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Aspirational goals

Pipe dreams, feral beasts, ‘redesignation’, exciting prose, Gaza

By way of apology for my latest bout of feckless non-posting, I present a brief round-up. Happily, Unspeak doesn’t go away just because I ignore it for a while. At the end of May, George W. Bush attempted to pre-empt the G8 on global warming with an alternative vision for reducing carbon emissions. Jim Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on “Environmental Quality”, was challenged by a sceptical reporter:

Q Now I’m confused. Does that mean there will be targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions and that everybody will be making binding commitments to each other about greenhouse gas reductions — or, at the end of the day, are those just voluntary commitments?

CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: The commitment at the international level will be to a long-term aspirational goal —

Q Voluntary.

CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: Well, I want to be careful about the word “voluntary,” because we do these kinds of goals all the time, international agreements. It’s the implementing mechanisms that become binding.

One should always be careful about the word “voluntary”, in case it gives the right impression. Still, aspirational goal is a lovely coinage. “Aspirational” is a glossy-magazine lifestyle fantasy of fast cars, large houses and single-malt whiskies. And aspirations are always virtuous, even if they are — almost by definition — not actually going to be accomplished. As the poet said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Tony “Still here?” Blair criticized the media, calling it a feral beast. Evidently he would prefer it to be a tame beast, docile and obedient — as, perhaps, when it swallowed the drugged meat of “Saddam can launch a bioweapon attack in 45 minutes” and so forth. Happy days they were, just before the war. That the media has since descended into what Blair decries as “cynicism” ((Of which Alastair Campbell has also complained in the past, not without a certain pathos.)) is, of course, a terrible injustice that hurts all of society and is spoiling his legacy.

Meanwhile, at Guantanamo Bay, a judge ruled that the “Military Commissions” had no jurisdiction over prisoners:

The military judge, Col. Peter E. Brownback III of the Army, said that Congress authorized the tribunals to try only those detainees who had been determined to be unlawful enemy combatants. But the military authorities here, he said, have determined only that Mr. Khadr was an enemy combatant, without making the added determination that his participation was “unlawful.”

The Pentagon spokesman’s riposte was enlightening:

“For all intents and purposes it’s the same thing,” said Commander Gordon. “It’s just an issue of semantics. We’ve already said they were unlawful in 2004-2005 because of a variety of factors. They don’t wear a uniform. They’re not members of [the] armed forces of another nation-state. They don’t display arms openly. They don’t have a chain of command. All those issues make them unlawful enemy combatants. So they were already ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ back when they were designated as such, however the technical verbiage was just ‘enemy combatant.'”

Interesting that Gordon would refer to technical verbiage, almost as though such labels were thrown around by the administration without any regard to their actual meaning in law, so as to enable prisoners to be held for years without trial. Of course, it’s just an issue of semantics, and we all know that semantics, ie what words mean, ie what things they might actually refer to in the world, is irrelevant in the context of a reality-creating imperial TWAT.
But all is not lost: as explained here, prisoners can simply be redesignated as “unlawful enemy combatants”. Do you think that the decision as to what is or is not “unlawful” ought to be left to, you know, a trial? Well, that is all very well as an “aspirational goal”, perhaps, but redesignation is so much more efficient.

Literary interlude: in the current issue of the New York Review of Books is a piece that apparently hopes to pass for literary criticism: Andrew O’Hagan laments Don DeLillo’s “inability”, in the novel Falling Man, “to conjure his usual exciting prose”:

In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly — but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger.

It is left up to the reader to imagine what exactly might qualify as “exciting prose”, not as I remember any sort of Empsonian category, and further to to try to understand what on earth “September 11” itself is doing as an actor in the above sentence, somehow jumping in to neuter DeLillo’s writing before — before? — DeLillo can render it in a mode competent to excite Andrew O’Hagan. It is true that exciting Andrew O’Hagan must be accounted a worthy “aspirational goal” for any writer of prose, even if the standards are so high that most will surely fail.

Lastly, the international strategy of isolating and imposing sanctions upon the elected Palestinian government appears to be bearing fruit. Yesterday in Gaza, an institution changed hands:

Hamas fighters took over the Fatah-run Preventive Security compound, driving away in cars loaded with weapons, computers, office furniture and other equipment.

Perhaps preventive security was all along a poignant “aspirational goal”, rather than a description of successful acts. If preventive security didn’t work, it may now be time for preventive war. After all, there is already a shining example of that in the region.

  1. 1  Alex  June 15, 2007, 3:34 pm 

    “Aspirational” in this sense came into the Civil Service in the early 00s. As in: “Tony Zoffis says we’ve got to do x more foo this year.” “But we’ll need y more bar to do that!” “I know, I know, but it’s aspirational.”

    It was read at the time as meaning “stuff that’s impossible but you’ll suffer if it’s not done.” Now, I think it’s more like “stuff a crazy powerful person wants, that we ignore, but leave in the documents to please them.”

    For example: “Minister, that’s impossible without more bar….but we could include it as an aspirational goal.”

  2. 2  Steven  June 15, 2007, 3:48 pm 

    Thanks for the background – it all sounds wonderfully Yes, Minister. Also, via The Road to Surfdom, I see the G8’s own announcement of a hope to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 was downplayed as merely “aspirational” by the Australian Foreign Minister.

  3. 3  richard  June 15, 2007, 9:45 pm 

    “In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly — but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger.”

    What surprises me about this passage is not that it makes no sense, nor that it’s exciteable drivel (from an allegedly unexcited writer), but that the copy-editor let it through in this state. I suppose I understand the first part, even though we’re not in the realm of the observable (how would we know about his capabilities in this case, especially if they’re only ‘pretty much’ evident?), but the second part is just mystifying. How would DeLillo make his sentences linger (besides printing them), and what prevent his doing so? Apart from a date being an actor, in what sense does it vanquish their power?

    On the whole binding/voluntary issue, the process of signing, supporting and ratifying international resolutions is a complex game, with room for many non-obvious strategies, in which seemingly-simple actions are scrutinised for layers of secondary meaning – I can well imagine that somebody playing such a game would be cagey about describing it. Sadly, there may not be a better option available to Connaughton.

  4. 4  Steven  June 15, 2007, 11:31 pm 

    More good reasons to find O’Hagan puzzling. I must admit to finding it fascinating when one novelist seeks to criticize the prose of another novelist to whom he is manifestly inferior as a writer of prose. Yet another reason to be puzzled is the very next sentence after the one I quoted:

    Good prose in a novel depends on its ability to exhale a secret knowledge, to have the exact weight of magic in relation to the material, the true moral rhythm.

    “Exhale a secret knowledge”? “The exact weight of magic” = “the true moral rhythm”? 3.4kg of magic = dotted quaver-semiquaver? Good lord.

    I take your point about Connaughton, who might not have been being deliberately disingenuous. I suppose the problem is that “aspirational”, as Alex’s examples and my #2 show, has almost become exclusively code for “impossible bullshit”.

  5. 5  richard  June 16, 2007, 8:05 am 

    “moral rhythm” has me thinking all Catholic, and in general I’m in favour of all the magic that can be squeezed in. I suppose this stuff only looks like bullshit when it’s poorly executed.

  6. 6  dsquared  June 17, 2007, 1:44 pm 

    I think the private sector equivalent is a “stretch target”, which has the settled meaning of a target that management do not propose to achieve, but want a bonus for anyway.

  7. 7  Guano  June 18, 2007, 3:49 pm 

    Such as the “aspirational objective” of creating a democratic Iraq, which in turn would create a democratic Middle East in which all the Governments would be pro-Western and whose citizens would all cease to hate the West: ie a pipe-dream, without any concrete plan even for the first step (though anyone who failed to buy into had lost their moral compass).

  8. 8  Thom  June 18, 2007, 4:36 pm 

    Blair’s speech on the media is possibly the worst ever made by a sitting Prime Minister. Such self-righteousness! Such breathtaking hypocrisy!

    As for Andrew O’Hagan, I empathise thoroughly. I mean, since Princess Di died, so much literature has simply lost all meaning for me. How can people sit there and enjoy their Martin Amis after such a catastrophe?

  9. 9  STANLEY MARGOLIES  July 31, 2008, 5:38 am 

    Our beloved President Bush just used the term “aspirational goals” in connection with Iraq, and I had no idea of what he was saying. Now I understand that it simply means a pipe-dream. Why can’t he simply speak English? I guess that he simply doesn’t want us to understand what he is saying. Does he?

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