UK paperback

Unpleasant buffeting

Annals of advertising

Another pressing problem has been forever solved by James Dyson, inventor of groovy-looking vacuum cleaners (which do not actually clean vacuums?) and hand-driers. His company’s new product is a fan:

The Dyson Air Multiplier™ fan works very differently to conventional fans. It uses Air Multiplier™ technology to draw in air and amplify it 15 times, producing an uninterrupted stream of smooth air. With no blades or grill, it’s safe, easy to clean and doesn’t cause unpleasant buffeting.

I don’t know about you, but I have suffered numerous bouts of unpleasant buffeting, in dubious Chinese restaurants and hotels with substandard breakfasting materials. I must admit that I can’t see how such gastronomic frustration was caused by old-fashioned fans, but who am I to argue with an Air Multiplier™?

Meantime, you will soon be able to drink Coke in smaller cans. Says a Cokesperson:

Our new sleek mini can supports the idea of moderation and offers people yet another way to enjoy their favorite Coca-Cola beverage.

I am relieved that it “supports” only the idea of moderation, because the reality is really not tasty enough.


An enforced route for returns

Unspeaking deportation

The UK Border Agency is annoyed that people aren’t meekly going along with its wheeze involving “the forcible removal of failed asylum seekers to Baghdad”, which is in breach of UN guidelines. The Border Agency’s chief executive, Lin Homer, responded testily:

Having an enforced route for returns is an important part of our overall approach.

An reader pounces:

This seemed a bit unspeaky to me. First there is the usual casually dehumanizing bureaujarg of “route for returns”, where the fact that it is people who are being returned (rather than a trip to the counter at John Lewis to take advantage of their returns policy) is conveniently lost sight of. But the second thing is the way “enforced” has been transferred from returns to route — so that it now sounds as though she’s simply advocating using a fixed route, rather than forcibly returning people. ((Thanks to Dave P.))

Yes! I have written before about the description of people as failed asylum seekers, but an enforced route for returns does Unspeak human beings even more completely, consigning them to the category of unwanted goods, or unsold books.

Isn’t an enforced route for returns, actually, just the kind of thing that the racist rabble of the “British” “National” Party so dearly desire? “Hi, I’m returning this: it’s the wrong colour.”


To do at least something

Hitchens’s appetite for destruction

Christopher Hitchens throws down an easily-met challenge:

Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn’t want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command. If NATO bombed the Serbian positions around Sarajevo, say, it would unleash a monster of reaction that would draw a Russian intervention on the side of Belgrade, trigger a massive backlash throughout the Balkans, drown the region in bloodshed and “a wider war,” and all that. Likewise, a military move against Saddam Hussein would incite him to saturate our troops with chemical weapons, ignite the oilfields, destroy Israel, inflame the “Arab street,” and overthrow every friendly Middle Eastern government, etc., etc. Those of us who wanted to get rid of these hideous governments were bombarded with arguments that said, in effect, they are not only a threat but actually a lethal threat, and their forces are made up of people who are 10 feet tall.

Oh, I did just look it up, and it’s bullshit? Those who argued against invading Iraq in 2003 did not, in fact, “always” argue that war was undesirable because Saddam was too fearsome. But Hitchens needs to rewrite history in this way as a set-up for the self-congratulatorily contrarian logic of the rest of the piece. It goes like this:

1 Iran might not be as close to getting a nuclear weapon as we thought; therefore
2 It is all the more imperative that we attack Iran now!

Oh, did I say “attack Iran”? I paraphrase. It is not quite what Hitchens says. Instead, he muses delicately on our duty to “disarm the mullahs”, and toys with the idea of “a minor disruption or dislocation of one of the existing key Iranian sites”. There is the issue of that tedious conventional military wisdom, which holds, as Hitchens sighs, “The target sites are, anyway, too much dispersed and too deeply buried. You know how it goes.” Yet even if that’s true, Hitchens cannot bear the idea of sitting in his armchair without warlike acts being performed on his behalf, and his final way of not actually saying “Let’s attack Iran now!” has an almost plaintive desperation to it:

Against this, we are at least entitled to consider the idea that a decaying regime that is bluffing and buying (or rather stealing) time on weapons of mass destruction is in a condition that makes this the best moment to do at least something to raise the cost of the lawlessness and to slow down and sabotage the preparations.

To do at least something. Well, do what exactly? And ought we to do it even if it won’t work? Hitchens’s style of “thought” here is, it seems, a form of Politicians’ Logic, which goes:

Something must be done. This is something, therefore we must do it.

I note finally that Hitchens also has a little comic fun on the side, speaking of the “spastic missiles” made by North Korea. If it were not so amazingly crass, the phrase spastic missiles might best be employed as a description of Christopher Hitchens’s own columns these days.


Beyond anger

‘Modernizing’ the Royal Mail

Smirking plutogroupie “Lord” Mandelson is “beyond anger” at the resistance to the scheme to “modernize” the Royal Mail. Presumably the place beyond anger in Mandelson’s noggin is not a delightful little limpid pond of Zen acceptance but a maelstrom of incomprehending rage at the refusal of the little people to suck up their punishment at his whim.

The Royal Mail “modernization” process of which the “Labour” Party approves is cloaked in all manner of tasty jargon, the duty of explaining which to the public has fallen to the London Review of Books, where postman Roy Mayall has explained the postal meanings of deregulation, downstream access, and the collapsing of frames.

One of the reasons why it is so necessary to “modernize” the Royal Mail, according to its chief executive Adam Crozier, is because “the business is now handling 10% fewer letters and packets than a year ago”. Where does that figure of a 10% reduction in volume come from? Mayall explains:

Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. […] [W]ithin the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. […] Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken […] On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Hardly a matter of Unspeak, then, so much as of simple Uncount. In the right context, it seems, outright lies about numbers can be just as effective as rhetorical masks.

What does the place beyond anger in your head look like, readers?



A natural level of homophobia

Charlie Brooker has already done a brilliant job on the Jan Moir fiasco, in addition to which I would point out only a curious syntactical turd floating in Moir’s thick puddle of evil:

As a gay rights champion, I am sure he would want to set an example to any impressionable young men who may want to emulate what they might see as his glamorous routine.

What Moir meant, presumably, is that Stephen Gately was a “gay rights champion”. What she wrote, however, was that she herself was a gay rights champion. (“As a gay rights champion, I…”) It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, isn’t it, readers?

It would be unfair, however, not to remark upon what Moir subsequently said in her own defence:

In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones.

In this, I must leap gallantly to Jan Moir’s filthy right hand: she is of course completely right. Her article did not have homophobic and bigoted “undertones”; it was explicitly homophobic and bigoted. Indeed, quite in the manner of how, in her blood-flecked dribble, “the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see”, the inky ooze of her viscous gay-hating bile has seeped out for all to see in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Of course, this is an aberration for the Daily Mail only in that it normally seeks to keep its immanent homophobia and bigotry precisely at the level of nod-wink insinuations, or “undertones”. In the context of that newspaper, Moir’s journalistic crime is merely one of insufficient art.


All media

Counting literary hatreds

The writer Bidisha is concerned about misogyny in the arts, and who better to judge?

I have been a critic for 16 years, across all arts disciplines and all media.

Oh! Well, I am aware of all internet traditions, which is nearly as impressive? Anyway, let us hear an example of this pandisciplinary and multimedia criticism!

Men and women both like to worship men, for some reason; women even, perversely, love to promote men who themselves hate women (hello, Roth’n’Updike fans. How’s it going?).

Um, fine, thanks? Presumably Bidisha has made her detailed literary-critical argument (through the medium of dance) about how Philip Roth hates women somewhere else; but even this boldly undiscriminating denunciation of “Roth’n’Updike” does raise one interesting question. If I like Roth but not Updike, does that mean I hate only 50% of all women?



This is spinal crack

The awesomely-named Lord Justice Laws (“I am the Laws!”) has given Simon Singh leave to appeal in the libel case brought by the British Chiropractors’ Association. The complaint originally arose because, in an article for the Guardian, Singh wrote that the BCA

happily promotes bogus treatments

In the High Court ruling of May this year, the less-awesomely-named Mr Justice Eady had written that:

Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

For this Eady was roundly pilloried, and with cause: because a modern (and possibly now the commonest) sense of bogus, since at least Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, is merely “bad” or “wrong” or “dysfunctional”, with no necessary implication of dishonesty.

It was widely reported that this judgment was all about a bogus interpretation of the word “bogus”. But what Mr Justice Eady went on to say about another word in Singh’s sentence was just as if not more germane to the question of libel:

It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments “happily”. What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct.

This is just right, isn’t it? If I happily disseminate a falsehood, I am lying, rather than just mistaken.

I fear, then, that this was never an ideal case for the “free speech” campaigners in blogs and newspapers who took it up. Let me be clear: chiropracty is a “therapy”, invented by a con-man, which can kill you. But Singh’s sentence was, at best, sloppily phrased. A reasonable reader could indeed infer from the claim that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments” the defamatory sense that it deliberately promotes treatments it knows to be ineffective; when of course the truth is that they are so stupid they believe in them. If Singh had written, instead, that the treatments promoted by the BCA don’t work, it would have had less of the music of dramatic outrage, but the writer’s point would have been made without offering any purchase to litigious neck-twisters.

Even so, the BCA’s decision to sue for libel rather than argue their case about the merits of chiropracty in the public arena might be taken to imply that they don’t, after all, have all that much confidence in the provable efficacy of their demented theories? Some commentators have argued that the action, if successful, would have a chilling effect on science writing, or that it has already. I am not so sure how apocalyptic that threat really was, given that Singh’s own unfortunate position could have been avoided with an ordinary standard of care taken in the writing, or if the offending phrase had been spotted and amended — as it ought to have been — later in the newspaper’s production process. But, you know, in the larger sense, go Simon! (And see Ben Goldacre’s eminently reasonable view of the whole thing.)

What have you happily done recently, readers?


Public option

How not to sell healthcare

There is an interesting piece of “framing” analysis at Slate, where Ron Rosenbaum righteously and entertainingly assaults the rhetorical pratfall that is the phrase public option as a description for Obama’s healthcare plan:

In the history of political euphemisms, has there ever been a more empty, vacuous, mystifying, or counterproductive phrase than public option? […] An obfuscating, near-meaningless, certainly contentless, two-word phrase that has done more damage to the fate of meaningful health care reform than its reviled two-word counter-framing rival, death panels.

I don’t think he really means it is a “euphemism”, since he appears to think the healthcare plan thus named is actually a good thing; but anyway, Rosenbaum goes on to denounce the formula public option as “terminally inscrutable”, “vapid”, and “empty of substance”, “useless, sterile and self-defeating” — though perhaps this insistence on the phrase’s supposed vacuity is somewhat misguided. He proceeds, after all, to examine the content, arguing that public is too obviously a “euphemism” for “government” and so strikes an “evasive false note”. Meanwhile, of option, he writes:

A word that carries no weight at all, no signification, no additive value, no connection to health, illness, affordability, competitiveness, any of the virtues that they could have highlighted in a two-word phrase they planned to use to build support for their policy.

(Again with the “no signification”? The trouble with language is, rather, that it always has a signification.) Rosenbaum then mentions a correspondent’s view that “option might have been a substitute for choice—choice being too much of a hot-button word, since it potentially brings abortion rights into the equation”. That is getting closer, I think. More importantly, though, doesn’t option also bring into the equation the weak, vacillating sense of “optional”? Oh, you know, it’s just an option. You don’t have to have it. All right then, we won’t!

Returning finally to public — I think that choice of word might just represent a perfect example of rhetorical blowback. Presumably the Obamaites hoped to appeal to notions of patriotism and democracy with the word “public”, but perhaps the problem is that, to many American ears, public describes a system that is shonky and underfunded?


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