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Steven Poole

Tim Footman
posted 7 April 2006

'There is a word in Newspeak,' said Syme, 'I don't know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse, applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.'
George Orwell, 1984

In his new book, Steven Poole takes eight words (Community; Nature; Tragedy; Operations; Terror; Abuse; Freedom; Extremism) and demonstrates how the rich and powerful have turned them on the opposition. Of course, it's not a new idea. 'When I use a word,' declared Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, 'it means just what I choose it to mean.' And Raymond Williams, in his 1976 classic Keywords, did a pretty good job of tracing the shifting connotations of superficially constant language. Williams gets a footnote, for his definition of 'reform'; Poole owes him a larger debt than this.

But there's a rather more obvious guest at the wedding. 'In the tradition of George Orwell,' gabbles the blurb, which is nothing if not optimistic. And clearly, the subject matter of Unspeak™ - language that seeks to render opposition silent, beyond the pale, literally and figuratively unspeakable - is really Orwell's Newspeak after a Marathon/Snickers-style rebranding. (Note that trademark symbol on the title, à la Naomi Klein. Cute, huh?)

To be fair, Poole distinguishes his own discovery from Newspeak, Doublethink, and the post-Orwellian synthesis Doublespeak. 'Unspeak does not say one thing while meaning another,' he declares. 'It says one thing while really meaning that thing, in a more intensely loaded and revealing way than a casual glance might acknowledge.'

This does give Orwell a subtle twist. To define yourself as in favour of 'freedom' he argues, implies that your opponents are against freedom. Conversely, if your enemies are 'extremists', then you are a moderate. So, when the United States talks about exporting freedom to the Middle East, they really mean it; they are not, like Orwell's Newspeaking Party, trying to take 'freedom' out of the dictionary. It's just it's their freedom, and any other (whether the freedom to burn the flag at home, or the freedom to elect a Hamas government abroad) do not show up on the neocon radar.

In Keywords, Raymond Williams at least attempted to put his Marxist leanings to one side and take the attitude of a dispassionate cultural historian. Steven Poole brings his own political baggage along. It's perfectly respectable baggage, befitting a Guardian journalist, but it's still baggage, and Poole doesn't seem to notice the fact. The war on Iraq was wrong; 'intelligent design' is an insidious lie; global warming is a reality. Now, I happen to agree with all three of these, but they are presented as unquestionable facts, not points of view. Poole even uses the same tactics that he castigates when Bush and Blair use them. He twice describes the British National Party as 'neofascist'. Again, I have no complaints with the sentiment, but surely that's exactly the sort of terminology that prevents opponents from responding, and impoverishes the language a little? After all, 'fascist' is just a catch-all word for anything to the right of the speaker's own position; just as 'political correctness gone mad' is a cheap and cheerful label for anything to one's left.

Ah political correctness. Now, there's one great big elephant that Poole affects to ignore. Surely, the whole notion of changing people's minds through changing people's language was the motivation behind the speech codes and sensitivity training that appeared in academia from the 1980s onwards. Poole is silent on PC. The problem is, in the fug of his well-meaning vagueness, I'm not quite sure whether this was a conscious, Stalinist (now there's an Unspeak pejorative…) attempt to make Unspeak the preserve of the political right; or just a bit lazy. I've got a horrible feeling it was the latter; which may be forgivable, but surely gives Poole's opponents a parallel get-out clause. We're not guilty of twisting the English language to suit our vile ends, say Bush and Blair and Berlusconi; we're just a bit philosophically sloppy. Sorry.

Not that he avoids PC terminology entirely; but he attributes such manifestations of 'Unspeak' to the dominant political class, even when they are far more likely to be used by interest groups claiming to speak for the dispossessed. 'In the domestic sphere, 'community' really begins to earn its Unspeak stripes when the sense of shared interests is projected onto people whom the majority considers 'other',' he argues. He fails to notice, apparently, that the 'community' tag is a sign of increased acceptance. 'Blacks' and 'Irish' are the people who aren't accepted by landladies, along with dogs. Then PC happens, and 'the Black community' and 'the Irish community' get exhibitions at the local library, if nothing else. The majority may still consider them to be 'other', but surely that's an article of PC faith as well; the alternative is full assimilation and integration; absorption into the dominant culture; the destruction of the multicultural mosaic.

On the flip side, Poole misses several open goals when he uses examples of Unspeak from his foes, and seems unable to recognise that he's doing it. A classic example is the retrospective renaming of the 41st president of the United States. When he was in the White House, he was George Bush; it was only when his son took over the reins that Bush 41 had his middle initials restored, as this was the only way to stop people referring to 43 as 'Junior'. But if you look at any reference book, the implication is that he'd used the 'HW' all his life. This is truly like something out of Orwell: 'Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.' Poole uses the elder Bush's new nomenclature, specifically devised to protect his son's dignity, but does not remark upon the irony of this.

Unspeak™ is one of those book that owes its existence to broadband. There are dozens of fascinating chunks of information and telling quotations, from the 87-year-old man who received an ASBO for being 'sarcastic', to the chillingly arrogant rebuff from the 'fair and balanced' Fox News VP: 'There is no need for me to explain the idea of balance'. The author is also a dab hand at linguistic flights of fancy, especially when it comes to Donald Rumsfeld, who appears here as a bebop saxophonist, there as Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. It's when Poole attempts to string these snippets together into a coherent analysis that things start to fall apart.

The closest he comes is the equivalent of scrawling exclamation marks in magenta felt-tip over some of the quotations he finds, as if he doesn't trust the reader to get the gag. Take this from George W Bush: 'I made some very difficult decisions that made public diplomacy hard in the Muslim world. One was, obviously, attacking Iraq.' Michael Moore, bumptious blowhard that he may be, would have let that one speak for itself. Poole can't resist tagging on his own, gently sarcastic rejoinder: 'That must indeed have been disappointing.'

When an irony is rather more subtle, however, he leaves it alone, which implies that maybe he doesn't get the joke either. He gives half a page to the American MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or Mother Of All Bombs), without noting that Bible freaks such as Bush and Ashcroft would have been well aware of the nature of Moab, perennial rivals to the ancient Israelites. (As described in Judges 3: 12-30. See, I've got broadband too.)

However, we can be grateful to the book for one further, delicious nugget; the information that the original codename for the second Iraqi War was Operation Iraqi Liberation. I'll leave you to figure out the joke; Poole himself spells out the punchline.

Tim Footman blogs at Cultural Snow.

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