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Are you finding muffins really annoying? Why then, you will want to complain about the tyranny of muffins. After all, nearly everything enjoys a “tyranny” nowadays. ((Thanks to Ricardo Gladwell.)) Lawrence Lessig decries the “tyranny of transparency” (I for one welcome our new glass overlords), and John Freeman has apparently written a book on The Tyranny of E-mail. It’s a wonder we can get anything done, labouring under so many made-up tyrannies.

This is not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare refers to “time’s tyranny” in Sonnet 115; there is the tyranny of Helena’s sorrows in All’s Well and “churlish winter’s tyranny” in Henry IV Part II; while Kent in Lear speaks of “the tyranny of the open night”. In the preface to his Dictionary, meanwhile, Johnson writes:

I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected; suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion; and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.

Presumably the tyranny of a lexicographer is better for the language than the tyranny of time and fashion?

Modern times, people have been apparently keener to complain of pragmaticall than poeticall tyrannies, as in “the intolerable tyranny of customs officials” (1891), the “tyranny of trades unions” (1903), or the “tyranny of the tip” (1918). More recently, it seems, nothing is so trivial as to be debarred from aspiring to tyranny: we are urged to protest the tyranny of Nice, Too Much, Citations; and, of course, the Tyranny of Souls.

One might hazard a vague guess that the undiscriminatingly figurative use of tyranny increases as actual tyranny becomes a less pressing problem in certain polities (on the other hand, the widespread figurative use of “genocide” in Serbia in the early 1990s ((Discussed in Unspeak, pp95-6.)) provides a baleful example of the dangers of such semantic deflation).

In any case, to complain about the tyranny of such things as email in our day bespeaks, does it not, a kind of morbid, feckless and self-dramatizing abnegation of responsibility? Perhaps the greatest threat to our liberty comes from the tyranny of “the tyranny of”. I myself cannot be held responsible for such a suggestion, however, because I am in thrall to the tyranny of ATOMS.

What kind of tyranny rules your life, readers?


Tax haven

Is it safe?

Alice Powell of the Global Policy Forum asks here:

is “tax haven” a type of unspeak? (safe, cozy etc…) and so is (as TJN say) the use of “secrecy jurisdiction” better?

Good question! The earliest use I can find of the phrase “tax haven” via Google News Archive dates from 1939, in a headline that runs san francisco exchange plans tax haven in reno. There is then a big flurry in the early 1960s, when JFK proposed legislation to outlaw “the abuse of foreign tax havens”: interestingly, those reports usually cradle the term “tax haven” in scare quotes, as though acknowledging its Unspeakiness.

The word haven, originally “harbour” or “port”, has meant “refuge” or “sanctuary” since the 13th century, with indisputably positive connotations — compare safe haven. Yet the way in which the phrase tax haven operates is slightly mysterious: it is not a place where you send your tax to be safe, but rather a money haven from which no one can extract the taxes you would rather not pay. Persons availing themselves of a tax haven, one might say, are financial asylum-seekers.

So it might indeed be the case that politicians campaigning for tighter regulation of “tax havens” are harming their cause by using that very language. Mounting an attack on a haven sounds rather bullying and perfidious.

The persuasively named “Tax Justice Network” (oh, you are against tax justice?) explains why it prefers alternative language:

Tax havens offer not only low or zero taxes, but something broader. What they do is to provide facilities for people or entities to get around the rules, laws and regulations of other jurisdictions, using secrecy as their prime tool. We therefore often prefer the term “secrecy jurisdiction” instead of the more popular “tax haven.”

One can follow the reasoning, but secrecy jurisdiction is a bit of a mouthful? So I hereby turn the challenge over to the high-powered hivemind. What would you propose in place of the phrase “tax haven”, readers?



A Flea in your ear

In guitar-related California news, the Guardian reports:

The news that Thom Yorke had come to Los Angeles and formed a temporary supergroup with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers was surprise enough to most Radiohead fans. Most were intrigued, but for those concerned with rock credibility it was like hearing that the chaps from Peep Show were taking a break to write a show with Jim Davidson, or that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was collaborating with Bernard Matthews on a turkey burger.

For those concerned with rock credibility? ((Thanks to Daniel F.)) One pictures with sympathy such persons, fiddling and sweating, desperate to know whether they are allowed to like a band, incapable of deciding for themselves, waiting for a newspaper to tell them: “It’s okay, you can listen to these guys, they’re credible.” The system as it stands, however, is lamentably ad hoc. How many people are, at this very moment, suffering in silence because the Guardian has not yet informed them of the credibility of a hypothetical supergroup made up of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie van Halen, Nik Kershaw and Carla Bruni? As a public service, perhaps someone should keep an online spreadsheet of credibility ratings for musicians — a bit like credit ratings for financial institutions — with an algorithm that spits out the credibility score of any possible combination of them.

Something that is “credible” is trustworthy or believable (credit-worthy). In this sense, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! is explicitly sold to us as a credible toast-lubricant. But in what sense is Thom Yorke more trustworthy or believable than Flea? I do not believe the Guardian has made a study of the truth-telling frequency of each musician, nor that it is trying to hint that Flea isn’t actually a human being but a bass-slapping robot.

Instead, this use of “credibility” recalls the Weltanschauung of morose indie fandom in the 1980s (and punk before that), where a “credible” band was one that was “authentic” and somehow stuck it to “The Man”. I take it that Flea is supposed not to be “credible” in this sense because the Red Hot Chili Peppers now sell quintillions of records. The rock moron’s use of “credible”, then, is predicated on a rejection of what is popular: what is trusted by many people is ipso facto not to be trusted. If the ordinary idea of trust depends on an implicit social contract of honesty and fair dealing, the rock sense of “credibility” inverts those values: cowering under a blanket of odoriferous ressentiment, it is self-congratulatorily anti-democratic and anti-social, while paradoxically being concerned above all not with actual music but with belonging in the right social sub-group.

If youths who gather on the street can be deemed “anti-social” even though they have sought out one another’s company, ((See Unspeak, p18.)) how much more urgent is it to take punitive authoritarian action against these music-hating fashion-slaves? I say to you that those concerned with rock credibility should all be immediately served with ASBOs to prevent their life-denying whining from installing a cancer at the heart of our proud democracy.

What kind of credibility concerns you, readers?

P.S. Oh, so Supreme Ultimate Fist is on a harder-edged electro-metal tip these days? Incredible.



Organic aggro

Is “biofuel” Unspeak? Walden Bello, director of Focus on the Global South, thinks so: he prefers to call the idea of using vegetable matter to run cars “agrofuel”:

Biofuel is the more commonly used term, because it has an environmentally benign connotation, but these fuels are hardly innocuous. Indeed, agrofuels contribute to global warming and certainly do not provide a solution to climate chage. The climate agenda mainly serves as an excellent and conveinent spin for the agrofuels regime already being built. ((Bello, The Food Wars (London, 2009), p106.))

It’s probably true that, these days, the prefix bio– often has a “benign connotation”, as in holistic ecological terms such as biosphere or biodiversity, and things that are to be considered very bad because they do nasty things to the bio, such as biocide or Bioshock. In any case, normal petrol, being made from dead plant and animal matter, is just as bio as is corn ethanol.

“Agrofuel” certainly sounds less cuddly. The choice between the prefixes agri– (as in agriculture or agribusiness) and agro– (as in agronomist, agrotourism or agroterrorism) seems to depend more or less on how pleasant the resultant sound is, but does agro– also inevitably carry an echo of aggro, such that an agrofuel is a fuel that is really annoying?

In French, similar considerations have led to the alternatives biocarburants or agrocarburants (as well as the English word “biofuel”), though here there is an extra factor to be considered, since bio is also the French term for what we call “organic” food. Of course, there is no food that is inorganic. The agricultural sense of “organic” was a piece of Unspeak deliberately crafted by Lord Northbourne in 1940 in a book entitled Look to the Land. ((See Paull, John, “The Farm as Organism: The Foundational Idea of Organic Agriculture [pdf]“.)) He cooked up the phrase “organic farming” to encapsulate his view of “the farm as an organism”, and contrasted it with what he called “chemical farming” — though any “organic” farm is, of course, also stuffed to the brim with chemicals.

So perhaps to be brutally neutral we should do away with “organic” as well as with certain uses of “bio–” as a cloak of virtue. But I’m not really feeling the idea of Steve Austin as The Agronic Man?


A conscience issue

Hunting high and low

Fat-cheeked Tony Blair impersonator David Cameron has confessed to what the Guardian‘s headline describes as a “history of hunting”, which makes fox-hunting sound like a psychiatric disorder (see David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence), or perhaps a crime? Oh, well, it is a crime, at least for now. But well-hairsprayed PR man David Cameron thinks it ought not to be:

If the Tories won the election, there would be a free vote on hunting because it was considered “a conscience issue”, Cameron said.

A conscience issue is certainly an interesting way of putting it. Technically “an issue of conscience” is already the conventional term to describe matters on which party leaders do not “whip” the vote, but it inescapably has more general resonances too. The phrase drips moral empathy for fellow human beings searching their consciences for the truth, which is a nobler and more elevated practice than democratic public debate. But scrutinizing one’s soul is all that it is ever possible to do in such circumstances, for if the law tries to ban certain activities, it apparently becomes a “farce”:

“For someone who feels passionately that it should be banned, I would just argue that there are some areas where when you take the criminal law into that area it makes the law a mess, it makes the law a bit of a farce, and I think the hunting ban is a good example of that.”

It is an impeccably liberal position, of course, to insist that law and morality should not be coextensive, but is the reason for this really that the law would inevitably become a “mess” or a “farce”, rather than, as one might think, that it would lead to a tyranny of majority ethical prejudice? Certainly the present government has proved itself capable of turning the law into a “mess” in numerous other areas, not all of which, one presumes, dead-eyed marionette David Cameron would claim as conscience issues.

To describe hunting as a conscience issue is to acknowledge that there is something wrong about it, at least in some people’s view. But shiny-faced automaton David Cameron is quick to discount any perceived wrongness by first demoting such a view to the status of a “feeling” (even if the one who so feels “feels passionately”), and then immediately changing the basis of the discussion to one of bureaucratic difficulty: legal messes and farces. And so we, along with Conservative Members of Parliament, are left with no guide but our own personal consciences when deciding whether to get up in the morning and sit on a big quadruped in the hope of killing another, smaller quadruped with a pack of one’s own yapping quadrupeds. Like a public utility company, the moral question is now privatized.

The position that certain ethical questions are “conscience issues” over which presumedly reasonable people can disagree is, of course, a kind of moral relativism, and once you set foot on that slope it proves itself terrifyingly slippery. Soon enough, the new Tories will all be quoting Zizek and trying to understand terrorists, which will at least inject some entertainment into the forthcoming election of doom.

What do you consider a conscience issue, readers?


Careful and discriminating

Hitchens drones on

Christopher Hitchens is optimistic about the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

[T]he four requisites are in place: citizens rejecting theocracy and its partner, organized crime; an indigenous army that fights for its own reasons; American airstrikes that are careful and discriminating; and the development of splits that can be exploited among the jihadists.

Oh good, the airstrikes are “careful and discriminating” now! Not only are targets chosen, or the fire button pressed, with care, but also there is discrimination afoot — presumably discrimination between evil guys who deserve to die and other people who don’t necessarily? It is surely reassuring news if so, but how does Hitchens know it? That is a mystery left intriguingly intact by his column. Still, at least he does, in the previous paragraph, cite one recent strike that he perhaps means to stand synecdochically for the new careful-and-discriminating paradigm: the drone attack that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, as well as Mehsud’s wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and eight other people.

In a way, that does count as “careful and discriminating” when compared to the overall record of Predator attacks over the last few years. According to Pakistani authorities, US drone attacks carried out in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009 killed 687 civilians. Or, as David Kilcullen, former strategic adviser to General Petraeus, puts it:

He said the US had killed 14 mid-level or lower level al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 but the strikes had killed 700 civilians. “That’s a hit rate of two per cent on 98 per cent collateral. It’s not moral.”

Of course, it’s a bit more moral if the strikes really have become “careful and discriminating” (always assuming that discriminating between enemies and civilians is what Hitchens actually means, rather than, say, discriminating between wedding parties and funerals). But what the hell — even if they haven’t, we could perhaps give the impression that they have anyway by dusting off that old classic of military Unspeak, “surgical strikes”? Why thank you, New York Times, we don’t mind if you do:

The White House has begun promoting the missile strikes and raids that have killed Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. […] President George W. Bush approved a more aggressive campaign of surgical strikes last year before leaving office, and Mr. Obama has embraced and expanded the program.

How has Obama’s embracing and expansion been going? According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann in the New Republic, as of June 2009, not all that well:

Just three days into his presidency, Obama authorized a near-simultaneous pair of drone strikes against targets in North and South Waziristan. Since he took office, there have been a total of 16 airstrikes, or roughly one per week. Our analysis shows that these attacks have killed some 170 people, but only one has killed an important Al Qaeda or Taliban leader, presumably because many of them have decamped from the tribal areas.

Still, we have Christopher Hitchens’s word that now, the firing of 100lb missiles from remote-controlled aircraft in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a “careful and discriminating” business, such that presumably they will from now on kill only top bad guys and their entire families, but no one else. Possibly Hitchens is privy to classified information that boffins have installed a new “moral clarity” circuit in the Predator’s nosecone?

What are you careful and discriminating about, readers?


A formless blur

The death of criticism

In the Observer, Nick Cohen is excited to share with us his discovery that “moral clarity” (qv) is a criterion of good literature as well as right political “thinking”:

As a left-wing reporter who had investigated neo-Nazi gangs, and lived in fear of murderous reprisals, Larsson had learned to mistrust non-judgmental pieties about there being “good and bad in all of us”. Hard-won experience taught him to avoid the shades of grey, which reduce so much contemporary fiction — and political thought — to a formless blur.

If only there had been literary critics of Cohen’s calibre in Dostoyevsky’s time, we might have been spared the “formless blur” of The Brothers Karamazov, and who knows what else?


People who matter

The world’s most valuable human beings

The New Statesman has compiled a list of “The 50 People Who Matter Today”, which is helpful, because now we know which people are the people who matter, we can in good conscience abandon the rest of the Earth’s population to bombing, disease and starvation?

Not very exact in its arithmetic, the list actually names, by my rapid count, 58 people, but “The Obamas” apparently only count as one person, just as “Jay-Z and Beyoncé” do? (Beyoncé apparently “walks onstage in an explosion of lights and glitter and sequin leotards”, which sounds really dangerous?)

Also for our nitpicking pleasure, and in the grand tradition of such bullshit enumerations, actually eminent individuals such as Amartya Sen or political leaders such as Hugo Chavez are roughly corralled into the same ordered-list space as Simon Cowell, Anna Wintour, and 9/11 “truther” David Ray Griffin, all three of whom apparently “matter” more than anyone at CERN or Axl Rose?

Still, in a last-gasp nod to the prosaic arts, the compilers do grant place number 50 of “people who matter today” to Dan Brown. (Which is perhaps not totally insane, given this intriguingly thoughtful reading of The Lost Symbol?)

Who do you think matters, readers?


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