25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 28 February 2006
When I started reading this book about politicians and their abuse of language, I was so taken by its author's elegant style and mordant, black humour that I didn't notice what a serious piece of work it is. In fact, as becomes increasingly obvious, this book is informed by a huge amount of research and by something close to moral fury. Poole shows that we should all wake up and attend to the words our leaders use in the media, that if we only do this we will see what strange and twisted "unspeak" those words are. If you've ever watched the Daily Show on TV, you will know the regular thing they do where they play a clip - of Cheney or Kerry or whoever - and it cuts back to Jon Stewart, who, just with a look, or a blink, or a raised eyebrow, can suddenly, somehow, make you realise what utter lies you have just been listening to. Its a dazzling technique, and I don't quite know how Stewart does it, but Poole does something very similar with his book, again and again and again. Strongly recommended, and if you like it, you should also read Jon Stewart's book "Democracy", which is also brilliant.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
This definitely one of the most interesting books I have read this year.
The book starts with some genuinely insightful and thought provoking analysis of political language. As the chapters progress, this is expanded upon with everything from "anti-social behaviour" to "ethnic cleansing" given a thorough analysis. I found the most interesting section was where he discussed how the military often use medical language (e.g. surgical strike) to describe their missions, and there were genuine moments in the book where you could find yourself saying "Never thought of that before!".
The first five chapters flow well, and whilst the author's political opinion is fairly clear by this stage, this doesn't matter to readers of any political persuasion, as he stays "on task" and keep the chapters focused on the book's title and purpose. Furthermore, these earlier chapters are characterised by an easy going, almost conversational style of writing that is easy to follow and digest.
However, there then follows three consecutive chapters that read more like a bitter rant than an analysis of political linguistic tricks, and this genuinely spoils the book, as the author veers both off course and off topic. There is nothing wrong with him holding his opinions, but this was not what the book was meant to be about. The writers tone also dramatically changes, at times bordering on sarcastic aggression and smugness. The final chapter does slightly rescue this as he returns to the topic, but only slightly.
In conclusion, the book presents some truly intriguing analysis of political language that is very useful to students of politics and social commentators. However, the "rant-a-thon" in the later part of the book takes him off course from the subject matter of the book, and this is what prevents me from giving it full marks.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2006
Does it matter what politicians say? Does it matter how they say it? Yes and yes. Poole shows how politicians' language is thick with euphemism - but anybody could do that. What he does brilliantly is look closely at this "euphemism" to see what ideological baggage is being imported along with it, as well as what is not being said and how the alternative view is being unspoken. Politicians should fear this book and journalists should be required to read it.
The book is crisply written without unnecessary muddle, and is charged with relevant facts to support his arguments. After reading it, every time you hear about "ethnic cleansing" your blood will curdle, and every time you read about "abuse" instead of "torture" at Guantanamo Bay you will cringe. And people who complain that it is mostly about the politcal Right Wing are really missing the obvious: first, Poole's arguments are actually pretty balanced, and his arguments can be generalized easily ("Unspeak" itself knows no political categories); second, critiquing the language of the left-wing, in the English-speaking world and especially in the United States, is like stomping on the fingers of a man in a coma.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
George Orwell underestimated the politicians of the 21st century. In 1984, the blunt tool of "doublethink" used simple opposites; the ministry for war was called "the ministry of love", for instance. But doublethink can easily be translated back into English, you just reverse it.
Unthink is more sophisticated, here the ministry of war is "the ministry of defence". Surely a body tasked with defence can never do anything bad or offensive, because defence is morally justifiable, right? The principle of unspeak is to persuade by stealth, to alter assumptions inherent in the definition of things. Who are you more afraid of: a "suspected terrorist" or a "terrorist suspect"? The former emphasises ambiguity, the suspicion that they might be a terrorist. The latter emphasises the terrorist as the definition with suspicion as an afterthought.
At an even higher level of sophistication though, an unspeaker can play language any way they want. So the proponents of "intelligent design" state that creationism is a theory, and as such has as much validity as evolution. However, in the case of creationism they are elevating it to the status of a theory. In fact, it is no such thing as it is not falsifiable, has no supporting evidence, and has no predictive value. But by defining it as a "theory" they are reflecting in the glow of scientific terminology. In their attacks on "neo-Darwinists", however, they say that evolution is "just" a theory, and here they use theory in the fluffy, not quite sure, kind of sense. It's a cunning trick.
If the examples above turned on any little lights in your head at all, you have to buy this book. Steven Poole has a rare and valuable talent in non-fiction; he writes sentences that makes you say "Yeah! I had a vague inkling about that too but he's gone and put it into words!"
I will agree that there is a lot of focus here on the Iraq war and George W Bush era of politics. However, had the author written a book about the rape of language but neglected to quote Donald Rumsfeld at every turn he would be doing his readers a great disservice. The Neo-cons have made Catch 22 a reality, and named it "Operation Enduring Freedom". It was going to be called "Operation Iraqi Liberation" but then they realised that the acronym for that was OIL. Enjoy.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2007
This is a book about the language of modern political propaganda. Contemporary political debate shrouds itself in utterly impenetrable language. Here we have an attempt to expose the inner workings of this rhetorical morass by unravelling a few specific cases of "verbal retouching".
Poole does hit the mark often enough: for instance, the scary legal implications of an apparently toothless idea like "antisocial behaviour", the demotion of "torture" to "abuse" and of "global warming" to "climate change", the promotion of "creationism" to "intelligent design"... The basic lesson of this book is that you have to carefully pick at the words.
Unfortunately, as another reviewer has pointed out already, Poole does get rather fixated on the liberal left's pet issues: Bush, Iraq, global warming, evangelical Christians, GM foods... This is not what the book is supposed to be about. Manipulative and obfuscatory language is not the exclusive preserve of nasty neo-cons - you can find it right across the political spectrum. Because of his strong political bias, Poole inevitably ends up tilting at a few windmills. One of the funniest instances of this is where he tries to portray "natural gas" as an attempt to make gas sound cuddly and organic. In reality, the expression predates the global warming debate by decades and has long been used to distinguish the naturally occuring gas from the "man-made" kind (obtained by destructive distillation of coal). Basically, his own science is more than a little shaky, and his linguistic arguments, in places, disolve into infantile demagoguery, which flies in the face of common usage.
On balance, despite its many shortcomings, I would still recommend this book to anyone interested in either politics or language.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
If all citizens had Steven Poole's mental clarity, intellectual rigour, and intolerance of con-artistry, we would all have better governments and live better lives. Politicians (and corporations) would not be allowed to get away with spouting thinly-disguised propaganda, and using language deliberately chosen to convey certain opinions and prevent the very expression of contrary opinions. Voters would immediately spot meretricious arguments, intentional fallacies, and answers that beg the question. In the real world, unfortunately, we have to manage with a population that has mastered the English language well enough for everyday purposes, but mostly remain helpless suckers for skilfully camouflaged rhetoric.
Poole jumps right in by examining the familiar phrases "pro-choice", "tax relief", and "Friends of the Earth". He points out that choice, relief, and friendship are all considered good things under almost all circumstances, so these phrases are calculated to receive almost automatic approval before any process of analytical thought even begins. Often, indeed, they may completely foreclose the possibility of rational analysis, triggering knee-jerk emotional reactions (favourable ones in these three cases). You might feel, on consideration, that abortion is not always justifiable; or that taxes should not be cut; or that the Friends of the Earth may have done things that you would not approve of. But the names "pro-choice", "tax relief", and "Friends of the Earth" are calculated to stop you short before you do any considering. This is what Poole means by "Unspeak" - language that smuggles in a particular point of view and prevents alternative thoughts from even getting a foothold. It's more subtle, and far more effective, than the crude "Newspeak" and "Doublethink" introduced by George Orwell in 1984.
Having made his pitch, Poole proceeds to analyse a number of common unspeak terms in considerable depth. Each gets a whole chapter to itself; they are Community, Nature, Tragedy, Operations, Terror, Abuse, Freedom, and Extremism. As you might expect, he gets a lot of mileage out of quoting people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and countless spokespersons for the UK and US governments. Some of the examples are quite extreme, such as the reaction of a senior naval officer to the news that three prisoners at Guantanamo had managed to hang themselves: "I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us". The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy called the suicides "a good PR move to draw attention". Once you have got over the almost incomprehensible callousness and cynicism of those utterances, you can clearly see the hidden agenda of implying that every single thing done by "enemy combatants" is aimed at harming or at least embarrassing the USA. The alternative view - that perhaps those men had done nothing wrong, had been captured and imprisoned by mistake, and killed themselves out of sheer despair - is ruled out before it can even enter the listener's mind.
Poole explicitly contrasts his idea of Unspeak with the view expressed by Orwell (and more recently Jamie Whyte, e.g. in "A Load of Old Blair") that politicians seek above all to say nothing meaningful. On the whole, his position has a lot of merit - the more so because Unspeak can sound a lot like gibberish to someone who sees through it, but does not adequately comprehend the agenda that it is designed to further. While its success cannot be taken for granted - and could be seriously undermined by really good mass education, for example - Unspeak holds out the promise of brainwashing entire populations, without their ever knowing what has been done to them.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2007
In this insightful book, journalist Steven Poole shows how our rulers abuse language to promote and disguise war, torture and corporate interests. Words have consequences: as he observes, a jury deciding whether a crime was murder or manslaughter is not conducting a linguistic exercise. Similarly, when `freedom is on the march' (Bush), governments can describe murderous and illegal invasions as benign `regime change' and `humanitarian intervention'.
Poole brilliantly contrasts reality and deceptions across many different areas. The phrase `faith communities' defines the people referred to as united monolithically and for ever by their beliefs. `Human nature' is code for misanthropic pessimism about human affairs, so war is said to symbolise `the depravity of human nature'.
On climate change, Greenpeace's chief scientist preferred the frightener `climate meltdown'. Corporations, religious and commercial, use advertising slogans like `Intelligent Design' (more accurately, Implicit Deism), `sound science', `natural' gas and `organic' produce.
Operations Merciful Angel (Kosovo), Just Cause (Panama) and Iraqi Freedom - such cute names! - `serviced' targets and `delivered' force packages: hardly killing people at all. NATO's weapons are always `smart' and `surgical'. NATO forces drop sweet little `bomblets' and playful `daisy cutters'. So the inevitable killings of civilians, women and children can only be `tragic mistakes', or not even the slaughter of civilians, women or children: as the US Army spokesman said, "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." By contrast, the enemy's weapons are nothing less than Weapons of Mass Destruction, with big capital letters, so they are much more frightening than our puny bombers and aircraft carriers and tanks.
Bush and Blair's `war on terror' is asymmetric warfare: `we' are fighting a war; `you' are not, so you cannot be prisoners of war, only `enemy combatants' and `terrorist suspects', so `we' can imprison you without trial and torture you. Donald Rumsfeld described as just `abuses' what even the US Army Manual defines as torture - mock executions, sleep deprivation and `stress positions'.
The FBI had to admit that what it acknowledged were `torture techniques' had produced `no intelligence of a threat neutralization nature to date'. In English, the torture has been pointless, as well as immoral. Still, our guys sure have fun doing it, so let's not punish them, unless they're silly enough to admit it.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 October 2013
Unspeak is fluid and clearly written current affairs book. You will fly through it's two hundred and fifty pages very quickly. Little in this book surprised or enlightened me like many of the other reviewers here. The earlier chapters were better while the latter ones tended to descend into a hate filled rant against the American right.
Unspeak is about language and its use and miss-use in our present world by politicians, institutions and various institutional groups. The author is honest to admit in the Introduction that he "claim's no authority or expertise beyond a habit of close reading, practiced in literary journalism", so he is a layman giving his opinion, fine.
One difficulty I had with this book was reconciling it's core point with the necessary civilizing force of hypocrisy spoken widely about by others like Matthew Flinders in 'Defending Politics'. I would have thought that this new variant use of language or Unspeak is just part of the 'natural' evolution of hypocrisy. Basically it is about making everything sound nice and fluffy and good regardless of whether it is not. I thought about Barbara Ehrenreich's book 'Smile Or Die' and the distortion effect of excessive positive thinking on people while reading this.
Does the author honestly think that important aspects of public communication, like mass global telecommunications, could change without influencing the use of language traveling on those systems? Up until relatively recently the vast majority of the world's populous were land locked peasants, many, perhaps most of whom, would go their entire lives never even seeing their leader let alone hearing any of their speeches. Today that has completely changed. Poole should have said something on this important topic but he didn't.
This book covers all the favorite contemporary topics of discussion like abortion, Iraq, anti-social behavior, faith, tolerance, climate change, oil/energy, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, war on terror, ethnic cleansing, torture, regime change etc. There is particular emphasis on the Iraq war being the big thing of the time that his book was first published in 2006 but is already starting to seem a bit dated by 2013.
Maybe it is just me but the author makes some strange or perhaps naive observations about peoples' perceptions of the world. Stating evidence of a longer-term view within the US government that catastrophic global warming would enhance western hegemony the author infers that their thinking on this comes to the conclusion that this had best be kept secret from others by removing the term 'global warming' from a 2003 E.P.A. report. However my friends and I came this same conclusion back in college in 2000. Which is why I distinguish between local and global environmental concerns and take differing stances on them.
Some of details of this book are out of date and miss-leading if taken in current context. As an example the author mentions a 2005 interview between Trevor McDonald and George Bush in which according to a UN report pollution in the US had increased between amazingly since 1992. A report released recently has stated that pollution in the US has fallen considerably. The Chinese are quoted as saying that this was down to luck, I would say that it was down to delayed consequences.
Throughout the book there is an overwhelming focus on the US, with more than half of the examples of Unspeak taken from USA and nearly all the rest come from the rest of the Western world. This is a problem because the author never states that is a book specifically discussing the language of the Western World. The beginning opening chapter quotes a non-Western philosopher Confucius stating the problem proposed by the book and proposing a potential solution as seen by the author. This along with others things causes this book to reek of anti-western bigotry and this is a big part of the reason why it only gets two stars from me.
I would suggest this book to anyone entirely ignorant of dynamics of political and group speech dynamics, however I would not call it an exemplar of independence of thought by any margin as the author clearly brings his own bias to the work.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 August 2012
I read this book a good few years ago now but felt compelled to find it here on Amazon and leave a quick review. It's absolutely brilliant. I read heaps of books and this is up there as one of the best. It's classy, memorable and thought-provoking stuff. For anyone remotely interested in politics, in language, in lies and deceit, in life and the art of manipulation, it's a must-read.
Can't fault it; an outstanding achievement.
on 26 February 2015
Arrived in good time. No problem!