Monoglot Britain

Sometimes I love The Economist:

The advantages of being able to speak more than one tongue are so obvious that they scarcely need spelling out. Despite globalisation, not everyone everywhere yet speaks English, so fluency in a second language would enable monoglot Britons to talk to many more people than they can at present. They could conduct business with fewer misunderstandings. They would have fewer surprises in restaurants when they discovered they had inadvertently ordered brains in black butter or a portion of potted intestine.

… 

The possibilities are limitless. Vacant negotiators would at last be privy to the meaning of the overheard asides uttered by their foreign counterparts before deals or treaties were closed. British footballers who play for foreign teams might, if they were not completely inarticulate in any language, be able to give interviews in the local tongue after the match. Journalists covering atrocities in darkest Africa and seeking the quotes so prized by editors back home might not have to ask, “Anyone here been raped and speak English?”

The Economist and Me

I have been a subscriber to The Economist for about 5 years now, and when I first started reading it I was impressed by its strong and principled editorial line and well researched articles.  Sadly, although its articles are still well researched, its editorial line in the last two years has gone from strong and principled to piss-weak and confused.

They have handled the Iraq war with about as much competence as the US state department.  Apparently, the decision to support the war split the editorial board right down the middle, and correspondingly upset a large swathe of its readership.  Yet as the Iraq project slipped from conventional war into chaos, the publication has all too obviously been trying desperately to regain some if its former credibility with those readers who opposed the war in the first place.  The problem is, rather than admitting they made a mistake or sticking to their guns, they have flim-flammed in the middle saying the decision to go to war was the right one, but all the problems thereafter are solely the fault of the Bush Adminstration, not the war itself.  This is not an unusual position to hold, but it is a weak one.

There is much to criticise the Bush administration for in its handling of post-war Iraq, but on the other hand much of this criticism is bollocks.  Chastising Bush for failing to predict and respond to every eventuality in Iraq is the stuff of academics and hack journalists.  For instance, we can all look back and say that something should have been done about the looting, but I don’t recall anyone predicting that Iraqi society would seize the opportunity to strip each other of their belongings, and ordering the US army to shoot any civilian it catches carrying a microwave would probably have caused the same critics to wet their pants with outrage.  I would much prefer that The Economist recognises that many of the failures in post-war Iraq could not have been predicted nor prepared for, and also acknowledges that wars are generally messy and things do sometimes go badly wrong.  Supporting the war per se and then criticising every aspect and outcome from an editorial office in London is not something I enjoy paying to read.

All that said, I still like The Economist.  Its writing style and turn of phrase, not to mention many of its articles, still make the subsription fee worth paying.  Take by way of example the concluding paragraph in a recent article on the battle of the sexes:

Modern professional life is dominated by management, which these days sets high store by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody’s confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word.

Few mainstream publications, especially ones available worldwide, would express this point in such a way that it would make me laugh as I did when I first read that.  Imagine the dour manner in which some bitter old hag would address the subject in The Guardian.  I doubt I’d make it beyond the first paragraph.  Entertaining as well as informing is a good way of parting me from my cash.

I also enjoyed The Economist’s article on disinformation in the former Soviet Union, where they come across a mysterious outfit by the name of the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS) which released a report promoting independence for Transdniestria, the breakaway region of Moldova which is propped up by Russia:

[The ICDISS] has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. It claims to be based in America, but does not appear to be a charity there.

Its website is registered at a hotel address in Mexico, with a phone that does not answer, and operated from a server in Latvia. And that is positively illuminating compared with the report’s other supposed publisher, the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, which seems to have no existence other than its logo.

The jovial, mocking tone is probably what I like best about The Economist.  If they manage to regain their editorial integrity at some point, they can be assured of my subscription for a good while yet.

Clique-ty Clique

Bill Emmott became editor of The Economist in 1993, and on March 31st this year retired from the post.

Bill Emmott was a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford and will be replaced by John Micklethwait, who also went to Magdalen College, and before that Ampleforth.  The Economist‘s editor between 1974 and 1986 was Andrew Knight, who also went to Ampleforth and Oxford, only he was at Balliol College. 

The only editor to break this pattern was Rupert Pennant-Rea (1986-1993), who went to Manchester University.  Perhaps they were trying to raise standards?