Feb 242009

A tip of the millinery to Old Holborn, who flagged up a lovely example of how not to write that appeared in today’s Guardian. On a normal day, I would have seen this myself, my mild masochistic instincts kicking in with the morning coffee at work, but it’s been a shitty day, and I found that I just couldn’t face the Grauniad until I was home and on the outside of a generous glass of wine.

I’d like to open up a prodigious can of whoop-ass on Blunkett’s piece, but unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out what the hell he’s saying, and the title of the piece (‘Protecting liberty’) doesn’t appear to reflect the content. Perhaps the Grauniad subs put the title of a David Davis op-ed on by mistake.

Take, for example, the following paragraphs:

If, in the name of liberty, we allow individuals to act in a way that damages the wellbeing of the whole, it will inevitably mean the breakdown of mutuality, thereby changing the very nature of our society.

We need principles upon which we can base actions that, in the name of protecting freedom and decency, may otherwise become oppressive, intolerant of difference and self-destructive.

Slicing out the subordinate clauses and adverbial phrases, I find that he has said, ‘If we allow individuals to act, it will mean breakdown. We need principles.’

I also note the peculiar word choice of the opening clause: ‘If, in the name of liberty, we allow…’ Oh, the irony!

Moving on:

Three areas in particular strike me as urgent. Firstly, the use of powers outside those originally intended. It has almost been forgotten that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 brought in proper restrictions and oversight over what had previously been a free-for-all. Years later, we have the absurdity of local officials trying to use the powers to tackle dog fouling, or waste management misuse.

Not quite – we have the absurdity of local officials succeeding in using the powers to tackle excretion management. But why does he mention RIPA anyway? This is all he says about it; why does it concern you, D? Where’s the ‘urgency?’ Should RIPA be amended? Do you still possess the capacity to make a definitive statement you can hold to for longer than five minutes? Do you?

Secondly, data sharing. This is an area of major public concern even where the data held is simple – for example, what has previously been taken for granted on driving licences, or passports. Greater clarity on why, when and with whom data can be shared is urgently needed. Clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill needs to be examined thoroughly. It’s not simply whether intentions are benign – undoubtedly they are – but whether powers are likely to be misused.

Come on, D! What data is on driving licences and passports? Do you even know? The data held on passports has changed since you were home secretary, hasn’t it? Who, in fact, ‘takes for granted’ what information is held where? A bit of specificity would have worked well here, methinks. Note, also, his failure to articulate whose intentions are benign, and whose powers might be misused. Perhaps he is under the impression that if he omits the words ‘the government’s,’ that piece of reality will cease to exist.

There is a misconception that the database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. That’s why I’m coming to the conclusion that we may have to consider simply making passports universal. If people wanted an easy-to-carry card, as with EU travel documents, they would be able to buy one voluntarily (with ID cards remaining compulsory for foreign nationals).

Translation via excise: ‘The database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. This will be compulsory for foreigners.’ Our data, apparently, merits no particular consideration.

I remain to be convinced that a centralised solution is either practical or desirable.

He remains to be convinced – not: ‘I am not convinced.’ This is what we language-type people call periphrasis, lit. talking around the point. Prevarication is a kind of periphrasis – are you prevaricating here, D? I wonder.

Last week’s meanderings by Stella Rimington and the report by the self-styled International Commission of Jurists are so dismissive of the genuine threat that new forms of terrorism pose as to be counter-productive to a meaningful debate. We are not a “surveillance state” – only those who have lived in a police state can appreciate just what that term means.

So what you’re saying is, we won’t be considered a surveillance state until someone who’s lived in a police state confirms the similarities? But who determined that place to be a police state? And the one before it?

A mere ten seconds having a look at Wikipedia could have alerted him to the unfortunate stupidity of his remark; that authoritative worthy says of a police state (emphasis mine):

The classification of a country or regime as a police state is usually contested and debated. Because of the pejorative connotation of the term, it is rare that a country will identify itself as a police state. The classification is often established by an internal whistleblower or an external critic or activist group. The use of the term is motivated as a response to the laws, policies and actions of that regime, and is often used pejoratively to describe the regime’s concept of the social contract, human rights, and similar matters.

Er…whoops. Bad strategy there, D, to mention both the internal whistleblower and the external critic right before you assert that they’re unqualified to classify Britain as a police state.

And Blunkett rounds off the opus with this incomprehensible gibberish:

The strength of our democracy is that we are able to challenge those who presuppose their knowledge of the threats faced, as sufficient justification for protecting mutual interest at the expense of individual freedom. That is when we should assert ourselves, lest the mistakes of the past allow those in power to abuse their position.

Juxtapose that with this earlier paragraph, which I repeat for your convenience:

If, in the name of liberty, we allow individuals to act in a way that damages the wellbeing of the whole, it will inevitably mean the breakdown of mutuality, thereby changing the very nature of our society.

After justifying the protection of mutual interest at the expense of individual liberty by claiming it will prevent the breakdown of mutuality, Blunkett asserts himself to challenge…himself. Well done, D. Masterful. Masterly.

Poor word choice, internal contradiction, weak research, deliberate obfuscation, and the total absence of a thesis: at the end of it all, I can’t figure out whether Blunkett has written (a) a shitty and ill-expressed defence of civil liberties, or (b) a shitty and ill-expressed apologia for those who would violate them.

  5 Responses to “David Blunkett: ‘Opacity is the new clarity’”

  1. Admirable. Fisk the silly bugger to death. Just shows what Latin does for the old noddle. It also shows why Labour have done their damnedest to destroy the classics in state schools.

    I was taught Greek too: and the masters didn’t care, were pleased, that they were making rods for their own backs, which is to say, horrible, spotty adolescents with brand shiny-new equipment for clear and independent thought.

    One point, though — do you really mean “masterful”? Shouldn’t it be “masterly”? That is one of the word-pairs, like barbaric/barbarous, whose misuse makes me cringe.

    And “data” is a plural form, but you knew that. Don’t be afeared of educating your readers!

  2. “Masterly”, an adjective, describes something which is the work of a master. “A masterly fisking of Mr Wett-Blunkett”, that style of thing. “Masterful”, on the other hand, describes someone overbearing, or his actions. “Jim, masterful as ever, told his wife to pick up his socks.”

    That’ll be £99, plus yer call-out charge, plus yer VAT.

  3. I guess barbaric is for when non-barbarians act a bit like barbarians, and barbarous is for real barbarians being full of innate barbarity?

  4. I’m no grammarian but I do appreciate clarity of expression so I offer these comments on the first paragraph of the quotation:

    1. There is no such thing as “the whole,” so it can’t have wellbeing; only individual human beings can have wellbeing.

    2. The “we” in “if we allow” is supposed to refer to “the whole” but because that does not exist then operationally “we” means the government.

    3. “Allow” is a euphemism for “don’t threaten to kill” since killing or threatening to kill someone is the only means that government officials have to govern.

  5. Thanks, Dennis. He is indeed a mighty silly bugger.

    Speaking of educating readers, you’re going to have to enlighten me about the less obvious differences between ‘masterful’ and ‘masterly.’ I shudder to think I’ve been engendering cringes up and down the more linguistic corridor of the blogosphere…

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