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Critical innuendo

Moir’s the pity

With an impressively heroic inventiveness as to the interpretation of its own rules, the Press Complaints Commission has decided that Jan Moir’s rant ((Previously in Jan Moir: Undertones; Sleazy.)) about the death of Stephen Gately did not breach its code on any of three points. Firstly, the fact that she said things that were patently not true did not – luckily! – count as the publication of “inaccurate information”:

It was clearly the columnist’s opinion that “healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again”. This was a general and rhetorical point, based on the view of the prevailing health of young men. It admittedly did not take into account the possibility of SADS or similar, but the Commission did not consider that it could be read to be an authoritative and exhaustive statement of medical fact.

By this measure, if I were to write “smoking makes you live for ever and looking at David Cameron gives you rickets” in the Guardian, it would be taken as a general and rhetorical point, and by no means an authoritative and exhaustive statement of medical fact – so there would be nothing inaccurate about it at all. It would, by a simple process of elimination, be accurate, even though it was completely barking nonsense. Good! The Commission continues:

Equally, the Commission was fully aware of the widespread objection to the reference to Mr Gately’s death as not being “natural”. This was undoubtedly a highly provocative claim which was open to interpretation, and many people had considered this to be distasteful and inaccurate. It was a claim, nonetheless, that could not be established as accurate or otherwise. The article had set out the official cause of death so it was clear that this was a broad opinion rather than a factual statement.

Um, but it was exactly the coroner’s report of the official cause of death (“natural”) which enabled everyone to establish that Moir’s claim (“nothing natural”) was inaccurate. The only reason why it would remain impossible to establish it “as accurate or otherwise” would be if one had reason to believe the coroner was wrong or lying. Is that what the Commission is trying to say?

Secondly, the fact that Moir’s vicious screed was published the day before Gately’s funeral did not — luckily! – mean that the publication was not “handled sensitively at a time of grief” or that it failed to show “due regard” to “the position of the family members”, because, er, Moir is a columnist and Gately was famous, and – oh, look over there, press freedom!

On balance, the Commission felt that it should not deny the columnist the freedom to express her opinions in the way she had.

Sure! Next! Oh, thirdly, the fact that Moir’s article was saturated in gay-hating bile did not – luckily! – mean that she had made “prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s sexual orientation”, because, and I kid you not:

The columnist had not used pejorative synonyms for the word “homosexual” at any point.

So as long as you don’t call someone, say, “a faggot”, it is impossible to be homophobic? Yes!

There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals.

Excellent. So, as long as you don’t use a “pejorative synonym for the word ‘homosexual'”, then expressing horror at the ooze of a gay man’s lifestyle which seeped out for all to see (or, indeed, afterwards insisting that it was sleazy of him to die), does not count as “prejudicial or pejorative reference to [his] sexual orientation” but merely critical innuendo. Result!

What do you think of self-regulation, readers?


My last novel

Short-boy’s complaint

Martin Amis, who believes that to be “funny” is the height of literary endeavour, last week wrote a testily humourless response to the review of his new book in the TLS, explaining that he wasn’t trying to be funny when he wrote, for instance: “Sexual intercourse had come a long way” (fnarr, fnarr). I think that everyone — you, me, Amis and the reviewer – can agree at least that the result isn’t funny?

What initially made me excited about this letter, though, was that Amis begins it by referring to “my last novel”, upon which the hope blossomed in me that he was announcing his retirement from fiction in order to spend more time informing us that his Nobel-winning betters have no talent, that old people smell, that we must pass judgment on ethnicities, or that his more interesting rivals have fat arses. But no! I forlornly concluded that Amis was merely using last in the sense most recent, rather than to indicate the culmination and terminus of his oeuvre. This ambiguity is one of the things that are, or at least used to be, drummed into the heads of arts subeditors, who are or were instructed for this reason to avoid using last to mean most recent when referring to artists’ latest works, but no doubt the Brobdingnagian funny-talent of Mr Amis meant this as a deliberate tease to his detractors.

Have you read The Pregnant Widow, readers?


From which one can’t recover

Moving swiftly on

After the first civilian deaths of “Operation Togetherness” (aka Moshtarak) in Afghanistan, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said:

Our aim is to protect the population. You don’t protect them by killing them. So of course it was a serious setback. It was a matter of grave concern to all of us and I think General McChrystal has expressed that concern very forthrightly and he has been apologising to the locals that are involved. But it’s not a setback from which one can’t recover.

Unless, I suppose, one is one of those people who were blown up?


The greater aesthetic affront

Dreaming of nukes in the National

Bruce Anderson in the Independent ((Thanks to aeonofdiscord.)) says that, sure, torture is “revolting”, but!

Yet men cannot live like angels. However repugnant we may find torture, there are worse horrors, such as the nuclear devastation of central London, killing hundreds of thousands of people and inflicting irreparable damage on mankind’s cultural heritage.

Men cannot live like angels, it is true, because they don’t have wings and not everyone can play the harp. To abjure torture, evidently, is to live like an angel, ie a mythical creature of absolute good and infinite self-control who doesn’t exist. Only angels would refuse to torture one another, and we are not angels, therefore torture is okay!

Plus there are worse horrors than torture, such as nuking our cultural heritage? And so we should definitely torture anyone who is plotting to nuke our cultural heritage. What’s that you say? It’s not yet possible for terrorists to nuke our cultural heritage? Just you wait!

Admittedly, there is no evidence that the terrorists are in a position to produce dirty bombs yet, let alone fully nuclear devices. But we know one thing about technology. It spreads. Difficult processes become easier. Today’s remote possibility becomes tomorrow’s imminent danger.

Ok, so no one is currently plotting to nuke our cultural heritage, but technology spreads, and in the future we will definitely see, along with flying cars, iPads, and computer programs that can produce maniacal pro-torture op-eds, terrorists planning to nuke our cultural heritage – and we’d damn better torture those guys.

There have been frequent objections to the use of the term “war on terror”. None has been cogent.

Evidently, Anderson has not read pp152–162 of Unspeak?

Moving swiftly on: hey, the Elizabethans used torture, and yet some of them also wrote some excellent plays, so torture is really fine?

Our enjoyment of Shakespeare and Elizabethan madrigals is not blighted by Walsingham’s rack-masters in the Tower of London. We lament the premature death of Robert Southwell, but despite Tyburn and the rack, we would still speak of Elizabethan civilisation. So let us be more generous to the Pakistani authorities. Their difficulties are at least as great as those faced by Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil in the 1590s. Can we blame the Pakistanis for employing some 1590s methods?

1590s methods are cool, but technology progresses, so 2000s methods might be even better. And luckily on that point, the Americans have been conducting some useful research into robust interrogation methods:

Even so, there is one benefit from the Americans’ experiments with robust interrogation methods: water-boarding. Christopher Hitchens wanted to demonstrate that it was absurd to demonise water-boarding and that it was only girlie-man’s torture. So he subjected himself to it. He cried off after seven seconds. That is comforting, and not only to Mr Hitchens’s critics. Thus far, there has been no need for either the UK or the US to consider torture, because neither of us has been confronted by a ticking bomb. As a result of the Hitchens trial run, we know that we have something which could work.

So let me see: the fact that Christopher Hitchens could not tolerate forced partial drowning means that it is torture, which is brilliant, because we need us some torture that “could work”, just like the repeated forced partial drowning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed worked so well in persuading him to confess to being Jack the Ripper and Zorro, and having plotted to blow up the Moon? Of course, there is a slight failure of fact at this point in Anderson’s insane babble: the claim that “there has been no need for either the UK or the US to consider torture” is auto-refuted by his glad acceptance that forced partial drowning is torture, since it is a matter of record that forced partial drowning has been eagerly practised by the US on many of its prisoners — at the acknowledged behest of dead-eyed calcified-potato-head evilist Dick Cheney, who squeaked only the other day: “I was a big supporter of waterboarding.”

But never mind actual historical facts, let’s stick to those unhinged fantasies about nuking our cultural heritage — with “a ticking bomb”, hidden in an art gallery!

There is a threat not only to individual lives, which is of minor importance, but to our way of life and our civilisation. Torture is revolting, but we cannot substitute aesthetics for thought. Anyway, which is the greater aesthetic affront: torture, or the destruction of the National Gallery?

Well, since you ask, I consider that the greatest aesthetic affront in all this is that any old falsehood-riddled and logically incoherent pro-torture rant is in our day considered a sign of political seriousness, and such minatory gibberish from a wannabe-manly mafflard with dishwatery broccoli soup for brains and a spittlesome fetish for comic-book fantasy violence can be printed in an ostensibly serious newspaper. But perhaps that’s just me?


Nicotine-use disorder

Messing with fags

IANAP, but I find it curious that among the draft additions in “psychiatric bible” DSM-5 is a whole range of drug-specific “disorders”, including for example Nicotine-Use Disorder, which does not mean that a sufferer is disordered in his use of nicotine in that he constantly burns holes in his clothes with hot rocks or drops ash into his keyboard, but presumably that his employment of the weed is not of that kind practised by someone with a well-ordered personality (who might smoke exactly one cigarette every Saturday at 3.17pm), liable instead to run to excess, cravings, withdrawal and the like. Possibly this is so for most users of nicotine (though if one wanted merely to use nicotine, why not just buy patches rather than going to all the trouble of setting a bunch of rolled-up leaves on fire and inhaling the products of the combustion?), but I intuit a slippery-slope problem with this principle. For if there is now a psychiatric disorder specific to each drug, there will be no end to new psychiatric disorders, as there is no end to the invention of new drugs. After DSM-5 is published, someone will cook up a new recreational psychotropic, perhaps called Cake, and then everyone, including me, will be clamouring for Cake-use disorder to be included in DSM-6.

Do you have any disorders, readers?


Who does not come away


As an alert commenter on points out, my review today of Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct perpetrates an obstupefactuous error by failing to count multiple negatives. I wrote:

It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away without having learned many interesting things […]

This is considerably more critical than I had intended, since it actually means that hardly anyone will learn anything from the book? Instead, I ought to have written either a) “It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away having learned…”; or (perhaps better) b) “It will be the rare music-lover who comes away without having learned…”. The strange thing is that the sentence as it stands is possibly still more likely than not to evoke the intended meaning in a reader’s mind, even though it says the opposite. When too many negations start getting piled up in a sentence, do we suffer from a form of negative blindness?



How Brown and Cameron make us feel fabulous

An reader writes:

You covered “aspirational goals” back in 2007, but now we have ‘aspirational’ NHS gowns (which are also ‘lux’). What does this mean? That the patients should want to nick them and take them home, as people are said to do with luxury hotel bathrobes? That they will want to remain in hospital because the gowns feel so fabulous? Either way, it would seem to mean more expense for the NHS. Or does the designer think “NHS gowns” will become a desirable brand, in the way that NHS specs weren’t? ((Thanks to Barney.))

These are all excellent questions? Designer of the new gown, Ben de Lisi, elucidates:

“The old hospital gown was hideous, embarrassing, ill-fitting and probably ill-making too. You are away from home, ill, and in hospital and you have to wear this horrific garment with your arse hanging out. Give me a break. I wanted the new gowns to feel fabulous and aspirational. They are made from beautiful cotton shirting which is very smooth, cool and lux.”

He said his design means patients can have their modesty covered but still allow medics immediate access through clever “entrance points” in the gown.

“It’s infinitely dignified, yet practical. And Velcro doesn’t enter into the equation.”

It is tempting to mock (I’m sure the readership is always clothed in an infinitely dignified style), but this is basically good news, of course. It ought to remind us, though, of the peculiarities of the newly ubiquitous invocation of aspiration(al) in political speech. In fashion, aspirational means something openly brutal:

In consumer marketing, an aspirational brand (or product) means a large segment of its exposure audience wishes to own it, but for economical reasons cannot.

Aspirational products are therefore a way of enforcing a class hierarchy through deliberately excessive pricing. Compare, then, the way Gordon Brown talks of an age of aspiration, and analyses his citizens thus:

This is a country of aspirational individuals who, given half a chance, want to get on and not simply get by.

Meanwhile, the sinister and lubberly wattle-head David Cameron prates:

[C]hange must be based on the values of responsibility and aspiration […] We can’t go on with an old-fashioned left-wing class war on aspiration.

Politically, the fetishization of aspiration valorizes the social and economic anxieties of the populace, insisting that a neurotic obsession with the greasy pole is a national virtue, while cunningly reversing the usual manifesto structure whereby the politician promises something to the people. Instead, it is enough that the people promise something to themselves, while the politician looks on benevolently and encourages them in their lust for material advancement. The people are praised inasmuch as they merely continue to desire something kept critically vague, and the politician doesn’t have to promise that he will grant them the means to fulfil those aspirations — indeed, he doesn’t have to promise anything at all. Which is just as well since, in the world of fashion, what is aspirational is deliberately engineered to be what most of us can’t have. This is, in quite a precise sense, the politics of envy.

What are your current aspirations, readers?


Forensic respect

Silken phrases

The Guardian has published the letter, from Jonathan Sumption QC, that persuaded the court of appeal to alter the text of its ruling on the Binyam Mohamed case. I was struck by a curious finesse:

I am bound to suggest, which I do with genuine and not just forensic respect, that such grave criticisms of a public service and those who work in it should be made only if the issue is fairly raised in advance and the Court has an exact knowledge of the relevant circumstances.

That Sumption finds it necessary to say that he is making his suggestion with genuine and not just forensic respect would seem to imply that, in the ordinary course of things, forensic respect by itself (presumably, respect of the Court?) is a counterfeit thing, an aping of the outward forms of respect that masks a lurking contempt. ((Compare the possible use of with all due respect to mean “with only that amount of respect owing to you, and no more”.)) Can this really be true?


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