6. 6  C. Reaves  February 19, 2011, 12:59 pm 

    It is interesting that I thought the “meaningful transition” to be the clearest and most important part of the message to Mubarak. In the past, transitions and reforms in Egypt have been in name only. The language clearly indicated that if Mubarak ceded power to his Vice-President it would have been a transition in name only, and not in any way meaningful to the Egyptian people. In the same way, the language indicated that a meaningless transition to military rule with the military merely transitioning to Mubarak v2.0 (Mubarak being by and of the military) was not the outcome desired by the United States.

    Without the “meaningful” part, I think the message would have been much more likely to have been seen by the entrenched rulers of Egypt as a show of support.

  7. 7  john c. halasz  February 20, 2011, 5:00 am 

    “Metahermeneutic imperialism” just proves you’re an Oxbridge toff and a Kraut symp to boot!

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