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10 March 2012

Cliché watch #2: snobbery, Royal titles and the boredom of bird-lovery

In the previous post I said I thought that the key to mannerly English prose for Russians is to avoid Soviet-style thinking. But this is a disease of the soul as much as of political or literary style, and therefore afflicts people in all countries to some extent. Bureaucratic Britain is one of the worst affected, with politically-correct America running it a close second. Its fundamental feature is thinking of people as first and foremost members of a group, category or (as Soviets would say) collective, and only after that, if at all, as individual human beings. Racism, Nazism, the Gulag, snobbery, class-hatred, sectarianism, chauvinism and a hundred other public poisons flow from this source. And it kills language, as in the end people are always more interesting than groups, categories or classes.
     The dead prose of bureaucracy is exceeded by that of the modern environmental movement since it adds a particularly insidious form of self-interest to the toxic brew. I have written two books (see details on the side-bar of this blog) which explore, amongst other things, the way in which the environmental movement tries to deceive the public in order to get money. In this, it is very successful. In Britain there is no body more successfully deceptive than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a vast organisation which grew out of an honourable and humane desire to protect birds from the psychotic brutality of late-Victorian sportsmen.
     Today, the RSPB will ignore an injured bird, saying that it deals only with numbers and populations—in other words, categories. I once witnessed an argument at the RSPB’s headquarters when a member of the public brought in a  bird that had flown into power-lines and broken a wing. The lady assumed that a bird charity would be interested in the frightened creature flapping helplessly in the cardboard box she had used to transport it. Not a bit of it. She was told to take the thing away and to try to contact the appropriate animal rescue charity. That, for me, was environmentalism in a nutshell.
     I recently had cause to look up the history page of the RSPB’s website, and I found the predictable focus on past virtue which is ordinarily used to conceal present-day mendacity. The confusion of the language is indicative of the confusion of thought in a wider sense. A cynic might say the confusion was deliberate, but no matter. The language lessons are worth pointing out to Russians trying to write humane English. That involves keeping it simple and personal. Though worth noting, the mistakes are less important than the last point I make which concerns people.
“The RSPB was formed to counter the barbarous trade in plumes for women’s hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose plumes had become fashionable in the late Victorian era. In its earliest days the Society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the emotional appeal of the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the Society were simple: That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection; That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted. Some of the Society's staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes – people such as the Duchess of Portland who became the Society's first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak.” (emphasis added)
     (a) “barbarous trade in plumes”: it is not the trade that is barbarous, but the killing of the birds in such numbers.
     (b) “fashion”: as written, this sentence implies that the fashion concerned was for a barbarous trade in plumes, when presumably the writers intended to say that it was the fashion for plumes in women’s hats which was to blame for the barbarous trade (in fact a highly arguable point as the fashion for killing applied to birds of any sort, whether those with saleable plumage, or pheasants, sea birds or birds of prey).
     (c) “moved by the emotional appeal”: in this phrase, “emotional” is redundant as any appeal that is “moving” must be emotional.
     (d) “plight of young birds left to starve”: this is what the emotional appeal is about. But, if the words are to be taken literally, then birds cannot make “an appeal” as they cannot communicate with humans. If the words are to be taken more figuratively, then the statement is still nonsense as you cannot find the plight of starving creatures “appealing”. I think what the writers intended to say was the “women were moved by the plight of the young birds…”
     (e) “parents”: this is anthropomorphising, and as such is condescending to the reader. The core membership of the RSPB is from suburban England and many of these people have, I know from living many years near RSPB reserves in Scotland, pretty fantastic misconceptions of how animals behave. This is an example of the general tendency of “environmental” people to be ignorant of individual animals and their habits.
      (f) “any bird not killed for purposes of food”: food cannot be a “purpose”. Eating can be a purpose, as it is an act. It would have been better to have written: “any bird not killed for food” or, less satisfactorily, “any bird not killed for the purposes of eating”.
     (g) “ostriches only excepted”: does this mean ostriches may be killed for their feathers? Why the exception? This should be explained.
     (h) “the very kind of people”: this should be “the very people” or “the kind of people”.
     (i) “the Duchess of Portland … and the Ranee of Sarawak”: this is not a linguistic point, but is typical of so much writing by organisations of this sort: there is a snobbery is implicit in the use of unexplained titles. Which reader knows anything about the Duchess of Portland, except that she was a duchess and a bird-lover? And who was the Ranee of Sarawak? To the extent that anyone has heard of the title, they are less likely to associate it with virtuous bird-protecting than with the lazy, vapid, money-crazed sex maniac from London, who described herself as “a howling snob” and who lived for thirty years in the oil-rich jungle kingdom in Malaysia with her emotionally-challenged but administratively-talented Old Wykehamist husband, the White Rajah. When the Japanese invaded in 1941, the two of them “buggered off” (as the Daily Telegraph recently put it), leaving their adoring subjects to the tender mercies of the invader. Luckily for the British Empire, the Rajah’s attempts to abolish head-hunting had largely failed and the locals living in the jungle claimed 1,500 Japanese scalps. The lady concerned spent many of her later years working to make ends meet as a fortune-teller in New York.
     Which is all very interesting. But there were three Ranees in the century during which this little private-enterprise state existed. Was this the one who loved birds? It doesn’t matter, really, as the RSPB wants to quote her title, presumably confident that it will work its snob-voodoo on the site’s “target market”, who can be relied on not to investigate further. I noted in the post about environmentalists (27 February) that they often depend for effect in their writing on the use of clichés. The use of titles in this way has exactly the same purpose: to conjure up a vague idea without actually saying anything concrete or personal. In this case the reason is obvious: people are much more interesting than birds. Even a bird bureaucracy seems to realise that—at any rate when it is looking for support, and therefore money. But from any serious, factual point of view, they might as well have been telling fortunes.

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