Words, Words, Words

Many people unintentionally allow themselves to be fooled. Perhaps the most common and traditional way is simply by holding the pervasive belief that words stand for precise things out there, and that the relationship between word and thing is eternally unambiguously clear if we use language ‘correctly’. —— -If it only were!

The Age newspaper (May 5) provides a sample problem when it announces the new trial in America of five terrorists who have been in custody for some time. Billed as the “trial of the century”.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the deemed master-mind behind 9/11, is the most notorious of the five – but for more than one reason. It has been officially confirmed that he was ‘water-boarded’ 183 times in the first four weeks of his capture.
No information has been made available on his carceration during the following several months.

This intensive treatment is but a tip of the iceberg. The article fails to remind readers that American authorities officially deny that ‘water-boarding’ is ‘torture’. So, to them, Khalid has never been tortured. He never will be – we will be officially reminded of this from time to time. He has experienced only “enhanced interrogation technique”.

The article also fails to tell its readers that American authorities remain unwilling, unlike most other countries, to officially define ‘torture’. This refusal extends as far as the special international committee commissioned to reach some universal consensus on the term. TheAmerican position is firm: ‘we would all recognise it if ‘torture’ was ever used anywhere; and we would all agree then to condemn it’.

[ This stand allows America the freedom to use any technique any time it wishes, and whatever that is, it can never be shown by others to be ‘torture’. By definition – permanently undefined.]

So a “reformed war crimes tribunal” is due to begin, after an earlier version had been found ‘unconstitutional’ by the US Supreme Court.

The new prosecutor, General Martin, is confident about the unblemished status of the upcoming trial. He insists that any army officer selected to serve on the jury from a pre-determined selection of 230,000 serving officers, will be ‘impartial’ even if that soldier had been fighting in Afghanistan for the last ten years. As he says, the military can be trusted to be “just”; it has “proven so in the past”.

So there we are. Officially, the five terrorists have never been tortured and, whatever the outcome, we are reassured the trail will be a just one. There is nothing to be concerned about; the entire process is one of trust. Everyone, even terrorists, will get a “fair-trial”. Someone like Khalid, however, will not be allowed to use the occasion “as an opportunity to grandstand; that would be too dangerous” it is said. [That is why the US Congress stopped the earlier New York Federal Court trial].

To many observers the process has been dismissed as a legal sham; any confession by Klalid, they argue, cannot be accepted as valid after the treatment he has received. A ‘second-tier justice’ normally associated with the ‘show-trials’ of China and North Korea is the harsh judgment of many legal observers.
Indeed this trial has been characterised by the previous chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis, who resigned from the position in 2008, as the equivalent to “putting lipstick on a pig”.

But the public, anywhere, can be understandably confused about what to believe. Is ‘water-boarding’ torture of not? Would senior American officials lie about such a thing? What proof do critics have to support their accusations of torture?

Can we, late in the day, learn to realise that words are words are words – and can never become ‘facts’ even if they look as if they are? We know that in certain cases; just because someone says “I love you” it does not necessarily mean (s)he does, or if (s)he does mean it, what does ‘mean’ mean; and when (s)he acts in some way or other is it an act of love or not? These questions are unanswerable – because words can never be pinned down like that. There is no one meaning of ‘love’; there never can be and nothing can ever be proven one way or the other.

Most people probably realise that in some way, but they tend to forget that the same rule applies to any word we can utter – it cannot be otherwise. ‘Smart’ people knowingly exploit that reality; and innocent even reasonable people get fooled.

‘Terrorist’, ‘just’, ‘fair’, ‘impartial’, ‘torture’ are words. Language can only be language. We can say anything with words but as one leading philosopher of the twentieth century said: “A use of language is also an abuse of language”. We can’t do much without language, but it can never settle anything scientifically, rationality. It is always ambiguous – and that can’t be reformed.

Intellectual argument is of little value. We cannot prove the current American position on torture, terrorists, justice and fairness to be wrong and, likewise we cannot prove that we are right. It is in every case a matter of belief and moral intuition.
Which in every way, however, is both more important and more profound.

I believe water-boarding to be torture. I believe that the American government has with full awareness behaved reprehensively ever since 9/11 in the broad arena of terrorism, torture, justice, honesty, decency. What they do, and don’t do (cf refusal to concede any benchmark on ‘torture’) is utterly immoral and done in a conscious political process of immediate vindictive punishment of anything or anyone deemed an enemy – even though what they do clearly aggravates not ameliorates the international situation. And this is why they feel they have to deceive the world (as best they can) by linguistic chicanery.

Because a judgment like this, or any other, can never be proven right, it must not deter anyone from making a judgment. We should never let words, words deliberately chosen to politically deceive people, trick us into silence and confusion. That applies all the time – and everywhere.

Postscript: the trial has begun. But after one day of ‘mayhem’ it has been postponed. Justice, in this case injustice, may eventually be served by other means of current American-style
‘law and order’ – it seems pre-determined.

Don Miller

May 17, 2012


News, Views, Ads.

The other day I drove past a new advertisement on the largest bill-board I have seen in Melbounre, a real Jumbo. It was advertising the return of MasterChef on television this week. It features those three big name, big personality chefs we have got to know so well over the last year or so.

And their pose: all arms held high, mouths wide open cheering, barracking, urging, supporting. A joyous, fun-loving cheer-squad. So what is cooking in this very popular cooking show? Another sport, competition, challenge; teams, players, winners and losers; spectator-sport, loud applause, speed, panic, time, race, the final bell. And all good fun. The Art of Cooking? Australia style.

Celebrating the first anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden the White House reminds the country of its national hero, President Obama, who bravely brought that evil man to justice twelve months ago to the day.

It went further and questioned, in prime presidential
campaign style whether his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, would have the courage to do the same. Romney quickly reassured the country he did. No presidential aspirant could have done other.

This was and was not the time for anyone in the public eye to raise ‘disloyal’ questions like the cost of that killing: a ten year war (the longest in American history), an extensive destruction of two countries, tens of thousands of lives lost, steep decline of America’a global respect and authority. Was this the global war on terrorism or the global recruitment campaign producing a corps of new, young terrorists?

All in the mode of a traditional American western. The cult of the hero in a lawless society. The killing/assassination, represented as the final surprise shoot-out.

The White House called the adventure “legal, ethical, wise”. America style law. morality and wisdom.

Don Miller
May 9, 2012

The latest blog on http:/melbournecentreforideasposterous.com/
Is titled “Capitalism”. Have you read it?



“There are two kinds of justice: one for the rich and powerful, and another for everybody else.”

Who wrote that? You may be tempted to say Karl Marx – it has in a way a quasi-Marxist ring about it. I actually don’t know who originally said it but it has been repeated many times, in one form or another by critics of contemporary western economy and society.

This particular quotation in fact is drawn from an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, reprinted in The Age on 16 April. Times have changed! Current attacks on the world-wide economic system, capitalism (the term ‘free/private enterprise’ is underused in critical moments like the present), have never been as pervasive and emotive since the days of the Great Depression.

Attacks seem double-pronged: the excessive greed of the very wealthy, and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. The ‘rich’, significantly, been frequently differentiated between the ‘rich’ and the ‘extreme rich’. General comparisons abound: one being that the richest one percent of the population ‘earns’ 460 times more than the average family. The term ‘class’ is rarely employed; even less so is the author Karl Marx – despite his analysis been considered by many still the most accurate and comprehensive on how the capitalist ‘system’ operates, and systematically dysfunctions.

Joe Nocera writes as he does having read a history of BP which apparently overwhelmingly demonstrates that the recent spill off the American coast was no accident but a patterned consequence of BP always cutting corners in pursuit of greatest profit. The question is ‘when’ not ‘if’ the next ecological disaster will strike. And it coolly follows that policy, the book argues, because it knows that whatever huge compensation repayments recur it can still make the profits it desires. Nocera urges jail sentences rather than court fines as the only effective real deterrence. But how likely it that? Thus two kinds of justice. The BPs of the world will continue to laugh all the way to the bank. And the poor will become homeless.

John Lanchester writing ‘Marx at 193’ in London Review of Books on April 5 reminds us that the once witty expression ‘socialism for the rich’ is in fact a perfect description of how capitalism works. And it continues to survive because of its effective globalisation (which Marx foresaw): flourishing, in fact, because it hides the operation of ‘surplus value’ – tens of thousands of third world labour scanning the contents of ‘hygienic’ Facebook for ‘offensive images’ – working for wages as low as one dollar per hour. And it is now ‘worth’ $100 billion.

It continues to flourish for the major reason, according to Lanchester, that it has ‘flourished’ in even more complex ways than Marx expected. The working class or proletariat has not become the strong, centralised, solidarity group or movement as originally assumed: ‘it’ is complex in itself, a heterodoxy. It is also spread out – around the world. Interests are many, loyalties are many – and transient. A government, even a state may be confronted perhaps overthrown – witness the Middle East last year – spontaneous unity, apparent success, then promptly disunity again. But how much more complex and difficult against an ‘economy’. It has no head-quarters to storm. And the IMF and WTO are secure in the hands of their patrons.

Society and individuals, affecting each other, become infinitely complex. Each forms the other into multi-classifiable labyrinths. It is not quixotic that the notion of ‘complexity’ has become the most common and telling description of modern society and life. Everyone militates against a common ‘consciousness’. And that is before we consider the many cultural seductions of modernity which easily distract us from more ‘serious’ concerns. We are too busy on tour and detours.

We can go even further, I think, in explaining the continued absence of a unity, a solidarity, a classness. The culture of thinking, eduction, does little to discourage narrow thought: we think at a shallow level, on immediate concerns, in local circumstances. Our curiosity is circumspect, through a narrow lense. We think, feel, identify and have compassion only close to home, to ourselves, for tomorrow. We remain as uncommitted to class conflict as we are to global warming. In each, pleasure and immediacy reign supreme.

Marc, once again, predicted that the efficacy of capitalism and its spirit would expand our consumption without end. We steadily become more and more glutted. And never satisfied.

But Lanchester’s final observation is that in factt no-one could have been expected, one hundred years ago, to realise that the earth is actually finite in all its resources. There is not enough to go around – let alone remove or even reduce the consumption gap between the rich and the poor. Or even between the poor in the wealthy western countries and the poor in the non-western world. His telling sample: the average consumption of water in America is one hundred gallons a day. There is not enough fresh water in the world to satisfy everyone on that need alone. Will it ever be likrly?

Is ant greater equality further doomed to fail? Can we expect people to limit their wants, he wonders. Can the rich reduce their desires?

Don Miller