UK paperback


Militias, message force multipliers, and Christopher Hitchens

Attention: there is a new album by Whitesnake available at Amie St. The first track goes like this:

You may imagine I am making the horns.

What’s that? You were expecting something about Unspeak too? Oh, very well.

“Radical cleric” Muqtada al-Sadr has, I heard a CNN news reporter say the other day, been “refusing to disband his militia”. Well, why should he? After all, everyone knows that a “well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state”, which is why America’s houses need to be stuffed with guns. Perhaps the complaint is that al-Sadr’s militia is not “well-regulated”. In response, al-Sadr pointed petulantly at the Badr Organization, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, and said “They’re a militia, why don’t you tell them to disband?” And the Badrs said “Hey, we’re not a militia: look, it says Organization in our name, how can we be a militia?” And al-Sadr said “All right then, I shall rename the Mahdi Army, from now on it will be called Mahdi, Brown & Root, is that better?” And so it goes.

By the way, Patrick Cockburn’s book on al-Sadr is good: here is my short review of it, together with a review of a book called Mindfucking, which I wish had lived up to its title. Of course, Unspeak is a kind of mindfucking.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, US military “analysts” who appear on TV and defend the administration’s policies are, um, administration stooges who basically say whatever they’re told to say. Who would have guessed? The report contains some lovely Unspeak. These sockpuppets, apparently, are known as message force multipliers, to help the Pentagon gain information dominance in the MindWar being waged against — who else? — the American people themselves.

Lastly, what is an “intellectual”? Darned if I know, given Foreign Policy / Prospect magazines’ new list of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world, from which you are invited to vote for five. Apparently, General Petraeus, “military strategist”, is a public intellectual. Qué? (So, apparently, is Björn Lomborg, here described as an “environmentalist” although he isn’t one.)

Luckily, our old friend Christopher Hitchens is also on the list, and has written an essay explaining what a public intellectual is. Among other things, intellectuals are those people:

who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth

The subtle relationship of Hitchens’s language to truth has often been remarked hereabouts.

The list itself is interesting. There’s a pretty good showing for novelists — Coetzee, Eco, Oz, Pamuk, Rushdie — and favourite Slavoj Zizek also creeps in, to throw custard pies in everyone else’s face.

When you vote, you can also nominate someone who isn’t on the list, but should be. Defend your choice in comments!



Politicians: mafiosi?

Henry at Crooked Timber links to Charles Tilly’s 1982 essay Warmaking and Statemaking as Organised Crime [pdf], which by happy chance dovetails nicely with my previous post on the US Justice Department’s current system of deferred prosecution for corporate malefactors, and reader Richard’s apt characterization of it as basically a protection racket. Tilly’s paper opens with a nice riff on the possible valences of the word “protection”:

In contemporary American parlance, the word “protection” sounds two contrasting tones. One is comforting, the other ominous. With one tone, “protection” calls up images of the shelter against danger provided by a powerful friend, a large insurance policy, or a sturdy roof. With the other, it evokes the racket in which a local strongman forces merchants to pay tribute in order to avoid damage, damage the strongman himself threatens to deliver. […]

[C]onsider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat, then charges for its reduction. Governments’ provision of protetion, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering. To the extent that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary, or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket.

TWAT, anybody?


Deferred prosecution

A new approach to corporate crime

The New York Times reported recently:

In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years.

Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret.

Deferred prosecutions have become a favorite tool of the Bush administration.

Deferred prosecution is a beautifully tactful way to say No prosecution (as long as you pay us big wads of cash). But perhaps you suppose that “deferred” means, as it is normally understood, just put off until later? Not really:

Most agreements end after two or three years with the charges permanently dismissed.

Ah, so the prosecutions are “deferred” for ever. That’s a relief.

But why is the government so interested in collecting big wads of cash in lieu of prosecuting companies for acts that include “financial crimes, […] Medicare and Medicaid fraud, kickbacks and environmental violations”? This might be a clue:

Deferred prosecution agreements, or D.P.A.’s, have become controversial because of a medical supply company’s agreement to pay up to $52 million to the consulting firm of John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, as an outside monitor to avoid criminal prosecution.

I am reminded of George W. Bush’s insistence that “the justice system” shouldn’t “affect the flows of capital”. ((Cited in Unspeak, p208.)) Presumably, diverting a little of those flows into the pockets of the former chief law-enforcement officer of the US doesn’t count.

A “deferred prosecution”, of course, is only a narrow case of the administration’s speciality, which we might be tempted to christen deferred justice — retaining, of course, the special meaning of “deferred”, so that it means “no justice, ever”. This is the species of justice that, in an admirable display of even-handedness, the government metes out not only to prisoners held for years without trial but also to the politicians and lawyers responsible for dreaming up its torture régime: they are granted immunity from US prosecution by the MCA. ((But not global immunity: see lawyer Philippe Sands’s interesting piece in Vanity Fair on the prospect of individuals who travel to foreign countries being arrested and prosecuted there on war-crimes charges.)) Really, a justice forever deferred is the most perfect kind.

What have you “deferred” recently, readers?



Amis: no laughing matter

Martin “I am a serious” Amis’s book about the scrotum-tighteningly horroristic age in which we live in has attracted an exhilaratingly vituperative review by Michiko Kakutani in today’s New York Times. She starts as she means to go on, referring in the first sentence to “one of these chuckleheaded essays”. Lovely.

But then I began to wonder: what does “chuckleheaded” really mean? I had always vaguely assumed that it was an American coinage dating from within the last century or so, and had fondly visualized a person with a big squishy yellow cartoon head; or alternatively, a person so irredeemably stupid that he does nothing but chuckle: a laughing fool.

Checking in the OED, though, I find that it has been possible to be a chucklehead since as long ago as 1730. In Thomas Bridge’s Homer travestie (1764), we find the following remarkable couplet:

You think the rock of Troy
Some chuckle-headed booby boy.

(He didn’t call it a travestie for nothing.) And although “chuckle” meant “laugh” from 1548, it seems that chuckleheaded is built rather on the sense of “chuck” meaning “lump” (originally the same word as “chock”). So, the indefatigable lexicographers say, “chuckle-headed” is very like “block-headed”. (There are also the mocking usages “chucklepate” and even “chuckle Chin”.)

Gratifyingly, the sense of a “chucklehead” as someone big, lumbering and clumsy might even represent an extra gleeful ad hominem dart, when applied to the small Mr Amis.

But anyway. I am glad to have learned more from Kakutani’s review than I would have learned from reading The Age of Testicle-Torsioning Infinite Horroristicality. A chucklehead is not, as I had always thought, someone who goes round giggling all the time, but someone whose head is so dense that no mere idea can penetrate it.

What words have you only recently discovered the proper meanings of, readers?



Massaging lies in the media

Following on from Misspeak, a phenomenon in which public figures attribute their false claims to momentary biological dysfunction, we should also keep in mind the supine way in which the media itself refuses to call liars liars. Consider the hyper-delicate way in which the LA Times reports today the liar Dick Cheney lying, earlier this week, about Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programme. The report is headlined “Cheney disputes Iran’s nuclear goals“, although the story is actually about how Cheney lied about Iran’s nuclear goals. This is made clear through a series of marvellously tortuous circumlocutions:

Vice President Dick Cheney charged in an interview released Tuesday that Iran is trying to develop weapons-grade uranium, though international inspectors and U.S. intelligence services have not found evidence of such an effort. […]

“Obviously, they’re also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels,” Cheney said […]

In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, says Iran is enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz to less than 3.8%, which is the level necessary to create fuel for a civilian reactor. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 80% or 90%.

Cheney’s comment also contradicted the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded in a report revealed late last year that Iran had halted its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003.

The vice president’s statement was the second time in a week that a White House official has made an allegation regarding Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions that did not square with publicly known facts.

What do you call it when someone in power says something that “does not square with publicly known facts”, when he is clearly in a position to know what those facts are? You call it lying — unless, of course, you write for a major newspaper.

But the most illuminating piece of Unspeak in this report is not, to be fair, the paper’s own. It’s from the White House, climbing down after a lie by Cheney’s sockpuppet:

President Bush said last week that Iran’s leaders had “declared” they were seeking nuclear weapons. Iran has always denied the charge, and the White House later backpedaled, calling the president’s remarks “shorthand.”

Ah, shorthand. It’s understandable: things move so fast in international affairs that you’ll be left behind if you try to scribble everything down in your notebook using all the letters of each word, ie describing things as they are. Who has the patience for that? But, well, how exactly can a lie be “shorthand”? Is it shorthand for the truth, or just shorthand for a bigger lie?

Well, “shorthand” is quite a good description of the way that, as I argued, John McCain’s claim about Iran arming Al Qaeda was an economical encapsulation of all the deliberate conflations that make up the rhetorical cloud around the “war on terror”. In the same way, perhaps, lying about Iran’s stated intentions can be thought of as a shorthand indication of the continuing determination to rattle sabres at Iran no matter what the facts are, and in general of the administration’s bellicose contempt for the “reality-based community” that is so blatant and implacable that newspapers find themselves in an impossible position.

For they cannot both call all this lying what it is and maintain the kind of proper deference to authority that is part of what makes our democracies so envied the world over. And the latter is, surely, the more noble aim for a free press.



I misspoke, you made a mistake, they’re a bunch of liars

Perhaps related to Unspeak, and an example of it, is the phenomenon of Misspeak. Increasingly, we hear politicians who are caught out in deceptions, fantasies or bullshit say, in answer, simply: “I misspoke”. Thus John Mccain, on how he could have imagined that Iran was arming “Al Qaeda”:

I just simply misspoke when I said Al-Qaeda.

And Hillary Clinton was forced to admit that she was not actually being shot at by snipers when she landed in Bosnia in 1996:

So I misspoke.

It is useful, to say one “misspoke”. You acknowledge that what you said was absolute balls, but the fault is not your own, as it would be if you had lied or been wrong. No, the fault is somehow in the faculty of speech itself, something going wrong in the course of that complex magic between brain, lip and others’ ears. Lying (if that’s what it is) is Unspoken as a brief blip of dysphasia. Here‘s an illuminating elaboration of what is being claimed:

Adrianne Marsh, spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, has told several news organizations her boss “misspoke” Wednesday when she said Sen. Barack Obama was the first black figure “to come to the American people not as a victim but as a leader.”

McCaskill made the comments at a Kansas City news conference, and were first reported by The Kansas City Star and Prime Buzz.

“This is a classic case where Claire simply misspoke,” Marsh said in a prepared statement. “She’s sorry it came out wrong.”

It came out wrong ! And so the question of whether it was wrong when it was still in is handily sidestepped.

Are there no situations in which it might be reasonable to say one misspoke? We all experience flubs and brainfarts, by way of which what we speak is not what we intended. But it’s a little harder to take “I misspoke” as a credible excuse for things said as prepared remarks, or during a press conference about a situation so basic (as with Iran and “Al Qaeda”) that one is entitled to suspect the claimed Misspeak was Unspeak all along.

Did you hear me say that politicians are, to a man and woman, all a bunch of drug-addicts, thieves, child-molesters and members of “high-class prostitution rings” who lie all day and then the next day lie about having lied? Ah, I misspoke.



A euphemism for Unspeak?

The New York Review of Books contains an essay, by David Bromwich, entitled “Euphemism and American Violence“, which unaccountably fails to climax with a rousing recommendation that NYRB readers rush out and buy Unspeak. Even so, it is an interesting read, touching on many examples that I’ve discussed in my book and here at, and a few I haven’t: I particularly liked Bromwich’s reading of Condoleezza Rice’s invocation of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”.

The main problem with the essay’s approach, as I see it, is already right there in the title. Like just about everyone who reaches for George Orwell’s essay in order to discuss contemporary political language, Bromwich assumes that “euphemism” is a sufficient description of what is going on. But it isn’t. After all, one of Bromwich’s own prime examples, the phrase “global war on terrorism”, is not exactly euphemistic, because calling something a “war” does not constitute an attempt to make it sound nicer than it is. To euphemize a campaign of killing, you instead call it a “conflict” or an “incursion” or an “intervention” ((Oliver Kamm, the noted obituarist, music critic, and enthusiast of bombing civilians (as long as the bombs — atomic, “cluster”, whatever — are dropped from airplanes rather than strapped to suicidists), recently referred to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as an “intervention”.)) — or, indeed, a “struggle”, as in the short-lived Global Struggle Against Violent Euphemism Extremism. But GWOT or TWAT or “war on terror” is obviously designed to sound as apocalyptically grandiose and world-historical as possible.

Perhaps this is still euphemistic in some way, in that it lends a rhetorical illusion of logic, homogeneity and necessity to a grab-bag (or smash-and-grab-bag) of different actions: but if so, this is a very specific reason for the choice of language. (Another reason for the specific formulation “war on terror” was, as I argued in Unspeak, to conflate state and non-state actors indiscriminately, thus writing a cheque for unlimited remodelling of the world by force.) Bromwich, apparently still in thrall to Orwell’s vague talk of “cloudy vagueness” in political language, misses such concrete policy implications of the rhetoric: apparently, it’s useful just because it’s not “definite”; it creates a “mood”, as do all “euphemisms”. And thus Bromwich’s critique of euphemism is infected with the blurriness of euphemism itself.

To assume that everything is “euphemism”, moreover, is to ignore the rhetorical current, just as useful, of its opposite: dysphemism, when you pretend that things are worse than they really are — a strategy nicely packaged up in phrases such as “terrorist suspects”, “bogus asylum-seekers”, and perhaps most notoriously, “axis of evil”, about as far from a euphemism, in one direction, as it is possible to get.

For a moment, the naked cynicism of dysphemistic rhetoric was gloriously revealed the other day, when John McCain started blabbing about how Iran was training and arming Al Qaeda. Now, I do not actually think, as my friend Jeff Hussein Strabone argues, that this betrayed “ignorance” on McCain’s part. I suspect, rather, that it just showed how thoroughly he has internalized the propaganda lesson that calling people “Al Qaeda” gives you carte blanche to launch bombs at wherever they might be; and that it handily reinforces the fiction that “Al Qaeda” is actually a homogeneous global force that poses an existential threat to the American way of life, etc; as well as the more specific fiction that “Al Qaeda” has been the enemy all along in Iraq. It would be tediously restrictive to save the term “Al Qaeda” for the groups or groupuscules that actually claim that brand for themselves; so “Al Qaeda” becomes the preferred globally applicable bogey-label to mean “bad guys to whom we can do anything we like” — and in that sense it is quite understandable that McCain should have made the slip he did.

Notable, too, that his corrected version called the Shia forces allegedly backed by Iran instead “extremists”, which was part of the abortive G-SAVE slogan and constitutes the most helpfully wide definition of “people we’d like to kill” — because, after all, a war just against Osama’s gang didn’t quite offer the planetary scope required. And that brings us back to why “war on terror” has always been the publicly preferred version of what is known internally to the military as the “global war on terrorism”, because restricting the target to terrorism would have made it even harder to pretend that Saddam Hussein was part of the same picture. But no one could deny that he was a perpetrator of “terror”.

So. Euphemism? That’s not the half of it. As commenter SW argues incisively: “Perhaps ‘euphemism’ is a bit of unspeak as well — the audience consists of passive mooks lulled into acquiescence by the sweet words, which are chosen only because they sound better, not because they are doing any work.”

Final quiz: is Bromwich committing any amount of euphemism, or alternatively Unspeak, himself when he refers to the administration’s announcement of the TWAT as “launching their response to Islamic jihadists” — and if so, how much?


Evidence-based medicine

Clinical Unspeak, China, ‘language rapists’, & ‘Melanie’ on Obama

While Oliver Kamm gaily holds a lit match to whatever shreds remained of his credibility (see update here), a quick round-up of other Unspeak news follows.

• “Evidence-based medicine” is a term for what you might fondly have hoped doctors would always have done: adjust their practice according to the most rigorous possible statistical analyses of what works and what doesn’t. Agree as we do that it is a good thing, we must also acknowledge that its name is a cute bit of Unspeak, assuming as already beyond argument its own definition of “evidence”, and relegating its opponents to the status of witch-doctors. This, after all, was nicely admitted by an evangelist for the paradigm’s clinical power, Druin Birch, during a discussion in the TLS letters pages:

Evidence-based medicine is such an unfairly named movement that there can be no sensible argument against it. J. K. Aronson is right (Letters, February 15) to see it as a front for those who believe some types of evidence are worth more than others, and correct that I accept the reality of this hierarchy.

• In a public debate, someone once asked me why my book did not devote itself to denouncing Chinese Unspeak, rather than carping mostly about the UK and US governments. I replied, reasonably enough I thought, that political English in our time was still worthy of some interrogation, and unfortunately I did not understand Chinese (beyond a very specialized martial-arts vocabulary). Happily, other people do. Chris O’Brien wrote a fascinating article for Forbes on how he spent two years as a “language polisher” for the official news agency:

“The three closenesses” and “The four steadfasts” are just a couple of the catchphrases championed by President Hu Jintao that are guaranteed to send English spell-check programs whirring to life. “Eight honors and eight disgraces” is another party favorite. The government views such buzzwords as essential tools in maintaining its influence over the morality of the people.

From O’Brien I also learned of the China Media Project, which offers among other things a useful list of definitions for current phrases of Chinese government Unspeak. The stipulation that the media should adhere to the principle of “correct guidance of public opinion”, for example, means that they should report whatever the Party tells them. Failure to do so would be a violation of “propaganda discipline”. And “civilized creation [and management] of the Web” means, um, censoring it.

• For some comic relief, readers may peruse an extraordinary “essay” entitled “Feminism and the English Language“, by a man called David Gelernter, for the “American Enterprise Institute”. The delicious irony of this blubbering rant, crammed as it is with violent misogyny and lies, is that Gelernter professes to be trying to defend “our ability to write and read good, clear English”, associating himself through his title with George Orwell, while at the same time perpetrating sentences like the following:

So feminist authorities went back to the drawing board. Unsatisfied with having rammed their 80-ton 16-wheeler into the nimble sports-car of English style, they proceeded to shoot the legs out from under grammar–which collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional.

For good measure, he calls his imaginary army of feminist language-police “language rapists”. Ho ho ho.

• Lastly, the operator of the sockpuppet known as “Melanie Phillips” has been really pushing the envelope recently, reporting that:

Barack Obama failed unequivocally to repudiate the support expressed for his candidacy by the black power, Islamist, racist antisemite Louis Farrakhan.

Shall we refresh our memories on how Obama failed unequivocally to repudiate Farrakhan’s support? Uh, he said he “would reject and denounce it”. (Update: See Alex Higgins’s magnificent satire in comments on that whole line of questioning.) It is only natural that the fervid, spasming bolus that is the microbrain of “Melanie” finds this somehow equivocal, because “she” believes that Barack Obama is the Trojan horse for a shadowy group of anti-Semitic Islamists who want to take over America and nuke Israel. Whatever he actually says cannot in principle dislodge this paranoiac pellet from her bolus. But then, if “Melanie”‘s writing were in any way evidence-based, the satire wouldn’t be so entertaining, would it, readers?


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