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Not three chips

Reading a curious new book, The Rich: A New Study of the Species, by William Davis, I was struck anew by a quite ordinary use of words. This is the way people refer to the quantity of wealth a person has amassed or inherited by saying that he or she “is worth” such-and-such an amount. This is not at all a recent invention, being recorded by the OED already in 1460. But it has always seemed weird to me. Imaginary dialogue:

Arthur: I’m worth three million pounds, you know.
Vernon: Really? I suppose I might pay a couple of quid for you, but not that much.

Mozart did not have much money when he died, but it is surely arguable that he was “worth” at least as much as a contemporary hedge-fund manager. I suppose the problem is that the word “worth” has always been able to choose between two contrasting senses: either 1) specific material price, or 2) value – a notion of “true” or ideal value as opposed to specific material price. Cunning things, words. The OED provides a nice list, meanwhile, of the word “worth” used in what it terms “contemptuous comparison”:

noght worth a gloue
noght wurth a flye
not woorth a blewe point
not woorth two strawes
not worth three chippes

Particularly forceful is one by a certain Foote, apparently a splenetic hater of artisanal ingenuity, in 1776: “Manufacturers, and meagre mechanicks? fellows not worth powder and shot.”

What are you worth, readers?


Gay outreach

Disordered bishops

I’ve belatedly come across this story, entitled “Bishops Adopt Gay Outreach Guidelines”. Ah, good old bishops. It’s bad to be openly gay, but they now want to be seen as participating in a “Gay Outreach”. Strange phrase. “Outreach” is used in many contexts vaguely to define an effort to engage or help people: no doubt the bishops do not mean any alllusion to the term “reacharound”. Still, “gay outreach” pictures gay people as over there: a bunch of others who can be got at only by a stretched arm, if one dares to extend a limb that far. Perhaps, as is recommended when you sup with the Devil, the outreached arm holds, in turn, a long spoon.

Anyway, in what way exactly are the bishops reaching around outreaching? The first line of the report says it all:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops adopted new guidelines for gay outreach Tuesday that are meant to be welcoming, while also telling gays to be celibate since the church considers their sexuality ‘disordered.’

Hey, we ‘welcome’ you! But don’t have sex, because you’re fucked up! The choice of the term “disordered” is revealing: perhaps it is meant to evoke the clinical idea of a “disorder”. At any rate, the idea of “disordered sexuality” is strange if taken literally, as though gay people had more difficulty figuring out which bit to put where. Perhaps the bishops are really making a complaint that the sexuality in question is out of their control, unlike their blessedly orderly institutionalized heterosexuality, subject to their fatwas on marriage, contraception and so on.

Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, said:

The tone of the document is positive, pastoral and welcoming. Its starting point is the intrinsic human dignity of every person and God’s love for every person.

Er, yes, and its ending point is that gays are wrong. Clever!


The goods

Hitchens keeps on truckin’

In this week’s TLS, Christopher Hitchens reviews the latest volume of memoirs from Clive James, chiasmus fanatic. (I am not so much constructing a review – pause for smirk – as reviewing a construct.) Hitchens approves of James’s characterisation of the literary world:

[H]is book is an excellent guide to the vagaries of Grub Street, which was always a concept rather than a place, and could be read with genuine profit by any anxious tyro. Those who resent the clubbiness and chummery of the old guard, and wish to become a new guard, must learn that “the only road to the top [is] the one on which the goods are delivered”.

“The only road to the top is the one on which the goods are delivered.” Ingenious as this motoring metaphor is, it has one small problem: as a description of the world we live in, it is patently false. Unless, that is, one is working with an extremely forgiving notion of what counts as “the goods” – a far more forgiving notion than, one supposes, either James or Hitchens actually holds. If, on the other hand, we insist on reserving “the goods” to mean things of some excellence (however defined), it’s plain that making things of some excellence is not the only way to the “top”, or the empyrean heights of celebrity to which Clive James or Christopher Hitchens have attained. I leave a fuller accounting of non-excellent famous people as an exercise for the reader.

I must admit to being weirdly troubled by this image of literary labour as delivering the goods on the road to the top, which gets curioser the more you think about it. Who is the person at the misty summit, the “top” to which the road leads? Is it a kind of literary hermit-god in a bearskin loincloth, wild-bearded and myopic from all his reading? Are there some vans or trucks that break down on the steep, windy mountain roads, thus depriving the hermit of some books that he would have pronounced were, indeed, “the goods”, if he had ever had a chance to read (or smell) them?

And what of the writers themselves? I must say that I never imagine myself at work as someone delivering stuff (whether “the goods” or not) on a road, even in a shiny virtual 18-wheeler on the information superhighway. Has literature become no more than a branch of Fed-Ex? Courier companies, or even the humble Post Office, do not usually deliver “goods” that have not been explicitly ordered and purchased. Are writers to be thought of now as merely fulfilling orders?

It’s true that some of us are lucky enough to be commissioned to write things, but a commission is not a blueprint, and an editor never knows exactly what she’ll get (often, of course, to her subsequent chagrin). And then, of course, there are those writers who write first, and think of selling later, if at all. Serenely untroubled by thoughts of customers or lorry logistics, they write as they please. They do not “deliver the goods” on any “road”, whether it leads to “the top” or anywhere else.

That writing can nonetheless be thought of as “delivering the goods” is only a small symptom of the contemporary application of commercial metaphors to all forms of life. Of course, there exists such a thing as a publishing industry, and it may even be true that no man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But that still doesn’t mean writing is a service industry delivering standardized packages, and not everyone is obsessed with the bottom line, or the road to the top.


Irrational movements

Cohen v Honderich

Nick Cohen’s interview with Ted Honderich in this week’s New Statesman has something of the fascination of a slow-motion car-crash. We are warned early that Cohen is not sympathetic to his subject’s opinions:

I can’t say I’m a fan. I am hugely suspicious of the belief that irrational movements have rational causes…

We can be reasonably confident that by “irrational movements” Cohen does not mean things like nervous tics, peculiar new forms of drug-assisted teenage dancing, or other motions that might be judged “irrational”, such as leaping out into the path of a speeding juggernaut.

No; it seems to be his idea that “irrational movements” are those groups of people who practise what he calls “Islamist violence”. Well, this ascription of irrationality is a product of weak thinking. As an ideology of mass murder, the “al-Qaeda” franchise, for example, is vicious and criminal, but “irrational” it most certainly is not. To say that it is “irrational” is, indeed, comforting – as it is comforting to call it “fascist”, another word that Cohen petulantly insists on later. After one has intoned the words “irrational” and “fascist”, no more investigation into the subject is required. Furthermore, “irrational” implies that religion is really the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The label “irrational” is, in the end, not much better than that of “functioning insanity”.

All this is by way of prologue to Cohen’s meeting with his interviewee, a prologue further extended and spiced up by the ingenious application of a kind of architectural pathetic fallacy:

Our meeting began badly and got worse. I had arranged to talk to him at a conference at the Royal College of Art in London’s museum district: a bland, modernist building overshadowed by the exuberantly gothic Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums.

It is hugely important to pick an interesting building in which to talk to your interviewee. Still, Cohen’s schoolboy error is at least partly redeemed by the fact that the exuberantly gothic Honderich stands out in the depressing environs of the venue:

The college is an anonymous place where it is easy to miss people, but there was no missing Professor Honderich. Six foot five inches and 73 years old, he was all flowing grey hair and dramatic poses as he marched up to me and began to denounce a Channel 5 documentary by Times columnist David Aaronovitch.

The college is an “anonymous place where it is easy to miss people”. Odd. Surely if a place is visually bland, which is presumably what Cohen is grasping at by calling it an “anonymous place”, then human beings stand out better than they would in a place with ornate decor featuring, perhaps, numerous suits of armour, waxworks, or hyper-realistic portraits? Anyway, it is true that Honderich is tall, and that he is mature in years. However, we can be pretty confident that he is not all “flowing grey hair and dramatic poses”. That puts me in mind of a gigantic Dulux dog acting in a Noh play, or some kind of horrible alien, made entirely from hair.

I wonder, meanwhile, what exactly were Honderich’s “dramatic poses”, and how exactly he adopted his “dramatic poses” at the same time as he “marched” up to his poor interviewer? Did he take a few military goose-steps and then stop to vogue in various arresting shapes, before goose-stepping some more? Were the dramatic poses, indeed, so hurtful to Cohen’s frail sensibility that they might themselves count as “irrational movements”, thus proving the unhinged nature of the man before he even got to open his mouth? Sadly, we are not further illuminated on the subject. A few vague swipes must do. Let us hear more:

I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was going on about, but so vigorous were his condemnations that I assumed he had been pilloried. Only later did I learn that Honderich himself had made a documentary for the channel (which the Guardian described as a “fatheaded” attempt to blame Islamist terrorism on “almost everyone but Islamist terrorists”). The station’s controllers then commissioned Aaronovitch to argue that you couldn’t make excuses for terror. At no point did he mention Honderich. Nevertheless, the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired.

One can hardly doubt that if the Guardian describes something in such august terms of disapprobation as “fatheaded”, then it is assuredly so. No need for the intrepid interviewer to watch the programme himself: a ready-made Guardian opinion will do. Cohen says simply that “the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired”. Well, Honderich no doubt explained the following to Cohen. Honderich’s documentary (which I have not seen either, and about the chubbiness of whose cranium I therefore decline to speculate) was commissioned as part of a strand entitled “Don’t Get Me Started”, a format designed for people to advance a polemical, one-sided argument. Aaronovitch’s programme was the only time this strand has commissioned a “reply” in order, it seemed, to “balance” things said in the first. This is the substance of Honderich’s complaint, although you wouldn’t know it from Cohen’s article.

Nonetheless, Cohen makes a stirring effort to engage in constructive dialogue:

What interested me, I said, as I tried to calm him down, was that in the Seventies, when he had originally argued that revolutionary violence may be justified, there actually were movements of the revolutionary left. Now, nearly all the violent threats to the status quo come from the far right. Did it make a difference to him that the proponents of violence were the Iranian ayatollahs, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, organisations which had incorporated parts of classical fascist tradition?

Let us pause to note the absence of a rather significant constituency from Cohen’s picture of today’s “proponents of violence”. Those who argued in favour of the invasion of Iraq were too, in point of brute and indisputable fact, “proponents of violence”. No doubt Cohen, like many, was sincere in his faith that the violence he recommended would serve a greater good, but it can hardly be gainsaid that it was violence he was proposing. (After, that is, he had opposed it.) His violence, perhaps, can be accounted good and clean on account of its noble distance from the “classical fascist tradition”. His violence, though it kill tens or hundreds of times as many people, is, let us say, violence for democracy, and so hardly to be compared to that other, “fascist” kind.

As it happens, I also disagree strongly with aspects of Honderich’s most recent book (which Cohen shows no signs of having read), such as that the murder of civilians is the “only means” to liberty for Palestinians, or his analysis of the causes of 9/11, 7/7 and so on. These are important subjects to argue about. Cohen, unfortunately, satisfies himself with an appeal to fascism, an impressively thorough Unspeaking (or Unthinking) of the very possibility that “violence” has been committed by anyone other than the “fascists”, and a slew of personal insults: “I was in front of an academic who was more used to giving lectures than listening to them”; “Dear God, the man was obsessed”; “His voice was as monotonous as a metronome” . . .

Hang on – as monotonous as a metronome? Monotonous means without variation in pitch. In fact, a lot of metronomes use different pitches to indicate different beats of the bar. What a running metronome is is monorhythmic. Since Honderich’s is apparently a voice that also “boomed” yet at other times expressed “orotund satisfaction”, I regretfully deduce that Cohen is terribly confused, psychoacoustically as in other matters.

Cohen climaxes with some cheap pseudoanalysis:

It’s a poor consequentialist who can’t think about consequences. Honderich can’t because, I think, the emotional consequences of admitting that not all the darkness of the world is the fault of the west would be too great for him to endure.

Does such shabby cant, such a craven retreat from argumentum ad rem to argumentum ad hominem, itself belong in the category of “irrational movements”?


If I did it

O J’s tense

There’s a peculiar grammatical flavour to the title of O J Simpson’s new book, If I Did It, in which he apparently lays out exactly how he might have committed the murders of which he was acquitted. Weird, because if he were denying the murders, you’d expect him to use a counterfactual conditional beginning thus: “If I Had Done It”. For example, “If I had done it, then the notorious glove would have fit even over my rigidly outstretched hand.” Under what circumstances would you say, by contrast, “If I did it”? Well, it could be a simple indicative conditional. “If I did it, I’m a really bad person!” But I don’t think that’s the sell. Perhaps a more interesting reason you might use that form of words, however, is as the kind of confession that quickly introduces an excuse. “If I did it, it was only because I loved you.” Is this a clue? Tune in to Fox to find out!


Minister for terror

Cameron v Overlord

Cuddly, youthful, video-podcastin’ Conservative leader David Cameron has slapped his balls on the table, giving notice at the weekend that he is fully prepared to compete with Labour as an anti-terror hard man:

I’m also convinced that we need to change our attitude to human rights. The Human Rights Act was a new Labour flagship but its totemic status has made ministers unwilling to acknowledge how much it is hampering the fight against terrorism.

We need to change our attitude to human rights. Interesting how “change our attitude to” is used to mean “abandon”. But what is wrong with human rights? Well, they lead to alarming situations like the following:

It is almost impossible to deport even the most ruthless foreign terror suspect from Britain.

Let us admire how Cameron squeezes in three terrifying epithets before the admission that the hypothetical person he is talking about has not been found guilty of anything. The most ruthless! Foreign! Terror! Er . . . suspect. Cameron wants “a Home Office minister for terrorism” – or, as headline puts it more snappily, “We need a minister for terror”. Well, quite. The prime minister and home secretary do their best to terrorize the public at every opportunity, but they have all these irksome other duties distracting them. Best to appoint someone who has no other job but to foment fear.

Gordon Brown, however, disagreed. He can do it all, promising that as prime minister he would make terrorism his “first priority” – or, as the headline put it (these Sunday Times subs are quite satirical, I think), “Brown: I’ll be terror overlord”. Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of . . . oh, never mind.



The gumption of ‘Melanie Phillips’

Posting in the new Unspeak forum, wittgenstein tempts me, against my better judgment, into reading more recent comments by “Melanie Phillips”, whose reasoned analysis of the US midterm election results is that their “most likely outcome” is “another major terror attack on America”. It’s a good idea to have that post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy field-stripped, oiled and loaded in advance: you never know when you might need it. The following passage also caught my eye:

To vote in a bunch of people who have no stomach at all for fighting for the country’s defence, simply through impatience that the country hasn’t fought for it effectively enough, betrays serious confusion and lack of resolve. And it is precisely that which will now give such heart to our enemies. Have they not said, over and over again, that the west no longer has the determination or staying power to fight for its beliefs?

Europe proves the truth of this analysis every day. America proved it during the Carter and Clinton years, when it suffered attack after attack from the Islamists but never even understood that a war was being waged against it, let alone had the gumption to do anything about it.

The euphonious alliteration of “Carter and Clinton years” is an admirably poetical attempt to lull the reader into sucking down a deranged historical fantasy. In this deranged fantasy, the “Carter and Clinton years” were a continuous dark age of week-kneed liberalism. I suppose it is easy to forget George H. W. Bush, but poor Ronald Reagan, whose administration supported the muhajidin in Afghanistan, is also mercilessly airbrushed from history. This is quite unfair, since at least Reagan’s administration also declared the first “war on international terrorism”, and had the “gumption”, as macho “Melanie” characterises the primary foreign-policy virtue, to, er, withdraw Marines from Lebanon after the 1983 barracks bombing.

It is hard to understand, meanwhile, why Clinton’s notorious cruise-missile attack on Sudan would not be computed by the testosterone-soaked synapses of “Melanie” as a proof of “gumption”; it is at any rate a matter of record that the outgoing Clinton administration banged on repeatedly to its successors about the threat posed by one Osama bin Laden, only to be met with blank stares. All these annoying facts, however, are happily unspoken by the rhythmic mantra of “the Carter and Clinton years”. Repeat it out loud a few times and you start being hypnotised into believing it yourself. Nice job.

Also deliciously economical in its batshit is the following from another post, in which the humorist operating the “Melanie Phillips” fictionsuit satirizes the poverty of certain continuing arguments:

Saddam posed a threat to the world. It was right to remove him. These arguments have been comprehensively rehearsed.

The first sentence bespeaks an impressive dissociation from all known facts. The second sentence, with its dainty use of the officially sanctioned verb “remove” (Blair: “I decided to remove him”), efficiently unspeaks the fact that “removing” Saddam was not, unfortunately, a simple matter of a giant surgically-gloved thumb and forefinger descending from the sky to pluck one vicious mass murderer out of his palace, but inevitably involved the killing of an awful lot of other people. Marvellously, nevertheless, we are invited to believe that the pure fact that such claims have been made a lot of times, “rehearsed” ad nauseam, renders further dispute pointless. Of course, what is rehearsed is often a fiction, a made-up drama. And you know what they say: good rehearsal, bad gig.


Stepping down

Rumsfeld on a stairway to heaven

So, farewell then, Donald Rumsfeld, who is “stepping down”. Does that mean, to recall Bush’s 2004 campaign formula, that the Iraqis are stepping up? This kind of stepping must be performed in a carefully choreographed sequence, somewhat like synchronized swimming, in order to preserve the mean altitude of actors in the system, which is critical for our sense of geopolitical neatness. Perhaps Rumsfeld passed Robert Gates, coming in the opposite direction, exactly halfway down the stairway. If so, I hope the two men took the opportunity to perform an insouciant stair-based dance number, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time.

Presumably, after he has finished stepping down, it will be a relief to Rumsfeld that he no longer has to stand for eight to ten hours a day [pdf]. It must have been trying to remain erect for that long.

“Steps down” as a euphemism for “resigns” or “is fired” is part of the metaphor of verticality in talk about power. You reach “high office” and then “step down” from it afterwards, if you manage not to “fall” or get “pushed”. (I suppose the “corridors of power” must be steeply sloped.) If it were not from a high place, stepping down might have darker connotations, like Orpheus’s descent into Hades. At least Rumsfeld appears to have learned from that myth the importance of not looking back.

Stepping back (without turning around), of course, is a different matter. It is the mark of a strategist. Rumsfeld has liked to tell others, for instance, to “step back and look at it”, of a tricky situation. Journalists have their noses pressed up against the details and are in danger of becoming permanently cross-eyed. A certain distance is necessary for a full appreciation of the truth.

Happily, now that some distance has been imposed on Rumsfeld himself, he will be in a position to improve his viewpoint further by adding a horizontal component to his vertical displacement, as per his recent advice:

You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it’s complicated, it’s difficult.

After stepping down and backing off, travelling down and away to a far vantage point, Rumsfeld might this time be unable to resist one last glance back. Perhaps it will be a cause of some comfort, or even relaxation. Espying Bush, Cheney and Rice huddled atop the distant peak, Rumsfeld will be able to blot them out with one raised thumb.


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