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Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality Paperback – May 10, 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
This is the rarest kind of book that reflects a monumental concentration of thought and creative energy - a striking contrast to most books today, which are written fighting the distractions of the author's other work, or as a "night job". I don't know how Poole pulled off this feat - or if Unspeak actually had the benefit of his undivided attention - but that's the way his book reads.
Reviewers who have only skimmed the text are making two serious mistakes in their descriptions of Unspeak. Contrary to what Nick Beard (customer review, below) says, the book is not remotely a magazine article on stilts. True, its big idea, though subtle, can be swiftly summarised as "a style of language that attempts to smuggle in an unspoken argument by insinuation." But the Socratic method can also be shrunk to a nugget, yet learning how Socratic dialogue works requires exposition, examples - and practice.
The worse mistake is casting the author as a prisoner of left-wing thinking. In fact, what Poole demonstrates - often with lacerating wit - is that the Left is just as adept at Unspeak's creepy manipulations, as in . . .
** . . . US and UK politicians' use of the word "community" in ways that, on close examination, add up to a "mental anaesthetic, novocaine for the soul." Clinton, says Poole, often "let the word stand alone, using it in a tremblingly phatic way that was emptied of all specific meaning." (Was there ever a better encapsulation of Clintonian rhetoric?)
**. . . or . . .an excoriation of a police report about the accidental murder by men in uniform of the Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes - taken for a terrorist without any evidence at all - on a London Underground train in 2005. The report is crammed chock-full with the mentality of Unspeak. Dissecting it, Poole tells us that "[a]ccording to the first theoretician of tragedy, Aristotle, the tragic hero must be doomed by his own tragic error, or hamartia." He continues: "And they were clearly only spectators, since there was no mention of their having killed Menezes, who instead somehow mislaid his health without outside help. Tony Blair subsequently corrected this unfortunate implication with the most passive, no-blame language possible, referring to `the death that has happened,' as though, perhaps, it had been the result of natural causes."
Along the way, as Poole tackles language used in discussing laws to control social behaviour, debates about immigration and asylum-seekers, environmental battles, military operations in the Middle East and the politics of counter-terrorism, he shows us how much fascinating subtext most of us miss as we race through news reports. For instance: "Contests of Unspeak," like the one in which the barrier Israel began building in 2002 was referred to by Israeli authorities as a "security fence," but as a tool of "apartheid" by the Palestinians shut out by the structure - which included electrified steel-and-barbed-wire and a concrete wall. Agence France Presse, Poole tells us, resolved the giant fuss about whether the thing should be referred to as a wall (the Arabs' choice) or fence by calling it, tongue firmly in cheek, the "concrete fence." Poole concludes: "The designation's eventual evolution into `'separation barrier' was something of an improvement, even if the phrase was a crude tautology." Indeed.
Poole brilliantly contrasts reality and deceptions across many different areas. The phrase `faith communities' defines the people referred to as united monolithically and for ever by their beliefs. `Human nature' is code for misanthropic pessimism about human affairs, so war is said to symbolise `the depravity of human nature'.
On climate change, Greenpeace's chief scientist preferred the frightener `climate meltdown'. Corporations, religious and commercial, use advertising slogans like `Intelligent Design' (more accurately, Implicit Deism), `sound science', `natural' gas and `organic' produce.
Operations Merciful Angel (Kosovo), Just Cause (Panama) and Iraqi Freedom - such cute names! - `serviced' targets and `delivered' force packages: hardly killing people at all. NATO's weapons are always `smart' and `surgical'. NATO forces drop sweet little `bomblets' and playful `daisy cutters'. So the inevitable killings of civilians, women and children can only be `tragic mistakes', or not even the slaughter of civilians, women or children: as the US Army spokesman said, "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." By contrast, the enemy's weapons are nothing less than Weapons of Mass Destruction, with big capital letters, so they are much more frightening than our puny bombers and aircraft carriers and tanks.
Bush and Blair's `war on terror' is asymmetric warfare: `we' are fighting a war; `you' are not, so you cannot be prisoners of war, only `enemy combatants' and `terrorist suspects', so `we' can imprison you without trial and torture you. Donald Rumsfeld described as just `abuses' what even the US Army Manual defines as torture - mock executions, sleep deprivation and `stress positions'.
The FBI had to admit that what it acknowledged were `torture techniques' had produced `no intelligence of a threat neutralization nature to date'. In English, the torture has been pointless, as well as immoral. Still, our guys sure have fun doing it, so let's not punish them, unless they're silly enough to admit it.