New functions for old clichés: Conditions for passing through an open door

Mixed cliches are nothing unusual for journalists, but the interview this morning on Deutschlandfunk with their Brussels correspondent about the EU stance toward the current protests in the Ukraine, and the failure of democracy there, offered an unusually innovative abuse of cliché.

Speaking of the negotiated association treaty that has already been negotiated between the EU and Ukraine, she says

Die Tür bleibt offen. Die Bedingungen, dass durch diese offene Tür gegangen werden kann… die bleiben die gleichen.

The door is open. The conditions for being permitted to pass through the door remain as they were.

Now, in reality I could have an open door — the front door of my house, say — and nonetheless impose conditions for people being allowed to pass through the door. (In Texas I might even be permitted to shoot people who pass through the open door.) But is a metaphorical open door with conditions still an open door? Is the “open door” in this sentence actually serving any function? Perhaps it is best described as a “hurdle”. Or she might have said, the door to finalising this agreement has been shut, until certain conditions have been met.

I imagine some further applications of this principle:

Yes, this issue is a hot potato. But no one minds grasping it, because it happens to be sheathed in asbestos.

The jury is still out on that… But it has already delivered its verdict in writing.

He is on Death’s doorstep. Fortunately, it appears that Death is currently subletting the property to a less lethal tenant just now.

Kristallnacht 75th anniversary edition anti-Israel smackdown

I want to follow up my critique of Eric Alterman’s critique of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath by posing the question: What would a useful critique of the book look like? 

One thing that really goads Alterman is when Blumenthal draws analogies between present-day Israel and Germany in the 1930s. I understand his vexation. The Nazis did lots of things: They ran food drives for hungry citizens in the winter. They built highways. They promoted groundbreaking research proving the link between smoking and cancer. They banned interracial marriage. They invaded neighbouring (and not-so-neighbouring) countries. They set up a vast industry devoted to systematically murder of the Jews of Europe. The first were acts of responsible government. Those in the middle are serious offences against common morality and international order, but in no way unique to that regime. The last is sui generis, and among the most heinous crimes ever committed.  While “acting like Nazis” could, logically, refer to food relief or cancer research, people who apply the term to their political enemies are generally referring to the middle crimes — sadly commonplace as they are — but hoping to imply guilt by association to the uniquely heinous crimes of the Nazis. As applied to Israel, it started as a tool for German leftists in the 1960s to process their inherited sense of guilt without actually having to abandon old habits of antisemitism. If the Jews are the real Nazis, that solves all the problems at one stroke: They could hate their fascist parents and the Jews. The overtones are slightly different in other countries, but it is generally noxious.

Blumenthal titles one of his chapters “The Night of Broken Glass”, in reference to the night 75 years ago today, when a nationwide wave of anti-Jewish pogroms was partly instigated and partly tolerated by the German state. He is quoting one of the victims, an African asylum-seeker, who uses this analogy not out of some anti-Jewish animus, but because he learned about Kristallnacht in the Israeli school that he attended.

So, what would have been a useful critique of Blumenthal? Rather than simply announcing his outrage, Alterman might have provided some evidence that, whereas the German pogroms were a step toward direct state-sponsorship of violence against Jews, the anti-African riots were just riots, just race riots like those that happen in many different countries at different times. Blumenthal quotes a member of the ruling Likud party egging on the mob by declaring “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” That sounds pretty bad, as does the result of a poll finding that 52% of Jewish Israelis agree with the sentiment, and the small number of members of the Israeli parliament who were willing to criticise the violence. So, what’s the context? Maybe the small number was really a large number. Or maybe the real official crackdown on racist violence occurred in a different forum, something that outsiders don’t quite understand. At a pinch, maybe Alterman could find some establishment Israelis not identified with the extreme left who publicly oppose violence against non-Jews.

For example, he might have come up with the incident where the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, not one of the usual “bleeding hearts”, who visited a Palestinian village where a mosque had been burned down by Jewish militants. “I came here to expression my revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people,” he said. But this might have been uncomfortable for Ackerman to cite, because the Rabbi goes on to compare the arson to… Kristallnacht: “This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe.” So it turns out, he’s just another one of those crazy leftists making outrageous comparisons between Jews and Nazis.

I think Alterman’s core of his criticism of Blumenthal is contained in this statement:

 He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context.

I agree! I’d even be willing to wager that Blumenthal agrees. He then wants to apply this homily to the case at hand: “And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative.”

So now’s where we get the context, the real proof of what Blumenthal has been deceiving us with, and it is… something about the unreliability of the guy who said Mossad agents sometimes pose as El Al employees. With all the racist incitement, police-statism, political abuse, and wanton violence that runs through this book, this is the incident that Alterman thinks really cries out for context? It almost makes you think… maybe Blumenthal isn’t so off-the-wall after all. If Alterman spends thousands of words, but can’t “contextualise” any of the really grave accusations, maybe Goliath is essentially accurate.

Or maybe Alterman is a sleeper agent for the Fatah propaganda ministry. Certainly I’d say Alterman’s essay itself belongs right at the front of the “I Hate Israel” handbook he raves about — at least, the postmodern edition. By throwing himself into the fray as Israel’s supposed defender, and then offering a nearly content-free rant — lots of material about how no one is reading Goliath, so really it’s an act of charity that he even deigns to spit on it, no explanation of what the significant errors or deceptions are — he conveys the impression that Israel really has no rational defence.

With friends like this, Israel doesn’t need enemies

After reading Goliath, Max Blumenthal’s damning and highly disturbing account of racism and human rights abuses in Israel, I was eager to see what the other side was saying. Israel has many passionate defenders, and Blumenthal is a blatantly partisan writer (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), and not a Middle East expert — except in that he spent years in Israel researching this book — and doesn’t even seem to speak either of the major languages of the region, so I assumed there would at least be plausible basis for charging Blumenthal with major distortions, errors of fact, or concealing important context.

What I found was this article in The Nation by Eric Alterman. (Followed by this response from Blumenthal, and this counter-response from Alterman.) Alterman is obviously a strong supporter of Israel, obviously smart and competent, and those very facts make his article effectively a defence of Blumenthal’s book. You have to think, if this is all an enraged and intelligent opponent can come up with, the book must be pretty solid.

Because what he comes up with is, essentially, nothing. There’s plenty of invective and playground insults. It’s a “dreadful book” that could have been published by the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club” (not just that — Alterman insists that this is “no exaggeration”). Again and again he ridicules the insignificance of the book: “I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book.” He rightly derides Blumenthal’s annoying Chomsky-esque tic of larding his descriptions with judgemental adjectives.

And yet, when he hauls out against the book’s substance, his attacks range from the trivial to the bizarrely false. He takes issue with Blumenthal introducing a quote from Burl Katznelson by describing him as Labour Zionism’s “chief ideologue”, saying that this characterisation exists “exclusively in the author’s imagination”. When Blumenthal cites several Labour party leaders using this term, Alterman replies that he’s sure this is a bad translation of whatever it is they said in Hebrew. Well, maybe, but that hardly sounds like a hanging offence. Similarly, they get into a tussle over whether Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s theological and philosophical writings are appropriately described as “talmudic exegesis”. On the other hand, Blumenthal accuses Israel in great detail of systematic harassment of activists, ongoing dispossession of non-Jews, failure to enforce the rule of law with regard to the murder of Arabs and migrants (not even to mention the theft of their property), and official winking at eliminationist racist propaganda. Again, amid all that, if the sharpest criticism he can think of is that some of the chapter titles are overly harsh… The only charge of Alterman’s that is both modestly serious and true is his criticism of Blumenthal’s comment that Mossad agents pose as El Al airline employees to collect information about passengers, which turns out to be based on accusations of a single fired employee. This is pretty thin stuff to do the work that Alterman wants it to, of discrediting the entire book.

Instead, Alterman manufactures quotes or rips them out of context to try to portray Blumenthal as foolish or deceptive. (When caught manipulating a quote, Alterman apologises, saying he “misread it”. Fair enough, if slightly hard to explain. But the fact that Alterman has managed to botch one quote in a 1000-word blog post should give him pause in bashing Blumenthal for his translation of the Hebrew word for “ideologue”.)

Above all, Alterman clearly doesn’t like the fact that Blumenthal isn’t showing proper deference to his elders — he describes Blumenthal as ‘lecturing’ both Ha’Aretz editor Aluf Benn and novelist David Grossman, exactly the kind of tiresome rhetoric that he chided Blumenthal for. He never engages with any of Blumenthal’s arguments, accounts, and accusations, and instead simply spews contempt for Blumenthal and all of his readers, as when he writes “If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book.” I’m not at all sure what Alterman means to say with this — something like that the only people who would read Goliath are Hamas sympathisers. Of course, Alterman himself has read the book (apparently) but he’s not one of his READERS. Presumably this is some leftist trope that outsiders can’t quite grok. Maybe if I’d been to Woodstock…

New lows in modern copy-editing

NYTimes screenshot 24-10-13, 10:53 amThe NY Times has, right at the top of its current web site, misspelled the name of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. I’m inclined to say that this is not the sort of fast-breaking news where the requirement of speed overrides the demands of careful copy-editing.

For clarification, the figure on the right is not Merkel. I’m not even sure he’s German.

Health selection bias: A choose your own preposition contest

Back when I was in ninth grade, we were given a worksheet where we were supposed to fill in the appropriate conjunction in sentences where it had been left out. One sentence was “The baseball game was tied 0 to 0, ——– the game was exciting.” Not having any interest in spectator sports, I guessed “but”, assuming that no score probably meant that nothing interesting had happened. This was marked wrong, because those who know the game know that no score means that lots of exciting things needed to happen to prevent scoring. Or something.

With that in mind, fill in the appropriate preposition in this sentence:

Death rates in children’s intensive care units are at an all-time low ————— increasing admissions, a report has shown.

If you chose despite you would agree with the BBC. But a good argument could be made that because of or following a period of. That is, if you think about it, it’s at least as plausible — I would say, more plausible — to expect increasing admissions to lead to lower death rates. The BBC is implicitly assuming that the ICU children are just as sick as ever, and more of them are being pushed into an overburdened system, so it seems like a miracle if the outcomes improve. Presumably someone has done something very right.

But in the absence of any reason to think that children are getting sicker, the change in numbers of admissions must mean a different selection criterion for admission to the ICU. The most likely change would be increasing willingness to admit less critically ill children to the ICU, which has the almost inevitable consequence of raising survival rates (even if the effect on the sickest children in the ICU is marginally negative).

When looking at anything other than whole-population death rates, you always have the problem of selection bias. This is a general complication that needs to be addressed when comparing medical statistics between different systems. For instance, an increase of end-of-life hospice care, it has been pointed out, has the effect of making hospital death rates look better. (Even for whole-population death rates you can have problems caused by migration, if people tend to move elsewhere when they are terminally ill. This has traditionally been a problem with Hispanic mortality rates in the US, for instance.)

Is “shrill” gender-coded?

The Dish recently quoted a correspondent who, on his or her way to making a point about Chinese tourists wrote

This all has a cogent economic explanation. Paul Krugman, before his current role as shrill liberal attack dog, used to explain…

I found this comment irritating, for reasons that were not immediately clear to me. I have enormous respect for Paul Krugman, both in his earlier incarnation as a populariser of economic theory — particularly trade theory, but also macroeconomics — and as a blogger and twice-weekly columnist who occasionally veers away from economic issues. I think he has a healthy appreciation for his own intellectual strengths, but that he mostly stops short of egotistic attachment to his pet theories, whether defending past statements or being overly sure of his predictions. But I can’t say that there is no basis for someone to think that his tone is overly aggressive, that his political analysis is weak, that even his economic analysis may be distorted by political wishful thinking or antagonism. Those aren’t my opinions, but they’re widely held, and don’t seem to me outrageous.

But what is the role of shrill in that sentence? It’s not a word I hear often, but maybe it’s common in some circles. What does it mean? It’s clearly a free-floating insult, which somehow suggests derangement due to becoming overly emotional, and as such merely replicates “attack dog”. And yet “shrill” seems more contemptuous. What does it mean? Imagine replacing it by strident. It has the same signification with regard to the strength of advocacy, but the contempt is gone. So, is the contempt associated with high-pitched speech? Is this something like bitch, or the dialectical equivalent of “he throws like a girl”? Or is it taking the place of the free-form homosexual slurs that used to be ubiquitous, but are now no longer permitted?

“Could be of benefit to terrorists”: Theresa May channels Al Franken

One of the more ingenious bits of political satire that I have seen in recent years was a Saturday Night Live sketch (apparently conceived by Al Franken) that parodied the use of out-of-context quotes or intentional misunderstanding of words in political advertisements. This was during the 2008 US presidential election, and was directed at John McCain, but there was no shortage of alternative targets; and Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential election campaign exceeded even the satire.

The sketch showed McCain in a sound studio, recording the “I approved this message” message, purely as a frame for showing a succession of increasingly ridiculous ads. In one, an ominous voice says,

Barack Obama says he wants universal health care. Really? Health Care for the whole universe? [pictures of spiral galaxies] Even for Osama bin Laden? [pictures of Obama and bin Laden next to each other]

It proceeds to my favourite, the same ominous voice intoning that “Barack Obama says he wants to provide tax breaks to child molesters”. At that the McCain character asks, is that true? The advertising executive explains that Obama has proposed giving tax breaks to all Americans, and that would certainly include child molesters.

I thought of this when I heard about this recent BBC interview with Home Secretary Theresa May, explaining why the police were justified in using anti-terrorism laws to interrogate David Miranda, who was suspected of nothing other than ferrying documents that the UK wanted to keep secret between two journalists. Despite the fact that the law seems to allow detention only for the purpose of ascertaining whether the person detained is a terrorist, May argues that the information he was carrying “could be of benefit to terrorists”. Of course, as William Saletan has pointed out, this is a climb-down from the Home Office’s earlier language that Miranda carried “information that would help terrorism”, and that many people believe — and certainly the journalists and their publishers seem to believe — that publishing this information would help everyone. If it helps terrorists, then only incidentally.

Or, as Theresa May would have rewritten the SNL sketch,

Glenn Greenwald and Eric Snowden say they want to provide secret information about US and UK espionage activities to al Qaeda.

The Home Office strikes back

The UK government has been aggressively defending its decision to interrogate Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda for his links to Edward Snowden’s purloined NSA files. The Guardian reports

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government and the police have a duty to protect the public and our national security. If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that. Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.”

Notably lacking from this utilitarian justification is a legal justification. As I remarked here, schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which they seem to be using as their legal framework, interrogation is permitted only to determine whether the person is a terrorist, where a “terrorist” is specifically defined as a person who “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

Absent from this list is “possessing information that would help terrorism”. The rest is just a smear, and the insinuation of what the journalists are “condoning” is just disgusting, reminiscent of the “fellow traveller” smears of the 50s.

Billions or millions?

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.41.23

This headline is on the Guardian home page at 11:30 PST (no link, because it’s presumably going to be changed). I thought $3.6bn seemed like an unimaginably large sum for copyright infringement related to a single photo, and indeed, when I clicked through I found

A photographer who failed to see the funny side of a Buzzfeed post on “The 30 Funniest Header Faces” is suing the site for $3.6m (£2.3m) over claims it breached his copyright.

Billions or millions? It seems important… And that’s not even mentioning the fact that I thought British billions were actually American trillions, which would push the error up by another factor of a thousand.

Not the Lake Wobegon Hospital

From the front page of the West County Times:

Death rates at Bay Area hospitals vary widely, new report reveals

While some hospitals excelled at keeping patients alive, more than half of institutions around the Bay Area had worse-than-average death rates for at least one medical procedure or patient condition in 2010 and 2011, a new state report reveals.