UK paperback

Fails to capture

Essays in epistolary snootiness

As a connoisseur of the higher snootiness to be enjoyed in tiffs on the TLS Letters page, I was slightly disappointed by this effortful complaint that recently appeared from the pen of Toby Litt:

Sir, – While it covers the basics of the editorial relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, James Campbell’s review of the Collected Stories (July 31) fails to capture what is really important about the publication of Beginners alongside What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Having thus glibly condescended to Campbell (“covers the basics”!), Litt, whose own books are gifted to the world in strict alphabetical order by title (he has lately reached the letter J), goes on to explain that “what is really important” about the publication of the new Carver material is, er, what it can be interpreted to say about the “creative writing” industry.

It’s understandable that Litt, who teaches “creative writing” at Birkbeck, should be particularly interested in this topic, but is it really fair to accuse James Campbell of “fail[ing] to capture what is really important” about the Carver book because he didn’t choose to write about it in his original (excellent) piece, instead choosing to write about, er, what Carver and “Carver” actually wrote? Is it not rather fantastically rude (as well as absurd) of Litt to do so?

I regretfully conclude, then, that Litt’s salvo is not sufficiently subtle to warrant praise as higher snootiness: it too obviously combines a plainly unwarranted assault on the original writer with a preening announcement that the correspondent’s own hobbyhorse is the most interesting thing that can be said about the topic at hand. I think we can say, indeed, that Litt has failed to capture what is really important about the aesthetics of a truly fine snoot.


The private sector

‘Boomeranging words’ and ‘semantic discipline’

Oh hi there, Ralph Nader!

Ever wonder what’s happening to words once they fall into the hands of corporate and government propagandists? Too often reporters and editors don’t wonder enough. They ditto the words even when the result is deception or doubletalk.


Here are some examples. Day in and day out we read about “detainees” imprisoned for months or years by the federal government in the U.S., Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan. Doesn’t the media know that the correct word is “prisoners,” regardless of what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld disseminated?

Yep! (Cf.)

The raging debate and controversy over health insurance and the $2.5 trillion spent this year on health care involves consumers and “providers.” How touching to describe sellers or vendors, often gouging, denying benefits, manipulating fine print contracts, cheating Medicare and Medicaid in the tens of billions as “providers.” I always thought “providers” were persons taking care of their families or engaging in charitable service. Somehow, the dictionary definition does not fit the frequently avaricious profiles of Aetna, United Healthcare, Pfizer and Merck.


“Privatization” and the “private sector” are widespread euphemisms that the press falls for daily. Moving government owned assets or functions into corporate hands, as with Blackwater, Halliburton, and the conglomerates now controlling public highways, prisons, and drinking water systems is “corporatization,” not the soft imagery of going “private” or into the “private sector.” It is the corporate sector!

Good point!

Oh, you know, read the whole thing?


Some tools for their personal defense

Unspeaking weapons

The Iranian government has been using Basij militia forces to quell opposition demonstrations. But don’t worry, they’re not armed:

“Since Basij forces entered the scene on June 16, they never used any weapon in the missions entrusted on them and they were just equipped with some tools for their personal defense in their missions,” General Abdullah Araqi, an IRGC Commander in charge of Tehran Province, said today. ((Thanks to Karin Kosina.))

“Some tools for their personal defense”? Would that be the clubs or the razorblades?



Unravelling Johann Hari

Johann Hari is worried about the English language. ((Thanks to dsquared.)) What in particular is he worried about?

I am talking about phrases that, while posing as neutral descriptions of the world, contain a hidden political agenda that then moulds the assumptions of the listener

Sound familiar?

These phrases can be successfully driven from the language: during the Vietnam War, news reports blandly referred to slaughtered civilians as “collateral damage” – a bloodless phrase that evokes nothing. Today, even the Pentagon press officers avoid those words when describing the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it has been so thoroughly satirised.

Um, no they don’t: Pentagon press releases still regularly feature the phrase “collateral damage”. But never mind the facts; let’s get on with the argument!

So which phrases would I expunge? There’s a useful book by the writer Steven Poole called Unspeak detailing thousands – but here’s a short list of some of my own.

“Thousands”? I think this belongs alongside Slavoj Zizek‘s “infinite number of pop-cultural references” in the annals of “arithmetically challenged statements by Johann Hari”. But I am delighted to find Unspeak described as “useful”, even if to call a book “useful” is not to say it is good or interesting, but merely to indicate that one has found it handy — perhaps, for example, when casting around for a topic for one’s opinion column. Anyway! What are some of Hari’s own examples of Unspeak?

Labelling food as “Fair Trade.” This phrase suggests that paying desperately poor people a decent wage is a nice ethical add-on, and a gratifying departure from the norm.

Well, it is a gratifying departure from the norm, if that is what is happening. The problem with the label “Fair Trade” if considered as Unspeak is, rather, that it discourages any close investigation into whether the practices so labelled are indeed fair. If you criticize “Fair Trade”, you’re an unfair plutocrat. Perhaps you are even “pissing on an African child”. Moving swiftly on…

“Infant mortality.” This sounds clinical and antiseptic – who feels moved when they hear it? – when what we are in fact talking about is dead babies.

You know, I’m not really sure that “infant mortality” is trying to hide anything at all. After all, bodies that report on “infant mortality”, such as the WHO and UNICEF, do seem to have an agenda of trying to reduce the number of dead babies lying around. Still, Hari’s way of translating the phrase is certainly arresting:

…they might say in passing, “Infant mortality fell.” The phrase that tells the truth is: hundreds of thousands of babies stopped dying.

Hundreds of thousands of babies stopped dying? The babies that were in the process of dying decided not to die after all? Next!

“Climate change.”

This is another one of Hari’s “own examples”, apparently, though there are eight pages devoted to it in the book of mine that he found “useful”.

This phrase was invented by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, when he discovered that focus groups found the phrase “global warming” too scary.

Perhaps a closer reading of Unspeak might have been even more “useful” here. Luntz did not invent the phrase “climate change”.

The more accurate phrase would be “the unravelling of the ecosystem”, “climate chaos”, or “catastrophic man-made global warming.” They’re a mouthful, but they are honest.

Unfortunately, it’s clear by now that Hari is confusing “honest” with “argumentative, but on my side of the argument”. The “unravelling of the ecosystem”? I do enjoy the image of the ecosystem as a massive woolly jumper: you pull on one thread and the whole thing falls apart. To “unravel” something, however, can also be to understand it: to disentangle a knotty mystery. But is it “honest” to say that global warming will result in (is already resulting in) “the unravelling of the ecosystem” in the sense of the wholesale destruction of the biosphere? Of course not. Some ecosystems as we know them will no doubt change profoundly in adaptation to new conditions, and this will not necessarily be to the greater convenience of human beings; but this is very different from the apocalyptic and irreversible implication of the (singular) ecosystem “unravelling”, a process which presumably would end in the cessation of life on the planet. Hari’s preferred phrase is Unspeak itself, and the kind of unproductive exaggeration that presents easy fodder for shills and deniers.

But all is not lost! I can at least heartily agree with Hari’s last example:

“Out of context.” I would allow this phrase to be used, but in highly restricted circumstances. Sometimes, a quote is taken out of context, but if you are going to make that accusation, you should be required to give the original context, and explain why the quote was wrong. Instead, this has become a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody who is caught saying something disgusting.

Quite so. One might even add that to quote something is by definition to lift it out of context; otherwise one would be obliged to cite an entire page, chapter or book at once. After I reviewed the appalling Steve Fuller’s “book”, Dissent Over Descent, for example, he accused me of having “cherry-picked some suitably outrageous quotes to put the book in the worst possible light”. Actually, to put his screed in the worst possible light I would have had to quote the entire volume word by word. Happily for Guardian readers, there wasn’t space.

At any rate, I think we can all agree that Unspeak is certainly something worth trying to unravel, and it’s nice to see more people having a go, isn’t it?

In other news, I managed to get my theory of “Melanie Phillips” as a satirist’s sockpuppet into the Guardian on Saturday. Happy rentrée littéraire, readers!



A public-service announcement

Hello again, readers! I apologize for leaving this site to the whistling winds and tumbleweed for so long, but I have been otherwise engaged. I’m not sure whether I will want to return to blogging here in due course, but I’ll let you know about that when the time comes. In the meantime you should all be reading The Awl?


Free speech

…with every packet of Monster Munch

In defence of his “right” to say that he doesn’t “respect” claims that he thinks some religions make, ((Hari wrote:

I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice.

This, he now pleads rather ambitiously, was part of a “a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics” — though he does not, so far as I can tell, adduce any actual examples of Buddhofascism. And evidently it was not, as he now claims, just a matter of “stating simple facts” (see this comment below). )) Johann Hari offers as a universal principle:

The solution to the problems of free speech – that sometimes people will say terrible things – is always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don’t like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people.

Alternatively, you could, like Hari, threaten them with legal action.

But let us assume that Hari’s views have changed since he used the Independent‘s lawyers to threaten a blogger with a libel suit, and that today he is, as the above passage states, a “free-speech” fundamentalist. The response to speech you don’t like, he argues, must always and only be “more free speech”. In that case Hari presumably finds troubling all the official restrictions placed on speech anywhere in the world — not only by Muslim governments but also, for example, by our own beloved liberal democracies.

In England, lamentably, many speech acts are criminal offences, such as those threatening violence or “encouraging” the commission of an offence. We can look forward, I assume, to Hari’s campaign not only to abolish the concept of libel, but to defend everyone’s “right” to say to someone in a pub, “I’m gonna cut your face to ribbons”, or to stand on a street corner and shout: “Murder all Catholics!” Because, as I think we can all agree, the idea of “free speech” means nothing unless it is absolute.

As an example of what principled champions of “free speech” such as Johann Hari are up against, I offer the decadent reasoning of an American:

[P]recisely because speech is never “free” in the two senses required — free of consequences and free from state pressure — speech always matters, is always doing work; because everything we say impinges on the world in ways indistinguishable from the effects of physical action, we must take responsibility for our verbal performances — all of them. ((Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too (Oxford, 1994), p114.))

Of course, if you give that kind of postmodern nonsense any credence, you’re basically an appeaser of tyrants.



Evolution vs Stupid Design Theory

In Unspeak, I suggested that there was a problem with the use of the term “Darwinist”:

[‘Intelligent Design’ proponents] tended to refer to their opponents — that is, biologists — as ‘neo-Darwinists’. What was actually known as the ‘Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis’ of evolutionary science combined Darwinian theory with twentieth-century genetics. Yet the consistent use of the term ‘neo-Darwinist’ by evolution’s enemies imputed to science an idolatrous reliance on the supposedly outdated ideas of one man, as though he were the false god of an ‘evolutionist’ religion. ((Unspeak, 2nd edn (2007), p.50.))

Now, in the New York Times, Carl Safina argues persuasively that biologists themselves have erred in accepting the term:

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.” […] Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. “Darwinism” implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. And “isms” (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. “Darwinism” implies that biological scientists “believe in” Darwin’s “theory”.

And this, Safina argues, leaves a rhetorical door open for liars:

Using phrases like “Darwinian selection” or “Darwinian evolution” implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, “Newtonian physics” distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So “Darwinian evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution?

Into the breach: intelligent design. I am not quite saying Darwinism gave rise to creationism, though the “isms” imply equivalence. But the term “Darwinian” built a stage upon which “intelligent” could share the spotlight.

For a case in point, see this remarkable farrago of unreason by the Telegraph‘s anti-science correspondent Christopher Booker:

[Darwin] might […] have recognised that some other critically important but unknown factor seemed to be at work, an “organising power” which had allowed these otherwise inexplicable leaps to take place. But so possessed was he by the simplicity of his theory that, brushing such difficulties aside, he made a leap of faith that it must be right, regardless of the evidence. In this he has been followed by generations of “Darwinians” who have found his theory so beguiling that, like him, they have refused to recognise how much it cannot explain.

It’s true that “Darwinism” cannot explain what Booker invokes, a “critically important but unknown factor […] an organising power”, because such a power is by definition inexplicable. But hang on, if this “factor” is “unknown”, how does Booker know it’s “critically important”? Indeed, if it’s “unknown”, how does Booker know it’s an “organising power”? These are rhetorical questions: what is going on here, piquantly, is that a major broadsheet columnist is outing himself as a creationist.

Like his fellow creationists, Booker doesn’t have much truck with known facts. As Richard Wilson helpfully points out, Booker’s Telegraph column recycles two of its dunciac paragraphs from this earlier piece in the Spectator, wherein Booker confidently asserts that “genetically we are all but identical” to “mice and sea urchins”, and wonders plaintively how “much the same genetic coding can produce such an infinite variety of life forms?”

Me, I wonder how the same alphabetic coding can produce such a stunning variety of tongue-dragging moronitude in purportedly high-minded periodicals. And from long meditation on that improbability, I am inevitably driven to believe in a Stupid Designer. Surely the accretion of random changes could not possibly have resulted in organisms so ill-suited to rational thinking?


Sends the wrong message

Drug-addled politics

The British “government” has a colourful record of commissioning independent scientific advice and then blithely trashing it when it does not conform to ministers’ prejudices, particularly on the subject of the WAD (War Against Drugs). ((Or, more properly, the WADETLOFWTGRIANP — the War Against Drugs, Except The Legal Ones From Which The Government Rakes In A Nice Profit.)) Over the weekend, news emerged that Professor David Nutt, chair of the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, had written in a journal that, on a strict comparison of immediate deaths and injuries that result, taking Ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding. ((Cutely, he even offered a new term for the proposed “addiction” to riding horses, viz. Equasy.)) On the statistics he cites of annual death and disability, this is simply a fact. It is not an opinion, dangerous or otherwise: Nutt has simply counted some things up and told us the answer.

Happily, facts are rarely allowed to get in the way of the cretinous moralizing of pro-WADdists. And so came a more-than-usually moronic session in Parliament yesterday, wherein home secretary “Jacqui” Smith screeched:

I spoke to Professor Nutt about his comments this morning. I told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article. I am sure that most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug-taking.

The “link that he makes up”? IANAL, but I think this manages to be both a falsehood about what Nutt says, and a slander of him for fabricating evidence (or at least it would be a slander if it weren’t for Parliamentary privilege). As far as I can tell from press coverage, ((I don’t have access to the journal article: if anyone does, feel free to cite interesting bits in comments.)) Nutt did not assert — still less invent — any “link” between the two activities. He did not propose that horse-riding was a gateway pastime to Ecstasy use. He merely compared them in their harms. Is to compare two things now inevitably to “make up” a “link” between them? Of course it isn’t, and of course “Jacqui” Smith is either a numbskull or a liar.

That makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy, and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs.

I see. So noting some facts about harms attributable to a particular drug “sends the wrong message” about the dangers of drugs. We are obliged to conclude, I think, that the right message would be a lie. This goes one thrilling step further than when last year’s plan to “upgrade” cannabis (which didn’t mean distributing better-quality shit) was said to “send a message” that drugs were eevull. The policy now is that facts about drug use are the wrong message to be sending about drug use. You can’t handle the truth!

Not to be outdone in the competition to see who could honk more crassly, Conservative MP Laurence Robertson took the chortlesome opportunity to make fun of Professor Nutt’s surname:

Will she go a little further than she did in her statement just now and perhaps suggest to Professor Nutt that although he might be appropriately named, he is in the wrong job?

“Jacqui” Smith responded:

I made completely clear my view that there is absolutely no equivalence between the legal activity of horse riding and the illegal activity of drug taking, and that will always be the basis on which I make decisions about drugs policy.

That is rather a specific basis on which to base one’s entire drugs policy, isn’t it? Still, we look forward to all future statements on the WAD by “Jacqui” Smith containing a disclaimer that taking drugs is not the same thing as riding horses, despite what some insane so-called “scientists” might babble.

What “message” does this farce send to you, readers?


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