Saturday, January 24, 2015


While I think we can all agree that novelist Howard Jacobson has a point here about the uses of the word "but", I notice that US blogger Jim Henley made exactly the same point two weeks ago, and somehow managed to do so without also being a dick about it.  Saying that, I'm not certain that Howard has chosen particularly representative examples, but he's not just blowing smoke here.

Still, I think we need to add a couple of "buts" of our own to Howard's chucklesome, high-fiving fatwa on the conjunction.

- Perhaps I'm naive, but I assume that there was once a point in time when it wasn't necessary to proclaim that you were not in favour of e.g. murder and mayhem, as the cover price that permitted you to make a point of your own. 

I try to just take it for granted that other folk aren't big fans of shooting people and so on and then allow the conversation to prove me either right or wrong, but I concede that this isn't universal. Maybe it doesn't strike anyone else as strange that in order to state that, for instance, bombing and occupying other countries is usually a bad idea, so many people require you to also announce that you do not think flying planes into skyscrapers is nice. 

I could be wrong here and actually, it's been ever thus.  Perhaps our cavemen ancestors used to sit around fires on cold winter nights, accusing each other of being overly soft on Neanderthals or demanding lengthy and specific condemnations of sabre-toothed tigers.

Nonetheless though, I'm fairly convinced that this is a more recent phenomenon, only sharpened by certain events at the start of the 21st century, and that we're no better off for it*.

- And non-coincidentally, there's a use of the word "but" that Howard himself rarely uses in political contexts, and it goes like this -

"I agree with you, but"...

For those who aren't familiar with the construction, this is how people indicate that they concur with points being made and would like to add further points for equal or advisory consideration.

In order to make use of this form of "but" however, it's first necessary to consider the possibility that your interlocutor may be reasonable, honest and humane.

So it's easy to see why Howard finds the word so vexing.  To put it politely, it's noticeable that he isn't often troubled by such considerations or, indeed, any discernable doubts about his own certainties at all.

- And let's end by noting that this is roughly the eight-hundredth post-Paris killings political column to screech, wave its arms around and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon people who say that cartoonists deserve to be shot, while containing absolutely no examples of any person saying that cartoonists deserve to be shot.

I think we're now past the point where this kind of behaviour can be charitably considered to be accidental.

*At this point, let me assure you that I'm not in favour of flying planes into skyscrapers.  Not only do I condemn it, but I execrate and reject it, decry and denounce it, and aver that anyone who does such things must be very, very evil in the head. 


organic cheeseboard said...

Firstly, I'm not a massive fan on Chomsky, and haven't read much of his stuff. BUT! The piece Jacobson seems to be referring to is this one:

I really can't see how it adheres to the caricatured argument which Jacobson is trying to describe it as. If anything it's doing what Jacobson wants - saying 'the Charlie Hebdo murders were bad, and all instances of killing journalists for the crime of being journalists are wrong - so we should strongly condemn it whenever it happens'. There's no 'but' in it at all, from what i can see.

Jacobson says:

how about, “Gunning down the staff of Charlie Hebdo was an atrocity, ‘but’ Israel kills journalists in Gaza.” Would anyone say that? Unless I dreamt it, Noam Chomsky just has.

He hasn't, though. What he's said is that when the USA and its allies intentionally kill journalists simply because they are journalists, they go as far as parading it as a PR triumph, and nobody makes nearly as much fuss as they did over the Charlie Hebdo massacre where journalists were murdered for the crime of being journalists. Chomsky is really clear, in fact:

The more we can blame some crimes on enemies, the greater the outrage; the greater our responsibility for crimes -- and hence the more we can do to end them -- the less the concern, tending to oblivion or even denial.

And that denial is everywhere in Jacobson's piece. For instance:

What principle of pure truth guides Chomsky when he equivalises a journalist killed in crossfire in Gaza with the cartoonists mowed down with malice aforethought in Paris? And while he wants us to see a parity in these deaths, the fervency of his reasoning declares him to be more outraged by those in Gaza.

The last of these points is perhaps the strongest, but it is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and goes back to the old tired debate about whether or not the fact that there is 'more we can do to end' crimes committed by the states we live in means that we should get more upset about them than those by states we have no influence over. Personally I fail to see how Jacobson isn't totally guilty of this 'relativism' seeing as he spends half his time writing truly terrible columns about the sexualisation of strictly come dancing, with so many worse things going on in the world, but hey.

Also - is it me or is that 'malice aforethought' horrible writing? sounds clunky, and really doesn't need to.

The very worst part of Jacobson's piece, though, is typical of him - his approach to Israeli military actions. He is literally lying in the article - journalists weren't simply 'killed in crossfire' in Gaza, Israel intentionally killed several journalists, bombing their houses and cars.

Then, of course, Jacobson claims at the end that actually for anyone he doesn't like, in reality the USA and Israel are to blame for everything bad that ever happens. No evidence, of course - who needs that when you have wretchedly unfunny musings on whether cussing people's mums is fair game?

I really, really don't understand why people think HJ is either a good writer or a deep thinker. He's neither.

flyingrodent said...

I'm pushed for time here but, Jesus Christ. If that's really the comments by Chomsky that Howard's talking about, then his Indy column is absolute gibberish. Not only does he attribute foolish statements to unnamed people, the one example he uses doesn't involve anyone making such statements.

And I note that it's been widely shared by people who should know better as a wonderful example of how to skewer NC's mendacity. It makes that Emma Brockes interview debacle look like Pulitzer stuff.

organic cheeseboard said...

In his defence, he's clearly writing about Chomsky's general approach to stuff, albeit again with no examples - but that makes his singling out of this one 'example' all the weirder, since he's obviously not giving Chomsky any intellectual charity whatsoever.

The worst part is the bit where he says 'unless I dreamt it' - not only a horrible cliche, but also Jacobson DID 'dream' it, i.e. he closed his eyes and invented what Chomsky was saying, to suit his own pre-established worldview.

again, I'm not a big Chomsky fan, but the level of intellectual rigour in that one piece by him pisses all over the supposedly 'wise' Jacobson, who'se pretty much made up every argument he's meant to be 'demolishing', from a great height.

Just did a Twitter search and saw Aaro enthusiastically retweeting the HJ article. David Conn replies in pretty masterful manner making these points better than I could (HJ inventing Chomsky's argument and badly misrepresenting Israeli killings of journos) - and Aaro says 'He is drawing a distinction between journalists killed in war-zones and those gunned down on purpose' - without pausing to wonder whether, say, the journalists whose homes were blown up with precision shells might have been, er, killed on purpose. some were, it's true, killed in e.g. markets being shelled in the last Gaza onslaught - but others were very clearly murdered with 'malice aforethought'.

flyingrodent said...

I thought it was a hilarious piece even if only on the general level of "Not intentionally being as much of a dick about everything as possible", but an actual look at what Chomsky is saying there makes it look really, really shitty, brazenly dishonest and nasty.

The basic point being made here is that it's wrong to kill journalists - all journalists - followed by the usual list of reporters killed by Us rather than Them. The fact that there are quite a lot in both columns is pretty damning, so I'm not surprised that there are award-winning novelists who don't want to debate the issue directly.

Chomsky's is certainly a dickish point to make in the aftermath of the CH killings, but the Professor is nothing if not a bit of a dick about most things. Nonetheless, his points are accurate and it surely wouldn't be hard for someone of Howard's vast vocabulary to argue against them under a thin veneer of honesty.

As it stands, I think it's absolutely impossible for anyone to compare the points Chomsky makes with the ones Howard does and not conclude that it's Jacobson who's up to no good here, to a comical degree. The fact that the likes of Aaro are just repeating the same old "I don't like Professor Poopyhead, so these wild claims must be accurate" nonsense is plain childish.

And I think that HJ has balls of steel to accuse other people of slimy behaviour when he's dropping little nods and hints about Holocaust denial, with a quirky "Funny they only defend the anti-semites" touch. There's no way on Earth that Howard doesn't know exactly what he's doing there and I think we can all guess precisely how he'd react if someone subjected his wacky columns to the same standard of analysis.

Chocolate Dipped Pickles said...

See also:

I like how pretty much the same position taken by Amnesty and HRW - whom they love to selectively quote - manages to go without comment.

flyingrodent said...

Update - Chomsky responds here by putting his point very bluntly indeed...

I read with much interest Howard Jacobson’s denunciation of the “But Brigade” (24 January) and my culpability in this crime. But (apologies for using the correct word) I’m afraid that he was very careful to miss the point, completely.

There was no “but” in the article of mine that elicited his fury. Rather, the article provided a series of illustrations of a highly significant general principle that was stated quite explicitly: “The more we can blame some crimes on enemies, the greater the outrage; the greater our responsibility for crimes – and hence the more we can do to end them – the less the concern, tending to oblivion or even denial.”

I can easily comprehend why Mr Jacobson would insist that the demonstration of the principle must be suppressed, but (apologies again) I see no reason to accede to his demand.

Noam Chomsky

I do like how he notes that Howard "was very careful to miss the point". He certainly was.

Via John Rentoul, who claims not to understand what it says.

flyingrodent said...

Pardon, responds *here*

organic cheeesboard said...

Good to know that Rentoul is now explicitly lying about 'not understanding' (not that there was much doubt about it). The point is, and was, obvious, and Jacobson et al wilfully misread it.

Though I must confess that I - and everyone else, including the Indy's subs and every single person who enthusiastically retweeted it - misunderstood HJ's piece. It's poresented as an article which encourages the use of 'and' instead of 'but', BUT it isn't. Because he says:

So how are you getting on substituting “and” for “but”? Jihadists shouldn’t kill journalists in Paris. And Israelis shouldn’t kill journalists in Gaza. Doesn’t cut the mustard, does it? The reason being – leaving aside the preposterousness of analogising massacre and mishap – that it removes the idea of consequence. The “but” that was deemed so necessary after 9/11 – that great “but” from which all the lesser “buts” have sprung – was the “but” of extenuation. It was the first, grammatical step in shifting blame from perpetrator to victim.

so what he actually wants is the following:

Jihadists shouldn’t kill journalists in Paris. And it's fine for Israelis to kill journalists in Gaza, because none of them are ever killed on purpose, even when their homes and cars are targeted by precision missiles - whatever, Israel is the real victim there. LOL at the idea of people liking skunks! Leonard Cohen is quite good.

That's genuinely what he wants. Masterful.

flyingrodent said...

That's genuinely what he wants.

I suppose we should acknowledge here that Howard probably writes these columns for a bit of extra income, and maybe to scratch whatever itches it pleases him to scratch, so it's probably not surprising that if they're a bit slapdash.

You'd think some residual professional pride would help to curtail this kind of stuff, but apparently not.

Rentoul is now explicitly lying about 'not understanding'...

I think this is a bit like that time when Tony Blair said that the Egyptian government is awesome, even if it machine-guns its citizens, and Rentoul backed him up by saying that Sisi had won the Egyptian election.

Which he had, of course, with a mere 98% of the vote.

When this was pointed out to Rentoul, he responded by announcing "I don't pretend to be an expert" and basically calling Tony's critics dicks, again.

Different day, same tactic, I'd say.