Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A hecatomb of oxymorons

We seem to be living in an era of oxymorons. In addition to George Osborne's already discredited expansionary austerity (eat less and pile on the pounds), we recently had Sayeeda Warsi lecturing us about intolerant secularism. This gave me an idea for a new Viz-style cartoon, the Ungrateful Brats. Picture the scene: three scowling children find themselves in a park, faced by the kindly park-keeper.

Kids: What games can we play?
Parky: You can play any game you like, and so can anyone else who uses the park. Of course, you don't have to play a game if you don't want to. You can sit on a bench or feed the ducks.
Kids: You intolerant bastard!

I may have to work on it a bit more, but you get the general idea.

George Orwell's dystopian Newspeak deprecated adjectives and relied on nouns and verbs for its doublethink: war is peace, ignorance is strength etc. Lewis Carroll was perhaps more realistic when he has Humpty Dumpty say:
They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot!
It's the adjectives that you have to watch out for. Slippery buggers. Rather than change a word's meaning, just encourage it to keep the wrong sort of company. Of course we shouldn't be surprised that politicians can convince themselves that words mean just what they want them to mean. The question is whether they actually believe what they are saying.

Language abuse has become a matter of house style for the right in recent years. What started as cynical tactics by the tobacco industry leeched out into wider industry lobbies and neoliberal think tanks, and then washed over the levees into creationism. In recent years, the booming sector has been climate change. The key features are well known: equating scientific uncertainty with doubt, calling denial scepticism, misrepresenting "theory" as unproven, and defining beliefs (e.g. intelligent design) as competing theories.

David Frum, a rational American conservative, wrote a great piece a few months ago on the shift of the Republican party to the wilder shores of barmy. He describes this as the development of a market segment, the target for Fox News, talk radio and Tea Party merchandise. The nurturing of this segment depends on a beleaguered, paranoid worldview and the explicit rejection of alternative views as not just wrong but intentionally evil.

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.
He makes the point that the funding for this worldview comes from a small number of the super-rich, but that these aren't cynics manipulating the credulous, rather these shadowy billionaires actually believe the nonsense themselves.

For over sixty years we have assumed that Big Brother would arrive, if at all, via party and state. In the event, the proponents of 2+2=5 have arisen among, and been nurtured by, the freedom-loving entrepreneurs of the business world. How we all laughed about Steve Jobs's reality distortion field.

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