Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Liberalssesss, we hates em

For the sake of keeping up appearances, I'm having a look at the new Decentiya (didn't you know? There's a new one out. You can join their £100 club if you like). The first article in it is a review of Andrew Anthony's book. Good god almighty.

The thing that strikes me (and I know this point has been made before) is that it's all about liberals this and liberals that, but look at this bloke's biography - he wasn't a liberal, any more than Nick Cohen or David Aaronovitch were. As Matthew has pointed out on several occasions, the one constant in a lot of Decent commentators' political lives has been a hatred of liberals; they used to hate them from the left and now they hate them from the right. Which is particularly embarrassing because on nearly all important geopolitical and intellectual questions of the last fifty years, liberals have been right and they've been wrong.

Look, a lot of us thought that the Contras were a bunch of bastards, and the general view that US policy in Latin America was morally wrong and practically all over the place was pretty widespread across all but the arch-Thatcherites. But if you actually went to go and live in Nicaragua, work alongside the Sandinistas and take a considerable personal risk of being murdered by a US proxy, then you were not a liberal my friend; you were a left-winger and I think most people would agree that this was the action of an extreme left-winger by the standards of UK politics.

The same is true of most of Anthony's juvenile political beliefs. Wherever there was a choice between a liberal view and a view that was identifiably and materially to the left of the liberal view, he took the one that wasn't "liberal". Liberals didn't believe that "Israel was the source of most of the troubles in the Middle East", that "America was always the bad guy" or that "all social ills stemmed from inequality and racism", and if Andrew Anthony did believe those things, he wasn't a liberal.

And this confusion continues to dog Anthony after his departure from the ranks of what he believed to be "the liberal-left" but was actually the sectarian far left. Today, he thinks that George Galloway, Howard Zinn and Seumas Milne are liberals. This is basically the Jonah "Liberal Fascism" Goldberg analysis; find someone somewhere who has ever had a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon connection to world socialism, and you can attribute all of their views to "the liberal left".

As I say, I'm sorry not to be more original, and this has been rather a theme of AW for the last few years. The distinctive feature of the "liberal left" as far as I can see is that it's capable of entertaining two sides of a question. The common feature of the old-fashioned "far left", the current Decent Left and the Right is that they basically aren't. The real, deep ideological difference here is on the concept of a trade-off, Manicheanism versus ambiguity (by the way, scroll through that book review for the most hellish misunderstanding of the Frankfurt School you'll ever see. Apparently they stood for simple, universal truth as an "essential tool for unmasking relations of domination and exploitation". All that stuff about dialectic was for the birds, I guess).

Aaronovitch is the only one of them who even understands how it's possible that someone else might think about political issues as having two sides - of course, he tends to place this understanding in the service of the wider political project of Birtism. The rest of them - well, the review claims that " for all his moral certainty, Anthony lacks the self-righteousness and bombast that afflicts some of his fellow travellers in left apostasy", and this is frighteningly quite possibly true; he accuses us all of "gulag denial", but this might not lift him into the top quartile of bombastic Decent arseholes.

Oh yeah, and every single person on the left is absolutely and forever on the hook for every single word they said while the world was traumatized by 9/11. But Martin Amis, five years after the fact ... well, we have to make allowances, don't we?

24 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

Some caveats, if I may.

1. I think most people would agree that this was the action of an extreme left-winger by the standards of UK politics

I don't: I wouldn't even if I didn't have a certain dislike of the term "extreme" in political discourse. (I also dislike the term moderate for similar reasons.) I think it would have been exceptionally unusual at the time, but I'm not sure it would indicate a particular distance to the left. Indeed, if anything, I don't think it was something the far-left sects did or encouraged their adherents to do. Though there may be trainspotters here who can tell me I'm wrong.

Does anybody know if Anthony - or Cohen - was a member of any political organisation as such? I ask because if you were (or are) on the far left then it would be extremely unusual not to have joined one at any point, self-proclaimed anarchists apart. I'd certainly hesitate a long time before placing any such non-joiner on the far left.

2. on nearly all important geopolitical and intellectual questions of the last fifty years, liberals have been right

I'm some way from agreeing with this, though it's rather too big a question to thrash through here or anywhere else. One relevant point is that I think in some ways (as the original posting observes) the term "liberals" can be and is used very loosely, and by admirers of liberalism as well as by the Anthonys of the world. (Indeed, it's quite normal for Decents to proclaim a particular attachment to "liberal democracy" and it's my view that one of the political characteristics of the period is a sort of intolerant liberalism, i.e. one that draws up fair narrow parameters for what are considered to be acceptable politics in a liberal democracy and basically calls everybody else a totalitarian or relativist or dinosaur.)

3. I don't think it's particular to the liberal-left that they can entertain both sides of a question, nor does everybody on the liberal-left necessarily do so. Some of them can be fairly nasty to those they consider too far to their left, and this may be true even if their targets are not often blameless as regards a propensity to mud-slinging and denunciation.

That said, of course I think it's true that a fair proportion of this set (and not necessarily Anthony) are people who used to have one set of certainties, and now have another set instead, different in form but similar in style to the ones they've discarded. I am deeply suspicious of the politics of the "ex": certainly people who have changed political views can and do have valuable things to say about the views and organisations they've left behind, but it can be terribly obsessive. I think that if you once held strong, certain opinions and have had to revise them, you're more or less obliged to accept uncertainty as a principle in the future. And there's nothing wrong with that.

I think Aaro, even though lacking the brutishness of some (or most) of his chums, does tend to have a tendency to look at both sides and always pick the one the Left does not. It's possible that conviction as to the Historical Wrongness Of The Left may contribute to this tendency. (He also has a fault which not all his chums possess, which is that of courtierdom.)

In general: I do think that one consequence of the antiwar section of the population being so sizeable is that far more people than would "normally" be the case have found themselves on the end of the "you support the fascists" smear: and that this has allowed a broader spectrum of left politics to sympathise with and support one another. I consider this a good thing.

Oh, on the last point: every single person on the left is absolutely and forever on the hook for every single word they said while the world was traumatised by 9/11. In fact, isn't this really "something Mary Beard is supposed to have said in the LRB if her words are interpreted in a hostile fashion"?

3/05/2008 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Seven years ago, not five, surely, but also Anthony forgets this piece of throat-clearing from Nicholas Cohen, an Observer columnist at the time.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/16/september11.usa22

Nick Cohen, the unrelated current Observer columnist, also seems to have forgotten it, much as he forgot the Edward Said piece that appeared in the same edition of the Observer, condemning 9/11, when he wrote his silly book accusing Said (who fortunately was dead) of throat-clearing about 9/11.

3/05/2008 04:27:00 PM  
Anonymous JS said...

It's the same basic problem Nick Cohen had with What's Left. Possibly through desire to be understood/bought on Amazon by guardian.co.uk's American readership, the two of them accept the disastrous American terms of description. (How apt, etc.)

The result is that we don't know whether they're shouting only at the tiny 'Seumas and the Chomskyites' faction round the corner at 119 Farringdon Road, which would be fairly reasonable, or... well, the larger lumpen-soft-left Kinnockite mass round the corner at 119 Farringdon Road, who tend to draw the line at urging more suicide missions by the Iraqi resistance.

I realise this conflation could well be deliberate - 'How Jonathan Steele lost its way' doesn't have quite the same zing in mass-publishing-event terms, after all. But it is infuriating, as in proper terms, as you point out, 'very liberal' does not mean hard left.

3/05/2008 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

tend to draw the line at urging more suicide missions by the Iraqi resistance

Who, on the left, has "urged more suicide missions by the Iraqi resistance"? Do they include Seaumas Milne or any other Chomskyites at the Guardian? A quote and a link would be helpful in following your argument.

3/05/2008 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous mastershake said...

A couple of small points. This review http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1198517281323&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull of Norman Podhoertz's last book is a terrible piece of writing, but there is soemthing very interesting in it:

Podhoretz points out, however, that American intellectuals are not alone in attacking America's efforts to battle the forces of militant Islam. The European Left has also gotten into the act. Dario Fo, the Italian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, called the attacks of 9/11 "the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation" that he pins on the United States. Acclaimed British novelist Martin Amis writes, "America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated."

I do still find it impossible to believe that the Mary Beard sentence, which is capable of being interpreted in a number of different ways, is actually worse than wanking on at length about how much you want to strip search Muslims 'in the anger of, er, well there were some attempted terrorist attacks at some point near when i said those things'.

It's good to have the Anthony-as-radical-leftie-in-his-youth point reiterated. Just like his list of 'negative things people think about the working class' this sunday was a case study in creating straw men, his list of things that all liberals believe appears to be a list of things that the made-up far left in richard littlejohn's head believe.

oh and on decentiya - do they honestly think that the abysmal articles 'debunking Said' by David Zarnett are any good? it strikes me that they're a classic case of people being invited to contribute because of their beliefs as opposed to the quality of their work. I don't know many undergraduates who would get away with his standard of criticism - (with my academic hat on) the concluding two paragraphs of his review are all over the place and self-contradict several times. Entire paragraphs are devoted to issues Said didn't speak out on, with no evidence given at all. But then again the article is written in American English while others aren't - the tell-tale sign of a non-peer-reviewed journal...

3/05/2008 04:48:00 PM  
Anonymous JS said...

ejh - I apologise, I was being slightly flippant.

Perhaps not suicide missions, but the insurgency in general - http://politics.guardian.co.uk/columnist/story/0,,2144734,00.html

3/05/2008 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous JS said...

That didn't work:
http://tinyurl.com/ytxrjb

3/05/2008 04:59:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

It worked for me. But I would have thought that the distinction is an important one to make, even for those who disagree with the position Milne takes. Otherwise you're just on HP territory where distinctions and differences between position A and position B can just be elided and ignored provided a link of any sort can be found between them.

It's precisely this which I object to.

3/05/2008 05:05:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

Among the latter, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, Arthur Koestler, C.L.R. James, and George Orwell are prominent. Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the ranks of this latter group have swelled markedly. ... while in Britain a similar charge was spearheaded by, most prominently, David Aaronovitch, Norman Geras and Nick Cohen.

I can hear graves turning ...

3/05/2008 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger steven said...

The distinctive feature of the "liberal left" as far as I can see is that it's capable of entertaining two sides of a question. The common feature of the old-fashioned "far left", the current Decent Left and the Right is that they basically aren't.

That's brilliant. (And also, maybe, a better characterization of Rortean "irony" than Rorty often managed.)

3/05/2008 05:21:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Anyway, on the reivew, or the small part of it that I've found myself able to read...

1. I don't know that even Andrew Anthony himself would describe himself as "extraordinarily gifted". What extraorinary works has this gifted man created?

2. "Amis (2006) argued that not all terrible deeds are rationally explicable". OK, but this is standard Marty anyway, isn't it? He was arguing he same about football hooligans in (I think) 1993.

3/05/2008 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

On ejh's 'non-joiner' point, it all depends what you mean by 'political organisation'. In the 1980s I was on the Manchester War on Want circuit; between WoW, AA, Nicaragua Solidarity and a couple of other similar groups, I got to know several people I'd consider far left (or 'hard left' as people said then). But hardly any of them were in a group with 'socialist' or 'revolutionary' in the name - I remember those few people who were being treated with amused indulgence.

If my experience is anything to go by, those same groups also contained several people who were about as radical as Richard Curtis, who were generally quite happy to coexist with the 'hard left' types - I suppose that might feed into a general revulsion against anyone who's ever read the Guardian (as distinct from merely writing for it).

Incidentally, I don't think seeing both sides of an argument is really what you're talking about here: isn't will you condemn... precisely a demand to see both sides rather than just one?

What ejh says about certainty is closer to the mark - the attitude of mind you're commending (which, again like ejh, I don't think is particularly associated with liberalism) doesn't say "here's the truth of the matter", it says "here's what I believe to be true and here's why".

3/05/2008 07:29:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Incidentally, I don't think seeing both sides of an argument is really what you're talking about here: isn't will you condemn... precisely a demand to see both sides rather than just one?

I don't think so. One condemns acts. "Will you condemn ..." is not ad argumentum. It may be a denial that there is an argument behind the act.

3/05/2008 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I got to know several people I'd consider far left (or 'hard left' as people said then).

Oooh, I dunno. I reckon the far left were lefter than the hard left and used to be in political parties.

3/05/2008 10:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A trainspotter writes:-

I agree with EJH in his first comment. I don't think that going to work in Nicaragua was necessarily the action of an extreme left-winger. It was highly unusual, but it really is making unwarranted assumptions to place someone on a political spectrum because of it.

Far-left sects certainly didn't encourage their members to go and work in such places. I lived in a "post-revolutionary" country in the 1980s and was always being criticised by members of "revolutionary" parties who said that where I went wasn't really revolutionary. Well of course it wasn't, in that it was a real place and events didn't follow the recipes of Marx or Lenin. I went there knowing that, and enjoyed it and learnt a lot (though it was vey tough).

So like EJH, I tend to think of Anthony as someone who used to have one set of fixed views and now has nother, very different, set of fixed views. I find his explanation about the change very superficial: did anyone really pretend that coffee-picking in Nicaragua would be a picnic?

Guano

3/06/2008 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Ray said...

I tend to agree with Phil - I remember there being (in Dublin, early 90's) a 'left organisations' crowd and a 'Latin America solidarity' crowd that were both 'extreme/far' left-wing, and got on reasonably well, without really overlapping.

3/06/2008 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ray said...

Should clarify - many members, though not necessarily all, of the LASC crowd would be far left. These were naturally the ones I'd see more of.

3/06/2008 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Even when he's right, he's wrong. In the passage about the union at Harrods, he says "It had few hard-left members and none among its leadership and yet the spirit of the hard left hung over proceedings like an invisible commissar. Very soon I realized that the object of the meeting, and the object of many to come, was for each participant to appear more radical than whoever had spoken last. A kind of moral exhibitionism and inflationary zeal informed almost every utterance..." But this isn't unique to the hard left: the phenomenon is known as Risky shift or Group polarization. When Anthony quotes Orwell, "But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence." he seems to miss that Orwell said this is true of both sides.

As for the attack on the schoolgirl incident, there is a left-liberal language for it: try Phil Ochs.

3/06/2008 09:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing to understand about Andrew Anthony is that he has written a "misery memoir" or "survivor story" about the left. Its the equivalent of "A Boy Called It" : His "personal journey" is all about a poor working class boy being victimised by middle class lefties so he can't fulfil his proper meritocratic potential. Many of the "misery memoirs" turn out to be exaggerated or made up for effect, and this is certianly true of A Anthonys work. He has wildy re written his school days to "prove" lefty teachers did him down (even tho' he actually did pretty well, presumably with their help) . He even has to invent "Spirit" lefties to dominate the union at Harrods where none existed. Part of Anthony's problem is he wasn't so very involved in the left, so he has to exaggerate his small experience of involvement. If anyone out there wants to get paid a few bob, I advise they spend a year joining in succession the SWP, Socialist Party, CND, Respect, and John McDonnel -ish Labour left, be pretty active and keep a diary. At the end write up every ugly nasty thing you can see, strain as hard as you can, and I guarantee you will get paid , serialised, commentised etc.

3/07/2008 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

As for the attack on the schoolgirl incident, there is a left-liberal language for it: try Phil Ochs.

Well, quite.

Not so very long ago, I managed to get beaten up on the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, which is not the most deserted spot in England. Not one of the several dozen witnesses even spoke, let alone intervened.

This pissed me off not a little but I'm far from sure that it indicates some sort of moral degeneration of society due to a liberal-relativist approach towards criminals and crime.

3/07/2008 09:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And this confusion continues to dog Anthony after his departure from the ranks of what he believed to be "the liberal-left" but was actually the sectarian far left.

Interestingly, you've got some dissent over this point by your commentariat. But they all find a way to agree with you in the end - so who ives a fuck?

You're wrong of course. Or simply lying. The liberal left took all the positions Anthony describes to one degree or another. At least it's exactly how I remember the liberal left, growing up in the 80's, and living it in the 90's.

But I love the way one of your comenters dismisses Anthony as going from extreme view to extreme view - nothing to see here, Ma'am! Just another nutter - not even really a "liberal" anyway so what does he know?

Today, he thinks that George Galloway, Howard Zinn and Seumas Milne are liberals.

Really? Where has he described any of them as "liberals"?

This is the issue that you can never quite acknowledge or deal with. Andrew Anthony is talking about how people like you (well maybe not "you" as you were always a Tory isolationist like Simon Jenkins) allowed such people to set the liberal-left agenda and deferred to their politics: ie given a choice between Milne and Geras which voice was allowed o set the Guardian's agenda for the liberal left?

The funniest and most depressing thing is that this site obviously considers itself "liberal" yet can't own up to the bleeding obvious fact that you're Matthew Parris and Simon Jenkins clones with a bit of Douglas Hurd thrown in.

3/08/2008 01:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Interestingly, you've got some dissent over this point by your commentariat. But they all find a way to agree with you in the end

Translation: "There's some actual discussion going on here, which I can't entirely ignore. What am I saying, of course I can."

3/08/2008 09:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"given a choice between Milne and Geras which voice was allowed to set the Guardian's agenda for the liberal left". what agenda would Geras have set, after his (I must admit I missed it) bid for the command Guardian's editorial section : "You must support the attack on Iraq - oh now I wish I hadn't"

3/08/2008 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

given a choice between Milne and Geras which voice was allowed o set the Guardian's agenda for the liberal left?

This would be the Guardian where the reliably Decent and Blairite Martin Kettle writes the leader columns? As you were then...

The liberal left took all the positions Anthony describes to one degree or another. At least it's exactly how I remember the liberal left, growing up in the 80's, and living it in the 90's.

One thing I do remember about the "liberal left" (whatever that is - I'm guessing you mean social workers/teachers who read the Guardian) was that nobody called it that, and would have looked at you very strangely if you'd described such a thing. Are you perhaps American, or did too much American TV as a young "liberal lefty" leave you wishing you were?

I know plenty of people who were on the left who didn't share Andrew Anthony's views. This is because they were not muppets. Now if he was describing the muppet left, you'd know more about that than anyone here.

But I love the way one of your comenters dismisses Anthony as going from extreme view to extreme view

So you're saying that going to Nicaragua to work on a plantation was a mainstream thing to do? Rather like the gap year in Goa today? Where exactly did you grow up?
Now he's a self-identified member of the Decent Left. Compared to most people's views, that's pretty extreme.

3/08/2008 10:33:00 PM  

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