UK paperback

Better

Better = Less

The author of this post at CiF about the enormous untrammelled good that “private equity” brings to society as long as it is not taxed too much, also happens to be a member of a British governmental body of whose existence I was until now blessedly ignorant, the “Better Regulation Commission”. On its website, the “Better Regulation Commission” describes its purpose thus:

To advise the Government on action to:

• reduce unnecessary regulatory and administrative burdens; and
• ensure that regulation and its enforcement are proportionate, accountable, consistent, transparent and targeted.

Perhaps I am missing something, but this appears to add up to minimizing regulation as much as possible. So it would seem that “Better” is now a feel-good synonym for “Less”, as in what the body might more accurately have been called, the Less Regulation Commission. No doubt Gordon Brown will soon announce that he wishes to create Better Child Poverty and Better Train Crashes the length and breadth of the country. Bill Gates will spend more billions in the cause of Better Malaria, and I will strive to do Better Work For More Money.

Do you object, supposing quite reasonably that the people appointed to decide what counts as “unnecessary” regulation and what is “proportionate” must be a panel of sage and disinterested economicalistical scholars? It is not quite thus:

The Government announced in Budget 2005 that it would establish a Better Regulation Commission (BRC) to provide independent advice to government, from business and other external stakeholders, about new regulatory proposals and about the Government’s overall regulatory performance.

Ah, so the Less Regulation Commission provides “independent advice to government, from business”, about regulation. Um, in what sense is business an “independent” source of advice on the extent to which, er, business should be regulated? Well, IANAE. And if “better” means “less”, there is no reason why “independent” cannot mean “with vested interests”. It’s all part, no doubt, of a laudable strategy to provide Better Transparency in Public Language.

7


Health and safety

The de Menezes verdict

The Metropolitan Police has been found to have broken the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act on the day in 2005 that they shot electrician Jean Charles de Menezes seven times in the head with dumdum bullets on a London Tube train.

Certainly Menezes’s own health and safety were thereby rather permanently compromised. (For him, it was definitely a safety event.) But that was not exactly the point of the trial, despite the somewhat confusing emphasis of the first two paragraphs in the BBC report:

London’s Metropolitan police force has been found guilty of endangering the public over the shooting dead of a man officers mistook for a suicide bomber.

The force broke health and safety laws when officers pursued Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes to a Tube station and shot him seven times, a jury found.

In fact, the burden of what the court found the police did wrong was to let Menezes get on a bus, and then a Tube train, in the first place, while the Keystone Cops were miscommunicating and urinating at inappropriate moments. Their letting a person suspected of involvement in terrorism run around on public transport is what was found to have endangered the public safety.

Quite so. If the police had been more efficient and shot de Menezes dead immediately he left his flat that morning, there would have been no grounds for censure at all.

20


Keep Elevating the Threat

Rumsfeld’s ghost at the banquet

In the Washington Post today are printed extracts from some of the “snowflakes”, or internal memos, produced by Secretary of “Defense”, Donald Rumsfeld, during his last tenure. For no good reason that I can see, the WP does not provide facsimiles of the actual documents in its possession, so we have to rely on the reporter’s partial and selective quotations. Even so, it is fascinating language:

In a series of internal musings and memos to his staff, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued that Muslims avoid “physical labor” and wrote of the need to “keep elevating the threat,” “link Iraq to Iran” and develop “bumper sticker statements” to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war. […]

“Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists,” he wrote.

People will “rally” to sacrifice, he noted after the meeting. “They are looking for leadership. Sacrifice = Victory.”

The meeting also led Rumsfeld to write that he needed a team to help him “go out and push people back, rather than simply defending” Iraq policy and strategy. “I am always on the defense. They say I do it well, but you can’t win on the defense,” he wrote. “We can’t just keep taking hits.”

Rumsfeld’s reminder of the need to “keep elevating the threat” is further proof (were any needed) that he and his colleagues were knowingly and deliberately indulging in fearmongering. (He does not talk of informing the American public of an objective threat that is actually increasing.)

Like most people who make thrilling, inspirational calls for “sacrifice”, meanwhile, Rumsfeld has in mind the sacrifice of anyone but himself. It is interesting to note further how he self-pityingly characterises his own position in terms of violence, “taking hits”, while at the same time not forgetting to congratulate himself on his fortitude (“They say I do it well”), and all the time in fact expecting those under his command, ordinary American soldiers, to take the real “hits” of bullets and bombs, in the service of his brilliant strategy to terrify the public into thinking that they are under attack from all sides.

(For more on civilian politicians bigging themselves up with military metaphors, compare also the juvenile bully’s glee with which Dick Cheney boasted that he “dropped the F-bomb on” Patrick Leahy.)

As these scraps remind us, Rumsfeld’s unique style of communication, in which jazzy egotism regularly won out over Machiavellian prudence, shone an especially bright light on the mind of this administration. He is sorely missed.

5


Safety events

For those in peril in the air

What do you call birds smashing into planes, or aircraft nearly hitting each other on the runway or in the air, or in general any moments of peril in the aviation industry? What else but safety events? ((Thanks to Dave for the tip.)) NASA is refusing to publish the results of an American safety survey conducted among pilots and other aviation workers:

Two people involved in the survey, called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, said that they had been ordered by NASA not to talk about what it found but they said that it indicated that the aviation administration had underestimated the rate of safety events.

The language constitutes such an unashamed inversion that I am not sure it is even worthy of the name Unspeak. Evidently the survey was asking about what normal people might call dangerous events, events that posed a risk to people’s lives. Recasting these as safety events, events in which some safety happily occurred, in which people were saved from death by a shining interjection of pure safety, is nothing if not a wonderfully optimistic angle.

This reminded me of a very short list I had been keeping of other euphemisms used in the world of flying machines. Initially I had been very alarmed by NASA’s own use of the phrase involuntary separations, picturing bits accidentally falling off spacecraft, or undesired decouplings of shuttles from space stations, and so on. Thankfully, “involuntary separations” at NASA are just those melancholic moments when NASA employees are fired – you know, without wanting to be.

Meanwhile, in the book Super-Crunchers, I learned of a cousin to the aviation industry’s “safety events”. When safety does not miraculously occur but a plane actually crashes, this is sometimes known as a transportation event. I for one am glad that my recent flight back to Paris, though it was in a very real sense an event that transported me, was not a transportation event.

What other fun names can you think of for peril or disasters, readers?

2


While Coalition forces search

‘Search’ = destroy

The US has killed 19 “terrorists”, and 15 civilians — six women and nine children — in an “operation” near Lake Thar Thar in Iraq. I now let the official CENTCOM news release take up the story:

Upon assault, Coalition forces were engaged by small arms fire from the target building. Responding in self-defense, supporting aircraft engaged the enemy threat.

It’s a strange way to put it, that the aircraft specifically responded in “self-defense”. It seems doubtful that the aircraft were at risk from small-arms fire.

After securing the area, the ground force assessed 15 terrorists, six women and nine children were killed, two suspects, one woman and three children were wounded, and one suspected terrorist was detained.

Interesting. The killed included “terrorists”, but the wounded included merely “suspects” and there was one “suspected terrorist” left alive. If the live guy was only “suspected” to be a terrorist, how is it known that the dead were definitely terrorists? Perhaps it’s just because they were killed. (From another war: “If it’s dead, it’s VC.”)

“We regret that civilians are hurt or killed while Coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism,” said Maj. Brad Leighton, MNF-I spokesman.

Mmm, but they weren’t just searching, were they? In other words:

We reget that civilians are hurt or killed while we accidentally blow them up.

40


Elsewhere

More of me

Much as I consider blogging here about various ways to kill large and small animals to be my main internet gig, I have also been posting at other places. Here is my CiF post today about a new law banning the incitement of hatred against gay people:

It’s a strange concept, this idea of banning the incitement of hatred. What offends us is the hatred itself, but what we seek to police is its expression, as though hatred is a virus against which innocent ears are defenceless and so must be protected. Perhaps it is so. In which case there is no reason to stop at banning hate speech on the grounds of parentage or religion or sexuality. Straw must proceed logically and ban hate speech against the old, and the fat, those who do not conform to current industrial criteria of beauty, writers of bad books, the bald, fast-food magnates, and the plain indolent.

Meanwhile, I have also been committing more emergent literature from the wonderfully varied referral logs at stevenpoole.net:

How to stop a hippo charging:
verbal slogans.

Become a full time martial arts apprentice:
joy in repetition.

Follow the links to read and comment on the full things, if you like.

Update: published in the New Statesman today is my long review on Douglas Coupland and his school of “Sentimental Hipsterism”:

It is perhaps no coincidence that in Douglas Coupland novels, the sense of feeling like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel is elevated to a universal existential condition.

37


In other words

Pernicious paraphrase

Inspired by WIIIAI’s merciless documentation of George W. Bush’s use of the phrase “in other words”, I’ve begun to take notice of it elsewhere. Bush usually says “in other words” in order to rephrase a policy in terms a five-year-old or idiot could understand (whether for the benefit of an audience to which he is condescending, or for his own benefit, is not always clear). But “in other words” can be used in more creative ways. And when you see the word “creative” you will, like me, immediately think of “Melanie Phillips”. One of the things that excited “her” last week was an article by Daniel Pipes, describing a book by Timur Kuran which argues that “Islamic economics” was invented so as to:

minimize relations with non-Muslims, strengthen the collective sense of Muslim identity, extend Islam into a new area of human activity, and modernize without Westernizing.

“Melanie” cites this passage with glee and immediately glosses it thus:

In other words, Islamic finance is a political and ideological weapon which was devised as a means of subjugating the west to Islam. [emphasis added]

Probably “Melanie” just read “extend Islam into a new area” and shut off what remains of “her” brain, intepreting it according to her apocalyptic obsession with Islam invading the west. Of course the passage in Pipes’s article clearly means extending Islam into the area of finance, not into the area where “Melanie” lives. As to how anything could really work as “a means of subjugating the west to Islam” while at the same time hoping to “minimize relations with non-Muslims”, we are in the dark. Perhaps they will use robots as intermediaries? ((Oh, no, wait, that’s “us”.))

In any case, it’s a useful illustration of the fact that in other words can often mean in other words, which mean something completely different.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com 2.0, an update to his 2001 book about how the internet might hurt democracy, which now contains, excitingly, a chapter about blogs. (I wrote a short review of the book for the Guardian.) Therein we find a subtler example of “in other words”, used to cover up the author’s own gaping logical hole:

Some of the elite or “focal point” bloggers have their own biases. Many of them are primarily interested in cherry-picking items of opinion or information that reinforce their preexisting views. In other words, we lack a blog that succeeds in correcting errors and assembling truths. [pp142-3, emphasis added]

Let us stand back and admire the structure of this argument:

1 “Some” blogs are biased.
2 “Many” blogs are selective.
3 ???
4 “In other words”, no blog corrects errors and assembles truths.

That is an excellent “in other words”. It adopts the air of a logical conclusion, almost like a therefore, and yet a) the fact that “many” blogs are biased or selective does not mean that all are, which is what Sunstein is trying to insinuate; but anyway b) the subject has quietly been changed from being biased or selective to the ability to correct errors and “assemble” truths, which is not the same thing at all. It would be perfectly possible to be dedicated to the project of correcting Democratic Party errors while never criticising Republicans, thus being biased while still having a commitment to truths.

Really, Sunstein appears to be disappointed that no blog he has yet seen is a magical truth machine, which corrects all errors and “assembles” all truths wherever they may be found. The small problem that such a blog would perforce need to be infinitely large and thus make the entire internet if not the whole universe explode is inconvenient, but apparently not insuperable.

Isn’t it also rather odd, this glib talk of “assembling” truths, as though from spare bits of Meccano found under the sofa? Well, Sunstein’s formula only needs a little tweaking to serve as the slogan of this blog from now on. In other words, I dedicate unspeak.net to the cause of assembling errors and correcting truths. Join me!

24


Smart power

Speak softly, carry a big stick

Via the Foreign Policy blog, I learn of a new “policy initiative” from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’s called smart power, defined thus:

smart power (n) the effective integration of ‘hard power’ — our military might — and ‘soft power’ — our ability to wield influence by attraction and persuasion.

As FP‘s Blake Hounshell aptly comments:

“Soft power,” unfortunately, sounds to many like weakness. Nobody wants to be weak. People do, however, want to be smart. Smart move, CSIS.

It reminds me of that Douglas Coupland riff about the name Microsoft – shouldn’t it be Macro-Hard? But what Hounshell is perhaps too polite to point out is the further implication — that hitherto the US has been engaged in wielding stupid power.

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