Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 1/7

Aaronovitch Watch (incorporating Nick Cohen Watch) recently expanded its remit to cover wider aspects of Decency. One book stands out: Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, in general because it’s one of the books that the Decents cite with the greatest respect, but in particular because of the effect it appears to have had on Nick Cohen. That there’s been a remarkable shift in the direction of Nick Cohen’s journalism is frequently remarked upon. And while we can all speculate about the reasons why there might have been this shift, the most explicit statement he’s provided for us was in the Writer’s Choice column of the Normblog here, when he wrote about the effect that Berman and his book had had on him:
“He convinced me I'd wasted a great deal of time looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was going to have to turn it round and see the world afresh.”
He drew particular attention to the book’s seductive qualities:
“Readers who want to disagree with him, as I did, are seduced because he understands why they believe what they believe and more often than not expresses their ideas better than they can.”
Now, Cohen admits he was seduced. But what if we don’t just want to disagree with Berman, but also make the slightest attempt to resist seduction? What if we take some precautions? What if we do the elementary work of checking some of the claims Berman makes against the sources he says that he’s using when he makes them? What if we try to summon up a modicum of scepticism towards his general argument, perhaps even the kind of scepticism that helped to make Nick Cohen’s Cruel Britannia quite the best book on British politics in the 1990s? How does Berman’s argument fare then?

Tracing Berman’s arguments back to his sources isn’t always easy. There’s a “Note to the Reader” at the end that lists a few of the works consulted, but Berman habitually cites books without providing page references, and that irritates. (Terror and Liberalism doesn’t have an index, either, and that also irritates.) Sometimes you don’t need to chase up his references to find fault with the book. He calls Franz Ferdinand the "grand duke of Serbia" on p.32, for example, and he’s become the "Archduke of Serbia" by p.40, when he wasn’t either; Franz Ferdinand was the Archduke of Austria, and Serbia lay outside the Habsburg lands. (Funny, though, that the errors in basic general knowledge should come to light when it comes to dealing with Serbia and Sarajevo, of all places.) But much of the rest of the time, it’s an interesting exercise to compare what Berman says with what his sources say. I haven’t done this comprehensively in what follows (even I’ve got better things to do with my time), and I’m not saying anything in what follows about the two chapters on Sayyid Qutb – because I haven’t read any of his works and don’t know much about him, apart from what Berman tells me, and, as will be clear from what follows, I don’t think Berman’s an entirely reliable source. But I have done a bit of checking around with some of the books that I’ve got to hand. How does Berman use his sources? Often carelessly, and not especially fair-mindedly, as we shall see.

12 Comments:

Blogger Louis Proyect said...

This was quite a major undertaking and done exceedingly well. (Found the link through Crooked Timber.) I first became aware of Berman's crappy politics in the 1980s when he was a columnist for the Village Voice and writing pro-Nicaraguan contra propaganda in the name of anarchism. He is still writing propaganda, but has dropped the leftist pretenses. What we are dealing with here is farce after tragedy. Camus had some moral authority based on editing a Resistance newspaper in the 1940s. Writing for the Village Voice, with its mix of massage parlor ads and banal liberalism, is not quite the same thing.

4/16/2006 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous RobG said...

Absolutely brilliant work: nice one!

4/16/2006 05:05:00 PM  
Anonymous rioja kid said...

Excellent work CCK (whose pseudonym I can exlcusively reveal as being that of Chiang Ching-kuo, former dictator of Taiwan. Shhh)

Now that we're a review site, we should qualify for a free copy of "Our friends on the left".

Shall we contact the publisher?

4/16/2006 06:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark Jones said...

I thought you might have some points, until I saw Proyect's imprimatur. It might as well have been Ratzinger's recommendation.

4/16/2006 09:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of the 'socialists':
Simple minded optimism : Berman opted or felt compelled to label this 'group' as possessing such.
Wonder why.

"If they had looked the Nazis in the face, they would have realized that war was inevitable."
Oh really?
Did he have a multi-brain probe?
OS

4/16/2006 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

This review doesn't fundementally challenge the book in the any way. All they could find were a few quibbles. It's very telling that they felt unable to make a proper argument against the thrust of the books message.

Typical marxist propaganda is to just claim all political opponents are liars so we don't have to listen to them.

4/16/2006 11:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan: would you please explain which review you're referring to and who 'they' are: not having read Berman's book I don't know what the message you're gleaning is.OS

4/17/2006 12:02:00 AM  
Blogger Saneman said...

Spotted Aaranovitch as one of the talking heads on one of Channel 5 crappy countdown-style program, "the 50 most outrageous programs in TV history ever!!".

I know, for shame, but
1) I never watch TV usually, ok?
2) It was great to see Aaro discuss at length about S&M and kinky sex, looks like he was booked as an expert on the subject... or at least a hack desperate enough to appear on the program!

4/17/2006 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Sonic said...

Great work!

4/17/2006 09:56:00 PM  
Blogger StuartA said...

I have to say thanks for a very interesting dissection of Berman's book. An essay that extensively researched deserves a wider audience.

It's long seemed very strange to me that decentists are so keen to cite as a key influence such a thinly sourced, and ultimately not very persuasive, book. I didn't realise, though, just how inaccurately Berman characterised his sources. It makes it doubly curious that they simultaneously feel able to attack Chomsky for being unscrupulous with his citations.

One aspect of all this that would seem worth looking into further is the decentists' general lack of interest in economic questions. Chomsky constantly emphasises capitalist motivation behind Western foreign policy, whereas Berman fans point instead to elevated principle. But I've never seen a decentist take on this question directly -- instead attacks on leftists are largely confined to mention of alliances with Islamists, anti-semitism, etc. The best they have by way of response, it seems, is some faulty lit. crit.

I find it telling that the book apparently providing theoretical underpinning for the decentist movement rests so precariously on a superficial reading of Camus. Will Cohen's attempt be any better?

4/18/2006 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger Vinny said...

"The Twilight of American Culture" by Morris Berman. Published 2000 by W.M. Norton and Co. New York. Essential reading in my view. No relation I assume?
V.

4/18/2006 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

Off topic: 2) It was great to see Aaro discuss at length about S&M and kinky sex, looks like he was booked as an expert on the subject... or at least a hack desperate enough to appear on the program!

DA, an expert? Ha! He did a three-part C5 programme called 'Whatever Turns You On', which meant he got to jet round the world pontificating about sexual behaviour. Worth a laugh for seeing him naked in a hot tub, and when he gets into an impromptu bondage session. (I've still got the last episode on tape somewhere...tee hee) What is the Decent position on sex, I wonder?

4/21/2006 09:07:00 AM  

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