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Turning points

On a road to nowhere?

The selection of Iraq’s new prime minister and other officials is, said President Bush yesterday, a “turning point” for that country’s people.

This is not the first turning point for Iraq in recent times. In July 2003, for example, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, said:

the death of Uday and Qusay, I believe, is definitely going to be a turning point for the resistance and the subversive elements that we’re encountering.

Four months later, after nearly 40 American soldiers had been killed in 10 days, Sanchez insisted that another “turning point” in the war was imminent – or, as you might say, just around the corner. After this “turning point”, Sanchez predicted, the “former regime loyalists, criminals and foreign terrorists” (no mention of disgruntled folks back then) would “fail” in the face of renewed US aggression.

That same month of November 2003, the President also declared a “turning point” in “the world democratic movement”.

But we were not yet in the home straight, for other turning points loomed. The June 2004 “transfer of sovereignty” to the interim Iraqi government (“Let freedom reign!”) was announced as yet another “turning point” for Iraq. The January 2005 elections marked the next “turning point”, Bush said, and for good measure they were also “a milestone in the advance of freedom and a crucial advance in the war on terror”. By the end of last year, the President foresaw that:

the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq.

And yet another turning point has been navigated this week. There seems to be no end to turning points. It is as though Iraq is a massive labyrinth. No sooner have you turned once than you must turn again.

In this way, any notion of success, of arrival at a destination, is pleasantly deferred, just as it is in the notions of a “road map” or freedom being “on the march”. “Turning point” is a cunning metaphor, since it does not insist that we are now in the objectively correct orientation. There may be more turning points to come, and that is fine. The phrase does not even explicitly admit that things beforehand were not optimal, that we were not going in exactly the right direction. After all, if you are journeying in a car, you are not going in the wrong direction just because you might have to make a right turn a few miles ahead. That’s just the way the roads are made . . .

As the Oxford English Dictionary has it, a “turning point” is “A point at which a decisive change of any kind takes place”. Note: decisive change of any kind. Usefully, you are not giving too many hostages to carping critics if you merely announce a “turning point” after a government reshuffle. “Turning point” promises only a change. Though the OED reminds us that it could in fact be a decisive error, the official announcement of a “turning point” always carries a subtly modest implication of success: its empirical claim is small, but a halo of rectitude glows around it. It is less boastful than alternatives such as “watershed” – which would anyway evoke unfortunate memories of Hurricane Katrina.

What of the fashionable phrase “tipping point”? Well, that may have been appropriate for the carefully stage-managed film of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003, but generals and politicians are revealingly wary of announcing a “tipping point” in Iraq (Lt Gen Peter Chiarelli would only gesture last month at some notional one in the future), both because it makes a grander claim to success that would be hostage to empirical evidence, and because it might have catastrophic connotations. (Tipping is not always good, unless you are a waiter.)

Iraq does not have a monopoly on turning points, of course. The attacks of September 11 were a “turning point for our nation”, Bush announced in September 2004. And Donald Rumsfeld said recently that the actions of the Flight 93 passengers were “a turning point in the war on terror”, which is remarkable given that the “war on terror” had not yet been declared when Flight 93 went down.

The President has even managed, it appears, to steer America through “a turning point in the history of American education”.

It is just unfortunate that, whenever a turning point is declared, we are not informed of the direction and angle of the turn. Only a cynic would suggest that the graph of the present administration’s actions might resemble this:


  1. 1  SW  May 2, 2006, 3:08 pm 

    I had assumed that you would make the point that if one keeps turning right (Right) one would end up going in circles; a fair conclusion to draw from the topographical imagery. The problem with bland, directionless imagery of this sort, as you point out, is that it may be seen to insinuate that this change is for the better, without having to explain why.

    But then your final image is not necessarily drawn by a “cynic” if that central point is “a free and independent Iraq”, which may ultimately be realised (no doubt with “resolve” and under the guidance of a “higher authority”). This brings up the point that these images do not and cannot sustain themselves: they require a framing context (you use “unfortunate” and “cynic” to frame the final image you draw). That very image could be an uncynical and indeed fortunate representation of the scientific process, where broader questions are refined, honing in on a testable hypothesis. So to take these turns of speech, so to speak, and to suggest that they import something is questionable: it is the context that “carries a subtly modest implication of success” and the “halo of rectitude glow[ing] around it.” The vagueness of the imagery permits this rhetorical insinuation, but the terms – in this case – may be somewhat more innocent.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  May 2, 2006, 8:20 pm 

    Dear SW,

    Of course, I never said the terms were sinister, so I am unsure of what you might mean in claiming they “may be somewhat more innocent”. More innocent than what, pray?

    If you really believe that it is “questionable” to suggest that such phrases “import something” – you presumably believe that they are utterly meaningless – well, that is a point of view as well.

  3. 3  Sunny  May 4, 2006, 3:08 am 

    Great commentary. But admit it, you just searched for “turning point” on the Whitehouse website didn’t you?

    It was funny though.

  4. 4  Steven Poole  May 4, 2006, 4:09 pm 

    Hey, that’s not quite fair, I also searched on the DoD website and on Google. ;)

  5. 5  Sunny  May 5, 2006, 6:20 pm 

    Hehe. As long as the point is made, it doesn’t matter about the methods ;)

  6. 6  ANON  May 12, 2006, 12:35 pm 

    Is this a game of Unspeak here?


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