Saturday, April 29, 2006

Poor Patricia

Me and the Rioja Kid pick up a couple of easy points with today's bit on the general theme of "those fucking nurses, Patricia Hewitt is doing an excellent job". Apparently the problem with the nurses is that they have "non-negotiable demands". Whereas Tony and Patricia are notorious for the flexibility and lack of dogma with which they have foisted a load of managerialist, PFI-financed shite on the world. It is partly an article about sexist portayal of female politicians in the media, co-written with some bird from the Times (joke).

It's quite an astonishing piece in its way. Aaro and Hewitt both seem to genuinely believe that the reason Patricia Hewitt is coming in for a ton of abuse at the moment is that she speaks funny and doesn't come across as the warmest of people. On the other hand, Patricia Hewitt has had that irritating manner for years and years, but I don't recall her being booed, slow-handclapped or mentioned all that much at all in the newspapers while she was at the DTI, or while the NHS looked like it was doing all right. Tony Blair has this problem too; the inability to understand that there is a connection between a) fucking up really badly and b) getting a bollocking. It's practically a trait of New Labour, all of them except, curiously, Charles Clarke. They honestly believe (seemingly for psychological reasons related to the Kinnock years; Aaro is a good enough journalist to tell you what you need to know even when he doesn't know it himself), that what people don't like is them, not the fact that all the canapes appear to have been delivered to the wrong brewery and the band haven't turned up.

What do you do when your dog is too dumb to realise that every time he shits in the house, he sleeps in the kennel? I say we beat the bastards harder for a while and see what happens.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Back for the attack?

Mama said there'd be weeks like this ... Nick still writing his book, Aaro massaging his calves, more or less nothing to Watch except the degeneration of our comments board into a general free-for-all. But I think Nick is back in the Observer on Sunday, isn't he? Anyone care for a Friday Forecast?

My guess is Charlie Clarke, the war on terror and escaped foreigners; not sure about the angle but Harry Fletcher must get a look in.

Aaro on Tuesday: Don't worry, be happy about the NHS

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Belief ascription 101

Oliver Kamm in the Times today:

When they called for defeat for British and American forces by Saddam Hussein, supposed leftwingers were giving support to a regime consciously modelled on Hitler and Stalin. When (as the SWP has done for the past two years) they entertain at their keynote events a speaker — a jazz musician called Gilad Atzmon — who explicitly believes that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are, whatever their historical provenance, an accurate depiction of modern America, they are allying with classic anti-Semitism. Far-right ideology is the literal content, and not merely the moral equivalent, of their political beliefs.

So X supported P in context C and had some dealings with Q, and it therefore follows that what P and Q believe is the "literal content" of what what X believes? Is that the idea?

I think it follows from this principle that David Horowitz can be relied upon to furnish us with the "literal content" of Oliver Kamm's beliefs and that the late Ted Heath was an enthusiastic adherent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought (not to mention that Baathism provides the "literal content" of Donald Rumsfeld's beliefs). Shome mishtake shurely?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dave has finished

4:24, which I think is not all that bad a time, is it? Well done and the AW sponsorship money is on its way.

There are also some book reviews up of books about Israel, but not really much to Watch in them. Also an archive interview with Nick Griffin.


Apologies for straying beyond our narrow remit and into the broader territory of things Decent, but I was reading a piece by Brian Brivati on Normblog that purports to be a reply to Martin Kettle and I was struck, and puzzled, by the following sentence:

What unites us is a belief that developments since 9/11 represent part of a broadly based assault on democracy and that this assault has to be challenged, fought and defeated.

Well I can see that they might think that 9/11 was an assault on democracy, among other things. They aren't wrong about that. But "developments" (oddly colourless word) "since 9/11"? Do the mean the Motoons? Or the Van Gogh murder? Because presumably they don't mean the Patriot Act, the various British anti-terror provisions, the ID card legislation, and so forth, since they support all those things? Presumably Bush packing the US Supreme Court with conservative justices isn't part of the assault on democracy either, from a Decent point of view. Someone help me out!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why the *Euston* Manifesto?

Ahhhh, found it:

ALEXEI Sayle once did a routine about Liverpudlians staggering off the train at Euston. Bewildered by the size of London, they huddled around the station for the rest of their lives.

I don't know about Liverpudlians but Sayle got me to a tee. Vast swathes of London are a mystery because I have stayed within two miles of Euston since arriving from Birmingham in 1987.

The other day I went to Holland Park for the first time because the editor of the Standard had invited me to a very jolly Christmas lunch. Despite my being a trained investigative reporter, her PA had to send me a map and I still got lost twice.

It was the same week as the bizarre "Daleks" piece so we missed it, but there you go ...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Back to The Usual Subjects

This is going to be a rather cursory post, because I'm still recovering from yesterday's Wagner onslaught. Nevertheless, DA is posting again. The good point: he's writing rather well as here: "This scare, however, is different from the rest, because it comes with a minister wrapped around it." Yes, it owes a lot to Wodehouse, but that's in its favour.

He's also writing on something which has bothered me, so I'll state my take up front. Elections are for the incumbents to lose. Parties in power have a lot of opportunities to trim to either woo voters or keep the ones they have. If voters are cynical, it's because of those in power.
As many as eight out of ten homes that she [Margaret Hodge] canvassed, she said, were thinking seriously about it. This was a figure not quite borne out by radio vox pops, despite a hilarious encounter on the Today programme with a man called Abdul who told his questioner that he believed that too many immigrants had been allowed in recently -- and then very charmingly introduced his wife, a recent immigrant from Pakistan.

Being a humourless sod, I disagree about the belly laugh from Abdul.
Even so, there was plenty of corroborative material around for Ms Hodge’s pessimism. A Rowntree report, about to be released, backs up some of the ministers’ worries, and that splendid anti-fascist organisation, Searchlight, is concerned about the inroads being made in northeast London by the BNP. Depending on who you believe, possible gains for the BNP in the Barking and Dagenham council elections on May 4 could range from between half a dozen seats to half the council.

Barking and Dagenham are in South East London. Update Thanks to a couple of sharp eyed commenters, I'm clearly talking through my arse here. Of course, they're in east london, and north of the river, ergo, north east london.
Why? Because the white working class — according to Ms Hodge — “can't get a home for their children, they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry". In her view they have been hit by a demographic shift so sudden that they cannot adjust. “When I arrived in 1994, it was a predominantly white, working-class area. Now, go through the middle of Barking and you could be in Camden or Brixton . . . It is gobsmacking change.”

This is a very surprising thing for a Labour Politician to say (Camden and Lambeth are both proud Labour boroughs as was Islington).
Whether Ms Hodge is right about the pace of change being so much greater in her borough than that experienced by, say, the East End of London, mining areas, or parts of Yorkshire, is a matter for argument.

Curiously, Dave, immigrants aren't flooding in to "mining areas". I can't think why not.
Even so, we should take the threat seriously. Not because the BNP can become our Front National - despite Griffin’s obvious talents it does not seem to have the cadres to produce anything more than an ill-tempered voting blip before its new councillors all assault each other or resign out of boredom.
We should take it seriously because, like many suicide attempts, it is a cry for help. A friend of mine told me yesterday that blackbirds have taken to singing in the night, because - apparently - it's too noisy in the day. They can be heard only during the dark. Perhaps part of the white working class now feels that it can only be heard in the dark.

I agree with Dave in the first paragraph, but not with the second. A cry for help? Well, most of us vote for the party most likely to help us. All voting can be viewed as a cry (or something) for help. The BNP white working class can be heard loud and clear in Richard Littlejohn in particular and the Mail and the Sun in general. They're not only not in the dark, they're not being taken on and debated in their preferred forums.
Ms Hodge’s neighbour, Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, has become something of a specialist in this subject. His assertion is that the BNP phenomenon is caused by a failure of mainstream, especially Labour, politicians to appeal to "traditional" voters. Instead, the parties try to maximise their appeal to middle-class swing voters in marginal constituencies. Labour’s project has ceased to be the "emancipation" of the still large working class.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Mr Cruddas. The Labour Party, since 1997, taken its core support as a given. Never mind the "emancipation" at least let the poor bastards enjoy a pint and a fag in peace.
Up to here, DA's been in good form. Now we come to a paragraph which is really sloppy, and which pretty much inspired this post.
I have real problems with Mr Cruddas's analysis, seductive though many find it. The first is that many swing voters in marginal seats are also white working class, and that quite a lot of the Labour appeal is calculated to gain their support. The second is that one might expect that far-left parties, such as Respect, would benefit as much, or even more, from disillusion with Labour’s centrism than racist parties of the far Right.

An former Marxist like DA should at least know when to divide the "working class" into the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat. As long as we've had universal suffrage, we've had working class Tories like Alf Garnett. They're "working class" but not "traditional" Labour voters. Mr Cruddas knows what he means. "The second is that one might expect that far-left parties, such as Respect, would benefit as much, or even more, from disillusion with Labour’s centrism than racist parties of the far Right." Oh, tosh. "would benefit" -- how do you know? 'Should' maybe, but perhaps Respect dug its own grave with the Big Brother watching classes.
In fact I don’t believe that the BNP votes will predominantly be ex-Labour votes at all. In 1983 the combined Conservative and SDP vote in Dagenham was 59 per cent, with Labour hanging on to the seat by a whisker. This was when Labour was at its most magnificently class conscious. Since then the Tory vote has collapsed. What may be fuelling the BNP vote is the moderation and commitment to multiculturalism of the Conservative Party.

Labour got something like 41% in 1983, in other words. "Since then the Tory vote has collapsed. What may be fuelling ..." To come back to Ms Hodge (in nearby Barking), "It is gobsmacking change.” This collapse could be because of democraphic change.
And here we should admit something -- the horrid pleasures of racism. Back in the Sixties my father was the district secretary of the Communist party of Great Britain in South Essex -- a district that took in Barking, Dagenham, Harlow, Benfleet and other new towns. I recall his shock when, after Enoch Powell was sacked from his position in Heath’s Shadow Cabinet for his 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, 1,000 dockers -- the true labour aristocracy -- marched in Powell’s support.

Let's take that again, with just the important bits ... "my father was the district secretary of the Communist party of Great Britain in South Essex ... -- 1,000 dockers -- the true labour aristocracy."
There's a lack of clarity there too. Are the 1,000 dockers "the true labour aristocracy" or are dockers sui generisis holders of that title, and, in either case, why them? I thought the Labour Party owed a lot to mining and skilled tradesmen.
The rest of the piece goes rather limp. DA largely agrees with Mr Cruddas -- and in ways I do too. He's clearly edited a too-obvious joke from "Barking on the couch". He experiences momentary self-pity as a Camdenite rather than a Hamsteadite.
I spent Sunday evening looking at the stats for Barking and Dagenham. It is less deprived than my own borough, Camden. It experiences less crime. Its housing stock is no worse. But its educational attainment is lower, its VAT registrations (a sign of small business activity) are much lower and its teen pregnancy rate is much, much higher.

The proles have less to steal; and are less likely to be insured and therefore to report theft to the police that the middle classes, so I wouldn't take crime as a great indicator of deprivation. But low education, teen pregnancies, and no start-ups? Camden is pretty comfortable.

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.

Terror and Liberalism, 2/7

Let’s start, somewhat arbitrarily, on p.158:
“[Gilles] Kepel [in his Jihad: on the trail of political Islam] has pointed to Tariq Ramadan, the philosopher, as yet another example of the turn toward democratic moderation – though in this instance, with Ramadan’s Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity open before me, I can judge for myself. Ramadan condemns the violence of the Islamist radicals, but, then again, seems to celebrate violence against Israel as a religious duty, “incumbent”, in his word, on devout Muslims. The move toward pluralism and tolerance seems a little halting, here.”
Without a page reference from Berman, it’s hard to be sure exactly which passage he’s talking about, but the passage that follows is the best match I can come up with, and it’s certainly got the word “incumbent” in it. Ramadan is writing about his father:
"Often, he spoke of the determination in his commitment, at all moments, against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. This determination was though never a sanction for violence, for he rejected violence just as he rejected the idea of "an Islamic revolution". The only exception was Palestine. On this, the message of al-Banna was clear. Armed resistance was incumbent so that the plans of the terrorists of Irgun and of all Zionist colonisers would be faced up to…" [pp.viii-ix]
Curious, then, that an opinion Ramadan reports as belonging to his father several decades ago should then be silently projected by Berman onto Ramadan himself in the present. Curious, too, that a book which itself urges a militant response to terrorism should quite so casually transform an opinion about the legitimacy of armed resistance to Irgun into something else. But Berman has judged for himself that it’s alright to present Ramadan in the pages of his book as a celebrant of violence against Israel without any acknowledgment to his reader that perhaps – just perhaps – things are a little bit more complicated than this.

I think he’s unfair to Tariq Ramadan; he’s certainly unfair to Noam Chomsky. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, Berman tells us that Chomsky’s “first impulse was to deny that the attacks were especially bad." [p.149] Now turn to Chomsky’s first piece published in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. "The September 11 attacks were major atrocities", he begins, and he goes on to say, "But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt." Discussing Chomsky’s controversial argument that President Clinton’s attack on the al-Shifa plant in Sudan (or “the Sudan”, if you’re Paul Berman) led to more deaths than the 9-11 attacks, Berman writes that “Chomsky stood by his argument, and did so with his customary blizzard of references to obscure sources.” [p.150] Turn to pp.48-9 of 9/11, the relevant Chomsky text, and we find that Chomsky’s sources are drawn from the pages of the Boston Globe, the Guardian and the Observer, and whatever else these are, they are not obscure publications. (Professional Decency-Watchers might like to note that one of the cited pieces was by Ed Vulliamy, and they might remember also that on those occasions when he doesn’t rely on Vulliamy’s reporting, he gets criticized for that, too: see the Emma Brockes interview, still available here.).

On the following page, Berman makes a set of claims about Chomsky’s politics, but without direct quotation from Chomsky’s writings. So let’s take a moment to juxtapose what Berman says Chomsky says with some of the words Chomsky actually uses. Berman on Chomsky: “The attacks on 9/11 represented the reply of oppressed people from the Third World to centuries of American depredations.” [T&L, p.151.] Here’s Chomsky: "The Bin Laden network itself falls into a different category, and in fact its actions for 20 years have caused great harm to the poor and oppressed people of the region, who are not the concern of the terrorist networks" [9/11, p.27]. Here’s Berman on Chomsky, again: “The notion of a Saudi plutocrat as a tribune of the oppressed was fairly ridiculous. Still, Chomsky stuck with this argument, too” [T&L, p.151]. Here’s Chomsky, sticking to his argument: "As for the bin Laden network, they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East who they have been severely harming for years” [9/11, p.31].

If we are going to play the “he says something but actually means quite the opposite” game, incidentally, that Berman tries out on Chomsky, then we should probably acknowledge that Berman himself offers a particularly juicy target, specializing in particular in the non-denial denial. "I don't mean to go after the left, however" [p.152], he writes, at the end of a chapter when he has gone after the left again (French anti-war socialists, pp.124-8) and again (José Bové, José Saramago and various leftists sympathetic to the Palestinians, pp.130-44) and again (Noam Chomsky, pp.144-52). And there’s another nice example a little later: “But I don't mean to say, "Europe is like that: look, and groan"” [p.205:], which comes after pp.202-5, which look at Europe, and groan. He also says right at the end of one chapter that, “In this country [i.e., the US], we are all Noam Chomsky”, and I don’t believe he really thinks that, either.

Terror and Liberalism, 3/7

Attacks on Tariq Ramadan and Noam Chomsky are de rigueur in the literature of Decency; and perhaps their critics no longer care whether the elementary rules of evidence and argument are being followed if you’ve got one of those two in your sights. So let’s move on. What about religion? This is a book about the West and Islam, among other things. How does Berman cope with religion? Answer: not very well.

At the start of chapter two, it looks as if Berman is heading towards an interesting discussion of Tariq Ramadan (again!) on Albert Camus. “So, Ramadan disputes Camus. Fine. It is a quarrel between a Swiss and a Parisian, which, seen from another vantage point, is a quarrel between two North Africans. In the modern world we are all hyphenated personalities.” [p.26]. But then he starts to fall apart, beginning at the bottom of the same page:
“Now, in Ramadan’s view, this particular impulse, the urge to rebel, marks the exact place where Western civilization and Islam diverge. In Western tradition, there is a place for skepticism and doubt. These two attitudes, skepticism and doubt, are elements of faith – the elements that prove the authenticity of belief in God. The God of the Old Testament instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and Abraham doubts the instruction and struggles to resist it, for a little while - and Abraham's doubt and his struggle testify to the sincerity of his belief. In Ramadan’s opinion, the impulse to rebel in Western culture follows directly from the esteem that is accorded to skepticism and doubt. You begin with skepticism and doubt, and you push those attitudes one step further, and you arrive at full scale rebellion. And those particular traits – skepticism, doubt, rebellion – have, in the end, produced a lot of misery in the Western countries today.

“Muslim tradition does not have those traits. In Islam, Ramadan tells us, there is no impulse to rebel. The Koran recounts the same story about Abraham and Isaac, but the Koran puts no emphasis on Abraham’s skepticism and resistance. In the Koran’s version, Abraham hears God’s instructions and readies himself to comply. There is no struggle, no temptation to rebel. In Islam, submission is all…” [pp.26-7]
That’s a long quote (sorry about that). Pay attention to the way in which Berman is repeating the phrase “skepticism and doubt”, and associating these with Western religion, while associating Islam with “submission”. This prepares the reader for p.46, when he describes the totalitarian ideal (“It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission”), and for the discussions of Islamic varieties of fascism that dominate the rest of the book. And while we’re on the subject of Berman’s rhetoric, and before we go any further, it might be worth pausing for a moment to imagine that you’re being seduced by this kind of prose. Berman presents himself to Anglophone readers as an experienced guide to Francophone intellectual debate, and he switches from existentialist philosophy to Biblical exegesis apparently without effort as he comments on what looks to be an interesting disagreement between two interesting guys. And it’s all bound up with the Greatest Intellectual Struggle of Our Time! No wonder Nick Cohen found quite so much to admire here. And if what Berman was saying were accurate, then there would, indeed, be quite a bit to admire. But it isn’t, so there isn’t. Let’s have a look.

Here’s a snippet of a religious text, and here’s a question. The question first: is this taken from the Old Testament, or from the Koran?
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
If we had only Berman to guide us, we’d have to say that this was the Koran. “In the Koran’s version”, says Berman, “Abraham hears God’s instructions and readies himself to comply”, just as happens here. We’ve been told that the Old Testament version is marked by Abraham’s doubts, and by his struggle against what he’s been asked to do, and we also know that “Abraham's doubt and his struggle testify to the sincerity of his belief”, and there’s no sign of any of this. But this passage is, of course, Genesis, 22:1-3.

Yes, there’s a difference between the Jewish and Islamic presentations of the story. In the one, Isaac asks “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”, and he gets the reply that “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (thus making pretty obvious what the Standard Christian Interpretation of this passage is going to be). In the other, Abraham tells his son (Isaac? Ishmael? sources disagree) that he’s for the chop, and gets the reply, "My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shalt find me, God willing, one of the steadfast” [Qur'an, 37, 101-9]. But the differences in the presentation of the Abraham story don’t have anything to do with doubt or skepticism, or with what these two might have to do with faith. In all three of the Great Monotheistic Religions, Abraham is celebrated for his faith, for his willingness to do what God demands of him, up to and including the sacrifice of his son.

We might try to come to Berman’s defence here by saying that he’s only expounding Tariq Ramadan’s discussion in this passage, and so the faults are likely to be his – but this really won’t do, and they aren’t. Ramadan’s discussion of Camus and the Abraham story can be found at pp.210-214 of his book, Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, and it doesn’t make the same mistakes at all. Ramadan, writing in the shadow of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, uses a language of “tension” and “trial” and “tragedy” to describe Abraham’s predicament, and that strikes me as about right, in a way that Berman’s language of “skepticism”, “resistance” and “doubt” just isn’t. And Ramadan makes it clear a few pages later that he locates the “skepticism and doubt” of the Western tradition in its philosophy (“from Socrates to Kant, from Kierkegaard to Marx, and from Nietzsche to Husserl”, p.219), not – as Berman has been suggesting – in its foundational religious texts.

All of which helps to generate the entertaining thought that Berman’s source for his version of the Abraham story may not have been the Book of Genesis after all, or even Tariq Ramadan, but Bob Dylan. Paul Berman is also author of an earlier and far better book, A Tale of Two Utopias, on the political journey of the 1968 generation, and it seems to me that this child of the 1960s has been taking “Highway 61 Revisited” a bit too seriously, as the song has all the skepticism, doubt and resistance that you could possibly want to find.
“God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God said, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you’d better run."
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."

Terror and Liberalism, 4/7

So Berman can’t be relied upon when it comes to the subject of religion, and he can’t be relied upon as a guide to other people’s ideas, and this might be thought problematic in a book that contains lengthy discussions of (a) religion and (b) other people’s ideas. But let’s leave (a) for the moment, continuing with (b) for just a bit longer, and glance at Berman’s reading of Camus’s The Rebel, as in many ways this is the heart of his book. Indeed, in its very last paragraph, Berman asserts that “the thesis of my book” is that “[t]oday the totalitarian danger has not yet lost its sting, and there is no wisdom in claiming otherwise. The literature and language of the mid-twentieth century speak to us about danger of that sort.” And, for Berman, no literature speaks more clearly with greater profundity than The Rebel. Here’s why:
“Among the many commentators from half a century ago, the philosopher from Algeria was the single one who intuitively recognized a crucial reality. He recognized that, at a deep level, totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same. He recognized that, if only we could discover the roots of totalitarianism, we would have discovered the roots of terror as well, and vice versa.” [p.26]
We might note here that there’s quite a bit about the origins of the French Revolutionary state terror in J. L. Talmon’s Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, and a chapter on “Ideology and Terror” in Hannah Arendt’s imperishable Origins of Totalitarianism, both of which are from the same period as The Rebel. We might further observe that Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in the Phenomenology of Spirit tends to lurk behind all such analyses. (So Berman on Camus: "The impulse, in its new version, was a dance step which began by gazing upward into human freedom and progress - and then, with the quickest and most graceful of dips, leaned downward into death... This sort of thing got underway, he thought, during the French Revolution - and not just because of people like Saint-Just..." [p.28] And here’s Hegel on the French Revolution: “The sole and only work and deed accomplished by universal freedom is therefore death… the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water”.) But then perhaps everything turns on just what we think “totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same” really means, or perhaps on just how deep that “deep level” turns out to be.

Berman tries to supplement Camus’s argument with a few remarks about Victor Hugo’s play, Hernani. (This may be more familiar to the bruschetta-eating classes in Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic version, Ernani, which is performed from time to time, in a way that Hernani is not). Hernani is, for Berman, a play about rebellion, though it seems to me that it’s more straightforwardly a play about conformity, in particular to the insanely strict demands of a Castilian honour code. (The full title of the play is Hernani ou l'Honneur Castillan.) Whichever of us is right on the general interpretation of the play, however, Berman provides a misleading account of its, and of the bandit Hernani’s, end. Hernani participates, Berman tells us, “in a triple suicide, if only to consummate his rebellion by dominating the circumstances of his own death” [p.29]. Plenty of people have killed themselves for this kind of reason, but Hernani isn’t one of them. (Indeed, it would be quite heartless to choose to kill yourself at your own wedding, as Hernani does, simply in order to dominate the circs of your own d.) Rather, Hernani kills himself with poison at the end of the play as a matter of honour, having earlier promised his arch-rival Don Ruy Gomez de Silva that he would do so if he were ever to hear the sound of his own horn. (An odd promise; it’s an odd play.)

But in general, Berman’s pop presentation of Camus’s argument doesn’t seem to me to be too bad. (Perhaps he’s better at writing accurately about ideas he likes.) He pretty much skips over most of Camus’s discussion of the French Revolution and the impact of Hegelianism in nineteenth-century Europe, true enough, preferring to focus by contrast on Hernani and on Charles Baudelaire’s partisanship for Satan, from there moving quickly on to Dostoyevsky, and in particular, to his creation Ivan Karamazov, for whom “if God is dead then everything is permitted”. And these artists, flirting with nihilism and ethical outrage, pave the way for what comes next: Russian anarchist terrorism. And from there, according to Camus and to Berman, it’s not an especially big step to twentieth-century totalitarianism.

As far as I can see, the chief disagreement between Berman and Camus concerns the character of Bolshevism in general and Lenin in particular. Camus draws a distinction between the “rational terror” of the Bolsheviks (which is not to say that he approves of it) and the “irrational terror” of fascism, the former owing its origins to left Hegelianism and its transformation into Marxism, and the latter not. Having ignored Camus’s discussion of Hegelianism, it’s easier for Berman to lump Bolshevism and Nazism together as two varieties of political irrationalism based on “movements of a new type”, a phrase of Lenin’s which Berman borrows. And when it comes to discussing Lenin, here I’ll borrow the words of Olivier Todd, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Rebel: “Camus is tough on Stalin, but Lenin escapes scot free“ [p.xi], he writes, perhaps exaggerating the matter a bit, but drawing attention to an important element of Camus’s analysis of the progress of the Russian Revolution. Berman by contrast takes a very different view. For him, Lenin was the “original model” of a Leader-with-a-capital-L who was “visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality” [p.50], no less. We might think that that’s not especially persuasive as a description of Lenin; and we might also be surprised by Berman’s earlier insistence that the Bolsheviks were devoted to "a single all-consuming obsession, which was a hatred of liberal civilization" [p.42], as if, for the Bolsheviks, the trouble with pre-Revolutionary Russia was its liberalism. But, in general, as I say, Berman’s précis of Camus’s argument doesn’t seem to be at all bad.

Terror and Liberalism, 5/7

But let’s now take a look at some of the ways in which Berman discusses selected episodes in the grim history of terrorism and mass death, partly to continue with the theme of how he uses his source material, and partly to consider how he uses the framework for thinking about politics that he’s been building in Terror and Liberalism to, well, think about politics. And let’s begin a hundred years ago, with Berman’s discussion of mass murder in colonial Africa.

Why did the Belgians kill quite so many people in central Africa? The most obvious answer would to be that it has something to do with the search for rubber profits. With moral inhibitions against killing lowered for a number of reasons – to do with physical distance from home, the absence of the rule of law, racism and so on – the Belgians and their agents found that killing large numbers of Congolese was a pretty effective way of turning the jungle’s rubber into economic profit. Over to Paul Berman now, for an alternative take on the question:
"What was the logic behind the slaughter of Congolese by Belgians? The Belgians would have given various explanations. But ultimately there was no logic. The Belgians took up murder for murder's sake." [p.39]
No mention of commercial considerations at all. (Berman’s silences about capitalism throughout this book are striking, to say the least.)

And when Berman turns to a different genocidal episode in Africa, he again shows himself unable to write without misleading. The Germans killed thousands of Hereros in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia) in a military campaign in 1904, and thousands more were driven out of German territory into the desert, where they died, as part of a deliberate policy of genocide. When the extermination campaign was brought to an end, those who had survived were then rounded up and put in concentration camps, and these were nasty work-camps, and a lot of the people in them died there in the years that followed. [See Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy, pp.103-6 for a few more details.] Berman’s account of the whole genocide, by contrast: “In 1904, the Germans set up extermination camps in order to wipe out a troublesome ethnic group, the Herero tribe. Such was the white man’s burden.” [p.40]. Not only, then, does the sentence make a false claim – for the camps were not set up in order to wipe out the Hereros – but Berman chooses the term “extermination camps”, a description which we usually reserve for the Nazi camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Majdanek, and which we might use for horrifying places like Choeung Ek, but always in order to distinguish them from many other twentieth-century concentration camps which were brutal, and where many people died, but whose raison d’être was not to kill people in their thousands and thousands and thousands. And we make the distinction not to excuse what went on in Nazi concentration camps (“Dachau wasn’t that bad, after all”), but to highlight the quite exceptional evil of these particular establishments. Such a distinction doesn’t seem to matter, however, in the history of the world according to Paul Berman.

And as if this weren’t enough, when Berman turns to the campaign against the Belgians’ atrocities, he misdescribes that, too! Berman writes, in a classic bit of Decency: "The deaths of millions duly came about - and hardly anyone, apart from the victims, sounded a protest. A few noble individuals. No one else." [p.40] Let’s turn to Adam Hoschild’s excellent book, King Leopold’s Ghost, the work Berman alludes to [p.39], and which is probably now the most widely-read book on the subject. We’re told there that campaign organiser E. D. Morel spoke at fifty mass meetings between 1907 and 1909 [KLG, p.211] or that "[b]efore the end of 1905, more than sixty mass meetings had adopted a resolution condemning Leopold's rule" [p.214]. The Congo Reform Association operated in Britain, Germany, France, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and other countries [p.236]. One of the plates in the book is of a poster for an advertisement for a meeting in the Royal Albert Hall (19 November 1909), and on the whole, then as now, you don’t book the Royal Albert Hall if you think that just a handful of “noble individuals” is going to show up. “Although they failed to end forced labour, the Congo reformers for roughly a decade were spectacularly successful in keeping the territory in the spotlight”, writes Hochschild [p.279], and that “Seldom has so much outrage poured down for so long upon such a distant target.” In Berman’s hands, this is turned upside down, inside out and back to front, for when you read King Leopold’s Ghost through Berman-tinted spectacles, you come instead to the Through-the-Looking-Glass conclusion that “hardly anyone, apart from the victims, sounded a protest.”

Terror and Liberalism, 6/7

Fast forward now, towards the present, and we find that Berman continues to play fast and loose with matters of chronological sequence, causality and scale, as he massages the messy terrain of politics and history to fit his preferred ideological template. He considers the Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, and writes this:
“Islamism's triumph in Iran right away inaugurated what each of the totalitarian revolutions had inaugurated in the past. This was war. Within a year of taking power, the Ayatollah's new Islamic Republic was immersed in a horrendous combat with Saddam Hussein's Baath Socialists of Iraq." [p.107]
Well, yes, though in this case we might reasonably observe that Iraq started it. And on he goes: "The war lasted eight years. It killed upward of a million people... It was the eastern front of the Second World War, updated." [pp.108-9] Well, yes, but, nasty as the Iran-Iraq war undoubtedly was, an eight-year war that kills one million doesn’t seem especially analogous to a four-year war that kills thirty. (But what’s an order of magnitude or two when there’s Decency to be defended?)

Berman turns his attention to the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s:
“The Islamist movement grew in Algeria, and when the secular authorities decided to repress it, the Armed Islamic Group and other organizations excommunicated the whole of society and set about massacring the impious. Between 1992 and 1997, a full 100,000 people are said to have been killed in the Algerian civil war…” [p.110]
To repeat an experiment we tried earlier: if these sentences were all you had to go on, you’d probably think that the “excommunication” (takfir) came in 1992 or shortly afterwards. But in fact it came in the GIA’s final communiqué of September 1997, towards the close of these ghastly proceedings, when it had already basically lost the war, and its organization was rapidly falling apart. [On this see, Gilles Kepel’s Jihad, p.273, which is, of course, another of Berman’s cited sources.]

And Berman writes about more recent bloodletting in Israel/Palestine after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000:
“And, at that decisive moment, Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad - the two factions of Palestine's Islamist movement - finally succeeded in dominating the Palestinian political scene, at least for the time being. The suicide terror campaign, simmering for many years, now began to display the qualities of a genuinely popular impulse... Militias from Arafat’s nationalist organization joined in the campaign…" [p.129]
The suicide campaign is presented as a consequence of the domination of Palestinian politics by the militant Islamist groups. And in searching for the “logic of the suicide attacks” [p.132], Berman falls back on his master narrative derived from Camus: “Suicide terror against the Israelis was bound to succeed in one realm only, and this was the realm of death – the realm in which a perfect Palestinian state could luxuriate in the shade of a perfect Koranic tranquility…” and so on [p.133] But more sober analysis suggests that this misunderstands the causal sequence. When we remember that the opening months of the Al-Aqsa Intifada were largely characterised by (non-suicide) attacks organized by al-Fatah and other, often related, secular groups – details you won’t find in Berman’s narrative – an alternative explanation of the appearance of the suicide bombers becomes possible. In Luca Ricolfi’s words, the pattern of the attacks "seems to contradict those interpretations that stress the role of Islamic extremists and their persistent opposition to the peace process, and supports the idea of a competition between secular and religious organizations to achieve political control over the Palestinian insurgency.” [Ricolfi, in Diego Gambetta, ed., Making Sense of Suicide Missions p.96.] On this view, suicide attacks aren’t the consequence of the militant Islamists’ dominance of Palestinian politics at all, but one of the means or instruments of the of attempt to achieve that domination. And the resort to suicide terror by one group helped to bring about to a gruesome auction in which both religious and secular armed organizations were trying not to be outbid in the militancy and popular martyrdom stakes. That seems to me to be a more plausible explanation of what was going on during the Al-Aqsa intifada than that offered by Berman, but it’s an explanation you can only get to if you hesitate a bit longer than Berman does before reaching for the Camus.

(Here, in fact, is a general blindspot in Berman’s analyses. What he doesn’t seem to notice with several of the episodes he describes is that the most violent moments often occur precisely when the militant Islamists aren’t really in control of the politics of the situation: in Algeria, the bloodiest months came in 1997 when the GIA was falling apart; in Palestine, when competition between secular and religious groups in the context of the intifada was at its height; on 11 September 2001, when, in Gilles Kepel’s words, “in spite of what many hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.” [Jihad, pp.375-6])

Terror and Liberalism, 7/7

It’s time to bring these ruminations to a close. I see that I’ve already written five thousand words, and that ought to be quite enough with which to discuss a short book like Terror and Liberalism. Still, there’s a lot more I could talk about. While reading Berman’s hymn of praise to the other Abraham in this book, Abraham Lincoln (pp.169-171), partly because his Gettysburg Address was “about death” but was “not a speech about martyrdom”, those words from the greatest Civil War song of them all, Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic ran through my head, “As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free”, which come a bit closer to the celebration of religious martyrdom than Berman might like. And it’s blackly comic to read Berman’s thoughts about the supposed absence of a “cult of death” among liberals of his persuasion at a time when fellow muscular Christopher Hitchens’ astonishing call for new “killing fields” in the Middle East has not quite yet faded from memory. But, as I say, I’ve written enough already.

All in all, Terror and Liberalism has to be reckoned a disappointing book. It’s sometimes right, sometimes intelligent and usually interesting, and Berman writes fluently, with a seemingly impressive range of intellectual, historical and political reference and in a way that makes the reader feel smart, which is always a pleasant experience. But surfaces deceive. Berman’s persistent refusal to treat his important subject matter with the patience and accuracy that it deserves is frustrating. A number of the complaints that I’ve set out above may look like quibbles, and with regard to a different book, they might very well have been. But beginning the work of assembling the carelessnesses and the misreadings and the inaccuracies and the confusions in one place does, I think, help to show the extent to which they are, if not deliberate, then, as an older kind of left-winger might have said, “not accidental, comrade”. The errors in the book aren’t random, but systematically skewed in order to provide support for an implausible view of the world, and for some very dangerous politics. And if we aren’t alert to the ways in which Berman manipulates his often rather good source material in order to construct his tendentious argument then we might very well find ourselves seduced.

It’s a good thing we took precautions.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

a warm halo effect of arsiness

First, I’d like to thank Captain Cabernet for shifting that misfire of mine off the top of the page just now.

Now what of the progress of the Crumpsall Tram Station Communique? I see Tim Worstall’s miffed on the grounds that the 86 Bus Stop Outside Manchester Business School Screed seems to claim a certain exclusivity:

The arrogance with which all of those virtues are claimed for "the left". The pure bloody pomposity of it, that a disagreement about how to achieve them is taken as a sign that the goals themselves are not desired.

Well, yes. And that was always a problem further leftward, too. It’s interesting to see that the halo effect of arsiness that the decents and their pronouncements give off has reached new territory. But not especially good news for the people concerned, I don’t think.

Early on, the introduction to the Timperley Layby Declaration states:

We talked of how the prevailing consensus had ample representation in the liberal press, on the BBC and Channel 4, whereas the viewpoint of our own segment of the left was significantly under- represented in the mainstream media. We had, however, found a place on the internet and in the blogosphere, which had helped to connect people who might otherwise have felt isolated and had given expression to the voices and debates of a left other than the one heard loudly everywhere…

This isn’t true. Given the actual size of the constituency they represent, the Decents get a pretty fair crack in the major media. Of course, if you start out with a MESSAGE then anything short of absolute dominance is going to seem like under-representation. But where they’re really wrong is in their seeming belief that they somehow represent an insurgent trend on what I believe is known as the internet. Here we’re talking about a small number of websites which push traffic to each other and get a hell of a lot of linkage and traffic from the other side of the aisle because they supported the war in Iraq and can be relied on to provide confirmation of general right wing prejudice about “lefties” . This is a very poor base from which to inflate a movement claiming to invent a faction of the left and attribute to it everything that’s good and pure and true. Giving it a name like a bad prog rock band doesn’t help either.

This is really why the various decent internet-based-initiatives have fallen on their arses. There’s just no real demand, and they’re not capable of arguing without alienating potential friends and neutrals. Now if they’ve started actually offending the people who’ve done the most to give them what prominence they actually have, at least online…

…then welcome to the We Screwed the Pooch Manifesto.

Because we at Aaronovitch Watch unequivocally reject anti-Americanism.

But now to the real mystery. What was the pub Where It All Began? Did anyone see a pub levitating above Somers Town by the sheer force of the moral grandeur of those inside?

Rioja Kid

Do you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang...

Nick and friends have launched or relaunched or re-relaunched the good ship Decency with their Euston Manifesto which is full of bitter complaint about how no-one listens to them and how big media and Islington dinner parties are in the grip of Michael Moore fans. (Btw, haven't Nick's friends have been all over the Guardian's tedious Comment is Free site since its launch?) I'm sure someone smart and witty will turn up here with a well-thought-through analysis but until they do, there's blog reaction from Dave Osler, Chris Bertram, Mike Power, Jamie Kenny and Matthew Turner.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

the messianic Hersh

Well, I’ll pick up the slack. Actually, I don’t really want to talk about Dave’s latest column, in which he quotes an eponymous source to write off the possibility of a US attack on Iran. I’d like to nudge the conversation round to something that really matters; namely the BBC’s news agenda.

You may be wondering why we should take the word of a single, moderately overweight opinion former on whether something is news over that of an experienced journalist with a wide range of high level contacts within the US administration. In response, I’d like to say that the story was covered on the Today show. Obviously, what really concerns us here is the content and running order of the Today show and its obsession with the United States.

You may consider that having a number of well connected US government figures making the case that the United States is preparing to mount a nuclear first strike on a country that has no nuclear weapons is information that merits further attention. I say that your being aware of this does identify a real problem, namely the obsession of the BBC with the United States, and the manifestation of this obsession in the Today show and the interviewing style of Jeremy Bowen.

You may wish to point out that in his 6000 word article – that’s six whole thousand words out of your busy day, Times readers - Mr Hersh quotes a large number of sources, all of whom indicate that military action is an option being considered. I wish to point out in response that one of them described the President as being “messianic”. We don’t need 6000 words to know what that means, do we? Just three letters. BBC.

You may say that there is at least a possibility of war on the horizon. You may add that the general news coming from the United States these days would not tend to increase one’s appreciation of its current government. I say that this is precisely why we must be talking about the BBC and its hidden agendas and reflective anti-Americanism, assuming that you can have both these things at once. My commenters certainly believe that you can.

And if war does break out, can I be the first to say that I suspected as much all along. It was inevitable. Even fanatics like Seymnour Hersh could see that. And we might all have got a better idea of what was really going on if the BBC actually stuck to reporting the news rather than pursuing it’s obsession with George Bush. Thank you.

Rioja Kid

Memory Hole Watch

At about the time of day that Dave struggles out of bed toward the end of the Today Programme, massages his aching calves and struggles upstairs for a bowl of Pritikin-friendly Coco Pops, the Watchers are on their first teabreak of the day, having already been up and at 'em for three hours.

It is "move along, nothing to see here" mode today, as Dave tries to convince us that Sy Hersh is one of those hacks who blows stories out of all proportion (see Kettle, Martin) and the New Yorker is basically a supermarket tabloid that prints a lot of poorly sourced material. Or alternatively, that the possibility of nuclear war in Iran is not really newsworthy, and what we should really be thinking about is ... dunno. Something about the WCPI, probably.

Anyway, I have no real time to Watch this article properly, so if anyone wants to take over, go for it; there is a lot of vintage and rather subtle Aaroism in there. I have no time to do it because I spent said tea break looking up some of what Aaro said in the run up to the Iraq War, when he was writing for the Independent. Did he have a spot-on, laser-like accuracy when it came to assessing the influence of the neocons and the Rumsfeld/Cheney strategy? Or not? I try to summarise the good and the bad below:

Way back in 1998:

The corollary, then, to the relaxation of sanctions, must be an increased "rather than a diminished" willingness to use force should the Iraqis begin a weapons build-up. In other words, we would be more "not less" likely to have to send in the planes at the first signs of enhanced weapons production. That could be why, right now, we're sending more planes and ships there. And we'll also want (I presume) to increase our use of covert operations to support the Iraqi opposition, though which of the 57 varieties we will back is a rather fraught question. There are two alternatives to this new low-sanction, high- military, encourage- the-opposition strategy. The first is the one that some Tories appear to be canvassing, and that is a land-based invasion of Iraq, the removal of Saddam and (in some of the more ingenious variations) the division of the country into three separate states. This, as even Michael Howard knows - his impatient bluster about a "get-rid-of-Saddam" objective notwithstanding - could be a complete diplomatic disaster.

Immediately post 9/11, on Nov 23, 2001
RIGHT. WHO'S next? The MP George Galloway says that "senior" people in the Iraqi government (and George knows a few) expect it to be them. This view seemed to be backed up by yesterday's editorial in the New York Times, which stated that "there continues to be an intense debate within the Bush administration about the next phase of the war, including whether to take it to Iraq and try to defeat Saddam Hussein." […]Still, all the options not only look bad, but they are bad. Saddam cannot be toppled by proxy. We lost our chance to do that when we failed to help the anti-Saddam insurgents who rose against him in 1991. The opposition forces are weak and divided. Nor can we engineer a coup d'etat from the outside. Nor do we know, in the event of such a coup, who would take over. The moment disappeared, too, for mounting a broad coalition, invading Iraq and installing an interim government to be replaced, eventually, by an elected one. Though I think that, if this were to happen, there would be such joy in the streets of Baghdad as we haven't seen anywhere since 1989. Recent scenes in Kabul remind us that people rather like freedom, even though some of us tend to forget it.

Sabres start to rattle byAug 8, 2002 but Dave still does not think war inevitable:

This is the man who refused to budge from Kuwait between August 1990 and January 1991 when the air war began, and then refused to budge when the ground campaign started. When retreating, he set fire to the oil fields. We could probably do the Iraqi people no greater favour than removing Saddam and giving them a chance to build again.
But we can't. And we can't because the church people are right. Wars are very particular things and civilised nations can't just have them when they feel like it or when they feel they have run out of options. Wars have to be justified, overwhelmingly, by a conviction that the alternative to war is actually worse. And that conviction must be widely held, as it was after 11 September in the case of Afghanistan.
We do not have that conviction. We do not believe that Saddam is behind world terrorism and we have not seen convincing evidence that he is making and may use a weapon of mass destruction. As Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, has said, we have not met the conditions for starting a war, in which we are certain to kill civilians. This knowledge is causing a crisis of legitimacy that encompasses not just Britain and, say, Schroder's Germany, but will, I think, affect the US.

In the run-up to the publication of the dodgy dossier: Aug 30, 2002 (rather hilariously entitled "I'm all for war in Iraq; but only if I see evidencethat Saddam is a threat; note that the Decent Tardis has been to work on Aaro's subsequent war rationale)

Someone cross e-mailed me yesterday and asked me, contemptuously, whether I would be at the next anti-war demonstration. When Saddam has re-admitted the UN weapons inspectors unconditionally, that's when. And why doesn't the anti-war movement agitate for that?
But war? Show me the evidence first. Don't just tell me you have it, tell me what it is. Convince me that the consequences of inaction outweigh the consequences of action. Publish the dossier. If I am going to have dead kids on my conscience, I have to know that the alternative was worse.
This is not the course that the hawks have followed. Instead they now seek to bully the sceptical into war. In so doing they have begun to convince many round the world that they have decided on conflict no matter what the pretext or the consequence. That is a genuinely disastrous perception. I wonder if they know, over there in DC, for example, just how catastrophic it is every time Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan arms-control spokesman and currently member of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board advisory group, snaps his beak at the microphones?
Mr Adelman is a key member of the US "swivel" tendency. If people abroad don't like what the administration plans to do, then that just tells you how fundamentalist/weedy/unimportant they are. Mr Adelman espouses world re-ordering in five easy stages. First a quick war. Second a democratic regime in Iraq. Third, a mass revolution in Iran (good outcome guaranteed). Fourth, fundamental (nice) changes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Fifth, a Middle East agreement. Mr Adelman runs a motivational programme for businesses entitled Movers & Shakespeares, in which he and his wife "select the most apt Shakespeare play to fit the program's purpose". For leadership and ethics it's Henry V; for risk management and diversity, Merchant of Venice; and for crisis management, Hamlet. The next sentence reads: "No prior knowledge of Shakespeare is required."
This Iraq argument now resembles a dark forest in which huge grunting animals crash about - never engaging, but trampling on anything that's in their way. Both sides make the rest of us, with our scruples, look puny. But we're right.

And right at the end of his Indie tenure, Dec 20, 2002 (entitled " It will take a great deal more proof of Iraqi duplicity before I can support war"):

People have been getting a bit overexcited. The unfavourable comments about Saddam's arms declaration coming from London and Washington do not yet amount to a case for war. Colin Powell has said that the dossier is "troublesome", our own Foreign Secretary argues that the declaration is not "complete, full and accurate" and Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector says that there are unanswered questions, an absence of supporting evidence and remaining gaps. So far, then, we do not have Blix without Straw. […] But here's the second complication. Campbell's real worry is that the world will believe that the US is set on war no matter what the material facts are. You will certainly find enough people to argue this case in any pub in Britain, and some US hawks have gone out of their way - for some strange psychological reason - to confirm this impression. If the US begins to set impossible standards for the inspectors, judging them by their success in, say, luring Iraqi scientists out of the country, and then acts without a UN resolution, the consequences could be dire.

Shortly after this, Aaro left to join the Guardian, and published Why the Left is wrong on Saddam :With or without a second UN resolution, I support action against Iraq.

My conclusion from the above extracts is that Aaro at the Independent regularly showed quite good judgement on the situation in Iraq and the likelihood of disaster if war was carried out on the terms on which it actually was carried out. He has, however, shown infallibly bad judgement in his assessment of the bellicosity and sanity of the current US government. Watch on ...

Sunday, April 09, 2006


So Nick is lying down in a darkened room for a while finishing his book. On comes supersub Andrew Anthony with a column of stunning simplemindedness organized around a fake quiz (this puerile device seems to be the fashion among the decents lately: see this similar effort by David Hirsh of Engage). The world is divided between universalists who believe that democracy and human rights belong to everyone, and relativists who believe clitoridectomy is a charming local custom. Got that?

He also seems to believe that

... interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most controversially, Iraq were predicated, give or take a few WMD, on the notion that the inhabitants of those countries should be extended the democratic rights that most people in the West take for granted.

I think "predicated on" here means that those who actually organized these interventions (as opposed to those who merely cheered from their blogs) acted for that reason. This is the kind of assertion that would have Jeremy Paxman raising a eyebrow or two.

Generally, Anthony seems to be suffering from an advanced case of imaginary-Stopper-in-your-head syndrome (see Harry's Place passim for the the full aetiology.) He can't conceive that someone might have thought the Iraq war was a bad idea because (a) it wasn't actually going to end in liberal democracy and (b) a lot of people were going to get maimed or killed (both being reasons of impeccably univeralist pedigree), so he assures himself of his own superiority by ascribing a whole bunch of daft beliefs to his opponents.

Update, by bruschettaboy. This is a warmed-over extended version of something that Andrew "Clothes For Chaps" Anthony (for yes, it is he, of the Style section of the magazine; I think Mark Steyn had a similar career trajectory) wrote for the Guardian blog last week and it was shit then too. In the Geoffrey Mortlake column at the back of the Sport section, the author is musing on the general concept of substitutes and understudies:
To watch [Jose Mourinho] introduce Crespo and Robben as early as the 20th minute is to see a Monty rather than a Wavell at work. His magnificent five - Cudicini, Huth, Gudjohnsen, Wright-Phillips and Crespo - simply by sitting put on the bench, have played as significant a role as those who run around in front of them.

There are two reasons for this. First, there is the galvanising effect they have on their own team-mates. One sloppy pass and you know, with replacements of that quality sitting in the wings, you will soon be off the stage.

This was a point first made plain to me by Larry Olivier when we were dinnerdancing at the White Elephant on the Thames. I asked him what, after so many years at the top, drove him to continue performing at the highest level. 'Understudies, dear boy,' he replied, 'Understudies.'

Somehow, I do not think that Nick is reading his replacement's column today and shitting bricks. Perhaps we have this all wrong and churning out a thousand words of boilerplate Decentism is much more difficult than Nick makes it look.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Let's have a heated debate!

Dave does not like being called fat or having his poetry criticised. On another post he has a dig at George Galloway for having too many pictures of himself on his blog. I suspect it is the marathon training that is making him so ratty, and further suspect that this would be a bad time to reiterate that he looks like Nigel Lawson after the diet these days (proof).

Friday forecast time again ... note that every other bugger who attended the rather dispiriting-looking "Whither the Left?" debate organised by the JCC last week has blogged about it, so Nick might as well; I am guessing that he has written a last column before starting his sabbatical (if anyone wants a sweepstake on who replaces him I am guessing Carol Sarler for the Obs and Jo Brand for the Standard). I rather suspect that, since Nick has not been backward in coming forward in the past when talking about these events, the fact that there has been such radio silence on it so far may indicate he lost.

PS: If this was "Matthew Norman's Media Diary Watch", the Aaro/Zoe Williams spat would be a cert.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Readers are presumably puce with frustration at our laziness; Aaro has two completely unWatched pieces up on his blog.

One of them we are not Watching because it is archive material, and we have a general principle that we don't Watch archive material unless it is particularly interesting, because it can clearly be produced at a far faster rate than we can Watch it.

The other one we are not Watching because this is a fun blog for us, and only partly and thinly pseudonymous, and we don't need the grief of entering into a debate where you are almost bound to get smeared in some way or another. Various AW members have covered the Mearsheimer & Walt controversy on a variety of other blogs, so if you read a lot of blogs you already know what we think. I (evil bruschettaboy, ie Daniel Davies) have put a comment in the Aaroblog thread, but this is not an official AW statement of position; it might not even be my own fully considered view. There are some things which are genuinely not worth the trouble (running a Watch blog is obviously not one of them). Obviously if anyone else is braver than me then go for your life but I quite understand why nobody wants to get involved with this hornet's nest (check out Aaro's comments and see what I mean).

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Pot, kettle, whatever

Amazingly, Dave's latest blog entry is an attack on journalists who adopt a fawning and uncritical attitude to those in power. "Just how far up Blair's backside was fearless reporter Martin Kettle?" asks Aaro. No, sorry, I've got that wrong ... Hugo Chavez and Greg Palast were the characters he mentioned.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Hold your breath ... Nick is labouring mightily

Nick is a taking a month off to finish his book telling the story of how "the Left" which once stood bravely on the burning deck, hand in hand with George Orwell, fell into the hands of the Islamofascists (thanks to multiculturalism and relativism) and stabbed the Iraqi democrats in the back. A sad sad story of where too much cocaine and looking at modern art has led Islington's finest. Readers are invited to suggest a title for Nick's coming masterpiece in comments.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Church of the Repeated Meme

Nick's in entertaining form this morning. I don't think anyone guessed any of his topics, though old friends have popped up. Harry Fletcher (last seen in January) gets a mention.

Another old friend is "I think it is fair to say" which we've seen as "I think it is fair to say that New Labour hammered the last nail into the coffin [of freedom]", "I think it’s fair to say that previous generations would be astonished that [the March for Free Expression is necessary]", and "When the wife of Silvio Berlusconi’s lawyer can use the language of class struggle to defend the interests of extortionists, I think it is fair to say that socialism is dead." Nick uses it for Pronouncements of Doom.™ This time we have

The peer was Lord Tebbit. And when he attacks a Labour government from the left, I think it is fair to say that it has lost the plot.

I think Nick's wrong to use "from the left" here. I think the government has lost the plot. I think the proposal to "allow private companies to take over the supervision of dangerous criminals" is as venal and foolish as Nick and Lord Tebbit seem to, but the Chingford Skinhead's objection isn't left-wing.

It's probably wrong to categorise Norman Tebbit as a minarchist, yet he and Tories of his stripe believe roughly that the state should not be involved in energy production, telecommunications, broadcasting, etc, as these services can be handled by the market; instead the state should concern itself with law and order and defence. The former can (and therefore should) be privatised; the latter shouldn't. I don't think Lord Tebbit has shifted to the left at all. This does show that he had political ideas; the government hasn't.

Otherwise, Nick is a man in some pain. He hates the Tories, he hates New Labour. He's burned his boats with the Lib Dems. I have a lot of sympathy.