Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Intellectuals

Nick does book reviews. Surely this is further down the food chain than being a named columnist in the Staggers, the Observer, and the London Evening Standard. He hasn't been in the Staggers for a bit, and his space on the Observer has been halved. So now he's a critic. Well, he always was, in a way.
He's got a gig on the New Humanist reviewing Debating Humanism. Like David T of Harry's Place and like me, Nick thinks that the Spiked online crew are *still* the RCP - in the sense that Sellafield is still Windscale. Once you know this you realise that despite two words in the title (out of two) being close to the New Humanist's raison d'etre, the book isn't worth reviewing at all. But Nick tries

Who can deny that the Enlightenment needs defending? Islamists who reject everything it believe [sic], want to kill us and suppress about 1.5 billion people. Postmodernists denigrate its values and hold democracy and human rights in contempt. All recruits to the fight back must surely be welcomed.

I'm close to denying that the Enlightenment needs defending. I don't quite understand what Nick means by the term. It's not a fixed thing; arguably we're living in it. But if he thinks that it was a historical event, one which is now over, then presumably it's over for a reason, and that reason ought to be worth examining. The Enlightenment, if it was a short-lived event in the Eighteenth Century, did not give us the democracy we recognise today. Women's and workers' suffrage came much later; if Nick wants to consider this country as historically secular, he'll need to explain why there are Bishops in the House of Lords. Islamists probably do reject everything it believes (in the you know what I mean sense of that clause), but tell us Nick, what of the Church? Does the Pope reject it? Does Prince Charles who aspires to be 'defender of the faiths'? Didn't post-Enlightenment Britain subjugate and suppress millions of people? Can Nick tell us who these postmodernists are?

Nick is dead on in one criticism:

Instead of looking at what menaces us in the here and now, two of the essayists concentrate their fire on the perennial liberal enemy. Dylan Evans and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn denounce secular fundamentalists, whose narrowly anti-religious version of humanism mirrors the intolerance of the religious.

Nick has not time for people who argue like that, and quite right too. Far from needing defending, Dawkins is a best-seller. For a sensible consideration of Dawkins you could do a lot worse than Sean at Cosmic Variance.
Nick's conclusion is approved by David T (not that they 'move as a disciplined unit' or anything).

It's easier for Furedi and his comrades to carry on as before and get in the way of people with serious work to do.

The people with serious work to do being, presumably, a certain Islington based hack and friends.
Nick also reviews in the New Statesman.

The authors of two of the most original 9/11 books hit a nerve because they had that rare ability to describe a fact we didn’t want to see even though it was in front of our noses. To put it bluntly, Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism and Ian Buruma’s Occidentalism (co-written with Avishai Margalit) said we were up against fascism. The cults of death, contempt for soft and mediocre democracies, fear of women and Jewish conspiracy theories of Islamism and Ba’athism continued the traditions of the European ultra right. What they wrote was indisputable - if you look on the internet at the Hamas constitution you will find paragraphs that Adolf Hitler might have written - but remains unsayable in polite society to this day.

I don't think this is a brilliant insight at all. Cults of death, contempt for peace, misogyny are the foundations of every empire in history. Put like that, it fits Rush Limbaugh as well as Napoleon. Sure it's true of fascism. And it's Nick who called democracies 'mediocre'.
One day we should do a 'bizarre Nick' post - just his strangest passages. This is surely a contender.

This insight gets to the heart of our current dilemma. Suppose there had been one million Germans in Britain in the 1930s, most of them at the bottom of the heap and all of them the potential victims of racism. Suppose only a few were actual Nazis, but many others either sympathised vaguely with Hitler’s demands that the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles be lifted or were pushed back into a German identity by the constant harping of the rest of society on the Nazi menace. The liberal left of the day would have feared inciting racism if they joined the chorus, and found it far harder to oppose Hitler consistently.

But the liberal left today, like Bono do speak out against Islamic intolerance. Bono, who Nick hates by the way, dragged Salman Rushdie onto the stage with U2. Did the audience protest? No ... I don't know a single liberal who approves of the way Saudi Arabia or Libya or Iran conduct themselves. That is what Nick means, isn't it?

For all his subtlety and seriousness, Buruma falls into the trap and is uncomfortable with brown-skinned people who take ideas of human freedom too literally. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose film for van Gogh on the treatment of Muslim women provoked his murder, tells him that there can be no colour bar on feminist freedoms, Buruma says that “one can’t help sensing that in her battle for secularism, there are hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood”. There is a revealing slipperiness in that sentence: the use of “one can’t help sensing” instead of “I think”; and the deft deployment of a “perhaps” to slip in the slur that those who believe in the emancipation of women are the moral equivalents of those who would keep them subjugated. Murder in Amsterdam is well written, well researched and often wise, but a faint whiff of intellectual cowardice rises from its pages none the less.

Nick is good at spotting evasion in others - I think a decent editor would have objected to one can’t help sensing. But for some reason Nick misses the ad hominem brick thrown at Ms Ali - the allegation that she once was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (she was); and that once an extremist, always an extremist. I am sure that Ms Ali is a zealot. You can take that as an insult or a compliment; I mean it neutrally; she may after all be right to be one.
After accusing Ian Buruma of intellecual cowardice, he goes on to praise Paul Berman.

The failure of [Joschka] Fischer and so many other 1968 radicals to challenge the neo-conservatives with a left-wing argument that included solidarity with the victims of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda astonishes him [Berman], and rightly so: it was astonishing

Why it is uniquely Joschka Fischer's fault that the neo-conservatives were not challenged is beyond me. I thought Norman Geras and Harry's Place and Nick himself were doing that. Apparently entirely ineffectually if Nick is to be believed. But as with Con Coughlin in the Torygraph, the failures of the war are the failures of the neo-conservatives, not Bush and Blair. Nice to have scapegoats, I suppose.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Simon said...

Of course, a more sensible conclusion to Berman's analysis would be that the likes of Fischer were right to support the interventions in the Balkans and in Afghanistan and also right to oppose the Iraq war. The alternate Berman would then praise the soixante-huitardes for showing outstanding judgement on matters of contemporary foreign affairs and speculate on the relationship between this good judgement and their youthful activism. Unfortunately the real Berman is so wedded to the Iraq disaster he has to go off on a funny tangent wherein he insinuates that Fischer et al don't care about the victims of Ba'athism. Nick likes this because Nick is so wedded to the Iraq disaster that etc etc.

I still don't understand what the analogy with 1930s Nazism is supposed to mean. Yes, political Islamists are politically extremist, anti-liberal and unkeen on Freemasons, women and Jews. Were these prejudices invented by the Nazis? Obviously not. Were these prejudices even brought together in a distinctive formulation by the Nazis? No, not really, there were various other things which did make Nazism a sui generis phenomenon but they weren't things they had in common with modern-day political Islamism. In terms of organisational structure, historical origin or operational tactics, do political Islamists have much in common with the Nazis? No, no and no.

Is it simply an argument that political Islamism is influenced in some respects by Nazism? And if it is, so what? What would such a fact tell us about political Islamism and what our response to it ought to be?

10/31/2006 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger Graham B said...

It must be that time of year again. Nick Cohen has just published/repeated his annual installment of RCP gossip and sectariana, this time in the New Humanist. Unlike last year's effort, he makes a concession to the thoughtfulness of Munira Mirza.

The odd up-to-date reference in Cohen's article suggests that he at least embellishes his single transferable rant, not letting his word-processing software do all the work. But he still goes in for the same lies about the 1980s politics that I took part in:
"reform ... would prolong the ‘capitalist’ system and avert the glorious moment when communism came. Its members were ‘revolutionary defeatists’ in the old jargon of Leninism, who campaigned for the world to get worse so it might one day be better."

Supposedly damning, but completely untrue. My Leninist campaigns always revolved around reforms - decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, scrapping immigration controls, "work or full pay" as a solution to unemployment, and so forth. It was better to campaign around these demands than to do the "one solution, revolution" line to be found elsewhere on left.

And revolutionary defeatism means working for the defeat of your own national rulers in wars and colonial conflicts, rather than a more general sense that "the worse it gets for them, the better it gets for us". (Cohen probably knows this, not least because his co-thinker Oliver Kamm has just busted the SWP for having a secret revolutionary defeatist position in 2003.) Tweaking the cliche, clearly Cohen's not one to let the truth get in the way of the same old story.

11/04/2006 11:02:00 PM  

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