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Zizek and ‘intellectual suicide’

Readers who have had nothing better to do on a late Saturday morning than to read my literary journalism over the years might have noticed that there is a possible tension in what passes for my “thought”: evincing on the one hand a kind of Anglo-empiricism, I nonetheless have a soft spot for the works of such writers as Derrida, Baudrillard and Zizek, all of whom are anathema to the Anglophone analytic tradition. Why is this?, almost none of you ask. Well, there was my encounter at an impressionable age, while trying to figure out what one could possibly say about Nietzsche, with Derrida’s Éperons (that’s what you can say about Nietzsche; or rather, at least, that’s how you can say it); there was my personal encounter with Baudrillard, a man as generous and playful as his books; and there was my enjoyment, often baffled but nonetheless sincere, of Zizek’s writings. But perhaps the common factor was this: I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men, ((Update 0: It’s funny how this bit – notice I did not say “I was sure they were cleverer than me”; just I was not sure that they weren’t, this on the basis of such brilliant books as The System of Objects or The Work of Mourning, which by the way aren’t opaque at all – has enraged the defenders of reason etc., who presumably are all sure that they are just as if not more clever than the men whose books they cannot be bothered to read. By what criterion they arrive at this judgment is an interesting question.)) and so even when I was troubled by seeming opacity or nonsense, ((Update 1: “Even when…” ie the judgment that the writers were clever was not based specifically on the passages of seeming opacity or nonsense, which would indeed be as silly as Ophelia Benson takes it to be. Update to the update: though this hasn’t stopped the hard-of-reading David Thompson from summarizing this post as “Steven Poole mistakes opacity for cleverness, calls people who disagree ‘reactionary anti-intellectuals.'” It’s funny how none of the critics of this post have responded to the point about the lazy use of the term “postmodernism”, perhaps because they all indulge in it themselves.)) I reckoned that I had better tread carefully. ((Update 2: “Tread carefully” is not meant as a synonym for “blindly worship their phatic asses”, but rather something like “expend a little more effort trying to understand what they might be getting at rather than dismissing them impatiently as wilful obscurantists, as the telepathic Ophelia Benson does”. I hope that helps.))

Luckily, the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman, on the occasion of the British release of the documentary film, Zizek!. ((Late update: unfortunately, his account of what is actually in the film is rather unreliable.)) In doing so, he furnishes a useful example of the word “postmodernist” as it is almost always used nowadays, as a kneejerk insult from reactionary anti-intellectuals.

Three times, the opinion journalist Johann Hari refers vaguely to a group or cabal called “postmodernists”, none actually worth bothering to name, who apparently all love Zizek; and he accuses Zizek himself twice of partaking in “postmodernism”. Does it matter that Zizek himself has repeatedly explicitly denounced what he understands to be “postmodernism”? Does it even matter that what is often taken to be the manifesto of these continental clowns, Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979), is at least as much a lament for as a celebration of what it describes? Indeed, is not the term “postmodern” and its cognates these days rather like the phrase “politically correct” ((About which I may one day write a lengthy post.)), existing purely as a handy boo-term for idiots? ((Update 4: as I write here, it was wrong of me to suggest that Hari is an “idiot” and an “anti-intellectual” in general. It seems that it is mainly in the face of what he perceives as a homogeneous postmodernism that he has the habit of writing idiotic and anti-intellectual things, viz. this, and also his previous articles about Derrida, Baudrillard, etc. Also see this post by Antigram.))

I only ask, since the opinion journalist Johann Hari shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books. Instead he deploys very careful language: “When you first look through the more than 50 books he has written…” (well, at least he looked through them, or, let’s be realistic, some of them); or “as you pore through Zizek’s words” (“pore over” is the more common usage, but our intrepid critic seems to be fixated on “through”: he has to get through this shit somehow or other). Here is the opinion journalist Johann Hari’s considered judgment on Zizek’s oeuvre, so far as he has managed to look or pore through it:

It seems he seeks to splice Karl Marx with the notoriously incomprehensible French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, slathering on top an infinite number of pop-cultural references.

An infinite number? Sokal and Bricmont must be spinning in their as-yet-uninhabited graves. Nonetheless, the opinion journalist Johann Hari finds it within himself to accuse Zizek, in his film performance, of “intellectual suicide”. In another world, it might be considered intellectual suicide to denounce a writer with whose works one has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance, and to throw around the term “postmodernist” as a cheap schoolboy jibe. But, readers, we don’t live in that other world, do we? ((Update 5: The sequel offers some insight into another anti-“postmodernist”‘s standards of evidence and argument.))


Kung fu

Judo chop!

Bruce Lee and Me: A Martial Arts Adventure
by Brian Preston (305pp, Atlantic, £8.99)

American Shaolin: One Man’s Quest to Become a Kung Fu Master
by Matthew Polly (366pp, Abacus, £10.99)

Feng ZhiqiangIn The Matrix, Neo undergoes an accelerated virtual training program in the martial arts. When he wakes up, he is a different man. “I know kung fu,” he says in awe. It’s a glorious fantasy – who wouldn’t want to take a cyber-shortcut to being kickass with none of the years of painful training? Sweat and tears are rendered obsolete by whizzy technology. But in reality, you must, as the Chinese say, “eat bitter” – do lots of tedious and painful work – to acquire any skill. Indeed, the term “kung fu” itself, often used as an umbrella term for the hundreds of different Chinese martial arts, just means “skill acquired through hard work”. An excellent chef or pianist can be said to have good kung fu. Similarly, martial arts are not about learning a few “secret techniques” and instantly being Jackie Chan. Spending a few months learning to hop around like a crane or tiger will not make you invincible. There are no shortcuts, as both of these books demonstrate.

At the age of 47 Brian Preston decided to enrol at his local Canadian “Shaolin kung fu” school in order, as his publisher hoped, to spend a year getting a black belt ((Belts are actually a Japanese grading system not present in the traditional Chinese arts, a point that the Guardian perhaps thought too pedantic to retain. Preston’s club is a “Shaolin Kempo” school, which term implies some sort of fusion of Chinese Shaolin and Japanese karate influences.)) and allow readers to indulge the eternal macho fantasy by proxy. He quickly realises that the training is horribly hard work, and embarks on an entertaining and self-deprecating journey around martial arts in general, taking in visits to the mystical Wudang mountain and the Shaolin Temple itself, and interviews with practitioners of Brazilian jiujitsu, or the surprisingly charming young men who do “mixed martial arts” in glitzy tournaments such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (a bit like televised wrestling, only for real, with blood and smashed bones).

Near the end, a light comes on in Preston’s head when someone speaks to him of the “Eternal Spring path”, the Chinese physical philosophy that does not deny ageing but seeks to preserve a robust strength until the day you topple over and die. So he gravitates towards the “internal” martial arts (so-called because they train an unusual way of moving power around the body), bagua and taijiquan, or in the old spelling tai chi chuan. Taiji’s public image of beatific elderly people waving their arms around slowly in parks is an excellent stealth cover for its vicious reality, and it has the further advantage, for the middle-aged author, that it doesn’t destroy your knees.

Matthew Polly’s experience was more hardcore – a wimpy student at Princeton in the early 1990s, he decided to drop everything and spend two years training full-time at the Shaolin Temple. The story goes that Shaolin was the birthplace of “kung fu” a millennium and a half ago, when a wandering Indian yogi showed the monks some interesting breathing tricks, and some of them decided to specialise in fighting in order to defend the monastery against bandits – which they did with impressive efficiency until the temple was destroyed in 1928. The remaining Shaolin monks in China were persecuted and murdered during Mao’s “cultural revolution”, in a kind of disgusting revenge of the nerds against their physical (and moral) betters. When a young kung fu film actor, Jet Li, starred in a movie shot among the ruins, 1981’s Shaolin Temple, interest rocketed, and the place was rebuilt as a venue for teaching and performances.

Polly speaks Chinese, and is not afraid to eat bitter, so his very funny book is both a record of superb physical accomplishment – he fights and wins a couple of challenge matches with coaches from rival schools – and a loving tribute to his teachers, the fighting monks, ordinary young men interested in pop music, videogames and sex who also happen to have astounding physical skills. The school itself is run by grasping communist placemen, who spend the foreign students’ fees on lavish cars and dinners, and pay the actual kung fu masters a pittance for their hectic schedule of teaching and performing – which leaves little time for actually being monks. This systematic betrayal, along with the increasing lure of tourism, eventually takes its toll. When Polly returns a decade later, in 2003, he is saddened to see that what goes on at the temple no longer bears much relation to tradition, but has become merely the nerve centre for the shows that tour the world, “the long-running hit musical Shaolin’s Martial Monks”.

A question that both of these books ask is: why does the idea of “kung fu” still hold such glamour and mystery in the west? What is the point of spending years eating bitter to be proficient in unarmed combat, when you might meet a mugger with a knife or a gun? Or, if you are going to learn to fight, why not choose boxing? As Preston’s title suggests, the answer is partly the legacy of Bruce Lee, who was not a particularly outstanding martial artist by Chinese standards, but who was gifted with great beauty and charisma and a willingness to show off some stunts that western audiences had rarely seen. The other part of the answer is a kind of Orientalist spiritualism: a new-agey pick’n’mix adulation of “ancient Chinese wisdom” and meditation – which very often turns the western teaching of taiji, in particular, into flowery, non-violent nonsense.

It’s ironic, because arguably there is something like “ancient Chinese wisdom” encoded in the traditional martial arts – it’s just that it’s not to be found anywhere but through the hard physical discipline itself. Polly had spent years studying Zen texts, but his experience of feeling “peaceful” came after an intense, complex workout. And there is a very funny moment when he has his western romantic projections about the wise Orient debunked, as before a tournament fight he asks his coach what strategy the Buddha would suggest against his next opponent. “He taught us the principle of universal love. You could try loving him,” the monk deadpans. “But the Buddha had lousy kung fu.”

Too lazy to run, too dense to swim, too bored to lift weights, and aware that smoking by itself might not be the best corrective to a sedentary lifestyle, I began taking classes in Chinese martial arts myself in my mid-20s. The discipline in itself is endlessly fascinating, but I also found a form of learning experience that’s increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. This is, I think, another reason for the popularity of Asian martial arts in the west: the relationship between teacher and student. As our own traditional practices of apprenticeship vanish, and westerners expect to acquire knowledge reliably through crude financial transaction – I pay you money, and you will teach me so-and-so, and if I don’t learn it properly, I’ll demand a refund – there is something corrective about becoming a “grasshopper”, entering into a relationship with a teacher based on respect and humility, and getting taught only what your attitude shows you deserve. My own taiji teacher is a tiny middle-aged Chinese woman half my weight. Getting bounced around the room by her like a rubber ball is really something. So I try to do what I’m told, and practise. As a wise master once said: “Wax on, wax off.”



Like the Earth, only super

In galactic news: scientists peering through a massive Chilean telescope have found “the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, a world which could have water running on its surface”. It’s the first exoplanet ever detected that might support life-as-we-know-it. They call it . . . super-Earth! ((The paper [pdf]: Udry et al, “The HARPS search for southern extra-solar planets XI. An habitable super-Earth (5 MEarth) in a 3-planet system.”)) An “artist’s impression”:


It’s inspiring to imagine a planet stuffed with super-aliens, like Superman, as long as they don’t embark on any kind of interstellar “migration” to come here and steal all our jobs.

But then I began to worry: surely a “super-Earth” is exactly like the real Earth, only super? In which case, as a super-parallel-world, it must already boast figures such as a super-“Melanie Phillips” and a super-Cheney, frothing demagogic evilists at least twelve feet tall. Cosmic terror-flash! But here the language is, thankfully, deceptive. Reckoned to have a radius 1.5 times that of Earth but a mass five times greater, ((And hence, to be boring, the designation “super”.)) “super-Earth” will have much stronger gravity, which ought to mean, ceteris paribus, that its inhabitants are in general smaller. So with any luck, to us, super-“Melanie” would look like a tiny frothing dwarf. As with so much astronomical news, that puts things in heartening perspective.



Centcom chief: no more ‘Long War’

So farewell then, “Long War”. The Tampa Tribune reports that new Centcom commander Admiral William Fallon, on the advice of his “cultural and lingustic experts”, has decided to stop calling the GWOT (or the TWAT or the WAIT or the TOWAT or G-SAVE) the “Long War”. Why so? Because:

We remain committed to our friends and allies in [the Middle East] and to countering al-Qaida inspired extremism where it manifests itself. But one of our goals is to lessen our presence over time, [and] we didn’t feel that the term ‘Long War’ captured this nuance.

Ah, yes, it is a crucial nuance, this sudden urge to get the hell out of Iraq, except of course for the permanent bases, or “enduring bases” as they are prettily termed. (“‘Permanent’ is a term the Pentagon generally avoids.”) If we keep saying “Long War”, it seems, the poor Iraqis won’t understand this nuance. Fallon told the House Armed Services Committee that “he has stressed to Iraq’s leaders that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended.” (It is annoying when one’s fantasies of short magic wars as a form of social engineering don’t pan out. In the end, maybe it’s best not to try to put lipstick on the pig by pretending that it was supposed to be a long war all along.)

Given this nuance, apparently only just noticed by the fine minds of Centcom, it is increasingly clear that a slogan suggesting interminable military operations against an undefined enemy or conglomeration of enemies won’t do. But this leaves a problem. If we can’t say the GWOT or the Long War, what on earth do we say – assuming, that is, that we are willing to swallow the thought-bolus that there is any single overarching idea to US military escapades since 2001? A Centcom spokesman reassured us:

We continue to look for other options to characterize the scope of current operations.

Okay, so “Long War” implies too tedious a duration, but we still need to emphasize the “scope”. How about “Wide War”? Never mind the quality, feel the width!


Think tank

‘Tough love’ and young boozers

What is a “think tank”? Is it an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks and a swivelling turret that occasionally blasts out hot, radioactive chunks of pure Think? Or is it more like a fish-tank, a container of fluid featuring ersatz vegetation in which Think can swim in morose circles while getting fatter and occasionally breeding? Or does Think grow in its tank somewhat like mould in a petri dish, eventually attaining such a large mass of quivering, greyish brain-jelly that it bursts the walls and comes wetly bouncing all over the general population? Consulting the OED, I find that “think tank” was originally a US colloquialism for the brain (first citation 1905); the present use of “a research institute or other organization providing advice and ideas on national or commercial problems” is first exampled in 1959. But there is no help here on the origin of the phrase.

I only ask because the dicta that are regularly fired from “think tanks”, or burst wobblingly free from “think tanks”, are on the whole indistinguishable from the general run of moronic opinion journalism, and have to recommend them only the dubious glow attached to their supposed origin in such a tank, as opposed to in the feverish mind of some hack. Last week, for instance, the Independent reported:

Young people should be banned from drinking until they reach 21 or be forced to carry a card that records their alcohol intake, a think tank columnist claims yesterday [sic]. Binge drinking has become such an “overwhelming” problem, argues journal [sic] of the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research, that policy makers need to practice [sic] “tough love” and put drink out of the reach of youngsters.

What exactly will raising the legal drinking age accomplish? The “think tank” author explains:

“By raising the age threshold it is at least possible that those in their early and mid teens will not see drink as something they will soon be allowed to do so therefore they might as well start doing it surreptitiously now. Instead they might come to see it as it should be: forbidden.”

Right, because teenagers obviously see cannabis, say, as “forbidden”, and so meekly avoid going anywhere near it. Teenagers respect authority like nobody’s business. Tell them something’s “forbidden” and they’ll obediently forget all about it. Er… right?

Actually, even the author himself evidently realises that this idea is monstrous balls – because he is driven to use wanly hopeful constructions such as “might” and “it is at least possible” when describing his idiotic and ridiculous idea. Nonetheless, it comes from a “think tank”, so the PA and the Independent reported it with straight faces. “Think tank” is evidently too glamorous a phrase for producers of such spurtingly fatuous drivel, so we need to replace it with something more accurate. Any suggestions?


Silly word games

Democrats – against GWOT, for TWAT

The Washington Post reports:

Erin Conaton, the Democratic staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, urged aides in a March 27 memo to “avoid using colloquialisms,” such as the “war on terrorism” or the “long war,” and not to use the term “global war on terrorism.” In preparing the annual defense authorization bill, the staff is directed to be more specific, such as referring to operations in Iraq.

“Colloquialisms”? That is rather unfair to the finely machined Unspeak that resurrected Reagan’s “war against international terrorism”, or WAIT, but gave it a hipper, snappier makeover in the form of the “war on terror”, alternatively known as the GWOT, or as WIIIAI rightly calls it, “The War Against Terror”, or TWAT.

Rep. Ike Skelton, the committee chairman and Conaton’s boss, defended the memo. “GOP objections to our efforts to clarify legislative language represent the typical Republican leadership attempt to tie together the misadventure in Iraq and the overall war against terrorists,” Skelton, D-Mo., said in a statement Wednesday.

Oh, so there is still something that answers to the name of “the overall war against terrorists”, or TOWAT? How’s that one going?

“The Iraq war is separate and distinct from the war against terrorists, who have their genesis in Afghanistan and who attacked us on 9/11, and the American people understand this,” Skelton said.

“The war against terrorists”, or – hey! – TWAT, is aimed, in Skelton’s understanding, at people who “have their genesis in Afghanistan”. Eh? Their genesis? In Afghanistan? I suppose it is easy to forget about that tiny and insignificant backwater Saudi Arabia, although there might be subtler political reasons for not reminding us right now that Sudan was the base of Al Qaeda activities in the the early 1990s.

Well, at least the Democrats have noticed that “war on terrorism” is deliberately conflationary, although they apparently don’t mention the preferred form – not war on terrorism but war on terror. “War on terror” is better because it allows you to creatively confuse state terror with acts by non-state groups. Thus it was oft said that Al Qaeda practised “terror” (where it would be more usual to say “terrorism”); and also that Saddam Hussein practised “terror” against his own people. Naturally, all practitioners of “terror” were in it together, and so Iraq had something to do with Al Qaeda from the start. Some people may still dimly remember the sordid spectacle of John Kerry in 2004 robotically promising that he would “do a better job of fighting the War on Terror”, thus crawling humbly right into George W. Bush’s propaganda cave and moaning a little before expiring on the earthen floor.

But the other major implication of “war on terror”, that it is a fruitful idea to try to fight a “war” against terror, or terrorism, or terrorists, howsoever defined (and they are defined rather howsoever, aren’t they?) doesn’t appear to bother these Democrats a bit. In effect, they’re letting Bush keep at least half the propaganda peach, leaving him munching happily on it, handsfree, with juice dripping down his chin. What is presented by these Democrats as a righteous stand against Unspeak is little more than a testy complaint about the Iraq war in particular. A point worth making, no doubt, and one that would have been even more worth making four years ago. (There is a lot more, if you can bear it, on the contemporary language of “terror” in Unspeak, Chapter 7.) But anyway, let’s hear it for the firm Democratic stand against GWOT and, er, in favour of TWAT:

Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Republicans were playing “silly word games in an attempt to score political points” in the debate.

Oh dear. Again the Democrat is submissively gulping down Republican FUD-juice, where the notion of scoring “political points” contemptuously demotes what is “political” to the level of mere cynical manoeuvring. And the idea that the careful promulgation of phraseology such as “war on terror” constitutes “silly word games” is poignantly wide of the mark, too. “Silly word games” would be a bit of refreshing light relief. If George W. Bush were a secret fan of Call My Bluff, he would rise massively in my estimation, like some sort of engorged primate linguolude. What the Democrats have blearily half-woken up to is that the administration’s brilliantly engineered slogans have already done their job. These were serious word games, and we were all losers.


Pure evil

Bush on the devil’s work in Iraq

George W. Bush yesterday visited the troops at Fort Irwin, California. The Iraq war became necessary after 9/11, he said, because “what changed on September the 11th is oceans can no longer protect the people in the United States”. Oceans, huh? Maybe this is the real reason why George is so relaxed about global warming. Sea-level rises might destroy a few coastal cities, but they’ll make the oceans bigger, and perhaps restore some of that magical protective power that large expanses of water had in days of yore, before the invention of boats, or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Why can the US not leave Iraq? Because “The enemy that had done us harm would be embolden.” Right, right. The enemy is currently rather shy and retiring. Imagine how much worse things would be if they were embolden. But never fear, we can defeat them with the force of our beliefs:

In the long-term, we must remember that freedom is universal, and the best way to defeat an ideology – and make no mistake about it, these extremists believe things – for example, they don’t believe you can worship freely; they don’t believe you should speak your mind; they don’t believe in dissent; they don’t believe in human rights. We believe in the right for people to worship. We believe in the dignity of each human being.

All those human beings we have blown up and tortured – rest assured that we always believed in their dignity while we were blowing up and torturing them. Pedants might carp that, having told his audience that the “extremists believe things”, Bush went on only to enumerate various things that they apparently don’t believe. Well, never mind what they do actually believe – who cares? The real problem with them compared to us is that when they blow people up, they are not believing in human dignity at the same time:

I was amazed by the story of the extremists who put two children into a automobile so that they could make it into a crowded area – then they got of the car and blew up the car with the children inside. It only hardens my resolve to help free Iraq from a society in which people can do that to children, and it makes me realize the nature of the enemy that we face, which hardens my resolve to protect the American people. The people who do that are not people – you know, it’s not a civil war; it is pure evil.

Well, here is a crux. And transcripts can be deceptive, so let us please give Bush the benefit of the doubt. Rather than saying such vicious murderers are “not people” at all but rather animals or demons, it may be more likely that Bush was going to say something else – eg, they are not people who believe in human dignity, or deserve food handouts, or something similar – and then changed tack mid-sentence, as he often does, thinking on his feet as usual.

On the other hand, I realise that this intepretation is somewhat challenged by the fact that George did go straight on to say that what is happening is “pure evil”, so much worse and more frightening than your everyday diluted or adulterated evil. George’s ethical calculus is refreshingly simple: a passionate belief in human dignity provides an impregnable moral armour that sanctions any conceivable act. If, on the other hand, you do not hold such a belief at the front of your mind while killing people, then you are “pure evil”. This simple way of looking at the problem suggests a simple solution. The only way to fight an apocalyptic surge of pure evil is with total war, sanctioned by God:

I believe liberty is universal. I don’t believe it is just for the United States of America alone. I believe there is an Almighty, and I believe the Almighty’s gift to people worldwide is the desire to be free. And I think, if given a chance, people will seize that moment.

One can hardly argue with George on this point. After all, if freedom includes the freedom to blow people up, then the “moment” has already been gratefully seized by all sides.



Homeland security in the UK

Typical – I snuck off to munch paella on the Costa del Sol and so missed piles of news, finding myself unable to apologise to anyone for slavery, or to to pick apart the Unspeak on all sides about Iran’s taking of the British “sailors”, or to blog about the creation of a new Ministry of Justice in the UK, which will no doubt be just – after all, the US “Justice Department” under George W. Bush’s administration has been a hotbed of ingeniously creative efforts to bypass laws, for example those forbidding torture. The Lord Chancellor promised that the new Ministry would “deliver sense in sentencing”, which rather raises the question of why the Home Office’s sentencing policies have apparently been nonsense for ten long years. Still, we can all agree that more sense in the government’s sentences promises to tickle our ears like a cool refreshing breeze.

The Home Office itself will be left to concentrate on the issues of “terrorism, security” – and, what is just as terrifying, “immigration”. Home secretary John Reid, in his characteristically rude and contemptuous reply to challenge by David Davis (Mr Reid being the stereotypical thuggish bully among the assembled Parliamentary schoolboys), said that the reorganization was necessary because the threat of terrorism was a “seamless challenge” that demanded a “seamless response”. ((Thanks to Dave for nominating this one.)) Seamless? It makes one wonder about the cunning possible construction of tubular Al Qaeda-style robes. Reid had previously told the Labour party conference last September that terrorism, following the supposed airline “plot” of August, was a “now seamless threat”, implying that previously – during actually successful attacks – there had still been seams in the suicidists’ ideological garments, now magically vanished and smoothed over. Oh, all right, what Reid actually means by “seamless” he explained in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in December:

This is now a seamless threat, it is no longer easily divided into foreign affairs, defence or domestic affairs.

So the name of what will remain the Home Office looks like it is edging closer to Unspeak. Under the warm and comforting rubric of “home”, it will actually be devoted to protecting us from filthy foreigners who want to come here to blow themselves up, or – what is nearly as bad – to perform some casual plumbing or decorating jobs, which on the face of it might seem to count as home improvement. Really, Mr Reid’s department should be renamed the Fortress Office.


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