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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant penetrating analysis of modern propaganda, 6 April 2010
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This review is from: Unspeak: Words Are Weapons (Paperback)
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.
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T. D. Welsh

Location: Basingstoke, Hampshire UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 394