Monday, June 12, 2017

Worn out metaphors and tired politics

Tensions in the South China Sea


[This article was originally written on May 27 making it slightly out date. As of today (June 11) the number of WSWS articles with "tensions" in the headline is 568 while the total number of articles containing the word "tensions" also went up. There were no less than 5 such articles on June 2.]

I did a search of all WSWS (World Socialist Web Site) articles with the word "tensions" in the heading. I came up with 564 such articles.  They go back to 1998 when the WSWS first started online publication to the present.  Here is the earliest article that came up:


And here are the two most recent from May 27



Of course there are many other articles that use that word - a total of 8,437 according to the WSWS search engine. Multiple uses of the same keyword in the same article are not counted by the WSWS search engine so the use of the word is actually much higher than the figure of 8,437 would indicate.   That's an awful lot of tension registered by WSWS authors since 1998.

The WSWS authors and editors are very creative in coming up with adjectives to qualify these tensions.  While I could not find a single instance where tensions were stabilizing or diminishing, I found numerous descriptions of how they are getting worse and worse.

Besides the ever popular "rising" you will also find that tensions  are "mounting", "growing", "heightening", "escalating", "dominating", "intensifying", "destabilizing", "deepening", "continuing", "exacerbating", "seething", "erupting", "fueling", "ramping up", "surging", "sharpening", "at the breaking point", "surfacing", "inflaming", "flaring", "stoking", and many other creative uses of the English language. (Could some of adjectives - "erupting", "surging", "flaring" be indicative of male sexual fantasies?) Occasionally the metaphor of rising tensions is described in negative terms such as the impossibility of "papering over" these tensions or some international conference that produces a statement of common goals and solidarity "fails to cover up" rising tensions seething beneath the surface.

This is not to say that every one of those 8,437 articles is wrong to point to rising tensions in the global arena. I expect that, clichés aside, many of them are probably correct though perhaps somewhat exaggerated.  But certainly all 8,437 cannot be correct and it is hardly credible that not a single instance of stabilizing or diminishing tensions, however temporary and evanescent, cannot be reported on in the past 20 years. 

I have no doubt that if I did a similar search on keywords such "threat of war", "class conflict", I would find similar results. For the WSWS events always only go in one direction and if something indicates the contrary it is only because the true situation is being "papered over" or "covered up".   Again, I am not saying there is no truth to this; just that it cannot be true 100% of the time. 

One further note: not only are tensions always rising, but their upward trend is accelerating.  A sample of statistics for every year since the WSWS was launched in 1998 shows a steady and sometimes dramatic increase in the rate of "tension" usage each year of publication.

First let us look at a sample of the total number of articles per year.

There were 139 instances of "tensions" in 1998,
 231 in 1999,
 256 in 2001,
 305 in 2005,
 413 in 2008,
 535 in 2010,
 555 in 2012,
 740 in 2014,
 702 in 2015,
 and 834 in 2016,
 the last full year of publication.

Even with the statistical anomaly of 2015, the trend is very clear: usage of the "tension" metaphor is not only rising and appears to be an ever more dominant theme in WSWS articles. Further insight can be gained by checking the percentage of articles using that term per year against the total number of articles written. Is it rising, staying the same or going down? A graphical representation of the yearly percentage of WSWS articles using "tensions" compared to the total number of WSWS articles shows a line going upwards, with some fluctuations, from a low of 8% in 1998 to a high of 15.8% in 2016. There is a rise from 2014 till the present when the percentage hovers between 13% and 16% as compared to the relatively stable years between 2005 and 2013 when it stood between 11% and 13%. And prior to 2004 it was lower still, mostly between 10 % and 11% with a couple of anomalous years where it went to 13%.

Here are the year by year statistics rounded up to the nearest tenth of a percent:

1998=    8.0%
1999=    10.0%
2000=   10.7%
2001=   13.0%
2002=  12.9%
2003=  10.4%
2004=  11.3%
2005 = 12.8%
2006=  12.5%
2007=  12.6%
2008 = 12.8%
2009 = 12.3%
2010 = 12.2%
2011 =  11.6%
2012 =  11.4%
2013 =  12.0 %
2014 =  14.2%
2015 =  13.4%
2016 =  15.8%
2017 =  15.2%

The percentage of articles referencing “rising tensions” of various sorts has almost doubled since the WSWS was launched in 1998.

Now it is certainly true in general that inter-imperialist rivalries have intensified in the past 20 years and war has become an increasingly common option of the American bourgeoisie in its efforts to maintain its economic dominance in the face of its deteriorating international position.  This was in contrast to the decade from 1991 to 2001 when tensions actually subsided as a result of Russia being turned into a semi-protectorate of the United States. That ended with the rise of Putin and the emergence of Russia and China as new imperialist powers as well as the events of 9/11. But that does not mean there have been no fluctuations or lulls or attempts to  return to workable agreements in the last 20 years either. None of that is captured in the ever rising tensions clichés of the WSWS authors. Which I suppose is the point of using this cliché in the first place.

I also do not mean to suggest that the WSWS is alone guilty of substituting reasoned analysis with worn out clichés.  The great majority of organizations calling themselves "Marxist"  do the same thing, sometimes with more, sometimes with less subtlety. I select the WSWS as a prime exemplar of this methodology because their 5,000 articles per year and their search engine make it relatively easy to provide some statistical analysis of their work. And their sectarianism and isolation from the real struggles of the working class is a balm that reinforces the worst aspects of left political analysis.

Other left wing organizations publish far less and what they do publish consists of little more than slogans. Their analysis of events is largely confined to manifestos and resolutions that are published once a year or so.  A nice example of the abuse of language, where clichés are interspersed with insults, is this gem from a manifesto of the Spartacist League,

"Unlike the erstwhile Stalinists and other revisionists, joined today by numerous dilettantes and political bandits ensconced in the virtual reality of cyberspace, who rotate through contradictory programmatic positions and even alleged principles in order to conform to changing opportunist appetites, authentic Marxists prize revolutionary continuity and programmatic consistency." 



Nor do I mean to suggest that this butchery of language and meaning is confined to the left. Right wing publications and web sites are if anything far worse than those of the left in this regard.

Mainstream publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are of course far more sophisticated and circumspect, but they too employ their fair share of trite phrases. But that being said, an analysis of right wing and mainstream publications is best left for another occasion.

All this reminds me of a famous essay by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, written at the end of World War II. Orwell's point was that political writing had become hackneyed and stale due to the increasing tendency of political writers to substitute clichés for genuine analysis. Orwell provided several examples of this trend, from all spheres of the political spectrum, but perhaps the best one is the following that he copied from a publication of the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain,

"All the best people from the gentlemen's clubs and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to found incendiaries, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis"

Orwell comments about this and other examples of political writings,

"The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen house." 

Later Orwell gives a striking example of the kind of rhetoric frequently found in left wing political writing:

"The sole aim of a metaphor [for example, the metaphor of 'rising tensions'  with its numerous permutations as in WSWS writing, or 'rising tide' as in the Stalinist publication] is to call up a visual image. When these images clash- as in the The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot - it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming, in other words he is not really thinking." 

(George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda, "Politics and the English Language", p. 270. First Mariner Books, 2009.)

I am not suggesting that left political analysis has no basis in objective reality, whether one is talking about the "rising tensions" metaphor of the WSWS or the "rising tide" metaphor cited by Orwell. Indeed the writers of these tropes are reacting to real events, but "without thinking", ie. impressionistically and shorn of any serious investigation. In the final analysis the butchery of language is a symptom of the butchery of thought.

In the case of the WSWS the writer is "not really thinking" because he or she already has a worked out scenario in advance regardless of the ups and downs of a dynamically changing situation. It's the product of a sectarian mindset that wishes to see everything as a confirmation of a dogma that they call a "science of perspectives"; one that always and everywhere sees tensions rising. So when events such as 9/11 happen, or a retired military leader warns of the danger of nuclear war, this is just grist for their journalistic mill - if I may borrow another worn out metaphor. Other events, that qualify or add nuance or even question their basic assumptions are simply ignored or explained away. Such schematic formalism and cherry picking of ones focus is the very opposite of a dialectical understanding of the forces that shape our world today.

Alex Steiner 




16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Meh, too abstract. Need to look at the "definitions in use" of a word. Totally random weirdo stuff there about male sex fantasy.

Alex Steiner said...

According to Freud nothing that is said or written is completely random. Freud may have overstated the case a bit but I think there is a grain of truth to that observation. In any case, this was just an aside. Do you have anything to say about the substance of this piece?

Thomas Cain said...

Alex,

I was surprised by the sheer amount of articles that are guilty of using weasel words. Of course, the WSWS is of course known for their ritualistic invocation of revolution at the end of most articles--one commenter recently pointed out how absurd it was (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/17/amzn-j17.html). Fortunately, there are still individual Trotskyists putting out good analysis. Here's one that I highly recommend: http://instruggle.org/

Thomas Cain said...

Alex,

I don't know if you've been following the "Google memo" controversy around James Damore, but it's been dominating the internet and TV news this week. I've read the memo myself--it's mostly trash, using "empirical" evolutionary psychology talking points to ratify gender stereotypes about working women. But curiously, not a single article I've combed on the controversy has noted the contradiction between the firing of James Damore due to his "sexism" on the one hand, and Google's struggle against the Labor Department, having been accused of systematically underpaying women earlier this year. And of course, there's no specific criticism of Damore's Evo-Psych convictions themselves. The discourse on social media has been arbitrarily forked: Either you're for Google, or against women.

However, Damore may have managed to put his finger on the particular way Google crafts its work culture, in that it "shames" those who do not buy into its agenda of promoting "diversity". Google is now being lionized in a paternalistic fashion as a defender of oppressed workers on its campuses. In this way, workers are being emotionally induced to embrace their employers as their guardian angels. One recalls Gramsci's ideas on hegemony, as well as Genovese.

Do you have any comment?

Edward L said...

You must feel pretty stupid about this article considering the current danger of nuclear war in North Korea. Looks like the WSWS got it right.

A quote from today's Washington Post:

"An armed conflict could take place in disparate spots thousands of miles apart, involving any number of nations and a wide variety of weapons, conventional or nuclear."

Alex Steiner said...

Thomas,

I have indeed been following it and I think you are definitely on to something. Damore's comments were stupid and misogynistic. And the "theoretical" infrastructure is borrowed from the pseudo-science of evolutionary psychology. The liberal backlash against Damore however has been used to solidify the myths that Google and other high tech corporations are playing some sort of progressive role vis a vis Trump.

This is particularly heinous not only in light of Google's actual record of unequal treatment of its employees, but also in terms of the role Google plays in shaping access to information and public opinion. Google's recent manipulation of its search algorithm to diminish the significance of left wing web sites is a form of censorship on a scale previously unknown except in regimes like China or Egypt.

Perhaps you would like to write a longer piece on this topic and submit it as an essay for publication? It's definitely topical and important.

Alex Steiner

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Edward L.,

It looks like you failed utterly to understand my short essay. Let me quote one section:

"This is not to say that every one of those 8,437 articles is wrong to point to rising tensions in the global arena. I expect that, clichés aside, many of them are probably correct though perhaps somewhat exaggerated. But certainly all 8,437 cannot be correct and it is hardly credible that not a single instance of stabilizing or diminishing tensions, however temporary and evanescent, cannot be reported on in the past 20 years."

In other words even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And Marxism without the dialectic - to paraphrase Trotsky - is like a clock without a spring.

Adam Cortright said...

I think Edward understood your little diatribe very well, and hiding behind your one paragraph which you hope inoculates you from the absurdity of this article doesn't help. The WSWS was correct in identifying the trends of the last decade, and your criticism of them is unfounded. Again, you continue to embarrass yourself in your denial of this.

Adam

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Adam,

You are just repeating what Edward said without adding anything. And as far as my "one paragraph", how about in addition to that one these two:

"I am not suggesting that left political analysis has no basis in objective reality, whether one is talking about the "rising tensions" metaphor of the WSWS or the "rising tide" metaphor cited by Orwell. Indeed the writers of these tropes are reacting to real events, but "without thinking", ie. impressionistically and shorn of any serious investigation. In the final analysis the butchery of language is a symptom of the butchery of thought.

In the case of the WSWS the writer is "not really thinking" because he or she already has a worked out scenario in advance regardless of the ups and downs of a dynamically changing situation. It's the product of a sectarian mindset that wishes to see everything as a confirmation of a dogma that they call a "science of perspectives"; one that always and everywhere sees tensions rising."

Alex Steiner

Adam Cortright said...

Alex,

Again, your further paragraphs are meant to defend against the obvious pushback--that the WSWS has correctly identified the rising tensions of the last decade, has warned the working class of this and is continuing to do so. Because you cannot fault the WSWS for the correctness of its track record, you invent some nonsense about "reacting to events", even though this is internally inconsistent to your own argument--if it were reacting to events, wouldn't the remarks of the WSWS reflect the fall in tensions from time to time? How can it be reacting to events and be seeing only tensions at the time time?

Instead, the WSWS does not impressionistcally react to what appears to be a resolving of tensions. To do so would be to disarm the working class. If, for example, the situation with North Korea at present is temporarily subdued, that does not mean that the underlying tensions have been resolved, and it is this that the WSWS correctly points to. Your reaction to the WSWS smacks of desperation (to find something to criticize), as well as a terrible sense of middle class complacency which, as we all know, is your modus operandi.

Regards,

Adam

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Adam:

You are just putting your foot in your mouth. No where do I deny that tensions have been rising in the last decade and it is no great discovery on the part of the WSWS to point that out. Here is another paragraph from my article:

"Now it is certainly true in general that inter-imperialist rivalries have intensified in the past 20 years and war has become an increasingly common option of the American bourgeoisie in its efforts to maintain its economic dominance in the face of its deteriorating international position. This was in contrast to the decade from 1991 to 2001 when tensions actually subsided as a result of Russia being turned into a semi-protectorate of the United States. That ended with the rise of Putin and the emergence of Russia and China as new imperialist powers as well as the events of 9/11. But that does not mean there have been no fluctuations or lulls or attempts to return to workable agreements in the last 20 years either. None of that is captured in the ever rising tensions clichés of the WSWS authors. Which I suppose is the point of using this cliché in the first place."

My article did not just deal with "the last decade" but analyzed the WSWS since its inception in 1998. But one can go back farther. The predecessor of the WSWS, the printed publication called the "Workers International Bulletin" also saw tensions always rising. It's a trope left over from the days of Healy that the Workers League/SEP never completely broke from. Healy was a master crisis mongerer who announced that the crisis of capitalism was always "deepening" and civil war was just around the corner. This has nothing to do with Marxism.

You say in defense of the WSWS that they are not reacting impressionistically to events because,

"If, for example, the situation with North Korea at present is temporarily subdued, that does not mean that the underlying tensions have been resolved, and it is this that the WSWS correctly points to."

It's true that underlying tensions in Noerth Korea have not been resolved. But the New York Times would say the same thing. It's hardly an observation that proves your superiority as a Marxist theoretician to all those bourgeois impressionists! If that is your litmus test for claiming the superiority of the WSWS's pronouncements, I am not impressed.

Alex Steiner




You

Adam Cortright said...

I never said it was a great discovery on the part of the WSWS--in fact, it is rather elementary that tensions have been rising and that this is accurately reflected in the WSWS's coverage. My contention is that you are trying to make an argument out of something that is not there--in fact, two contradictory arguments, the first being that the WSWS is reacting to events, the second that they are publishing articles according to a pre-determined narrative. You make no attempt to resolve your contradiction.

In the end, what do we have? The WSWS is correct in its analysis of rising tensions; that it has warned the working class repeatedly of the dangers of these tensions; and that despite the outward appearance of temporary reductions in tensions, the WSWS rightly points out the underlying conflicts which leave those tensions relevant and ripe for inevitable future outbursts. In other words, the WSWS is correct on everything--except that we shouldn't concern ourselves with these tensions too terribly much! We are on the brink of nuclear war, and the WSWS is crisis-mongering. This is precisely what one would expect from a middle class and complacent "radical" such as yourself. Nothing concerns you too terribly much, after all. You can't even be bothered to post an article about Google's censorship of the WSWS and other left-wing outlets, or a commentary on the North Korean crisis. The entire spectacle oozes with cynicism and complacency and serves only to disarm the working class.

Regards,

Adam

Mark said...

This is essay brings up a important topic for the left, examining our own language and how we often fall into unproductive ruts (which can continue for quite a long time) when we fail to think critically and examine our own conceptions! Alex points out that the use of worn out cliches is not something exclusive to the WSWS, that he focussed on the WSWS because:

"their 5,000 articles per year and their search engine make it relatively easy to provide some statistical analysis of their work. And their sectarianism and isolation from the real struggles of the working class is a balm that reinforces the worst aspects of left political analysis."

Adam, perhaps inadvertently, introduces another cliche that of "arming" the working class. He says the WSWS can't point to disapating tensions or a change in the situation because that would "disarm" the working class.

If you arming a side in a battle, that implies that the battle lines are clear and the side you are arming knows what it is fighting for. Unfortunately that is not the case for the American working class, they are still aligned with their unions, or if they are not unionised they are still not trusting socialists. So, I think we are not yet at the stage of arming the working class, but instead we should be trying to gain their trust and give them direction. If socialists have genuinely gained the trust of the working class, then we can definitively speak of arming them politically or otherwise.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Adam;

Why is it contradictory to note that WSWS journalists react to events and that they do so as impressionists trying to fit every event into a pre-ordained narrative? In one way or another eveyone on this planet reacts to events with the possible excepton of supernatural beings like angels or ghosts who do not participate in natural history. It's a basic tenet of materialism. WSWS journalists react to events as do socialistworker.org journalists as does just about everyone else. But what marks WSWS journalism is the moulding of their narrative of ever rising tensions to fit all events. It's a point we made a long time ago about the WSWS "Science of Perspectives",

"The whole operation functions like some nicely designed piece of software: it
can generate articles and so-called ‘perspectives’ reports that will always and forever be
“confirmed.” What it cannot generate – and what the IC is oblivious to – is socialist
consciousness in the working class."

Marxism without its head or its heart. Chapter 1, page 22

You don't know anything about the commitments and activities of us beyond this web site. So before you ask me why I haven't written anything about this event or that event, you might want to ask yourself what you have done besides posting your comments on web sites, which I suppose you think is some form of revolutionary activity. I do not see a single article on the WSWS posted in your name.

And speaking of interevening in the working class, perhaps you can enlighten us as to whatever happened to the "Auto Workers Newsletter" about which you were so enthusiastic not too long ago. I have not seen any reference to it in the WSWS for quite a while.

Finally your descent into personal insults and name-calling is a sure sign that you have run out of logical arguments. It's the last refuge of a true-believer.

Alex Steiner

Anonymous said...

You write above: "Google's recent manipulation of its search algorithm to diminish the significance of left wing web sites is a form of censorship on a scale previously unknown except in regimes like China or Egypt."

This statement is based on information originally published in the WSWS, which has now widely reported on by other web publications.

You have not issued a statement opposing Google's blacklisting of the WSWS. Your silence is a damning indictment of your rightward political evolution.

Alex Steiner said...

Reply to anonymous:

We are not a political party nor are we a daily online newspaper. So it is a bit odd that you indict us for not commenting on Google's latest attempts to direct the flow of information in favor of the status quo. Of course we oppose the censorship aimed against the left that is embedded in Google's new search algorithm. I signed the WSWS petition on this.

I don't know if the WSWS was the first to publicize the bias of the new Google search algorithm, but regardless of who was first it is certainly a reprehensible turn of events. I found the WSWS articles on the subject useful.

I should also point out that you can play this game with almost any topic and use it to accuse anyone of "drifting to the right". Even the WSWS, which is indeed a daily newspaper, does not comment on every significant event that takes place. For instance, take this article from from the Guardian about the previous incarnation of Google's search engine which gave prominence to extreme right wing and neo-Nazi web sites:

How Google's search algorithm spreads false information with a rightwing bias

I did not find any article on the WSWS that directly commented on this nor on an earlier article in The NY Times exposing the bias against minorities baked into Google's search algorithm:

When algorithms discriminate

But I do not think the lack of such comment is evidence of a "drift to the right". Only someone arguing in bad faith and with an agenda trying to smear a political opponent would make such an argument.

Alex Steiner