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O Chickenshit, I tire of thee

February 15, 2010 1 comment

I tire of chickenshit.

This announcement follows from my misfortune in reading David Ker Thomson’s noxious rant at Counterpunch.org, “Against Canada,” a piece so poorly thought out that, at whatever degree-granting institution it was that cheapened itself by granting this man a PhD, certain august professors can now only be shaking their heads in shame and muttering, “We sure shit the bed on that one, didn’t we?”

(It was Princeton; another nail buries itself in the notion of Ivy League quality. Piled higher and deeper, indeed.)

The problem with Thomson’s rant is that it is so wildly overstated, so polarized and blinkered in its world view. It is, frankly, ignorant. It is not that Thomson is ignorant of the fact that (for example) not every driver is a psychopath bent on killing pedestrians, but that he pretends to be, and asks us to join him in a comfortable state of wilful ignorance. Thomson does not insult our nationalism; he insults our intelligence.

Perhaps he’s trying to be funny, but a certain kind of drivel intervenes to suggest otherwise. Is this satire? It certainly reads that way. But why would Counterpunch satirize, well, Counterpunch? Judge for yourself:

At seewalk, the mostly invisible and hard-to-locate nowtopian nonviolent disorganization that lurks in the chinks of the empire (the technical name for a chink is ‘articulation’, the tight but open space between that makes sense of the whole), we refuse to recognize nation-states, which have been an unmitigated scourge on the planet.  We are ‘against’ nations in the prepositional sense, as a pre-position, a position of abutment, the way a piece of sand is up against the tread of a tire …  This light-and-lateral strategy is one mode in the repertoire of oppositional practices that nonviolent groups will have to increasingly adopt in this century as Canada and other radical and violent entities increase their capacity to molest citizens.  If you think there’s freedom of thought and speech in Canada, it’s because you haven’t thought anything worth thinking.

It’s worth noting here that Thompson is free to think, say, and even publish this nonsense, which suggests either that he hasn’t thought anything worth thinking (a proposition that seems entirely plausible in context), or alternatively, that he’s simply full of shit.

But the real problem here is one that has been getting on my nerves since the Olympics opened, and, indeed, before that: chickenshit.

Let us define chickenshit.

Chickenshit is that stance of facile negativity which we adopt as a shield against rebuke.

If you’re going to make a public statement, it’s far easier to speak against something than for something. If you speak in favour of something — if you advance any concrete idea — you open yourself to attack. If, however, you offer only negatives, you are safe; in doing so, you force your critics to take a stand, exposing their soft underparts to your waiting blade. This is the nature of chickenshit, and its attraction.

Here I recognize the irony: yes, I am doing little here but to attack chickenshit, an act that, in itself, might be construed as chickenshit.

Read Thomson’s rant, again, if you must; is there one single statement that advances any ideal? No. It consists of nothing but attacks on this and that, overstated in the moronic style of online discourse designed to defeat all possible rebuttal. It is a trap: by opposing ridiculous statement A, I allow myself to be positioned behind equally ridiculous opposing statement B.

You’re saying drivers aren’t pyschopaths? Why are you a planet-hating, pedestrian-killing climate-change-denier?

Then follows death by straw man.

I call for an end to chickenshit of all stripes and flavours. It’s time we stopped paying attention to chickenshit out of some mistaken notion that we should promote a diversity of opinion. A diversity of opinion is a wonderful thing — when it comes from people who write like adults. It’s time for grown-ups to start writing like grown-ups.

Categories: ill-considered rants

A partial retraction

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

… well, a clarification, really — I wouldn’t want to come out and say I was ever wrong, per se, but it may have come to pass that I was less than perfectly correct.

Yesterday’s post may have given the impression that I don’t think there has been any deep engagement in the coverage of the Haitian earthquake. This would not be completely true. I was reminded of this when looking at Lynsey Addario’s photo essay on Haitian orphanages this morning.

The problem is not that photographers are unwilling to do this kind of work. The problem is that the outlets for that work are limited, and the public interest in those outlets is low.

Also, Damon Winter has an additional response to the NYT essay I linked to yesterday (scroll down). But when Winter tells us he does not see pack journalism in Haiti, I think it’s also notable that Michael Murphy, when calling for “a new photojournalism” at Foto8, singled Winter out as an exception to the rule.

“Rhetoric” on the ground

January 14, 2010 3 comments

Among my least favourite seasons is the season of year-end lists. And the year-end lists I like least are the lists of words to be retired from the language, obnoxious expressions, and so on.

“On the ground,” a couple of years back, is a good example. This expression was all the rage for a while, among journalists telling us what was going on in Iraq. Commanders “on the ground” said this, or the situation looked different “on the ground,” or whatever. It was everywhere.

Self-appointed guardians of the language singled this one out on their year end lists, with such penetrating questions as “where else would one be? In the air?”

The problem with buzzwords is not simply overuse; it’s overuse by people who don’t really know what they mean. Buzzwords don’t start out empty and meaningless. They usually have specific, concrete meanings; then they get adopted by people who don’t quite get them, weakened, diluted, neutered. And finally, they get “retired” by the aforementioned language guardians.

“On the ground” began life with a specific, useful meaning. In the military, and in any field that relies heavily on information gleaned from maps, you have the information you get from the map, and “the ground truth,” that is, the information you get from the terrain itself. Your map may imply that, from the top of that slope, you can see the intersection, but the ground truth may be otherwise. And that’s a critical distinction, obviously, if you’re setting up an observation post.

When an officer talks about the situation on the ground, he isn’t just spouting excess verbiage. He isn’t so dumb as not to understand that there is no other place to be. There is another place to be, the first place he goes when he receives orders: on the map.

The media seems to love finding buzzwords in the military, as it gives those reports from the front lines that certain frisson. (“Frisson,” I think, was on someone’s retirement list last year.) So it was with “on the ground.”

Our language guardians, I note, love to pick on three things: news reporting, the military, and business. Deservedly so, perhaps; all three are awash in buzzwords. But there’s one place they never look.

This came to mind when considering a couple of comments at Rebecca Rosenblum’s blog, in which people confessed that they weren’t entirely sure of the meaning of “rhetoric.”

Rhetoric, sez the good old Handbook to Literature, is “the art of persuasion”, but Webster’s online dictionary is less sure; according to that source, “rhetoric” means little more than “discourse.” And this is the very meaning of “buzzword”: a word with a specialized application that has become so overused that it has lost much of its original value.

“Discourse,” perhaps, is similarly meaningless. How about “narrative?” Or “trope?”

On the ground, these words have become rather empty. We know this because we’re no longer quite sure of their meanings. I use “rhetoric” to mean “persuasive language; persuasion.” Mostly. And secondarily, “cheap talk from people who prorogue when the going gets rough” (but I digress). But I know I’m not alone in finding that I’m not always certain what’s meant when I read that word. I know what I mean; what you mean is a whole nother problem.

Clearly, people who count themselves literate have a whole class of buzzwords all their own.

The fact is, we all use buzzwords; they’re a part of the living language. That self-proclaimed literate class, those people who claim to be so sensitive to language that the mere use of “paradigm shift” provokes nausea, seem to lack an awareness of their own sloppy usage. If the authors of those lists, and all those people amused by them, were really so sensitive to language, perhaps they’d pluck the timber out of their own eyes and pass it through the buzzword buzzsaw.

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