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June 17, 2004

The Dictionary of Dangerous Words

Posted by Michael Mosbacher

The Social Affairs Unit published The Dictionary of Dangerous Words a few years ago. This book records how much of our language has changed in its meaning. Contributors include Digby Anderson, John Blundell, Theodore Dalrymple, Frederick Forsyth, Mick Hume, Kenneth Minogue, Matt Ridley, Andrew Roberts and Roger Scruton. Below are a selection of the definitions I contributed.

Censorship: This used to refer to the state banning a book, film, play or painting, or prohibiting certain news from being published. It has acquired two novel meanings. The first is that something is 'censored' if the state has obstinately refused to provide tax payers money to promote it. A play, which attacked British Prime Minister Tony Blair, by the former trotskyist Tariq Ali was said to be 'censored' because the state subsidised Royal National Theatre would not produce it. The fact that it was put on in another theatre, and given appalling reviews, did nothing to reduce this charge. The second, when a newspaper or magazine does not provide regular prominent column space for views antithetical to its own or which excoriate its proprietor, this is censorship. The fact that the (London) Times does not carry daily attacks on Rupert Murdoch is cited as a particularly abhorrent example of 'censorship', even though other newspapers more than make up for the omission. Some would take this second category even further. McDonalds is 'censoring' its opponents by not providing, at its own expense - that is its consumers expense -leaflets attacking the hamburgers they so much enjoy.

Hunting: In England formerly a ritualistic pastime which helped to shape the English countryside and turned vermin control into the sport of the landed class. Now the heartless, cruel slaughter of small furry animals for pleasure by overweight, red-faced, middle aged, upper class, gentlemen. Elsewhere hunting is frowned upon when it is carried out by white men of whatever age or class, but is virtuous when carried out by 'indigenous' people. When white men hunt they are despoiling nature, when 'indigenous' people hunt they are living in harmony with nature and maintaining a sustainable environment.

McDonalds: Many people have not caught up with the true new meaning of this word. It might seem simply to refer to a ubiquitous chain serving up lazy and unimaginative food for which lazy and unimaginative teenagers seem to have an insatiable appetite. In fact McDonalds is a synonym for wickedness. To be opposed to McDonalds has become a test of moral worth. To hate McDonalds has come to be the badge of a hero. It is after all far easier to hate McDonalds than to do something which will actually alleviate the problems for which it is erroneously blamed. McDonalds has come to represent global capitalism, the exploitation of the poor, the murder of animals, the destruction of rain forests, third world poverty, malnutrition, and the wanton annihilation of French cultural heritage. It is ironic that McDonalds has done exponentially more to create a classless society than the 'anti-hierarchical' protesters who oppose it. One is as likely to find an Eton schoolboy in McDonalds as a boy who goes to an east London comprehensive. The rich and the poor no longer know nothing of each others food, customs, and manners. McDonalds and its like every day bring together in one place what were two nations.

Unsustainable: This word no longer means that the practice to which it refers cannot continue. Instead it means that the speaker does not like the practice and hopes it will soon come to an end. 'Unsustainable development' is development the speaker does not approve of. 'Capitalism is unsustainable' means that the speaker is anti-capitalist - it has taken the place of 'capitalism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions'. 'The welfare state is unsustainable' or 'the Euro is unsustainable' means that the speaker does not approve of the welfare state or the Euro. When something is described as unsustainable it is now an opinion of worth and not a prophecy.

Romp: Formerly a brisk, bracing, wholesome walk through the countryside. Now a sordid sexual escapade in a seedy hotel involving a celebrity and at least two other persons - three if you include the journalist.

State-capitalism: The name those opposed to capitalism give to non-capitalist economic systems they happen to disapprove of or are embarrassed by. It is a handy technique employed by today’s anti-capitalists to disassociate themselves from the vast crimes committed in the name of anti-capitalism in the twentieth century - and even associating supporters of capitalism with these crimes. It can also be used to argue that the abject failure of the non-capitalist system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was not a failure for the alternatives to capitalism, but a failure of capitalism.
A few anti-capitalists argue that the Soviet Union was state-capitalist from its inception; others that it became state-capitalist when its murderous policies became too obvious to over-look (i.e. with the rise of Joseph Stalin); yet others only discovered that the Soviet Union was state capitalist after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Reclaim, as in 'reclaim the streets': Used to mean taking something back by those who possessed it as of right. Reclaim has, however, acquired a rather different new meaning through the somewhat unusual slogan 'reclaim the streets' or 'reclaim our streets'. This slogan has come into the public eye due to various imaginative protests in the UK - similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to those against the WTO in Seattle and other cities - based around it: the so called 'Carnivals against Capitalism' and various 'Guerrilla Gardening' events. These spectacles claim to reclaim - by slouching, singing, sloganeering and smashing up a capitalist enterprise here and defacing the occasional war memorial there - public space for 'ordinary' people. This is said to let 'ordinary' people use and enjoy public space as it was intended by allowing them to interact voluntarily and peacefully with each other for their mutual benefit. Reclaiming is supposedly a temporary liberation from the shackles of capitalism, with the hope that it will give people the confidence and self belief - the empowerment - to permanently overthrow the system. Any violence which occurs while public space is being reclaimed, it is argued, is as nothing to the violence heaped daily on the planet by capitalism.

This use of reclaim is rather unusual in that these public spaces have already been claimed, for their mutual benefit, by many millions of 'ordinary people'. These millions are everyday claiming public space by using and enjoying it, interacting voluntarily and peacefully with each other. They are the millions of 'ordinary' people who choose to shop in their local grocers, newsagents, and butchers, in Sainsburys, Tescos, and W.H.Smith - organisations which on a daily basis supply reliable, safe, quality goods at cheap prices, doing more to empower 'ordinary people' in a single day than would be achieved by a thousand years of demonstrations. What the protesters claim they want is already happening. Except far from a rejection of consumer capitalism being the way of achieving this aim, consumer capitalism has been the conduit for it.

The millions who daily peacefully claim the streets contrast with the - at the very highest estimates - 10,000 who, with a myriad of divergent objectives only united by a hatred of capitalism, every six months or so reclaim the streets. The millions are using public space as it has always been used. The development of public space, indeed its very existence, is intertwined with the development of commerce. How the demonstrators can claim to be reclaiming public space by stopping commerce is a baffling use of the word.

Reclaim the Streets calls itself a 'disorganisation' - a term meaning that they have no formal leaders, have no fixed membership, and anyone can claim to act autonomously in their name. (This is an organisational structure which they claim exemplifies the kind of society they are trying to build, but it has unhappy antecedents. It was first adopted in recent times by neo-nazi racist terror gangs who called it 'leaderless resistance', and then adopted by the Animal Liberation Front). Reclaim the Streets is the modernised, new face of protest. Although its objectives are very different from New Labour, these protesters represent the Blairification of protest. They both mark the triumph of style over substance. What is immediately noticeable about Reclaim the Streets is not what they are campaigning for, but the innovative and lively nature of the spectacles they produce, or rather 'disorganise'. What matters is not what the protesters demand, but what the protest looks like. This is protest as spectacle, protest as entertainment, protest as a style statement. It is revolution for the fun of it.

Precautionary principle: The notion that new products, methods and innovations should not be permitted by the state if there is the slightest risk, however remote and in however a small number of cases, that they might eventually cause harm. The principal demands that the benefits of the new product, however clear, immediate and widespread should be ignored. The precautionary principle however only applies to innovation by corporations and other traditional 'enemies of the people' such as farmers. Various environmentalist web sites are instructive as to the correct usage of this concept. Such sites argue that G.M crops should not be permitted because it is uncertain as to whether long term risks may not be associated with them. They argue that however small the likelihood of these dangers, it is not a risk worth taking. Some of these sites go on to discuss the drug ecstasy. They correctly state that, in an albeit very small number of cases, ecstasy use has led to sudden death and that some broader concerns have been raised about the possible long term consequences upon the brain of heavy, regular ecstasy use. One might think such sites, invoking their favoured precautionary principle, would support current restrictions on ecstasy. However such sites advise people to be aware of the risks, take precautions and make up their own minds as to whether to use ecstasy. So the precautionary principle applies to GM foods (should be banned - too dangerous to let the consumer decide), but not to ecstasy (make up your own minds). The sites point out that the incidents of death through ecstasy use are aberrant, but never make the same point when they highlight the deleterious consequences some individuals have suffered form a corporate product. This tells us more about the prejudices of some environmentalists than anything else. Gangsters are obviously more to be trusted than corporations. The fact that corporations are liable to be sued if their products have deleterious consequences, and drug dealers - because their products are illegal - are immune from such consequences, is irrelevant. One may come to the conclusion that the invocation of the precautionary principle is really about opposition to the corporation, not about safety itself.

Tainted: Used to mean contaminated. Now used metaphorically with one particular application. This is to dismiss someone else's views on the grounds that they have received funds from incorrect sources. The notion of taint saves the denouncer a great deal of work. He does not have to show any argument or against the views with which he disagrees. It is a version of demonisation by association. Interestingly the demonic character of the tainting body does not have to be established by argument either. Top league tainters are predictably the CIA, multinational corporations and rich right-wing men. No taint is taken by a person receiving funding from an NGO, international organisation or a government department seeking legitimation for increased regulation or spending.

Zionist: Before 1948 someone who believed that Jews could only escape anti-Semitic racism through the establishment of a Jewish state. This argument was widely felt to have been borne out by the horrors visited upon Jewry by Nazi Germany. After 1948 a Zionist was someone who supported the state of Israel. Progressive opinion was fairly sympathetic to Zionism and then Israel in the aftermath of the war, partly as a response to the holocaust and partly because the Zionist movement had a strong, although by no means exclusive, socialist component. Progressive opinion of Zionism soon changed rapidly. Perhaps this change was spearheaded by the Soviet Union, which soon started to describe internal opponents as Zionists. In this context Zionist had no meaning, other than as to smear that person. It was one of a panoply of abuses the Soviet Union used against opponents - others included anti-soviet, revanchist, imperialist, and troskyite. These too had no meaning. They were term of execration. It soon also became de rigour among progressive opinion in the west to use Zionist as a term of abuse. The most bizarre trend was to equate Zionism - a movement whose raison d’ętre was as a response to and salvation from racism - with racism. This pejorative use of the word Zionism still lives on amongst those who have perhaps not quite noticed that the Soviet Union, and the panoply of abuse it used, has come to an end. The progressive use of Zionist as a term of abuse has enabled post war nazis and anti-Semites to hide behind the term when peddling their old hatred.

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