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Scales in their eyes

On Thursday, the British Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, announced that the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into a BAE arms deal with Saudi Arabia would be shut down. Goldsmith’s statement in the Lords was subsequently reported as in his own voice, though he was purportedly relaying a statement from the SFO itself. The killer line:

It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest.

Whether this statement came from the SFO or, as perhaps seems more likely, was drafted on the SFO’s behalf by Goldsmith himself, its import is illuminating. Did you have the naive idea that the rule of law – “the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power”, as it is defined in Halsbury’s Laws of England – was itself precisely the central guarantor and safeguard of the “public interest”? That the supremacy of law over executive power was, indeed, the pillar of what we are pleased to call our democracies, as opposed to dictatorships? That, as Lord Falconer said only two months ago, “the rule of law must be paramount: because without the rule of law, we yield the very values which the terrorists seek to overthrow”? Even that the Attorney General’s role ought to be that of upholding the rule of law against political considerations? You are now to be relieved of those idealistic notions.

Instead, in the usual craven language of Blair’s government, a “balance” must be struck. To talk of introducing a “balance” strives to make the speaker seem reasonable, able to weigh competing considerations, prepared to listen to everyone and to compromise. But a call for “balance” is often, too, a nice strategy of Unspeak, for it constructs a stealthy division. Pretending to bring things together and rationally compare them, it may instead offer a false dichotomy, as in Blair’s fatuous call for a “balance” between “preserving a distinctive identity and integration” in the veil “debate”; or the false dichotomy between the “rule of law” and “the wider public interest”. Note, moreover, the ingenious allusion to a wider public interest, as though the rule of law were a narrow, pedantic, somewhat technical idea, of interest mainly to lawyers. And if the weighing mechanism is agreed to be the scales of justice, then putting justice itself in the balance is a transparently surreal ploy, something only Escher could illustrate.

Of course, once you have created the image of two things balanced on a set of scales, you have also already made the argument that their masses are identical, that they need to be considered as equal, just as the media like to “balance” a discussion of evolution with the creepy rantings of an “Intelligent Design” creationist, or a conversation on global warming with the viewpoint of an oil-company shill. In political uses of “balance”, then, there is no longer any such thing as an overriding principle of, for example, law or democracy: everything can be “balanced” against something else in order to legitimize executive desires. It is as though a defendant on trial for murder were to say: “I felt the need to balance the legal prohibition of murder against my lust to stab the victim repeatedly.” Such an argument is obviously risible; that Goldsmith and Blair nonetheless expect the public to swallow the same logic in regards to its dealings with Saudi Arabia (a state that still has them, you might say, over a barrel) merely illustrates once again their overweening contempt for us.


Chinese democracy

See one, feel one, touch one

Voting has opened for the 2006 Weblog Awards, for which is shortlisted in the Best UK Blog category. You are allowed to vote every 24 hours, until December 15 when the polls close, so please vote early and vote often. Thanks!


Goodbye effect

Active Denial

The US Air Force has had a new toy certified for use in Iraq, the Active Denial System. You might think Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have been using the Active Denial System in the matter of Iraq and much else for quite a long time now, but this is a somewhat different gadget. According to a Wired News report, it fires a beam of “millimeters waves” to irradiate people’s skin, causing immense pain. Lest you think this is dangerous, be assured that the corneas of monkeys were deliberately burned by holding their eyes open during exposure to the rays, and they healed within 24 hours.

ADS is an exciting new advance in the field of “non-lethal weapons”. Perhaps it is time for a sarcastic definition. A non-lethal weapon is a weapon that kills people only by accident.

It could be the case that increasing the arsenal of “non-lethal weapons” tends to widen the field of situations in which they may be used. If it doesn’t (probably) kill anyone, hey, why not use it to break up this pack of pesky placard-holding demonstrators? The squeamish may also protest about the deliberate infliction of pain for political ends, which could be argued to be wandering into the space of torture. Well, there is a range of accepted pain-compliance techniques used by authorities. A policeman who catches a mugger and puts him in a jointlock is using pain to control the subject. Is there a qualitative difference once you start using hi-tech pain rays? Perhaps the fact that the weapon is designed not to be used against a targeted individual but indiscriminately over an “area” is morally relevant here.

One might also remark on the excitement evident in the language of military officers who have talked about the new weapon. Captain Jay Delarosa of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is quoted as saying:

ADS has the same compelling nonlethal effect on all targets, regardless of size, age and gender.

It is reassuring to know that the weapon is not sexist or otherwise discriminatory. I do wonder, though, about Capt Delarosa’s use of the world “compelling”. A “compelling nonlethal effect” may well be compelling to the victim, in the sense of physical compulsion through agony. But compelling can also mean deeply fascinating. Perhaps the “effect” is compelling to those eager to try it out, too.

The ADS, says experimenters, produces “prompt and highly motivated escape behavior”. I think this means it makes you want to run like fuck. As though recognising that this deadening bureaucratic description of people fleeing deliberately inflicted pain is a bit of a mouthful, some wag has come up with a snappier description of the weapon’s consequence: the “Goodbye effect”. No reference to the fact that the word “goodbye” originates in a concatenation of the phrase “God be with you” is presumably intended. I like to imagine Air Force men singing the Beatles through a helicopter-mounted PA system to crowds of troublesome Iraqis:

You say yes, I say no
You say stop and I say go, go, go
Oh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello.


Slower to get it

Hitchens on women: not funny

Via the gimlet eye of Hitchens Watch, I see that in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens is addressing The Woman Question; or specifically, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. He adduces many ingenious proofs of the earnest dullness of the weaker sex; and lest you suppose this to be fatuous dribble, he attempts to show that science is on his side. Hitchens refers to a Stanford University School of Medicine Study he read about in Biotech Week that used brain-imaging to argue for gender differences in humour. He summarises its findings thus:

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?

“Slower to get it”? Where did Hitchens get that from? The study in question, to which Hitchens refers as though it was news (“we now have all the joy of a scientific study”), was the subject of a Stanford press release more than a year ago, in November 2005. All the material from Biotech Week that Hitchens cites appears in identical form in the original press release. We may suppose, indeed, that the Biotech Week article was simply the same press release. Yet nothing in what Hitchens cites implies that women are “slower to get” a joke. In fact, something perhaps quietly elided expressly says the opposite. Hitchens quotes only the concluding finding, that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny”, from a paragraph that, in the original press release, states:

In other findings, men and women showed no significant difference in the number of stimuli they rated as funny, nor how funny they found the humorous stimuli. Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar, although women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.

Hang on. “Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar.” Passing silently over this, unless it was mysteriously omitted from the Biotech Week version, Hitchens assures us that the study concluded that women are “slower to get it”. Let us be charitable and put this down to mere befuddled incomprehension.

So much for his article’s brief flirtation with fact. The rest is mere guff and rant, leeringly picking a fight even when granting a concession:

There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.

“When you come to review the situation.” It is pleasing to imagine Hitchens, brow furrowed and puffing, reviewing the situation with scholarly dispassion, making little marks in his columns for “hefty”, “dykey” or “Jewish”, or scrawling horizontal lines for a “combo”, feeling perhaps something of the joy of a victory at Tic-Tac-Toe.

Proofs biological and sociological are abundant:

[B]ecause fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks.

In a mood of greater clarity, one in which Hitchens would not allow himself the sort of slack, bloated prose in this piece, he might have remembered that “romantic love” was invented by, ah, male poets, and that Isaac Newton, for example, by all accounts a man, was obsessed with alchemy and “supposedly significant dates”. But let us not allow pedantry to get in the way of a daring recitation of conventional wisdom.

Generously, Hitchens does allow that there have been some funny women, while claiming that this does not spoil his “argument”, as he is pleased to call it. But those funny women – they’re not really funny either, are they?

(Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?)

Happy to take the challenge, I asked myself whether Dorothy Parker was ever really funny. I replied to myself: “Yes she was, you dolt.” The more melancholy question now is, was Christopher Hitchens ever funny? I seem to remember that he was, but it seems so long ago now.

(Update: see also Dennis Perrin’s fine post.)


Bad behavior

Rumsfeld’s last solo

The leaked memo written by Donald Rumsfeld two days before he, er, stepped down turns out to be a final delirious improvisation, one last solo over the changes, one more hot swinging chorus with the band while the staff are sweeping the floor and putting chairs on tables at 4am. It is a masterpiece of Unspeak right from its title: “SUBJECT: Iraq – Illustrative New Courses of Action.” Heaven forbid that SecDef actually recommend something; no, in perfect cover-your-ass terminology, everything in the memo is merely “illustrative”. Rumsfeld is the one-man thinktank, the daring blue-sky imagineer. Here is one piquant paragraph of what follows:

¶ Stop rewarding bad behavior, as was done in Fallujah when they pushed in reconstruction funds, and start rewarding good behavior. Put our reconstruction efforts in those parts of Iraq that are behaving, and invest and create havens of opportunity to reward them for their good behavior. As the old saying goes, “If you want more of something, reward it; if you want less of something, penalize it.” No more reconstruction assistance in areas where there is violence.

Picture, if you will, Iraqis as small children, or perhaps dogs, in whom it is necessary to instil “good behavior”. To train small children or dogs, all that is required is a binary system of reward and punishment. Since they are not fully rational beings, that is the only language they understand.

George Lakoff’s “strict father” model of conservative thinking is pseudo-scientific, sub-psychotherapeutic guff as an attempt to explain politics in general, but it has an apt application in this specific instance. Rumsfeld is indeed floating the idea that the US military act as a strict father, or perhaps a stern dog-trainer, like Barbara Woodhouse. The example of Fallujah is inspiring. Should Iraqis dare to fight back when US forces raze their city, that counts as “bad behavior”, and the city should be left as rubble, pour encourager les autres. (Lawyers will no doubt carp about this, but carping lawyers can always be neutralized by tame ones.)

This could be the rule, Rumsfeld muses, in all “areas where there is violence”. By “violence”, of course, is meant violence committed by Iraqis. Violence committed by US forces, for instance by means of chemical weapons in Fallujah, is not violence, but something like a force of nature, or an instrument of righteous chastisement: God’s switch.

Do you doubt that Rumsfeld really thought of Iraqis as infants, as lesser beings than the mature American men with whom he consorted? The idea is made more explicit a few paragraphs later:

¶ Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start “taking our hand off the bicycle seat”), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.

Iraqis are indeed kids learning to ride a bike, and the US should gradually stop stabilizing the bike for them. As every parent knows, if your child should happen to fall off his bicycle during training, the correct reaction is to “penalize” the error, perhaps by smacking him around a little and shouting: “Pull your socks up!” Good behaviour and skilled cyclisme will rapidly ensue.

It is reassuring that Rumsfeld had confidence in traditional wisdom, in reliable saws like “the old saying” about rewarding what you want more of and penalizing what you want less of. Unfortunately it was decided a couple of days later that someone wanted less of him. But to the very last, he still had the chops:

¶ Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not “lose.”

This is such an ingenious idea of “public diplomacy” that it is only a shame it was not adopted three years earlier. If the US had announced from the start that it was going to war in Iraq “on a trial basis”, history would surely have taken a different course.



Axl’s ornithology

From Popbitch:

Guns & Roses dropped support act Eagles of Death Metal from their tour after one night. Axl called them “Pigeons of Shit Metal”.

Nice. At first glance I thought “shit” for “death” was a bit of a disappointment after the ingenious replacement of “eagles” with “pigeons”. Then I thought it was funny anyway, as it partakes of an established trope whereby the reader is first led to expect something clever and instead gets something stupid or simple. (What is the name for this trope? Answers in comments please.) But then I realised it was even better than that. Pigeons are known above all for shitting, so Axl Rose has quite brilliantly conjured an image of pigeons actually shitting a kind of metal music down on the heads of unsuspecting GN’R fans – music that is, like pigeon-shit, runny and smelly and somehow pusillanimous, not robust and earthy like steaming elephant dung.

A propos of which, although Paul McCartney certainly sings “this ever-changing world in which we’re living” on the original version of “Live and Let Die”, Axl audibly changes it to “in which we live in” on the Guns N’ Roses cover (on Use Your Illusion II), thus entrenching the lamentable misunderstanding from which Paul has so long suffered.


Huge beer orgies

A useful synonym

Doubtless there have been many nasty Unspeaky things said by politicians this week, but now and then one wants to emphasise the positive side of language use. So I found the following obituary of a California barman heartwarming:

Jack Macpherson earned a permanent niche in the history of Southern California beach culture, thanks to the loosely organized group of surfers and other beach-area denizens that he co-founded in the early 1960s — a crew whose logo was an abstract rendering of a mushroom cloud and whose name became synonymous with “huge beer orgies.”

If a name has to become synonymous with something, that’s not bad. I hope readers have many seasonal Jack Macphersons, or Mac Meda Destruction Companies, planned for the coming month.


A disgusting abuse of power

Britney: ‘just trying to express herself’

Britney Spears, popular singer, has been been photographed getting out of a limo – or “flashing her apparently panty-less crotch to the paparazzi”, as the LA Times puts it. (“Apparently”?) Such a seismic event requires interpretation by experts. Luckily, the LA Times found one, “New York-based celebrity image consultant Amanda Sanders”, who twittered:

She’s a beautiful girl and now that she’s single and she’s having fun, I think she’s just trying to express herself. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong message that’s coming across.

It once used to be said that people had ideas or thoughts to express. Now the highest form of expression is to express oneself. Indeed, “I’m just expressing myself” is a kind of general-purpose alibi for behaviour of which others might disapprove. It’s a challenge to critics: if you attack what I do, you’re attacking me personally, because everything I do expresses myself. The “celebrity image consultant” affects to be offering this defence on poor Britney’s behalf, even while assuming that Britney was indeed deliberately flashing, and that this act constituted a mysterious message that has unfortunately been lost in translation. What does Sanders suppose it might have been intended to mean?

Another commentator adopted a less forgiving pose, writing:

Britney Spears’ no-panties stunt is a disgusting abuse of power.

The person lecturing us about disgusting abuses of power is Mike Straka, a writer for Fox News. (An organisation that fails to summon any comparable indignation for abuses of power by men in the current government.) In Straka’s tiny mind, as he goes on to explain, the real problem is not that he has been forced at gunpoint to stare at Spears’s genitalia, but that they just don’t do it for him. “Britney is skanky,” he warns his family audience. “Plain and simple.” Naturally, it is only a “disgusting abuse of power” to expose “skanky” genitals. Straka finishes his sermon thus:

It’s up to you America, to reject this disrespectful young woman, who has no regard for you and your children (not to mention her own), and who would spread her legs for the world to see — very deliberately. Do not buy her new CD when it comes out. The only thing that will change this “coarse” of action is to hit her where it hurts the most. And since a kick to the groin apparently doesn’t hurt enough, perhaps a flopped comeback will let her know that we’ve had enough.

It’s all about respect for the children. Showing his own respect for females everywhere, children or not, Straka fantasises about “a kick to the groin”. Where did that come from? He sees a naked female groin and his first thought is to want to kick it? No doubt he should be applauded for expressing himself.


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