Monday, July 26, 2010

A Fall at the First Para

One of the joys of stopping Aaro Watch was not feeling that I had to read Nick Cohen. But I did this week, anyway, and I regretted it.

Much of my 'watching' is really concerned with style, and Nick's seems to have declined over the years. Still, for lots of reasons, his first paragraph is particularly bad. I commented (I'm DaveW), but it's annoyed me so much, I'm going to vent here too.

And the Lord said unto Cain: "Where is Abel thy brother?" And he said: "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" And he said: "What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground." Like David and Ed Miliband, I come from a left-wing family. Red diaper babies were not taught to "do" God by our parents, only to do him in. The Miliband boys will not have learned that the first story in Genesis after the Fall is of brother murdering brother, and the book goes on to describe how Jacob tricked his older brother Esau into selling his birthright for a "mess of potage".


Nick seems to be arguing that the Miliband brothers come from a similar background to him, and that he can therefore infer what their schooling was like. He's doesn't talk about their education with reference to interviews with or publications by Ralph Miliband or his two sons, all three of whom have in fact said quite a lot at one time or another. Rather than doing research, he relies on inference, and he really ought to know that that's not good enough. He seems to imply that neither the Milibands nor he were taught the Book of Genesis, so it's rather odd that he quotes it.

But I've been talking about style, and Nick picks words with a carelessness that is more audacious than his mind-reading. "The Miliband boys will not have learned..." It would be simpler to have written that they "did not learn" but that would be clearly in the realm of facts that one could check. "Learned" is also passive [update: wrong! see third comment], and they could have picked up the Cain and Abel story even if they weren't taught it.

I decided to try to research this. David Miliband's adopted son got [a] place at Church of England school despite not being baptised. The interesting thing here is that Boris Johnson (among others) went to the same primary as David Miliband, and Primrose Hill was and is a state school and therefore under the Education Act 1944:

The Act also introduced compulsory prayer into all state-funded schools on a daily basis. This clause was amended by the Education Reform Act 1988, which specified that the act of worship should be of a broadly Christian message unless such a message was deemed to be inappropriate for a particular school or group of children.


My understanding is that the "broadly Christian" part was taken for granted in the original 1944 Act.

If a columnist has to speculate when he could write from research, is there any point in taking his conclusions seriously? I'm not even going to discuss the rest of the piece. He's pro-David and anti-Ed. And anti-Balls too in Standpoint. I don't suppose very many Labour members take Standpoint, so the influence of Nick's prejudices on the Leadership election is likely to approach zero, but "I hate Ed Balls" isn't really Pulitzer standard political journalism is it?

Rant over.

32 Comments:

Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Sadly, he's anti-Ed because Ed is linked to Brown who is linked to Charlie Whelan. Thus:

If much more dirt is thrown, Labour members may recall that Ed came from the same stable as Damian McBride, Ian Austin and Charlie Whelan.

of course D milliband is from the school of a campbell and mandelson. but hey, they're the good guys now...?

It's a really poor piece I think. not exactly out of keeping for our nick (last week he was bigging up a Belarusian theatre group who are doing a Sarah Kane play - a play he would almost certainly hate if he'd ever read it or seen it) but still. I particularly like the way he accuses Ed's people of starting a 'deniable smear campaign', where the only source for that is, er, nick's own piece (he doesn't cite any smears, merely suggests where they are), ergo it's nick - and thus d milliband - doing the undeniable smearing. In standpoint he even wrote an entire post about his offers to smear on behalf of his chosen, unnamed labour candidate.

and does anyone honestly believe this about d milliband?

He is the only candidate you can imagine as an alternative prime minister.

nick is also pretty horrible here:

His little brother, who followed him dog-like into politics, tracked his every move and now may take the leadership from him. To our culture with its traditions of primogeniture the younger brother's attempt to steal the elder's glory feels like an offence against nature.

so nick actually likes ths culture?

it's an oddly impersonal piece, as you highlight with that 'will not have learned'.

7/26/2010 06:20:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

Perhaps worth recalling in this context how annoyed Nick was with Johann Hari when he made claims he couldn't substantiate about Nick's upbringing.

7/26/2010 06:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

The style is dire, but "learned" is not passive here. It is the past participle of the future perfect (and perfectly "active") "will not have learned."

"Red diaper babies were not taught to "do" God by our parents," is passive, however.

7/26/2010 06:38:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Thanks Brian, you are of course correct.

7/26/2010 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

No he's not - it's not a complex tense, but instead idiomatic for 'will turn out to have learned (if one were to check', or something along those lines.

That'll learn him.

7/26/2010 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

'when someone eventually checks' - wouldn't want to mix moods there having thrown the first pedantic stone.

7/26/2010 07:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Dr Paul said...

To consider that someone who went to a Church of England school should know the Bible is a bit unrealistic: I went to a CoE infant, primary and grammar school and not only did I leave with very little knowledge of the Bible, but had become an atheist to boot.

7/26/2010 09:16:00 PM  
Anonymous An Admiring Dupe said...

OT, apologies.

Over at HP (ker-ching) there's a relatively mild (by their standards)
Denunce-A-Thon
being held for Damon Albarn following his announcement that he'll play in Damascus but not Tel Aviv. The redoubtable Flying Rodent, whilst brilliantly shooting fish in a barrel, posited the astute opinion that "the Pixies are fantastic and your politically acceptable musicians suck like a nuclear-powered Hoover." As the commentarimob decried his rapier sarcasm, Brownie the JohnReidBot surprisingly lifted his pole for the Rodent;

"It’s just his schtick, something he does for his audience, most of whom only ever read an HP comment when he posts the most extreme example of such at Anvil or AaronovitchWatch so they can all agree their analyses are confirmed...I think he can’t believe his luck that he’s managed to assemble such a devoted community of admiring dupes. I’m quite sure that deep down he tihnks (sic) rather less of them than he does of us....and he’s a Tim, which has to count for something."

This was rapidly refudiated by JS, one of the more asinine commentators; "Rodent is a fuckhead who’s point of view is that pessimistic passivity and abject surrender to all evil is the highest good that mankind can aspire to, and he will heroically fight against the scourge of hope with every ounce of righteousness he can muster till his dying breath."

Surrealist supportive fence-sitting was provided by Alan A the Execrable Councillor "Yeah, but given that this is what we say of our political opponents, it is useful to have it illustrated. "

Anyhow, enough of small matters like HP Redux, what of the big question - Brownies's ludicrous and hurtful slander regarding FR's fidelity? Surely not? Say it ain't so Rodeo....

7/26/2010 09:26:00 PM  
OpenID yorksranter said...

Surely "will not have learned at all, it will turn out when someone checks"?

7/26/2010 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

yorksranter - yep, as only I realised having been, and no longer being, about to have clicked the 'publish' button.

(And apologies - primarily to myself as the most bothered, but formally to Brian, for the slightly wanker-like presentation.)

btw 'would have been' - an epistemic subjunctive? - is more usual, as in 'I definitely would have informed the accused of his rights.'

7/26/2010 10:25:00 PM  
Anonymous An assembler of admiring dupes said...

Say it ain't so Rodeo....

I'm afriad it is.

7/27/2010 02:00:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Tim, YR, etc. I really do need to find out exactly what kind of subjunctive "will not have" is in this case. Surely it should only be used in the future?

Dr Paul, that's not my point. I don't know what the Milibands learned either, but I'm not going to state with certainty that they didn't learn something which is a fairly common and b Nick clearly did learn (despite his being a 'red "diaper"' baby and c he expects Observer readers to know. It seems very odd to praise the ignorance of politicians you favour.

Speculating about things we could know, if only we could be bothered to find out, is terrible journalism. I read him online. I don't pay for that crap, on principle.

7/27/2010 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

It's pottage, by the way. Potage is soup in an Islington restaurant.

7/27/2010 09:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance of The Indelicates going on a tour of Israel?

7/27/2010 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

OK, come into my masturbatorium awhile, and with shy urgency I will divulge the slippery truth. (Or 'my' truth for anyone who thinks philosophy was invented a few decades ago and is all about texts, and is obsessed with a notion of objective truth inflated to bursting point. Sorry.)

1. I only meant to concede to yorksranter above that I'd missed out the 'not'. (Also transposed 'I' and 'only', btw. For a pedant, my attn to detail is 'kin appalling).

So: '...will turn out not to have learned...'.

Backtrack - the project as I conceive it is to provide a paraphrase in standard, plain, non-idiomatic grammatical English to explicate what Cohen meant and how it's related to the use of the grammatical future tense. As a practical matter we can have a bash at that, without worrying too much about overarching generalities concerned with indeterminacy, 'what is idiomatic', etc.

So then, now: 'Will turn out' perhaps makes it sound a bit too 'active', in a substantive, not-merely surface-grammatical way, so perhaps: 'Will be found not to have learned' (when someone bothers to check; when all the facts are in; when the day of reckoning is upon us).

So: '...will be found not to have learned...'.

First, consider the 'would' version:

'Oh, no, I wouldn't have done that [though I don't actually remember not doing it]'.

That is explicitly subjunctive in grammatical terms, but the hypotheticality isn't, in the final analysis, intended as counterfactual ('if the relevant situation had obtained, I wouldn't have done that'), and is indeed intended as factual. The aim is to assert that I didn't do that (I will do anything for love, but not that).

But there is an element of uncertainty - the inferential basis of the info is made clear.

You might see it as a shorthand for showing one's working:

A was a situation of type T
In a situation of type T, me no do that
-------------------------
Me no do that in situation A

Looked at like this, the 'would' version amounts to:

a. I didn't do that

b. but I'm inferring (a) from my character, habits, etc

c. and that's a move I ought in all honesty to tell you about

d. because although I believe I didnt do it, you may not share my assessment, and indeed this is a non-standard way of getting information about my past actions, so I'd better let you know there's room for some doubt - though I don't have any doubt significant enough to render (a) unassertible.

Right I'll just clean up and I should be ready to go again after a cup of tea and a one-skinner...

7/27/2010 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Er, yeah, so the 'would' version is reaonably honest about what its up to.

It can also be seen as an epistemic subjunctive. It's not about what might have happened - what is non actual - but what is not directly known to have happened. Similar to a standard view of probability-statements as capable of being about objectively chancy events or, alternatively, subjectively non-certain ones.

With the epistemic aspect in mind, on to Nick's 'will not have learned'. The future (-perfect) tense can't really be about the Milibands' future. Pragmatically speaking, you don't say 'x will be the case' to convey the fact that x ('they did not learn it at school') has been the case for decades, is the case and will continue to be the case for however much of eternity is still left. It's commonly, and certainly in this case, a conversational misdeed - misleading - to say less than you mean, since the 'implicature' (pragmatic implication) is that you can't say the rest because it's not true. (E.g. 'I had two pints this evening' may be strictly true, but if you suppress the info that you had five others too, you are misleading and probably quite pissed. Conversational conventions (not to say they are 'mere' conventions) will supply the word 'only', as in 'I've only had a couple of ales, officer'.

So I submit that the 'will' could be seen as a prediction, in the following sense. Prevailing conditions (time's arrow) are such that predictions - about the future - are non-certain in a way reports of the past aren't. The 'will' relates to the standard future-directness of the prediction.

But such F-Dness is not actually essential to the business we call prediction. That is actually all about info, moving from the evident to the speculative. The predictions of science aren't limited to things that haven't happened - a scientific theory may be preferred because it 'predicts' what is known about the past paths of the planets.

Vaguely relatedly, consider 'this man this may or may not be Lord Lucan'. It's not true in an objective sense that it's possible for this man not to be Lord Lucan if (unbeknownst to us) he is in fact LL, or to be him if in fact he is not. The possibility is purely epistemic. Er, where was I..

Yeah, so saltating onward to the money-shot:

1. the 'will', if it's about anything futuristic, is about what 'will' be discovered, and it's at bottom very close to the 'would' version, which is also not about what is or isn't (objectively) the case, but about what is or isn;lt directly known.

2. 'Will' differs from 'would' primarily in avoiding the grammatical subjunctive, thus sounding more authoritative.

(3. Just thought of this - there may be a sneaky or unintentional suggestion that the Millibands will continue not to have learnt about Cain and Abel - but that's (a) higly unlikely to be true, (b) doesn't really chime in with the implicature that Nick is talking about what they learned at school rather than later on, (c) er, tenuous.

Oh I've come to an anti-climax.

7/27/2010 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BTW - If anyone gets an error page saying this:

*****************************
Request-URI Too Large
The requested URL /comment.g... is too large to process.
*****************************

It's lies.

Don't go or reload the page and (in the process) resubmit the comment. Go to the comments via the original post, and you will see your overlong remarks are there for all to see.

I should probably submit an error report to Google/Blogger/whatever but really can't be arsed.

7/27/2010 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Don't go or reload -> Don't go 'Back' or reload.

7/27/2010 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous darkhorse said...

Another grammar pedant contribution:

It's not future perfect, because it isn't about the future, it's about the past.

I would say it's the third conditional, only he's used the auxilary word 'will' instead of 'would'.

I think choice of conditional tense expresses some uncertainty about the assertion.

However, only a thorough investigation of the syllabus of this west London primary in the 70s will provide closure to the question of accuracy of Nick's claim.

7/27/2010 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, I wasn't really happy with 'future'(-perfect).

Can you expland on this 'third conditional'? It sound like you may have a better (and more standard) way of saying roughly what I was trying to.

WIthout waiting for a response: as you say, the conditionalishness expresses (or betrays) some uncertainly, but I think the choice of 'will' serves to play that down.

I agree it's not much different in core content from using 'would', but I recognise it as a distinct usage (if not a textbook one) rather than an idiosyncratic error.

Do you think (soimething like): there's a conditional whose antecedent (condition) is implicit; but that it is concerned not with the 'hypothesis' that someone might look into it, but with some more substantial, contextually determined proposition, just as with 'would'?

That's grotesquely unclear; so using the standard 'would' version:
'if they went to a school like mine (as in fact they did), they would not have learned it'

Do you think substituting 'will' leaves this basically the same? That is a reasonable claim - though I think the change of vocab (kind-of illicit, on this account) does function to reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

7/27/2010 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous darkhorse said...

'if they went to a school like mine (as in fact they did), they would not have learned it'

I think that the use of 'will' suggests more certainty than the standard third conditional using 'would', which is, in the standard form anyway, conditional on the 'if' clause. There isn't really an 'if' clause in Cohen's sentence, he straightforwardly assumes that the Milibands are 'red diaper babies' (where did he get that Amercianism from?)

7/27/2010 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

The 'will not have' is a fairly typical cohen construction. His recent writing is epitomised by sneering, belittlement (is that a word?), and - most important - groundless, caricatured speculation. it's his equivalent of 'you couldn't make it up'. witness:

Inevitably, Max Mosley's landmark victory against the News of the World, which established our current draconian privacy law, followed the paper's revelation that he had been beaten black and blue by five prostitutes – but not as Mr Justice Eady insisted, by prostitutes dressed in Nazi uniforms, for that would be a step too far in his honour's eyes, which the law would not have tolerated.

A fortnight before, jibes about their support for the Tories from a tiny business rival would not have bothered them.

When David Cameron allied himself with nativist Polish and Latvian parties which were not fascist but possessors of Eastern Europe’s traditional difficulties with Jews, liberal journalists, your correspondent included, pounded him. If he had gone further and spoken at a conference that featured prominent neo-Nazis, we would have destroyed him. Honourable critics would not say that Cameron was a neo-Nazi. We would allege instead that he was indifferent to racial conspiracy theories, misogyny and homophobia and the damage they wrought — a self-interested, small-minded politician who could not see that some ideologies were so poisonous that society must confront and quarantine them.

Channel 4 could not say the British Prime Minister had to get involved in the peace process because the Irish Taoiseach and the American President were already involved.

In the 2000s I wrote that Amnesty was becoming equivocal about political violence, torture, racism and the hatred of women and gays if abuse could not be blamed on the West.

less recent:

Kent County Council went ape and claimed that Sarah Harman was in contempt of court for talking to politicians and the press. It was far from clear that she was. No other common law democracy imposes such restrictions on child care cases. Even in Scotland, what Sarah Harman had done would not have raised an eyebrow.

7/27/2010 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

where did he get that Americanism from?

-America. (cp Bigotgate, Eastern Europe).

I was about to get into mixed moods and scope issues in modal logic, but fuck that for a laugh (maybe later).

Wanton and slightly shaky pedantry is much easier.

7/27/2010 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

My suspicion is that Cohen originally wrote a straightforward paragraph and then tried to make it flashier, with horrible consequences. If you have the quote from Genesis and follow it immediately with 'The Miliband brothers will have learned that the first story in Genesis after the Fall is of brother murdering brother', it becomes a perfectly standard, if somewhat tedious, paragraph of the 'look at my sticking in a cultural reference to illustrate an obvious point' type.

I think that Cohen then decided to add even more cultural 'cleverness', by pointing out that not everyone is well up on the Bible (ignoring the fact that atheists are sometimes the most obsessive readers of it). So he stuck in the two sentences about left-wingers and then simply negated the next sentence about the Millibands. Such a two-stage process could have produced this train wreck of a paragraph.

7/27/2010 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Magistra, that's actually pretty much what I thought. He had an opening, and then he went a bit haywire with his "red-daiper" = atheist stuff. (Which I could write about at length, citing names like Eric Heffer, Tony Benn, David Peace.) But it should have come out again. Nick should have seen that it's certainly not defensible, and he should just have cut it.

He didn't and no sub editor did. What we were left with was an article about the Milibands which asserted something very likely wrong at the start. That doesn't incline me to trust NC's conclusion.

7/27/2010 08:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Pinkie said...

Off topic perhaps, but has anyone noticed that Cohen generally gets far fewer comments on his articles than the no star names on CiF/Observer comments pages?

Perhaps thousands of readers are attracted to the Observer in a very loose way, and Cohen's column is an immeasurable part of that vague attraction. Perhaps the Observer is wasting money it can ill-afford on an easily replaceable laggard.

Times are hard, there must be a talented intern that can do his job for nothing but the 'experience'.

7/27/2010 09:58:00 PM  
Blogger Sarah Ditum said...

What I specially resent here - apart from the wild tense-mangling, the untruth and the weird endorsement of primogeniture - is the cranky harping on supposedly Biblical morality. The implication that Nick's not a believer, but everyone else should be because then they'd know the moral world as he knows it.

7/28/2010 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I think the endorsement of primogeniture is especially odd.

There's also these weird generalisations:

All the stories of the back-stabbings and flouncings of Brown, Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, which seemed so important when they were in power, now make the British shake themselves and wonder why they let petulant drama queens run the country for so long.

I never thought that stuff was important and always kind of resented political journos for tihnking it was. But all politicians - not least Michael Gove, whose 'friendship' with Nick means that Nick won't badmouth the horrifying schools programme - are petulant drama queens, aren't they?

The conclusion is just plain odd too:

If the older generation's hissy fits are followed by war within the Miliband family, the audience won't see a Biblical or Shakespearian conflict but a continuation of a cheap melodrama which became stale years ago. Less Cain v Abel than Bobby v JR.

does cohen not realise that his piece is contributing to this? wanking on about McBride and Whelan when nobody else cares about them at all, for instance. What's odd is that Cohen didn't have had much time for this kind of personality-driven gossiping back in the late 90s. It's sad how much he's changed.

the cranky harping on supposedly Biblical morality

for me that just demonstrates his total lack of imagination. hmm, two brothers in a contest, what analogy will I use? oh yes, the bible and er... crappy 80s TV drama that a sizeable chunk of my readership won't remember (this writer included).

on comments - well he has a habit of indulging his obsessions (the big one here is the 'Brown briefing against Alastair Darling for telling the truth about the economy' one - and i can kinda sympathise with Brown on that one, it wasn't a well-judged interview at all with the interests of the party and indeed the economy in mind), when he chooses something that's a)vaguely linked to big news stories or b) vaguey linked to age-old comments-generators (israel-palestine, being anti-religion) he's fine. Of course our nick doesn't much like following either of those paths, and he phones them in when he's made to - judging from his 'blog', he genuinely seems to want to write the same anti-McBride/Whelan columns every weekm occasionally having a go at the BBC. TGISOOT seems to have rather died a death with him too.

But he'll stay there for ages - he's a true believer in the paper as a whole and has good friends among the staffers (Euan Ferguson, clothes for chaps).

I'm also not really one for following the 'more comments = readership likes the writer' thing with these papers that are accessible, and commentable, by anyone.

7/28/2010 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

In my view having comments on newspaper articles is bollocks anyway.

R: Nick and the Bible, isn't this I Am Channelling George Orwell again? specifically I'd point to the verses from Proverbs which open Homage To Catalonia, and the passage for Ecclesiastes in Politics And The English Language.

7/28/2010 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Nick's thought process will have been like this:

Need intro....

Topic = leadership, DM not EM

Theme = Sibling rivalry, subtype fraternal.

Hook = Cain & A

Fit to Millibands = er, er, not learned at school, like me, er red nappies, er that'll do. (magistra: Note 'school' will have gone in before 'learned', and it will therefore have been 'not learned' from the start. Of course, 'learned' or 'not learned', it's still the same odd usage.)

Pro-DM elements: er, Cain was younger brother, and bad.

Interesting phrase: mess of potage. (ejh has done the French soup bit. Nick will also not have realised that 'mess' doesn't mean splurge, splatter or jumble but is presumably related to mess tin, officers' mess etc.)

Segue into the actual piece: You have to look hard to find family values upheld in the Bible, or indeed in most families. (Will this do?) [Yeah, whatever - ed]

Tail-end - won't see a Biblical or Shakespearian conflict but a continuation of a cheap melodrama which became stale years ago. Less Cain v Abel than Bobby v JR. (Note teh Bard gets in there - Nick will have been thinking of using him at one stage, but won;t have been able to find a suitable example, so will have had to shoehorn Genesis in instead.)

7/28/2010 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

correction: 'is presumably' -> 'will be'

7/28/2010 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger AndyB said...

"The implication that Nick's not a believer, but everyone else should be because then they'd know the moral world as he knows it."

Isn't that Mad Mel's take on Christianity?

7/29/2010 07:09:00 AM  

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