Following Vladimir Putin’s ambiguously threatening “partial mobilisation” speech, this seems an appropriate time to remind everyone that a single letter transposition turns UNCLEAR threats into NUCLEAR threats.
Britain’s presumptive next prime minister has been demonstrating the kind of top-drawer platitudes that the nation will be showered with after her investiture tomorrow:
“I have a bold plan that will grow our economy and deliver higher wages, more security for families and world-class public services,” Truss said in a statement, as the curtain came down on the often bitter race with her 42-year-old rival Sunak.
“If I am elected prime minister, I will never let anyone talk us down and I will do everything in my power to make sure our great nation succeeds.”
Now, this may be one of these Anglo-American language confusions (like the perennial embarrassment over “pants”), but when I hear the phrase “never let anyone talk us down” I think of an image like this:
The Guardian has an article today about the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to put an end to attempts by the London Metropolitan Police to punish women who participated in a vigil for Sarah Everard, the woman raped and murdered by a serving police officer.
Everard was abducted by Wayne Couzens as she walked home in south London, with the police officer pretending to be enforcing Covid rules to get her into his car. Couzens – now serving a whole-life sentence – drove the 33-year-old out of London, where she was raped and murdered.
Beyond the outrage of the police force using Covid rules to punish its critics, after one of their own used those rules to carry out a brutal rape and murder, there is the shocking fact that some of the women were “previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP)”, a process usually used for traffic violations and failure to pay television fees.
A very informative article, and generally sympathetic to the women targeted by the Met. But I am particularly struck by the Guardian’s choice of wording to describe the original crime. Couzens abducted the woman, raped her, and murdered her. Was it squeamishness or something else that led the Guardian journalist to say only that Couzens “[got] her into his car” and “was raped and murdered” — passive voice. One could imagine, if this report were all we knew of the story, that Met officer Couzens was as shocked as anyone else when the poor woman who “got into his car” ended up dead, at the hands of some unknown malefactor.
Donald Trump’s home has been raided by the FBI. While there has been no official announcement of the object of the raid, most are assuming that the government is looking for official documents that the former president may have taken with him from the White House. And particular concern has been raised about possible secret (classified) documents. This raises an interesting legal question, because it is generally accepted that the president has broad latitude to classify and declassify any information.
One of the great texts of modern Anglo-American philosophy of language is J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The title is brilliant, of course, and it compelled me to pick it up off a friend’s bookshelf and read it before I’d ever heard of it or knew how significant it was. As someone who had immersed himself as a teenager in the early twentieth century mathematico-logical approach to Austin’s simple point was a revelation: Language is not solely (or even mainly) about making statements about the world that can be judged on their truth value. (Wittgenstein had already led me into this terrain, but Austin is much more concrete, and not so oracular.)
Austin’s point is that there is a whole class of “speech acts”: Verbal utterances that are not true or false, but actions. Examples are
- Making a promise;
- Naming something (e.g., a ship christening, one of Austin’s examples);
- Issuing a challenge, bet, or threat;
- Marrying (meaning here, performing the ceremony, though also one of the parties making marriage vows);
- Making an order;
- Handing down a legal ruling.
Crucial to Austin’s analysis is that we need different categories for describing the success of such utterances. Not truth, but appropriateness. Basically, there needs to be an accepted conventional procedure for conducting this act at a certain time, with agreement that the procedure has a certain effect, and such that the role of uttering the words has an established role in the procedure. And this procedure must have been carried out in the correct circumstances by appropriate people, and in the correct manner.
Which brings us back to the sticky-fingered former president. One of Trump’s lackeys is insisting that Trump can’t have broken the law regarding classified information, because he declassified all of it before he stole it. (Regardless of whether the information officially classified, he presumably still contravened the Presidential Records Act by taking the government documents, but that seems like a more politically venial crime than mishandling classified information.)
“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified,” Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and, briefly, a Pentagon employee, told Breitbart in May.
“I was there with President Trump when he said ‘We are declassifying this information,’” Patel added.
There is an established procedure for declassifying documents, which may be invoked by a president, but it is more complicated than the president simply declaring “I declassify thee”. (For one thing, how would you define the blast radius of such an order? Has the president declassified all information held by the government? Everything written on papers in the general direction the president is gesturing at? What about an encrypted laptop in the same room?) “Per a 2009 executive order, markings on classified material need to be updated to reflect changes in their status.”
Patel went on to suggest that Trump had been betrayed, but that his order to “declassify” should retain legal force.
“It’s petty bureaucracy at its finest, government simpletons not following a president’s orders to have them marked ‘declassified,’” Patel said. “The president has unilateral authority to declassify documents — anything in government. He exercised it here in full.”
In Austin’s framework, there is a conventional procedure being invoked here, and the president is the appropriate person to invoke it. But the procedure was not carried out in the correct manner. It is rather as though an eager couple in a hurry appears in church. They haven’t registered their marriage (28 days required by law in England), and they don’t have time for a full ceremony. The priest says “I declare you married” and sends them on their way.
Trump’s lackey treats this as a mere matter of “petty bureaucracy”, but the need to exercise power through formal procedures is an important check on autocracy. In the Third Reich the Führer’s will was paramount, even if it had not been expressed. Germans were supposed to “work toward the Führer”. Requiring explicit instructions in specific forms creates a modicum of transparency and accountability.
There’s a certain formality two-step here that is immensely corrosive of public responsibility. You start with the observation, the president has the right to do X if he chooses. It’s a plenary power, potentially dangerous, so it is hemmed in by various complications and procedures. In particular, he needs to explicitly invoke the power. Which you can’t do in the required specificity to an unlimited extent. And then you start to say, well, it’s his power, he could exercise it any time he wants, so it’s mere pettifogging to insist that he actually have done that rigmarole of invoking, and pretty soon everyone is just working toward the leader, guessing what the law currently is.
I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.
Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as
“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”
To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.
I’m all in favour of naming Covid variants after Greek letters — not least because there is a fixed number of them, so when we teach omega presumably we know we’re finished. Clearly, though, people at WHO recognised that alphabetical order needed to be superseded when the next major horror was due to be designated Nu. I’m sure the WHO was seeking to head off the following awkward conversation a few months from now:
Have you heard the news about Covid?
About the new Covid variant?
Sure. I had it a couple of months ago.
You can’t have had it a couple of months ago. It’s new.
Nu. That’s what I said. It knocked me out for a week.
That’s the old variant.
Wait, the nu variant is old?
Hold on a minute. How many variants have you got?
Well, you got your alpha variant, your delta variant, then your nu variant, and then this here variant that got discovered just recently.
It’s pretty new isn’t it. Kind of like a new variant.
Oh, no, the experts on TV say it had twenty different mutations from the nu variant.
So if I came down with this… novel variant, and I went to the hospital, and they sequenced the virus, could they tell me which variant I have?
And what would they tell me?
They’d tell you you have the new variant. No reason to keep it secret.
And if it’s not that one?
Then it’s probably the nu variant.
But it’s the old variant.
Called the new variant.
WHO calls out that.
I recently heard someone giving a talk, use an expression that I hadn’t heard in some time, referring to a task of overwhelming scale as “like boiling the ocean”. In this age of climate change, could we agree that boiling the ocean no longer seems like such a daunting task, much less a paradigmatically desireable goal?
There’s a tiny lake in Oxford, Hinksey Lake, between a park and the railway tracks, somewhat used for recreation. I was there recently for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I found there were new signs warning people away from swimming — too little avail, as far as I could see — because of the danger of industrial waste dumped below the surface. I could think of many things you might call such a location, such as a “hazardous waste site” or “industrial trash dump”. But in Oxford they call it a “site of industrial heritage”. Sounds like something you might want to make a point of visiting.
The article seems to have good intentions, but this headline in today’s Guardian is the most sexist I’ve seen in some time. It sounds like the men were hard at work “creating language”, and some women helped out with some testing, and maybe brought snacks. Also some Neanderthals came by and lent a hand. And apes.