Saturday, March 31, 2007

At The Altar Of The Plaster Saint

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground.

Sonnet 130

Nick points to a letter he wrote to Prospect (it's the last one) "in response to an attack from a Cookite called David Clark".

Nothing I have encountered since my book What's Left? was published has matched the pettishness of the tantrum David Clark throws in his review (March).

That review is now archived, so you can't read it unless you're a Prospect subscriber. (Why, why do they do this? Why not hide the new stuff, when you can go and buy the magazine rather than the stuff you can't get elsewhere?)

I think by now the list of Nick's enemies is so long that anyone not on it should start to worry. Being a 'Cookite' is a bad thing apparently. I thought Robin Cook was a brave, articulate, intelligent, prinicipled, and effective minister, whose opposition to the Iraq invasion was entirely cogent and clearly expressed. Nick has turned him into a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein figure. (I'm really sorry about the number of Nineteen Eighty-Four references I use, but they fit so well.) Nick won't quite say what's so bad about him, but he's someone you should hate.

It is about liberal and left-minded people making excuses for, turning a blind eye to and, on occasion, openly supporting the movements of the ultra right-a far rarer phenomenon.

Isn't there a good case for saying that, if terms like 'left' and 'right' can be applied at all to 'ultra' parties, Stalin and Mao could as well have been called 'ultra right'?

From what I can tell of the review, it's on a par with every other critical review of What's Left?

You only have to turn on Channel 4 News to hear supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami dignified as spokesmen for "the Muslims"; liberal broadcasters wouldn't dream of presenting BNP leaders as mouthpieces for "the whites."

While this is true, I think it's a problem in the way news is reported. Editors have deadlines, and you can't stand about in the street all day stopping brown people in the hope that they're of the right religion and can give a few soundbites on some complex political issue. (There's possibly also the fact that most journalists are white, and they wouldn't dream of considering that the BNP speak for them; nor would they dream of asking a colleague to speak for his or her religion.) This means they have to find someone who can make a more-or-less prepared statement. The government doesn't help as it seems to regard everyone as living in 'communities' (while being hazy about what these are) and then supposing that these communities appoint leaders after their own fashion.

On the page after Clark's effort, there was a far better piece by Bella Thomas on the condescension displayed by Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma towards Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Garton Ash and Buruma aren't Trotskyists flipping from far left to far right, but bog-standard liberal intellectuals. Yet they turn on a brave woman who has risked her life standing up for the values they profess to believe in.

Again, Nick seems confused. If Trotskyists (who have been around since the 1920s surely) 'flip... from far left to far right', then it is neither new nor rare for 'left-minded people' to 'openly support... the movements of the ultra right'. If he argues that Trotskyists aren't 'left-minded' most of his target definition of the left vanishes too.

The really keen reader may like The multicultural Issue on signandsight.com which has links to lots of articles pro and anti both sides - that is attacks on and defences of Buruma and Garton Ash. On the same site is a splendid piece by Ian Buruma The dogmatism of Enlightenment. Just the title tells us that we're deep into Decent territory here.

It is the fate of certain books, like certain phrases ("fascism", "Orientalism", "multiculturalism", "racism"), to be used as bludgeons to beat up people whose views one dislikes. These verbal sticks often bear little or no relation to their original meanings, or, in the case of books, to what their authors actually wrote. I suppose I should feel flattered that "Murder in Amsterdam" is gradually turning into such a book.
Professor Cliteur wishes to beat up nihilists, postmodern cultural relativists, and multiculturalists, and uses my book as his bludgeon. I can only assume he has actually read it, but his version is certainly not mine. Nowhere did I suggest that the ideals of the Enlightenment are no better than radical Islamism. My descriptions of Theo van Gogh's killer and his murderous ideology make it quite clear what I think of religious extremism. Either Professor Cliteur is incapable of grasping a complicated argument, or he wilfully misreads my book in order to classify me as a "post-modern relativist."


I'm not sure what Nick means by 'bog-standard liberal intellectual' apart from 'not a Trotskyite'. Buruma's defence of his book against mistinterpretation is a lot wittier than Nick's efforts in the same vein. Buruma wrote Against Submission for the New York Times. Garton Ash reviewed books by Buruma and Hirsi Ali for the New York Review of Books.

(Somewhat off topic, this is from Garton Ash's piece.

Where I liveā€”in Oxford, Eurabia - I come into contact with British Muslims almost every day. Their family origins lie in Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh. They are more peaceful, law-abiding, and industrious British citizens than many a true-born native Englishman of my acquaintance.

Julian Baggini has to go to Rotherham (from Oxford) to meet people who aren't Today listeners. Professor Garton Ash finds them in Oxford. I consider this greatly to Garton Ash's credit.)

Here is Garton Ash on Hisri Ali.

In fact, she is irresistible copy for journalists, being a tall, strikingly beautiful, exotic, brave, outspoken woman with a remarkable life story, now living under permanent threat of being slaughtered like van Gogh. Among the many awards listed on the back cover of her new book of essays, The Caged Virgin, next to the Moral Courage Award, the International Network of Liberal Women Freedom Prize, Dutchman [sic] of the Year 2004, the Coq d'Honneur 2004, and the Danish Freedom Prize, is Glamour magazine's Hero of the Month Award. That's how we like our heroes - glamorous. It's no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.

Just to remind you, here's Nick again:

Yet they [Ian Buruma and Tiomothy Garton Ash] turn on a brave woman who has risked her life standing up for the values they profess to believe in.

Gosh, I really think Garton Ash overlooked the courage part.

Garton Ash further down:

Having read many interviews with her, and spent an evening in Londo talking to her both onstage and off, I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity. This does not mean one must agree with all her views.

Indeed not. Garton Ash treats Ms Hirsi Ali like anyone else: he considers her arguments. That's not a Nick response.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Simon said...

I read the Clark review in Prospect, though unfortunately I was reading Prospect in WHSmith so I don't have a copy to hand.

It wasn't a 'tantrum' at all - in fact, IIRC, it was in many respects quite a positive review, and he made clear he concurred with the attacks on Galloway et al. His essential criticism was that most of Nick's targets aren't representative of the 'liberal left' he claims to be attacking.

As with that review from the Telegraph a few weeks back, the reason Nick has responded so petulantly is because Clark's review has hit home.

3/31/2007 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I can't say that I like Buruma much. His Guardian columns a few years back were not exactly free from the desire to impute unhealthy motives to opponents of Israel.

As for Garton-Ash - I used to like him, but his insistence that Spanish people were engaging in some sort of mass cowardice for voting out Aznar after the Madrid bombings was a bit too comfy and arrogant for my liking.

Nick has turned him into a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein figure.

Well he did look a bit like Trotsky.

3/31/2007 03:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Garton Ash is sensible on a few topics but a bit reflexively neoliberal on economic issues, cf his oft-repeated claim that what Europe needs is more 'flexible labour markets'.

3/31/2007 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Ex Ponto said...

"Instead, federal power is enlisted, and endlessly expanded, in service of an agenda of aggressive militarism abroad, liberty-infringement domestically, and an overarching sense of moralistic certitude and exceptionalism."

-From Glenn Greenwald (on Neoconservatism)

Is the part in italics not Decency in a nutshell?

3/31/2007 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Ex Ponto said...

"Your readers know as well as I do that when London is attacked again, the airwaves will be filled with mainstream liberals who will blame Tony Blair rather than argue against a global wave of Islamist violence which is misogynist, homophobic, fascistic and racist."
(From NC's letter)

If presented with those two options, I'd probably opt for the former too. He's a master of the old false dichotomy, is old Nick. I'm also not entirely sure how radical Islamism could be racist (leaving aside the issue of whether or not it is 'fascistic'). Surely anything that constitutes a 'global wave' is unlikely to be inherently racist? Is that not a necessary feature of universalist movements (like Communism) - they are unlikely to be prejudiced on the basis of race?

3/31/2007 07:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

Didn't Nick Cohen fight for socialism once upon a time? I can't help feeling that was a better use of his energies than all this stuff...

3/31/2007 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick seems to have turned The Enlightenment into a religion. For him The Enlightenment now comes complete with its own Crusades and its own heretics (such as a newly invented variety, the Cookites). I always thought that one of the central tenets of The Enlightenment was rational discourse and decision-making based on rational discourse. The spin of Blair and the convoluted arguments of Cohen would appear to bne th eopposite.

4/01/2007 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

he made clear he concurred with the attacks on Galloway et al. His essential criticism was that most of Nick's targets aren't representative of the 'liberal left' he claims to be attacking.

I'm not sure this is an approach I necessarily care for, though it's quite common. I see the point in criticising Galloway et al where such is appropriate and valid: I don't see the point in saying "we're not like Galloway! we're not like Galloway!". Two reasons: first, Galloway is often attacked unfairly and in those circumstances should be defended and second, it only encourages the attack dogs and the witch-hunters. The "liberal-left" are then bewildered when they're on the receiving end of the same treatment - perhaps they shouldn't be.

4/01/2007 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Simon said...

I agree that noisily dissociating oneself from Galloway is counter-productive. The better response is to point out his insignificance, because the entire purpose of the Decentists' focus on Galloway is to present him as more important a figure than he actually is so that their smears-by-association are more effective.

4/01/2007 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Would not a better response still be to say that he has both merits and demerits? That way one would not be obliged to be on the defensive when the Decent hunting dogs come a-sniffing.

4/02/2007 08:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Simon said...

It depends whether one thinks "he has merits and demerits" is a reasonable summary of Galloway, I suppose. I have little time for him as an individual, though his win in BG&B was quite funny, and did annoy all the right people.

4/02/2007 09:13:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I don't much like him and I certainly wouldn't lend him a fiver. However:

1. I do like his habit of successfully suing the Telegraph for telling lies about him ;

2. the Norm Coleman show was fantastic and a bit more of that attitude wouldn't go amiss generally ;

3. although he is certainly a rogue (and the Left has always contained a few) I have no reason to think he is a crook ;

4. in general I think most things said about him by his detractors are not only false, but constitute the sort of deliberate and persistent mud-throwing which is designed to prevent the viewpoint of its victims being heard. This is damaging to democracy and it really should be stood up to.

I guess I'd draw a comparison with Bill Clinton. I loathed the man, but when the impeachment nonsense started, it was very necessary indeed to say that it was a legal, political and constitutional disgrace.

4/03/2007 08:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As hardly any of us have seen this article by David Clark it is difficult to comment on what it contains. However as it was a review of Nick's book, and as one of the main tricks in Nick's book is to jumble up anyone who opposes Nick's ideas with various demons (such as Golloway or SWP) then it's fairly understandable that Clark should distance himself from Galloway or SWP.

4/03/2007 05:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. In his letter to Prospect, Nick gives his address as "The Observer". Does that mean that he works there full-time? Is he there 5 days a week? I thought he was a colunist, perhaps working from home or dropping in to the Observer once a week. If he is there more or less full-time, it rather spoils his argument that he is excluded from the mainstream press.

2. In his letter to Prospect, Nick claims that Clark has (deliberately?) misunderstood Nick's argument. But isnj;t that the proble? The book s so tortuous that it is very difficul to know what the argument is.

4/03/2007 05:16:00 PM  
Anonymous this guy said...

Is that Bilbo Baggini?

4/05/2007 09:41:00 AM  

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