UK paperback

Brain: exploded

Criticism can kill you

I think this is the first time one of my book reviews has caused a blogger’s cerebellum to undergo catastrophic eruption ((How Mr Kamer came to write this nanopost even though he was in hospital with an exploded brain is a fascinating question for medical science.)) — let’s hope it won’t be the last?


Nearly speechless

Ignoring gender

Publishers Weekly made a list of its top 10 books of 2009, ((I have not read any of them!)) but it “failed” to include any books that happened to have been written by women, or, to put it another way, it “excluded” women writers.

“The absence made me nearly speechless.” said poet and creative writing professor Cate Marvin.

But not actually speechless?

Another non-speechless respondent, Erin Belieu, says:

When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness’, that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate’. They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

If the editors did say they were “not worried about ‘political correctness'”, that would be a warning flag. All I can find independently that resembles this, though, is the claim from the woman who introduced PW’s list, Louisa Ermelino:

We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.

If you make a list of your favourite books of the year and then notice that they are all written by men, ((“It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male,” Ermelino said.)) should you remove some of the books and insert some written by women? If you don’t do so, are you “ignoring gender” or “excluding women”?

What are your favourite books of the year, readers?


Yanked painfully out of context

Danner vs Packer

Many eyebrows have already been raised over Mark Danner’s epic tantrum in the New York Times, whining at inordinate length about the review of his new book by George Packer the previous week. But one particular complaint by Danner caught my eye, as we have discussed the topic around here previously — he says he was quoted out of context:

Any reader of my book will find that many of the quotations Packer cites, not least the one where he finds me “condescending to a refugee” or expressing “a secret preference for the violent outcome,” are yanked painfully out of context.

Oh, not just quoted out of context, but yanked painfully out of context! Well, let’s take the first example Danner cites, shall we? Packer wrote:

Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can’t resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family’s expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. “Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory,” Danner intones. “How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.” Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.

If that had been yanked painfully out of context, we should expect to find something much more nuanced in Danner’s book. Oh, look, we can find the page in question on Amazon’s useful “Search Inside” facility! ((From the book’s page, search for “comfortable” and click on the result for “page 316”.)) Before the quotation at issue, Danner has been citing a newspaper report:

[…] “It was very horrible,” Gjylizare Babatinca, 32, said as she described how her family was forced out of a house Wednesday by masked Serbs with automatic rifles. . . “We were forced into the train cars they use for animals. We were packed tightly together. . . It was completely dark, and we did not know where we were going.”

Danner then comments:

The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, though here the victims themselves could hear the echoes: “You can’t imagine what kind of silence there was as we walked through the streets of Pristina,” one young woman said. “I thought Hitler’s time was coming back, and we were going to some kind of Auschwitz.”

Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory. How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, a mere four years ago. It is no accident that Serb forces — regular army soldiers, Interior Ministry specialists, and paramilitary marauders — were able to “cleanse” hundreds of thousands from Kosovo in a matter of days. For nearly a decade now, while presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and other Western leaders watched — while we watched — Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, his Bosnian Serb henchman Dr. Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and various army and paramilitary commanders had been developing these techniques, refining them, perfecting them.

Do you see anything in this fuller context that makes what Packer quoted of it (the first two sentences of the second paragraph) an unethical or misleading quotation, a deliberate yanking painfully out of context? Well, Danner really does accuse the young woman he quotes of a “failure of memory”. It seems to me to be within the realms of rational criticism for Packer to argue that this constitutes “condescending to a refugee”.

Actually, a view of the fuller context begins to make things look worse, not better, for Danner. Consider that effortfully sonorous first statement of the citation above: “The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, though here the victims themselves could hear the echoes.” ((I assume that in switching from “resonances” to “echoes” in this sentence, Danner is merely striving for elegant variation, though of course it makes an irrecoverable mess of the attempted acoustic metaphor.)) It seems very much as though this is saying that the author is allowed to allude to the obvious historical “resonances” (they “could not be stronger”!), but if the young refugee dares to “hear” the same “echoes” and mention Hitler and Auschwitz out loud, she will immediately be diagnosed with a “failure of memory”. That does seem rather unfair, doesn’t it?

Packer might even have gone further in his criticism of this passage, commenting for instance upon the remarkable in fact: the drawing of these historical parallels by the young woman, Danner asserts, “derives in fact from a failure of memory”, where in fact appears to be deployed, somewhat unusually, to mean in my entirely speculative psychological analysis of someone I have never met. So: “condescending to a refugee”? Very possibly!

Danner’s yanked-painfully-out-of-context whinge continues:

When it comes to judging whether the reviewer quotes what he does in good faith […] readers must decide for themselves.

Well, I just did decide for myself, and it doesn’t look very good for Danner. What about you, readers?


The best way to think of

Anthony Lane thinks better than you

New Yorker ((Previously in “annoying New Yorker-ese”: Put it to me this way.)) film reviewer Anthony Lane opens his “critic’s notebook” thus:

The best way to think of “Detour,” which shows at BAM on Nov. 16, is as a kind of anti-“Cleopatra.”

The best way to think of the strategy of opening an article with the phrase “The best way to think of x” is as follows. The writer is announcing:

Before committing forefinger to keyboard, I already saw all the ways it is humanly possible to think about this subject, and having surveyed them pitilessly in my phat brain, I am now going to do you the service, dear reader who is not as clever as I, of revealing the best way to think of it. Do not under any circumstances try to think about it in another way. You will just be wasting your time! Just sit back and observe me thinking about it in the best way. Oh, you may applaud, I suppose.

Of course you do not necessarily need to be a genius of pantactical thought, like Anthony Lane, in order to attempt this ploy. Indeed, in theory, it would even be possible for a writer to announce that what he was going to say was the best way to think of his subject even though it was actually the only way to think of the subject that popped into his poor, befuddled head three minutes before deadline.

Liberal use of the best way to think of may thus be heartily commended to all writers who would like to achieve a rarefied level of intellectual pomposity without actually being obliged to think as hard as a pettifoggingly literal reading of the phrase might indicate.


Let the public decide

Simon Cowell = David Cameron

A loyal reader ((Thanks to Daniel F.)) writes:

Worst-ever example of Unspeak on X-Factor last [Sunday] night. Cowell in his capacity as producer obviously wanted to keep ratings hit Jedward, so he needed to vote for them to create the deadlock that would lead to a public vote Jedward were bound to win. But in his capacity as “straight-talking” judge, he couldn’t bring himself to say “I vote for Jedward”, an act he has vilified for weeks. So instead he says “I’m letting the public decide.” See? He’s not only betraying his only redeeming characteristic for greed, he’s championing democracy. FUCK THE MAN! ((Happily, we need not decide whether this means “Fuck Simon Cowell” or “Fuck The Man, generally”; we may hold the two senses in a delicious equilibrium.))

Evidently passions run high about The X-Factor, which as far as I understand it is some sort of televised karaoke contest judged by shits? But my correspondent’s point generalizes beyond the jurisprudence of reality TV: very often, a politician who declares that he will let the public decide (thereby appealing to the highest imaginable virtue, democracy), is doing so as a way of getting himself off the hook with regard to an uncomfortable decision that he’d rather not make.

Just so, plastic-browed God-discoverer David Cameron promised for a long time that he would hold a referendum on the constitutional changes to the EU, so as to avoid having to tell the BNP wing of his party where to get off, in contrast to the prime minister who, he fulminated, would not let the public decide. Meanwhile, Obama’s ethics czar said earlier this year, of the opening-up of the White House visitor logs: “We did full transparency. We’ll let the public decide who among them is a lobbyist or not.” Eh? Why not tell the public yourself?

If politicians really consider it such a virtue to let the public decide on matters of significance, then they must be of the view that elected representatives are useless except for the purpose of stealing money to buy themselves houses. So we should expect that, shortly, they will all sack themselves and institute an entirely automated system of state decision-making via premium-rate telephone polls. Let me say now that I for one welcome our new mob-rule overlords.

The only thing I didn’t understand about my correspondent’s otherwise devastating observation was the assertion that Simon Cowell has a “redeeming characteristic”. Please?


Anticipating the facts

Diplomatic ingenuity

In the course of a review of the new Satow’s Diplomatic Practice, Jeremy Greenstock, former UK ambassador to the UN, writes in the TLS: ((Not yet renamed to Times Literary, though I suppose it is only a matter of time.))

The US and the UK famously came to grief when they tried too hard, when lacking proof, to be convincing about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Those of us closely involved on the UK side believed we were illustrating a case that was bound to turn out to be true when the final evidence was collected. But it never was; and we had to take the rap for anticipating the facts.

Diplomatic language, of course, is celebrated for its litotes and subtly playful oxymoron, ((The phrase non-paper, also used by Greenstock in his review, is a particularly nice term of art.)) and here I believe that Greenstock has designed a masterpiece of the genre: anticipating the facts.

At first it looks like a mere exculpatory understatement, on the order of “jumping the gun”: a cover-your-ass euphemism, decorated with self-mocking paradox (things that aren’t true were never “facts”, anticipated or not). Yet the chronology implied in anticipating the facts is of course devastating: to say that the claims of the existence of WMD were anticipating the facts is to say that those claims (of certain knowledge of the weapons’ existence) were made before the facts were known. And so Greenstock is confirming — in the most delicate possible way! — what was already known but bears repeating: that the US and UK lied (about what they knew to be the case versus what they hoped “was bound to turn out to be true”).

In this way, to say that the US and UK governments were anticipating the facts is an even stronger verdict than saying the “facts were being fixed around the policy”. Greenstock’s formulation makes it clear that there were at the time no “facts” of the required sort to be had, let alone to be had and then fixed around the implacable plans for war.

What “facts” are you currrently anticipating, readers?


Make society work happily

Science’s brave new world

Cognisant of my solemn duty to observe balance ((See Unspeak, p226.)) in my daily gobbets of fast-typed sarcasm, I thought it only fair to point out that, while some non-scientists say some silly things about science, so do some scientists! Here, for example, is Randy ((No, I’m not going to go there. Oh wait, I just did?)) Olson, a marine biologist and author of a new book entitled Don’t Be Such A Scientist: ((The book is addressed to other scientists, rather than to AN Wilson or “Melanie Phillips”.))

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, ((What, by magicking more stuff out of nothing?)) cure diseases, and make society work happily.

I suppose (disclaimer: I Am Not An Evil Authoritarian Psychopharmacologist) that science could make society work happily by drugging everyone into a state of smiling docility such that they accept their dystopian lives of hopeless slave-labour. But this really would be science fascism in intense and terrifying form!

Possibly such a nightmarish Nazi-drug-overlords-Arbeit-macht-frei scenario is not what the author intended. But then, how exactly can “knowledge of science” by itself “make society work happily”? Isn’t the claim just nonsense on stilts? And if scientists really do know a way to make society work happily, why the hell aren’t they telling us? Are they holding the world to ransom until we buy them shinier laboratories?

The point of Olson’s book is that scientists need to learn to communicate better in order to “arouse the interest of the broader audience”. No doubt a laudable aim in general. But I fear that the promise that science can make society work happily is too arousing for its own good.

What kind of scientistic fantasy arouses you, readers?



The education business

I have commented before ((See Unspeak, p210.)) on politicians’ habit of referring to what businesses “need” (rather than what they want). Now, it seems, even university departments in the UK are to be judged according to the demure obedience with which they service the need of business.

The writing was already on the wall in June, when the barely credible news broke that universities now fell under the aegis of the “Department for Business, Innovation and Skills”, straddled by “Lord” Mandelson. ((Universities had previously been in the “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”, which at least had “universities” in the title. That department lasted all of two years, which shows how seriously the government takes its organizational fiddling.)) Now this strange animal ((The department, not “Lord” Mandelson personally, but then again, you know?)) has been sending letters to university departments demanding to know what “impact” their research has, to the widespread annoyance of academics.

The latest academic response to this nonsense is more combatively entertaining: in the THES, ((I note reluctantly that, actually, the THES now appears no longer to be called the Times Higher Education Supplement, but merely Times Higher Education, which doesn’t make any sense; and the logo is a massive “THE”, which makes me think: “THE WHAT?”. In protest at this twittishness, I plan to continue calling it the THES until no one any longer has a clue what I’m talking about.)) professor of philosophy Simon Blackburn shreds the whole idiotic letter, fastening among other things on this idea that universities must provide what businesses “need”:

But we don’t think that you should pay slavish attention to what business people, especially those who believe themselves fit to judge things about which they know nothing, say are their “needs” because we do not have any confidence that without more philosophy than most of them possess, they have the least idea what those needs are. We merely note that conceptions of need that have given us such outstanding examples of business expertise as British Leyland, Rover and RBS seem strange instruments with which to assess institutions that enabled such legacies as those left by Bacon, Locke, Hume and Wittgenstein.

Go, Simon Blackburn!

But this story would be tedious if it were simply about the epic philistinism and crassness of one stupidly named government department, wouldn’t it, readers? And in all fairness, one must recognize that the “Department for Business, Innovation and Skills” is not concerned exclusively with what businesses need. It recognizes, of course, that universities need things too. Give us an example, “Lord” Mandelson, of “the major issues facing universities”!

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