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At Language Log, a sore Liberman

Bears of little brain often make the same criticism of Unspeak: that it sort of pretends to be politically “balanced”, but really is a thinly disguised rant against “the right”. Perhaps they just skip all that boring stuff about “pro-choice” or “community” or anti-GM paeans to what is “natural” or “ancient hatreds” or the Iraqi “resistance” or the “Apartheid Wall” et cetera; perhaps they think that Tony Blair, leader of the Labour party, is indisputably part of the “right”. Or perhaps they are just really confused as to why a topical book about official language should bang on so much about the current US government, which happens to be Republican. “Where is all the rage against Jimmy Carter?” they splutter incredulously into their soup. Perhaps they don’t even read the criticism of “balance” itself as Unspeak near the end of the book, so furious do they become. Anyway, I have a hypothesis about such critics, which contains a pleasing irony. The hypothesis goes: those whose major criticism of the book is that its “balance” is some kind of act or con-trick, and who pose as defenders of some “true” impartiality, are most likely (as was true of the dullard Spectator reviewer) to be indignant members of the “right” themselves. There are lots of arguments to be had with Unspeak and pointed criticisms to be made of it, but anyone who comes away from the book expressing more outrage towards its “balance” or lack thereof than towards its prime subject, the verbal massaging of torture and killing, is very possibly a partisan hack. Of course, this is only a hypothesis.

Now, a curious post by Professor Mark Liberman of Language Log (a linguistics group blog, some of whose contributors are excellent) takes the form of a sick-note or excuse-letter for not having reviewed Unspeak. Why should have he reviewed it? Well, he says, “the publisher sent me a review copy when it first came out last year”. He forgot to mention that the publicist sent him a copy five months after it came out last year because I asked her to, because he asked me for a “review copy” after I wrote to him, but never mind that now. Liberman explains that he never got around to reviewing Unspeak because he couldn’t quite work out what my intentions were. Sure, it seemed to be “balanced”, but who could really tell?

I got the distinct impression that his main motivation was anger at perceived sins of right-wing rhetoric — just as Milton gives Satan all the best lines, so Poole gives the right all the worst ones — and that the examples of misleading rhetoric from left of center were stuck in pro forma.

Sadly, Liberman couldn’t find a way to settle this important question, to arrive at a definitive answer through psychological speculation as to what exactly was going on in my private brainworld while I was composing the text in 2005 – so he “let it go”. Entirely understandable. Of course, I have no way of knowing what was going on in Don DeLillo’s head when he wrote Falling Man, and yet I got on and reviewed what was actually written in the book anyway. But it’s clearly a suboptimal way of working, having nothing but a volume of printed words to go on. Well, some of us have to do this for a living.

Now, however, Liberman is sure that his earlier suspicion that the book was “insincere” is correct, that Unspeak‘s “goal” is merely “the unilateral disarmament of [Poole’s] political enemies”. What new evidence has illuminated his mind? Why, the fact that here on I recently called “Melanie Phillips” a “frothing demagogic evilist”. Hey, he spurts triumphantly, that’s Unspeak! What a hypocrite! And Poole only goes after Phillips because “she supported the Iraq war”! ((After I emailed Liberman today to inform him politely why I do go after Phillips – because, for example, she claims that global warming is a “totalitarian” fiction while demonstrating herself to be scientifically illiterate, and because she is a serially bigoted user of Unspeak – he did not reply but silently updated his post to argue that the real reason I don’t like her is on account of her book Londonistan and its critique of “multiculturalism”. Er, riiiight.)) QED!

Eh? Liberman implies that he has read the book: he does cite bits from the Introduction and Epilogue, so I’ll assume he at least read those chapters before careening off into his unverifiable fantasies about my motivation. In that case he knows that Unspeak is defined as a style of language that attempts to smuggle in an unspoken argument by insinuation. Now, pop quiz: what is the unspoken argument behind “frothing demagogic evilist”, the argument that I don’t want to go into explicitly? Er, that’s right, there isn’t any. It’s quite clear about what it says: it is honest, forthright abuse, spiced with a satirical nod towards the repeated use of the word “evil” by Mr George W Bush, as examined in Chapter 6 of Unspeak, and by “Melanie” herself. ((To understand, as regular readers do, why “Melanie” merits forthright abuse, see previous instalments of forthright abuse based on analysis of the language “she” actually uses, eg An agenda or Infinitely more or Enemies of civilisation.)) So I’m afraid the ponderous gotcha doesn’t quite work. You would hope that a linguist would be able to tell the difference between Unspeak and open ridicule. Or maybe it is so long since Liberman read the book that he can no longer quite remember.

  1. 1  Jasper Milvain  May 11, 2007, 10:41 pm 

    But you’re accused of calling them “frothy demagogic evilists”. Maybe that’s Unspeak?

  2. 2  Steven  May 11, 2007, 10:46 pm 

    Well, it’s certainly UnRead – but hmm, if I really had said “frothy”, perhaps I would have been slyly likening “Melanie Phillips” to an overpriced Starbucks latte, a concoction of artery-furring milk concealing a stealthy shot of neurotoxin, actually likely in extremely large doses to kill you. That would have been most underhand.

  3. 3  Richard  May 12, 2007, 12:10 am 

    a ‘frothy’ “Melanie” puts me in mind of Robert Antony’s book on Chinese pirates: “Like Froth Floating on the Sea” – which seems like a rather flowery way of writing “scum.”

  4. 4  Adam Kotsko  May 12, 2007, 2:47 am 

    I took periodic brain scans of Don DeLillo while he was writing Falling Man. This doesn’t represent full coverage of the writing process by any means, and I didn’t have the necessary resources to do exploratory scans while he was doing dishes, mowing the lawn, etc. (to see if he might be pondering the novel during those mindless activities) — but it’s certainly better than nothing. I wish you would have said something before you wrote the review.

  5. 5  David Duff  May 12, 2007, 9:45 am 

    Well argued, in a clever, lawyerly way, but I’m wondering if, in view of your boast (or mea culpa) above, I will be permitted in future to give *you* some “forthright abuse”. In other words, can you take it or do you just like to dish it out? I only ask because I want to save you the trouble of interfering with my text in order to make censorship amusing.

    In passing, could you possibly tell me exactly what scientific qualifications *you* possess that allows you to *know* that global warming is not a fiction, totalitarian or otherwise? I only ask because you don’t strike me as a ‘stinks’ man.

  6. 6  Steven  May 12, 2007, 11:14 am 

    Dear troll, you appear to be under the impression that this site is a “democracy” with some sort of commitment to “free speech”, and so any interference with your glorious “text” is “censorship”. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that round here. Read the Comment Policy.

  7. 7  Steven  May 12, 2007, 11:45 am 

    Adam – but, you see, the British publications I write for scroogily refuse to honour expense claims for fMRI time, so it’s tricky if I don’t want to review myself into a pauper’s grave. Perhaps if I worked for the New York Times I could dream of writing something like this.

  8. 8  Steven  May 12, 2007, 11:56 am 

    Well argued, in a clever, lawyerly way

    By the way, I wonder if any lawyer is able to confirm my thesis that the above means nothing more than “Well argued, but fuck you anyway”.
    (See also the post Clever.)

  9. 9  Not Saussure  May 12, 2007, 4:10 pm 

    When lawyers want to say something like that, I think the usual way to do it is to remark that someone’s argued his point with his customary force and eloquence. Unless it’s the judge, in which case you just say you’re indebted to his honour for the point.

    In answer to the substantive point, how can non-scientists judge the matter one way or the other, I’d agree that I can’t but, as I do in every other case that’s outside my expertise, I’m prepared to accept the experts’ consensus unless someone can give me a convincing reason why most of the experts are wrong.

    What we then do about the expert consensus is another question, of course. I mean, I’ve never conducted any research in the matter and I probably wouldn’t understand the medical papers if I were bothered to read them, but I’m perfectly prepared to take my GP’s word for it that smoking’s bad for me. Doesn’t follow I feel obliged to stop, though.

  10. 10  Steven  May 12, 2007, 11:58 pm 

    Oh, indeed, I wasn’t suggesting that lawyers themselves call each other “lawyerly” as an insult.

  11. 11  Not Saussure  May 13, 2007, 1:23 am 

    I know you weren’t. I was just trying to give some assistance to my friend Mr Duff. He doesn’t trust lawyers, you see, and I can’t say I blame him. Nor, indeed, did John Milton:

    On th’ other side up rose
    Belial, in act more graceful and humane;

    A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemd
    For dignity compos’d and high exploit:
    But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
    Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
    The better reason, to perplex and dash
    Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
    To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
    Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas’d the eare,
    And with perswasive accent thus began.

  12. 12  Steven  May 13, 2007, 1:30 am 

    Ah, thank you for the Milton, which also reminds me that the great Milton scholar Stanley Fish is not much liked by Mark Liberman either. In fact, Liberman calls him a “subtle but unregenerate postmodernist”, and so in a way we’re back to this again.

  13. 13  copernicus  May 13, 2007, 12:25 pm 

    Students of the law discover that litigation (in the common law system at any rate) is not designed to determine the “truth” about what happened to lead to court proceedings – it is a contest to determine whether in criminal proceedings the prosecution has made its case beyond a reasonable doubt or in civil proceedings on whose side the balance of probabilities lies.

    This is typically a case of determining who has the most law on their side. Eg, if the cops breach the rights of a suspect (who probably did it), a lawyer will concentrate on the breach to demonstrate that the prosecution does not have enough law on its side to make out its case.

    Right-wingers hate this, despite the fact that it is designed to keep the cops clean and prevent them oppressing the innocent. They call it “lawyerly”.

    However, they will be very happy to receive a lawyerly defence when it comes to the crunch and they’ve been caught leaking the names of CIA operatives to the popular press.

  14. 14  Gdr  May 13, 2007, 3:33 pm 

    Like Mark Liberman, I found your “super-Melanie” post rather disturbing. It’s one thing to give Melanie Phillips’ odious views the kicking they richly deserve, it’s quite another to use a news story that has nothing to do with her as an excuse to insult her as a “frothing demagogic evilist at least twelve feet tall” and as a “tiny frothing dwarf”.

    Sure, Liberman was arguably wrong to suggest that your insults were “unspeak”, and you’re probably innocent of hypocrisy in this case. But your acquittal on this particular charge doesn’t justify the original abuse.

    Much as I despise her views, I think it’s quite wrong to abuse Melanie Phillips in personal terms like this. And it’s an ineffective tactic on your part, at least for this reader: your post makes me feel a little sorry for her, which was not an emotion I thought I would be able to experience after hearing so much of her bile on “The Moral Maze”.

    Do you really want to be someone whose valid criticisms can always be undercut by noting that you’re the guy who called her a “tiny frothing dwarf”?

  15. 15  Not Saussure  May 13, 2007, 4:07 pm 

    Thank you, Steven; I’m glad you liked the Milton, and I hadn’t previously read your piece on postmodernism. I think the problem with American (and many Brits,come to that) scholars and postmodernism is that they tend to work in English deparments and neither read French particularly well nor are at all familiar with Nietzsche, Heidegger and Husserl (I’m not saying I am, but at least I’ve got a bit of a handle on what Derrida is talking about when he discusses them). These have always seemed to me rather problematic deficiencies when you’re reading people who’re concerened with the materiality of the signifier — puns don’t translate very well — and intertextuality.

    As to Copernicus’ point about litigation, I think that’s more true of American than of British courts. At least in criminal law, the test before evidence is allowed in is usually whether the interests of justice are served. Obviously there are various strict legal tests before some sorts of evidence go in (hearsay or bad character, for example) but the ultimate test is usually whether the judge thinks it’s fair on the defendant to let it in, with the presumptions always very much on the defendant’s side (as they should be) and then let the jury see what they make of it. Usually works pretty well in practice.

  16. 16  dsquared  May 13, 2007, 5:18 pm 

    If only I was able to count it as one of my achievements, I would certainly be happy for my gravestone to read:

    “He was the guy who called Melanie Phillips a tiny frothing dwarf”.

  17. 17  Steven  May 13, 2007, 5:26 pm 

    Gdr – I understand your concern, although allow me pedantically to recall that the post in question was speculating as to the physical attributes of a possible “super-‘Melanie'” on another planet, given an increase in gravity: I never claimed that the “real” “Melanie” so far known to science was either 12 feet tall or a dwarf. (I’ve no idea how tall “she” is in “real life”.) As for “frothing demagogic evilist” – well, it’s so absurd that I don’t think it counts as abuse “in personal terms”.

    Even so, point taken: I will try to limit my abuse of her as heretofore to specific contexts of her frothing demagogic evilism.

  18. 18  Not Saussure  May 13, 2007, 6:08 pm 

    I always wonder how Joshua Rosenberg puts up with her. He seems such a calm, reasonable man, which I suppose he’ll have to be.

    Ooops! Is that terribly politcially incorrect?

  19. 19  Not Saussure  May 13, 2007, 6:20 pm 

    Sorry, that last remark was my late wife channelling from beyond the grave.

    Anna would not infrequently read her copy of The Daily Mail over breakfast while I was reading my Telegraph and comment to the effect that Mad Mel’s foaming again about something the judges had done and she looked forward to reading the Telegraph’s legal affairs editor about why his wife had got it back to front.

    Patience of a saint, that Joshua Rosenberg.

  20. 20  copernicus  May 13, 2007, 6:32 pm 

    Not Saussure seems to have expertise in all sorts of areas. While he appears to dissent from my points (wrongly), he fails to provide us with his definition of the “interests of justice”.

    I’ll give him a hint, it isn’t a test of some unknowable “truth” but of the law on either side – dilution of certain rules of evidence notwithstanding.

    USA and England aren’t the only common law jurisdictions by the way. For example, there’s no such thing as “British” courts in the sense you mean. Scotland being a separate CL jurisdiction.

  21. 21  Alex Higgins  May 13, 2007, 9:23 pm 

    “Ooops! Is that terribly politically incorrect?”

    Did you really mean to use that phrase on the Unspeak website? :o)

  22. 22  Nosemonkey  May 13, 2007, 10:53 pm 

    This is what you get for writing for the Guardian…

  23. 23  Not Saussure  May 14, 2007, 1:59 am 

    Copernicus — ‘the interests of justice’ or ‘the interests of public justice’ are the phrases used in the statutes governing such matters. I’ll provide you with the references should you so wish. What ‘the interests of justice’ may be is a matter for the judge hearing the case to decide, after submissions from both sides.

    I’ve recently been involved in a matter where we went though, line by line, with the judge a statement given by a complainant, a man of bad character, concerning his allegations of blackmail and robbery against a defendant of even worse character. Some of the complainant’s allegations were palpably false. Some were backed up by CCTV evidence and evidence from other, independent, witnesses. Neither he nor his partner were willing to give evidence, since they’d been menaced with threats against them and their children (a charge to which the defendant had previously pleaded guilty) should they appear in court and give evidence against him.

    Then, of course, the judge had to decide whether or not,should the (contested) statements be admitted, it could be explained why the complainant wasn’t available to give live evidence and be cross-examined.

    The over-riding question, other than the factual ones (was the statement made by the complainant and so forth) that had to be decided was whether or not it was fair to put the evidence before a jury and let them see what they made of it. Parts of it were admitted and parts of it weren’t. How do you say the matter should have been handled?

    Yes, I used ‘British’ as shorthand for ‘English and Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish’. Sorry about that.

    Alex — yes, I did. Postmodernist irony, you see.

  24. 24  copernicus  May 14, 2007, 4:36 pm 

    I think you’re missing the point. “Interests of justice” is not subjective. It has a meaning. Not the meaning you think – which seems to be “finding the guilty guilty”; a concept alien to law.

    The judge doesn’t decide what the meaning of “in the interests of justice” is on a case by case basis although what is in the interests of justice will fall to be discovered on the facts.

    “I used British as shorthand for English, Welsh etc”

    I know! My point is you can’t.

  25. 25  Barney  May 14, 2007, 5:21 pm 

    There’s another sly phrase in Liberman’s blog that seems an example of Unspeak:

    Of course, if you agree with Poole’s politics, or if you like to see short women with strong opinions put in their place, you’ll find his riff on super-Melanie funny.

    As already noted, Phillips’s height had nothing to do with this – it was about threatening objects being more dangerous, the bigger they are. But Liberman is lumping bigotry about height, and misogyny, in with his opinion of Steven’s politics. With most of Steven’s targets being men, and his reasons for objecting to Phillips’s writing spelled out at length in the blog, this is clearly unfair; but you’d have to read the blog to know this, so only Liberman’s readers who bother to search for earlier Melanie references on Unspeak will be able to combat the picture of Steven now placed before them.

    Of course, the ‘or’ means Steven isn’t personally accused of this, necessarily – Liberman wouldn’t be so direct himself. He just implies that the blog may be seen with such company.

  26. 26  Alex Higgins  May 14, 2007, 7:25 pm 

    Exclusive: A Behind-The-Scenes of the Creative Process of the Liberman post:

    1st draft:

    “If you like to see bigots put in their place…”

    Note – Scratch that, gives wrong impression, doesn’t help argument.

    2nd draft:

    “If you like to see people who advocate torture, gay-bashing, intimidating Muslim women, boycotting the MMR vaccine and jailing the Cambridge Two put in their place…”

    Hmm, specifics don’t serve argument against Poole well, try again…

    3rd draft:

    “If you like to see women with strong opinions such as…”

    Oh much better! Still best to avoid any details of those ‘strong opinions’ except maybe the least controversial…

    4th draft:

    “If you like to see short women with strong opinions put in their place, you’ll find his riff on super-Melanie funny.”

    Brilliant! Nice euphemism and apologetics for bigotry, while also implying rampant misogyny on the Unspeak website by the author and readers which might otherwise be hard to maintain.

    Final Copy:

    “Of course, if you agree with Poole’s politics, or if you like to see short women with strong opinions put in their place, you’ll find his riff on super-Melanie funny.”

    Even better – include a general swipe at the liberal-left hinting at their malice and mindlessness, all constrasted with my cool objectivity! O ecstasy! O heaven! O smiley face emoticon :-) !

  27. 27  Richard  May 14, 2007, 7:53 pm 

    Or if you like to suffocate bagfuls of kittens, or if you like veal, or if you like Dulux Paint’s “Apple White” campaign, you might enjoy this website…

    This one is almost too crude to be worth bothering with… except that, as Jon Stewart has pointed out so often, such crude tactics keep working. “Does Steven Poole wear ladies’ underwear?” etc.

  28. 28  Alex Higgins  May 14, 2007, 8:47 pm 

    Oh, and since we’re on the subject of Melanie Phillips and putting women in their place, Liberman might find some further irony at his expense here.

  29. 29  ozma  May 15, 2007, 4:36 am 

    I realize you don’t do daily politics but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this:

    “LONDON, May 9 — A British court found a civil servant and a legislator’s aide guilty on Wednesday of breaking the Official Secrets Act by leaking a classified memorandum concerning a conversation at the White House between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.

    Sorry if this is out of line–I just don’t know what to make of it–aside from the fact it is appalling if true.

  30. 30  Steven  May 15, 2007, 10:23 am 

    Nice work, Barney & Alex. I’m liking my hypothesis more and more.

  31. 31  Jeff Strabone  May 16, 2007, 8:18 am 

    Steve, you are indisputably guilty of unspeak when you associate ‘Melanie’ with ‘froth’ if, by unspeak, you mean:

    ‘Unspeak is defined as a style of language that attempts to smuggle in an unspoken argument by insinuation.’

    What else could you have been smuggling into the argument but, yes, santorum? As I’m sure many of your readers know, the common noun ‘santorum’ has been defined by Dan Savage as:

    ‘The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.’

    Therefore, when you referred to her as a ‘frothing demagogic evilist’, what you were actually arguing by insinuation is that every word that she is releases into the world is in fact nothing but verbal santorum.

    You have been exposed.

  32. 32  Steven  May 16, 2007, 10:43 am 

    Drat, and I would have got away with it if it weren’t for you pesky kids!

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