Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts tagged George Orwell

Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade #2: Django at LibCom on the Stonewall/Bindel affair and the politics of transsexuality

So here is the latest action alert for the I.A.R.B.. (I fear that this is going to be a long-running series.) As a reminder of why we fight:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. 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. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

— George Orwell (1946): Politics and the English Language

Now here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article recently printed over at LibCom. I take it that the article has something to do with radical feminism, gender identity, and sex-reassignment surgery. Beyond that–well, let’s just try to read it.

What matters, then, is the practical implications of the best insights of feminist theory. Clearly, the violence and intimidation transgender people routinely face is unconscionable. But the question again boils down to the contradictions between the politics of affirmation and the politics of negation. This may at first seem strange. As Slavoj Žižek amongst others has argued, the difference between the politics of oppressed and marginalised groups seeking to defend themselves and the politics of class struggle is that class struggle seeks as its end point the abolition of class. “Class pride” is a reactionary concept, and though class relations can and do express themselves through communities and class identities, if class struggle is to be part of a revolutionary project rather than the affirmation of the working class within capitalism then it must abolish capitalism and with it abolish class. Class is furthermore a material position within capitalism – those who have nothing to sell but their labour and who must work for the money necessary to live, those dispossessed of ownership of capital and who must sell their labour time and labour power to those who have or administer it. It is not a sociological category, but a condition and a social relation. The struggles of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians insofar as they are organised around the marginalised group must struggle for recognition of various kinds. But this, as so often, is an oversimplification. The various marginalised roles are themselves constituted within the process of their marginalisation – and though the material proletarian condition which is the prerequisite for capital accumulation is demonstrable in a different way to the constitution of various marginalised identities, we can still see the issue in terms of affirmation or negation: in the case of gender, either liberal feminism’s affirmation of women as bourgeois subjects with equal legal standing, or the radical project of the negation of gender binaries and with it gender identity.

So what would this look like in practice? I don’t pretend to have the answers. In the case of negating the proletarian condition, the answer is relatively straightforward: the direct communisation of the means of production, the abolition of wage labour and the replacement of the state by the construction of real human community through linked councils. Gender cannot be negated in the same way, though the same processes of seizure and transformation growing out of class antagonism. Its fairly easy to imagine that a society where the production of the entire social environment is no longer alienated would allow for a new kind of society and more radical possibilities, but its not enough to talk abstractly of revolution as being the cure-all we must invest our faith in.

But we do know where it can’t start – certainly not from the reification of binary gender identities. The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to “match” bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back because it offends the sensibilities of marginalised groups, and whilst we recognise the difficulties transgender people face, we can’t let those difficulties be an excuse to suspend critical thought.

— Django @ LibCom.org (2008-11-28): The Stonewall/Bindel affair, and the politics of transsexuality

I’d like to know what to say about this passage, or the point that the author is trying to make. But I’m not sure whether or not I can, because I’m not sure whether or not I even know what point the author is trying to make. I’m setting aside, for the moment, the fact that nothing after the eighth paragraph even attempts to connect the author’s points to the ostensible topic of the post — the radical feminist journalist Julie Bindel and her expressed views on sex-reassignment surgery. Because, even at a more local level, I think I understand most of the individual sentences, or at least clauses in the passage, but the way that it is written makes it nearly impossible for me to figure out what those parts add up to, or where that whole is supposed to be going by the end of the post, to the extent that I honestly don’t even know whether or how strongly I disagree or agree with what the author’s trying to say.

I suspect that the only way to understand it is for us to dig in and try to rewrite it, so that the author’s point, if he has any, isn’t lost beneath the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language. In any case, even if it turns out that there’s really nothing much, either good or bad, to find in this passage (a conclusion I haven’t yet drawn, but which I haven’t abandoned either), then it’s worth trying as an exercise, if nothing else. If we want to talk about the things we need to talk about, then we need to find better ways of saying things than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear — especially to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxian jargon — and more enjoyable to read even for those who have, how would you go about it? Just what is going on here? What conclusion does it seem to you he’s trying to get to, and what reasons is he using to get to that conclusion? If you were trying to say what he’s saying, how would you say it well?

See also:

Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade: how Burt Green tried to write about statist anti-imperialism and blocked his sink with tea leaves

Here’s something George Orwell wrote back in 1946 dealing with, among other things, the political writing of his day.

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. 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. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

Here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. Unfortunately, the writing in this article is a lot like the writing in a lot of articles that appear in AJODA (right alongside an Anarchist Media Review media review section that constantly complains about jargony or dreary writing in other, less widely distributed anarchist zines). I’ve chosen this passage in particular because the writer clearly seems to know what he wants to say, and what he’s got to say is basically true, but–well, let’s just try to read it.

As long as Anti-Imperialism is presented as the foremost or central contradiction of capitalism, it will have innate limitations which are constitutionally incapable of supercession.

In the first instance, Anti-Imperialism still has to account for the way it was used in the past, and will always for that reason bear the heavy burden of the crimes committed in its name. To those who fought against imperialism in the Philippines and Chile, in South Africa and Vietnam, one must take care to add those in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and those who fight today in Tibet.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

On the other side of the equation, then, Anti-Imperialism has been a means of avoiding recognition of the independent interests and struggles of the working class and peasantry in the imperial dependencies, save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests. This lack of proletarian perspective allows Anti-Imperialism to become a weapon to be used against (competing) foreign exploitation without a critique of local inequalities and forms of domination, much less of the political economy as a whole. This kind of Anti-Imperialism is easy for the likes of Vladimir Putin (the pacifier of Chechnya) and the misogynists of Hezbollah to employ without damage to themselves. It also provides useful ammunition to that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez, in whom are embodied both the Leftist, pseudomodern authoritarianism of his friend and political patron, Fidel Castro, the Maximum Leader of Cuba, and also the right-wing pseudotraditionalism of fascism, as imparted by his mentor, the Argentine anti-semite Norberto Ceresole, author of Caudillo, ejercito, pueblo. La Venezuela del presidente Chavez [Leader, Army, People, the Venezuela of President Chavez.]o

o It is high time that revolutionaries make proper acknowledgement of the complementary parts played by Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, as two wings of the same general movement of reaction against the rising proletarian, peasant, and intellectual insurgency of thel ate 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest conscious expressions of these twin tendencies, those of Lenin on the one hand and Mussolini on the other, grew from the same source: (Marxian) social-democracy. The use of conspiratorial, quasi-military organization, of fronts and the infiltration of strategic organizations as a means to establishing influence, and then otion of themselves as the general staff of some kind of alleged revolution embodied in their own seizure of state power, unite these post-social-democratic factions. So does their presumption that the working class itself, incapable of more than a trade-union consciousness in Lenin’s infamous words, or unwilling to embark on crusades of national greatness (eg campaigns of forced capital accumulation, war), needs the Party, composed of this or that constellation of petit-bourgeois elements, at its head to lead it. To think that such tendencies, then or now, can be the allies of antiauthoritarian, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, is to ignore not just the overwhelming weight of the historical experience of the world’s proletarian revolutions, but the very material nature of the political economies and quality of life in the regimes created by these hyper-authoritarian Symbionese twins.

–Burt Green, Anti-Imperialism or Anti-Capitalism, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed 26.1 (Spring/Summer 2008). pp 41, 43.

How did you feel when you tried to read through this passage and the footnote? It actually makes several important points; I think at least one or two of the points it makes are both new and important. (For example, I think that the footnote at the end is really very sharp.) That’s the sort of thing that ought to be both fun and exciting to read. But in the entire passage I can think of only two places where the writing made me feel anything than a dull pounding on my forehead — They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves, and that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez. The second phrase manages to be funny precisely because the pretense is watered by the sarcasm; the rest of the passge gives you the straight stuff and demands you drink it down. If we want to say the things we need to say, then we need to find better ways of saying it than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxist jargon, and more enjoyable to read even for those who have — to rewrite a passage like this so that the author’s point about anti-imperialist politics makes more of an impression than the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language — how would you go about it?

There are some obvious easy changes that you can make. Anytime someone writes a phrase like in the present epoch you can just about always cross it out and write in today; worker or working-class can be put anywhere that the author chose to put down proletarian, and you can strike exogenous and write in outside, or replace the whole phrase save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests with something like except when the bosses are foreigners. But other stale fixed phrases (This lack of proletarian perspective …, … carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions, … the working class, peasantry and . . . intelligentsia …) are harder to deal with. You could pretty them up a little by trimming unnecessary verbal filler and by taking out obviously pretentious words and replacing them with simpler ones. You can put lipstick on a pig, too. But the problem is that the dreariness of the writing has a lot to do with the dreariness of the thought itself. It’s not that the points being made are wrong, or even hackneyed, exactly. It’s that the approach to the point is hackneyed, that the writer can find no way of expressing what he wants to say except by leading you through this cut-and-paste collage of phrases from Marxist pamphlets and whitepapers. (As Orwell said, You see, he feels impelled to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.) That kind of writing needs more than copyediting; it needs to be rearranged or rewritten from the start, with paragraphs either thrown out entirely or transformed into something that you wouldn’t know for a rewriting of the original.

For example, let’s look at paragraph 3 and think about what you might do about a paragraph like this.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

Instead of that, you might write something like this:

The picture of the world that anti-imperialist rhetoric paints is a picture seen through the eyes of warring states. If you want to know who will make the revolution, it forces you to look for a national fighting force, organized by geographical or ethnic borders. If you want to know what kind of revolution they will make, it forces you to look for a new government — a government run by locals, after the foreign governments have been forced back over the border.

The only way that anti-imperialist has to talk about revolution is to stand at made-up borders and yell Stop! — as if it made any difference whether it happens to be foreign bosses or local bosses who take control over workers’ jobs, culture, and living arrangements. Anti-imperialism takes the borders of capitalist states more seriously than the capitalists do themselves. This kind of revolution has nothing to say about what powerful people within the nation do to their victims — and particularly not what aspiring bureaucrats do to workers and intellectuals. It’s a distraction from workers’ real interest in getting out from under bosses, no matter where the bosses come from.

As far as I can tell, this would convey almost exactly the same meaning. There are some losses — for example, (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). But I threw out the parenthetical because someone who was making the point clearly would not think that you could just stick that point where Green tried to stick it. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but if it did, it’s only because the rest of the paragraph consists of so many stock phrases strung together that just stringing another one in may have seemed like logic. But the comment in between the parentheses has to do with a particular way that some anti-imperialist writers have tried to adapt their rhetoric in order to avoid glossing over the internal forms of oppression that Green says anti-imperialist rhetoric glosses over. For example, people who used this line often said that the white man’s government treats black people inside the borders of the U.S.A. the same way that it treats foreign people in the Phillippines or Vietnam; and you might say the same thing about groups of people who are oppressed within a post-colonial country when a more powerful group takes over power from the old colonial government. But the parenthetical mentions this position without explaining any of that, or making any of it clear to anybody who isn’t already familiar with a lot of anti-imperialist jargon. And it just states that this adaptation of anti-imperialist rhetoric doesn’t actually solve the problem, without saying why it fails. If talking about internal colonies doesn’t help, then you need to say something about why it doesn’t help, and it would probably take long enough that it belongs in a new paragraph or a footnote. If you can’t do that much, then you’d be better off not mentioning it at all.

And there are also some additions — a couple of attempts at shifting the emphasis or making use of some imagery. Because if I just stopped at cutting out the parts that had gone bad, then the leftovers would be wholesome enough, but not enough to be filling — a single paragraph that’s short and clear, but also a paragraph with nothing to really drive the point home. That would be fine if this passage was a brief stop along the way to some other conclusion. But it’s actually supposed to be about half of the essay’s conclusion.

And now that I mention it, that brings up another problem. If the simple statement of the point is as simple and boring as the simple statement of this point is (so–it’s a mistake for radicals to use an approach that doesn’t deal with oppression inside national boundaries, because it’s the bossing that really matters, not where the boss comes from) then maybe the essay needs to say more than what it does, insead of just leaving off on such an obvious point. (For example, why spend so long making a point like this, when you could use that space to make a genuinely novel point, like the point about the similarities between conspiratorial Leninism and conspiratorial Fascism, instead of hiding that point away in a footnote?) So even this kind of rewriting, paragraph by paragraph, can only do so much. What a passage like this needs, in the end, is rethinking. What do you think? How would you do it? Given what he wants to say, how would you say it well?

You would not tell with such high zest

Sheldon Richman recently posted to on the Bush gang’s palavering and depraved indifference to the life of Lebanese civilians. It’s a good post; you should read it. Along the way, he said this:

Translation: The killing and maining of Lebanese and Israelis shouldn’t stop until Israel is ready for it to stop.

That is moral depravity, if anything is.

In the comments section, E. Simon replied:

So would your omission of the implication, that the cessation of hostilities not be constrained according to whether or not Nasrallah and his supporters are allowed to kill and maim Israelis, be an example of intellectual depravity?

Given that he’s so awfully concerned about innocent people being killed and maimed, I asked E. Simon the following, linking to my post on Proportionality:

And just how many unrelated third parties do you think the IDF can legitimately kill or maim in the process of retaliating against Nasrallah and his supporters?

Here’s the answer, such as it is:

That being said, I think your question is a good one, because ideally, I would like to see NO unrelated third parties hurt. Therefore, there is no good way to answer it since it would suggest legitimizing the ascription of a military debit or financial value to the loss of a life whose inherent worth is — otherwise — incalculable. And yet, the use of Israel’s military will prevent Hizbullah from intentionally causing the loss of similarly incalculably valuable Israeli lives. But Israel is not responsible for Lebanon’s failures in necessitating that most unfortunate decision.

There are costs, no doubt. But the costs of not thusly, and appropriately disincentivizing against murder are much riskier, given the total analysis.

Now, I’d like to note that this is a complete evasion of the question. (The fact that you wave your hands at the higher mysteries and heart-rending impossibility of answering a question does not mean that you haven’t evaded it; it just means that you’ve offered a poetical apology for the evasion.) As I note further down in the thread:

I’ve accused you of dodging the issue because if you do not have an answer to that question, then you can have absolutely no moral basis for endorsing the war. If you don’t even have a ballpark estimate of what a tolerable civilian body count is, then you have no idea whether or not the killing and maiming of innocents has gone beyond the limits of proportional self-defense. And if you don’t know that then you don’t know whether or not the war is legitimate self-defense or a massacre. If you treat the question as some higher mystery beyond your ken, then you have thereby admitted that you have no idea whatever whether justice demands that the IDF continue or that it relent.

If, however, you profess not to be able to answer the question, but then turn around and continue supporting the war, particularly with polysyllabic hand-waving at pacifying abstractions such as collateral damage and appropriately disincentivizing, then what I have to conclude is that you are quite satisfied with the level of killing, burning, bombing, and maiming being inflicted on innocents, but that you’d rather not say so because it would sound too brutal coming from your lips.

You can follow the argument on its merits through the rest of the thread; as far as that goes, I’m willing to just say We Report, You Decide for now. But I do want to make a remark about a matter of style, rather than substance here. That may seem petty, or underhanded, and in any case irrelevant. But it’s not: the style in which people say the things about war that E. Simon wants to say here is itself a very important part of what allows them to utter the substantial position that they end up uttering. Let’s look at that again:

That being said, I think your question is a good one, because ideally, I would like to see NO unrelated third parties hurt. Therefore, there is no good way to answer it since it would suggest legitimizing the ascription of a military debit or financial value to the loss of a life whose inherent worth is — otherwise — incalculable. And yet, the use of Israel’s military will prevent Hizbullah from intentionally causing the loss of similarly incalculably valuable Israeli lives. But Israel is not responsible for Lebanon’s failures in necessitating that most unfortunate decision.

There are costs, no doubt. But the costs of not thusly, and appropriately disincentivizing against murder are much riskier, given the total analysis.

My short response would be to offer some suggestions about where E. Simon can take his total analysis. Fortunately, George Orwell already made the remarks I’d like to make about this passage, and much more eloquently than I could:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer….

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

War survives because people don’t talk about war, but rather about something else, using an inflated jargon that they have mostly nicked from military communication (both internally, and through their press flacks). That jargon, and the style that goes with it, is more or less deliberately calculated to obscure and degrade thought, because to think and to speak, really and seriously, about what war does to people, would be to destroy any hope of moral and political legitimacy for any kind of modern campaign.

I’m told, incidentally, that my mentioning this, and my using harsh words in my own remarks, shows a lack of civility, open-mindedness, and maturity. But if civility and maturity mean whitewashing the killing and maiming of real people with real lives (with or without incalculable value being sentimentally ascribed to them) into costs to be assessed along with the risks involved in not setting up the appropriate incentives, as you do the total analysis over the dispensability of other people’s lives and livelihoods, then civility and maturity and open-mindedness can go straight to hell, and take the civil warmakers and war apologists right along with them.

Further reading:

Republican virtue (or: the Man who would be King)

Back around Presidents’ Day, David Boaz sent a communique out from Planet CATO in praise of George Washington, consisting mainly of a panegyric on G.W.’s lived example of republican virtue. We begin with the headline The Man Who Would Not Be King and move on through some of the favorite tropes of nationalist nostalgia for the Old Republic:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power.

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington–Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice — at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

— David Boaz (2006-02-20): The Man Who Would Not Be King

And what did Washington do when, out of his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself, he stepped down and returned home? Here’s the way Boaz puts it:

painting: George Washington driving his slaves

Master George, farming

What values did Washington’s character express? He was a farmer, a businessman, an enthusiast for commerce. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was deeply interested in scientific farming. His letters on running Mount Vernon are longer than letters on running the government. (Of course, in 1795 more people worked at Mount Vernon than in the entire executive branch of the federal government.)

Ah, yes, his farming, with his numerous workers at Mount Vernon.

You see, the thing about Washington is that while he was busy Not Being a King by returning to farm at Mount Vernon, he was personally claiming the authority to rule as Lord and Master over several hundred of his fellow human-beings, held as chattel slaves, with more absolute and invasive authority over his subjects than any Bonaparte ever even dreamed of exercising over the common men and women of France. As the landed lord of one of Virginia’s largest slave-plantations he demanded absolute control over their conduct, took every last penny earned by their labor, and reserved the right to exercise almost any physical brutality that he saw fit to inflict in order to punish or deter challenges to his authority. (And that is, note, not a matter of whether or not he actually acted unusually harshly towards any given slave; it’s part and parcel of what being a grand Virginia slave-lord meant.) The Man Who Would Not Be King arrogantly claimed for himself rights and prerogatives that merely political tyrants would have trembled to assert, solely on the basis of his money and his position within the racial aristocracy of the American South.

Washington was certainly an interesting character; studying his life may even have some things to teach us. But sentimental lies have nothing to teach us at all, and the ridiculous notion that Washington, the slave-driver of hundreds, abhorred tyranny or arbitrary power is nothing more or less than a sentimental lie. He may very well have abhorred the idea of ruling over fellow white people; he may very well have disliked crowns and robes as a point of fashion; but he had no problem maintaining absolute tyranny over hundreds of blacks, spanning his life from the age of 11 until his death. And if you think that’s good enough to count as exemplifying republican virtue, as abhorring kingship, or as retiring from a seat of power to a private life, then you need to think a lot harder.

Further reading:

Fat Tuesday Lazy Linking

Around the web in the past couple weeks. Part of the news that’s fit to link…

  • In honor of Carnival, let’s start with a couple of Carnivals. The Ninth Carnival of Feminists is up at Mind the Gap! and Philosophers’ Carnival #26 is up at Hesperus/Phosphorus. I happen to have a submission featured in each; but if you’re here you’ve probably already read them. Fortunately, like all good Carnivals, they contain multitudes. Prepare to fill out exactly one zillion tabs with excellent reading material.

  • Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2006-02-21): Spooner on Rent does his best to sort out just what Lysander Spooner’s views on land ownership and rent are. The evidence suggests that Spooner was more like Murray Rothbard and less like Benjamin Tucker on this one. Interesting mainly as a historical and exegetical question (Spooner didn’t dwell on the issue, so it’s not like a treasure trove is being discovered; and the fact that Spooner thought something hardly makes it so). But, Roderick adds, to the extent that there’s any polemical payoff I suppose it’s this: those anarcho-socialists who grant the title of anarchist to Tucker and Spooner but deny it to Rothbard and other so-called anarcho-capitalists on the grounds inter alia of the latter’s disagreement with Tucker about land will find their position at least somewhat harder to maintain to the extent that the distance between the saved Spooner and the damned anarcho-capitalists is narrowed. Read the whole thing.

  • ginmar, A View from A Broad (2006-01-30): It doesn’t matter what you think we said…: You ever dealt with somebody who uses the word pussy in front of you–I’m speaking as a woman, here–as a synonym for cowardly, disgusting, vile–and then gets up in your face when you call them on it? Well, uh, I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t intend it like that.Not thinking is no longer proof of innocence. What it just means is that you don’t give enough of a fuck to think about it. (Boldface added.) Read the whole thing.

  • Media Matters (2006-02-14): If It’s Sunday, It’s Conservative: An analysis of the Sunday talk show guests on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 1997 – 2005: In fact, as this study reveals, conservative voices significantly outnumber progressive voices on the Sunday talk shows. Media Matters for America conducted a content analysis of ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press, classifying each one of the nearly 7,000 guest appearances during President Bill Clinton’s second term, President George W. Bush’s first term, and the year 2005 as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral. The conclusion is clear: Republicans and conservatives have been offered more opportunities to appear on the Sunday shows – in some cases, dramatically so. The Right had an especially pronounced advantage when you screened out government flunkies and just looked at journalists. Read the whole thing.

  • Natalie Bennett, Philobiblon (2006-02-19): The baby choice, not the baby gap: Well I wanted many things when I was 21 – although I didn’t want children – and I don’t now want many of the same things. I didn’t want many of the same things when I was 25 or 30. At 21 you are still chiefly the product of your conditioning and upbringing – you are only just starting to grow up and construct yourself as an independent individual. No doubt many of those women later changed their minds, or decided that while a baby might be nice, it wasn’t their top priority. Also, no doubt, when they asked those early twenties women the question, they were thinking of having a baby as something that would happen in the far distant future – it is not a serious practical prospect. With, as I’ve reported before, 30 per cent plus of women in Scotland chosing not to have babies, when are the researchers (and the newspaper editors) going to recognise that this is a valid, sensible, entirely normal choice? Sometimes the demographic hand-wringers try to coerce you; other times they just try to hector you and generally treat you like an idiot. In either case, they’re acting like a bunch of bullies and need to drop it already. Anyway, read the whole thing.

  • Andy the Slack Bastard (2006-02-18): Burn-A-Flag-For-Lenin Week!: Andy has sort of an ongoing hilarious documentary on the weird, wild world of Marxist-Leninist splinter sects. It’s kind of like a form of neo-surrealist theatre in which the actors don’t realize that they’re part of a show. The latest? Confronted with a recent and continuing downturn in membership, the youth wing of the neo-Trotskyist Democratic Socialist Perspective appears to have hit upon a brand new (sic) idea to try and reverse the trend (or at least make a few dollars): selling flag-burning kits to University students. Commodification of dissent in the name of Communist dictatorship? The power is yours Australia! Read the whole thing.

  • Lab Kat (2006-02-20): The barefoot and pregnant crowd, Part III takes notice of Ypsilanti’s finest, Tom Monaghan. Now he’s planning to build his own city. No, not on rock and roll; on the mercy of Our Lady. I’m all for this clown building his own city. Get all the religious right nutjobs in the country to move there, away from those of us who don’t buy their dogmatic horseshit. Let them go play in their La-La Land while the rest of us live in the real world. Read the whole thing.

  • Meghan Sapp, Women’s eNews (2006-02-20): Fight to End Mutilation Hits Gritty Juncture looks at the hard work to come in the struggle against female genital mutilation in Africa: moving from international sentiments and governmental resolutions to actual change on the ground. Amid the surge in activities and reports, campaigners against the practice find themselves at a critical juncture. For nearly three years, they have been focused on persuading African Union leaders to ratify the Maputo Protocol. But now that is done, application of the anti-FGM provision at the national and local levels becomes the gritty political challenge. Of the 28 countries where genital mutilation is practiced, 14 countries have passed anti-FGM laws. But only Burkina Faso, Ghana and Kenya actively uphold those laws, according to the London-based Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development. Countries faced international pressure to ratify the Maputo Protocol, but within their own societies they face the opposition of many traditional ruling classes to cultural change. Read the whole thing.

  • Kieran Healy, Crooked Timber (2006-02-11): The Papers Continue Fatuous looks on aghast as Andrew Sullivan happily reprints e-mails from his ever-present Anonymous Liberal Reader explicitly pondering genocide against Muslims in Europe. Here’s the word from Betty Bleedheart: I’m honestly starting to suspect that, before this is over, European nations are going to have exactly four choices in dealing with their entire Moslem populations–for elementary safety’s sake: (1) Capitulate totally to them and become a Moslem continent. (2) Intern all of them. (3) Deport all of them. (4) Throw all of them into the sea. Kieran adds: It’s a hollow joke that Sullivan’s blog is graced by a tag-line taken from Orwell–and one about not being able to see what’s in front of your face, at that. … I certainly hope European countries are not about to capitulate to demands from some radical muslims that civil society be brought to an end for the sake of the prophet’s honor. … Nor, I take it, are they about to round up and dump all of them (for any value of them) into the sea. And if some countries have started down one or other of those roads, it certainly isn’t because some clerical thugs are so awesomely powerful that they are in a position to destroy the institutions of western democracy. You’ll have to look elsewhere to find people with the leverage to do real damage there. Read the whole thing.

  • tiffany at BlackFeminism.org (2006-02-20): SXSW Collective Brainstorming: Are you a gay blogger or a blogger who is gay? and Tensions between being speaking for yourself or for a group looks at identity blogging and asks some hard questions for those who do (or don’t) care to do it. Read the whole thing.

  • Marjorie Rosen, Los Angeles Times (2006-02-19): The lady vanishes — yet again takes an all-too-uncritical but sometimes interesting look at the declining prospects for women in the Hollywood star system. One of the better moments: The studios are nothing if not practical, suggests Michael Seitzman, the screenwriter of North Country. Hollywood would give a role to my dog if it would bring in an audience. The real question is not Why isn’t Hollywood creating roles for women? It’s Why aren’t audiences going to see them? Men aren’t interested in seeing movies about women anymore, but from the response to movies like In Her Shoes, it appears that women aren’t, either. But there may be a perception problem here. Could it be that because Hollywood produces so few movies featuring women’s stories, each one is held up to cold, hard and — dare I say it? — unfair scrutiny? Read the whole thing.

  • moiv, media girl (2006-02-21): If You Can’t Get EC at St. Elsewhere, Call Boston Legal, meanwhile, catches us up on the wit and wisdom of Catholic League president William Donahue, who informs us that the real problem is that Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, okay? And I’m not afraid to say it. … Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint. They believe in libertinism. We have nothing in common. But you know what? The culture war has been ongoing for a long time. Their side has lost. Oh it gets better — Donahue’s keeping files, you see. Big fat ones. Read the whole thing.

  • The Guardian NewsBlog (2006-02-20) reports that the occupation may soon be over, troops drawn down, and genuine independence at hand after a tricky political process … in Kosovo. Black Looks (2006-02-19) reports on the violence leading up to putatively open elections in Uganda. (All in the name of counter-terrorism, of course.) Ryan W. McMacken, LewRockwell.com Blog (2006-02-21) finds that red-blooded Iranians aren’t above some good old Liberty Cabbage idiocy.

  • The Guardian NewsBlog (2006-02-21): Milton Keynes: Shia inspiration watches the End of History rising over the ruins of Najaf, with a bit of help from the military-industrial complex. Come watch as the mauling of a holy city by the Warfare State is followed up with the worst that coercive, centralized Urban Renewal has to offer. For those who want to return to the glory days of Soviet-era architecture in Warsaw, I suppose. Read the whole thing.

  • rabble at Anarchogeek (2006-02-22): On the futility of creative commons suggests that the increasingly ubiquitous Creative Commons stickers and tags are useless, because they cater too much to the whims of publishers and don’t take a principled stand in favor of freedom. Looking through the guide, i realize that it’s not possible simply to replace the CC with something else. The problem is not that there aren’t good licenses, rather that the cultural war over ideas is being lost. We need a concept like GPL compatible or maybe even the less radical OSI compliant. I think that this may miss the point of what CC’s out to do in the first place, but it’s an interesting debate. Read the whole thing.

  • Jill, feministe (2006-02-20): Categorizing Race in the Bookstore reflects on the assets and liabilities of the African-American Interest (Women’s Studies, GLBT) bookshelves at your friendly neighborhood bookstore. Ghettoization? Useful classification? Both? Neither? Read the whole thing.

  • Discourse.net (2006-02-25): Florida Cops Intimidate Would-be Complainants picks out an amazing transcript of an attempt to get an official complaint form from the pigs. Via Boing-boing, a link to this absolutely amazing piece of investigative reporting: Police Station Intimidation–Parts 1 and 2 in which CBS4 News found that, in police departments across Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, large and small, it was virtually impossible to walk in the door, and walk out with a complaint form. … The TV station that broke the story reports that Remarkably, of 38 different police stations tested around South Florida, all but three had no police complaint forms yet it nonetheless felt obligated to introduce its report by saying that Most police officers are a credit to the badge, serving the community and the people who pay their salary, getting criminals off the street, making the community safer for everyone. Guess none of those guys happen to work the front desk, eh? Read the whole thing.

  • Echidne of the Snakes (2006-02-18): Virgins Matter More reports on how a man in Italy got a reduction in his sentence for raping his 14 year old stepdaughter because she wasn’t a virgin at the time she was raped. Because, you see, being forced to have sex against your will isn’t so bad if you’ve had sex already. The supreme court, apparently quoting from an amicus brief filed by Humbert Humbert, mused that the victim’s personality, from a sexual point of view, is much more developed than what would be normally expected of a girl of her age. Read the whole thing. But only on an empty stomach.

  • Laurelin in the Rain (2006-02-21): The Patriarchy Phrasebook: Occasionally (actually make that all the damn time), we rad fems find ourselves visited by Ambassadors from Planet Patriarchia, who speak in a language that is hard to understand, mostly because it’s less of a language and more of a code consisting of standard statements and arrogant presumptions. But never fear, for I am here with my dictionary of Commonly Used Phrases of Patriarchal Lackeys. These phrases are found variously in patriarchal literature, common conversation, newspapers, TV programmes, blog comments and shouted slogans when you’re minding your own frickin’ business. Read the whole thing.

Anticopyright. All pages written 1996–2018 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.