A common complaint among my fellow faculty members is that students
can’t write intelligible statistics reports. A few of us have
gradually added a "writing component" to our statistical methods
courses; of course this means we need to develop readings and exercises
for our students. Nevermind that the university offers a
perfectly good technical writing course–math and stats students can’t
fit it into their already crammed degree plans, and they studiously
avoid courses labelled "significant writing component"
anyway. So I end up teaching them to write, since anything they
picked up along with their C in freshman composition has long since
All of this to explain why I even bothered to pick up a copy of Don Watson’s Death Sentences.
The dust jacket and first few pages suggested that Watson, a former
speechwriter for the Australian Labor party, had come up with a
wonderful critique of what I call bizspeak*,
that impenetrable jargon so beloved of our governments, universities,
and major corporations. Alas, I missed a tell-tale warning
signal, right in the biographical sketch on the dustjacket: "Don Watson
is one of Australia’s best-known writers and public intellectuals."
Watson’s book is a cheat, nothing more than a politician’s wolf in
sheep’s clothing. Oh, the first chapter and conclusion are OK,
but everything in between is an extended screed against the Bush
Administration’s War on Terror.
Watson disagrees with the war, distrusts the Bush gang, and accuses the
President of duplicitous language. This is like checking under
the hood when your car has a flat tire. If the evil Chimpy
McBushitler regime was half as good at language as they are at killing
bad guys, we’d be lining up to enlist at age 40, or conducting weekly
Telethons to buy Blackhawk helicopters. This is the President who
quipped that he was going to take speech lessons from Arnold
Schwarzenegger! President Bush suffers from excessive loyalty to
his friends and staff, has a tin ear for public relations, and does
lots of dopey stuff for his supporter base, but bad language? I might as well accuse the dog of using the wrong fork for his salad.
Watson also bugs me with his choice of words and phrases to denigrate, and to use. He dislikes the term deconflicted,
as though it were used in sense of conquer, subdue, or overcome.
He’s apparently unaware that in military operations it has a specific
meaning, to arrange airstrikes or artillery fires so they do not
interfere or cause friendly-fire casualties. Then he runs term public language right into the ground. By the end of the book, I was convinced that the phrases public language and public intellectual should be categorized with public nuisance, public enemy, and public toilet.
I’m giving my copy away. If you’re looking for a book on writing, I recommend you skip this book in the first place.
*Watson’s subtitle says "cliches, weasel words and management-speak."
Update (3 October): Crumb Trail points out another political Trojan Horse.