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Instant justice

Crime isn’t slow; why should crimefighting be?

The spokesman for the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers is recommending that police be given new “summary powers”, including banning individuals from certain areas and imposing instant fines, to tackle “antisocial behaviour”. Most news sources are reporting the idea as one of “instant justice”, as though that were somehow a bad thing.

Of course, soppy due-process fetishists, in league as they are with the terrorists, might complain that “instant justice” is actually an oxymoron. What is instant is simply not justice, the argument would go, in the same way that, for example, what is instant is simply not coffee. The analogy is revealing, since people who care about the taste of their coffee are generally fey liberals. In the modern world we have a human right to instantaneity in all things. We can only hope that Parliament will not produce an equivalent of the smug killjoy from the Grolsch beer adverts: “Shtop! This justice is not ready!”

Such whinging is anyway easily refuted by the inspirational example in literature of the policeman as dispenser of “instant justice”. He is firm and incorruptible, and his puissant firearm is even called a Lawgiver. It is, of course, Judge Dredd, hero of the postapocalyptic megalopolis in the long-running comic serial published in 2000AD. (Dredd was impersonated, with artistically unimpugnable lack of affect, by Sylvester Stallone in the 1995 film.) If Tony Blair secretly fantasizes about wearing Dredd’s shoulder-pads, chains and helmet, and shouting “I am the law!” to all the antisocial perps who threaten our very way of life, I salute him.



Ceasefires and ‘painful results’

While I was away, I noticed with some admiration that the US and UK governments had invented a new term of war unspeak: “sustainable ceasefire”. In vetoing international calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon during the Rome peace conference on July 26, Condoleeza Rice said:

We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable.

The rhetorical purpose here is plainly to reverse the world’s understanding of what “ceasefire” actually means, in order to allow the war to continue. As Maureen Dowd put it pithily in her NYT column channelling George W Bush’s inner thoughts:

We talked about our plan to keep using fancy phrases like ‘lasting peace’ and ‘sustainable ceasefire,’ so we don’t actually have to cease the fire.

The meaning of “ceasefire”, however, is not obscure . . .

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Lex talionis and its discontents in Lebanon

If it is said, as it has been said by the EU, that Israel’s current actions in Lebanon are disproportionate, some people (eg, commenters on this thread at crookedtimber) claim instantly to be ignorant as to what “proportionality” could possibly mean. Well, it may not be facetious to point out that there is a classic and well-known definition of proportionality, which goes like this: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot”, in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is known as the lex talionis, and we have, among many others, Calvin’s commentary on it in Harmony of the Law:

[A] just proportion is to be observed, and […] the amount of punishment is to be equally regulated, whether as to a tooth, or an eye, or life itself, so that the compensation should correspond with the injury done […] so that he who has plucked out his brother’s eye, or cut off his hand, or broken his leg, should lose his own eye, or hand, or leg. In fine, for the purpose of preventing all violence, a compensation is to be paid in proportion to the injury.

A just proportion instead of escalating deeds of violence: such is the law, and the germ of this idea has been at the centre of law ever since. (Compare the notion in English law of “reasonable force”, oxymoronic though it may often prove to be in practice.)

Someone reluctant to accept talk of “disproportion” in Israel’s case, however, may perform a further rhetorical move. It is to say: okay, that’s fine for talk of eyes and teeth, but where is the calculus, where are the lookup tables, to enable us to calculate the exact “proportionality” in the complex situation of Lebanon? If you cannot easily say what would be “proportionate”, it is senseless to talk of disproportion.

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Musical codes

A reader asks me about a genre term in pop:

How do you feel about the word ‘urban’ used to describe broad yet distinct genres of music? […] The genres grouped under ‘urban music’ have been music created by predominantly black musicians; was the label ‘black music’ more appropiate or was/is a change needed, considering not all the musicians involved now are black or even grew up or live in urban environments?

What has urban music actually meant in the past? Plato warned against innovations in the lyre and flute music played in Athens. Charles Dickens complained about the cacophony of barrel organs beneath his window that prevented him from writing for more than half an hour. The music of Luigi Rossolo and other “futurist” composers of the early 20th century was “urban” in excelsis, inventing new musical machines to imitate the sounds of the industrial metropolis . . .

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Remedy the defects

Tom Paine in Genevaland

A torture-happy editorialist for the Wall Street Journal moans about “Osama in Genevaland”, although the Osama in question is probably in a cave rather than eating chocolate in Switzerland. Osama in Genevaland is supposed to be, nonetheless, the terrible result of the US Administration’s recent acceptance of the Supreme Court’s Hamdan ruling – that Geneva Common Article 3 protections must apply to prisoners at Guantánamo bay. The article is a farrago of falsehoods and fantastical reasoning, among which is this ingenious application of a slippery-slope argument:

Common Article 3 goes considerably further, forbidding, for example, “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” What exactly constitutes personal dignity and outrages upon it? Who knows, though we bet the ACLU will be more than happy to supply some answers. Our guess is that the concept can be read so expansively as to forbid the U.S. from so much as shouting at captured al Qaeda suspects, never mind “waterboarding” them.

That’s right: give these liberals an inch and they’ll ban shouting. Soon enough they’ll be demanding Swiss chocolate and HBO for all prisoners.

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Zidane: silent and Shakespearean

Writing in Le Figaro, lawyer and writer François Sureau celebrates Zinedine Zidane’s final act in the World Cup. It’s very French, as you can tell even from my translation:

I salute Zidane for the headbutt for which a country with no head seems to blame him. […] We’re not a sporting people but a people obsessed with legality and regulation: we value “good conduct” over honour, and maybe even over the truth of a man. […]

I salute Zidane for having chosen his destiny. A hero can’t let the arbitrary mechanics of sport decide his place. He had to leave this uncertain and, in the end, insignificant match. He wanted to go when his shoulder was injured. But he chose another opportunity, which I like more. He chose the opportunity of another injury, much more serious than the first. He reacted to it with a gesture that I understand. Racism, everywhere under the surface in this World Cup, here got its just deserts. […]

I saulte Zidane for having given us back our beautiful reputation for insolence. […] Thanks to Zidane, I see the victory of a certain national spirit. It made me think of an old story. In the 17th century, a French officer disguised as a beggar was spying on an enemy camp. He saw a woman slip getting out of her coach, so he gave her his arm. His cover was blown. They took him and shot him. As he fell, someone said: “Superficial Frenchman”. Today I seem to hear that voice once more, and I prefer Zidane’s silence.

It’s a marvellous oration. But is a headbutt really “insolent”?

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Strauss and me

Unspeak‘s neocon inheritance

An author can get a strange sense of the company he keeps by keeping tabs on his book’s amazon page. The US page for Unspeak asks: “What do customers ultimately buy after viewing items like this?” Right now, 10% are buying Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, by Michel Foucault. Fair enough: I can hardly be expected to compete with that. But what’s this? A huge 23% of people who look at things “like” Unspeak (how amazon decides what is “like” Unspeak is itself obscure) end up buying The City and Man by Leo Strauss. How strange. It is a poignant image: numerous poor, mumbling Strauss fans stumbling across the details of Unspeak, taking in the description, and hurriedly paging away to purchase another book by their master . . .

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Bjorn Lomborg’s false dichotomies

In a comment piece for the Observer, “Climate change can wait, world health can’t”, Bjorn Lomberg argues once again that it’s not worth doing anything about global warming, and that the world should spend money on AIDS, famine, and, er, “free trade” instead. To bolster the argument along these lines put forth by his 2004 “Copenhagen Consensus” report (the “consensus” was that of a group of neoliberal economists), he says that last month at Georgetown University, “a distinguished group of UN ambassadors”, including those from “the US, China, India and Pakistan”, reached a “surprisingly close” conclusion. Should we be surprised that China’s ambassador to the UN, for example, is not much interested in reducing fossil-fuel emissions? Should we suppose that this has nothing to do with China’s rapid industrialization? Apparently we should.

Lomborg’s article contains nothing that has not already been widely rebutted. However, since its appearance is timed as part of the concerted anti-Al Gore backlash set in motion by Gore’s film about global warming – Lomborg claims smugly that his own argument is “the really inconvenient truth” – it may be worth taking some time to re-examine the misleading form of his arguments.

A section in Unspeak deals with a species of structurally misleading rhetoric called the “false dichotomy”. This article is a perfect example of it, which should come as no surprise, since it is designed by a man whose notorious book, The Sceptical Environmentalist, was in its very title a virtuoso case of Unspeak . . .

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