Regarding his Lordship’s latest fulminations in the National Post on Saturday (A world of financial ruin), has nobody noticed just how bad this dude is at writing? While Black’s prose is known for its overuse of Latinate words and generally bombastic tone, its outstanding feature is really just how plain bad it is.
So, starting at the top:
The present U.S. administration, building, certainly on unpromising leavings from its predecessor, has shuffled from one delayed reaction placebo to another to anesthetize financial markets with a sequence of consciousness-lowering deferrals. First we were waiting for the Simpson-Bowles debt commission, which held any actual attention to the problem at bay for nearly two years. It reported quite sensibly and sank like lead weight, but without a ripple. The administration’s budget proposed a dynamic eventual freeze on 15% of federal government expenses, a solution that underwhelmed almost everyone.
Apart from this being the usual vortex of orotundity: there is a missing comma after “certainly,” which probably ought to be “admittedly;” “unpromising leavings from its predecessor” is clumsy; “building” on “leavings” is a bad mixed metaphor; “delayed reaction” is missing a hyphen (although maybe that can be excused as the hyphen sadly does seem to be on the way out); “held attention to the problem at bay” is clunky; “reported quite sensibly” is an error – the matter of interest is the content of the report and whether or not it was sensible, not the manner of reporting; and “a dynamic eventual freeze” is both awkward and contradictory – what is a dynamic freeze supposed to be?
The world’s reserve currency, the fabled vehicle of the “faith and credit of the United States,” is now virtual money — a symbol for all the other massive problems afflicting the U.S. economy. The imported share of America’s oil consumption, for instance, has gone from 20% to 60%. Large suppliers like Iran and Venezuela have become hostile countries. Yet Americans remain neurotic about paying half the gas price of other oil-importing countries.
The expression is “the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.” “[S]ymbol for” should be “symbol of.” When quoting changes the time scale is usually included unless it is obvious: when did imported oil make up 20% of America’s consumption – 1960, 1970, 1980? “[H]ostile countries” should just read “hostile;” otherwise the sentence implies that Iran and Venezuela changed from suppliers into countries; but they were always countries.
Unless the United States has the most spectacular cognitive awakening since Brunhilda, if not Lazarus, the laws of arithmetic are going to assert themselves in Zeus-like terms.Meanwhile, the European Union is a water-logged vessel in a tempest, frantically bailing. In the six weeks since French finance minister Christine Lagarde last bravely proclaimed her personal fantasy that Greece would not default, the interest on Greek government notes has risen from 20% to 26%. Germany will not indefinitely remain so encumbered with guilt for the Third Reich that it will go on eating the costs of the false prospectus Goldman Sachs assisted Greece and others to file when they joined the Euro.
Brunhilda didn't have a “cognitive awakening;” she just woke up. Vessels don’t bail, frantically or otherwise; the crew does that. The laws of arithmetic asserting themselves in Zeus-like terms is another addled mixed metaphor; laws are not animate and so don’t assert themselves; Greece didn’t make a joint application apply with “others” to join the Eurozone – so it should either be “prospectuses” or just Greece. Sloppy writing, sloppy thinking.
The EU is in hot contention with the United States as the Sick Man of the Great World Economic Powers, because less than 40% of Eurozone citizens work and over 60% are on benefits of some sort. But not to be discounted in this gripping Olympic contest for total fiscal immolation is geriatric, debt-ridden, stagnating Japan, a great but terribly beleaguered and demoralized country.
Sick men in hot contention; that’s a good one. “[T]he Great World Economic Powers” should use either “Great” or “World” but not both. The second sentence lays on the superlatives with the proverbial trowel, the bad writer’s favourite implement.
It is on a slow and perhaps shallow rebound from New Labour, whose only novelty was that it took them three terms rather than only the one required by Attlee and Wilson to bring the country to the brink of ruin, speaks English, has a good legal system and has been one of the most respected nationalities in the world without interruption since the rise of the nation state approximately 700 years ago.
The “It” here is the U.K. Skipping the first clause this reduces to “It . . . speaks English . . .” which is wrong, as countries don’t speak, people do; and while the point is sometimes made in discussions of globalization comparing India and China that the former has a large population of English speakers, we don’t really need to be told that this is also true of England.
Absent the first clause the preceding reads: “It . . . speaks English, has a good legal system and has been one of the most respected nationalities in the world without interruption since the rise of the nation state approximately 700 years ago.” A pretty good imitation of Grade 9 essay style.
When Britain can’t lead as it often has, as recently as with Thatcher in the ’80s, it still muddles through.
This means to say that Thatcher was an example of old-time leadership, not of muddling through; but a reader who didn’t know Conrad’s political biases would have a hard time figuring this out as it isn’t clear from the sentence itself.
And there is much more of the same. Anybody who wants to can download the column and redpen it up themselves, for an hour of harmless fun.
Of course, it could be objected that this is all nit-picking, but when you’re at the point where you can’t even see the body for all the lice it’s an issue. Writing a newspaper op-ed isn’t just about making your point; it’s also about presentation, in the same way that you don’t go to a job interview in your underwear, even if you do have solid skills and a good resume.
Amazingly, Conrad Black has managed to maintain a reputation as some kind of prose stylist (even after the duncical titling of his biography of Nixon as “The Invincible Quest”) when, stylistically, he is really the naked Emperor of Canadian journalism.