Vibe Alibe

“The recent election of Syriza in Greece offers a vibrant glimmer of hope for the future of social and economic democracy in Europe.” — from a letter to The Guardian by Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, Jacqueline Rose, et al.

Mix to the Marx

“And in the global climate of the early 90s, it’s perhaps not surprising that the ANC bent to the neoliberal flood tide, putting its Freedom Charter calls for public ownership and redistribution of land on the back burner.” — Mandela has been sanitised by hypocrites and apologists, Seamus Milne, The Guardian, 12/xii/2013.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Reds under the Thread

Bri’ on the Sky

Front cover of Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen

Bri’ Eyes the Sky

Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins 2010)

One of the most powerful images in this book is also one of the most understated. It’s an artist’s impression of a dim star seen over the curve of a dwarf-planet called Sedna. The star is a G-type called Sol. We on Earth know it better as the sun. Sedna is a satellite of the sun too, but it’s much, much further out than we are. It takes 12,000 years to complete a single orbit and its surface is a biophobic -240°C. It’s so distant that sunrise is star-rise and it wasn’t discovered until 2003. But the sun’s gravity still keeps it in place: one of the weakest forces in nature is one of the most influential. That’s one important message in an understated, crypto-Lovecraftian image.

Sedna has been there, creeping around its dim mother-star, since long before man evolved. It will still be there long after man disappears, voluntarily or otherwise. This frozen dwarf is a good symbol of the vastness of the universe and its apparent indifference to life. We don’t seem to interest the universe at all, but the universe certainly interests us. Wonders of the Solar System is a good introduction to our tiny corner of it, describing some fundamentals of astronomy with the help of spectacular photographs and well-designed illustrations. You can learn how fusion powers the sun, how Mars lost its atmosphere and how there might be life beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s satellite Europa. The text is simple, but not simplistic, though I think the big name on the cover did little of the writing: this book is probably much more Cohen than Cox. Either way, I enjoyed reading the words and not just looking at the pictures, all the way from star-dim Sedna (pp. 26-7) to “Scars on Mars” (pp. 220-1) by way of “The most violent place in the solar system” (pp. 198-9), a.k.a. Jupiter’s gravity-flexed, volcano-pocked satellite Io.

Pockmarked moon -- the Galilean satellite Io

Pockmarked moon — the Galilean satellite Io

Everything described out there is linked to something down here, because that’s how it was done in the television series. Linking the sky with the earth allowed the BBC to film the genial and photogenic physicist Brian Cox in various exotic settings: Hawaii, India, East Africa, Iceland and so on. I’ve not seen any of Cox’s TV-work, but he seems an effective popularizer of science. And the pretty-boy shots here add anthropology to the astronomy. What is the scientific point of Cox striding away in an artistic blur over the Sahara desert (pg. 103), staring soulfully into the distance near the Iguaçu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine border (pg. 37) or gazing down into the Grand Canyon, hips slung, hands in pockets (pg. 163)? There isn’t a scientific point: the photos are there for his fans, particularly his female ones. He’s a sci-celeb, a geek with chic, and we’re supposed to see the sky through Bri’s eyes.

But he’s also a liberal working for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, so he’ll be happy with the prominent photo early on: Brian holding protective glasses over the eyes of a dusky-skinned child during a solar eclipse in India. The same simul-scribes’ Wonders of Life (Collins 2013), another book-of-the-BBC-series, opens with a similarly allophilic allophoto: a dusky-skinned Mexican crowned in monarch butterflies. This is narcissistic and patronizing, but the readiness of whites to “Embrace the Other” helps explain science, because science involves looking away from the self, the tribe and the quotidian quest for status and survival. Of course, Cox and Cohen would gasp with horror at the idea of racial differences explaining big things like science and politics. Cox would be sincere in his horror. I’m not so sure about Cohen.

But there are wonders within us as well as without us and though you won’t hear about them on the BBC, the tsunami of HBD, or research into human bio-diversity, is now rolling ashore. It will sweep away almost all of Cox’s and Cohen’s politics, but leave most of their science intact. It isn’t a coincidence that the rings of Saturn were discovered by the Italian Galileo and explained by the Dutchman Huygens and the Italian Cassini, or that the photos of Saturn here were taken by a space-probe launched by white Americans. But the United States has much less money now for space exploration. That’s explained by race too: as the US looks less like its founders, it looks less like a First World nation too. It’s fun to see the world through Bri’s eyes, but he’s careful not to look at everything that’s out there.

Mish’ Upon A Star

When Barack Obama first became famous in the United Kingdom, I concluded that he was a more intelligent, more histrionically skilled version of Tony Blair. But perhaps I was wrong. He may in fact be a less intelligent, more histrionically skilled version of Tony Blair. Otherwise the parallels between the two remain uncanny: the narcissism, the incompetence, the shallowness, the intellectual vacuity, the pathological dishonesty, the hatred of or indifference towards history and the historic nation. There are even the same rumours about past homosexuality, a similarly grotesque, Lady-Macbeth-like wife and a love of vapid, worthless celebrity culture shared with her. Michelle Obama’s recent Oscar-presentation stunt is the Cherie on the icing, though, to give Cherie Blair her due, she never gave me the impression that racial hatred was an even stronger element in her nature than egotism and desire for personal gain.

Michelle Obama presenting an Oscar at the White House

Mish’ Upon A Star — Michelle Obama presents an Oscar at the White House

Racial hatred may seem like one big difference between Obama and Blair, but their policies in terms of race, for reasons around which I won’t interrogate issues, have been more or less the same. Voting “conservative” in either nation wouldn’t have made any difference to that. It would also have made little difference to the speed with which each nation is being destroyed. But the Tories and Republicans couldn’t appeal to voters in the same way as their supposed rivals. Like Blair, Obama saw that the key to electoral success was to get people to vote not for him, but for themselves. That’s why so many Guardianistas in the UK so desperately wished they could “Vote O in ’8”. The narcissistic, self-righteous thrill would have been even greater than voting for Blair. Obama was black, after all. Black, for Mandela’s sake! Like Blair, Obama offered himself as a mirror for liberal narcissists; and like Blair, he’s disappointed more and more of those narcissists as the years have passed. But, by himself, he wouldn’t have destroyed my faith in democracy as comprehensively as Blair did. T.B. was an obvious fake and a bad con-man. B.O. is a better con-man and a less obvious fake. It isn’t as hard to understand how he fooled so many and got the chance to do so much harm.

A lot more harm, in fact, because the United States is a much bigger and much more important country than the UK. Historians will give its collapse much more attention in future, but I wonder how many of them will put the blame where it belongs: on one of the two great curses of modernity. The first great curse has been the car, the second has been television. Cars have destroyed our cities; TV has destroyed our culture. Blair and Obama are what TV hath wrought in politics: ultimate expressions of the ultimate abomination of liberalism. Après eux, le Déluge. “After them, the Flood.”

Reds under the Thread

A clue, or clew, was originally a ball of thread, as unwound by the Greek hero Theseus en route to the centre of King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete. When he had found and slain the Minotaur, he used the thread to retrace his steps. So a clue is a guide: Theseus followed a thread to solve a puzzle. Nowadays, scientists are following much finer threads to solve much bigger puzzles: DNA is a microscopic thread of chemicals and the clue to all manner of puzzles. Perhaps the biggest and most important is the puzzle of language. How did it evolve? How is it encoded in our genes? How is it instantiated in the brain? Those are the big problems waiting to be slain at the centre of the labyrinth of human genetics. Without language, we wouldn’t be human and you wouldn’t be reading this essay.

But this essay is a thread too: like DNA, language consists of a string of symbols used to construct something bigger. DNA codes for brains and bodies; language codes for ideas and images. By looking at a sample of DNA, scientists can tell what kind of body it builds: its sex and race, for example. In future, we’ll be able to tell much more: DNA will offer clues to intelligence and personality. Samples of language offer similar clues: we can often deduce a lot about someone from his or her writing. There are already computer programs that claim to be able to identify the sex of a writer by the lexical and grammatical patterns in a text. But I wonder how much more computers will be able to deduce in future and what clues there already are in our language to our intellects and personalities. They might not be obvious ones. Perhaps it will be possible to deduce race or sexuality or political preferences from apparently trivial things. Perhaps libertarians or homosexuals or psychopaths use pronouns in a distinctive way or prefer certain kinds of consonants or vowels.

But those are differences between groups: regardless of politics or personality, it’s certain that every individual uses language in a unique way. In future, it will be possible to track people on the internet even when they’re writing anonymously or under false names. A bloodhound can track people after sniffing something known to belong to them. In future, bloodhound programs will track people after sniffing – statistically analyzing – texts known to have been written by them. It’s a worrying thought in our ever-more authoritarian times. Express anonymous thoughts on-line about a controversial topic and you may find a bloodhound-program sniffing you out and the thought-police knocking on your door. Science will hand totalitarian tools to tyrants and it may not be possible to escape even if you avoid controversial topics and write about innocuous things. If psychopaths use language in distinctive ways, as seems likely, perhaps other warped individuals will inadvertently betray themselves in their language. Going for a government job? Maybe you’ll have to write an essay about your last holiday or your first pet. And an apparently innocent metaphor will reveal that you’re racist or homophobic or sexist. So no job for you (and quite right, too).

I don’t know whether crime-think like that can be identified by linguistic patterns, but I do think that good-think can be. In terms of issues around progressive publications like The Guardian and London Review of Books, I’ve noticed again and again that members of the decent’n’compassionate community engage issues around imagery in a special way. In short, they like to mix their metaphors. The most recent example I’ve come across was in a review of a Derrida biography in The Guardian by the decent’n’compassionate Marxist Terry Eagleton:

Before long, the taciturn, socially gauche young man from the colonies was gracing the dinner tables of a galaxy of French luminaries: Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot and others.[1]

Reading that felt a little like stepping on a stair that wasn’t there: it was jarring to go from the image of “dinner tables” to the image of “a galaxy”, as though giant balls of flaming hydrogen could give dinner-parties. But that’s what a mixed metaphor does: it combines incongruent or incompatible images in a lingustically gauche way. George Orwell provided some good examples in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash – as in the fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot – it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.[2]

The Eagleton example isn’t particularly egregious: Eagleton is mediocre even as a bad writer. He did a little badder six years ago in the same progressive forum:

This year’s calendar to celebrate Beckett’s 100th anniversary is crammed with literary events celebrating the life of the modern age’s most lovable pessimist, most of them, one imagines, awash with talk of the timeless human condition portrayed in his work… Yet there is also a distinctively Irish quality to Beckett’s deflation of the florid and high-flown, just as there is something recognisably Irish about those starved, stagnant landscapes where, like colonial victims, you do nothing but sit and wait for deliverance.[3]

“Talk” consists of vibrations in the air. Is “awash”, which refers to liquids around one’s feet, the right image for talk? And if the “calendar” is “crammed”, is “awash” not over-egging the pudding? Can landscapes be “stagnant”, like water or air? If they can, can they be “starved” at the same time? Or did Eagleton just want the alliteration and not give a toss about the meaning? I suspect it was the last: Eagleton seems to me a typical example of the progressive prosateur. He writes not to convey meaning or apply reason, but for a higher purpose: to demonstrate his own cleverness and assure other progressives of his goodthinkfulness. The Guardian and LRB are full of similar narcissists and Eagleton isn’t exceptional amongst them. So why did I choose his text to unlock the swamp of progressive windbaggery? Well, first because his review of the Derrida biography finally prompted me to write this essay, which I’ve been planning to write for a long time. And second because I didn’t want to give anyone whiplash. Reading Eagleton is a gentle introduction to the mixed metaphor, like driving slowly down a cobbled street in a car with good suspension. Reading another Guardian regular, on the other hand, is like driving fast through the aftermath of an earthquake in a tank with very bad suspension. But forewarned is forearmed. You’ve seen Eagleton and I doubt you’ve been very impressed. Okay, now marvel at the most magisterial mixed-metaphorizer I’ve ever come across:

But the kernel of a message black Britons had been trying to hammer home for decades suddenly took centre stage.[4]

Gary Younge, the Guardian’s resident race’n’racism-expert, is almost praeternatural in his command of the English language. He can cram more crap into less lexicality than anyone else I’ve ever seen. The mixed metaphor above, from 2005, is a triple-whammy: it manages to get three incongruent images into twenty words. If you think that’s easy, try it for yourself. Younge doesn’t have to try: as a progressive prosateur, he postures and preens without conscious effort. But his postural powers are far greater than those of Terry Eagleton. Beauty poured effortlessly from Mozart’s brain; bollocks pours effortlessly from Gary Younge’s. He rose to similar heights of mixed metaphory in 2012, when he interrogated issues around the shooting of a black teenager in Florida:

Outrage at the death of Trayvon Martin is finally lifting the lid on the US’s racist underbelly[5]

That, at least, was the sub-heading for his article: three incongruent images in seventeen words. If Younge himself wasn’t responsible for it, either he has a disciple almost as rhetorically gifted as he is or a sub-editor was taking the piss of his self-righteous posturing in terms of issues around race. I hope it’s the latter: someone really ought to take a mallet to the anti-racist windbags who litter the florid corridors of The Guardian’s stagnant columns. Not that anyone would dare do so openly. The windbags will be typing their socialist siren-songs for some time to come. Here is someone else who is Younge at heart:

Recognising the Conservatives’ persistent image as the “nasty party”, David Cameron saw her [Baroness Warsi’s] real value as someone who could prop up the image of a modern reformist party comfortable in its multi-cultural skin. The chimaera of an Asian woman influencing the levers of Tory power did prop up this illusion for most of the two-and-a-half years that Warsi was in the Cabinet.[6]

That was Ratna Lachman, the directrix of JUST West Yorkshire, “which promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights in the north of England”. Or says it does, at least. The language of Lachman suggests to me that she is not necessarily a trustworthy guide to reality or to its rectification. Like Younge and Eagleton, she habitually uses metaphors that don’t work: as Orwell put it in his essay, “the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.” Or observing reality. And I can’t believe that this is irrelevant to the progressive politics persistently pursued and promoted by these posturing, preening paragons of pretension. If their relatively simple and easy-to-correct metaphors don’t work, what does that say about their vastly more ambitious and complicated plans for a fairer, juster, more equal society? I wouldn’t trust any of them to organize a party in a brewery or spot a three-foot needle in a two-foot haystack. Linguistics, as a science, insists on being descriptive rather than prescriptive: it describes what language-users do rather than prescribing what they ought to do.

I see the scientific point, but I don’t fully agree with it. Human beings are born to use language, but that doesn’t mean we always use it well. We are born to use bodies too, but that doesn’t mean we always use our bodies in healthy, sensible, and intelligent ways. Medicine describes bodies both in sickness and in health and linguistics should be more like medicine. Language, like DNA, can go wrong and the cancers created by faulty DNA have their linguistic equivalents in publications like The Guardian and London Review of Books. Eagleton, Younge, Lachman and countless other members of the progressive community produce pathological prose. I think they do so because of their politics. You don’t have to subject their writing to sophisticated statistical analysis to know this: the kernels have taken centre stage and the chimaeras are pulling levers in plain view. Lachman claims in one of her windy, wittering articles that “Tory DNA is in essence white, male, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant to its core”. It’s odd, then, that the first Jewish and first female Prime Ministers were Conservative rather than Labour. But I don’t support the Tories any more than I support Labour, in part because neither of them recognizes the importance of actual rather than metaphorical DNA. Our DNA makes us human, so DNA explains both language and politics, as gross aspects of human behaviour. But I think it also accounts for subtler variations in language and politics, from the Marxist windbaggery of Terry Eagleton to the High Tory clarity of Evelyn Waugh. Or the non-conformist clarity of George Orwell, who was diagnosing diseased English and inventing words to describe it in the middle of the last century:

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning “to quack like a duck”. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.[7]

Eagleton, Younge and Lachman are still quacking out orthodox opinions in The Guardian, but the climate is shifting and duckspeakers don’t have wings to fly away south.


[1] “Champion of ambiguity”: Derrida: A Biography, Benoît Peeters – Terry Eagleton enjoys a superb biography of an original thinker, The Guardian, Wednesday, 14th November, 2012.

[3] “Champion of ambiguity”, Terry Eagleton, The Guardian, Monday, 20th March 2006.

[4] “Riots are a class act — and often they’re the only alternative”, Gary Younge, The Guardian, Monday, 14th November 2005.

[5] “Trayvon Martin: a killing too far”, The Guardian, Wednesday, 21st March, 2012.

[7] Appendix to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Ex-term-in-ate!

In terms of keyly core components of Guardianese, the dialect of those who read and write for The Guardian, Britain’s premier papyrocentric purveyor of progressive performativity, there can be little or no doubt that at the key core is the phrase I began this sentence with: “in terms of”. Arguably it is the keyliest corest component of all. It’s a bad sign if you use it even a little; if you use it a lot, it’s time to mend your ways. Siriusly. But whatever your own issues in terms of usage metrics for I.T.O., you’ll certainly hear this phrase a lot throughout the English-speaking world. In terms of communities / demographics like politics, academia and the media, it’s a kind of linguistic bindweed: a tough, fast-growing weed smothering everything in sight.

Unlike bindweed, however, it doesn’t produce beautiful flowers or grow in interesting ways. What’s wrong with “in terms of” was summed up very well by the Australian comedian and satirist Barry Humphries, the creator of Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. He re-wrote the title of a famous film as One Flew Over In Terms of the Cuckoo’s Nest. “In terms of” is beloved of those who want long ways to say short things. Its use is usually unnecessary, never essential. As a keyly committed component of the core I.T.O.phobic community, I never use it except to take the piss of the Guardianista demographic. The mission statement of the Guardian might be “Purveying pretentious prose to pretentious people since 1959.” “In terms of” is corely key to this mission. The lexicographer Robert Burchfield discussed its origins in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996):

How did this complex preposition come into being? The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] reveals that it has been in use since the mid-18c. as a mathematical expression “said of a series… stated in terms involving some particular (my emphasis) quantity”, and illustrates this technical usage by citing examples from the work of Herbert Spencer (1862), J. F. W. Herschel (1866), and other writers. From this technical use came at first a trickle and, after the 1940s, a flood of imitative uses by non-mathematicians. (Op. cit., entry for “in terms of”).

I suggest that the flood of imitative uses was flattery. Mathematicians are highly intelligent and intellectually rigorous people. Non-mathematicans wanted to pretend to themselves that they were highly intelligent and intellectually rigorous too. “In terms of” lends a judicious, thoughtful air to one’s prose or speech. It’s a good way of disguising the absence of judgment or thought. This is one reason it’s so popular among politicians, who need ways to sound impressive and say little. Burchfield condemns its use as a “vague all-purpose connective” in politics and broadcasting, but concludes, after listing examples of I.T.O. in action, that it may be a “useful particularizing device” in general prose. He’s wrong. All his examples can be re-written to be better English:

The impact of Ibsen… did much to revitalize the degenerate English theatre and force it to think in terms of living ideas and contemporary realities. J. Mulgan and D. M. Davin, 1947. (My suggestion: …force it to use living ideas…)

Dataquest pegs ESRI as the leading GIS company—in terms of both revenue and reputation. Computer Graphics World, 1988. (Dataquest lists ESRI as… in both revenue and reputation)

He deals with the converso judaizing world in terms of its social and religious rituals, births, marriages, deaths, leading to the establishment of the Inquisition. The Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 1990. (…through its social and religious rituals…)

Rameau… conceived his music precisely in terms of timbres, types of attack, degree of sostenuto. Country Life, 1990. (…in timbre, type of attack…)

Justifying space in terms of material wealth is as ridiculous as saying that man went to the Moon merely to be able to return with velcro zips and non-stick frying pans. New Scientist, 1991. (…space [exploration] by its material benefits…)

The dating of his novels in terms of when they were written rather than when they were published is often uncertain, since in the upheavals of exile some were not published chronologically. New York Review of Books, 1991. (…his novels by when they were written…)

The re-writing makes them better English, but not necessarily good English. Writers who use “in terms of” are generally bad writers. That’s why I’m unsurprised to see The New York Review of Books in the list. Like its twin on this side of the Atlantic, The London Review of Books, its mission statement might be “Purveying Pathological Prose to Pathological People.” A core component of this pathology is “in terms of”. My reaction to I.T.O. is I.T.T.O.! In other words: It’s Time To Obliterate In Terms Of. This lexical bindweed doesn’t flower: pluck it out wherever you find it in your linguistic garden. I’ve allowed other weeds to spring up here and there in terms of issues around the prose of this polemic, but I do my best to keep my bad English deliberate.

Guardianistas and their equivalents overseas produce bad English the way cows produce methane: copiously and unconsciously. And the internet has allowed their bad English to billow forth as never before. Wikipedia, for example, is like an experimental farm on which they can fart all day and every day, polluting the English language in vibrant new ways. “In terms of” is keyly core to their methanogenic mission. I groan when I see it in Wikipedia articles about people like, say, Saki or Clark Ashton Smith. I grin when I see it in articles about people like, say, William S. Burroughs or Alan T. Moore. Some people deserve bad prose. Some people don’t. I hope you and your favourite writers are among the latter. Siriusly. “In terms of” sucks! “Sucks” sucks too! Just say no to I.T.O.!


Proviously post-posted (please peruse):