UK paperback

Old English

Time, gentlemen, please

It often takes a great mind to recognize the obvious. Here is W H Auden, reprinted in this month’s Harper’s:

Strictly speaking, “Old English” should be called “Young English”.


That’s all from me for this year, folks. Remember, a copy of Unspeak makes a delightful gift for friends and family, and they will surely thank you all the more if you buy them two copies each, to hedge against loss or fire. And for when it comes, merry Christmas, or Newton Day, or whatever dumbass name you want to call it.


The dominance of western music

Karlheinz Stockhausen, RIP

Fans of Oliver Kamm ((Would fans of Oliver Kamm, if such people exist, be likely also to read I accept this is improbable.)) will be familiar with his charming habit of denouncing the recently dead in tones of stentorian conservatism. So it goes with his CiF post about Stockhausen, the newly late German composer. Unfortunately, Kamm is rather out of his depth on the topic of music, as can be deduced from the following hilarious passage:

The dominance of western music reflects its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse. A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions. The work of Stockhausen is not like that.

The dominance of western music, eh? Where is it dominating? Is it that it is dominant in the west? Well, one might suppose that to be true by definition, as far as it goes.

Sadly, it goes nowhere. Because Kamm can’t really mean “western music” when he says “western music”. After all, Stockhausen was a European, and so quite western, composer. And the feature that Kamm supposes to be unique to “western music” — “its ability to combine melody and harmony” — is, of course, a feature of lots of other musics, from around the African continent, or India, or China, or Japan, and so on ad pretty much infinitum.

But let us give Kamm the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps what he is really thinking of is not “western music” but specifically a current in what is loosely termed “classical music”, viz., the contrapuntal tradition that issued in the great Renaissance polyphonists. In such music, harmony is created through the movement of independent voices, which is perhaps what Kamm really means by “its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse”.

Sadly for this generous interpretation, Stockhausen’s music, particularly his choral writing, contains many examples of counterpoint too.

Stockhasuen: Freude

What about the claim that “A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions”? I once wrote a long review of Roger Scruton’s very interesting The Aesthetics of Music, in which the author rightly points out that such a childish view of music is untenable. (Even though Scruton himself nods at times, as when he somehow intuits that the opening bars of a Beethoven sonata “express a tranquil gratitude”.) Plainly it is fatuous to say that a musical composition is an “argument”, never mind an “argument that appeals to the emotions”; unless Kamm is able to précis for us the argument of Mozart’s 40th or Claire de Lune.

(Update: I somewhat misremembered Scruton’s analysis, which is that music can indeed “express” meaning, though not in the way Kamm implies: music is not, Scruton says, a “language”. In comments Mr Kamm offers a sentence from Scruton’s 2007 book Culture Counts, in which Scruton does argue that a piece of tonal music can have, though not be, an “argument”. It is rather illuminating, actually, to compare Scruton’s sentence with Kamm’s. Emphases have been added:


It is tonality, however, with its unique potential to synthesize the melodic and harmonic dimensions, that makes counterpoint and voice-leading intelligible to the ordinary musical ear, and so makes it possible for people not otherwise versed in musical theory to follow the argument of a symphony or a string quartet, and to understand the message addressed through tones to their emotions.


The dominance of western music reflects its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse. A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions.

It is surely just coincidence that Kamm’s passage is so similar to Scruton’s. Kamm does not cite Scruton by name in his blog post, and so cannot have had this sentence in front of him when he wrote it. It would, of course, be absurd simply to substitute Scruton’s “tonality” with Kamm’s “western music”, since the two are not at all the same thing. Much Chinese music is just as tonal as Beethoven; and much western music is not tonal in the traditional sense.)

Reluctantly, then, I approach the conclusion that, on the subject of music, Kamm is cloth-eared and ignorant. Still, his blog post itself is, in a way, an “argument that appeals to the emotions”. You don’t really need to have listened to any Stockhausen to read it; nor, perhaps, to write it. All you have to do is swell with a vague emotional attachment to old-fashioned “western music” (not including Germans), and — evidently the real source of Kamm’s doltish animus against the composer — an emotional reaction against anyone who could have said that 9/11 was “the greatest work of art ever”.

Kamm is also fond of accusing various writers of disgraceful scholarship when they cite things while eliding context. In the interest of enabling readers to assess the level of disgrace that ought to attach to Kamm’s “scholarship”, I end this post by reproducing what Stockhausen said about 9/11 in full:

Well, what happened there is, of course — now all of you must adjust your brains — the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t achieve that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. […] It is a crime because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the “concert”. That is obvious. And nobody had told them, they could be killed. ((Source (pdf); translation: Wikipedia.))


Extreme interrogation

Hitchens on torture again

Christopher Hitchens thinks the CIA ought to be abolished, according to his befuddled latest column in Slate. What is the latest example of its unfitness? Why, the destruction of those interrogation tapes from 2002. But wait. The reason the CIA destroyed the tapes, according to Hitchens, is a stunningly Machiavellian one:

At a time when Congress and the courts are conducting important hearings on the critical question of extreme interrogation, and at a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world, a senior official of the CIA takes the unilateral decision to destroy the crucial evidence. This deserves to be described as what it is: mutiny and treason.

What exactly is Hitchens trying to say? reader Peter offers his interpretation:

The implication of the word choice there, so far as I can see, is that the CIA is so set on destroying Bush, even though he’s about to leave office, that it has erased proof of its own agents’ innocence of torture.

Comical though it is, I believe Peter is right in thinking this is what Hitchens is saying: America doesn’t do “outright torture”, and so the CIA has destroyed the video proof that it doesn’t torture so as to hurt America’s reputation. Cunning! But let us trudge more slowly through this swamp.

The paragraph opens by contrasting two notions — that of extreme interrogation and that of outright torture. Now, Hitchens is tediously fond of saying, when it suits him, that a distinction between two things is a “distinction without a difference”, a term borrowed from the law. For example, there is a linguistic distinction between calling someone an “unmarried man” and calling him a “bachelor”, but no substantive difference in the claim of fact before the court. But Hitchens likes to use the concept more widely, glibly to shovel aside inconvenient phenomena. Earlier in this same column, for example, he calls the difference between civilian and military uses of nuclear power a “distinction without much difference”, which might be news to the IAEA.

But presumably Hitchens wants his distinction between extreme interrogation and outright torture to carry some weight, actually to denote a real difference. Extreme interrogation is a “critical question”, the kind of thing about which you soberly conduct “important hearings”; but “accusations of outright torture” are such as to “besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world”, and surely cannot be true.

But what exactly is extreme interrogation? Is it like being questioned by experts? Is it like extreme sports, say snowboarding or BMXing? Or is it more like that sportily named form of torture, waterboarding forced partial drowning? Is it the kind of thing it obviously makes sense to practise on extremists, since extremity of action is the only language they understand? Or is it just a wordcake that Hitchens impatiently ovened to denote the most macho possible interrogative behaviour that nonetheless falls short of what he, personally, without saying, considers “outright torture”?

We know, for example, that Hitchens smirkingly approves of “rough” interrogation in a fantasy “ticking-bomb” scenario, as he explained in this column in 2005. ((Discussed at length in Unspeak, pp180-2.)) Of course, that “rough” interrogation was itself torture. Is “extreme interrogation” even rougher? Are we finally invited, absurdly, to try to hold in our minds an idea of extreme torture, much worse than your ordinary kind of torture?

No, I don’t think it’s meant that way. Of course, Hitchens doesn’t say what he thinks “extreme interrogation” is, and how it fails to be “outright torture”. I suppose we can be sure, from his indignant protests about presumably ill-founded “accusations of outright torture”, that he thinks waterboarding forced partial drowning is not torture, since no one denies any more that waterboarding forced partial drowning has indeed been perpetrated against certain “high-value detainees” or clients or what have you. But waterboarding forced partial drowning is torture, and to call it even “extreme interrogation” is to trivialize it. So “extreme interrogation” vs “outright torture” is, in the end, a distinction without a difference. One is merely a clumsy euphemism for the other.

And yet, what power a clumsy euphemism has! It can make all the difference between America’s name being “besmirched” or not; and all the difference between the CIA’s destruction of tapes showing them doing what they were ordered to do by the administration representing a case of cover-your-ass, and it being a plot to bring down the government through “mutiny and treason”! Such is Hitchens’s commitment to obfuscatory Unspeak — even when, as here, it is quite sloppily executed.



Guantanamo: therapeutic

The range of terms available to describe people imprisoned for years without trial in Guantanamo Bay has always been revealing. Simply to call them “killers” or “terrorists”, as Cheney and Bush like to do, is of course to sidestep any irritating requirement of legal proof, and also to drown out the annoying fact that many of those imprisoned at Guantanamo have turned out to be innocent of any crime. As I pointed out in Unspeak, meanwhile, the fastidious official choice of the term “detainees” was probably first motivated by a worry that plainly to call them “prisoners”, which is what they are, would call to mind too easily the notion of a “prisoner of war” and thus the irksome existence of Geneva conventions detailing what may and may not be done to such prisoners.

Even after the Supreme Court decided that Common Article 3 does indeed apply at Guantanamo and so removed this Unspeak rationale, the designation “detainees” stuck. Perhaps because “detainee” also carries a useful implication of temporariness. If I say “I was detained on my way to the railway station”, you are likely to think that I experienced a few minutes’ delay, not that I was banged up in a prison cell for six years.

Now, with thanks to WIIIAI, we can observe an exciting new evolution in the naming of these unfortunates. People in Guantanamo Bay are not prisoners or even detainees but clients.

Such is the preferred language of a former interrogator at Guantanamo, who recorded this segment for NPR detailing how useful the prisoners were for her own spiritual journey:

When I returned to work, I began to meet again with my clients, which is what I chose to call my detainees.

Clients! It’s a good example, once again, of another theme in Unspeak — the way the language of commercial transaction can be called upon to smooth over and normalize any situation of violence, horror or injustice. Naturally, a pedant will point out that a man imprisoned in Guantanamo without trial is not exactly a client of his interrogators, if by “client” we understand a free agent choosing to solicit a service from a therapist or other specialist. But if we have already swallowed the description of torturers as experts and consummate professionals, and even of military spouses as service providers, then calling prisoners “clients” fits right in.

Or perhaps the interrogator is more learned in classics than we suspected, and she is consciously making reference to the sense of the original word cliens in Roman antiquity. Consider what the OED gives as the first meaning of our word “client”:

A plebeian under the patronage of a patrician, in this relation called a patron (patrōnus), who was bound, in return for certain services, to protect his client’s life and interests.

Ah, so in this set-up it is the client who performs the services. Well, that is just the story the interrogator tells:

My clients may never know this, but my year with them helped me to finally heal. My nightmares stopped.

I do love a happy ending, don’t you?



Martin Amis, ‘demented flasher’

The sublime Chris Morris on the ridiculous Martin Amis:

Surely we all chuckle at the strenuous ennui of his salon drawl. Didn’t he once accidentally sneer his face off? …

Despite his manifest absurdity (he called the World Trade Centre attacks ‘edificide’ and the towers’ destruction an ‘apocollapse’), people take him seriously and if they do then we must.

Read the whole thing.


Reactive racism

Dawkins’s strange bedfellow

My interest in reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion began at zero, and if anything decreases each time I read anything about it by mistake, becoming a large stock of negative interest, so that I find myself actively interested in reading pretty much anything else in part because it is not The God Delusion. ((I think Dawkins is a really wonderful science writer, even though I hate memes. But I don’t give a fig what he thinks about the existence or otherwise of a god, just as I wouldn’t hasten to read a textbook on genetics by Pope Ratzinger.))

Still, I read something else about The God Delusion by mistake recently, ((Well, not exactly by mistake: for my Et Cetera column forthcoming in Saturday’s Guardian, for which review I had space to make only a super-compressed version of this post’s point.)) which in itself was interesting to a degree. It was Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, by John Cornwell. The subtitular conceit is, of course, terribly twee; and many of its arguments are merely warm and fluffy. ((Not that there is anything wrong with warmth and fluffiness per se: they can be excellent qualities in a towel.)) Where Cornwell does score, however, is on the subject of Dawkins’s methodology. Specifically, in the devastating chapter that focuses on Dawkins’s notorious claim:

Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. “Love thy neighbour” didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only “Love another Jew”.

As Cornwell shows (and as you can check via Amazon’s search inside feature), Dawkins offers a single source for this and the other assertions that cluster round it: what Dawkins calls a “remarkable” paper by one John Hartung, an anaesthesiologist with a doctorate in anthropology.

Cornwell argues persuasively that Hartung’s “remarkable” paper, “Love Thy Neighbor: The evolution of in-group morality” (here) has a peculiarly selective approach to citation from the Old and New Testaments. As one open-and-shut example: Hartung’s claim that “Jesus often used the words neighbor and brother without explicitly indicating that he meant fellow Jews whom he sought to unify” is quite demolished by simple reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells exactly in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” The anaesthesiologist John Hartung unaccountably forgot about this rather famous story, and to this day seems oblivious to its existence, even though the website version of his “remarkable” paper explicitly solicits “corrections and updates to the text and references”.

But the Unspeak point of my post is, rather, a different article by the anaesthesiologist John Hartung — one to which Cornwell also refers. It is this review of a book about “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy”. The review climaxes thusly:

History is replete with the consequences of that form of reactive racism which we call anti-Semitism, and MacDonald is in the vanguard of those who will broaden our understanding of its origins. The ancient Light unto the nations burned most brightly during Solomon’s reign over the entire Middle East. According to the original account, “the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents” (First Kings 10:14, RSV), or about 60,000 pounds – three times the amount that Attila was able to extort from Rome per annum before he sacked it.

Those figures are exaggerated, but the point remains, and contemporary figures need no embellishment. The modern state of Israel receives the monetary equivalent of more than 625,000 pounds of gold per year, primarily from the United States. Isaiah’s dream has come true and it rests on two pillars: (1) most of the citizens of most donor nations are Christian or Jewish, such that, the former religion being a form of the latter, to varying degrees they believe in a god who gave Palestine to the Jews, and (2) the most enormous act of reactive racism ever perpetrated, namely the Holocaust, has been presented, and so is perceived, as having been the psychotic swelling up of a form of evil that resides disproportionately in the souls of Goyim — and so they have been induced to irrationally atone for their special evil by enabling descendant and nondescendant coreligionists of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust to systematically purloin the land and property of people who were not those victims’ persecutors. MacDonald’s work will help us chip away at this second pillar, and that makes it very good work indeed.

You can imagine how fascinated I was by the phrase “reactive racism”. To call anti-Semitism a form of “reactive racism” surely means nothing other than that it’s the Jews’ fault. This is certainly what Kevin MacDonald himself appears to mean, in a paper cited at Slate:

[T]here are several important historical examples where increased levels of resource competition between Jews and gentiles have triggered reactive processes among gentiles, resulting in gentiles developing highly cohesive anti-Semitic group strategies in opposition to Judaism — what I term ‘reactive racism.’

Those “reactive processes among gentiles” — they must have been triggered by something the Jews did first, right? Right, as he writes in his 1994 book A People That Shall Dwell Alone, the book that Hartung was reviewing, as cited here:

Western anti-Jewish movements have tended to be in response to intense competition from Jews.

That’s clear enough. Clear enough, too, is the anaesthesiologist John Hartung’s description of the Holocaust as an “act of reactive racism”. It plainly means, I am afraid, that the Jews provoked it: perhaps, y’know, with their secret cabals that ran the world.

I’m not sure whether “reactive racism” holds any respectable currency in anthropology or related disciplines generally: Google finds a mere 158 usages when the search terms exclude MacDonald’s and Hartung’s names; and Google Scholar a mere 14. These are mostly in regard to historically recent examples of groups that were formerly oppressed or continue to be oppressed by whatever is considered the dominant “race”, and in turn set themselves against it. Even so, we are advised to be circumspect about the term, as by Thomas Teo in his 1999 paper “Methodologies of critical psychology: Illustrations from the field of racism“:

Yet, I want to emphasize theoretical caution here, as there might be good reasons to challenge reactive racism as a concept. Conceptual caution is required as one takes the societal power of construction and action into account. Who, within a given society, has the power to propose constructions and meanings that gain acceptance? Who has the power to evaluate these constructions? Who has the power to put these constructions into practice? Victims of racism rarely have the cultural or political power to make their constructions dominant.

Moreover, the phenomenon of reactive racism has been abused to render everyone equally a racist, so that the victims appear no better than the perpetrators. If everybody is racist, then why should there be a special effort to challenge the racism of any one group? However, this political strategy is used to maintain structural and societal forms of racism. Of course the basic error in such thought is the individualistic neglect of societal power. Yet, despite the danger that the dominant group imposes reactive racism as a concept, it seems appropriate — from a psychological point of view — to include this type of racism, while being aware of the problems associated with this concept.

Even with such cautious acceptance of the concept’s potential utility in mind, however, I regret to report that I cannot find an article by the anaesthesiologist John Hartung which offers to explain in detail just how Germans were in fact oppressed by Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust, in order to lend credence to his claim that industrialized genocide was an act of “reactive racism”. I conclude that the phrase “reactive racism” as used here is thoroughgoing Unspeak, attempting to perform an instant mitigation of the crime and to stab the finger of original blame in the direction of the crime’s victims. And so I am led inexorably to the view that the writing of the anaesthesiologist John Hartung is anti-Semitic trash.

As Cornwell concludes his chapter, addressing Dawkins with beautiful understatement:

In view of the controversial nature of Hartung’s views, including his espousal of MacDonald […] I find it strange that you should have been so reliant on this single source for what forms such an important charge against Judaism and Christianity in your book.

But, you know, Dawkins is flying the flag for empiricism and truth. Isn’t he?



‘Concerned Citizens’ in Iraq and elsewhere

In a comment to the previous post, dsquared pointed out a story about the US making new alliances in Iraq. Extract:

Abu Abed, a member of the insurgent Islamic Army, has recently become the commander of the US-sponsored “Ameriya Knights”. He is one of the new breed of Sunni warlords who are being paid by the US to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. The Americans call their new allies Concerned Citizens.

“Concerned Citizens” is indeed wonderful, as though such people were peeping out from behind their net curtains at youths defacing postboxes and rushing to ring the Neighbourhood Watch hotline. The extent to which anyone in Iraq currently enjoys all the rights and institutions that enable people living in more fortunate countries to describe themselves as “citizens” is also quite debatable.

On the other hand, I’m not overly enamoured of “warlords” either, as the newspaper report flatly describes Abu Abed and his fellows. I fear that the practice of calling militia leaders in certain countries warlords operates in two undesirable directions at once — firstly, it makes them sound like brutish historical throwbacks, a mere bunch of battling savages, perhaps because they don’t have F-16s and “smart bombs” at their command; but secondly, to my ear at least, it also sounds quite cool and glamorous, as though they are characters out of Tolkein in leather straps and flowing fur capes.

Turning for guidance to the OED, we find that its first citation, from Emerson as recently as 1856, uses “war-lord” exactly in the sense of my first implication, as a fearful figure from a less civilized era. Emerson notes gladly that:

Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics, and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord.

Other uses of “war-lord” are given, meanwhile, from 20th-century western accounts of the rum goings-on in China, another place of exotic archaism; and it is also used as a translation of one of the titles of the German Kaiser, not to be trusted.

It’s hard to escape the suspicion, then, that “war lord” as it is most often used nowadays encodes some amount of xenophobia and moral superiority. Happily, there is no inescapable reason why it should. The OED defines a warlord simply as: “A military commander or commander-in-chief.” I therefore suggest that the US government should begin referring proudly to George W Bush as a warlord. This would be a thrilling coup of public diplomacy. It would call to mind irresistibly the exciting medieval-themed gorefests of many videogames; as well as, perhaps, Lord Vader. What better way to get disaffected American youth finally behind the Iraq adventure?



Alain Dershowitz’s torturous Unspeak

Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated American lawyer and apologist for torture, has made another apology for torture. As apologists for torture go, Dershowitz is on the subtle side. He likes to pretend that he doesn’t support torture, while concocting arguments in favour of it, and, if it suits his purposes, ignoring the law to boot. (On which I wrote this post at CT last year.) Anyway, in his latest apology for torture, Dershowitz writes:

Although I am personally opposed to the use of torture, I have no doubt that any president–indeed any leader of a democratic nation–would in fact authorize some forms of torture against a captured terrorist if he believed that this was the only way of securing information necessary to prevent an imminent mass casualty attack. The only dispute is whether he would do so openly with accountability or secretly with deniability. The former seems more consistent with democratic theory, the latter with typical political hypocrisy.

I submit that there is already something deeply wrong with the fourth word of this extract, where Dershowitz claims that he is personally against torture. The word “personally” is not required to convey Dersowitz’s sense – “I am opposed to the use of torture” would be perfectly clear. Well, perhaps it would be too clear. So it is as well to add “personally”, thus diluting the statement beyond repair.

“Personally” is exquisite Unspeak: it enacts a sort of intimacy with the reader, inviting a rapport with the writer’s innermost emotions, while at the same time catastrophically weakening the statement of which it is a part, for the argument has now been stealthily downgraded – from one of moral principles to one of “personal” feelings. One could be personally in favour of torture, and that would be just fine too. One’s opinions on torture, your and my opinions as well as Dershowitz’s, are merely personal, on the order of idiosyncratic preferences.

Dershowitz’s language could also be read as taking an even more minimalist position: although he would not like to torture anyone himself, he doesn’t mind at all if anyone else does it. Personally I do not like eating Brussels sprouts, but I’d have to be crazy to try to prevent anyone else from doing so.

Let us translate Dershowitz’s argument to a different context. What if someone were to write: “Although I am personally opposed to murdering children, I have no doubt that people will continue to murder children”, and then to go on to suggest that in some special situations an individual ought to be granted a child-killing warrant, so as to reduce society’s pain in seeing illegal things done?

So goes Dershowitz, pretending glibly that he is not in favour of torture, when everything he writes about the subject without exception represents a plea for torture to be made legal. Personally, I consider him a disgrace to his profession and to the university of Harvard.

In the mean time, counter-terrorism veteran Malcolm Nance has a brilliant post here on why forced partial drowning, or “waterboarding”, is torture.


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