UK paperback


A euphemism for Unspeak?

The New York Review of Books contains an essay, by David Bromwich, entitled “Euphemism and American Violence“, which unaccountably fails to climax with a rousing recommendation that NYRB readers rush out and buy Unspeak. Even so, it is an interesting read, touching on many examples that I’ve discussed in my book and here at, and a few I haven’t: I particularly liked Bromwich’s reading of Condoleezza Rice’s invocation of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”.

The main problem with the essay’s approach, as I see it, is already right there in the title. Like just about everyone who reaches for George Orwell’s essay in order to discuss contemporary political language, Bromwich assumes that “euphemism” is a sufficient description of what is going on. But it isn’t. After all, one of Bromwich’s own prime examples, the phrase “global war on terrorism”, is not exactly euphemistic, because calling something a “war” does not constitute an attempt to make it sound nicer than it is. To euphemize a campaign of killing, you instead call it a “conflict” or an “incursion” or an “intervention” ((Oliver Kamm, the noted obituarist, music critic, and enthusiast of bombing civilians (as long as the bombs — atomic, “cluster”, whatever — are dropped from airplanes rather than strapped to suicidists), recently referred to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as an “intervention”.)) — or, indeed, a “struggle”, as in the short-lived Global Struggle Against Violent Euphemism Extremism. But GWOT or TWAT or “war on terror” is obviously designed to sound as apocalyptically grandiose and world-historical as possible.

Perhaps this is still euphemistic in some way, in that it lends a rhetorical illusion of logic, homogeneity and necessity to a grab-bag (or smash-and-grab-bag) of different actions: but if so, this is a very specific reason for the choice of language. (Another reason for the specific formulation “war on terror” was, as I argued in Unspeak, to conflate state and non-state actors indiscriminately, thus writing a cheque for unlimited remodelling of the world by force.) Bromwich, apparently still in thrall to Orwell’s vague talk of “cloudy vagueness” in political language, misses such concrete policy implications of the rhetoric: apparently, it’s useful just because it’s not “definite”; it creates a “mood”, as do all “euphemisms”. And thus Bromwich’s critique of euphemism is infected with the blurriness of euphemism itself.

To assume that everything is “euphemism”, moreover, is to ignore the rhetorical current, just as useful, of its opposite: dysphemism, when you pretend that things are worse than they really are — a strategy nicely packaged up in phrases such as “terrorist suspects”, “bogus asylum-seekers”, and perhaps most notoriously, “axis of evil”, about as far from a euphemism, in one direction, as it is possible to get.

For a moment, the naked cynicism of dysphemistic rhetoric was gloriously revealed the other day, when John McCain started blabbing about how Iran was training and arming Al Qaeda. Now, I do not actually think, as my friend Jeff Hussein Strabone argues, that this betrayed “ignorance” on McCain’s part. I suspect, rather, that it just showed how thoroughly he has internalized the propaganda lesson that calling people “Al Qaeda” gives you carte blanche to launch bombs at wherever they might be; and that it handily reinforces the fiction that “Al Qaeda” is actually a homogeneous global force that poses an existential threat to the American way of life, etc; as well as the more specific fiction that “Al Qaeda” has been the enemy all along in Iraq. It would be tediously restrictive to save the term “Al Qaeda” for the groups or groupuscules that actually claim that brand for themselves; so “Al Qaeda” becomes the preferred globally applicable bogey-label to mean “bad guys to whom we can do anything we like” — and in that sense it is quite understandable that McCain should have made the slip he did.

Notable, too, that his corrected version called the Shia forces allegedly backed by Iran instead “extremists”, which was part of the abortive G-SAVE slogan and constitutes the most helpfully wide definition of “people we’d like to kill” — because, after all, a war just against Osama’s gang didn’t quite offer the planetary scope required. And that brings us back to why “war on terror” has always been the publicly preferred version of what is known internally to the military as the “global war on terrorism”, because restricting the target to terrorism would have made it even harder to pretend that Saddam Hussein was part of the same picture. But no one could deny that he was a perpetrator of “terror”.

So. Euphemism? That’s not the half of it. As commenter SW argues incisively: “Perhaps ‘euphemism’ is a bit of unspeak as well — the audience consists of passive mooks lulled into acquiescence by the sweet words, which are chosen only because they sound better, not because they are doing any work.”

Final quiz: is Bromwich committing any amount of euphemism, or alternatively Unspeak, himself when he refers to the administration’s announcement of the TWAT as “launching their response to Islamic jihadists” — and if so, how much?

  1. 1  sw  March 21, 2008, 6:39 pm 

    What – re: You, McCain and Jeff Hussein Strabone – is the difference between “internalising a propaganda lesson” and “ignorance”? Is it like the difference between “unspeak” and “euphemism”? (BTW, I quite accept your explanation for why McCain’s internalized propaganda and/or ignorance is effective propaganda, so I’m not questioning that in the slightest; I have entirely internalized that propaganda lesson!)

  2. 2  Steven  March 21, 2008, 6:46 pm 

    Perhaps I gave the wrong impression with my use of the term “internalized”. I wanted to say simply that McCain understands this tactic very well and uses it almost automatically, if you will, and hence his mistake in this context; but I don’t believe for a moment that he is in fact ignorant of the varying differences between Shia and Sunni groups in the region etc.

  3. 3  sw  March 21, 2008, 8:26 pm 

    Given the well-chronicled ignorance of certain American politicians with prominent roles in foreign affairs decision-making, the burden is probably on a journalist to ask McCain whether or not he knows the difference and, if he does, to explain it; in short, guilty until proven innocent.

    Actually, that would be guilty [of ignorance] until proven guilty [of propagandistic deception]. Which henceforth shall be my motto.

  4. 4  Graham Giblin  March 22, 2008, 6:53 am 

    Perhaps Bromwich meant “Euphuism and American Violence” in its sense of “to grow, bring forth”, since he quotes Condoleezza Rice:

    What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing—the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.

    Ah, yes. America, not as the harbinger of death and destruction but as the wholesome Midwife of Democracy. And perhaps euphuism is a way of describing what Bromwich calls “a style of white-lipped eloquence that Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson had begun to plot into his major speeches,” a “‘grand style’ that skated between hyperbole and evasion”.

    I began reading Bromwich’s article because of being ordered to by WIIIAI [“it will be on the final”]. I have found it increased my own understanding and flattered me by corroborating my own long-held beliefs. At the same time, I appreciate having my attention drawn to the nicer points of meaning and intent in his article, including those meanings that may be unconscious and owe more to the writer’s culture than his intellect. What worries me is the possibility that the baby may be thrown out with the bath water. Is it a critique or a criticism? What is the value of Bromwich’s article? Does he expose the US administration’s intentional abuse of language or not? Is he expanding our understanding of how the administration flat out lies and manipulates – whether you call it euphemism, Unspeak or Weasel Words – or not? Is the Final Quiz a little too harsh? After all, all language is metaphor (he asserted courageously) and nobody can avoid it. Is his conclusion acceptable?

    The effect has been to tranquilize our self-doubts and externalize all the evils we dare to think of.

    Elsewhere in the last few days I tripped over a foul-smelling, steaming stool of a Bushism which I believe is pure Unspeak and which has been reported without comment by any number of MSM outlets (even Dan Froomkin) as if it were quite normal language. It’s the use of the verb “sacrifice” in an intransitive sense.

    Asked about his meeting with family members of those killed in battle, Bush responded: “I try to get them to talk about their loved one. I want to learn about each individual person who sacrificed, what they were like, what their interests were, and a lot of times the families love sharing their stories with the Commander-in-Chief.”

    I am just about speechless; splutteringly incapable of properly expressing my disgust. Almost. I look forward to hearing what clearer heads might make of it.

  5. 5  richard  March 22, 2008, 1:14 pm 

    I liked his summary quotes, especially of Bush’s speeches boiling down to an image of decisiveness, with an insinuation of contempt for persons slower to pass from thought to action.

    The breakfast cereal thing, while funny, was pure unspeak in itself, though… leading me to wonder if unspeak (as a theoretical category, rather than a species of political speech in the narrow sense) might not be a fundamental component of humour.

  6. 6  Steven  March 23, 2008, 1:47 pm 

    sw, on the matter of McCain’s “ignorance” or otherwise — I think there might be a danger in resorting in the first instance to such charges, in that we might be tempted to stop our analysis there and not try to understand what lies behind the apparent ignorance. In the same way, it is all too tempting to dismiss the nominal current President as a moron, but what lies behind his evident ignorance is Dick Cheney.

    Graham — some lovely points. I do not mean to be too harsh on Bromwich’s article, to say that is has little value. It does have value, and it should be evident from my own work that I believe his points are important and worth making. It is good that such an article be published in a place like the NYRB. I do think, though, that his interpretive paradigm of “euphemism” limits his analysis in important ways.

    As for George W. Bush saying:

    I want to learn about each individual person who sacrificed, what they were like, what their interests were, and a lot of times the families love sharing their stories with the Commander-in-Chief.

    That is really something, the way he turns round the story of meeting people for whose bereavement he is responsible into a way to puff up his own ego as “Commander-in-Chief”. As for the use of “sacrifice”, it is quite disturbing, isn’t it? Were they sacrificing goats, or young virgins?

    Richard —

    if unspeak (as a theoretical category, rather than a species of political speech in the narrow sense) might not be a fundamental component of humour.

    A very interesting idea! Perhaps the theorists of comedy among my readers have a view.

  7. 7  Alex Higgins  March 23, 2008, 2:08 pm 

    The use of the word sacrifice in this context should always be preceded by the word ‘human’ as in:

    “Bush tells America of need for human sacrifice”

  8. 8  Graham Giblin  March 23, 2008, 2:59 pm 

    Steven, thank you yes I would never imagine you would be unfair or anything. I think I understand – you would only temper steel of a quality that was worthy of the flame. (I try to keep up with the big boys but my legs get tired.)

    It occurred to me today that there actually is a more or less common intransitive¹ usage of “sacrifice”. It’s when parents complain, “How can you be so ungrateful? I’ve worked hard and sacrificed to give you a decent education and put a roof over your head (alt: to put dinner on my family)”. But I think they may mean “sacrificed” slightly differently from George Bush …

    ¹Not really intransitive, though; the “my own life/ hopes/ dreams/ happiness/ prospects/ career” is understood.

  9. 9  sw  March 24, 2008, 4:07 pm 

    Steven – Regarding McCain’s ignorance: yes. I see your point. Still concerned that he might be ignorant and that this ignorance might lead to bad decisions; but also agree that one must be willing to countenance what lies behind.

    Regarding Richard’s excellent observation on the relation between unspeak and comedy – I abhor theorists of comedy as a type of slug-like creature appended to the dark underside of a joke, but I do have some thoughts on the matter.

    An appreciation of the unspoken is central to comedy: the unspoken link bridging incongruous elements, the unspoken superiority evinced in some fundamental observation about the other, the unspoken “tendencies” (Freud) or “corrective” (Bergson) that is being alluded to but that cannot be directly said. All of these unspoken features need to be packaged in the language in a form that the audience gets; the question is how Poolian unspeak (as opposed to just “the unspoken”) may be a category here. There are a number of similarities: because the language is political and because “words [are being used] as weapons”, there will be relations of superiority and inferiority, so central to Hobbesian notions of laughter. Because language is referring to itself and something else (“climate change” refers to itself and by way of unspeaking it, “global warming”), it contains what Kierkegaard saw as a fundamental feature of comedy: “relations, misrelations”, which is sometimes glossed as “connecting incongruity”. And there are the Freudian “tendencies”, or Bergson’s “corrective”: the work that the language is doing. At some level people get the fact that “ethnic cleansing” unspeaks “genocide” (which is why it is not just a euphemism – it’s doing some work), just as people get the fact that when Woody Allen says “My love life is terrible – the last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty” the word “inside” is doing some, ahem, work. I would suggest that the question is: is this the same type of work?

    The best current joke circulating out there comes, of course, from The Onion, & provides a useful starting point to understanding the connection between unspeak and comedy. Their headline reads:

    Black Man Asks Nation For Change

    It’s genius.

    There’s a clever verbal association between loose coins rattling in your pockets and a politican’s ambition to alter the course of national and global history. There’s also the verbal association between Barack Obama and the “black man” who you don’t quite look at even as he tries to attract your attention to beg from you. Both alternatives are at once spoken and unspoken, both contained in the same words. There is also the play on superiorities, such that Obama, as a figure of respect and even almost spiritual transcendence, is conflated with the homeless guy who is all body, animalistic, unevolved and scrounging for a living – plus any other relations to superiority present in a racist joke (and which are contigent, to some extent, on who is saying it and why; this is a crucial difference: Unspeak is unspeak regardless of who is saying it, insofar as “climate change” is always unspeak, whereas “Take my wife – please” may be a joke if uttered in the 1950s on a vaudeville stage but not if Henry VIII says it – or, vice versa). And there is the catharsis, too, in enjoying what ought not be said, whether this is a tendency to racial hostility or a corrective of Obama’s transcendence of race: Obama’s pristine, almost post-racial radiance is just begging for some good racist jokes (and yes, there is such a thing as a good racist joke – this is an example). Kierkegaard’s definition that sees laughter emerging from “relations, misrelations” captures the numerous linguistic, social, and moral relations and misrelations that are all packaged into the Onion headline. Kierkegaard also saw that comedy was a type of qualitative leap but, unlike a spiritual qualitative leap, one that remained worldly and external: so, one has to interpret a joke, get it, hear the Unspeak in it, but what one interprets, gets, hears is very much of the world – Obama and his rhetoric are returned to the mire of racism, to the world of racial categorisation, to the world of racial degradation, to the bodily and the consuming. (And this is also why comedy so often is, as Aristotle said, a species of disgrace: Obama is not elevated, he is diminished as he conflated with the despised, threatening but pathetic figure holding out a cup and asking for change – all that is worldly about him is foregrounded).

    Unspeak (TM) is not so context dependent, as we saw. And though analysis of Unspeak might be witty, clever, and indeed very funny, Unspeak itself has fewer “relation, misrelations” at its beck and call: “climate change” unspeaks “global warming”, “abuse” unspeaks “torture”, “black man” unspeaks Obama’s racial blends – but “Black man” in the headline, as a joke, does a lot more work regarding “Black men” than what it unspeaks. In part, this is because Unspeak (TM) rarely becomes unwordly – it is always the language of politics, and so is not subject to the problems of disgrace, to Bakhtinian ambivalences about hierarchy: note, the language of politics may describe disgrace and there may be hierarchies involved, but these are taking place within the same context of political language. And because of this, there are a limited number of “relations, misrelations” articulated in Unspeak (TM); the specific link that binds the spoken with the unspeak is one that Poole has defined and clarified. “Ethnic cleansing” unspeaks “genocide” for reasons that have been discussed; it is clear, it tends not to be ambiguous.

    So, when Richard says “unspeak (as a theoretical category, rather than a species of political speech in the narrow sense)”, I think he is expanding Unspeak (TM) beyond its borders: it is a species of political speech in a narrow sense; this specific, “narrow” sense is its strength, not a weakness. The funny stuff isn’t Unspeak – it’s what people (such as Snr. Poole) do with it. And what do people (such as Snr. Poole) do with it? They expose. Comedy, for all its unspoken genius, is about exposing people and stripping them (Freud again). Unspeak (TM) is opposed to “exposing”; it is political rhetorical violence designed to hide, limit, mask or otherwise erase the thing that is being unspoken. Rumsfeld’s numerous acts of Unspeak are not funny – but Poole’s exposure of Rumsfeld in Unspeak (TM) is. See also discussions of Amis, Hitchens, et al on this page. The funny bits are when these figures are made subject to the worldly disgrace they think they transcend, by way of an analysis of their unfunny pronouncements. Obama’s Change might, in fact, be subject to an analysis as an act of Unspeak, but it only becomes funny when put into play within a different set of relations, a different set of hierarchies, and a different set of political contexts, none of which are fundamental to Unspeak (TM).

    And now I will return to the sludgy underside of the stone.

  10. 10  Steven  March 24, 2008, 5:48 pm 

    I hope you will forgive me if, by way of answer to your very interesting comment, I explore just a few remarks.

    Unspeak is unspeak regardless of who is saying it

    I don’t think so. There are examples of what I propose as Unspeak that have normal and useful connotations but may become Unspeak depending on the context and the speaker. “Community” is one.

    there is such a thing as a good racist joke – this is an example

    Thanks for linking to the Obama joke, which is indeed brilliant. But it’s not a racist joke, is it? It’s a joke about racism. If it were a racist joke, it wouldn’t be funny in the way that it is funny; or perhaps, it would make a different audience laugh, which maybe amounts to the same thing. But as it stands it is not a racist joke, because it doesn’t depend on the audience’s sharing the racist assumptions it describes. On the contrary, it depends on the audience’s not sharing them while understanding that they exist.

    “Ethnic cleansing” unspeaks “genocide” for reasons that have been discussed; it is clear, it tends not to be ambiguous.

    I can’t quite tell whether you are proposing here that Unspeak™ in general is always clear and not ambiguous. If so, I can’t agree. Unspeak is very often deliberately ambiguous, as with “war on terror”, “questioned by experts”, “sustainable ceasefire”, etc. If it were always clear what Unspeak were Unspeaking, it would no longer function very effectively as Unspeak. (And we have talked before of examples where this historical process of an Unspeak term’s losing its obfuscatory force seems already to have taken place, eg with “concentration camp”.)

    The funny stuff isn’t Unspeak

    I am grateful that you find some of my stuff funny. But saying, rightly, that the funny stuff isn’t the Unspeak itself is not really an argument that Unspeak cannot sometimes be a component of comedy, is it? After all, the funny stuff isn’t humiliation, exposure, suffering, death, etc, either, even though these can all be components of comedy. No theoretical component of comedy is itself funny: comedy is not made of atoms of comedy, as a brown shoe is not made of brown atoms. So I don’t think you can rule something out as a factor in comedy by saying it isn’t funny.

    I leave it as an open question whether Unspeak™ is sometimes a factor in comedy. I think it might be, though I can’t right now think of any jokes. I doubt it is necessarily a factor in all comedy. But then, I’m not aware of anything that is necessarily a factor in all comedy. Which is the problem that theorists of it have always had to face.

  11. 11  sw  March 24, 2008, 6:44 pm 

    Consider yourself forgiven. And I ask your forgiveness, too, for disagreeing with you.

    But yeah, of course it’s a racist joke if you accept that a joke can be “racist” (one might want to restrict accusations of racism to a pattern of behaviours or set of beliefs rather than a specific utterance, in which case I withdraw my claim that it is a racist joke; but if you think that it might be useful to describe a joke as racist or not – and I do – then this qualifies; your argument that it is “about racism” isn’t helpful because the most vile racist jokes can, with a little contextual tweaking – e.g., taken from a white boor’s mouth and uttered by David Chappelle – become a very clever joke “about racism”, and so being “a joke about racism” is always possibly a “racist joke”). But it’s really not the “assumptions” that make it racist or not, because those “assumptions” are jus that: assumptions about what is being shared – you and your neighbour may both laugh at the joke and you may assume that he is laughing at the same thing as you because you seem to share values and political positions, but perhaps he’s laughing without an ironic distance from the synecdochal black figure as a beggar on the street corner – a distance you have. The joke depends upon a nugget of knowledge: black people are the people asking for change on the street corner. Now, you may be enlightened about this, and you and the audience you identify with may share this enlightenment, knowing full well that black people are not the only people on the street corner begging, and those who are are not there because of their laziness but through complex historical and economic forces and because of racism . . . but, unfortunately, none of this is necessarily contained in the joke, and so that knowledge – that black people are begging for change on the corner – is entirely compatible with racist assumptions or “facts”. I would argue that this joke is racist simply because it conjures laughter at the conflation of a black leader with a stereotypical derided black figure; how we play with this and understand this will vary, but at some point, we are laughing at the black homeless man with the cup. I’m okay with that – I think the joke works for lots of reasons I state above, and I think it can be salvaged in numerous ways as something that is socially as well as comically valuable, but I still think that it’s saying something racist.

    And I don’t think that my language about ambiguity was very useful – I was trying to derive it from Kierkegaard and Bakhtin where it refers to a sort of existential oscillation between ways of being (spiritual and worldly, historical and local), not a semantic ambiguity. Jokes and comedy, I’m trying to say, are moving through these different spaces (the way the Obama joke moves through different notions of The Black Man in the joke; the way the audience moves through different notions of what it means to be addressed by a black man politically, economicially, on the street corner, etc.); the ambiguity of unspeak remains contained in the domain of the political. Something identified as Unspeak (TM) by some may not be considered Unspeak (TM) by others; how something is Unspeak (TM) may be debated. But if one wants to countenance a Bahktinian or Kierkegaardian account of comedy – and perhaps one doesn’t, or perhaps I have misrepresented them – one would have to be comfortable with this other way of talking about ambiguity and ambivalence, and this other way is not the same as in Unspeak (TM).

    I do think it’s a bit unfair of you to talk about comic atoms and brown shoe atoms and the one factor that is present in all comedy – if one wants to talk about comedy in any sort of cogent “theoretical” way, one must resort to generalisations, and I will promptly withdraw from any further discussion and request that you remove my posts altogether if you hold me to a belief in comic atoms or the notion that there is one explanation for what is funny and what is not.

    So I don’t think you can rule something out as a factor in comedy by saying it isn’t funny.

    Which is the entire problem of comedy, isn’t it? (“Comedy” as genre is another issue – we are not sitting here discussing whether Unspeak (TM) has anything to do with Dionysus or Spring rejuvenation rituals or phalluses . . . well . . . )

    Let me put another spin on this entire question, though.

    Unspeak (TM) is an ongoing analysis of language. Appreciation of the comic is a fundamentally non-analytical process: whether one wants to refer to Freud’s unconscious or the immediacy with which one gets a joke or the innumerable quotes that argue how jokes cannot be studied, one is left with two very different approaches to language. They might even be antithetical. Unspeak (TM) is about listening to and articulating and revealing hidden meanings, nuances, the political violence packaged in a word or phrase; joking (TM) is about hearing those things without articulating or revealing them. So, one might say that Unspeak (TM) is an active exposure, whereas joking is a passive exposure.

    But, that’s enough from me.

  12. 12  sw  March 24, 2008, 6:47 pm 

    Well, not quite enough. Regarding my paragraph on what you are holding me to or not holding me to – I see that your last sentence is:

    Which is the problem that theorists of it have always had to face.

    Right, that’s it. So, just assume I was aware of that problem. ;-)

  13. 13  richard  March 24, 2008, 9:58 pm 

    that’s a lot more thoughtful discussion than I had any right to expect from my little note. Many, many thanks. I’ll be a while digesting it.

  14. 14  Steven  March 25, 2008, 1:11 am 

    Nah, it’s not a racist joke.

    Unspeak (TM) is about listening to and articulating and revealing hidden meanings, nuances, the political violence packaged in a word or phrase; joking (TM) is about hearing those things without articulating or revealing them.

    That’s interesting, but what happens if we compare like with like? Unspeak ie my book/blog project is indeed, as you say, about articulating and revealing hidden meanings. But Unspeak the phenomenon of political language is about not articulating or revealing them — just as you say joking/appreciation of the comic is!

    Unspeak is to Unspeak as comedy is to the theory of comedy.

    As you rightly say, we laugh at a joke without explicitly articulating to ourselves what is going on within it; as we do so articulate it then it risks ceasing to be funny. Just so, Unspeak works as long as its auditors do not explicitly think about what it is saying and un-saying; as soon as they do, it ceases to work as Unspeak. So maybe the two are not so different after all. Both comedy and Unspeak depend on exploiting the suspension of our critical faculties.

  15. 15  Matt  March 25, 2008, 2:32 am 

    Much thanks to both Steven and SW for the above dialogue, which was both illuminating and expansive and touched on many critical ideas with language use.

    Personally, I have always seen the analysis of Unspeak as an ‘interference’ between speaker and listener. (If we can imagine Steven hanging from the rafters of an auditorium and swooping down on utterances before they reach the ears of the audience, slicing and dicing them, exposing the falsehoods and then packaging them in a way that lays bare this ‘hidden meaning’ and the mendacity of its intentions: True Super Hero stuff!)

    But when this analysis is left solely up to the listener / reader, we engage in a kind of self-interference (excuse any accompanying imagery), and we attempt to, but do not always succeed in, packaging the truth ourselves. The exposure is reflective and we must ask ourselves: can I be bothered seeking the essence or truth here? It is a highly active, fluid task that I think is noble but also equally exhausting. Hence the effectiveness of the propaganda-transmission to the many tired and pummeled ears.

    I agree that much of unspeak can rest on ambiguity, though it is a perceived ambiguity; that is, the speaker takes for granted the intelligence of the listener and perceives that he or she is slipping one passed the keeper. This kind of contempt has probably led to many lounge-room assassination plots, or less criminally-driven, changes of government.

    I also agree that the Black Man asks Nation for Change is not a racist joke but a joke about racism in America. While it is a critical distinction, I doubt the effect on the reader is any different, explicit or not in its undertakings.

    If I can finish on one point for which I may have raised with Steven before, and indeed may be a tired line of questioning: How deep can the analysis of Unspeak go before we begin dealing with something that is too particular, too heavy on semantics, too muddled and bogged down in the varied assumptions of readers’? If we bore and bore and bore and are still in a state of disagreement and debate, does it not render the initial Unspeak not Unspeak at all? Perhaps in this way an Unspeak Crusader might seek to find that which is not always there…and in latching onto something makes more out of it than it really is. (Of course, the disclaimer for this has nothing to do with the clear-cut cases that are often so readily available by typing “George W. Bush” and “speech” into Google).


  16. 16  Jeff Hussein Strabone  March 25, 2008, 5:54 am 

    Perhaps if I used my RSS reader rather than relying on my internal clock to tell me when to visit your blog, I would have known I was involved in the discussion.

    Regarding McCain’s statements linking al-Qaeda and Iran, which he reiterated even after Lieberman’s correction, I very much like your reading. I agree that ‘al-Qaeda’ has come to mean ‘those guys’, but I still believe on a case-by-case basis that many American politicians are soooo stupid that, several years into war, they still don’t know their ass from their elbow, or their Sunni from their Shia. As you have read at my blog, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, without apparent embarassment, has confessed to being bewildered. Here he is, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX):

    “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

    He’s the intelligence chairman! Sadly, he was not speaking only for himself but for hordes of his fellow legislators.

    The question then is, how stupid is John McCain in these matters? I salute your optimism, Steve, for not being able to believe that McCain is that dumb. Sadly, I do not share your optimism. In the 20+ years that I have been aware of John McCain, I have never observed him to be anything other than a mediocrity. If he knew what he was talking about in Jordan last week, then why did he accept Lieberman’s correction?

    Could such a twit make it this far in American politics without having at least average intelligence? Presidents Ford, Reagan, and the current Bush suggest an answer. Here is my favorite quote from McCain. It is from a November 26, 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal:

    ‘I’m going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.’

    Brilliant. A presidential candidate who doesn’t understand economics and says so to the world. I say he still needs to be educated about Islam. There is no penalty for ignorance in American politics and no incentive to gain knowledge. When American politicians indicate that they don’t know something, I take them at their word.

  17. 17  dsquared  March 25, 2008, 8:18 am 

    It strikes me as interesting and potentially informative to contrast what happened when some lugnut started spreading baseless rumorus about HBOS having had a meeting with the Bank of England (an official denial within 30 minutes, and a promise from the FSA to find and prosecure whoever was spreading such irresponsible rumours), with the fact that anyone who wants to can apparently claim that Iran is a nuclear power that is training al-Qaeda, seemingly with impunity. I noted back in 2003 that it was seemingly a lot easier to launch a $200bn war (chocolate bars and football tickets seemed so much cheaper then too) than to float a $50m company on the NASDAQ, with a lot less demanding standards of information and honesty too. It seems to generalise.

  18. 18  Steven  March 25, 2008, 4:15 pm 

    dsquared: that’s a very interesting observation. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that operations of the economy can impact on the actors concerned directly, whereas plans to kill by bombing a few tens or hundreds of thousands of people of a slightly different skin tone in a country of which they know nothing don’t inflame the egoistic passions so much? Of course, if one takes the hypercynical view that the war was begun for economic ends (among others), then it’s very clever to pursue an economic aim by routing it through a far less regulated sector, that of warmaking.

    Jeff: I love the application of the word “twit” to McCain.

    There is no penalty for ignorance in American politics and no incentive to gain knowledge.

    Very well put. I concede that McCain might very well be ignorant, but still think we mustn’t stop there in our analysis, as I indicated at #6.

    Matt: thank you for the heroic imagery of me swooping becaped from the rafters. You suggest:

    Perhaps in this way an Unspeak Crusader might seek to find that which is not always there…and in latching onto something makes more out of it than it really is.

    I agree that this is a danger, and I’m sure I have been guilty of it. The problem, of course, is that when you have a hammer (a blog about Unspeak), everything looks like a nail (Unspeak). I hope I can rely on my commenters to keep me honest.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts