“You’re so dangerous and it’s so exciting.” (On UUK)

Another stupid, misleading article by Myriam Francois-Cerrah:

Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.

“Do anything controversial, however bad, and I’ll support it. Because I like disagreeing with things.” And who said careerists were vacuous?

Francois-Cerrah has either not read UUK’s guidance, which she so readily explains to us, or she has so subsumed herself into the inferiority complex of the Muslim community that she feels that she must throw herself behind its most reactionary – and unrepresentative – elements. It’s either ignorant or dishonest.

Firstly, take a look at what UUK actually said:

Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely- held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.

In other words, for men and women to choose to sit next to one another in a public gathering is an attack on the speaker’s “genuinely-held religious beliefs”; if you do not abandon your rights when you are instructed, you are being an odious, inward-looking and regressive troublemaker. Indeed, Omar Ali appeared on Channel 4 News to celebrate the victory of religious bigotry as being that “we live in a liberal society.”

One has to wonder whether he has completely misunderstood the meaning of liberalism – which, to its credit, were such frivolities as the emancipation of women – or whether the political Islamic pressure groups have finally understood the virtues of their alliance with the far-left.

But to Francois-Cerrah:

It is Universities UK which is calling for bans; here, on the right of individuals to express their beliefs in the physical (not merely “spiritual”) equality of the two sexes. That is an assault on freedom of expression. No one is saying that deluded victims of indoctrination – male or female – may not voluntarily segregate themselves at a mosque or Agatha Christie-esque dinner party. But I will not allow you to force me to sit where I do not wish to sit.

1) Grow up.

2) This is why we need socialism and not this stupid wishy-washy liberal attitude to things.

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Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.

Would Orwell hate the cliché to which his pseudonym has degenerated? How much contempt would he have for those seeking seances with him in the blogosphere? Well, as he says in Animal Farm, “the only good human being is a dead one.”

Like a true Marian martyr, Tom Chivers announces his heresy proudly amid the brewing thunderclouds:

He clearly was one of Britain’s greatest ever writers; an extraordinary novelist and journalist, a fierce and clear voice warning against totalitarianism, and prophetic, in a way. But I get a bit annoyed when he gets quoted as an authority on how to write – most especially, when the “laws” from his essay “Politics and the English Language” get bandied about as THIS IS HOW YOU DO WRITING, GUYS.

For the record: it’s not. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority. But even an idiot like me can see that his rules make no sense.

Well, Orwell definitely wasn’t “all that” but he was a sizable portion. Enough, I think, for me to play the apologist.

Orwell bold, Chivers below:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

Never use a figure of speech which “you are used to seeing in print” is a bit weird. For example, you could make the case that “figure of speech” is a figure of speech, since the things it refers to are not literal figures, ie physical shapes or written symbols, but metaphorical ones. And you’ve definitely seen it in print lots and lots. And there’s nothing wrong with it. “Don’t resort to cliché” is what he means, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying.

Bit of a crafty point. Alluring casuistry, in any case. “Figure of speech” is not a cliche; it is a phrase in its own right. It’s a term which is both technical and standard English. It is a plea to originality, not just the trope to “avoid cliches” – John Rentoul gets it.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do

Language Log nails the “Never use a long word” and the “Never use a foreign phrase” one neatly by pointing out that “when a shorter one will do” or “an everyday English equivalent” are entirely subjective terms. In the very same essay, they point out, Orwell talks of “scrupulous writers”. Could he have said “careful”, Language Log wonders: “Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?” Similarly, foreign and technical words have subtly different meanings to the English equivalents: there are no true synonyms. “Don’t show off by using needlessly fancy language”, again, is so obvious and unhelpful that it doesn’t need saying; it’s little better than saying “write well”.

Oh, now. “Subjective”. One of the most important roles of the polemicist is to act as the medium between dry academia and people; it’s a theme of which Orwell is most embracing. Animal Farm warmly invites Stalinism into English circles; it’s how my 10 year-old self, ignorant of communism, managed some level of understanding of the Russian Revolution. That ‘s to say nothing of the layman’s venture to the imperial world in Burmese Days or the critique of capitalism via Comstock’s romance in Keep the Apidistra Flying. Perhaps it’s why many see him as a better journalist than novelist given how successfully he blurred the two professions.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

Three: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” should, by its own rule, be “If it is possible to cut a word, cut it.” Or even “Cut words where possible.” Is that better?

No, because it’s less memorable. It might be valid a statement but it neglects Orwell’s literary purpose that the “possible” considers.

Even if it were better, wouldn’t that prove the point?

4. Never use the passive when you can use the active

“Never use the passive” is complete nonsense and Orwell uses it regularly himself because there is nothing wrong with it.

Sure – but the active does usually add urgency, as many journalists would do well to remember. And it’s not as though he’s dismissing the passive, the implication being that the active is not always appropriate – as in rule 3, “possibility” does not have a doctrinaire definition. Many people don’t think about that; others do. As Chivers says, it’s “subjective” – and Orwell is fully aware of the difficulties of exercising rules on polemical grammar.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Five we’ve dealt with; see two.

Me too, I think. But I’ll add something further about jargon – because Chivers himself avoids it very well, especially given how much effort to which the government has gone to cloud the technical changes it’s making to the NHS. Jargon is a diagnosed symptom of intellectual constipation.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous

Six: So what you’re saying, Mr Orwell, is that applying rigid rules to writing is unhelpful and silly? At last we agree.

The point behind Politics and the English Language was to explore how one may be used to transmit the other. Wordplay does not create meaning in and by itself. Better to write an important point poorly than a terrible one crisply.

Some writing is good, and others is bad; and in so rich a language tepid generalisations for each are the best we can hope for. Of course, any rules can therefore inevitably be reduced to “largely empty” advice. I am, after all, partly playing devil’s advocate here because some of Chivers’ criticisms are very valid. I simply mean to show that pedantry and application do not necessarily obscure the importance of the points Orwell is making.

Anyone, after all, who treats Orwell’s rules dogmatically breaks the point behind the first. (Hence six.)

Confused, puzzled, dazed? Watch this terribly exciting video instead.


Never Forget: Halabja 25 Years On

The flag of Kurdistan.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja: on March 16th 1988, as many as 5000 Kurds breathed as they did and then suddenly found that the air was poison. It was the most publicised event of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign: a systematic genocide of all the Kurdish and non-Arab peoples in the north of Iraq, leading to as many as 200,000 deaths. It should, I think, stand symbolic of the war against terrorism, however it manifests itself. There are some very distressing photographs online, but I decided against including them. Sometimes our imagination can capture horror well enough.

As the Kurdish ambassador said to Nick Cohen, “Everyone wants to remember Fallujah and no one wants to remember Halabja.” Well, for all the justifiable criticisms levied against the war 10 years on, we must never forget what the alternatives may have been.


Ranj Alaaldin: “Blame Iraq, not America, for sectarian civil war”

I laud the author in The Independent for at least attempting to escape the obsessive eurocentrism of the Iraq war:

The opponents of the Iraq war often claim that the invasion caused the bloody sectarian war that erupted between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia. This is far from the truth.

While it is indisputable that the failure of US post-conflict management in Iraq contributed to the disarray and violence that followed the toppling of the regime in April 2003, the US, her allies and the invasion itself, cannot be blamed for the ethnic and sectarian divisions that exist in Iraq.

Iraq has for long been a divided nation; it has been a state since it was created in 1921 after World War I in search of a united nation but which, to this day, remains divided along ethnic and sectarian boundaries.

Well, that’s true. But I’m very uncomfortable with Alaaldin’s dismissal of “US post-conflict management” as merely contributing “to the disarray and violence”. This has a desperate tone of flippancy to it; now it’s unavoidable, and indeed important to stress that Saddam’s government ruled by sectarianism. His regime implicitly elevated the Sunni minority to a sort of ethnic aristocracy, granting them the chief posts in the judiciary and the “civil” service; meanwhile, he taught the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north the full throttle of WMDs. For the sake of all things humane worth the name this cannot, and should never be, undermined or side-lined as “just another dictator”. When Saddam’s regime collapsed in 2003 there was the brewing realisation that parliamentary democracy might allow the settling of some scores, bringing as it inevitably would a large Shiite majority. On this note Alaaldin is perfectly correct.

But there was such a thing as Iraqi nationalism, if that is even the right word. It wasn’t an especially violent kind; rather, enough to bring most Iraqis together over a shared territory, a common rule over land stretching back far into ancient Mesopotamian history. The Kurds, in this, deserve tremendous respect: their history with wider Iraq was one of a struggle, finally achieving political autonomy from Saddam in 1992. And yet when Saddam fell in 2003 they did not, as they might justifiably have done, abandon Iraq to religious sectarianism; the Peshmerga teamed up with the Coalition to help oust Saddam, and then the Kurds produced Iraq’s first ever democratically elected President in Jalal Talabani in 2005. This is no sign of imminent ethnic or religious warfare.

Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq

What the United States must take responsibility for is failing to harness this in the machinery it went on to produce. Talabani remains the Iraqi President but his Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is little more than a populist sectarian thug whose credentials include organising the execution of Saddam for a Sunni holy day, and calling for the death of the Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi. Under Paul Bremer Iraq was administered along religious and Arab-Kurd lines; insufficient ethnic and religious guarantees were placed into the constitution; too much power was, despite the shadow of Saddam, left in the hands of the central authorities rather than distributed in a loose but workable federalism. Named Iraqis brought the sectarianism on but the Coalition did virtually nothing to prevent the outbreak.

I read some blogger’s post a while ago who said that if there were an armed invasion of Syria to bring down Assad, then we’d have to make it clear that the inevitable outbreak of sectarianism would not be the fault of the West. I’m not interested in absolving our responsibility. Assad, like Saddam, remains the central problem: but he is also the state machinery and, legally at least, in possession of one of the country’s few, limited forces for unification. When he goes there has to be something to replace it – more than an ephemeral military presence.

But it looks like Syria is going the way of Iraq: for as long as we leave struggling refugees and families dependent on the food supplies of fanatics, the prospects for the conflict just get longer and bloodier.