Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Aaro on Madeleine McCann

Perhaps it's coincidence, perhaps it isn't, but I couldn't help noticing something about Aaro's Madeleine piece. It's a pretty good piece of journalism by the way. Since Diana, the British media have had a real fear of sentimentality, which I think is in many ways a shame, but at least Aaro manages to do it without pissing over the McCann family, which is more than a lot of others have managed. As an example of the rather self-referential genre of covering the coverage, Aaro's piece is way, way better than the pile of crap I have kept seeing over the last couple of weeks, written by (usually male) journalists who think they are terribly clever to be the only ones not to care about a kidnapped child, or that they are terribly brave for being the only ones to say that they don't want to think about it. But, with my close-reading head on[1], I was struck by this paragraph.

But why put a picture of Madeleine in your window, 500 miles from the Algarve? “If I thought it would help show solidarity”, writes one contributor to the BBC website, “why not? I wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, a lapel badge for breast cancer awareness, why not a ribbon for Maddie? So what?” Those who question this are described as “miserable devils”.

Emphasis added by Bruschettaboy. I highlighted "show solidarity" because this phrase is a favourite of Nick Cohen, Brian Brivati, Peter Tatchell and the Decent Left in general (Norman Geras, perhaps interestingly, talks about "solidarity" all the time but doesn't use this specific phrase or its alternative, "demonstrate solidarity"). The Euston Manifesto conference this year is going to be titled "Solidarity and Rights". I think it is fair to say that the Decent Left are, as a group, pretty big on "showing solidarity" and equally keen on calling people "miserable devils" and worse if they don't join in.

But of course, "showing solidarity" with identifiable people, the family of a single little girl, who one might conceivably be able to help a little bit, in response to a specific request from the people affected, is a completely normal human response. If that is to be considered a little bit irrational and sentimental (and maybe it is) and a poor guide to action (and it is), then what about Decent solidarity? "Showing solidarity with Iraqi Democrats" is, quite obviously, peddling the same line of goods as the yellow ribbons for Madeleine, but doing so wholesale instead of retail, with much less actual connection with the people on the ground, and a much larger and more disastrous program for "doing something", much less obviously requested by the people with whom one is "showing solidarity".

This is not a straw man I am creating here - I think all AW readers will be familiar with Nick Cohen's main rhetorical technique of asking people who their Iraqi "comrades" are. It is a big chunk of both "What's Left?" and the "Euston Manifesto" that the wholesale rewriting of international law that they propose is based substantially on the proposition that they have "solidarity" with the victims of the massacres that they ignited and the anti-war Left is deficient in this quality.

So yellow ribbons are pointless symbols, emotional pornography, whatever you like? Do I have to remind everyone about those purple fingers and women in veils, weeping for joy? I was certainly very much moved by the emotions of the Iraqis when they had their elections; there was a nasty current of cynicism on a lot of the anti-war side, but it simply wasn't possible to dismiss all of the local reaction as ersatz. You only had to look at someone like Salaam Pax, who was genuinely thrilled to be involved in them.

But on the other hand, this points out the limitations of "solidarity" as a guide to politics. Worrying about a lost little girl is a form of solidarity that does not demand much in the way of specific political action, whereas the characteristic of Decent solidarity is that it very much does; it can only be expressed through support of the particular program of attempting to build democratic nation states from the ground up, by force if necessary. Salaam Pax himself has long since left the pro-war party; he was only ever a very very equivocal and limited supporter of it in the first place.

Having a genuine regard and respect for the Iraqi democrats does not mean that you check your brains at the door, or that you have to sign up for any political program, or that you have to keep on indulging them forever in hopes that are clearly unrealistic (and the Decent Left have been pushing "solidarity" for a lot longer than poor little Madeleine has been missing. There is still a chance that she is alive, and I'm certainly keeping an eye out because you never know. The prospects for liberal democracy in Iraq, on the other hand, seem a lot less hopeful).

"There are many ways of being “overly helpful”, but all suggest the possibility of guilt", is a very interesting sentence indeed in this context (I don't agree with Aaro's specific claims about prurient interest in the McCann kidnapping and rather wish he hadn't made them. I don't think it's got anything to do with that at all. But the sentence itself is a pearl). "Overly helpful, with the possibility of guilt" is Decentism in a nutshell. A draconian and unworkable agenda, backed by appeals to sentimentality; it's the Megan's Law version of internationalism. This is the emotional pond which the impulse to humanitarian interventionism is fishing in; it's the terrible sense that what's going on the world is both awful and inexorable. The pull of the idea that there is something we can do, that we must do something even if it will most likely be futile (more, even if it will most likely be disastrous) is incredibly strong, because the alternative is that we are as straw dogs.

Interestingly, Aaro himself is a much rarer shower of solidarity, ever; the only reference I can find to the phrase in his journalism is this one, pejoratively, as a rather pretentious locution used by a 21-year-old who was going on a human shield trip, and the one time he's done it on the blog was under the influence of Harry's Place. The "Respect" posse are also very big on "showing solidarity", which confirms me in my opinion that this is a red flag. (As far as I can tell, all the uses of the phrase on AW are sarcastic).

PS: the official Find Madeleine site is here. That little girl might be anywhere in the world by now, including places where we have readers. You never know.

[1]Postmodernism alert: Do Not Place More Weight On This Rhetorical Technique Than Its Government Approved Load-Bearing Capacity. Use Of Words, Concepts Or Social Conventions For Purposes Other Than Those For Which They Were Manufactured May Void Your Warranty. This Language Has No User-Serviceable Parts. Please Consult A Specialist For Further Guidance.

10 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

I'm not sure that they're all that big on solidarity as such actually: I think their solidarity is often as partial, as applied-to-one-people-not-the-other as is the case with the straw-man liberal to whom they counterpose themselves. Specifically, I think they're very big on soldarity when they think there's a chance of Western military intervention, or when they think the people suffering are doing so at the hands of someone on whom the Left are apparently soft.

Now of course we can all play the "why don't you talk about x instead" game and it's perhaps no better played at the expense of the Decents than played by them. (With one very big exception: their extreme and forceful identification with Israel. It's one thing picking and choosing your victims, another thing entirely choosing to support the people doing most of the kicking rather than the people mostly being kicked. But I digress.)

I think the point is this, though: by all means choose whatever causes you want, but if those causes just happen to be coincident with the military ambitions of the White House, there may be some reason for questioning the basis on which those choices are being made.

I say this partly, I think, because I was ruminating the other day on a genuine cause on which I seem to remember the Left being, if not silent, then fairly quiet, and which I thought at the time should have been made more noise about. Thing is, though, it was the invasion of Chechnya and the destruction of Grozny: not really a prominent Decent cause, what with the number of Islamists involved on the Chechnyan side and all.

Of course, this may change, if there's some US/Russian tension and we find Putin suddenly being identified as an enemy of democracy rather than, say, as a chap Tony Blair accompanies to the Bolshoi. Then it will be Tardis time again, I think.

5/23/2007 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I'm not sure I see any problem with the concept of solidarity as such though: it's the basic viewpoint of the Left and has to be, since the whole idea of the Left (if I may summarise centuries of hugely varying viewpoints and practices in a couple of seconds) is that in the presence of vast inequalities of wealth and power, the people with neither wealth nor power need to stick together.

Now of course many of the Decents come from a generation - more than one - where that idea had rather more purchase than I think it has now and so, in language and practice, it appeals to them, as it appeals to me. (Did I mention I was an exact Oxbridge contemporary of Jon Pike?) But partly because the idea has waned, for whatever reason, and partly because in fact their views and values have changed more than they're willing to accept, they find themselves mapping these ideas onto causes (Israel, various invasions and bombings) and vehicles (NATO, the Pentagon) for which they were not, to put it mildly, intended...

5/23/2007 03:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"AW readers will be familiar with Nick Cohen's main rhetorical technique of asking people who their Iraqi "comrades" are."

Yes, but he's never to be seen when this blows up in his face. On a CT thread some years ago, after a particulary drunk example of this on his part, I called him on it, pointing to the WCPI (with some of whose British comrades I've co-operated, as well as abstractly 'supporting'), and drawing attention to their anti-war stance. His response? A deafening silence. He can dish it out but he can't take it.

Chris

5/23/2007 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger splinteredsunrise said...

The Chechen thing is interesting - actually I was involved in a left demo on the subject - because Branka, Quintin and young Attila are very big on Chechen independence, and you find articles on the subject in Bosnia Report. Apparently on the grounds that the Russians are ersatz Serbs and therefore need smiting.

That Chechnya hasn't yet made it through to mainstream Decent discourse demonstrates something, if only the gap between ideologues and farmhands.

5/24/2007 09:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To follow on from what EJH says, it is far from clear what the Decents actually do in solidarity with, say, the Kurds. Do they wear a badge "We support plucky little Kurdistan"? Do they send food parcels? Do they go out to Kurdistan and help run a well-digging programme? Or is it just a rhetorical device (we're in solidarity with the Kurds, you're not, so you must be in solidarity with people who murder school teachers)?

If you look back at the 2002 to early 2003 period you will see that Bush and Blair and their supporters said almost nothing about how Iraq would be governed after the invasion. The Decents assumed that everything would turn out alright. That is hardly solidarity with the Iraqi people.

5/24/2007 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

You compare showing solidarity with a nation going to the polls with one missing little girl? That's nuts. One is about politics, the other about emotional silliness.

5/25/2007 01:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

The decents support the British government's aiding of the Kurds - that's how they support them. It has real world consequences. You, on the other hand, don't have any effect on anything since you are not in power.

5/25/2007 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

One is about politics, the other about emotional silliness.

Yes I agree, but which is which?

5/25/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

It has real world consequences.

So it does.

Other "real world consequences" include a very large number of dead people, millions of refugees, torture and atrocities on all sides and the widespread bombing of civilians from street level and from the air.

I wonder if the ways of showing solidarity with the victims of this process might include terminating that process with all celerity?

5/25/2007 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

"The decents support the British government's aiding of the Kurds - that's how they support them."

Any evidence that the British government's aiding of the Kurds has any connection to the Decent's "support"? Or this some kind of psychic thing. They influenced Blair through the ether, with the power of blogging.

5/26/2007 04:08:00 PM  

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