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No-fly zone

Ridding the world of bluebottles

This is perhaps too obvious to be worth pointing out, but since that has never stopped me before: the use of no-fly zone to mean flying-and-bombing zone evidently Unspeaks the level of violence (and, inevitably, “collateral damage”) that is going to be involved, such that eminent commentators can blithely say that they would “enforce” one without fearing much scorn except for people whose only contribution to society is to sneer.

If those in favour of an “intervention” (which, puh-lease?) were instead required to say something like: “I am in favour of bombing tanks and people, and shooting down aircraft, in all likelihood injuring and killing other people, including noncombatants”, instead of just gibbering about the desirability of a no-fly zone while holding their mental noses about how it gets established, the “debate” might be a little more interesting, mightn’t it, readers?

7


Pro-Gaddafi forces

The pros and cons of war

As we bomb some freedom into a foreign country again, it might be worth pointing out a quite subtle and insidious example of Unspeak in news accounts of the military attacks, whose targets are said to be “pro-Gaddafi forces”.

The people and matériel being attacked are those still operating within the chain of command at whose head is Gaddafi. No argument there. But to call them pro-Gaddafi forces introduces an extra implication: that each and every soldier is, you know, really pro-Gaddafi. Rather than being ordinary people who perhaps joined the military because it was a decent job and now find themselves on what the “international community” has deemed the wrong side and quite likely under various forms of duress not to stop fighting,1 they must be portrayed as rabid loyalists of an unhinged dictator, on Gaddafi’s side not merely by happenstance but by ideological commitment.2 They must be presented as thoroughly pro-Gaddafi. Why? So that we may kill them without too much discomfort.

  1. Just as no one cared at all how many Iraqi soldiers died during the invasion of Iraq, because they were all assumed to be fighting for Saddam by choice; and as, after the invasion, “Ba’athists” were assumed to be all fascists, rather than people who just joined the party because they wanted to get jobs as teachers or civil servants.
  2. The situation of the mercenaries (or, if they were on our side, “private contractors”) bussed in from outside Libya is somewhat different, but they are presumably pro-money rather than pro-Gaddafi per se.

14


A meaningful transition

The sense of an ending

Barack Obama yesterday described his telephone conversation with Hosni Mubarak thus:

[W]hat is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.

This is an interesting use of belief, which works both as a rhetorical softener (what is “clear” is not that Mubarak must go; what is clear is Obama’s “belief”), at the same time as it introduces a note of personal insistence into the demand of power. It also invokes an idea of clarity (clear belief), of implacable accuracy and truth.

More mysteriously, what about this requirement that “an orderly transition must be meaningful”? What exactly would count as a meaningless transition? And who is judging the meaning? The Egyptian anti-Mubarak demonstrators? The Egyptian arseholes pro-Mubarak demonstrators? Excited members, perhaps, of an aspirant military junta (to whose rule a transition would certainly be meaningful from their point of view)?

The demand for a “meaningful transition” resembles structurally (though you might consider it less purely vicious) the previous US régime’s call for a “sustainable ceasefire” in Lebanon. In both cases the adjective is simply code for “acceptable to me and my friends”. It is clear, after all, that the final arbiter of whether a transition in Egypt is going to be meaningful is, um, Barack Obama. I hereby call on members of the Unspeak™ Community™ to join me in a vigorous rearguard action against such metahermeneutic imperialism.

7


Change makers

Can you break a twenty?

Oh, hello again, Tony Blair! How’s that Middle East Peace Envoy gig going? Never mind. Tell us about why we had to invade Iraq again, I know you love it:

So that was the two sides of the argument, and then which side you came down on really depended on whether you thought Post-September 11th we had to be change makers or whether we could still be managers. Up to September 11th we had been managing this issue. After September 11th we decided we had to confront and change, and that’s, you know — even today that is the issue, because, as I say, we face exactly the same challenge over Iran. What do you do? Do you say we have to change this or not?1

It is reassuring to learn from Mr Blair that, even in this day and age, it is still the job of the British prime minister to “change” other parts of the world he doesn’t like, rather than being a “manager”. (The implicit contempt for which role expressed here seems to be inconsistent with most of his domestic policy while in power, but never mind.) Even before he was allegedly faced with the luridly cartoonish or reality-TVish choice of being either a change-maker or a manager, you see, Blair must have been basically in charge on a global level, at the top of the world, along with his chum the US president, gazing down with fond bellicosity at all those troublesome foreigners that need to be “managed” or have things “changed” for them. Long live the British Empire, I say.

I must admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable with this modern usage of change to Unspeak the killing of lots of people — “I had to be a change-maker in Iraq… by bombing Iraq!” and so forth — but perhaps I am just being squeamish. Let me try to get on message. Sure, we have to bomb “change” Iran as well! Hmmm. It does feel kind of exciting, doesn’t it, readers?

  1. Chilcot Inquiry, Blair transcript 21 January 2011 [pdf], pp39-40.

2


Austerity measures

Enhancing the credibility deficit

“Happy” new year, readers! In these straitened times, it is nice to gaze upon the glistering hoard of Unspeak that surrounds the financial crisis and its aftermath, isn’t it?

Take austerity measures, of the sort that “must” be imposed on countries by their own or other governments. Austerity implies a severe self-discipline of the kind that is laudable, virtuous in its serious asceticism. But who exactly is being austere in this picture? The Financial Times lexicon entry for “austerity measure” is, perhaps pointedly, ambivalent:

An official action taken by a government in order to reduce the amount of money that it spends or the amount that people spend.

Of course, these things are not unrelated, but a government that increases tax rates as part of its “austerity” programme is in the first instance asking people to spend more money – on it. I could be considerably more austere, in the sense of saving money, by refusing to pay my tax bill as well as not buying quite so many crisps. Naturally, though, we can see why a government proposing austerity measures would not want to call them “Give Us More Of Your Money And We’ll Spend It On Fewer Of The Things That You Want Measures”, or, I don’t know, wallet-fucking measures.

Conceivably, too, the connotations of admirably severe virtue in austerity measures might be cunningly employed to cloak or euphemize or Unspeak a pre-existing ideological commitment to cutting spending on public welfare, education, and all those other prissy little things that the “austere” can very well live without (or perhaps just the rich can; or perhaps the austere are the rich, which is how come they got so rich?).

What is perhaps worse, even so, is the implicit demand in austerity measures that citizens not only acquiesce to the policies in question, but actually agree that they are good for them, and meekly thank their masters for the condign punishment. That might remain a little hard to swallow, even for those people who still have jobs.

What other crisis Unspeak irritates you, readers?

10


The Big Society

Of tiny brains

Hello again, readers! Cold, isn’t it? Many thanks to the literally several of you who have written in with suggestions, or inquiries as to whether unspeak.net would ever be revived. Perhaps? In the mean time, the following celebration of glossy-jowled bawler David Cameron’s rhetorical skills was printed in Saturday’s Guardian, but didn’t appear on the website, so I reproduce it here:

David Cameron’s two-word phrase “big society” was this week nominated “word of the year” by Oxford University Press. Much ink has been spilt over its possible content. But how exactly does it work its occult rhetorical magic?

Being big usually makes good things better (big bucks, big breakfast) and bad things worse (big trouble; and, for conservatives, “big government”). Society is good, so a big society must be even better. It follows that all countries more populous than the UK are better than it, but forget about that for now.

So what’s the big idea? In the “big society”, people ought to be enabled to help themselves. (So “society” is redefined polemically as something opposed to government.) But this ideal might be incompatible with removing the means to enable them do it, eg by slashing local-authority funding. In which case, “big society” is just cynical Unspeak for offloading responsibility on to the voluntary sector, as the Bishop of Blackburn recently suggested.

Disturbingly, the swelling of the “big society” is infectious. Cameron nightmarishly invoked “a big society matched by big citizens” (presumably fatter Britons; taller ones would more properly result in a high society), and Nick Clegg called a new Sutton youth centre a “big society super-classroom”. No doubt a big society enormoburger will be served on a bed of gruel in the workhouse.

Previous Oxford “words of the year” have included “locavore” and “hypermiling” (yes, me neither), but there are promising signs that “big society” could endure better than they, if only as a term of sarcastic opposition. Thus did a spokesman for student demonstrators in London on Wednesday announce: “It’s going to be an excellent example of the big society coming to Downing Street.” That was big and it was clever.

13


Retina display

The apple of my eye

iTards1 the world over are moaning and stroking themselves slowly after Apple unveiled the iPhone 4, which is exactly like the last iPhone except it is now one centimetre thick and has a RETINA DISPLAY OMG WTF LOL???!!!111oneoneone.

What is a retina display? Is it a sci-fi device that interfaces directly with your retina, tickling your rods and cones so as to inject a phantasmagoric image directly into the optic nerve? Actually, no; it’s just, er, a display that has more pixels per square inch than most other displays. The only thing it has to do with your retina is that light from it passes through your eye and hits the retina — in other words, retina-wise, the RETINA DISPLAY is exactly like any other visible object.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. Now, excuse me while I go and invent some TASTEBUD FOOD?

  1. On the suffix –tard, see Tard.

8


Pure innocents

The fallen

Alan Dershowitz1 perceives a “close question”:2

It is a close question whether “civilians” who agree to participate in the breaking of a military blockade have become combatants. They are certainly something different from pure innocents, and perhaps they are also somewhat different from pure armed combatants.

It is instructive to observe the workings of this fine legal mind over the course of a mere two sentences, firstly prejudging his own close question by putting the word “civilians” in fastidious scare-quotes, and then segueing — almost imperceptibly! — from the legal language of civilians and combatants to the entirely non-legal, theological-moral essentialism of pure innocents.

I myself agree that the passengers on the boat were, in all likelihood, not pure innocents; but the discussion cannot stop there: in all honesty, I must stipulate that I myself am not a pure innocent. Does that mean it would be okay for the I“D”F to shoot me? Would Dershowitz himself claim to be a pure innocent, and if not, is it okay for the I“D”F to shoot him?

Of course, if one has to be a pure innocent to qualify as immune from Israeli attack, the imaginative Dershowitz has, at a single magnificent stroke of Unspeak, here provided a permanent and universal justification for Israeli soldiers killing anyone, anywhere, ever, except perhaps for newborn babies.

Are you pure innocents, readers?

  1. Previously in “Alan Dershowitz”: Personally.
  2. Via Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber.

9



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