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Heavy umbrage

Safire and style

So farewell then, William Safire. But oh, look, here comes Anna Shapiro at “Comment is free” with knives out for the newly deceased, seemingly angling for a spot in the Oliver Kamm Noted Obituarist pantheon. Not only does Shapiro find Safire’s political columns horrid, she goes on to claim that he was a bad writer.

Now, I hadn’t realized quite how wingnutty some of Safire’s political columns really were (I’d never actually read any), but his column “On Language” was a different matter, and I found it almost unfailingly engaging and mischievously serious, even before I got a mention in it. (His Political Dictionary, meanwhile, is excellent.) Even the professional linguists at Language Log, not renowned for any kneejerk adoration of popular writers on language, respected Safire. So to accuse Safire of not knowing what to do with words is really quite a strong “Look at me, I’m being controversial!” gambit. Sneers Shapiro:

There Safire is, praised as a wordsmith. Really? In one early column, he says someone “took heavy umbrage”. It is hard to see how heavy could possibly be the correct adjective here, or how any adjective could be.

Um, oops. Maybe it would have been worth Shapiro’s while to consult a dictionary. Here are some senses of “umbrage” from the OED:

1. Shade, shadow […]
2. Shade or shadow cast by trees or the like […]
2.c. The foliage of trees, etc, affording shade […]
8. Displeasure, annoyance, offence, resentment

Clearly “umbrage” in sense 2c, “foliage” (presumably deriving by metonymy from “shade”) can be more or less dense or “heavy”, affording more or less shade (and “heavy umbrage” has indeed been used since at least the early 19th century to mean “thick foliage”). No doubt Safire knew exactly what he was doing here, deliberately playing with both senses of “umbrage” — as both “foliage” and “offence” — in his phrase “took heavy umbrage”, which moreover has an instantly graspable meaning: took profound offence.

Yet Shapiro finds it “hard to see” how this works (I presume she is not making a sophisticated joke about it being harder to see in the shade), and so instead of thinking about it for a second she denounces it as not “correct”. For good measure, she proceeds to forbid the application of any adjective ever to “umbrage”, even though OED records the adjectives “painful” and (particularly) “great” already having been applied numerous times to umbrage-as-offence by various benighted writers in the history of English letters.

Just as unfortunately for Shapiro, it’s rather a hostage to fortune to accuse other people of being bad writers when you can gaily perpetrate a sentence as spectacularly clumsy as this one:

Another 1981 piece, just before Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, refers to the imminent return of the hostages who’d been held for 15 months in Iran, as not a happy ending, even though it greatly reduced international tension, recovered 53 people to their own lives after considerable privation and was a collective sigh of relief to the millions who had followed their fate.

So the “imminent return of the hostages” “recovered 53 people to their own lives”, eh? And, what’s more, this “imminent return” “was a collective sigh of relief”? Oh dear.

What do you take heavy umbrage at, readers?


A case of morals

The ‘film community’ Unspeaks out

People in the global film “community” have been signing a petition demanding the release of Roman Polanksi:

His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals.

A case of morals. (“Do you have morals?” “Yes, I keep them in this fine ebony case.”) Of course, the Polanski affair (in which, to be appropriately pedantic, he pled guilty to and was convicted of “unlawful sexual intercourse”, though many people have been confident in promoting the extrajudicial judgment that he raped a child) is a case of morals, just as is, say, an allegation of murder — the state prosecutes certain actions on the basis of an assumed shared view that they are morally wrong. It is true that morality and law are not coterminous (and nor should they be, as I argue in Unspeak). But to dismiss this case as a case of morals seems to hint at a view that “morals” are what bind the plodding bourgeoisie, and don’t count for much among the free-lovin’, ethico-anarchist “film community”, who are superior to such mind-forg’d manacles.

Do I detect also, in this “case of morals”, an implicit sigh of autres temps, autres moeurs? “But darling, simply everyone was having sex with 13-year-old girls back then!”


Rape rape

So heinous they named it twice

So, Roman Polanksi was arrested in Switzerland, and his celebrity chums are outraged. Oprah Winfrey Whoopi Goldberg said:

I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape. He went to jail and and when they let him out he was like “You know what, this guy’s going to give me a hundred years in jail, I’m not staying”, so that’s why he left. ((Thanks to Tom Goulter.))

“Rape-rape”? “Rape rape”? Regardless of the facts of Polanski’s actual case (see this thread on Crooked Timber), Goldberg’s phrase is peculiar. It seems to imply that singular “rape” is indeed rape (after all, it’s called “rape”), but it’s not very serious; to name the really serious thing one has to double the noun to “rape rape”. This sort of intensifying doubling is hardly unknown in general, but it looks strange in the context of the existing constructions such as “child rape”, “gang rape”, “spousal rape” and so forth. (We are, I assume, not meant to understand that “rape rape” means raping a rape.) But then, for good measure, Goldberg even seems to walk back from acknowledging her implicit plea that Polanski’s crime was singular “rape”, ie the not very serious version: actually, it’s just “something else”. She seems, even, to be arguing generally that some or many acts that are called “rape” by the justice system are not, in fact, rape (hence the necessity to say “rape rape”).

There has evidently been some inflation of criminological terms round Goldberg’s way, and I’m worried that in another 30 years it will have progressed to the point where defenders of some new Polanski will have to avail themselves of a nominal tripling, to plead: “It wasn’t rape rape rape.” But does Goldberg’s imaginative strategy generalize even now to other offences? “It wasn’t murder murder, m’lud, it was something else.”

How many times do you think we have to say “rape” to mean “rape”, readers?


Put it to me this way

Superior phrasemaking

A loyal reader writes:

There’s a New Yorker turn of phrase that is really annoying me: “put it to me this way”. As in: “Recently, a woman in the crowd at a Nine Inch Nails show at Terminal 5, in New York, put it to me this way… [insert banal made-up quote].” ((Legal disclaimer: I’m sure my source did not mean to imply that the particular quote that follows in the article in question was “made-up” — and nor do I! — just, I take it, that an unscrupulous journalist could make up such a quote.))

Yes, that is annoying! My correspondent did not say why he thought it annoying; but I will say why I do, now that it’s been pointed out to me. Considering it arguendo in the worst possible light, a writer’s choice to say that a person “put it to me this way” — rather than, I don’t know, “said”? — bespeaks an egotistical claim of priority over whatever the hapless interviewee happens to have blurted. I had already thought of this, of course, the sage writer implies; and then — look, how cute are the ordinary citizenry! — a civilian put it to me this way. Not telling me anything I didn’t already know, of course, but using an adorably demotic turn of phrase that really adds some colour and credibility to my reporting?

Thus does the writer of “put it to me this way” argue that, in his phat brain, he already understood everything that it was possible to say on the subject the moment he accepted the assignment, and the actual research involved merely a stately roll-call of patsies who would affirm his interpretive genius.

Which way would you put it to me, readers?


Unresisting imbecility

On faults both gross and evident

I have had occasion to be reminded of Samuel Johnson’s splendid phrase, “unresisting imbecility”. It occurs in his bracingly splenetic account of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

This is often shortened in modern citation to something like “There is no point in quarrelling with unresisting imbecility”, which is a useful way to remark that something is extremely stupid (even though this writer goes on to do what he claims there is no point in doing). But the intriguing part of Johnson’s phrase, of course, is that it implies the existence of something that deserves to be characterised as resisting imbecility.

Imbecility that is unresisting, Johnson tells us, is imbecility that fulfils two conditions: its faults are so obvious that it’s not worth pointing them out; and the faults are also so huge that it’s not worth getting annoyed by them [it’s not worth labouring the obvious | they couldn’t be any worse]. ((Thanks to KB Player in comments for pointing out Johnson’s own definition of “aggravate”.)) (Unresisting imbecility is even, you might say, rather cute in a way, like a shockingly ugly puppy, quivering happily in its basket and defenceless against sharp objects.) What is not clear, though, is whether resisting imbecility must negate both of those conditions or only one of them. (Do hidden large faults, or obvious small faults, count?) It is also, I think, highly debatable whether faults so huge that they are not annoying are actually the largest possible faults, which is what Johnson seems to be implying. (Only lesser faults, it seems, would lead to “aggravation”.)

These are not merely idle philological-historical questions, for it seems to me to be crucial to determine into what category of imbecility the work of “Melanie Phillips” falls. Take “her” latest post on Barack Obama and what she terms the “club of terror UN”. Perhaps its faults are too evident for detection and too gross for aggravation, in which case we ought to be guided by Dr Johnson’s ecology of intellectual effort and ignore them. Perhaps its faults are not so large in either dimension, so that it is a case of resisting imbecility, worthy of combat, and we can happily point them out. Or perhaps Johnson was misguided, and the grossest and most evident faults do actually deserve to be held up to intense scorn in the project of making the world a better place. It is a delicate question.

What kind of imbecility do you find resisting, readers?


Conspiracy theories aside

Reframing al-Megrahi

Noted human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC thinks Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is the “Lockerbie bomber“, ((Thanks to Daniel F.)) and ought not to have been released: al-Megrahi is, after all,

an unrepentant and cold-blooded mass-murderer

To be scrupulously accurate (as you might think would befit a silk): al-Megrahi is “unrepentant” in the sense that he has always protested his innocence. Normally one would describe a man as “unrepentant” who admitted performing an act but was not sorry for it. Still, if he denies ever committing the act in question, I suppose he is a fortiori unrepentant about it as well. But al-Megrahi’s unrepentance is not, of course, the only reason Robertson considers him guilty. There is the question of what went on in the heads of some number of experienced Scottish judges:

the question of Megrahi’s guilt [was] proved beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of eight experienced Scottish judges.

To arrive at the figure of eight judges, Robertson has presumably added the three judges who convicted Megrahi to the five judges who refused his first appeal in 2002. But was the question of Megrahi’s guilt proved beyond reasonable doubt in the five appeal judges’ minds? As a matter of fact, the appeal judgment explicitly states that the judges were not in the business of re-deciding the question of Megrahi’s culpability:

[I]n this appeal we have not required to consider whether the evidence before the trial court, apart from the evidence which it rejected, was sufficient as a matter of law to entitle it to convict the appellant on the basis set out in its judgment. We have not had to consider whether the verdict of guilty was one which no reasonable trial court, properly directing itself, could have returned in the light of that evidence. As can be seen from this Opinion, the grounds of appeal before us have been concerned, for the most part, with complaints about the treatment by the trial court of the material which was before it and the submissions which were made to it by the defence.

So much for eight judges being convinced beyond reasonable doubt of Megrahi’s guilt. You might think this a sloppy or misleading characterization of the judge-mind arithmetic by Robertson, but three out of a claimed eight is still something, isn’t it? And those three original trial judges were “experienced”, mind you. Plus, they were Scottish?

Anyway, perhaps the most piquant expression of Robertson’s stout certainty on this matter comes in a more recent article that denounces Gaddafi as “the worst man left in the world”: ((There’s something curious about this “left” — calling Gaddafi “the worst man left” — as though we were in the midst of a global clean-up operation (whose notable successes have included, perhaps, the “removal” of Saddam), and it only remained for us to round up the last few stragglers.))

If Megrahi was guilty of the Lockerbie bombing (and, conspiracy theories aside, the evidence justified the verdict), then Gaddafi must have given the order.

Conspiracy theories aside? Er, the case against Megrahi was a conspiracy theory, in competition with another conspiracy theory, that the PFLP-GC did it. There is, of course, also an overarching theory about possible conspiracy to pervert the course of the investigation and trial. This story, one can hardly deny, is all about conspiracy theories wherever you look. If Robertson chooses to believe one conspiracy theory and discount the others, he can hardly be claiming to set all conspiracy theories aside. Which conspiracy theory do you believe, readers?


Global heating

I’ma chill you

“Global warming”, “climate change”, “climate chaos”, “climate meltdown” or what? I was unaware until this week that James Lovelock prefers yet another formulation: global heating. I’m undecided about this: on the one hand, it seems that “heating” has a more exclusively transitive application than “warming”: an Earth that is “warming” could be just warming up by itself, but if there is “heating”, then someone has to be doing the heating. So “global heating” stresses the A-for-anthropogenic of AGW. On the other hand, it does call to mind cosy things like central heating and underfloor heating. Wouldn’t we like the whole world to have central heating?

Lovelock goes on to conduct an interesting survey of geoengineering wheezes, but as the UN meets in New York this week, I would like to draw attention to another strategy for combating global underfloor heating the climatocalypse. As with most of my best thoughts, I had it while reading the words of 12-year-old British foreign secretary David Miliband:

This week, Barack Obama will chair a summit of the UN security council to discuss nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. This is one of the most critical issues we face. Get it right, and we will increase global security, pave the way for a world without nuclear weapons and improve access to affordable, safe and dependable energy – vital to tackle climate change. Get it wrong, and we face the spread of nuclear weapons and the chilling prospect of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists.

That is a chilling prospect, isn’t it? Come to think of it, when was the last time any public figure mentioned a “prospect” that was not “chilling”? I think now, readers, you can see what I’m getting at. If politicians the world over made a concerted effort to mention all the hypothetical “chilling prospects” they could think of, every day, the combined global chilling effect might be enough to head off the worst of the climageddon.

What do you find a chilling prospect, readers?



Stripping the enemy

From the Guardian:

Iran led the resistance to new anti-proliferation measures in 2005, rallying developing countries behind the claim that the weapons states were trying to impose double standards — keeping their weapons while denying nuclear technology to the have-not nations.

The strategy being pursued by Obama, with the support of Gordon Brown, is to make such significant strides towards disarmament that Iran can no longer credibly make that argument next May. “This is about isolating the Iranians, and denuding them of the arguments they made in 2005,” a British official said.

Denuding the Iranians — an odd-looking word to use. No doubt it is merely an unfortunate coincidence that it carries an echo of the sexual sadism towards the Other that was practised in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The “British official” no doubt meant denuding simply as stripping away or exposing through erosion (as in denuded rock). Even so, the image is curiously more vivid than would be the case with a more ordinary term, such as “depriving” them of their arguments. Denuding seems to imply that the arguments make up a kind of protective carapace that, once stripped off, will expose Iran’s soft, quivering underbelly, to attack or perhaps petting.

One may also raise the question as to whether “significant strides towards disarmament” are actually enough to “denude” the Iranians in this way. If, come next May, the US has a few hundred or even a few thousand fewer nuclear weapons than the 9,000-odd it possesses right now, will the Iranian argument rehearsed above be made moot? One may, of course, make “significant strides towards disarmament” for a very long time, without ever actually disarming, or denuding oneself of nukes altogether.


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