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A radical imbalance of power

‘Melanie Phillips’ vs the veil

I know I shouldn’t, but I’ve been reading more of the blog by the satirical personage dubbed “Melanie Phillips”. One post quotes a Muslim writing with pride about how the English city of Oxford has several mosques and halal restaurants, and many Muslim scholars wandering the quads of the university. “Melanie” responds:

Thus the triumphalism of someone who understands better than the dhimmi dummies of Oxford university the magnitude of the cultural pass they have so recklessly sold.

I am having trouble reading this as saying anything other than that the University of Oxford should not hire Muslim academics. If so, it is lamentably crude as comic writing. But another post is more subtle. In this one, “Melanie” relates how, on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, “she” and the other panellists interviewed a woman “who wore the niqab or full-face veil”:

Talking to her brought something else home to me: the radical imbalance of power in the encounter, due to the fact that while she could see my face I could not see hers.

There are many interesting facets to this. The first is that, of course, a niqab is not exactly a “full-face veil”, because it does not cover the eyes, useful to see out of, as well as to communicate with. To call it a “full-face veil” nonetheless is cleverly to invoke an image of scarily featureless aliens. Second, the idea that being able to see someone’s whole face, not just the eyes (already Unspoken by “full-face veil”) is a source of “power” is an interesting one. Where might this power lie? I am wholly confident that even for “Melanie Phillips”, the source of frustration cannot be that there is insufficient skin on display to be able to tell at once if one is talking to a Caucasian or someone of browner complexion. Leaving that delicate question unanswered, we notice thirdly how interesting it is that “Melanie Phillips” does not identify the “radical imbalance of power” as working in exactly the opposite direction to the one claimed. You might suppose that the real “radical imbalance of power” is that between the ordinary woman and the handsomely remunerated newspaper and radio “personality” (or rather, “her” anonymous puppeteer) who is aggressively interrogating the ordinary woman for the public’s broadcast edutainment.

Lastly, “Melanie Phillips” does not identify the “radical imbalance of power” that most grieves me personally. This imbalance consists in the fact that, when I accidentally tune in to The Moral Maze, I can hear “Melanie Phillips” talking, but she cannot hear me shouting: “Shut the fuck up, you depressingly plausible impersonation of a smarmy, vicious bigot!” And so I am reduced to writing a blog post instead.


A minor application

Preparing a ‘clearance operation’

From Patrick Cockburn’s superb (apart from the subtitle) The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq:

“During preparatory operations in the November 2004 Fallujah clearance operation, on one night over forty 155mm artillery rounds were fired into a small sector of the city,” recalled Brigadier Aylwin-Foster, the perceptive British commander serving with the US forces in Baghdad. “Most armies would consider this bombardment a significant event. Yet it did not feature on the next morning’s update to the 4-Star Force Commander: the local commander considered it to be a minor application of combat power.”



What to call legalized torture

Now that the Military Commissions Act – which authorizes the torture by US officials of prisoners so long as it does not result in serious “bodily injury” or non-transitory mental harm – has passed into law, there is a new standard euphemism for what it allows. It is tough. A BBC Radio news report yesterday referred fastidiously to “tough interrogation”. Newspapers are also referring to “tough interrogation” or “tough rules” or “tough methods” or “tough techniques”. As compared to previous talk of rough interrogation, this is a rhetorical refinement. It is particularly interesting for the possibility of a useful semantic leakage of the adjective. The usage “tough interrogation”, especially, may come to evoke an interrogation performed by tough men. And so the emphasis is handily switched from the suffering of those being tortured, about which it is uncomfortable to think too closely, to the moral and physical robustness of those doing the torturing. American torturers would thus be pictured as macho, square-jawed, taciturn heroes, fair-minded but dedicated to defending their country: tough. And in these times, who can doubt that toughness is a virtue? As Billy Ocean once sang, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Do you have some bleeding-heart, weaselly objections to such Wild West moral clarity? Tough.


Some percentage

Hitchens and ‘moral idiocy’

Christopher Hitchens’s response to the Lancet study is ingenious. First he smears it as fantasy – because the Lancet apparently has “a reputation for conjuring bloodbaths”. But then, “for the sake of argument”, he assumes that the figures are correct. What then?

Indeed, if you look more closely, you will see that less than one-third of the surplus deaths are attributed, even by this study, to “Allied” military action. Grant if you wish that this figure is likely to be more exact, since at least the coalition fights in uniform and issues regular statistics.

Where are the “regular statistics” issued by the splendidly uniformed “coalition” on how many people they kill? Oh, that’s right, there aren’t any. The reassuring “less than one-third” figure is actually 31%. This is not, as Hitchens thinks, the proportion of the total “excess” or “surplus” deaths post-invasion attributable to the “coalition”, but specifically the proportion of violent deaths. It amounts to 186,318 people. Hitchens continues with a quibble born of ignorance:

We are told that 24 percent of the violent deaths were caused by “other” actors, and 45 percent of them by “unknown” ones. If there is any method of distinguishing between the “other” and the “unknown,” we are not told of it.

Uh, yes we are. The problem appears to be that Hitchens has only bothered to read the Guardian story on the report to which he links, and not the report itself. “Other” in the “cause of violent death” column at Table 4 (p 5) means deaths attributed to forces other than the “coalition”: in other words, to insurgent and factional violence. “Unknown”, meanwhile, means just what it says – that the study cannot with confidence attribute those deaths to one or other force: “the responsible party was not known, or the households were hesitant to specifically identify them” (p 5). But anyway, even if the “coalition” are killing people, one can conduct a hand-waving argument that they are killing the right people:

Make the assumption that some percentage of those killed by the coalition are the sort of people who have been blowing up mosques, beheading captives on video, detonating rush-hour car bombs, destroying pipelines, murdering aid workers, bombing the headquarters of the United Nations, and inciting ethnic and sectarian warfare. Make the allowance for the number of bystanders and innocents who lost their lives in the combat against these fanatics (one or two, alas, in the single case of the precision bombing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, just to take one instance). But who is to say how many people were saved from being murdered by the fact that the murderers were killed first?

Who is to say, indeed? Not Hitchens: he is merely pulling this stuff out of thin air. To a detailed statistical study that explains its methodology and gives confidence intervals for its estimates, Hitchens’s response is to appeal to “some percentage”. Look, some percentage of the people we are killing are themselves murderers. That is no doubt true. But what percentage does Hitchens suppose it to be? Does it make a particular difference, for instance, if some percentage is less than half, or more than half? Even if some percentage were, for instance, an impressively accurate 75%, that would leave 25%, or 46,580 civilians killed by US-led forces. Would that number be okay?

Hitchens no doubt intuits that even a favourable figure for some percentage would work out, after some minimal arithmetic, at a horrific total of blameless Iraqis killed by the “coalition”. That is why he leaves it so usefully vague. The appeal to some percentage is affectedly casual, even bored, displaying an aristocratic impatience with mere bean-counting, a confidence that a righteous roll-call of horrors inflicted by the insurgents will trump the findings of people who have been to Iraq and conducted a door-to-door survey of death. Some percentage further Unspeaks the leftover percentage of Iraqi civilians killed by the “coalition”, denies that there is any point in even coming to an estimate of how many they are. Why bother counting them? Just imagine that even more would have been killed by the “murderers” if, er, we hadn’t already killed them ourselves. Concentrate your mind on the fact that some percentage of the people we are killing are villains. After some further meditation on the fact that the “coalition” wears uniforms and the fiction that it issues regular statistics on how many civilians it kills, you may come to conclude that the percentage in question is as close to 100% – give or take “one or two, alas” – as makes no difference.

But the story is even happier than that:

But the “tit for tat” confessional killings were and are a deliberate tactic of the insurgency and now threaten to spread into mass reprisals on both sides, while all the effort of the coalition is devoted to negotiating a compromise between the country’s factions. It is simple moral idiocy to fail to distinguish between these phenomena.

From a vague protestation that we are killing the right people, Hitchens moves miraculously to a claim that, anyway, we aren’t killing anyone at all. All the effort of the “coalition”, you see, is “devoted to negotiating a compromise”. No doubt because of my “moral idiocy”, I have contrived to miss the recent statistics issued by the uniformed “coalition” showing that all airstrikes, bombing and shooting have ceased, to be replaced by diplomatic negotiations throughout the country. Or perhaps “negotiating a compromise” is a delicious new form of Unspeak for “killing people”. Or maybe some percentage of Hitchens’s article is disingenuous garbage.



Science – what is it good for?

I have a post up at Comment is Free today, where I hope occasionally to write commenty things that are not strictly Unspeak-related. This one is in reply to Simon Jenkins’s criticism of the “science campaign” in British education. (Not the other sort of science campaign, that involves building nukes.) There is, though, some gratuitous bashing of global-warming denialists and “intelligent design” proponents near the end, so it’s not entirely off-topic.



The BBC on Unspeak in Israel/Palestine

The BBC has a new style guide advising its journalists on the use of “key terms” when reporting on Israel/Palestine. (Thanks to WIIIAI.) Its intentions, as explained by Middle East bureaux editor Simon Wilson, are honourable – as I would put it, to avoid Unspeak. The guide makes a number of sensible recommendations: for example, to avoid the phrase “cycle of violence”, which “does nothing to explain any of the underlying causes of the conflict and may indeed obscure them”. Quite so: “cycle of violence” is rhetorical handwashing, often underpinned by the racist connotations that inform concepts of “ancient hatreds” and so on. (They’re just a bunch of savages locked in an interminable blood-feud, what are you gonna do?) But of course it’s not all so easy. Here is what the guide says about one of the most contested names, the “barrier”:

The BBC uses the terms “barrier”, “separation barrier” or “West Bank barrier” as acceptable generic descriptions to avoid the political connotations of “security fence” (preferred by the Israeli government) or “apartheid wall” (preferred by the Palestinians).

As per the long discussion of this terminology in Chapter 4 of Unspeak, however, the BBC’s three “acceptable generic descriptions” do not themselves quite avoid “political connotations” either. “Separation barrier” either is a tautology or is using “separation” as Unspeak for “enclosure”. Even the term “barrier”, used on its own or in conjunction with “West Bank”, evokes protection from a threat, as in the Thames flood barrier, or the blood-brain barrier, and thus endorses one official motivation at the expense of others. This is one of those cases (of which there are many) in which the dream of perfectly neutral, transparent terminology appears to be forlorn, but at least they are making an effort. Stranger, though, is what the BBC has to say about “outposts”:

It is generally advisable not to refer to “illegal” outposts (they are all illegal and if you call one illegal some may assume that others are not).

Curious logic. If you refuse to call any “outpost” illegal, surely some may assume that they’re all legal?


Pressure group

It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about

From the Guardian:

Failure to take action to combat climate change will cause environmental catastrophe and cost the global economy $20 trillion (£10.8 trillion) a year by the end of the century, the pressure group Friends of the Earth says today.

I noted in my book that the name “Friends of the Earth” is an amusingly obvious kind of Unspeak (don’t agree with us? You must be an Enemy of the Earth!). But what is the term “pressure group” as a description of FotE doing in this news report? Why use this term rather than the neutral “charity” or “organization” or merely “group”? FotE does invite its members to “act local”, to write to MPs and so forth: in that sense it wishes to exert pressure on the public conversation. But this is of course the raison d’être of any NGO, and not all of them are called “pressure groups” by reporters. The CBI, for example – the British club for what are sometimes called “captains” of industry, which lobbies for lower rates of corporation tax and deregulation – is not called a “pressure group” in recent Guardian reports on its activities, even though it is no less interested in exerting pressure, in a more or less opposite direction, than Friends of the Earth. Indeed the CBI is only (and routinely) called a “pressure group” by those who disagree with its views, as for example here.

So it seems as though “pressure group” is just a way of saying “a group that promotes a point of view of which we are sceptical”. Any group, the implication runs, which is so pushy about its ideas must have some nefarious ulterior motive. To be pressured is to be made uncomfortable, rushed, not given time to think. Introducing an organization as a “pressure group” in a news report is already a way to prejudice the reader against it, to seek to undermine its credibility.

What kinds of groups are more likely to be called “pressure groups” in the authorial voice of a newspaper? A search is illuminating. The term has been applied in the last few months by the Guardian and Observer not only to Friends of the Earth but also to Liberty, Peta, the New Economics Foundation, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Animal Aid, Global Witness, Compass, Genewatch, and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. Each of these is what might generally be called, as a tellingly common extended version of the phrase has it, a “left-of-centre pressure group”. By contrast, I could find only one specific recent application of “pressure group” to what would normally be understood as a “right-of-centre” organisation: a mention in an article by a mortgage executive, celebrating an influx of tenants from other countries, of “pressure group” Migration Watch (not a birdspotters’ club). An interesting pattern, no?


A level that they tolerate

What Iraqis want

In response to the new Lancet report [pdf] on post-invasion deaths in Iraq, George W Bush said:

I don’t consider it a credible report, neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died and it troubles me and grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.

According to the most recent polls of actual Iraqis, however, including one conducted by the State Department, strong majorities of them do not actually tolerate the current “level of violence”. In fact, they state clearly that they want US-led forces to leave, because this would “make them feel safer and decrease violence”.

The ascription of toleration or even voluntariness is not new, of course. It is often claimed, as it was in May by Paul Keetch MP in Parliament, that the US-led forces are in Iraq “at the invitation of the democratically elected government”, which is a good trick, since that government did not exist in 2003 when the armies, or so we are to understand, gratefully accepted a non-existent invitation from a non-existent body of people.

It is even possible to claim, in flat denial of what Iraqis are actually saying to interviewers, that they do not merely tolerate violence but gladly give up their lives and those of others for the cause. Notice how George W Bush above began to say “they’re willing to –” and then stopped himself, toning down his half-made claim of willing to one of mere toleration. But what was he going to say? What are Iraqis willing to do?

A clue might reside in a recent statement by Condoleezza Rice, as reported by the author of a State Department news release, “Rice Defines ‘Successful Outcome’ in Iraq”, of August 31:

Many Iraqis striving for a unified government have lost family members to terrorists; nonetheless, she noted, “they’re willing to sacrifice for it.”

Right: they’re willing to sacrifice. Indeed in many ways, Iraq is a triumph of the will: no one there lacks for it, whether the “coalition of the willing” or the heroic Iraqis “willing to sacrifice”. Most Iraqis do not regret the passing of Saddam Hussein, having said in previous polls that overall his “ousting” was “worth it”. (Those killed during the course of his “ousting” were not available for comment.) But that kind of hindsight evaluation does not, as the newer polls show, translate into a continuing “toleration” of violence, or a “willing[ness] to sacrifice”. The concept of sacrifice here invoked is one of a noble gesture, but only as long as someone else is doing it.


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