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Saturday, September 14, 2002

Polly Technique

I am not, by training, a writer. Anyone who reads this blog will have noticed that. Sometimes I look at what I've written and cringe, but after I've wracked my brains trying to come up with something better it's either publish a flawed post or none at all. Not that you, imaginary readers, will care, but it was a lot of work to type, and I hate for it to go to waste.

I blame my scientific training. When we write for publications, the passive voice is always to be used. See, I did that---changed from active to passive voice,right in the middle of sentence---completely without thinking. It came naturally to me. Precise words must also be used. Synonyms are frowned upon, so the writing starts to get repetitive. It also gets long, since shorthand phrases which would lead the reader quickly from A to M to Z cannot be used; we must carefully visit every step in between.

And then there are the stupid words. In my biz, "extincted" is a perfectly good word, although I cringe every time I write or say it. Why not "extinguished"? I've always been too embarrassed to ask. "Problematic" shows up a lot. "Extrapolation of the conditions attending the formation of $FOO to the formation of $BAR is problematic." That's the kind of thing a lot of people would write, satisfied that they had been properly passive yet authoritative. But I just can't read that kind of thing at speed. I would write, "It is not useful to compare the conditions under which $FOO is formed to those under which $BAR is formed, since they are very different." That's clumsy, and stilted, but clearer. Unfortunately, when I read clear scientific prose (e.g., mine), it sounds childish.

Now all this is leading up to why I hesitate to criticize writers for their writing, as opposed to their ideas. Unless they just go plumb overboard (as Norah Vincent did the other day), I can't help thinking that my writing could not stand the same scrutiny. But there are some things that are just so egregious you can't let them pass.

And so we come to Polly Toynbee, writing the other day in the Wanker. Misha the rottweiler has already chewed off her kneecaps for the ideas, but didn't really touch the writing.

The last emperor


There he stood, this unlikely emperor of the world, telling the UN's 190 nations how it is going to be. The assembled nations may not be quite the toothless Roman senate of imperial times...

There's nothing wrong with these lines per se. But I'm wondering if I can get a UN resolution passed that will declare a moratorium on comparisons of the US with the Roman Empire. Aside from the concentration of power, there are very few similarities; but a crisis seldom passes where this mangy old nag is not trotted out for the entertainment and edification of all.

Of course, the resolution would instantly be ignored, but at least I could claim the moral high ground because Pilger/Monbiot/Fisk/Kingsolver/Rall/Falwell/Chomsky/Robertson/Toynbee had violated a half-witted UN resolution. That's pretty much the purpose of UN resolutions, anyway.

He [Bush] pointed his silver-tongued gun with some delicacy...

"...unlike any man she had known before, sending her into paroxyms of ecstacy. She cried aloud, nameless words unuttered since Adam first took Eve..."

"silver-tongued gun" Bleah. This is porn for people who don't know what kind of sex they're having.

The skills of the best speech writer could not blot out the gulf between last year's rhetoric and the reality that followed.

The skills of the best speech writer probably would not have produced "blot out the gulf". "Bridge the gulf", "span the gulf", "fill the gulf"---cliches, maybe, but those are what you do with gulfs. If you really cannot stand cliche, you might "ride a rocket-powered motorcycle across the gulf". But to "blot out the gulf" makes me want to try to erase the Grand Canyon with my thumb.

So Bush's conjured images of a postwar Iraq, peaceful and democratic, sounded like empty phantasms.

Are phantasms ever full?

Even so, good words are still preferable to bad ones.

Nothing wrong here; she just might've thought of that while she was conjuring up "empty phantasms".

The only ones who hope the UN fumbles are the Rumsfeld/Cheney warriors who want no straitjacket, no option for Saddam to avoid the war now sharpening its knives on his borders.

Chock full 'o metaphors! "fumbles", "warriors", straitjacket"---she can't decide whether they're football players, soldiers, or mental patients. And then the payoff, the "war now sharpening its knives". Do wars own knives? Do wars own anything tangible? Is this a throwback to those romantic days of "war" personified, when Mars walked freely among men?

Fermenting terror, recruiting generations of terrorists to come, the cure looks worse than the disease.

Phew, I hate the smell of fermenting terror. That's when you really know it's time to take out the trash. I wonder if she thought she was saying "fomenting" here?

You'd think that if you were going to write for a newspaper that boasts an international reputation that you could at least cobble together some prose that doesn't have the effect of biting into an ice cold tinfoil sandwich.

She concludes with yet more Rome metaphor. Now here is where you're going to see that I lie like a dog. I said I was just going to go after her writing, but now I'm going to take a poke at her ideas as well.

In a shocking fit of logic, she dismisses any motives of ooooiiillll, since they would argue for appeasing Saddam, not antagonizing him. At a loss for another explanation for Bush's "obsession", she comes up with this:

No, it appears to spring from a new ideology, a neo-conservative dream which Charles Krauthammer, guru of the right, calls the US's "uniquely benign imperium". Hyperpower is not enough unless it is exerted so forcefully that no state ever again challenges benign US authority. One thing was made crystal clear yesterday - there is no other source of authority but America, and that means there is no other law but US law. What the US wants, the UN had better solemnise with a suitable resolution - very like the Roman senate and one of its lesser god-emperors. But this is not the real America. A small cultish sect is battling for the "imperium" within this bizarre administration, resisted by mainstream Republicans...

And this is why I want that Moratorium on Roman Analogies. It was bound to happen to someone, sooner or later. Her constant Rome comparisons have driven her into a sort of pundit's frenzy, where her metaphors do not model reality, they have become reality: America is like Rome...America is like Rome...America is Rome...yesterday, the Emperor of Rome stood before the United Nations...

It will come as no surprise to blog readers that there's an international (which means many of them are Americans) cadre of people who somehow believe that America's might should belong to the world. Certainly, it looks as if many European leaders believe the US military exists to implement European foreign policy. Toynbee seems to be one of these people, as in this even more over-written screed from 2000, in which she criticizes the US for not getting more involved in the world. A similar theme makes its way into this article from last December. Over a column filled with rejoicings at the positive outcomes of the Afghan campaign is this subhead: "Afghanistan is free and America remains engaged with the world"

(This article, by the way, is a good resource for looking up quotes about the brutal Afghan winter and the invincible Taliban.)

But, oops, if the US should "engage" with the world on its own terms, that's a Bad Thing: "If Iraq is the next target despite global opposition then the world will indeed have a maverick, rogue superpower on the loose." (Poor Polly! Last December she was still optimistic that this wasn't going to happen.) And apparently she believes this despite lacking any sympathy for Saddam Hussein. In September 13th's column she notes that he's oppressing his own people and is a general blight on the face of the globe. "None would mourn his passing."

But if the world cannot be convinced of this (say, because much of the world is "led" by men who would love to be Hussein but can't quite acquire the power), then the US must stand down. Better that nothing be done, even when the cause is just, than that the US do it alone. Otherwise it would be a "rogue superpower", toppling governments at will.

Never mind that the danger of the US bombing China over video piracy, or Canada over oil, or France just for the sheer hell of it, is pretty slim. Never mind that the US is the laziest, most disinterested "empire" that ever has been, or ever will be, known. The US is Rome, Rome was bad, therefore the US is bad.

She starts her reasoning as well as her article with a Roman metaphor, and, having travelled in circles, arrives at her own premise, mistaking it for her logically-derived conclusion.

(By the way, no vicious critique of someone's writing skills would be complete without an error of its own. Find it!)