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Relevant

Tony Blair vs Liberty

Tony Blair’s final Labour party conference speech as leader yesterday expatiated on the necessity for identity cards thus:

We can only protect liberty by making it relevant to the modern world.

This boggles the mind. The notion of protecting liberty by circumscribing it is deadeningly familiar from the rhetoric of Blair’s friends across the pond. But in what way is liberty irrelevant to the modern world, in a way that ID cards would cure? No doubt I enjoy some ancient common-law liberties of which I am unaware, maybe (IANAL) the freedom to comb the hair of an ox, which are not very relevant to my modern lifestyle. And yet it seems that even my more contemporary liberties, such as that to be sarcastic on a weblog, are irrelevant to the modern world, even though they are made possible by, and indeed part of, the modern world, at least this tiny virtual corner of it.

Blair’s fantastical claim that liberty tout court is irrelevant, the implication that it is somehow quaint or otherwise in need of modernization, is reminiscent of those who believe the same about certain provisions of the Geneva Conventions, laws on torture and so forth. (And indeed those people like to deny the relevancy, in the legal sense, of many statutes to their actions.) It’s interesting, meanwhile, that Blair’s own domestic contribution thus far to the updating of liberty has mainly been in the creation of an impressive number of new criminal offences, necessitated, no doubt, by the crazy modern world (in which we live in).

So the reduction of liberty entailed by requiring all citizens to purchase ID cards and have their biometric details kept in a national database is here Unspoken and recast as a making “relevant”. The use of “relevance” as an intellectually vacant term of approbation, implying a tyranny of the merely contemporary or the directly functional, has long been familiar, of course. I remember someone asking once at a talk whether schoolchildren should not be given something more “relevant” to read than Shakespeare. The speaker answered that one of the more “relevant” things to most people’s everyday lives is a telephone directory, but that does not make it valuable as literature.

But Blair did explain in what his “relevance” consisted: ID cards are needed, he said, to combat “identity fraud” and “modern migration” (it is interesting how “immigration” seems to be morphing into “migration”). Perhaps in this context he was using “relevant to” in the archaic sense of “correspondent to” or “proportional to”. The argument would then go like this: there exist such uniquely awful threats in the modern world, eg being flooded with migrants, that liberty must be reduced exactly in proportion to this increase in dangers. Perhaps that is what he meant. His speech, I submit, is entirely relevant to his intellect.

There was a slogan to round off this argument. “Let Liberty stand up for the law-abiding,” Blair declaimed. No doubt it is time to update that famous New York statue featuring Liberty sprawled on a chaise longue: it must be made relevant to the modern world in which Donald Rumsfeld stands for eight hours a day, and numerous possible evildoers for who knows how long.

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Privilege

Cherie dictionary appeal

Gordon Brown told the Labour Party conference today:

I’ve worked with Tony Blair for almost ten years as Chancellor – the longest relationship of any Prime Minister and Chancellor in history. And it has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour Prime Minister.

Reuters reports that, seeing this bit on a television monitor outside the auditorium as she passed by, Cherie Blair said: “Well, that’s a lie.” But how exactly is it a lie? Brown has indeed worked as long as he says with Blair. And it is just factually correct that Blair is “the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour Prime Minister”, in terms of numbers of elections won, whatever you think of his policies. So I suppose the perceived lie must be in the word “privilege”. Since by most accounts Brown doesn’t actually like Blair, Mrs Blair supposed he must have been lying when he said it had been a privilege to work with him.

But this is not what “privilege” means. Brown evidently uses it in OED‘s sense 2: “A right, advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or a body or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others […] a special advantage or benefit.” (Therein lie the traces of the original Latin word for a law passed about a private person.) Well, one can hardly deny that the job of Chancellor to the most successful Labour prime minister ever is a privilege. You can be privileged to work with a very powerful man even if you consider him an idiot. Evidently Brown chose his words very carefully, unable to bring himself to say that it had been a pleasure or a delight or an unalloyed joy or a bodacious thrill to work for Blair, but perfectly correct to call it a privilege. This is not a case of Unspeak but very precise Speak. But why bother if you’re going to be accused of dishonesty anyway?

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Openly gay

Agoraphobic bishops

An article in the Times reports: “Anti-gay bishops vote to split the evangelical church in two”. The bishops in question say that they would be “failing in our apostolic witness” if they didn’t speak out (it is of course well known that Jesus hated gays: he could barely be prevailed upon to shut up about the matter). The article reports further:

The conservatives are also angry that the Episcopal Church has stood by the election of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

Which led me to wonder about the term openly gay. One way of thinking about a piece of language is to see what happens if you substitute terms, perhaps opposite terms. Do we ever hear anyone spoken of as being openly heterosexual? We do not. It is true that there is a spatial metaphor of interiority vs exteriority in “coming out of the closet”. Still, openly gay can sound odd, as though expressing astonishment (if not actual offence) that a person could have the cheek not to hide his or her homosexuality, as common decency surely would demand. On the other hand, openly gay could be positively celebratory of having nothing to be ashamed of. Does it depend who is saying it?

37


Scientific alliance

An axis of extremism

In today’s Guardian, the director of something called the “Scientific Alliance” responds to a story on how the Royal Society has asked Exxon to stop funding global-warming denial groups:

I have to register my concern at the increasing intolerance of normal scientific argument by the scientific establishment.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made a political synthesis of the work of many hundreds of expert scientists, and implies that the science is settled. Far from it: there is very considerable uncertainty about the influence of various drivers on global climate. Science is not democratic. Science doesn’t work by consensus. Science calls for an honest evaluation of theories in the light of all available evidence. Theories stand or fall on the basis of interpretation and discussion of the evidence, not attacks on the integrity of those you may disagree with. The Royal Society is indeed taking an unprecedented step: it is seeking to close down debate, which is deeply disturbing.

The Scientific Alliance has never received money from ExxonMobil. And we will continue to encourage rational scientific debate, whoever chooses to fund us and whatever the official view of the Royal Society.

Denialists often appeal to the conspiracy-theory reflex. Thus phrases such as the scientific establishment are loaded with implicit criticism. The very word establishment seems most often to be used to evoke a kind of complacent groupthink: an “establishment view” is usually called such when someone disagrees with it . . .

continued »

10


Pestilential theology

The greatest problem facing civilization

Writing in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, author Sam Harris castigates “liberals” for being “soft on terror”. From a bracing and in many ways admirable position of contempt for all religion, Harris derives a picture of an apocalyptic global fight for “civilization” of which George W. Bush himself would surely approve. It’s a good trick.

The message of Harris’s article is: “We are not fighting a ‘war on terror’. We are fighting a pestilential theology”. The image of religion as a plague or a virus is interesting, though it lacks an epidemiological hypothesis as to how the disease is spread. To be on the safe side, if you are one of Harris’s “we” (let us silently ignore a few million American Muslims here and there), you should probably be careful not to stand too close to any Muslim in case his “pestilential theology” can be transmitted by airborne particles. For this disease is more widespread than you suspect . . .

continued »

17


Reinvigorating the presidency

Yoo on Bush’s ‘flexibility of action’

Lawyer John Yoo, author of the notorious torture memos, offers an inventive excuse for George W. Bush’s contempt for the law:

[T]he president has broader goals than even fighting terrorism — he has long intended to make reinvigorating the presidency a priority.

Reinvigorating the presidency. Nice. As Yoo goes on to explain, new life must be breathed into this moribund office by allowing the president to ignore “wrongheaded or obsolete legislation”. And it is right that the president should do what he likes, because, you see, he knows more than anyone else: “The president has better access to expertise from the unified executive branch — including its top secret data — than the more ad hoc information Congress develops through hearings and investigations.” In other words, a president should be able to defend illegal actions by saying: “Trust me, I have top secret data that proves I can do this. You want to see the top secret data? Fuhgeddaboudit!” . . . continued »

5


The program

Bush threatens halt to torture

George W. Bush muddled the name of some legislation again at his press conference today, referring to the “Detainee Detention Act”. So evil they detained them twice. But the President had a clear message to deliver:

If our professionals don’t have clear standards in the law, the program is not going to go forward.

In case you were wondering what the “program” was that the “professionals” needed to execute, Bush went on to clarify thus: “This program won’t go forward”, “It’s just not gonna go forward”, “The program is not going forward”, “The point is that the program is not going to go forward if our professionals do not have clarity in law” – and, once more for luck, “The program’s not going forward.” What is The Program? Why, the program to have secret prisoners questioned by experts – the torture program. A program that goes forward is expanded upon. Can it be that there are some who actually do not want to see this happen? Get with the program, people.

3


Choice advisers

A tale of two Blairs

Unspeak is also mentioned in a Times comment piece today, by Ben Macintyre. The article begins by recounting a cabinet minister’s rebellion at the language of “choice advisers” in the context of school selection. I must admit that I am not sure what is so pernicious about “choice advisers”, who, one imagines, might lay out the choices available and help you choose between them. Unless “choice” is an adjective, so that it means “particularly good advisers”. But we know that no bureaucratic adviser could be anything but choice. It’s true that the notion of “choice”, cloaking itself in the absolute virtue of the commercial sphere, is sprayed around rhetorically in all sorts of places where its sense is sometimes hard to discern: particularly in discussions of the NHS. Choice requires information and deliberation, of which you might not have much when being wheeled into the emergency room . . . continued »

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