Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book review: Steven Poole, Unspeak

I seem to be reading bloggers in book form lately. July I read and reviewed Glenn Greenwald’s book. Then I read “Crashing the Gate,” a book supposedly about politics but with no idea in its head that is not about winning elections. If that thought doesn’t bother you and depress you a little bit, maybe you’ll like the book.

Speaking of books by bloggers, I think everyone should pester Billmon to write one.

Which brings us to Steven Poole’s Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality.

One of the unexpected pleasures of blogging is discovering a blog you like because they discovered you first. So I’m declaring an interest: I am blogrolled on Poole’s blog, also called Unspeak, and he has posted comments here two or three times. I thought I’d recommended his blog before, I certainly intended to, but a search indicates I haven’t.

One of my areas of bloggy focus, in the jokes as well as the more serious bits, has increasingly been the use of language in politics. So Poole’s book on that subject is very much of interest to me. Language has also been a great concern of the Bushies, who are constantly telling us to be careful what we say, that those who think we aren’t engaged in a “war” against “terror” are mistaken, that Iraq is not in a “civil war,” that prisoners were “abused” and not tortured,” that it’s not domestic surveillance, it’s terrorist surveillance, etc etc. Democrats have begun to show some interest in “framing,” following George Lakoff, who unlike Poole is a professional linguist, with degrees and everything, but whose work I find to be much less persuasive and useful than Poole’s.

Poole’s concept of “unspeak” focuses attention on how political language functions. “Unspeak” is a catchy term (although not catchy enough for the Guardian, which recently mis-identified him as the author of “Unthink”), although it arguably creates a false distinction between propagandistic language and ordinary words, downplaying the extent to which all vocabulary influences and canalizes our modes of thinking. Unspeak is language designed not only to advance one’s position, but to preempt and delegitimze one’s opponents’ viewpoints. “Rhetorically,” Poole says, “Unspeak is a kind of invasive procedure: it wants to bypass critical thinking and implant a foreign body of opinion directly in the soft tissue of the brain.” It works well in our newsbite age because “it packs the maximum amount of persuasion into the smallest space.” The word “reform,” for example, implies the superiority of any proposed change: “The very word ‘reform’ thus argues efficiently in favour of itself, whatever it actually is, in paradigmatic Unspeak fashion.” Another example: “To call someone an ‘extremist’ is to denounce him merely for his position on our imaginary spectrum of ideas, rather than to engage with what he is actually saying.”

The book is a compendium of case studies of such terms as community, global warming/climate change, sound science, intelligent design, ethnic cleansing, the Israeli apartheid wall/security fence/separation barrier, weapons of mass destruction, terrorist, extremist, war on terror, abuse, enemy combatant, and others, tracing their coinage, spread and evolution. He even makes brief forays into Unspeak in other languages; it had never occurred to me to ask what Israeli “settlements” are called in Hebrew and Arabic.

People who like my blog will enjoy this book. Indeed, there is some overlap between our writings. For example, we both object to the phrase “freedom is on the march,” which he traces back to Reagan and observes that “To be ‘on the march’ means to be unfree, insofar as one is subject to military discipline,” while I wrote (two years ago), “Freedom does not march. It may walk, hop, skip, traipse, mosey, even flounce, but it does not march.” His humor is similar to mine too, except he’d spell it humour, and I must say seeing blog-like snarky humor on the printed page rather than a computer screen took a little getting used to. Actually, the book is quite like Poole’s blog, so if my recommendation isn’t (sniff) enough, you can window-shop there.

Powell’s link

Amazon link

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