Wednesday, September 10, 2008

All That Is Concrete Melts Into The Abstract

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Look, when I said "Hitchens is the sort of writer who plagiarizes himself", I meant it in a good way. I assume that he'd turned some bons mots on "tumbrel remarks" and found that they didn't fit into his current commission and had consigned them to a notebook. Therefore, he had a half-written but good article to hand when he wrote for Slate the other week.

Nick Cohen plagiarizes himself too. Not only does his new Standard effort repeat his data point concerning muslim terrorists: "radical Islam is a fascistic movement" but he revisits his tv gig on Standpoint. But first, Nick's problems with a certain four-letter word. 'They'. As here:

They never think that the overthrow of Saddam was opposed by millions who would no more attack the London Underground than congratulate Tony Blair for supporting George W Bush.


Who are 'they'? - the "dumber parts of the Left". Hold on, aren't those also the ones who opposed the "overthrow of Saddam"? Dumb to the point of not even being self-aware then. OK, that may be me projecting a little into Nick's writing. There could be these "dumber parts of the Left" and they're totally unconnected to "Stoppers". It's hard to tell, because he tells us so little about them. I guess he's thinking of Madelaine Bunting, however.

This refusal to name confuses Nick the way a foolish pride in not jotting down the steps in long division contributes to a guaranteed wrong answer.

Even though an acclaimed playwright produced five versions of a script for a drama-documentary, the BBC cancelled the project.


Happily for AW(i'Wod') readers, Nick has committed the name of this playwright to print and pixels in Standpoint.

A team of journalists, at least one of whom was a British Muslim, reported to Terry Cafolla, a fine writer who won many awards for his dramatisation of the religious hatred which engulfed the Holy Cross school in Belfast.


Now, Nick isn't the most careful writer, but that was "dramatisation" singular, wasn't it? Not that the TV critic ever seemed bothered by the question of why journalists were reporting to a dramatist rather than filing stories.

So psychologically convincing is the portrayal of macho loyalty and lure of barbarism that viewers can understand how these men turn into mass murderers.

Except that they can't and won't understand, because the BBC will not give them the opportunity to understand. This is a review of a drama that was never made.

The reporters convinced the families of three of the four bombers to cooperate. By the end, they agreed that the BBC's account of their sons and brothers' lives and deaths was accurate. Cafolla submitted five versions of the script. He was working up to a final draft when the BBC abandoned the project.


It was only when re-reading that article just to find the playwright's name, Terry Cafolla, that I noticed that it's the "BBC's account" which "was accurate". The 'they' in the last paragraph must refer to the families, but it sounds rather grudging, as if the families co-operated until they agreed and said what the journalists wanted to hear. Nick likes this samizdat drama because it's "psychologically convincing" not because of verifiable facts. I don't want to be blown up any more than Nick does, but this stuff demands investigation, not plausible stories.

Back in the Standard, Nick applies the t-word to the right:

Even though they have seen al Qaeda do its worst to Iraq for years, it doesn't occur to them that radical Islam is a fascistic movement whose first aim is to kill Muslims who believe in democracy, free-thinking, gay rights, women's rights or any rival version of islam that conflicts with their psychopathic theology.


Going by this, Nick doesn't know much al Qaeda either. I don't pretend to understand what is going on in Iraq; who is doing what to whom is just too hard to follow, and factions aren't keen on claiming responsibility. However, he seems to be confusing al Qaeda with the Taleban and with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria. The problem with this theory is that even bin Laden may have distanced himself and al-Qaeda from the GIA and instead supported the more popular GSPC because the GSPC has gained popular support by pledging to avoid civilian attacks inside Algeria - a promise they have not entirely kept.

Britain isn’t America, and journalists can’t ask jurors what went through their minds in the jury room. This restriction is a pity, because the cries of despair coming from the Met and MI5 suggest that they would really like to know.


The BBC is much more informative.

Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent, said counter-terrorism officials had thought it was an open-and-shut case, with the strongest evidence yet in a British terror trial.
Police and prosecutors expected the jury to accept the alleged links between the accused, al-Qaeda and a fleet of transatlantic airliners, he said.
But as these links did not stand up, the recriminations were beginning, he added.
An official close to the investigation when the men were arrested has told the BBC the US government was partly to blame.
The official said it had pressed Pakistan into making arrests before all the legal evidence had been gathered.


Never mind what Orwell said, this really is the stuff of cliche: fools rushed in.

30 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick's piece is more or less incomprehensible. At a guess his thesis is that "we" don't want to know what triggers Islamic terrorism, but I cannot see how his factoids support this thesis. And who is "we"? Is it the same as "they"? What has it got to do with the "liquid bombs plot" (except that the plot is a hook and has something to do with terrorism)?

I guess that the jury came to the conclusions that they did because that is what the evidence indicated. There is nothing in the evidence that the public has seen to suggest that there was an imminent plot to blow up aeroplanes. There are only the assertions of hyper-ventalating politicians and anonymous sources. So there's no need ask the jury anything. And the surveillance by the British (which might have exposed other groups or connections or plots) was brought to a premature halt so that Bush and Cheney could order someone's arrest in Pakistan and try to swing the 2006 mid-terms with the resulting security scare. The people who don't want to know more about terrorism would seem to be Bush and Cheney.

Moussaka Man

9/10/2008 09:52:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

In suggesting that people who were found innocent in a court of law were actually guilty, a fair few people are sailing close to the wind, aren't they?

9/11/2008 06:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Adams said...

So millions of people opposed the war but don't carry out acts of terrorism therefore no-one who commits acts of terrorism can be motivated by opposition to the war.
This logic is common amongst the Decents - if someone suggests that maybe Palestinian suicide bombers are motivated by the conditions in which they live and the oppression they feel their first reaction is "that can't have been their motivation because lots of people are poor and oppressed and don't carry out suicide bombings" (their second reaction is of course "so you're saying that suicide bombings are ok because the people who carry them out are poor and oppressed").
The problem with this argument apart from its lack of logic is that it contradicts what the terrorists actually say themselves, and let's face it they tend to pretty frank about what they want - after all, it would be rather embarrassing if the powers that be gave into their demands and they got something they didn't really want. Imagine if in the 1980s the government had said "ok, we've had enough of the bombings, we're getting out of Northern Ireland" and the IRA had said "bugger, we really wanted cheap beer, the introduction of Buddhism as the state religion and the national anthem replaced by a witty tune by that Richard Stilgoe." Mind you, that would be consistent with Decent logic because many people supported Irish nationalism but wouldn't plant a bomb in Harrods so... you know how it goes.
The root problem ("root cause" even, to quote another Decent bête noir) is a fundamental inability by the Decents to differentiate between understanding what motivates an individual to carry out a particular action and condoning that action - basically to understand the word "understand". It's another thing which they have in common with many people on the right (the exception to the rule being that it's ok to understand what makes white people vote for the BNP).
But it's mad - surely it's much harder to take meaningful action to prevent people doing bad things if you don't know, or worse willfuly misinterpret, why they do them.

9/11/2008 07:19:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Good points. On the other hand I've always thought that as hundreds of thousands of people on £100,000 a year manage to get by, Nick can't be that poor, so maybe the arguing style has some merit.

9/11/2008 07:27:00 AM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

There's a great exchange in the comments to the Standpoint article as a poster called "Steve" strives to inject some sanity into a predictably bonkers discussion -

Steve: "Could you at least have got a quote from the BBC on why they shelved it, as opposed to a quote from the in-no-way-bitter writers?"

Anonymous: "Steve - what a stupid, blind fool you are - I'd like to hear your comment should you be on the tube should the Islamic terrorists bomb it next time"

Steve: "I'd imagine my comment would be: 'gosh, if only the BBC had made a badly-written 'drama' about the lives of the 7/7 tube bombers, how things would be so different'"

9/11/2008 07:30:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

God, Nick's getting even worse. that Blair/Bush sentence is very hard to understand - it's pretty much the antithesis of plain style. I've nothing against complex political writing but it should eventually make sense, shouldn't it?

a fundamental inability by the Decents to differentiate between understanding what motivates an individual to carry out a particular action and condoning that action

I do think that this is characteristic of Decents a lot of the time, especially in the 'condemnation of any attempt to describe the role of circumstances that might lead to acts of violence', but I'm not sure it's quite there in this case. Nick says:

The dumber parts of the Left blame opposition to the second Iraq War - as if Jihadis are just Liberal Democrats with bomb belts.

and yet:

So psychologically convincing is the portrayal of macho loyalty and lure of barbarism that viewers can understand how these men turn into mass murderers.

So on the one hand, foreign policy can't play a part because people who don't commit terrorist atrocities also opposed the Iraq war; but on the other hand, it's entirely to do with family conflict, macho loyalty and the lure of barbarism, despite many thousands of Muslims who also have family conflicts not becoming terrorists, and despite the macho loyalty and lure of barbarism which pervades all sections of society. So Nick is actually happy to ascribe motivation (and Decents would almost certainly consider this as 'condoning' terrorism if it came from one of their sworn enemies), as long as it's a motivation which backs up his prejudices.

oh and this is really close to the wind, surely:

The police even had martyrdom videos in which, for instance, Umar Islam declares: “We are doing this in order to gain the pleasure of our Lord and Allah loves us to die and kill in his path.”

er - so what. If someone writes a suicide note it doesn't mean that they're dead, or even that they were serious in their intentions. Funny that in the same breath as supporting the CPS demand for a retrial, he also attacks them for their 'Undercover Mosque' ruling.

Is it only me that thinks that Nick is in a real cul-de-sac here? the BBC won't make the programme just because Nick Cohen is bleating on about it - as 'steve' says, there's no actual proof for the 'islamophobia' claim other than from writers who will doubtless be annoyed that their work has come to nothing. But as we discussed on here at the time, the dialogue looks pretty poor, and it doesn't seem to actually add anything to the already well-known story of these bombers - oh, other than the fact that it apparently makes no mention of British foreign policy as a motivation, going directly against - oh yes - the martyrdom videos that Nick considers the most important pieces of evidence in the recent trial. What does he want, exactly? aren't trials by jury part of the very fabric of the democratic society he's so keen on?

9/11/2008 08:17:00 AM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

a fundamental inability by the Decents to differentiate between understanding what motivates an individual to carry out a particular action and condoning that action

They even invented the special word "mbunderstand", for situations when the distinction is patently obvious but you want to pretend to not understand it anyway.

9/11/2008 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EJH "In suggesting that people who were found innocent in a court of law were actually guilty, a fair few people are sailing close to the wind, aren't they?"

I agree that this is all sailing close to the wind. However I guess that some people in the USA were expecting a verdict that would feed into the presidential election; a smokescreen is needed to hide the embarrasment that there was no "massive plot".


Moussaka Man

9/11/2008 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew Adams. "So millions of people opposed the war but don't carry out acts of terrorism therefore no-one who commits acts of terrorism can be motivated by opposition to the war."

Is that what Nick is trying to say? Maybe he is, but it is so illogical that I find it difficult to believe that a paid journalist writes this kind of stuff. Do you think that ES readers accept this kind of absurd argument?

Moussaka Man

9/11/2008 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

Yes, they do. Because it the same understanding of causation in human behaviour as is displayed in the response to Harman's 'class war' statements. The argument that class plays a major role in determining life chances is refuted by pointing out the example of Mr/s X, who grew up in a working class household and is now a professor/captain of industry/media figure.

I mean, I know a guy who smoked all his life and died, aged 96, in a car accident. So, smoking doesn't cause cancer. Oh, and he was driving a Ferrari, and his dad was a tin miner. So, class doesn't determine life chances. Oh, and he was black and lived in the Watts during the riots, but he didn't riot, therefore the black people who did riot must have had brain lesions, or something.

The last is a genuine contemporaneous explanation of black unrest in the US in the 1960s. It couldn't be due to social conditions, ran the argument, as if it was ALL black people would have rioted. Therefore the true cause must lie in the diseased brains of the rioters.

This individualisation of human behaviour is a very right-wing mode of thought. If this is the only resolution by which we can understand things, then all social programmes, changes in policy, reformations of the structures of society etc. are pointless, as the problem lies within.

Constipation or sexual perversion, I guess (Amis, 2007).

'Course, that only leaves exhortations and violence as the tools of creating a better society...

9/11/2008 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Well, this is fundamental to the whole Decent project. Remember, the founding requirement of being a Decent is that you must believe that everyone else on the left half of the spectrum (well, everyone really) is "weak", unwilling to deal with "the problem of evil" etc.

Therefore, the very notion of causation is suspect as it takes things out of the category "evil" and renders them subject to normal processes of reasoning.

It should not be surprising that this was precisely the argument the classical Right used throughout the 80s and 90s - understand a little less and condemn a little more, etc.

Inequality, dysentery, etc call for trade unions and sewers. Evil calls for leaders and armies. This supports the aims of the politicians they support in fact, and also serves their internal need to remain in a constant state of (self-)righteous indignation.

9/11/2008 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe. But, as the original post says, Nick's writing is very poor and I would think that the average person would have great difficulty in understanding that this is what Nick means. How many ES readers could see that this is what Nick is driving it?


Moussaka Man

9/11/2008 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

And it's epitome is the Blairite view of meritocracy, which basically goes: As we live in a meritocracy (quote examples of East End lad made into rich banker), then the rich must deserve to be rich (aka the L'Oreal hypothesis), and the poor are feckless and need to get on their bicycles.

9/11/2008 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

If this is the only resolution by which we can understand things, then all social programmes, changes in policy, reformations of the structures of society etc. are pointless, as the problem lies within.

Indeed these projects tend to be dismissed by use of the phrase "social engineering" - especially by people who attended public schools, benefit from trust funds and expect to inherit wealth.

[This has been an intermission sponsored by Idle Socialist Rhetoric and produced by an idle socialist. Normal posting will be resumed shortly.]

9/11/2008 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Is that what Nick is trying to say? Maybe he is, but it is so illogical that I find it difficult to believe that a paid journalist writes this kind of stuff. Do you think that ES readers accept this kind of absurd argument?

I agree it is absurd but I don't see what other interpretation can be put on his words.

"The dumber parts of the Left blame opposition to the second Iraq War....they never think that the overthrow of Saddam was opposed by millions who would no more attack the London Underground than congratulate Tony Blair for supporting George W Bush."

But as you say, it is very poorly written so I might be wrong.

9/11/2008 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Big Al said...

Gastro George:

Am I going mad, or did Nick not once write pretty much the same thing about meritocracy (back when he was readable/sane)? It may even have been in Pretty Straight Guys, but I don't have my copy to hand to check.

9/11/2008 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Its also another example of anti-enlightenment thinking among Decents.

1) A belief in an unknowable evil that explains/motivates "bad" behaviour is essentially religious in its orientation.

2) Their resistance to actual analysis of what causes these things, no matter how uncomfortable the outcome.

9/11/2008 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Justin: its not just the wealthy who benefit. Its amazing how many people in the arts have parents who were in the arts themselves. How many lawyers, bankers, doctors, journalists, etc have parents who were in similar professions.

9/11/2008 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave Weeden said...

One of the side-effects of Aaro-Watching is that I check the opinion section of the Times every day. Some of the writing about Sarah Palin has been fantastic, but I'm saving that for the next time one of our watchees tells us how awful everyone is for thinking that her candidacy is totally absurd.

Anyway, please check out Alice Miles 'Terrorists win if we lose faith in trial by jury' today.

The implication is that they reached the wrong conclusions - yet there seems to be no clear evidence that the defendants definitely intended to blow up multiple aircraft. There was nothing “wrong” in the jury's verdicts. Those involved with the prosecution appear to have been so certain of their case that they forgot that the jury also had to be persuaded beyond all reasonable doubt.

The comments are largely depressing, though.

9/11/2008 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Most comments are largely depressing.

Indeed, most things are largely depressing.

9/11/2008 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Isn't the point of all this jury-bashing (by the way if you can bear it check out the Mail's expose of the jury, which comes down to one took a day off to visit the doctor) to chip away at the idea of 'no reasonable doubt'. Or has that already happened?

9/11/2008 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

big al. I'm only a part-time Nick-watcher, but that's the wonder of Google. You probably mean articles like this one, and only a few years ago, such a long time ...

9/11/2008 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

quote examples of East End lad made into rich banker

these are actually the most blatant but least harmful examples. In my book, much more insidious is the "honest, decent working class", who are to be opposed to all those "chavs"; the fact that criminals are by definition a predatory minority, even in poor areas, used to deny any social explanation for antisocial behaviour.

Or the Ma Boswell from "Bread" figures; people who are uncommonly switched on and competent in claiming the benefits they're entitled to, used as an example to show that there can't possibly be a general problem with the benefits system. There was probably one man in the whole of England who managed to decipher and successfully apply for Working Families Tax Credit.

9/11/2008 04:45:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

A cynic would say that the complexity of tax credits is the Treasury's way of reducing the payout.

Whatever happened to universal benefits and taxation, eh? So much simpler to administer.

9/11/2008 05:31:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Yeah, that Alice Miles piece is great.

9/11/2008 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

In the popbitch mailout today (not the most reliable source but hey, neither is standpoint) it says that the BBC have refused to commission a Chris Morris comedy about wannabe jihadists in the North of England.

Wonder what Nick makes of that...

9/12/2008 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Isn't that a variation on an story that's been doing the rounds for ages now? The idea is that they decide they don't fancy martyrdom after all and so they have to try and devise excuses, be out when the al-Qaeda rep calls, etc etc etc.

9/12/2008 07:52:00 AM  
Blogger mcgazz said...

Didn't the BBC's "Monkey Dust" have a recurring sketch about reluctant jihadists? Who had Brummie accents? (cf the "overheard Taliban coms had brummie-accented blokes" story from a while back)

I wonder if the Beeb deliberately put Monkey Dust on BBC3, knowing that no one who was likely to be offended by it would be watching that channel?

Maybe they knocked back Chris Morris for unoriginality?

9/12/2008 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

I wonder if the Beeb deliberately put Monkey Dust on BBC3, knowing that no one who was likely to be offended by it would be watching that channel?

Since when did people who are offended by such things have to actually watch them?

9/12/2008 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Stephen said...

This logic is common amongst the Decents - if someone suggests that maybe Palestinian suicide bombers are motivated by the conditions in which they live and the oppression they feel their first reaction is "that can't have been their motivation because lots of people are poor and oppressed and don't carry out suicide bombings" (their second reaction is of course "so you're saying that suicide bombings are ok because the people who carry them out are poor and oppressed")

It's an old recycled argument, that was frequently employed by Thatcherites when people used to point out the well-established and hardly controversial links between increased unemployment and poverty and crime.

9/12/2008 03:05:00 PM  

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