LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
August is the cruellest month - as TS Eliot put it, before Ezra Pound got to him with the correcting fluid. In August, no journalists report to no readers on the activities of no politicians. In August, the most important people left in the country are John Prescott and Stephen Dorrell. In August, the streets of our great cities gather dust and our finance houses are windy ghost-towns. In August, no minister resigns, no royal toe is nibbled by a commoner, no supermodel is defrocked.

In August, things are unusual; we are our private selves. We dream of life without politics, life without fuss. And ... what happens? While dreaming, perhaps on a distant Mediterranean beach, perhaps on Dorset shingle, we are suddenly shaken awake by a clean-limbed youth with crisp white shirt and a Mormon smile, thrusting a leaflet and lisping, ''New Labour, New Britain.'' Squinting and angry, we sit up and see, further down the beach, Brian Mawhinney tacking a poster to an olive tree. Whatever next? Ian Paisley in St Tropez? Dennis Skinner tramping the trattorias of Umbria?

Have these people no shame, no sense of national tradition? I suggest that unless the parties withdraw their lunatic schemes for seaside August campaigns, we should arise, as a free and frolicking people, and pledge ourselves to vote for none of the above.

The case of the frozen embryos, which we report on again today on page one, is not only one of the sharpest examples of the moral dilemmas raised by advancing technologies; it is also a good example of how our language comes under pressure when confronted with new problems. Trying to write a headline about this the other day, I was confronted by words such as ''orphan'', ''killed'', ''parents'' and ''left to die''.

These are strong, familiar words and their cumulative use has the effect of nudging any but the strongest mind against the destruction of the embryos. This is before the words of campaigners, including ''massacre'', ''holocaust'' and so on, are taken into account. There are rival words, which help remove the emotional effect, such as ''cell-cluster'', ''potential'' and ''disposal'' but they are, well, clinical. We have had, of course, powerful letters on both sides; but the letters protesting against the destruction of the embryos are more powerfully written. So they should be: they are drawing on a much more powerful verbal ammunition-dump.

But isn't it interesting that so much human passion is expended on the fate of tiny groups of cells, compared with the fate of fully developed children in poverty, never mind others in hopeless poverty? Isn't there a perverse hierarchy of compassion here, which places cell-clusters at the top of the moral agenda, then struggling ordinary children below them, and then - far below both - immiserated adults? (When, come to think of it, did children begin to be considered more worthy of pity than adults, and why - was it Dickens?)

At any rate, if there is something perverse here, then it is deeply rooted in our language and our emotional responses to words. And these are some of the deepest social roots we have; what seems to be a trivial struggle about a headline touches the future of the long-fingered bipeds as a whole.

Another thing about August, of course, is that schools and universities are empty. Given that bipeds are innately keen on learning, we have devised a short course to keep education-starved readers happy. From Monday, we begin ''The DIY University'' - our instant course in Everything Important, which ranges from Einstein to quantum mechanics - Chomsky to classical painting - Groucho Marx to epistemology.

It's something different for the patio or beach. And useful, perhaps, for swatting away the mendicant politicians.

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