Friday, 30 September 2011

Political euphemism primer: When the Tories say...

I had a little dig at the Labour Party in my last post, so to balance it up a little (if you can imagine Eric Pickles jumping from a great height onto the high end of a see-saw) I thought I'd focus this time on the Conservatives by providing a guide to some slogans and expressions you might hear from them in their Manchester conference, and what they really mean.

When the Tories say...

Wealth creators they mean rich people.

Tax burden they mean tax. 

Fiscal incentives they mean tax cuts for the rich. 

Our partners in coaltion they mean our Lib Dem fall guys. 

Reform agenda they mean everything we didn’t let on about in our election manifesto.

Removing the burden on business they mean letting corporate giants do what the hell they like.

Presumption in favour of sustainable development they mean letting developers build where the hell they like.

Ending the war on the motorist they mean letting petrol heads drive as fast as they like: more accidents; more pollution.

Clearing away health and safety legislation they mean giving the green light to workplace death-traps.

Free schools they mean Government-funded private schools.

Sustainable Higher Education they mean student fees will treble to £9000 a year.

Liberating the NHS they mean selling off the NHS.

Devolving power they mean washing our hands of responsibility.

Public service efficiencies they mean public service cuts.  

Widening choice they mean privatisation.

Local choice they mean you choose which local service to cut (libraries? pre-school? you choose).

Benefit scroungers they mean the disabled and the unemployed.

Universal Credit they mean Benefit cuts.

Quantitative easing they mean throwing more money at rich banks.

Labour’s legacy of waste and mismanagement they mean last year's global financial crisis.

The global financial crisis they mean this year's global financial crisis (not our fault, guv).

We must stick to Plan A they mean we have no Plan B.

We’re in this together they mean we’re all right; you’re screwed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Labour Party's new Fab Four

As Britain's Labour Party conference gets into full swing, it struck me that not everyone will be familiar with the leading lights these days. As an aid, I have posted below images of the Shadow Cabinet's Fab Four. I hope this helps.

Ed Miliband, Labour Leader

Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader

Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary

Monday, 26 September 2011

Best political insults

Vince Cable

My posting this week is inspired by hearing Vince Cable at the Lib Dem conference describe some of his Tory partners as "ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys". It got me thinking about the language of political insults, and I thought I would offer up some of the more imaginative I have come across.

The funny ones are great of course, and I've included some below, but I particularly like those that cleverly and succinctly create a powerful or telling image, as Cable's does. There is no better example than this from the end of the eighteenth century when William Cobbett described the American statesman Benjamin Franklin as:

"a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House yard."

It drips with the kind of malice that typified eighteenth century slanging matches while rising above the pit through Cobbett's vivifying metaphor. Later examples rarely exhibit so much hatred, though one exception is Margot Asquith, the writer and wife of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who was as sharp-tongued as the critic Dorothy Parker with an extra lick of cruelty.

Margot Asquith
 Here's her verdict on two British Prime Ministers, first David Lloyd George:

"He couldn't see a belt without hitting below it."

And Winston Churchill, who goaded her to a higher (or lower) scale of vituperation:

"He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises."

Some of Churchill's own memorable insults below, but here's another British Prime Minister, this time from the Victorian age, whose brevity sharpened his wit. Benjamin Disraeli said of the Irish politican and agitator Daniel O'Connell:

"He has committed every crime that does not require courage."

As a part-time novelist, Disraeli used metaphor more strikingly than many of his fellow politicians. Here he is on Sir Robert Peel:

"His smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin."

Some of the best political insults touch wittily upon the perceived limitations of their subjects, with ignorance or lack of ideas being a common theme. Mark Twain tarred all American politicians with this brush when he wrote:

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress: but I repeat myself."

This is American writer Emmet Hughes on the US President Dwight Eisenhower:

"As an intellectual he bestowed upon the games of golf and bridge all the enthusiasm and perseverance that he withheld from books and ideas."

Lyndon Johnson said of Gerald Ford (who inherited the US Presidency from a disgraced Richard Nixon as US President, but as a young man nearly joined the Green Bay Packers):

"He's a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off."

Gerald Ford

Former Hollywood star President Ronald Reagan was often the butt of jokes about his intellect and application, of which the best might be this by New Zealand politican Jonathan Hunt:

"In a disastrous fire in Reagan's library, both books were destroyed. And the real tragedy is that he hadn't finished colouring one."

Reagan (described by Gore Vidal as "a triumph of the embalmer's art" long before he died) was well-known for enjoying his naps, but one of his predecessors, Calvin Coolidge, seems to have been king of the slumberers, according to H L Mencken:

"He slept more than any other president, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored."

When the satirist Dorothy Parker heard of Coolidge's death she reportedly asked: "How can they tell?"

In British politics, Norman St John Stevas (Lord St John of Fawsley) was consistently acerbic about his party leader Margaret Thatcher. He said of her mental processes:

"When she speaks without thinking, she says what she thinks."

Mrs Thatcher's Spitting Image
St John Stevas was responsible for a couple of Mrs Thatcher's many nicknames. He called her She Who Must Be Obeyed and Tina (for her oft-used There is no alternative), but perhaps the best of Thatcher's monickers was coined by Labour's Denis Healey who described her as Attila the Hen. Cruel, but not so personally offensive as General McCellan's dismissal of President Abraham Lincoln as "Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon."

Brief fame and ineffectiveness are also common themes among the quotable insulters. My favourite, for its quick and vivid metaphor, is Thomas Paine's summary of the career of Edmund Burke:

"As he rose like a rocket, he fell like a stick."

I have left the best trader of political insults until last (I say 'trader' because he received almost as many as he issued, though rarely were the returns so worthwhile.) Winston Churchill could pour scorn on rivals and colleagues alike with a few withering words:

"A sheep in sheep's clothing" (on Clement Attlee)

"A modest man with much to be modest about." (ditto)

"He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened." (on Stanley Baldwin)

"Harold Wilson is going around the country, stirring up apathy."

Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill's finest moment (insult-wise, that is) was surely the day when he was sitting on the toilet at the House of Commons. A parliamentary official came rushing in to tell the Prime Minister that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him urgently. Churchill replied from the other side of the locked door:

"Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time." 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

How Google reads your mind

Regular readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Eli Pariser's work a couple of times. My review of Pariser's book  The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You has just been published in the autumn edition of 'The Author', the magazine of The Society of Authors. I have reproduced the review below for your interest.

On the face of it, the internet, search engines, and Google in particular have been a great boon to writers and others who do research as a necessary part of their work. Indeed, who would deny it? Remember the old days when you camped yourself in the library for hours on end, leafing through books that often delivered scant reward – insufficient or out-of-date information – or fiddled with spools of microfiche for that elusive news article? No question, we should be duly grateful for the luxury of sitting at home (before the same machine that we use to set down our work) with the ability to trawl the world’s resources rapidly and at no great expense. But are we being allowed to make the most of this wonderful opportunity?

If, like me, you had assumed Google’s sophisticated page rank algorithm was offering you the best, most authoritative, most useful selection from the vast sources of information it holds, then you need to be aware of the corrective presented in Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble. The nub of Pariser’s argument is that Google, far from facilitating an expansion of our world view in proportion to the expansion of available resources, is in fact limiting us by dint of our previous choices. We are being drip-fed indoctrination by our own ideas.

Pariser has upended my assumption that the spread of results I’d get from typing a query into my Google search box would be exactly the same as... yours, for example, provided we both entered the same search terms. Not so. Apparently Google uses 57 signals – ranging from where the browser is located to what items one has searched for before – to decide what site-links it is going to offer a particular user. The process is concentric because the more we access the internet for everything from information gathering to purchasing the more Google gets to ‘know’ about us individually, and the more bounded each of us becomes by the range of options it presents that are in easy reach. It’s a systematic process of personalisation by which Google builds a theory of identity based on ‘you are what you click’.

As a profit-seeking organisation, Google is ultimately not in the business of providing us with the best information; it is in the business of delivering us to its advertisers, sponsors and funders – the ones who pay the piper. The most obvious example is the sponsored links that appear on the top of one’s results page. Perversely, I avoid these, but Google has much more subtle ways of using the data I have previously provided to get me to places based on its commercial imperatives rather than my intellectual curiosity or professional need. Because Google’s behaviour marketing is invisible, and because I’m generally unaware that my choices are being made for me in this way, I am off guard to a degree that I would not be if I was, say, reading a newspaper with a known political viewpoint, or speaking to a salesperson who I know has a vested interest in selling me her wares. Google can fool and flatter me into thinking I’m making the decision without such influences, and that makes me (and you) the greater fool.

Of course it’s not only Google doing it. Amazon, iTunes and many others are sirens of sycophancy, calling our names and casting out ‘recommendations’, drawing us through filters into a subterranean model of our world where increasingly what we see are distorted or caricatured versions of our own reflection inside a grotto of product.

As information-gatherers we may be grateful for a shortcut through the morass of available data. As consumers we may welcome some guidance to our purchases based on known preferences – it can save time and effort, and help us get to things we might want or didn’t otherwise know existed, though it also reduces the opportunity for serendipitous pleasures – but as Pariser argues, what might be good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens.

Nor are we reaching out fully to the global promise of the internet, which has the potential of widening our horizons, stimulating creativity, and putting us in instant touch with treasures of learning previously unobtainable. Pariser’s frustration with the way centralised entities have lassoed this promise is evident and well articulated in his thought-provoking book. His disappointment must be shared by all internet idealists who believed that information could be freed by the new technology, only to learn that it has merely been transferred to savvy opportunists who, appreciating the old adage that information is power, have steadily, almost invisibly, salted it away for redistribution on their own terms.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Early research, or indulgence?

I haven’t blogged in two weeks. I’ve done no serious writing for quite a bit longer. That’s partly because of the summer holidays, but also because I’ve finished my Stephenson novel (query letters and emails out now) and I’m fishing around for a new major project.

There’s no shortage or variety of ideas on the scratchpad I keep for the purpose (which I regularly transcribe onto a typed list) but nothing has yet sparked into something that is likely to keep me engaged and interested for perhaps a year or more, or that I feel I can add fresh illumination to by my treatment or insights on the subject.

What I am doing is reading. A lot of news reading at the moment, but also reading around some of the themes and topics I’ve earmarked as possibilities, just to see if I can find a way in, a thread that could lead me to further creative exploration. For example, I had half an idea that I could base a human interest story around a workhouse – not one of the Dickensian era, but one of those that hung on into the twentieth century, even surviving in a few cases beyond the Second World War. At the moment I have only the faintest notion of how a story could develop; I’m waiting to see what might emerge from my reading into the subject.

Or so I tell myself. I’m enjoying the reading and the learning, but so far have failed to take a single note. Is this really early research, or am I just indulging myself, and putting off the more difficult task of getting down to write something of my own? Am I hiding from hard work, or in waiting for the Eureka moment?


I do know that once I get a clear fix on what I am going to write about and the general direction it might go in, my research will become more purposeful and the notes will begin to gather; but in this vague maybe-there’s-something-maybe-not phase my reading is annoyingly interrupted by increasingly loud whispers emerging, I guess, from the left side of my brain, which tell me I’m merely wasting my own time.