14 September 2009

Unspeak Returns

Little more than a month hanging up its hat, Unspeak is back. Now I might be jumping to conclusions, but it looks like this sudden and hopefully permanent return was brought about by a Johann Hari cash-in. This ended up as basically a potted summary of his journalistic output. There’s some very good points (about the “politics of envy”), some borrowed points that deserve an airing (the practice of labelling fair, rather than unfair, trade), some old grudges aired, some rather silly points that nonetheless raise an interesting point (that stuff about the Queen), and then some utter car-crashes of ham-fisted hypocrisy. Stephen Poole tackles most of the latter, concluding that
Hari is confusing “honest” with “argumentative, but on my side of the argument”.
Hari, in fact, seems to be unspeaking the term ‘unspeak’, using it not for words that deliberately distort language contain an unspoken argument within them, but for words he disagrees with. Which an intelligent, rational person who understands the term would never do.

You also get the classic Hari move of making a good point, then bollocksing it up (as I also mentioned in the Unspeak comments):
“Out of context.” I would allow this phrase to be used, but in highly restricted circumstances. Sometimes, a quote is taken out of context, but if you are going to make that accusation, you should be required to give the original context, and explain why the quote was wrong.
Absolutely great. If you’re going to claim you were misquoted, give the real quote. If you think someone got you wrong, put your money where your mouth is and set them straight. Give the context, and we’ll make up our minds if that makes it ok. It’s a great point, and Hari could have left off there and come off well. Unfortunately, he didn’t:
For example, when I revealed that Jake Chapman said his art-works performed "a good social service, like the children who killed Jamie Bulger," he simply said this was "stripped from the proper context." How? I have read it in context repeatedly and can't see his argument.
I haven’t read it in context [pdf] (well, I did ages ago but I forgot it) and I know exactly what he means. The Chapman brothers piss people off. They’re sort of upmarket hate-figures, for members of the chattering classes who consider all that child-murderer stuff a little too plebeian. And they do it very artfully, playing on the peculiar and irrational sensibilities of bourgeois art punters, scratching away at fetishes like “originals” (like with the Goya etchings) and “authenticity” (like with the African Ronald McDonalds), and by saying deliberately provocative things. Hari doesn’t get this. Hari also got very annoyed when his artistic sacred cows got satirised. But Hari also considers printing this context beneath him. We can read what the context wasn’t, if we’re really curious:
It wasn't preceded by a sentence saying "If I was an attention-seeking fool who didn't take anything seriously, I would say..."
But otherwise we have to keep the faith and assume that, because he read the quote in context and failed to understand it, he must be right about it.

But there was one interesting little story caught my eye. Hari’s take on it is that bland, statistical terms like ‘infant mortality’ don’t do them justice, which Stephen Poole makes short work of. But the story is:
In Malawi in southeast Africa, the country's soil became badly depleted by overuse, so the democratic government there adopted a sensible policy of subsidising fertiliser. The nation's hungry farmers were given sacks of it at a third of its real cost – and the country bloomed. Then the World Bank damned this as a "market distortion" and said that if Malawi wanted to keep receiving loans it had to stop them at once. So the subsidies stopped, and the country's crops failed.[...]Three years ago, the Malawian government finally told the World Bank to stick its loans, and subsidized fertiliser again. Now nobody there is starving, and the country is the single biggest exporter of corn to the World Food Programme in southern Africa.
Now, what we see here, is the triumph of rationalism over superstition. You have to remember, we’re dealing with a group with a very strong belief system and who can get quite aggressive and petulant when confronted with evidence to the contrary. This primitive people live in terror of what they call “market distortion”, which, they believe, brings bad luck and can make you uncompetitive.

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