UK paperback

Standard procedure

Primate suspect

Today at Whipsnade Zoo, England, two chimpanzees escaped from their “compound”. (Have you noticed how the vocabulary of animal captivity is rather like that of alleged-terrorist captivity?) One chimp, Coco, was recaptured. The other, Jonnie, “could not immediately be caught and had to be killed”.

“Had to be killed”? Well, to ascribe agency where it is due, some people thought it necessary to call in the zoo’s own “specially trained firearms squad”, who shot Jonnie to death. Now, chimps are immensely strong and can be very aggressive to humans (as well as to each other). Still, the reporter did ask why Jonnie couldn’t have been shot with a tranquilizer dart. Well, apparently a tranquilizer “doesn’t work quickly enough”. Call me a bleeding-heart ape-lover, but if tranquilizer darts are good enough for most of the American ape-escape zoo incidents compiled in this handy list, why not for Whipsnade? Perhaps the British just can’t afford the good tranquilizer guns.

But what prompted me to post this here was the explanation offered by the Zoological Society of London:

“It’s just standard procedure, if the animal cannot be quickly and safely recaptured it will be shot.”

It’s just standard procedure – as though the mere fact that it is written down in some bureaucratic rule-sheet ought to satisfy any complaints. If you had some questions about the morality of the incident, the spokeswoman chose to answer a different question altogether. “Is it right that you should do this?” “Oh, don’t worry, we always do this.” The reassuring appeal to standard procedure tries to fog one’s mind sufficiently to head off any awkward question about how it came to be standard procedure, or whether it should remain so.

It’s rather classical Unspeak in construction, too. A “procedure” might make us think of a medical intervention, or some other well-defined set of actions to solve a problem, when here it it means simply killing; and “standard” carries the sense of, well, a standard, something to live up to or to aspire to, as well as performing the bogus substitution of ubiquity, or mere having-been-decided, for ethical desirability.

In all, it would make a good line, perhaps, to use next time the police shoot an innocent man on the London Underground. Just standard procedure, move along now, nothing to see.


Relatively less savage

Hitchens vs “Melanie”

In a peculiar column at Slate, Christopher Hitchens hopes that Al Gore will enter the Democratic nomination race. (Peculiar since, as Hitchens Watch reminds us, Hitchens thought in 2004 that Gore was “completely nuts”.) But it was an offhand aside that caught my eye:

George Bush at his worst is preferable to Gerhard Schröder or Jacques Chirac — politicians who put their own countries in pawn to Putin and the Chinese and the Saudis.

What can we make of this? Is there something about choosing to say “the Saudis” rather than “Saudi Arabia”, and “the Chinese” rather than “China”, which expresses a kind of emotional distaste for the foreigner, conceived as faceless collectivity? Well, perhaps. But the factual claim is intriguing too.

After all, it would seem, according to Hitchens’s contemptuous little side-spit about other countries’ apparent dependence on “the Chinese” and “the Saudis” (it must be just a coincidence that to symbolize Germany and France he specifies their ex-leaders who opposed the Iraq war, not their current leaders) — it would seem that Hitchens thinks the US itself does not in fact have a rather dependent relationship with Saudi Arabia in view of, er, its “energy” requirements. And that the US dollar, for example, is not in fact at the mercy of China’s enormous foreign reserves, not to speak of the US trade deficit. Thank God Dick Cheney, burps Hitchens in a parallel universe, that “George Bush at his worst” has not put his country “in pawn” to those filthy villains across the seas.

But what’s this? “Melanie Phillips”, Hitchens’s ideological tag-team partner in the mud-wrestling pit of bellicose xenophobia, takes exactly the opposite view: The Real Conspiracy, as she thrillingly calls it, is that America in particular and “the west” in general really is in the process of pawning itself to “Islamists” from Saudi Arabi and elsewhere: just look at all the Saudi petrodollars and endowments to US universities — even, shudder, “Saudi funding at Oxford” in England. Nearly as terrifying:

And now we also learn that the Islamic world (albeit a relatively less savage variety) has gained a majority control over the London Stock Exchange.

At least the UAE is relatively less savage than “the Saudis”. Phew! Of course, they’re still a bit savage, because after all the official state religion is a sky-god religion that differs from a couple of other sky-god religions. But let us be grateful for small mercies.

But now any connoisseur of the kind of throbbing alarmist bigotry practised by Hitchens and “Melanie” must be confused. Is there really a “strategy to take over the west” masterminded by Saudi Arabia and its “relatively less savage” counterparts that is succeeding to a horrifying extent in the US, as “Melanie” claims? Or, as Hitchens claims, is the US actually the only country with cojones enough to resist this evil scheme, in contrast to all those craven European surrender monkeys? Readers, the plot thickens.


International Peace Operations

Democracy everywhere

As Chicken Yoghurt points out, ((Thanks to Aenea.)) re the story about Blackwater employees shooting Iraqi civilians:

Let’s get one thing straight. They’re not private security contractors, they’re mercenaries.

It’s interesting how the sense of “private” seems to leak, in this carefully constructed nugget of Unspeak, “private security contractors”. The mercenaries are private contractors, in that they belong to a private company that gets paid; but the phrase also seems to imply a notion of private security, as though they are merely nice men who will install a burglar alarm at your home. One remembers the killing of four mercenaries that led to the first assault on Fallujah. Public outrage was well managed by the consistent reference to those unlucky mercenaries as simply “private contractors”, not even “security” contractors: as though the insurgents had murdered electricians or bricklayers.

Still, we should remember that the mercenaries, who make up somewhere between 11% and 24% of the US military presence in Iraq (no one knows the exact figure), are also “private” in a very special sense, as they are immune from public prosecution in Iraq thanks to an early edict from the “Coalition” Provisional Authority, and also so far exempt from American military law as well.

I wondered if Blackwater was somehow related to black gold, but then thought that might be facetious. After all, its mission statement is so reassuring:

We have become the most responsive, cost-effective means of affecting the strategic balance in support of security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere.

As if that weren’t convincing enough, it was excellent to learn further that mercenaries from Blackwater and other firms have their own trade association. Guess what it’s called? The International Peace Operations Association. Chapeau! It has its own website, where it explains its mission:

IPOA is committed to raising the standards of the Peace and Stability Industry to ensure sound and ethical professionalism and transparency in the conduct of peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction activities.

I love “Peace and Stability Industry”, don’t you? It’s so much more comforting than war industry.


An act of self-defence

“Melanie Phillips” is back!

The end of summer would be depressing were it not for the fact that a certain joy is kindled in all our hearts by the return to blogging of “Melanie Phillips”. In a post yesterday entitled “A monstrous hurt“, she quotes a Comment is Free post by Judea Pearl, father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, who takes issue with any comparison between that murder and what he terms delicately “the detention of suspects in Guantanamo”:

There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31 2002.

Do you agree that “those who vow to end such acts”, ie the good officials of Guantanamo and their masters, are, by the mere fact of so vowing, thereby absolved of all guilt for holding people for years without trial and torturing them, then submitting them to illegal kangaroo courts in which they are not allowed to hear the evidence against them? Then you will agree, too, with the rousing peroration of “Melanie”:

The doctrine of moral equivalence, the default position of the secular west, is the core reason why the west is losing the battle to defend itself against the terrorist and cultural jihad. Equivalence is actually a misleading word in this context, since the notion that violence begets violence and both are equally culpable is not just noxious in itself by failing to acknowledge the moral difference between an act of aggression and an act of self-defence against that aggression; it immediately morphs into a justification of that original act of aggression. It is therefore not only amoral but suicidal. And yet it is the knee-jerk posture of so many western intellectuals and media darlings.

Moral relativism (Pearl) or moral equivalence (“Phillips”)? Who cares? Well, if I may quote myself:

The phrase “moral relativism” is usually reserved in public language to denounce anyone who dares to suggest that the death of an Iraqi human being is somehow comparable to the death of a British or American human being.

The same goes for “moral equivalence”, apparently always something to be despised (as Martin Amis, too, despises it). I’m glad to see that “Melanie”, along with Pearl, is conforming to this well-established usage. What I didn’t anticipate was “her” creativity in recasting the torture of people at Guantanamo as an act of self-defence against that aggression. Splendid work.

But hang on – which aggression? It can’t be the vicious murder of Daniel Pearl, since you can’t defend yourself against the murder of someone else when it has already happened. Is it instead the “terrorist and cultural jihad” in general, against which it is clearly just “self-defence” to round up a bunch of ragheads and torture them? Well, there is a lovelier possibility: that the satirist operating “Melanie”‘s pneumatic tubes is cunningly alluding to the characterisation last year of three suicides at Guantanamo as “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us”. (Both are acts, after all.)

And so let us cherish yet another reductio ad absurdum of the arguments employed by real-life people who talk like “Melanie” (for they do, it pains me to say, exist). How to defend oneself against people killing themselves in one’s torture camp? Put people in the torture camp and torture them!


Extensive travel

On fucking moon

An antidote to Unspeak: I found something quietly thrilling about the matter-of-fact language of Nasa’s announcement inviting new applications for the position of astronaut:

The open positions require extensive travel on Earth and in space. Possible destinations may include, but are not limited to, Texas, Florida, California, Russia, Kazakhstan, the International Space Station and the moon.

That is extensive.


Any ethnicity

Martin Amis, abandonment of reason

Martin “I am a serious” Amis celebrates the sixth anniversary of 9/11 with a lengthy “analysis“, about which the following things might be said:

i — As richard pointed out with alacrity in comments here, Amis’s attempt at grand irony in claiming that the designation “9/11” is fitting because “these numerals are, after all, Arabic” is somewhat undercut by the fact that these numerals are not, in fact, Arabic, but Indian in origin. They are called “Arabic” by convention only because they were popularised to Europeans by Arab mathematicians. ((The existence at all of Arab mathematicians at any point in history, let alone at a point when Europeans were doing little but grunt and fuck, is itself rather inconvenient to certain conceptions of Arabs as eternally backward and unscientific.))

ii — This part, I must say, really does read as though it was written by Craig Brown:

The solecism, that is to say, is not grammatical but moral-aesthetic – an offence against decorum; and decorum means “seemliness”, which comes from soemr, “fitting”, and soema, “to honour”.

Why did Amis not want to give the etymology of “decorum” directly before slyly translating it into “seemliness”? Because Latin decorus simply means “fit” or “proper”, with no necessary connotation of “honour”, and so cannot fit into Amis’s heroic-moral scheme of we noble rational westerners v the perfidious insane enemy.

iii — A propos of the perfidious insane enemy: Amis insists, rather boringly now to any aficionado of his previous fatwas on the matter, that Al Qaeda and their ilk are “mad” and “irrational” – indeed, not only are they mad and irrational, but everyone connected to the only possible historical analogies for their actions, viz., Bolshevism and Fascism, was also mad and irrational. They all partook in:

the rejection of reason – the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two.

Yes, even Hitler and Stalin. They did not believe in cause and effect, or in the fact that two plus two equals four. ((As perhaps Amis meant to write, or might have written if he had thought about it, since “two plus two” is not in itself a proposition inviting acceptance or rejection.)) How Hitler gained power, or how Stalin micromanaged the military defeat of Hitler, all the while rejecting any belief in cause and effect, must remain a mystery to the devotee of Amisian historiography.

Not content, however, with such plain idiocy, Amis further hopes to approach or mime profundity by smashing words together so that distinctions of meaning are burned away:

Reason, moreover, is one of our synonyms for realism, and indeed for reality.

My initial response to which is: “No, it just isn’t, you whiffling sententious dolt”; but perhaps in comments a reader will be able to offer an example of a sentence in which “reason” really could function as a synonym of either “realism” or “reality”, if not both.

But anyway, the poverty and indeed moral as well as analytical cretinism of such claims about the enemy’s supposed madness and irrationality has already been argued here at in past posts such as Functioning insanity and Irrational movements, so it need not detain us again, unless you really want it to.

iv — Perhaps the most startling part of Amis’s screed is the passage in which he wearily laments the moral cowardice of the modern “liberal relativist”:

We are drowsily accustomed, by now, to the fetishisation of “balance”, the groundrule of “moral equivalence” in all conflicts between West and East, the 100-per-cent and 360-degree inability to pass judgment on any ethnicity other than our own (except in the case of Israel).

So in Amis’s view, we actually should be able to pass judgment on an “ethnicity”, tout court and qua “ethnicity”? Should we be allowed do this with regard to “any ethnicity” at all, or are we winkingly being invited to imagine a specific “ethnicity” that particularly invites our contempt? Which “ethnicity”, exactly, might Mr Amis be thinking of, or silently passing judgment on?

Well, so it goes: the contemporary pro-TWAT mind, in its macho abhorrence of “relativists” and its tumescent glee at the idea of a clash of civilisations, slips all too comfortably into implicit endorsements of racism. Happy 9/11, readers.


Nine eleven

Branding disaster

I remember thinking about what phrase to use when referring to that day
in my book Unspeak, and I usually preferred to write “11 September
2001″ or “the attacks of 11 September 2001” and so on. I took the view
that this kind of sober precision was more appropriate for a book: that
“9/11” was the stuff of boldface newspaper headlines, and that the
omission of the year possibly implied parochialism. (Something like
“World Trade Center Attack” won’t quite do, because of course that
wasn’t the only place that was attacked.) I did, though, use “9/11”
once, in a reference to “the 9/11 hijackers”, probably out of a desire
to keep the sentence crisp. Now I check, I see the indexer made the
opposite choice: the index says “September 11th (2001): see 9/11”.
Well, you can’t fight a globe-spanning meme. ((Again with that word.))

Of course, to write “9/11” takes up fewer printed characters (and so is
particularly useful for sub-editors writing headlines), but I suspect the
success of the phrase has been largely because of its oral rather than
spatial efficiency. What’s made it stick, I would argue, is rhythm more
than anything else (it’s a ditrochee, in metrical terms, like
“topsy-turvy”). The compact and catchy rhythm of “nine-eleven” already
makes it memorable. If the attacks had occured on the 23rd of November,
I don’t think we would still hear people saying “eleven-twenty-three”,
or see “11/23” written. Too many syllables; not catchy enough. The
chance homology with the US emergency telephone number gives it an
extra frisson, too, as you observe. Also, I think we have to acknowledge the influence of 7-11 convenience stores: there’s already a two-number catchphrase ending in “eleven” embedded in the American (and British) mind.

There is of course already a tradition of remembering certain dates
primarily as calendar dates, like the Fourth of July or, in Britain,
for example, the fifth of November. But we don’t write or say those
dates as “7/4” or “5/11” (we Brits put the day before the month, which
of course makes more sense if you are including the year as well). So
why “9/11”? I think it’s a perfect storm of the above variables:
rhythm, emergency, and shopping.


Its remoteness from the cash nexus

Yes, metablogging is rather tedious

Blogging is a terrible danger to English prose, “argues” Robert McCrum in the Observer, ((via Chicken Yoghurt.)) whose own finely wrought prose nonetheless somehow manages to survive the onslaught. But for how much longer? McCrum offers all kinds of pseudo-proofs that blogging is bad, of which the best is that it’s bad because people do it for free:

There’s another thing that Orwell the great freelance would have been quick to identify: in the blogosphere, no one gets properly paid; its irresponsibility is proportionate to its remoteness from the cash nexus.

Worthy of Orwell himself, that sentence, no? But you know, if I may quibble, I think Orwell the great freelance might have pointed out somewhere that in the freelance book-reviewing world, no one gets properly paid either. And yet that didn’t seem to him a reason to reject all the work done therein. Anyway, as a service to readers, I have translated the above quote from McCrum into plain Orwellian English:

Despite all appearances, this article must be brilliant, because I’m getting paid for it!

Quite so.


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