Tuesday, February 27, 2007

In which I studiously ignore a ludicrous and offensive attempt to analogise the anti-war Left to anti-abolitionists

A few errors in Aaro's column this week (potted summary - military intervention against the slave trade worked, so we shouldn't give up on wars like Iraq. Dave appears not to notice that his new idea of "taking more care about how we intervene" has basically sold the entire pass for Blairite foreign policy, and specifically for the version of Atlanticism that he appears to favour).

1. "Islamist cultures" should not be a plural. There is only one country in the world that can be fairly called "Islamist", Iran. Even Iran is quite an unusual "Islamist" state because it is certainly not based on the Muslim Brotherhood. In all other countries of the Islamic world, including the "Islamic Republics" like Saudi Arabia (Edit: literal; meant to write "Islamic Rebublics and places like Saudi Arabia, of course SA isn't a republic!) Islamists are in general a persecuted minority.

Of course, this falls into the category of "blessed errors". Aaro made this mistake because he hasn't read Paul Berman on Qutb, and therefore uses "Islamist" as a synonym for "Islamic". This is however a good thing, because Nick has read Berman and usually gets his use of "Islamist" pretty precise, as does Michael Gove and Melanie Phillips. And I don't think anyone would argue that these three have, as a result of their precise knowledge, developed more sensible and/or sane ideas about the Muslim world than Aaro. So my advice is to keep on keeping on Dave; this one isn't worth learning.

2. What is Dave babbling on about in the paragraph about women in "Islamist cultures"? In context it looks like he means Iran, but women in Iran are 63% of university students and have the vote (they have the normal sharia discrimination and Amnesty doesn't like theway that protestors against it are treated, but it's ludicrous to suggest that women aren't treated by male doctors in Iran). Since this paragraph appears to be talking about Saudi Arabia, a country where John Humphries has specifically said (in one of his books) that he opposes the current system of government and Tony Blair has specifically said that he doesn't (including, quite recently, calling off a corruption investigation there), I think this is too bad.

I think Dave has treated John Humphries quite badly here. In the context of that Today programme, it is clear that the differences in the "form of democracy" that he was talking about include such things as a) still having sharia law, b) having nuclear weapons and c) maintaining an aggressive foreign policy with respect to the state of Israel. If we have an invasion of Iran, it will be about these things, particularly the middle one, not about the criterion for recognising candidates in elections. Visibly, our entire diplomatic effort is aimed at trying to support a policy in Iran (unilateral nuclear disarmament) which is unlikely to be any more popular there than it was in the UK in 1983 when Tony Blair stood for election on a manifesto containing it and lost (Update "lost" in the sense of "won", of course, thanks Matthew, although I am pretty sure he has never tried to claim that this represented an endorsement of unilateralism by the voters of Sedgefield.)

The trouble is that Dave has presumably been sitting too close to Michael Gove in the canteen and has tried on his relativism-coloured glasses. He's trying to convince himself that everyone's practical objections to the bombs-for-democracy foreign policy are based on the assumption that Iran (in its guise as Saudi Arabia) isn't really all that bad. The knot of the problem here is a confusion between three points of view:

1. Iran's system of government is right. (ie, while we don't want it for itself, it is appropriate for Iran)
2. We have no right to change Iran's government (ie, while it is wrong, there is no justification for interfering in other countries' governments)
3. It would not be right to change Iran's government (ie, we might or might not have the right to interfere in Iran's system of government, but the practical consequences of doing so would make things worse rather than better).

Clearly the Decent argument on 3) has gone down in flames. 1) is the reason why they have such a bug up their arses about Foucault, but 2) is quite irritating for them, because in order to get round it, they have to get over the fact that the Nuremberg conventions and the founding law of the United Nations say what they say and say it for a reason. This is why they are so keen on finding hitherto undiscovered passages in the Genocide Convention, or discovering "duties to protect". It's also why they more or less discount the possibility of domestic revolutionary movements, except when they can be wheeled on stage as backdrop for an oration against "liberals" for being insufficiently supportive. The slavery analogy is instructive here; for Dave, it appears that the Iranians are dumb chattels, sitting around in leg irons and only capable of being liberated by a passing dashing British warship. It is a shame indeed that they didn't teach the slave trade in Gospel Oak in the 1970s, but perhaps a greater one that they didn't teach Toussaint L'Ouverture.

PS: Further to the above, the "Iranian John Humphreys" would probably be Akbar Ganji, an "Iranian democrat" with whom I hereby on behalf of Aaronovitch Watch (incorporating "World of Decency"), express solidarity. He has been in and out of jail and has not been treated well by the regime, but he is still out there plugging away and I am not sure that it is actually all that supportive to pretend that he doesn't exist and that Iran doesn't have an active dissident movement. He does not appear to be all that keen on the idea of a "moral foreign policy" in the sense of the Euston Manifesto.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cohen Meets Baron-Cohen

The man we're no longer watching interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen for the New Statesman. As with his previous 'Nick Cohen meets' efforts, we get a lot of Nick, and not so much of the meets.

"Ah, assortative mating," said the Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology, "the research on that is just beginning and it's very early days. This idea that certain types of women should think about who they marry if they want to minimise the risk hasn't been tested. But . . ." And he went off into a long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality.

Hold on, isn't the 'long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality' what Baron-Cohen is famous for? If you interview a Cambridge Professor, you don't expect soundbites. If the man has anything interesting to say, he's going to say it at some length.

As I listened, I thought about the intellectual revolution being brought by the full acceptance that the brain is a product of evolution.

Shorter Nick: as he spoke, the old mind wandered.

The consensus after the Second World War was that the mind was a blank slate. It evolved at some point, obviously, but now environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature.

I did a bit of Googling (I know a little about this area). I found this interview. It's far more conventional in format than the New Statesman one, as it's pure Q & A. First question:

Why do you believe that language behavior critically depends on the existence of a genetically preprogrammed language organ in the brain?

That was in 1983. Mind you, the interviewee has had to endure a fair number of attacks.

But even in advance of detailed linguistic research, we should expect heredity to play a major role in language because there is really no other way to account for the fact that children learn to speak in the first place. ...
Consider something that everybody agrees is due to heredity -- the fact that humans develop arms rather than wings. Why do we believe this? Well, since nothing in the fetal environments of the human or bird embryo can account for the differences between birds and men, we assume that heredity must be responsible. In fact, if someone came along and said that a bird embryo is somehow "trained" to grow wings, people would just laugh, even though embryologists lack anything like a detailed understanding of how genes regulate embryological development.

Hint: he's very famous. And he clearly doesn't believe that "environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature."
Nick, mind still wandering:

In 1975, when Edward O Wilson wrote about the biological bases for human behaviour in his ground-breaking Sociobiology: the new synthesis, the American Anthropological Association debated a motion that condemned him for "attempting to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society", an anathema Time magazine likened to the Catholic Church's assault on Galileo.

I've tried to find this debate, and so far haven't. Note that they debated the motion: Nick does not record which side won. However, the really famous opposition came from Science for the People (see also Wikipedia on Edward O Wilson). I think Gould and Lewontin were in the wrong on this one; Lewontin is an important influence on The Selfish Gene published the year after Wilson (and arguing a very similar thesis); and I think Gould is, if anything, underrated in sociobiological theory. Dawkins is a genetic determinist (to an extent) - but he would never "attempt... to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society". You don't have to be scientific philistine to be concerned about the misuse of genetic determinist arguments.

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification.

We're now miles away for Professor Baron-Cohen and more or less free-associating our way through 'political correctness' versus scientific freedom.
Via Ben Hoffman am image of the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage.[1]

Like Darwin with The Origin of Species, Baron-Cohen was careful and delayed the publication of his full findings. His first step was to test the water with a tentative lecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I expected to be attacked either by feminists or by Americans in general, because in the States there's much more of a climate of 'you can become everything that you want'. The idea that biology might be more deterministic than we previously thought, well, I was worried it might be unfashionable there."

Ooh, who's being anti-American now?

In contrast to his less interesting cousin, Sacha, Simon Baron-Cohen is a wonderfully humane man. The most compelling instance is his attitude to the "anti-cure" wing of the fractious "autism community". I expected a hard-headed scientist who has dismissed so many of the comforting assumptions of the late 20th century to have little time for politically correct radicals who insist that they are "autistics" rather than "people with autism" because their autism isn't an add-on, but the defining feature of their personality. Not a bit of it.
Baron-Cohen refuses to call autism a disorder, and is dubious about researchers in America who are trying to produce drugs to improve the social skills of autistics.

Nick clearly hasn't read Oliver Sacks on Tourette's - Sacks' conclusions are much the same. Unless Nick is including Sacks among "politically correct radicals" who fall back on "comforting assumptions".

He was less angry about the nonsensical MMR mania than I imagined he would be ...

Perhaps because he didn't fall for it?

Although The Observer’s crack team of libel lawyers often has to fend off people who want to sue me, I’ve managed to get through life without suing anyone. Last week’s news that the MMR vaccine has nothing to do with autism is testing my self-restraint.
Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?
On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs - at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.

Baron-Cohen is a clever and admirable guy. He deserved a better interview.

[1] Michael Berube explains:

This much is adumbrated in the most abrupt flash-forward in the history of film, when Kubrick cuts from the first tool—the bone with which the ape-humans have clubbed to death a member of a neighboring tribe—to an artificial Earth satellite. The satellite is a nuclear warhead, but because the film refuses to make this clear in any narrative voiceover (I’ll say more about that below), and because the flash-forward is also a graphic match of long white tools, it’s possible at first to read the flash-forward as a triumphant affirmation of human evolution.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What's the problem Earthman?

Maybe it's just me, but our Dave doesn't seem to get anywhere in his Times piece today. So, with apologies to Daniel Davies, shorter David Aaronovitch. And the really short version:

'That's absolutely horrible,' exclaimed Arthur, 'the most revolting thing I've ever heard.'
'What's the problem Earthman?' said Zaphod, now transfering his attention to the animal's enormous rump.
'I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing there inviting me to,' said Arthur, 'It's heartless.'
'Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten,' said Zaphod.
'That's not the point,' Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. 'Alright,' he said, 'maybe it is the point. I don't care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just ... er ... I think I'll just have a green salad,' he muttered.

Wanted: new running joke to replace "Seals of Dacre"

Nick is now going to vote Tory for London mayor apparently - you do surprise us Nick - and so he will never need to worry again about voting for a party that doesn't do enough for those struggling little battlers at the bottom of the tree with their £100,000 incomes. It is Ken's support for Hugo Chavez that pushed him over the edge.

Now, I am not a great fan of Hugo, ever since this rule by decree crap was passed, and not all the concerns about press repression can be brushed away. But, is Nick walking and chewing gum at the same time? Has he forgotten that the Venezuelan opposition is against all the values that he holds dear? Is he paying attention to the voices of true Venezuelan democrats? Where are his comrades in Venezuela? Name them, I charge you, sir! I think that there is a danger that Nick has gone berserk. His wild oppositionism to Ken Livingstone has led him to forget his basic principles. Carlos Andres Perez and the Globovision gang are on the far right, yet he cannot denounce them, preferring to concentrate only on one side. And although this is true of Nick and of Harry's Place, it surely represents a much deeper sickness of the liberal left.

That's Aarotainment

In between maintaining the "World of Decency", Aaronovitch Watch occasionally likes to watch David Aaronovitch. Yes, odd hobby eh?

Anyway, this week on scaremongering newspapers. Reasonably good stuff, but in the words of Kingsley Amis, one yearns to say "come off it", get off your high horse. It is not as if Aaro is above all this stuff himself, including specifically talking up the dangerousness of the King's Cross area of London and taking old dears at their word when they claim to be scared to go out of the house. Or has the new optimistic Aaro (which does seem to have been a theme of the last few weeks) begun to move away from the Asbo?

It's more John Lloyd "What the media are doing to our politics" stuff - although Aaro actually has a reasonable claim to priority on that thesis, via the Weekend World connection. But it ain't so! For every "media panic", I'll give you half a dozen "government panics". New Labour uses the moral panic as an essential tool of government, am I right or am I right?

Time for another rule of thumb; if you find yourself quoting "Theodore Dalrymple" as a factual source, you're almost certainly talking crap. The man is a limitless fountain of incredibly politically convenient anecdotes (he lost credibility with me when he claimed it was possible to buy good quality vegetables at the ethnic groceries in Dalston). And in any case, it is not as if the idea of watching one's own funeral as if a ghost was invented by Fifty Cent in 2006; it's one of the most common dreams that there is.

Can't help thinking that this is projection. Our media creating the fear of disastrous violence from unnamed others, while all the time glorying in actual violence with a sufficiently attractive brand name? Yes, they did that, didn't they Dave.

Update: note the little Pritikin Institute bit, one for the spotters there.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

FFS, Words Fail Me

Via Norman Geras, another review of Nick. Professor Geras quotes this passage with approval.

Why revisit the debate over Afghanistan? Simply because in the muddle that is now Iraq it's easy to forget how much of the liberal left also opposed this earlier campaign against an enemy so starkly the antithesis of everything they stand for. ... And so, this opposition illustrates how counterintuitive leftist politics has become.

Did much of the liberal left also oppose this earlier campaign against an enemy so starkly the antithesis of everything they stand for? Some of us did:

In October 2001, when the bombing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda was at its height, aid agencies gave an apparently irrefutable reason for stopping the war. Unless there was a pause in the bombing, said Oxfam, Christian Aid and others, millions would starve.
Their predictions were horrific. The Taliban ran a state which guaranteed starvation as well as religious tyranny. A sizable minority of the population was dependent on United Nations handouts.

You'll note the author here is not defending the Taliban, yet he was writing in the Observer, a left-liberal paper in the Old Country.

The case for campaigning to prevent catastrophe appeared irrefutable, and I joined others in warning that unless the bombing was stopped millions would die.

Hold on, our Observer columnist wrote against the bombing? By the time this piece came out on March 23, 2003, he had changed his mind.

My predictions were nonsense. The brave al-Qaeda fighters ran away. The Taliban collapsed. The winter of 2001 was mild and the snows were late.

Actually, the Taliban war machine was always a guerilla army: it would never have stood up to an organised large scale force - so, like the Russians before Napoleon, or George Washington against the English, they fled and waited. And now they have moved back.
And this is what this liberal-lefty with his head on backwards wrote in October 2001:

The overthrow of the Taliban and capture of bin Laden will be worthless victories if America inspires a new generation of fanatics by allowing itself to be portrayed as complicit in atrocity. Tony Blair and Clare Short recognised the danger and argued fiercely that the choice between bombing and famine was false. I've no doubt they were sincere and am sure they don't want mass starvation. But when Short said 'we are trucking in huge amounts of food' and gracelessly accused relief workers of being 'emotional' she was being idiotic.

Clearly, it's a new irregular verb: I was wrong; you were a useful idiot; he apologised for fascism.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Oh ffs

Geras, trying to compare Israel/Palestine and Ireland

The British government entered negotiations with the IRA. But Britain's existence and legitimacy were never at issue in these negotiations.

As far as I know the IRA has never recognized the legitimacy of the United Kingdom, which is the relevant state entity. You'd really expect an emeritus Professor of Politics to know that.

Decency Deserved

I see that Professor Normblog Geras is having another try at pretending that the label "Decent" is in some way a childish slur cast on him:

But, speaking for myself, I have never laid claim to the 'decent left' label, and I don't think it is one that should be claimed. It should be left to the sneerers.

Well maybe you didn't Norm, but your mate Alan Johnson[1] did, on your weblog. This was not a nickname forced on your group by outsiders. It was a piece of self-identification, and a perfectly sensible one, based on Michael Walzer's essay "Can There Be A Decent Left?". It is the common English word "decent" which has been dragged into the mud by association with you, not vice versa.

PS: The Euston Manifesto has been stuck on 2851 signatures for what seems like the longest time. Given the publicity surrounding Nick Cohen's book, I can't believe this reflects underlying reality, so I'm guessing that there is some sort of IT problem. But didn't the Unite Against Terror petition also stall at the same level? Is 2851 the Decent equivalent of Y2K or something? Does the number have some sort of special significance?

[1]Not the minister

Twas brylyg, and the slithy Gove

(sorry, I know someone else has Watched this but I had it written and there are a couple of bits I like too much to abandon)

Nick is happy because Michael Gove has his back, in taking on those damnable Liberal Democratses. Any discussion of the LibDems is useful among the Decents, as it reminds anyone was feeling like going soft on them that "What's Left?" is not an honest book and the Decent attitude to the anti-war left is not based in anything other than pique and embarrassment at having been so wrong. Sir Menzies Campbell has never endorsed George Galloway, opposed the Iraq War for the correct reason that he thought it would be a disaster and has continued to place the welfare of the Iraqis at the forefront of his continued criticism of the government's mishandling of the whole affair. And what recognition does he get from this? Nope, that would be none. The LibDems made the terrible mistake of being right when Nick Cohen was wrong, and for that they must suffer.

And so Gove writes that "In the recent debate on Iraq Ming spoke with a forceful eloquence which will have reminded fans of his golden era, but the content of what he said soon fell apart under scrutiny. His demand that British troops withdraw to meet an arbitrary timetable was widely recognised as militarily naive. But, worse than that, for the party of Gladstone, Ming’s insistence on rapid withdrawal would leave Iraq’s liberals and democrats to the wolves. How ethical is a foreign policy which, when it sees trade unionists and feminists fighting clerical fascists, decides that the best thing to do is to give the clerical fascists a freer hand? "

Presumably that is how Michael Gove would have liked this exchange in the House of Commons to have gone, but actually, Hansard records that he got his head handed to him, as a couple of sketchwriters noted at the time IIRC. Note also that Gove managed to ask the exact same question that Jeremy Paxman asked Ming a year ago, when it was more difficult to answer, but still Nick claims that "opponents of the war get an easy time on the BBC".

Note here that Nick and Mike are using it as an axiom, a basic principle that does not need to be argued for, that anyone who wants a date set for troops to come home is ipso facto a hater of the poor ickle Iraqis. This is in the face of the Iraq Study Group recommendations and the majority of Iraqi public opinion in the most recent polls. It's also not what the majority of Iraqi trade unions think either. Nick seems to believe that he can pick and choose his "solidarity" with "Iraqi democrats", constantly talking them up while ignoring their actual political program with respect to the foreign soldiers currently on their soil.

Meanwhile, Gove takes the opportunity to turn the most unbelievably banal observation about the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between rightwing Israeli politics and the US Congress, into a "Malign Zionist Conspiracy", in a move which even ENGAGEonline might think a bit unsubtle. Also note that the official UN position on the Golan Heights becomes a piece of "Ba'athist apologism" because in Decentland it's OK to steal land and water from people forty years ago if they have a nasty government now. Since I am ever so keen on avoiding "classic anti-Semitic Tropes", by the way, I will have to describe Michael Gove's castigation of Syria for "destabilising Lebanon's nascent democracy" in the context of an article defending Israel's role in the region as "brass neck" rather than chutzpah.

So here we have it. If you take the same view as James Baker on troop withdrawals from Iraq, the official UN (and UK) government policy line on the Golan Heights, believe the same things as Tony Blair about the importance of a Palestinian settlement for the wider Middle East and agree with Oona King about the influence of AIPAC, you have "gone berserk" and "abandoned all the principles of the left". Nick is surely right to say that the views he castigates are "a large part of the mainstream", but not for the reasons he thinks and not in a way that reflects well on him.

PS: fucking check this out, from the Inside Iraq blog, via Chardonnay Chap below. Does Nick think he can brush this off as "another leftist who just wants to bash Bush and Blair and doesn't care about Iraqis"?

Taking Nick Seriously

There's a smashing review of Nick's book by Tim Holmes over at The Memory Hole.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bullshit, complete bullshit and statistics

Nick writes:

"No reasonable person can deny [some piece of Decent catechism or other - bb]. If an unreasonable person wishes to do so, let them go back through the Guardian, Independent, Today Programme and Channel 4 News archives and count the column inches and air minutes devoted to Guantanamo Bay where no one has been murdered and compare them to the space given to Darfur where a genocide is taking place."

well I'm an unreasonable person, so let's check ...

Guantanamo, 1229 mentions

Darfur, 946 mentions

On the other hand, note that the civil war in Darfur only began in 2003, and the massacres only began in 2004. Guantanamo, however, has been open since 2001, and many of the mentions in the Guardian will have been early on during the period when there were British prisoners there. So let's look at the time structure, shall we?

Since 2003: 946 mentions of Darfur, 922 mentions of Guantanamo
Since 2004: 943 mentions of Darfur, 556 mentions of Guantanamo
Since 2005: 580 mentions of Darfur, 283 mentions of Guantanamo
Since 2006: 351 mentions of Darfur, 175 mentions of Guantanamo
2007 to date: 47 mentions of Darfur, 14 mentions of Guantanamo

I am not bothering to check the Independent and Channel 4 News, but I have no reason to believe they will be any different (Channel 4 might have a few more Guantanamos in 2006 as they may have plugged Michael Winterbottom's film but this hardly counts).

While we're on the subject:

If you still doubt me, think back to the arguments you heard at every liberal dinner party you’ve been to in the past four years and ask yourself if concern for Iraqi democrats ever featured in the conversation.
Done it?
I’m right, aren’t I?

No, Nick, you're wrong.

Iraqi Democrats Redux

I'd like to recommend Inside Iraq a blog written by Iraqi journalists in McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau whose complete names have been withheld for security reasons.
Before your next dinner party, I suggest you bone up on Iraqi Democrats:

As a matter of fact if you want to be the speaker of any Iraqi political party you have to be either the founder of the party or his son. Maybe you will have a chance to be the speaker if your grandfather was the speaker but you have to wait for long long time.
After all of that, many want us to believe that these political parties will fight to protect democracy in Iraq even when they are not practicing democracy in their own parties.
To all Iraqi political parties… You can not give what you don't have … you can not.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Nick's Fans

People who say things like this:
There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.
Also say things like this:
He doesn’t feel he has become more politically right wing with the advancing years, rather that the centre in Britain has drifted to the left. “It’s not really the left though. Nick Cohen’s book said it all.”

He found Cohen’s book What’s Left?, a controversial and scathing critique of modern left-wing incoherence, spoke to his own politics directly: “It’s a sanitary corrective to a lot of woozy undirected sympathy swilling around.”

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Am I Right, Or Am I Right?

Funny, that line works a lot better when Michael Gambon says it. (Note to any West End [of London] theatre goers out there: I saw him once as 'Uncle Vanya' on Shaftesbury Avenue, accompanied by Jonathan Pryce and Greta Scacchi - and he was bloody good. Note to younger readers: the title of this piece was the catchphrase of 'The Singing Detective' a notorious series made by the Red BBC from a script by sometime Labour candidate Dennis Potter. And then the star appears a few years later before liberal bruschetta chompers in a play by a Russian. I mean, just join the dots, huh?)

One of our many anonymous commenters (hey guys, please choose names; they don't have to be your real names or even names you use on other blogs, but let us tell you apart - please) on the previous post pointed to Back Tomorrow:

Now, I've frequently expressed concern for Iraqi people, but now I see the error of my ways. Why wasn't I worrying about Iraqi democrats?

Or, as Nick says:

If you still doubt me, think back to the arguments you heard at every liberal dinner party you've been to in the past four years and ask yourself if concern for Iraqi democrats ever featured in the conversation.
Done it?
I'm right, aren't I?

If we're splitting hairs, I could describe myself as being a Presbyterian atheist: I think I smell a whiff of the 'damned and the saved' here. 'Iraqi democrats' matter; other Iraqis can go to hell - the mullah-supporting, Saddam-defending dogs! I'm sorry to return to this so often, but I really want to reclaim Orwell ('Mr Decency Pants himself' as I believe one other blogger named him) for the 'indecent' side. Orwell wrote a fantastic essay Politics and the English Language. I know you've read it. I want you to read it again. Now what the hell is an 'Iraqi Democrat'? The term seems to have at least two lives. It could mean some kind of politician, one of the greasers who permanently campaigns, who makes promises and writes blank cheques, or it could mean anyone who goes to the polls on a certain day. It lacks a certain, how-do-you-say, concreteness. Being an Iraqi Democrat is undoubtedly a good thing but beyond that what is it?
Nick seems to have taken two positive (or doubleplusgood) words ('Iraqi' and 'Democrat') and made a compound noun of them. It just doesn't appear to actually signify anything. Nick can think it can means one thing; Norman Geras can use it to mean someone else. Christopher Hitchens can bend it to mean a Jordanian criminal. (Oh gosh, did I say 'signify'? That must mean I'm one of these postmodernists Nick and Francis Wheen hate so much; doesn't Derrida talk about 'signifiers' and stuff all the time - and wasn't he a Nazi as well as having an unfair amount of natural head hair in old age? Funny, I was thinking that George Orwell was somewhat influenced by the so-called 'picture-word' theory of the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Not an Oxford chap though; possibly unsound. And didn't he hang out with Russell who later joined CND - bete noir of Oliver Kamm? Bad egg all round.)

"Learned Progressive Journals..."

Aaro writes, reviewing Nick:
Learned progressive journals will lend their letters sections to debate just how bad a liar Tony Blair actually is, while running articles seeking to absolve the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, from entirely justified accusations of antiSemitism.
Is this an accurate or a fair description of the London Review of Books? I'm not sure that it is.

First, it's true that there have been letters on Blair-as-liar -- on this page -- but that's because David Runciman writes regularly on politics for the LRB, and his articles on Mr Blair (here, here, here, here, here and here, the more war-related of which are collected in The Politics of Good Intentions) are among the sharpest things ever written about the man. No journal should think it ought to apologise for carrying Runciman's excellent pieces, but nor should anyone get away with suggesting that Runciman's writing peddles a crude "Blair lied, thousands died" analysis; his essays are far more interesting than that. And the debate isn't really about "how bad a liar Tony Blair actually is", in any case, but about how good. As Runciman puts it, "He is not simply the boldest liar, he is also the best."

Second, Charles Glass published an article which mentioned Nasrallah twice. On the first occasion, he said that he was "not only the most popular man in Lebanon – but in the whole Arab world". The second passage is this:
"Seeing the Israeli response to his rocket bombardment of Haifa and Netanya in the north, Nasrallah has not carried out his threat to send rockets as far as Tel Aviv. He now says he will do this only if Israel targets the centre of Beirut."
So even though this article might be plausibly described as apologetics for Hizbullah in general, it certainly can't be fairly described as an article "seeking to absolve the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, from entirely justified accusations of antiSemitism", because it makes no such attempt.

The discussion of Hassan Nasrallah's alleged antisemitism took place in the Letters columns over the next few issues: Eugene Goodhart raised the issue, David Loewe defended Glass from his critics, Charles Glass replied, Anthony Julius responded, Charles Glass replied, and as far as I can tell Eugene Goodhart closed the correspondence with his final contribution.

It's not at all obvious to me that the magazine deserves to be criticised for publishing these letters, which are a good deal more civilised and informative than the kind of discussion you get of these matters in, for example, the blogosphere. And if anyone behaved badly concerning these exchanges, it wasn't obviously Glass or the LRB, but Eugene Goodhart, who went on to make the false claim in Dissent that "Almost every issue [of the LRB] contains several articles devoted to attacks on Israel", when a scan of the archives suggests that there are only really two recent issues -- vol.28 nos.15 and 16, assembled in the immediate aftermath of Israel's incursion into Southern Lebanon -- that might plausibly fit this description.

Question for discussion: why do the Decents find it so hard to write about the LRB without misrepresenting its contents?

A tidal wave ....

There's another review of Nick, this time in The Australian by Rebecca Weisser. A moment's googling reveals Weisser to be one of those people who gets namechecked on Normblog, reproduced on FrontPageMag, etc etc. So it's the usual boilerplate stuff, basically. Items worth of mention:

"Cohen, like Christopher Hitchens, Melanie Phillips and David Aaronovitch, stands in the proud English tradition of writers such as George Orwell ...." (Nice to see his friends as well as his critics now bracket Nick with Mad Mel P.)

"In fact, it [the Euston Manifesto] launched a tidal wave of support and dissent." (Yeah, a veritable tsunami.)

"A headline on The Guardian website, 'David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man anti-Semitic', was challenged by an enraged reader who protested against the inherent bigotry and demanded the headline be rewritten as, 'David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man, or woman, anti-Semitic.' " (A fairly feeble joke this, lifted from the book, I think ... is there any actual evidence for it?)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Mystery of the Disappearing Quote

I know we've stopped watching Nick, but this is a personal appeal for information. I've just finished Speak for England by James Hawes (whom I've mentioned before). V short review: disappointing satire without clear targets and too many poorly drawn characters. That link goes to the publisher's site which shows the hardback cover - or does it? The copy I read was the first printing and from the library and it looks a little different: like this (you have to search for 'Hawes' I'm afraid; alternatively, it's about one 'page up' from the end of the page). The difference is a yellow box under England on the left, which looks a little like a post-it note. Though it's gone from the current printing (or the images of the book on the Random House site and on Amazon), the quote can still be found on Random House:

A ripping satire of England's yearning for lost certainty and power. As well as being hilarious and ingenious, Hawes mocks New Labour, the Daily Mail, platitudinous liberals and cocaine-raddled media grandees. If there were any justice, a grateful nation would give him a peerage. Nick Cohen

Though the book cover omits 'As well as being' and 'Hawes mocks New Labour, the Daily Mail, platitudinous liberals and cocaine-raddled media grandees' and reads 'Nick Cohen, Observer columnist' (note: not 'Nick Cohen, Observer' which would be a different thing). I can't find this anywhere on the net (and the Observer/Guardian archives go back much further than its publication date (January 2005 according to Amazon). This may have been just a few words for the blurb. But why remove them?
I can see the satire aims at New Labour (though despite his name and his bagpipe playing, Alastair Campbell is from Yorkshire), the Daily Mail (though I thought the Telegraph was the target) and 'cocaine-raddled media' types, but not 'platitudinous liberals' because there aren't any. There is one passage where the anti-hero tries to explain British history since 1958 to the the one remaing survivor and children of other survivors of an air crash that year.

--Mr Marley sir, asked the older boy who had briefly stood up to the Headmaster, -- a lot of us chaps want to join the Army when we get back. I fancy the Hussars. But I mean if the Reds are beaten hands down who are we going to fight?
--Good question, Marlborough senior. Well, Marley, old boy?
--Ah, well, yes, you see, after the Russians stopped being Reds, people started saying that History had ended because we had won, so we didn't really need much of an army any more. But then a few years ago everything changed because some terrorists from Saudi Arabia flew some planes full of passengers into two skyscrapers in New York and killed thousands of people.
--Good God, why did they do that?
--I don't know. No one really does. Because of America supporting Israel all the time I suppose.
--Ah, Israel still hanging in there, then?
--Very much so.
--Tough buggers. So what did the Yanks do? Bomb Saudi Arabia?
--No Saudi Arabia is on their side. Ours, I mean.
--But you said these mad bombers came from Saudi Arabia.
--Ues. I don't really understand that bit either, sorry.
--I see. So the Yanks did nothing?
--Oh no, they invaded Iraq.
--Iraq? What the devil dor?
--I don't really know. The President and our Prime Minister said it was because they were a danger to us. I met a drunken American colonel and he said it was because the House of Saud was a busted flush and they needed a safe client state in the Middle East because of all the oil there and they were sick of having to support Israel all the time, even when a few thousand religious maniacs in hats and beards held the balance of power there. And then he said it was because the President thought his dad should have done it. And then he fell over, so I don't really know. But anyway, they did it and we helped them and the President of Iraq was a bastard who dropped poison gas on his own towns, so actually I don't really care why.

I laughed out loud at "Oh no, they invaded Iraq." But who, if anyone, is being satirised? Liberals? Hawks? "I don't really care why" is just about the lamest support for the war I've ever encountered (though it's not a million miles from the Decents' position). It's not worth a peerage.

Post-modern coda. As commenter Redpesto pointed out here, the movie of Rancid Aluminium sucked.

The critics looked on and wondered if the English language contained condemnations strong enough to give what they were seeing the pasting it deserved. Jacques Peretti of the Guardian did his best when he wrote: 'By universal consent, it is the worst film ever made in the UK. People who have seen it belong to an exclusive club. They cannot speak about the film - they simply shudder at its mention.'
Harsh words, but true in all respects except one. Rancid Aluminium has a telling quote which encapsulates what happened to the British film industry in the New Labour years. ...
...Between 1997 and 2005, the government piled the plate of the British film industry with billions of pounds of public funds. It was money which came from working-and middle-class taxpayers who didn't hire accountants but paid as they earned. It was money which might have been spent on schools, hospitals, the army or other fripperies.

This led Hawes to write White Powder, Green Light which makes pretty much that point: there's a line about 'hospitals and schools' being more deserving of the EU money spent by the Welsh film industry which I can't find just now. To secure 'soft money' (an EU grant), his heroine who is English but teaching in a new university in Pontypool (clearly the University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd) claims to be Welsh and the lead actor 'discovers' a Welsh grandmother. Hawes finds this disreputeable and phoney.

Curiously, Speak for England may be filmed by BBC Wales.

"Andrew [Davies] is a fan of the book. He and James are Welsh and BBC Wales has commissioned it - so it all makes sense.["]

Andrew Davies is Welsh (born Rhiwbina, Cardiff, Wales, UK), but James Hawes isn't.

Another Nick review

Scotland on Sunday has a generally positive review which contains a striking image:

Cohen is like one of those hoses for sale in garden centres which has a tendency to veer around for no reason, soaking the family as much as the flowers.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A is for Amnesty

I might turn these into an "alphabet of Decency" or I might not. Even if I do it will not appear in alphabetical order or a timely manner, because at present all I can thinkof is "C is for Chalabi" and "V is for Vietnam".

As the name change above suggests, we are a) no longer following Nick Cohen in the kind of comprehensive manner of the recent past and b) taking on a wider role with respect to the "Wide World Of Decency". We are therefore giving ourselves an "amnesty" on writing a full review of the book. I still quite honestly can't read it; it really is like being cornered in a bar by someone who feels himself to have been poorly treated in a dispute with his neighbour over the location of a fence. I'm dipping in, taking subjects from the index to see if they've been treated well.

I think that the treatment of Amnesty International has to be considered a touchstone for whether this is an honest book (and more widely, whether the Euston Manifesto[1] movement is an honest movement). Amnesty International is a really very honest and small 'd' decent organisation, and if you're trying to screw Amnesty International, then in my view there is by that token something wrong with you.

Specifically, it has to be counted a test of Nick's sincerity, because Amnesty International has specifically done what Nick claimed the "liberal left" ought to do. Ever since the war, Amnesty has been supporting human rights in Iraq. They are specifically campaigning for prosecutions to be brought against Baathist torturers and killers. Amnesty has led the way in supporting civil rights and the rights of women in the Islamic world. Nick has himself used Amnesty as a source in the last two years, for a 2005 piece on striking Iranian bus drivers. So, in other words, they have clearly not "gone berserk" in Nick's sense. They opposed the war and they strongly criticise the human rights abuses of the war on terror, but they also criticise Islamic regimes and they cannot possible be interpreted as supporting the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgents.

So what kind of a writeup do they get?

They are mentioned on 8 pages of the book. I might as well enumerate rather than summarise:

P52: "Human Rights Watch established itself as an alternative to Amnesty International on the strength of its investigations into Iraq". Basically a passing mention.

P312: "The non-governmental organisations the liberals most admired - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres - had successfully raged against oppression and mass suffering and become 'players' in global politics." Neutral to negative - the context is that human rights had become the language of international relations, but it is leading into Nick trying to suggest that a concern with human rights would :per se make you a supporter of the Iraq War.

P314: "Saddam Hussein was against everything represented by Amnesty International" context is mildly negative; recognising the importance of Amnesty as a moral standard for the Left, but preparatory to accusing them of hypocrisy.

P321: Not actually mentioned on this page, but it's the start of a five page passage that mentions them a few times.

P322: "Five years ago, if you could have asked journalists, diplomats, academics and victims of oppression themselves who they would have trusted above all others to stay sober in a crisis my guess is that they would have nominated Amnesty International" (and other mentions within the same paragraph). An introductory passage to the main theme …

P323: "Strictly speaking, Amnesty should have kept its mouth shut". Context is Tony Blair quoting Amnesty's dossier on Iraq in 2002 and Amnesty complaining about "opportunistic and selective" use. Amnesty has no right to a privileged interpretation of its own work, it means whatever a reader says it means, apparently.

"So in true Virginia Woolf style, Amnesty […] pretended that both sides were equally bad" This is the introduction to the "gulag" quote posted below, which continues onto page 324.

P324: "Irene Khan, Amnesty's Secretary General, showed that a twenty-first century cultural relativism could be as condescending [as colonialists - bb] when she told the Financial Times that 'if you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world's population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job, human rights mean nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues'". Nick gives no context to this remark and indeed allows the impression that it was a general statement of Amnesty's views. Actually, Ms Khan was at the time talking about why Amnesty had joined the Make Poverty History campaign. On p325, Nick claims that "I don't know what went through the minds of Amnesty's officers" and surmises that "You can blame Bush and Blair for creating a mental climate were even Amnesty International thought that human rights don't mean very much if you wish …". In fact the context was crystal clear in the original FT interview, although not in the extracts published on Normblog and Harry's Place at the time.

P325: "Human Rights Watch, which made its name as a rival Amnesty with its investigations into Iraq: No real mention of Amnesty here, although this bit is where Nick lays into HRW for writing the document "Iraq: Not A Humanitarian Intervention".

And that's it. Despite the fact that Nick knew that Amnesty had continued to stand up for human rights against Islamist oppression, because he had quoted them in the Iranian bus drivers piece, if you read "What's Left", you would get the impression that they had lost their minds in 2003 and given up on human rights ever since. I therefore conclude that Nick's claim that he is not merely having a go at people for being right on Iraq when he was wrong, is false, because his claim that he does not have a quarrel with leftists who opposed the war but who have demonstrably continued to show concern for the oppressed in Islamic totalitarian states is falsified by his extremely negative and in my opinion unfair treatment of Amnesty International.

[1] I am now drawing a distinction, because I think that Decentism is a wider political movement incorporating mangerialism, social-authoritarianism, and other things that Aaro believes in. The specific project of being a cunt about the war is not one that I think can be pinned on DA himself, albeit that this is largely because he has shut up about it, and with the qualification that his writings on the Lebanese war last year were pretty damn bloodthirsty.

We are now on "new blogger"

And surprise surprise, it is causing problems. My posts now all appear as "The Management" rather than "Bruschettaboy" and Rioja Kid and Captain Cabernet have been unpersonned. Guys I think you will need to create a "google account" under some pseudonym or other. I will endeavour to sort it out. This was not my idea, by the way; "New Blogger" is apparently now non-optional.


"Bizarre proclamations came out of Amnesty press conferences, and none was wackier than the claim that Guantanamo Bay ' has become the Gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law'. A brief pause to look at its own files would have shown Amnesty that in Solzhenitsyn's gulag the secret police executed several millions and drove countless millions more to early deaths from starvation, disease or exhaustion"

-- Nick Cohen, "What's Left", p324-5

"Outsiders don't understand the enfeebling self-consciousness of political debate on the middle-class liberal-left: they can't imagine the thoughts strangled and tongues bitten to avoid giving the smallest offence to audiences overanxious to find it. The director of a prison reform charity once told me that he struck out all metaphorsand similes from his speeches. Even ifit was a bland cliche of ' the government is like a rabbit caught in the headlights' type, he wouldn't use it because he knew half his listeners would stop listening to him for thirty seconds as they double-checked that he had not unintentionally insulted a disadvantaged or ill-favoured group"

-- Nick Cohen, "What's Left", p337

What's Left? Errata

One of Nick's complaints against "liberals" and "the left" and "the liberal left" and so on is that we carp and criticise and moan and whinge and we never have anything constructive to offer. So it's time to offer positive assistance.

In order to help Nick Cohen and his publisher release an error-free second edition of What's Left?, I thought Aaronovitch Watch (Incorporating World of Decency) could usefully open an errata thread, to identify and where possible correct the mistakes that have -- inexplicably -- crept into the book.

I'll kick off; some of these will be familiar from what's gone before. Please add further errata in the comments; and please, simple errors and false factual claims only. (The man's entitled to his interpretations, however wayward, his opinions, however silly, and his arguments, however bad.)

[p.99] For "1996" read "1995".

[p.100] For "1999" read "1998".

[p.109] For "2001" read "2000".

[p.246] For "Information Research Bureau" read "Information Research Department".

[p.274] "Said couldn’t manage a word of condemnation of the ideology and the methods of the suicide bombers." False. [via]

[p.335] Incorrect source given in the note on p.382: the Index writer called Theo Van Gogh a "free speech fundamentalist" in this piece, not in the one Nick cites.

[pp.357-8] "A cryptic dedication..." This bit is complete horseshit, as Nick has already acknowledged. [via]

Nick Cohen, Postmodernist

Stuart at Indecent Left has the most detailed review of Nick's What's Left? that I've seen so far. You know, the kind of review we Aaro-watchers should be writing, but aren't, because we can't bear to.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Kampfner on Cohen

John Kampfner in the New Statesman takes Nick to pieces. "To lump Cook in the same camp as George Galloway is to compare Bill Hicks with Bernard Manning."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Links at last

The Telegraph has updated its books pages. Nicholas Blincoe (quite the weirdest review I've had N Cohen). Anthony Daniels (not so sure about this N Cohen).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Help, they're silencing me!

Since we're now incorporating "World of Decency" as well as the narrower Aaro-Cohen axis, I thought I'd just draw attention to the latest outpouring from Norman Geras, Shalom Lappin and Eve Garrard. They are scathing about "Independent Jewish Voices" and specifically about the claim by Brian Klug that there's an oppressive consensus that makes it difficult for Jews critical of Israel to speak out:

What a hoot! What a kingsize, mouth and trousers, peaches and yoghurt, tractor and bright scarlet pyjamas belly laugh. Harold Pinter, one of the 'independent voice' signatories, cowed by... the Jewish Board of Deputies. Eric Hobsbawm and many another well-known name on the same list stifled. Most of these signatories would be able, practically any day of the week, to find column space in the would-be progressive press, there to be applauded for their courage in 'speaking out' (see the comments threads attached to the posts I've linked to above). But no, they're all anxious, uncertain and oppressed because of an 'unwritten law on what you can and cannot discuss'. The law is unwritten because there isn't one. What there is, rather, is vanity and self-regard.

I rather agree with Geras et al that Klug's claim is a silly one. But I have to admit that it rather reminded me of the whine from the Euston Manifeso crowd that their own view is excluded by a left-liberal consensus:

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: from TV screens and newspapers, in universities and other workplaces, in theatres, at dinner tables and at every kind of social gathering. Its ideas were so much perceived as conventional wisdom that many found it difficult to allow that there could be an alternative left-liberal view.

In the face of people pointing out that a crowd including Francis Wheen, Nick Cohen, John Lloyd et al could hardly claim to be excluded by the "maistream media", what did Norm have to say?

Then there has been the theme that, since the Eustonians and supporting signatories include well-known journalists like Nick Cohen, John Lloyd and Francis Wheen, the claim that our broad viewpoint has been under-represented in the liberal media is silly. Speaking loosely, it requires only a single half-asleep brain cell to deal with this point.

The great Marx scholar will no doubt recognize the phrase: de te fabula narratur.

In which Aaro namechecks a Watch site!!

But sadly, it is not us. Mailwatch is a very good site, and probably of more general interest than AW. Nevertheless, I am currently crying on my keyboard. I suppose it's fair enough since we no longer link to him ever since I nearly killed the blog with that Wordpress disaster - I'll try and sort out the sidebar.

Dave's piece is all pretty good stuff (you can tell this, because it doesn't have a conversational headline). If everything happened exactly as he reports it, then my god what a cow that woman from the Mail was. In general, the Mail shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt.

Aaro's general point is also quite important. People who make inaacurate claims about the direction of crime statistics, the current state of the British economy and so on, in the knowledge that there is a sizeable paranoid community out there for this kind of stuff pitched the right way, are involved in the same kind of game as people who talk crap about the safety of vaccines. They ought to get the very harshest treatment. But I have two caveats here.

First "setting the agenda" is not a magical property that Paul Dacre has ever since he was an infant on planet Kal-El[1]. The Mail sets the agenda because specific people respond to it and take it seriously, when they had the option of doing otherwise. In particular, the last four Home Secretaries could at any time have responded to Daily Mail campaigns about "the rising tide of crime" by pointing to the actual statistics and inviting their critics to a) take a running jump and b) upon landing, stop lying to their readers. Instead, four consecutive Home Secretaries, with the support of their Prime Minister, have chosen to respond to "the very real public fear of crime" as if it were an actual thing.

Second, So Has Dave! If the Mail woman had decided to speak up for some of the more valid points about the use of "green taxes" as contributions to general revenue, or if she'd opened up about identity cards being unnecessary, expensive and obviously open to abuse, or if she'd suggested that young people today are not worse behaved than in the past, or at elast not to the extent of requiring special legislation, then it would be Dave who was comically foaming at the mouth and claiming that everything was much worse than it was.

Dave is hardly in Nick Cohen's league when it comes to "Seals of Dacre", but he has in the past revelled in the title of "the Left's Mr Asbo", and has significantly exaggerated the scourge o'er our land that was anti-social behaviour when the occasion demanded. Indeed, in the original bruschetta orthodoxies article, there's plenty of it there, albeit that everything has now been cleared up by Mr Tony and his magic pals. While the Mail pushes dystopian bollocks about the present in order to damn the government for its inaction, Dave says many of the same things about the recent past (or about France), in order to praise it for its action. I hope I am not falling into the trap of easy cynicism when I say that this might be because Labour are in government and the Conservatives are in opposition.

Furthermore, there's a bit of discrimination missing here. While not everything about Britain is shit - au contraire, most things are great - there are some things, like agricultural policy, the financial management of the NHS[2] and prisons policy, which are a shitehouse, and Dave doesn't criticise them either. "Prisons full" in that Mail litany is actually a pretty atrocious indictment of the last ten years of a policy which was originated with Blair and has been closely identified with him. I don't support the Mail's solution to it, but nor am I a fan of ignoring the problem. The charge of Pollyannaism is not completely misplaced.

[1]Marvel Comics fans in the comments - please save your time, I really don't give a fuck.
[2] which is a different thing from the NHS itself

Monday, February 05, 2007

A mother's understanding counts for a lot, I'm sure

I know I'm posting too much. I know I haven't found links for either the Telegraph or Sunday Telegraph reviews. Nor have I seen the one by James Delingpole in the Hate Mail on Sunday. Links will be posted if I find them.

Peter Wilby has a very critical review in the Observer. There's one stand-out passage for me:

The Damascene moment - about which this book is frustratingly uninformative - followed shortly afterwards. "My pieces weren't written in good faith," Cohen states. "I wanted anything associated with Tony Blair to fail because that would allow me to return to the easy life of attacking him."

My emphasis: I should have said earlier that Deborah Orr gets Nick (and he linked approvingly last Thursday) but Anthony Daniels (whom he quotes today) doesn't. Nick's book isn't - as Daniels seems to interpret it - about the left being all bad, but he's criticising what Sartre called 'mauvais foi' (lit 'bad faith' but better translated as 'self deception' or 'false consciousness') and this criticism of members of the left is not new. (IIRC, Marx does it as well.) I find it interesting that Nick accuses his former self of this as readers have noticed that Nick's archetypal leftie is less straw man than a portrait of of N Cohen Esq 1980-2002.

Yesterday I wrote, "Daniels' review looks favourable, and Nick may take is as such." Nick to his credit doesn't.

Nick Cohen is an unusual journalist whose work has an unusual aroma - that of thought.

I thought that was a silly thing to write, but I didn't want to be overly pedantic about the style a review was written in. Nick is unimpressed.

Hmmm…not so sure about this. Does thought have an 'aroma', and if so what does it smell of, neurons, grey matter?

So good for him. He also links to Ruth Dudley Edwards in Saturday's (not the Sunday) Telegraph. It's not an informative piece: if you want to know about Islam terrorism, read Richard Clarke who knows enough about it that Usama bin Laden put out a contract on him. This is all she has to say about Nick.

[Abdul Saleem's] defence [lawyers] should have pointed out that he was merely stating the obvious. He and his kind believe that through intimidation, conversion and out-breeding, the United Kingdom – and the world over – can be brought under Sharia law.
I take Islam - a religion which, at its best, greatly improves the lives of its adherents - and Islamism - its pernicious fringe - very seriously. The Qur'an is beside my bed, along with Bruce Lawrence's The Qur'an: A Biography; I've just finished Karen Armstrong's hagiographical Muhammad and its antithesis, Robert Spencer's The Truth About Muhammad; I try vainly to persuade visitors to watch my DVD of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West; Michael Gove should pay me commission for having persuaded so many people to buy his Celsius 7/7; I've just ordered Nick Cohen's What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way to join the pile of Islam-related books on my to-read pile, which I have little time to address because, in addition to working for a living, I spend at least two or three hours a day reading about Islamic matters or talking to similarly obsessed friends and colleagues at speeches and seminars.

There is an interview with Nick online (hooray!) in the Sunday Times.

"If my mother goes with about half of it I will be very pleased. She doesn't like the radical religious right at all but she saw radical Islam right away as a threat. She didn't support the war. Nobody I knew supported the war," he adds in mock gloom. "She does understand my arguments, though." Well a mother's understanding counts for a lot, I’m sure.

Even apart from the interviewer's snark (and that was Martin Ivens not me), it's a somewhat weird interview.

It was consistent hatred of Saddam Hussein’s "fascist" regime over decades that led Cohen to support the invasion. It was the plight of Iraqi asylum seekers and left-wing exiles living in Britain that taught him to loathe the regime. "There is a delegation of Iraqi trade unionists coming to my launch party. They (their families and friends) have been slaughtered by fascists. The idea that liberals would want Iraq to fail to give Bush and Blair bloody noses appals me. They just don't care about the consequences for the people."

Well how many liberals or leftists (or conservatives for that matter) wanted Iraq to fail rather than predicting that it would? I think that we've made Iraq worse not better - and this was a consequence which was predictable with a little foresight.

He chides the "parochialism" of the liberal left. "It is difficult to defend your country against foreign threats if you are a critic of the status quo. What that led people to say is that 'Britain is as bad as fascist Germany' or 'Al-Qaeda is bad, but look at the Christian right in America'."

"It is difficult to defend your country against foreign threats if you are a critic of the status quo" is it? There was some writer who was critical of the status quo and was actually a sergeant in the Home Guard (because he was too unfit and old for anything else). Oh what was his name?

Once upon a time every teenager curious about politics and recent history would have Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on his or her bedside table. As part of the author’s unsentimental education in the realities of political struggle, Orwell watches as the communists savage other leftist parties in the Spanish civil war. They attack his own outfit, the POUM militia. Perhaps the book is no longer read today. Its message about the danger of embracing all leftists, even totalitarian ones, as part of the progressive "tribe" still needs to be hammered home.

The lesson that the "book is no longer read today" would be more convincing if there was a movie about similar events. Plot summary:

He joins an international group of Militia-men and women, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). After being wounded he goes to Barcelona, where he decides to join another group of fighters. They remain in Barcelona and end up fighting other anti-fascist groups.

And that was directed by Ken Loach who was was elected to the national council of the Respect coalition. I guess he knows the story, so that can't be it.

Not surprisingly, What's Left also gets a hostile notice from Spiked alias the Revolutionary Communist Party (if you don't believe me, there are two footnotes - both refer to old RCP pamphlets). I can't say a great deal in praise of the arguments, but the invective contains two veritable hits.

Nick Cohen’s What's Left? shows he is the Princess Diana of journalism, always reducing political comment to personal psychodrama.


Nick Cohen's book takes its place with the autobiographies of Robert Kilroy Silk and Derek Hatton as one of the worst books I have ever been asked to review.

Oh come now.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Day of the Left

In Frederick Forsyth's thriller The Day of the Jackal, an anonymous assassin is hired by a French terrorist group to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Now, in the equally thrilling follow-up 35 years later, Mr Forsyth has created an even more chilling anonymous supervillain. Like the Jackal, whose real name is never revealed, this master criminal goes by a sobriquet, "The Left". Like Napoleons of Crime before him - Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Macavity the Mystery Cat for example - The Left is everywhere, controlling actors behind the scenes.

Perhaps The Left's most audacious crime was the day in 2003 when, being a master of disguise, he slipped under the noses of the Metropolitan police camouflaged as one million so-called peace marchers. In a rare interview with Aaronovitch Watch Incorporating Nick Cohen Watch, he explained how. "Well, being a Muslim woman calling for Sharia Law was easy - just slip on a burqa and away you go. But some of the gear that crusties and students go about in these days. It was horrible, frankly. The best day of my life of course, but the worst too. What was the hardest? Getting the colour right for George Galloway took ages, but the accent was no bother at all. Just do Alex Ferguson, ye ken, and they Sassenachs can no tell the difference. Hoot."

This, at least, is the book reviewed by Anthony Daniels (not that one) in the Sunday Telegraph. OK, it's not by Freddie Forsyth (who is a diligent researcher), but by a journalist called Nick Cohen. (Update: link.)

With the comprehensive victory, both practical and ideological, of market economies over planned economies, the Left had to invent a new stick with which to beat the status quo. It was not enough that, as always, there were plenty of particular grievances over which the virtuous could display their deep concern; a new overarching principle was required. Cultural and moral relativism served the turn.
This enabled the Left, according to Cohen, to engage in perpetual double standards.

Cohen doesn't comment much on economic matters, but my reading of him suggests that while he won't deny that the Soviet Union collapsed and that America is generally wealthy, he doesn't believe in the ideological victory of market forces. He seems to be for Brownite intervention rather than for out-and-out laissez-faire economics. I haven't read the book, but I suspect Dr Daniels' adumbration of Cohen's argument of inaccurate precis. Nor can I really believe Cohen would recognise himself in the sarcasm of "over which the virtuous could display their deep concern" - as if every kind of protest (boycotting Outspan for example) was merely a posture.

Daniels' review looks favourable, and Nick may take is as such. But it's much less kind toward what Nick seems to believe than it appears.

It is against this sickness - that of chronic dishonesty - that Mr Cohen writes, not always with the greatest possible conceptual clarity.

"This sickness" is the Left's "objective" support of Saddam. Apparently right-wingers (there is no villain called 'The Right' in this review) like Alan Clark, who approved the sale of the "Supergun" to Saddam, experience no cognitive dissonance. Daniels says in conclusion:

Indeed, it is time we abandoned this simple one-dimensional scale upon which everyone can be conveniently but lazily placed; if we really need such a scale, I would prefer honest and dishonest. Though I disagree with him on many things, I think Mr Cohen veers strongly towards honesty.

But he's already equated "the Left" with "dishonesty" above and he has also said When he gets round to this analysis, he will cease to be a man of the Left... ("This analysis" is thinking of others as 'conscious human beings' rather than 'inanimate vectors of forces'. I bet our Nick will be as suprised as I was to learn that that's how he sees the world.) Far from being honest, Daniels seems to me to want to simply change the names 'left' and 'right' to 'honest' and 'dishonest'. Less a deep philosophical insight than a PR exercise.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tap-Room Rot

I don't know much about Nicholas Blincoe, but he has a blinder of a review of Nick's book in today's Torygraph. It's not online yet; the Telegraph books section always seems to be a few days behind the paper. When it is, I'll add a link. (Update: link.)

To give you a flavour, the review is illustrated by a photo of Brian Haw, immediately recognisable from the peace badges on his hat. The byline reads: "Nicholas Blincoe is not persuaded by a self-righteous defence of the war in Iraq". That alone should set Nick going. This is also a review studded with bon mots.

It is difficult to know how to address this tap-room rot. Perhaps it is enough to say that the only possible political programme it suggests is a pledge to breed more, eat less and never engage with a Muslim nation: just bomb them.

On another tack, one might suggest that calling everyone a fascist is the flabbiest kind of relativism: the so-called Reductio ad Hitlerum. Or perhaps point out that the only person ever to have advocated the wild-eyed relativism that Cohen describes is Aleister Crowley.

In the second paragraph of the review, however, Blincoe writes:

At this point, I feel I should stop and reassure the reader that my quotations genuinely reflect Nick Cohen's arguments on the decline of liberalism.

Nick really, really isn't going to like those quotations.

Let's begin with the diagnosis. As "Leftish puritanism" disappeared, "the rich world's liberals", afflicted by "enfeebling self-consciousness", devoted their energies to enjoying "exquisite regional cuisines" and "long holidays" while forgoing the "cost and inconvenience of raising the young". Today, these liberals have to "live with the consequences" of a sybaritic life that "could not be borne without bringing in immigrants" who found their "values repugnant". The result is that "a part of British Islam went off into the wilds"; indeed, "by the time you read this. maybe the body count will have risen". Fortunately, one party "understood what was going on in the slums": the "BNP was seeing Britain clearly" when they claimed the "Muslim community chooses to vote only for political parties that explicitly promote the interests of the Muslim community itself."

Some AaroWatch readers have read the book. Can Nick really have said this? As reviews go, it's an unrelenting bloodbath.

David Runs Again!

Dave had the best day of [his] life last year (where he beat Jade 'Racist' Goody), so he's Doing the marathon again for the Anthony Nolan Trust (again).

Naturally, we at AaroWatch support him in this (and we'll probably sponsor him again). See we don't hate him really.

If Dave really finds it "harder than last year" he could consider finding someone to run with. He lives in London, so I'd recommend Serpentine Running Club.

Best of luck, Dave.

Friday, February 02, 2007

I Agree With Nick ...

... about one thing. I bought Rancid Aluminium a few years ago because the author lives in Cardiff (like me) and because it had a pretty girl on the cover. Neither of which are particularly good reasons for cracking open the thing. Then Nick praised James Hawes here and here. That still wasn't a reason to dig RA from the pile. But I eventually felt the need for something lighter I could read at work - and my view changed: he's very good. (NB Reviewers on Amazon disagree.)

Now, of those posts of Nick's the second is pretty incidental, as Hawes is only mentioned for his views on Big Brother (in Speak for England - published in 2005):

Writers as diverse as James Hawes and Ben Elton wrote state-of-the-nation novels about contestants who will do anything to please the peeping Tom producers and their creepy audiences.

I don't think BE and JH are 'diverse': they were born a year apart (BE- 1959; JH - 1960), both are satirical, both are chippy lower-middle-class, both went to lefty universities and show left-wing consciousness and post-punk attitudes. Both, in fact, rather resemble Nick. There are lots of authors quite unlike either. (Amis, McEwan, Pratchett, Rowling - all could be described as writing "state-of-the-nation novels" however obliquely - whose personal backgrounds are nothing like Ben Elton's.) But the real gem of that piece is two paragraphs down (Nick is writing about Celebrity Big Brother last year).

George Galloway and his backers in the Socialist Workers Party are finished now. The alliance they organised between the Trotskyist far left and the Islamic far right, which produced the most disgraceful protest movement since the Thirties, can no longer count on the indulgence of polite society.

Well, that entry which was "posted on Sunday, January 15th, 2006" marked the end of Nick's, Harry's Place's, etc, etc interest in Gorgeous George and the SWP didn't it? They just withered away, and their critics moved on to substantial targets.

You should be told, reader, that James Hawes went to Oxford. Like Nick. Nick's year of birth seems to be secret (the bio on his own site does not give it; and Wikipedia does not know either), but I'm pretty sure it was somewhere between 1960 and 1962. So he's roughly the same age as James Hawes - and so (that's two sos so the logic may be getting stretched here) they may have known each other: both thought they were writers, were clearly on the left, and both felt a little out of place. Then again, they may not. (There's a good interview with Hawes in which he explains some of his attitudes.) Anyway, here's Nick:

Middle-class hatred of the upper class used to erupt regularly in Britain. From 1815 to 1914, it inspired the campaigns against rotten boroughs, the corn laws and the House of Lords. It is everywhere in novels from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, sometimes as a dominant theme, in Nicholas Nickleby for example, more often in the background, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Today, the old anger seems to be dead. People talk with passion about the gap that exists between the top and the bottom - between rich and poor people and rich and poor countries - but not the gap between the top and the middle. The only modern writer I can think of who uses middle-class fury at the privileges of the rich in most of his plots is James Hawes. Fortunately, isolation has not harmed him and he is very good at it.
The typical Hawes hero realises that working hard and playing by the rules will never get him the family home in a nice part of London he took for granted when he was young. To join the respectable middle class he has to stop being respectable. He must rob a bank, cut a deal with the Russian mafia or humiliate himself on a reality TV show. The system is stacked against the middle class, as the hero in A White Merc with Fins explains, after learning that the children of the rich he thought of as friends at university are from a world whose admission price he cannot afford ...

Of the five novels by Hawes so far Nick chooses three: "He must rob a bank [White Merc With Fins], cut a deal with the Russian mafia [Rancid Aluminium] or humiliate himself on a reality TV show [Speak for England]." I haven't read the last of these, so I don't intend to comment. Rancid Aluminium is about an entrepreneur (not a regular wage slave) who runs a business with two arty types which makes videos for business people: even when he thinks he's honest, he knows the business is a scam; he's ripped any worthwhile ideas from a much cleverer don who writes self-help books. The plot is pleasingly complex after that involving MI5, income tax fraud (the 'hero' is a cheat in lots of ways), the CIA, the Russian Mafia (who want to use his business as a money laundering front). The man is hardly a victim - he has a beautiful wife (his best friend may have a better looking, but less likeable wife) with whom he has had great sex in the past; he has a home, and friends to an extent, employees. There are a lot of people worse off. His biggest problems are - he's not as rich as he'd like to be, and perhaps his boys can't swim (to paraphrase George in Seinfeld). But at least he is legitimately 'middle class' and he joined in on his own initiative. He's also a shit. In White Merc With Fins the 'hero' is in his late twenties, still an agency temp, who discovers a secret private bank (which he contrives to rob), after being sent there as a dogsbody. Not so middle class really. I've been 'excluded' in much the same way, but a lot of that is down to attitude and laziness on my part.

But there are two interesting points in A White Merc With Fins. One is the robbery plot, which involves the IRA which the hero contacts through a mentor when he was in the 'Revolutionary Communist Association' (no really) when he at university. Hawes knows quite a bit about the more doolally student political parties. Maybe he was a member of one, maybe not. (His anger, which both Nick and I often share, strikes me as genuine, so he could have passed as a comrade - had he wished to.) The other is a joke I thought was great. The narrator recounts bringing a bottle of wine over to a more committed friend the day Nelson Mandela was confirmed as President of South Africa. The wine was, of course, South African, and the earnest friend was at first offended, and then realised that he was obliged to drink this in future. When the bottle is half gone, the narrator tells him it's three years old. This is (to me) a much much better version of Nick's" my mother used to boycott Outspan" story.

There are some serious points here: it's possible that Nick knew James Hawes at Oxford (nothing wrong with that if he did). And it's possible that James Hawes and perhaps Nick was or were mixed up with the very far left (as in terrorist supporting) parties Hawes mentions. Certainly these are an obsession of Nick's. And Nick is obsessed by 'Are you with us or against us?' He is a latterday O'Brien at finding counter-revolutionary elements, 'reds under the bed' or what have you.

Matthew Turner has a good post on Nick's current idea of the middle classes.

Is there a point to this? I'll give you a point. I think Nick should make his personal political evolution (and the reasons for same) much clearer. If he was a member of the hard left when young, fine. He's certainly not alone, and passion even when (mis)guided by others is nothing to be ashamed of. Apostates are often the strongest critics. And sometimes they are right ...

Update I managed to post this twice. I've deleted the spare copy and copied the one comment it attracted into the comments here.

Questions to Accompany a Reading of Chapter Four of Nick's Book, #8

Before attempting the next few questions, you might want to review John Vidal's article here

Q38. The Decents have a characteristic mode of arguing which goes like this: “Yes, Israel is doing bad things, but other people are doing bad things, so you shouldn’t necessarily be concentrating quite so much on the bad things that the Israelis are doing. In fact, your decision to concentrate quite so much on the Israelis reflects rather badly on you. And the fact that we say this should in no way be construed as apologising for Israel’s bad behaviour.” In the article, Vidal makes a similar move: what’s going on in Zimbabwe is indefensible, but it isn’t quite so unusual, looked at in a global perspective, and so perhaps we should ask about quite why it’s Mugabe who gets singled out for opporobrium here, rather than other developing world governments, and the international agencies like the World Bank which fund projects which require mass evictions? Why is this way of arguing to be applauded when the Decents do it, but not when John Vidal does it?

Q39. Nick implies that Vidal thinks that “anyone who showed solidarity with Zimbabweans [is] a hypocrite”. Do you think Vidal believes this, or that this is the underlying message of his article?

Q40. Some people might say that Vidal’s analysis of what is going on in Harare is mistaken. They think that Mugabe’s evictions were mostly about political control, and that the regime was expelling poor people in Harare who supported the opposition MDC and relocating them to shacks in rural areas firmly under ZANU-PF control, for example in Operation Murambatsvina. Do you think this kind of criticism of Vidal’s argument is plausible, or do you think it’s better to make the kind of criticisms Nick is making here, implying instead that Vidal is a moral imbecile? Do you think Nick’s line of criticism – with illuminating bits like, “This one clumsy sentence revealed all the symptoms of the sickness of the radical left at the millennium” - opens the way to more sensible kinds of political analysis of the situation in Zimbabwe, or not?

Q41. Nick writes, p.118, that “The failure to agree on a name was symptomatic of a wider confusion.” Do you think this criticism of the anti-globalization crowd is persuasive, coming from a man who is representative of the pro-war left / pro-liberation left / B-52 Liberals / anti-totalitarian left / Cruise-Missile Liberals / Decent Left / Eustonites / [insert preferred name for his gang here]?

Q42. When Nick implies that Western leftist feminists are going to sell Indian feminists down the river (or whatever he thinks they are going to do), do you think it might be a good idea to examine the practices and politics of organisations like the International Society Against Dowry and Bride-Burning in India which hasn't, as far as I can tell, faced opposition from liberal and feminist groups in the West, where it organizes? Indeed, Eve Ensler, who is the kind of person the Decents like to beat up on, owing to her opposition to the war in Iraq, and that kind of thing, has spoken out strongly against violence against women in India. Do you think Nick would also do well to study feminist groups like Jagori and Sangat, which are well connected outside India, or Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which also have relevant opinions on the matter? Or do you think that the opinions he provides in these pages are sufficiently well grounded that he can afford to ignore all of this?

Q43. Nick writes: [p.122] “Now try a thought experiment and suppose that the organizers of refuges in Delhi and Bangalore were to combine with like-minded women across the subcontinent and appeal to Western feminists for support. India is a democracy, but democratic politicians can be wary about tackling traditional prejudices and losing conservative votes. Foreign pressure can force them to face abuses they would rather ignore…” Do you think what’s going on in Nick’s imagination is a good basis for grounding informed and responsible political judgements?

I think I'm going to stop here, before I go mad. Still, that’s 43 questions(assuming I haven't messed up the numbering too badly) to accompany about thirty pages of Nick’s text. I’m sure you can come up with more of your own. It’s not hard.

Questions to Accompany a Reading of Chapter Four of Nick's Book, #7

Q30. Nick writes, p.115: “The theorists may have been obscure scribblers, but middle-class arts students heard their ideas before moving on to journalism, publishing, teaching and politics.” Do you think that “the theorists” dominate Humanities education in the United Kingdom in the way in which Nick suggests here? Do you think Nick provides any reason to think that they do? Do you think it would have been helpful if Nick had named the courses and the universities that are most badly afflicted by "the theorists", to help sixth-form readers of his book who might be thinking about their applications to university?

Q31. Nick writes, p.115: “For the sexually voracious it had the further advantage of suiting those who enjoyed to excess the permissive freedoms the Sixties and Seventies had brought, and most definitely did not want others to think that they could be “judgemental” about their behaviour.” How judgmental do you think Nick wants to be about other people’s sexual behaviour?

Q32. Do you think Nick’s view that “What fuelled the anti-globalization movement was a passionate and often well-merited hatred of the rich world in which its supporters lived” [p.116] is well supported?

Q33. Why do you think Nick ignores the contribution that organisations in the developing world – many of them quite large – make and have made, to the anti-globalization movement?

Q34. When Nick mentions [p.117] that anti-globalisation protestors don’t often protest at Chinese Embassies, do you think he is ignoring the fact that one of the constituent parts of the anti-globalisation movement are the Free Tibet people, and that they often seem to be doing this?

Q35. Anti-globalization groups in the “no sweat” line of business often target the Western firms that manufacture goods in appalling conditions abroad. Do you think this is because they think they may be mistakenly thinking that practically effective actions are more important that ineffective displays of "solidarity", or for a different reason?

Q37. When Nick writes [still p.117] that the anti-globalizers “shamefully refused to demonstrate against… the rape of Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe”, do you think he is ignoring the work of groups like the Crisis in Zimbabwe coalition, who are very much connected to the wider anti-globalization movement, and which is doing a great deal of useful work, especially with regard to the welfare of over a million refugees from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Do you think one reason why passages like this in Nick's book particularly piss off this reader is that he might have friends who are active in the anti-globalisation movement, and who have also been politically active in the Zimbabwean opposition at considerable personal risk? Do you think readers like me are really likely to be reading this bit of Nick's book, and nodding along, saying, “Yup, he’s really on to something here”?