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As President of the United States

Six winning words for Barack Obama

What happened in last night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Obama aced it with a brilliantly simple rhetorical trick. In the middle of the accusations and counter-accusations flying around about their healthcare plans, Obama suddenly went over Clinton’s head, appealing directly to the viewers:

The question is, are we going to make sure that it is affordable for everybody? And that’s my goal when I’m president of the United States.

After some more criticisms from Clinton, he managed to wrap up that whole thematic segment by saying:

And that’s what I intend to provide as president of the United States.

And then, once they got onto talking about NAFTA, he said:

And as president of the United States, I intend to make certain that every agreement that we sign has the labor standards, the environmental standards and the safety standards that are going to protect not just workers, but also consumers.

Bam-bam-bam. That’s three times Obama managed to position himself, unopposed, as the future “president of the United States”. continued »



Slices of life

Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Today’s Big Changes
by Mark J Penn with E Kinney Zalesne (Allen Lane)

Numbers don’t lie, do they? “The simple truth,” this book announces, “is that most of the time we can’t see the true patterns of people’s lives, except through statistics.” Hard data should be our guide to what is actually going on in society. The picture is apparently one of innumerable “Microtrends”, defined as activities pursued by at least one per cent of the population. This zingy survey offers thumbnail sketches of 75 such microtrends allegedly at work in the world today, from “Internet Marrieds” to “Women Who Date Younger Men”, “High School Moguls” and “Chinese Picassos”. Could you be part of one?

As befits the head of a large US polling company who is a close adviser to Hillary Clinton, Mark J Penn has taken an enviably efficient CEO approach to book-writing, working with not only credited co-author Zalesne but also a “senior research analyst” and an “intern”, who are thanked in the Acknowledgments for “gathering all the numbers” and “ferreting out […] arcane data”. Presumably, then, Penn himself is to be judged on what he infers from all the data ferreted out by his subordinates. continued »


An ideological bias

Shakespeare & co

Like many readers, no doubt, I have been enjoying the increasingly bitchy catfight, in the TLS letters pages, between David Wootton and Brian Vickers. ((The exchange started here; unfortunately, the tiny Bantustan that the Times website contemptuously allots to the TLS has not yet updated with the Letters of February 8, to which I responded.)) This week’s issue contains my constructive contribution:

Sir, —
Brian Vickers (Letters, February 8) perceives an “ideological bias towards the theatrical” in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor’s editing of Shakespeare’s plays. In the same spirit, might I take this opportunity to lament the ideological bias towards the novelistic displayed by scholars of Proust, as well as the irritating obsession with the poetical among students of Wallace Stevens?

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers!



Torture and hypotheticals

Today the White House announced that waterboarding forced partial drowning is legal. As a measure to combat cognitive dissonance, they will presumably be derogating from the UN Convention against Torture in short order, since that treaty, as long as the US remains a signatory, is “the supreme law of the land” in America. The LA Times reports:

in remarks that were greeted with disbelief by some members of Congress and human rights groups, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that waterboarding was a legal technique that could be employed again “under certain circumstances.”

Which circumstances might those be? continued »


Subjective violence

Fawning over Zizek again

Had I been allowed to review Slavoj Zizek’s new book, Violence, at greater length than I did, I would have been able to say more, and in particular, more on the following point:

One might balk especially at Žižek’s labelling of murder and torture as “subjective violence” (what is not objective about them?), though it’s clear that, rather than seeking to trivialise them, Žižek is clearing rhetorical space for his other violences.

To expand: in a way, to call killing “subjective violence” is to invite the kind of idiotic criticism of Zizek that says he loves totalitarianism and doesn’t care about mass murder, etc, etc; which view is plainly untenable as soon as one bothers to read any of his books. But I do think his terminology is likely to be rhetorically self-defeating. continued »



Nearly perfect!

The admirable Mariella Frostrup writes:

I’m thinking of compiling a collection of my favourite euphemisms.

Good idea!

The vogue for them among the chattering classes should guarantee a bestseller

I wish. Anyway, what are some of Mariella’s favourite euphemisms?

‘Extraordinary rendition’ is a joy, particularly because it’s often explained as ‘like ordinary rendition, only extraordinary’. You’ll agree that makes things so much clearer!

I wish I had known that while I was writing the section about “extraordinary rendition” in Unspeak. What a delicious fact, that it is often explained as “like ordinary rendition, only extraordinary”. But hang on, is it really a fact? Who has ever explained it in this way? Google doesn’t know. But probably Mariella has resources that exceed Google’s.

Anyway, the topical example that apparently prompted Mariella’s column is “subprime”: continued »


Natural selection

Bear necessities

Spare a thought for the polar bear. Not only is it slandered as “one of nature’s most vicious beasts” by global-warming “sceptic” Brendan O’Neill ((Who, on the matter of global warming, cites the business-friendly political scientist Björn Lomborg, always a revealing sign.)), it is also now at the centre of a long-running philosophical/scientific debate occurring in the august pages of the London Review of Books.

Jerry Fodor, of whose writing on the philosophy of mind I have long been an admirer, there published an article on evolution last October called Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings. After reading it a couple of times I found myself scratching my head, wondering what exactly he was getting at. I felt slightly better after a variety of biologists and philosophers and other responders to the LRB letters pages in subsequent issues also signalled their uncertainty as to what exactly he was getting at. But we can be sure that it involved polar bears. continued »


Moral clarity

The evil empire strikes back

On Saturday the Guardian printed my review of Daniel Johnson’s White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard, which adds another datapoint to our thinking about the uses of the phrase “moral clarity”, Johnson’s thinking on international relations having been morally clarified by such window-cleaners as Mark Steyn. It’s also interesting to compare the moral clarity of Johnson’s view of the Cold War with a line I recently cited from Terry Eagleton’s Ideology (now updated with extra Amis-bashing).


The power struggle between East and West had also been a battle between ideology and truth.


To seek some humble, pragmatic political goal, such as bringing down the democratically elected government of Chile, is a question of adapting oneself realistically to the facts; to send one’s tanks into Czechoslovakia is an instance of ideological fanaticism.

Happy New Year!


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