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Do you gotta have it?

My latest post at Comment Is Free, thoughtfully scheduled by the editors for a Sunday, is about the use of the word “faith” as self-protective Unspeak by bigots of various stripes. My argument is described by one CiF commenter as “full PostModernism”, which I suppose is better than some kind of wishy-washy half-postmodernism. A more thoughtful response comes from Sub Ratione Dei, who asks:

Would Poole have criticised Martin Luther King for his claiming of religious motivations?

The answer is no, because his politics was not one of bigotry in the first place. The purpose of my post, after all, was to say that we should take political arguments on their political merits, and not be dragged on to the turf of “faith”. SRD goes on to say:

I may not not agree with the Westminster protesters’ definition of Christianity, but the point is they do and it is religion that (at least partly) motivates them to do what they do. To deny this is simply to delude ourselves.

Ah, but here we have slipped from causation to motivation. My post responds to a certain view of religion as itself causing bigotry, war and so forth, a claim shared by religion’s opponents and its most bloodthirsty adherents, but one which is plainly false. That does not mean people may not be motivated in some part by it. But what is motivation? It seems to consist of two things: a belief in a thing or a moral rule, plus a second belief, that some action ought now to be taken in view of the thing or moral rule. And this second belief or desire is, again, a political one. Moreover, a thing can motivate one person to do one thing, and another person to do something else entirely. Thus, the Columbine high-school killers were allegedly inspired by some combination of the videogame Doom and/or the film The Matrix. But the fault for their actions does not lie in the game or the movie.

SRD concludes:

Faith is almost by nature a political reality that cannot be separated from everyday life.

I expect there is some truth in this, and that my absolute distinction between “faith” and “politics” may be somewhat artificial. But we can try.


Too many restrictions

Bush on Iraq

In the event, George W Bush did not employ the controversial term “surge” (splendidly discussed here) in his speech last night. Instead he bluntly said:

This will require increasing American force levels. So I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

Lest this be considered a satisfying victory for opponents of Unspeak, we must also concede that Bush also referred many times to “Al Qaeda” and “the terrorists”, as well as bringing up 9/11 again, as though it were somehow relevant. And observers must have been reassured to learn that the current situation is – guess what? – “unacceptable”:

The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and it is unacceptable to me.

But perhaps the most intriguing portions of Bush’s speech are precisely those where, in contrast to the directness of “committed more than 20,000 additional American troops”, Bush’s language becomes disturbingly vague. For instance:

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.

“Too many restrictions”? What exactly were these “restrictions”? The only clue we get is this:

In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods, and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

Are these really the only “restrictions” of which Bush was thinking? That US forces were prevented from yomping into certain “neighborhoods” (a surreally soothing term)? Bush’s sulky reference to “too many restrictions”, followed by his naming of only one kind of restriction, leaves it open for us to wonder whether certain other unnamed “restrictions” have also been lifted, perhaps on the rules of engagement. Also chillingly fuzzy is the following:

We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

“We will work with others to prevent Iran…” Hmmm. I wonder who the “others” might be? I wonder what form this “prevention” is planned to take? But this is all reassuringly vague, mere dark murmurs of future war. In the mean time, Bush made a brilliant rhetorical stroke that pre-emptively armour-plated his decision:

Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties.

Very clever: what this means is that no evidence in the future could possibly be interpreted as a failure of this initiative. More deaths are to be expected either way. Don’t go crying to Bush if things get worse.

Reponsibility is, anyway, a moveable feast, since Bush is the puppet of a higher power:

We go forward with trust that the Author of Liberty will guide us through these trying hours.

Translation: God help us.



Blair on Saddam

Excitingly, Tony Blair has at last let us know what we should think about the execution of Saddam Hussein:

The manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong, but…


…that should not blind us to the crimes he committed against his own people, including the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, one million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war…

If, to Blair, Saddam is responsible for the deaths in the war he started against Iran, would it not be consistent for Blair also to hold himself and George W. Bush responsible for the deaths that occurred in the war they started against Iraq? I’m only asking.

…and the use of chemical weapons against his own people…

Of course, it is only ever justified to use chemical weapons against other people, as UK and US forces have done against Iraqis. (Update: see further discussion in comments.)

…So the crimes that Saddam committed does not excuse the manner of his execution, and the manner of his execution does not excuse the crimes.

This peculiarly clumsy straining for a kind of Solomonic balance, with its clunky chiasmus and poor grammar (“the crimes…does not excuse”), is yet another example of pure fiction about purported “extreme” points of view. As WIIIAI notes perfectly, it’s:

a statement which gives the illusion of even-handedness, while suggesting that those who complain about the way the lynching was carried out (or even those who oppose the use of the death penalty, which Blair seems not to have done) are somehow using it to “excuse” or forget his actions, a position taken by no one in the entire world.

But let’s backtrack a bit to Blair’s denunciation of the hanging itself. It was “completely wrong” (not just a little bit wrong) – and, of course, “unacceptable”:

As everybody saw, the manner of the execution is unacceptable and it’s wrong but…


…we should bear in mind and not allow that, while saying it’s wrong, then to lurch into a position of forgetting the victims of Saddam.

Heaven forbid that anyone so lurch. Blair’s use of “unacceptable”, however, is interesting. Gordon Brown had earlier called the execution “completely unacceptable”, not just a little bit unacceptable. But Blair, too, loves to say things are unacceptable – indeed, things are often “completely unacceptable” to him too. For Blair, it is “just completely unacceptable” for a parent to shout at a teacher; it would be “completely unacceptable” “for people to be persecuted because of their religious beliefs”; the situation in Darfur is “completely unacceptable”. “Abuse” of Iraqi prisoners by “coalition” troops? Well, “if it’s happened”, it’s “completely unacceptable”. Trouble in Belfast in July 2001 was “completely unacceptable”, and what about the fact that less than 60% of fines in the British criminal justice system are enforced? You’re right: that’s “completely unacceptable”. Demonstrations against the Terrorism Bill Danish cartoons last year? Yep, “completely unacceptable”. And there is this terrifying picture: “Young people out of control, excluded from school, are left free to roam the streets causing misery and mayhem in local communities” – and that’s “completely unacceptable”.

You get the idea. It must be trying for Tony to find so many things so unacceptable. By coincidence, George W. Bush, too, has lately been finding more and more things “unacceptable”, as shown by R Jeffrey Smith’s excellent Washington Post article. Smith’s suggestion that Bush’s resort to “unacceptable” is a sign of frustration at the fact that “all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will” might equally be applied to Tony. Let us hope he finds serene acceptance soon, perhaps when he leaves office.


Blindingly obvious

‘Melanie Phillips’: let’s attack Iran!

The latest wordspurt from “Melanie Phillips” is delightful to those in the know – it is all about “her” supposed opinion as to what is “sane” in foreign policy, as opposed to what is simply insane. (You might think that I am flogging a dead horse in continuing to take these satires seriously, but similar material appears regularly in British newspapers under the same fictional byline, and I am not sure we can always rely on Daily Mail readers to get the joke.) “Melanie” begins with some good news:

There are now signs of a debate taking place in Washington, which might just move the US away from self-delusion and towards hard-edged sanity. The outcome of this debate could not be more critical.

Encouragingly, there are signs that Bush may have now accepted what has long been apparent – that he has been ill-served by his top brass in Iraq. The US commander–in-chief wants to win – but has realised that his generals merely want to manage a retreat. Now there’s been a shake-up. The head of US Central Command, General Abizaid, was retiring anyway. According to this story in the New York Times, General Casey, the general commanding the coalition forces in Iraq, is also to leave Iraq very soon and earlier than planned. Gen Casey, it appears, wanted America to leave Iraq before the country was secured. Now it’s Gen Casey who is leaving Iraq instead.

The fight in Washington with the army top brass has not just been over whether more or fewer troops are needed in Iraq. It’s also been over a major difference in strategic perception. In order to win in Iraq, it is essential to defeat Iran. This is for the blindingly obvious reason that the principal instigator of the war in Iraq is… Iran.

Ah, it’s marvellous, isn’t it? From the butch invocation of “hard-edged sanity”, to the shameless lie that it has always been George W. Bush, rather than the generals, who has wanted more troops in Iraq, to the cretinous idea that the problem with the generals is that they don’t “want to win”, to the smug schadenfreude over the removal of General Casey, we are led by the inexorable logic of “Melanie” to the statement of what is “blindingly obvious”: that “the principal instigator of the war in Iraq is…” (and don’t you love that dramatic ellipsis, a bellicose roll on the snare drum?) – Iran!

Do you wonder on what planet, and in what language, Iran may be accurately called the “principal instigator” of a war that was, on this planet and in this language, principally instigated by the US? If so, then your problem is that you still have your eyes open. The comforting thing about recognizing what is “blindingly obvious”, after all, must be precisely that it is blinding. Thereafter you may close your eyes permanently to reality, and spend your days intoning specious bloodthirsty trash.

Towards the end of “her” crass frothing, “Melanie” returns to the theme of what is “sane”:

There are no good options. The only sane course of action is the least worst option.

(I ask readers in passing whether it is the satisfaction of the consonontal rhyme that has given currency to the ungrammatical phrase “least worst”, rather than the perfectly normal “least bad”.) At any rate, “Melanie”‘s insistence that “the only sane course of action” right now is to start another war, a war against Iran, is remarkable even for “her” oeuvre. The satirist who writes under this byline has thus cunningly illustrated a general rule: anyone who talks about foreign policy or politics in general in terms of what is “sane” or otherwise should automatically be suspected of having a desperately tenuous grasp on reality. Not all blind prophets deserve a hearing.


A blatant distortion

Chomsky wars redux

Happily, the New Year’s festivities have not dulled Oliver Kamm’s entertaining preoccupation with the sayings of Noam Chomsky. In this new post, Kamm pounces on a recent interview in which Chomsky refers to “[James] Baker’s endorsement of the Shamir-Peres rejection of any ‘additional’ Palestinian state in 1989 (Jordan by implication being a Palestinian state), in response to the formal endorsement by the PLO of the international consensus.” Kamm responds:

It is true that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Peace Plan of May 1989 explicitly “oppose[d] the establishment of an additional Palestinian state in the Gaza district and in the area between Israel and Jordan”. The phrase “additional Palestinian state” also, as Chomsky says, implied “additional to Jordan”. It was a popular slogan of the Likud Party at the time that “Jordan is Palestine”, and that view was both historically unwarranted and politically destructive. But James Baker did not “endorse” it; in his own Five-Point Plan of December 1989, this was the fourth point (emphasis added):

The United States understands that the Government of Israel will come to the dialogue on the basis of the Israeli Government’s Initiative. The United States further understands that Palestinians will come to the dialogue prepared to discuss elections and the negotiating process in accordance with Israel’s initiative. The United States understands, therefore, that Palestinians would be free to raise issues that relate to their opinions on how to make elections and the negotiating process succeed.

So what Chomsky presents as an endorsement of Israel’s negotiating position was in fact merely an acknowledgement of what Israel’s negotiating position was, coupled with a wish that negotiations with the Palestinians proceed. Baker’s plan explicitly stated that those negotiations would include issues that the Palestinians regarded as essential to successful negotiations. Chomsky’s account of US policy is a blatant distortion.

Apparently, according to Kamm’s strange modus operandi, the text of one single document – the Five-Point Plan – is supposed to stand as a refutation of a claim about what Baker said in 1989. Kamm even goes so far as to claim, without any evidence at all, that the Five-Point Plan is precisely what Chomsky was talking about (“what Chomsky presents as…”). But it is no secret that Baker said other things in 1989, too. Perhaps Chomsky was thinking of something else? Specifically, and what Kamm most peculiarly neglects to mention: perhaps Chomsky was thinking of the fact that in May of 1989, in his speech to AIPAC, Baker did actually reject the creation of a Palestinian state:

Fourth, in advance of direct negotiations, the United States and no other party inside or outside can or will dictate an outcome. That is why the United States does not support annexation or permanent Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza nor do we support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

I would add here that we do have an idea about the reasonable middle ground to which a settlement should be directed. That is, self-government for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in a manner acceptable to Palestinians, Israel and Jordan. Such a formula provides ample scope for Palestinian to achieve their full political rights. Is also provides ample protection for Israel’s security as well.

In declaring that the US did not “support the creation of an independent Palestinian state”, did not Baker thereby endorse the rejection of an independent Palestinian state? That is hardly an outrageous interpretation. It may be objected that Baker’s “in advance of direct negotiations” signalled merely that the US would not take sides on the matter of an independent Palestinian state, leaving that to the negotiating table. But everyone knew, of course, that an independent state could never be the outcome of negotiations, absent pressure from the US. Indeed, Baker paints an independent Palestinian state on the one hand, and Israeli annexation on the other, as by implication extreme and unrealistic positions that must be abandoned to attain the “reasonable middle ground”. That Baker later allowed in the Five-Point Plan that Palestinians would be able to bring up issues “that relate to their opinions on how to make elections and the negotiating process succeed” did not constitute, despite Kamm’s vague hand-waving, any kind of retreat from this refusal to support an independent state. Palestinians were to be offered a form of self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the details to be worked out in negotiations, but not an independent state.

What remains arguable is whether Chomsky meant explicitly to attribute to Baker the view that Jordan was already a Palestinian state as well as the rejection of the creation of a(nother) state, or whether he was saying that Baker indeed rejected an independent state, which he did, and then explaining the Shamir-Peres rationale, in particular, for that rejection. Kamm implies that Chomsky said Baker endorsed the view about Jordan already being a Palestinian state. If you agree with that reading – perhaps because to “endorse the […] rejection” sounds stronger merely than also to reject it, carrying some implication of a further shared point of view; or because to “endorse the […] rejection of any ‘additional’ Palestinian state” almost fatally muddies any clear separation of opinions – then Baker’s May reference to “an independent Palestinian state” (not an additional one) would seem good evidence for its falsity. Indeed, the fact that the AIPAC speech also rejected “annexation or permanent Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza” (though you could perhaps drive a lot of tanks through the door left open by “permanent”) is arguably evidence, too, that Baker’s attitude was less one-sided than Chomsky’s reference only to the rejection of a Palestinian state would seem to allow.

But either way, the central fact that Kamm unaccountably forgets to mention – that Baker did indeed publicly reject the formation of an independent Palestinian state – would seem crucial to further discussion based on any plausible reading of Chomsky’s words.

As usual, Kamm’s peroration is a righteous denunciation of Chomsky’s methods:

Not everything Chomsky says is wrong, but the manner in which he weaves his historical account involves the suppression of relevant material, the excision of context, and sometimes invention to force a prespecified conclusion In short, nothing Chomsky says in his political writings can be taken on trust. Whether by design or incompetence, his handling of source material is a standing affront to the notion of disinterested inquiry.

If Kamm’s own post had instead been written by Chomsky, Kamm might well leap to denounce its mysterious failure to mention Baker’s explicit May 1989 rejection of a Palestinian state as, too, a “suppression of relevant material”. Here, as elsewhere, Kamm lays himself open to the very same charges he so tirelessly levels against his bête noire. Trust no one.


Judgment day

Victory through Unspeak

Among the sickening gloating coverage of the execution, itself gloating, of Saddam Hussein was the New Year’s Eve front page of the Observer newspaper in Britain, which added to its huge screengrab of the notorious cellphone official video the headline: “Judgment day”. Not only did this evince a curious contempt for such nice legal distinctions as that between a judgment and the execution of a sentence, it also, in apparently adverting to the subtitle of Terminator 2, sought to bring to the sordid quasi-judicial killing of a mass murderer something of the apocalyptic grandeur of a James Cameron sci-fi epic. Nice work. (See also Graham’s forum post for more post-Saddam Unspeak.)

Two days into 2007, the New York Times printed the following illuminating paragraph:

Mr. Bush still insists on talking about victory, even if his own advisers differ about how to define it. “It’s a word the American people understand,” he told members of the Iraq Study Group who came to see him at the White House in November, according to two commission members who attended. “And if I start to change it, it will look like I’m beginning to change my policy.”

With some admirable economy, Mr Bush thus admitted two things. First, that he is desperate to hide from the American people the fact that he does, indeed, want to change his policy; and second, that the instrument with which he will cover up this change is the handy word “victory”, now confessed to be a nearly hollow word, whose only remaining vestige of meaning lies in the fact that Bush is determined to keep saying it, in a kind of incantatory or phatic communication of noble striving towards an indefinable goal.

A note for statistics-lovers: on in 2006 there were 95 posts, totalling 53,099 words, or nearly two-thirds the length of Unspeak itself. There were 1,214 comments totalling 180,702 words, or an awful lot. Keep speaking back, and Happy New Year!


A robust effort

Speak no evil, hear no evil

If I were giving out some 2006 Unspeak Awards – which would of course be represented by a small figurine of a monkey with its hands over its mouth, sculpted out of human excrement – I have the feeling that first place would be a contest between Condoleezza Rice, for her brutal sophistry on “sustainable ceasefire”, and George W. Bush, for his rebranding of torture as being “questioned by experts”. Were there a prize for sheer shameless volume of Unspeak, Bush would of course walk it (perhaps this special prize should be a life-sized banana, sculpted out of human excrement), so it is natural that he should round off this year at

As it is the season of peace and goodwill to all men, Bush has been talking about the necessity to increase the “overall size” of the US military.

The reason why is, it is an accurate reflection that this ideological war we’re in is going to last for a while, and that we’re going to need a military that’s capable of being able to sustain our efforts and to help us achieve peace.

Sure: everyone knows that an “ideological war” is always won by the biggest army. And no one can accuse Bush’s administration of not wanting to “achieve peace”. In that regard, there is certainly progress in Iraq, where one journalist asked Bush if the US was “winning”. These days, Bush appears to admire his generals on the ground primarily for their verbal ingenuity in the field of propaganda, their ability to come up with what he calls “constructs”, or made-up slogans, as when he previously bigged up John Abizaid for the “construct” of “They will follow us”. Now there is another useful “construct”:

You know, I think an interesting construct that General [Peter] Pace uses is, “We’re not winning, we’re not losing.”

It is interesting as constructs go, isn’t it? Here is another one, mysteriously not flagged as a “construct”:

And we’ve got a very robust effort – I said the other day something that, I guess, people didn’t pay that much attention to – but for October and November and the first week of December, our actions on the ground have – as a result of action on the ground, we killed or captured nearly 5,900 people.

A robust effort. Back in the day, Tommy Franks said “We don’t do body counts” in Afghanistan, meaning that progress in that war was not being measured by the amount of enemy killed. (This perfectly reasonable statement has subsequently been so systematically misquoted, by people with justified concern about civilian deaths, that the original context is all but lost to history. A shame.) Anyway, now they apparently do do body counts (of “people” – not necessarily enemies?), perhaps since that is one “metric” left that can be presented as showing military progress. They’re making a robust effort to kill more “people”, which must be the best way to “achieve peace” in the long run.

In case you were wondering, lastly, whether the midterm election results meant that no one was listening to Bush any more, he offers some reassurance:

The microphone of the president has never been louder.

That one deserves a small figurine of a monkey with its hands over its ears, sculpted out of human excrement. Happy “winterval”, readers.


A stray dessert

Dreaming of a white Christmas

Among the other crucial news on which I failed to report last week was a photograph published by the New York Post showing Scunthorpe Travelodge with something white in her nostril. Travelodge’s PR, Elliot Mintz, made this fabulous statement:

I can tell you Paris does not use narcotics. I would imagine it’s something like whipped cream or a sugary substance from dessert, something that naturally might have found its way onto her face if she touched her nose. I’d label it a stray dessert.

A stray dessert. It’s so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes, as though a raggedy knickerbocker glory were to waddle up to the door of a farmhouse, looking up and mewling pitifully through the glass at the owner, who would then let it in and give it a loving home. In her nose. What stray foodstuffs are currently up your nose, readers?


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