Sunday, June 29, 2008

Three is a trend

As commenter Matt pointed out, Nick hasn't been in the Observer since June 8. As Matt also pointed out, he's still writing for the Standard.

As has happened before with Nick, I don't disagree with him here. He has two points - Mugabe is a horrible dictator and Nelson Mandela has pretty much universal respect and Mugabe might just listen to him. At least Mugabe's opponents would feel much-needed support. Beyond that, Nick doesn't tell us anything. Mandela is very old (90 is more than most of us can expect even in the affluent countries; having spent much of his life in prison it's remarkable); he hasn't made any speeches in a while (he has, after all, retired). Since it doesn't look like he's going to do anything, and I doubt he reads the London Evening Standard in any case, writing an open letter to him looks pretty pointless.

Nick could be on holiday; the Standpoint and the Evening Standard pieces were probably less taxing to write than they were to read.

It would be rather interesting if he has left, because the Bring Back Blair FaceBook Group gives as its email contact. If you look at the members, he appears on the last page (after AaroWatch favourites Stephen Pollard and Harry Hatchet). This is the Observer journalist who wrote Cruel Britannia ["...Cohen has been almost alone as a critic of the Blair regime."] and Pretty Straight Guys ["A recurrent theme is Blair's love of people with money."]. Now "He's tanned, he's rested, he's ready." Blair was always tanned, wasn't he? The Campbell diaries start with a holiday in France. You turn if you want to, indeed! And Harry's Place seem to be serious about this. What happened to 'Forward not back'?

I should stop now. I can feel an abyss gazing into me.

In other news (back to the Yanks again): I can see Christopher Hitchens backing Obama after an old friend says 'kiss my ass'. Also: We are all Hussein now (via Gary Hussein Farber). H'sP will love this.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I'll admit that I haven't bought Standpoint and that I'm probably not going to. This could be a problem here because I can imagine times when print articles have some kind of introductory paragraph added by a sub-ed which the online version omits thereby depriving those in the cheap seats (ie me) with vital context.

In the absence of said context, I'm going to have to improvise. Nick Cohen reviews Shooting History by Jon Snow for reasons we can't work out at present. There are no footnotes, links, or other references to where Snow said the things attributed to him - everything should be taken as Ibid.

Snow published his autobiography in 2004; as Nick mentions near the end of his piece, it was reviewed thoughtfully by Denis MacShane in the Independent. Nick gets MacShane exactly wrong by the way, quoting the last sentence from this, the last paragraph:

Now he presents Channel 4 news, the thinking person's Newsnight. The rainbow ties, the stiff collars, the undimmed boyish enthusiasm for great stories and important causes, the trouser bottoms stuffed in socks as he gets ready to ride home to his beloved partner and children, have turned Snow into a national treasure, whose pastoral interventions have more impact than those of most bishops. But after three decades of brilliant reporting, one senses Snow asking himself an awful question. "I have reported the world. But have I made it a better place to live in?" Therein lies the existential dilemma of all engaged television reporters. Like philosophers, they offer an interpretation of the world. Snow, one suspects, would prefer to have changed it.


MacShane’s use of past tense was instructive. For if you want to change the world, you go into politics, or argue your case as a polemicist or join a campaign group.

(Nick has already noted that Snow did, in fact, work for "Lord Longford’s drop-in centre for homeless teenagers". I don't know Snow's reasons for leaving; but he did start at the "doing something" end.) But this isn't MacShane's point. He started with this:

There has been endless chatter, since Marshall McLuhan, about television turning the world into a global village. The science fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, who first described the possibility of satellites bringing instant reports from trouble spots, argued that the immediacy of such broadcasts would expose the folly of, and thus prevent, wars, famine and violence.

We know better now.

That is what MacShane is suggesting that Snow wanted: for journalism to change things. That wasn't so naive when Snow started as a journalist. Perhaps Snow does regret that the world didn't turn out that way. If so, I don't blame him.

I don't know what suggested to Nick that he take on a book approaching its fourth birthday. Perhaps it was ...

The American critic, Paul Berman, wrote recently that “neocon” had become a show-stopper in upmarket liberal circles. The mere use of the word was enough to convince an audience that a man was a monster. “You should say it out loud in falsetto, as if a mouse had just run across your foot,” he explained. “Otherwise you will not have captured the right tone.”

(Interlude. Thanks to comments on my last post. Jonathan Bate, also a Standpoint writer, wrote to the Times Higher Education Supplement to complain about an article which quoted Nick's higher education piece in the Observer. ("Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature." My emphasis - to highlight Bate's claim that "My article (freely available online) made clear that the startling discrepancy between research assessment exercise results in English and French occurred in the 1996 exercise, when it was much remarked upon, whereas Cohen writes about it as if it were a more recent phenomenon.") Nick has an interesting approach to the present tense himself.)

Paul Berman's "recent" "writing" was in an interview for Decentiya (probably conducted via email, so he did write it):

Paul Berman: The very word 'neoconservatism' has become troubling. There are a vast number of fantasies about who 'the neoconservatives' are, what they stand for, and what role they have played. It has reached the point that whenever you read the word you should say it out loud in falsetto, as if a mouse had just run across your foot. Otherwise you will not have captured the right tone. At some level I don't like to use the term. Many people who are called neoconservatives, it seems to me, are just Washington operatives who have worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, and who have held a variety of views.

"The interview was conducted on May 24 2006." I don't call an interview two years ago 'recent'.

While I was writing this article, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan. Channel 4 News said that it was “duty-bound” to examine Gordon Brown’s claim that our soldiers had died in a noble cause. “Reliable measures” were hard to find, it concluded with a shake of the head. The conservative Spectator went wild and pointed out that the army had pushed the Taliban back to the Pakistani border, allowed the preparations for the upcoming elections and prevented al-Qaeda from re-establishing an Afghan base.

Wikipedia entry on the War in Afghanistan:

The Tora Bora Mountains lie roughly east of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, which is itself close to the border with Pakistan. American intelligence analysts believed that the Taliban and al Qaeda had dug in to a fortified networks of well-supplied caves and underground bunkers. The area was subjected to a heavy continuous bombardment by B52 bombers

They've been there, in other words, since the invasion. It's true the army "pushed" them out of Kabul, but not such a long way. That was six years ago.

MacShane, BTW, comes up with a much more damning - to me - flaw of Snow's.

Snow has been a witness to the high moments of drama in recent history. But history is made up of connections that the TV journalist cannot show. In Central America, Snow recalls the plight of the guerrillas fighting to take power. But he did not report Daniel Ortega acting as an altar boy in Berlin in 1985 at a high mass of Stalinist reaction, where the Sandinista endorsed the repression of Solidarity in Poland. The world's then most fashionable anti-American icon said no to Somoza's rule over Nicaraguan campesinos but si to Communist dictatorship over Polish workers.

Nick finishes with:

Broadcasting brings the politically engaged presenter or reporter celebrity and money, but extracts a dreadful price. It allows them only to push the impartiality rules so far by, say, asking tough questions of a political opponent but giving powder-puff interviews to a friend. When challenged in debate, their employers will not allow them to stand and fight their ground. They must scuttle away and pretend to be nothing more than civil servants of the airwaves. To use a word they would never use, their chosen careers are “unmanly”.

Conservatives should pity rather than condemn the liberal locked in the gilded cage of broadcast news. For these are lives half-lived.

Wow. Et tu, Brute.

I'm not sure about the Drudge/Prince Harry thing. I sort of see Snow's point. The Daily Mail covered it better than Nick does.

And then it gets really weird.

The bias feels all the more insidious because of the huge advantage politically committed broadcasters enjoy. Politicians realised long ago that taking them on is like swearing at the ref or throwing your racket at the umpire — a mug’s game they can never win. As soon as they are challenged, broadcasters retreat behind the mask of impartiality and present themselves as mere adjudicators. It is no good using the normal tactics of argument against them by pointing out the previous failures of their ideology or their hypocrisies and blind spots.

So politicians are supposed to use "the normal tactics of argument" - ie ad hominems, rather than justifying their policies. Does any politician think this is actually a good idea?
Finally, damning evidence of Jon Snow's treacherous support for fascistic regimes, etc.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Unreliable Witnesses

Through the deepening twilight and on far into the night the fierce struggle continued...

This new weekly column will be a rummage in the great toy chest that is the Times Archive.

I'm not sure if our Dave has a new gig at the Times or if he's just the first writer to survey the Times archive. Why Times reports in 1863 were a shade unreliable/In The Times archive: the Gettysburg battles were not quite the Confederate success our correspondent imagined. There's nothing that he says that's wrong exactly.

Technically it was possible to suggest a bloody draw; strategically, however, it was a terrible reverse for the South. This perspective was, for whatever reason, denied to OSC [Our Special Correspondent: the Times reporter was anonymous].

If anyone wishes to infer bias or impute to stupidity to the Times Correspondent, you would be advised to read John Keegan, especially The Face of Battle which repeatedly insists that battles are understood with hindsight; during them no one knows what the hell is going on.

I actually read DA in the hard copy of the Times. This was a mistake: he doesn't quote much from the correspondent he criticizes, which gives the impression of a hatchet job. But the whole thing, as Glenn Reynolds would say, is available in the Times archive (not recommended if you value your eyes).

I'm sure the prospect of DA commenting on journalists who got the outcome of a war wrong will excite many of our regular readers. And one who backed the wrong side at that. So, have at it.

DA was around a lot in the Times yesterday. He reviewed Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel. As I haven't read the book, I can't comment, but this seems like DA at his best - fair-minded and cool.

The final shock comes when we learn that David Aaronovitch [is] getting fit for the London triathlon in August. Again this is something DA does well as he did in his book Paddling to Jerusalem: game, fat bloke attempts the impossible. He still has a felicitous way with simile.

Of course, I'm an idiot. There are just over two months to go to the grand Mazda London Triathlon, to be held in the Docklands on August 9 and 10, and things are not looking brilliant. Well, how could they be? Why had I chosen to forget that the last time I rode a bike ended with me rolling across two lanes of Islington traffic, my front wheel bent over like a pipe cleaner and my confidence even more buckled than that? Or that the only way I knew how to swim was by a dogged breaststroke, head out of the water like a labrador? So this first part of my journey concerns what a complex and challenging thing a triathlon really is, and why I should - this time - have listened to my wife.

He doesn't seem to be doing this one for charity. But if it turns out that he is, we will of course, let you know.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

decent antecedents

Aaro Watch and its valued commentariat indecencus have spent time occasionally chewing over the history and pre-history of various strands of Decency. Now we’ve got the lot in one neat, comprehensive package, courtesy of Tom Griffin.

So what do we think? Anything to add, detract, etc?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Decency Is Dead

For a few days now, there's been the stirrings of a post at the back of my mind on where Decents fall out among themselves these days. It was always a strange sort of movement; the 'Senator for Boeing' Society lot being generally Tories, Harry's Place and Marko Attila Hoare using 'Comrades' as unselfconsciously as they drink tea out of a saucer (take that any way you please), Nick Cohen and others as commenter Justin said "trying to make up for mistakes they feel they made in a previous incarnation by laying into people they think resemble their former selves."

But now we have the parting of the ways. Christopher Hitchens, model of clarity, non-puller of punches - as always leaves the reader to guess his meaning. I think he's agin the motion.

In practice, this means your [George Bush's] name will be forever linked to Iraq where your best hope is that history will look more kindly on the attempt to salvage that ruined country.
In the meantime, the other members of the "axis of evil", North Korea and Iran, are measurably closer to nuclear status than in 2001.

Via Neil D a (new to me) poster at Harry's Place, Oliver Kamm asserts that Bush made the world a safer place. Well, fuck me blind, I agree with Hitchens. (Also note, no one mentions Pakistan - a supporter of the Taliban, as has been known since Clinton fired a missile into an al-Qaeda training camp and killed two Pakistani policemen but no one else.)

I still don't understand the H'sP banner. Now it's David Davis. They're against him.

Hail to da Chief

This isn't really an Aarowatch post, but I think just about all (both?) of you know that Bruschetta Boy is also known as Daniel Davies ('e's no relation to David Davis). I don't know if Dan has spotted that his claim to fame just hit that point of the exponential graph where the y co-ordinate roughly equals infinity.

The story starts here. Note the 'shorter' which our man created for Stephen den Beste.

Enter a commenter who objects that the 'shorter' quote "does not exist" in the original post. When the meaning of "shorter" is explained, said commenter returns with

I am aware of all internet traditions and also of literary conventions in which placing something in quotes or in a blockquote means that your are quoting that person.

Cue hilarity featuring lolcat. And there's more.

Update 21:55 The Editors, Rick Astley and all. ageism; hello Chuck, nice beard (or is is a fist?); Venn, Obama, and Einstein; and These are not the internet traditions you're looking for.

Update 22:45 The End?. If only! All yr memes r belong to us!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In which Aaro goes a little bit stark staring fucking mad

Did he use the Hitler analogy? Yes he did, folks. David Davis is ... Hitler. He's Hitler, can't you see it? Look at his Hitlery face, I ask you guv, what a Hitler!

Blood & Treasure, as usual, had the pundosphere pegged on the issue of Davis; he's a mad careerist with lashings of warm Hitler. It is very funny indeed to see Aaro thrashing around in this one; the trouble is that what he wants to do is carry out a principled opposition to stuntism, plebiscite and the general free-jazz approach to improvising constitutional devices[1]. But this would put him in the position of having to criticise Saint Martin of Bell, and he's too wily a fox for that[2].

So, in between the careerist and Hitler, we get Aaro's once-more apologia for the database state. It's no better than (indeed, no different from) the last time we Watched it. Aaro still doesn't get the idea that it's the abuse of the system that people are worried about, not its use. If someone in power took against Aaro (as in principle they might), then the combination of ID cards, CCTV, DNA databases, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all would make it very easy for them to play merry hell with him. It's what Edward Luttwak memorably called "the infrastructure of repression".

And while it's true that the British are really quite unlikely to elect a Fascist government, it should also be noted that the powers granted under the last Terrorism Act are currently in use by councils up and down the country to police the practice of putting down a lodging address in order to apply to a popular school. A power that can be used on a pretext as trivial as that is clearly a completely discretionary one that can be used for any reason at all; it's not just the Central Government OMG Big Brother that we have to worry about; it's the freedom from malice, caprice or pettiness of every single local government officer in the land.

I mean:

" It's worse than that: unless you're doing something odd, or a crime has been committed, no one watching the pictures cares about you or even notices you."


[1] Remember, Birtism. Aaro's fundamental political principle is what Henry Farrell calls the "as long as it doesn't frighten the servants and horses" argument. His main political principle is that as few impedimenta as possible should be put in the way of an enlightened technocracy providing "public services" to a subset of the population who can be identified as "decent, hardworking, ordinary", while keeping the rest of the buggers down, with the constitution of the ranks of the decent, hardworking and ordinary subject to a periodic five-yearly election, in which the views of national columnists can be given their due influence. It's what one might call "taking the politics out of politics".

[2] I believe Aaro has had a go at that doctor down in Wyre Forest in the past but can't find the link so I might be wrong. Btw, if Martin Kettle writes something on this subject, please try and keep the news away from me.

Friday, June 13, 2008

One to Watch

First: two apologies. I wrote some of this in my head while cooking my tea, and it's longer than I'd like. Also, I am minded of the story about Einstein submitting some paper to a journal only to have it rejected with comments from the anonymous reviewer which were longer than the paper itself. I am aware that I may be over-analysing here.

I'm over-analysing because some of my target for this post comes from a comment on Harry's Place by Marko Attila Hoare:

I rather hope they do, as I hope McCain will win. Last time we had a fluffy, feel-good Democrat with no serious interest in foreign policy as president of the US, it meant a whole string of international disasters (Rwanda, Srebrenica, rise of the Taliban, etc.). And the international situation is more menacing today than it was in the 1990s, particularly where Russia is concerned.

Now, I am as aware an anyone can be that comments on blogs can be dashed off and regretted for a long time. I shared my opinion about the 'rise of the Taliban' in the last post. I'd like to do two things in this: discuss what's missing from that list - the rise of al-Qaeda; and talk about Srebrenica. The latter is obviously difficult for me: I'm sure Marko knows infinitely more than I do.

However, in his Harry's Place comment, he seems to (and I may be reading him wrongly) place the 'disaster' of Srebrenica in Clinton's lap. (I do think that that is overestimating American influence no less than the supposed "anti-American" position overestimates the US in blaming it for everything. There's a Manichean God/Satan thing going on which possibly deserves a post in itself. Not today though.)

Last week, Marko put up this post: The Netherlands and the Srebrenica Massacre. Again, I grant that the content is preceded by "PRESS RELEASE" and Marko does not editorialise.

On 16 June 2008 the District Court at The Hague will hear the first civil action brought against the Dutch State by relatives of the victims of genocide at Srebrenica.

I'm sure Marko can justify this in all sorts of ways that I cannot begin to defend. It's about justice, for instance. This is a civil action brought by the bereaved, and they have every right to apportion blame and seek closure.

But ... I can't help thinking of Norman Finkelstein's claim in "The Holocaust Industry" that suits were brought against the Swiss because they were politically weak. Marko appears to be claiming that the US did nothing at all - the Dutch did intervene, and it was not enough. Their soldiers are not being charged with complicity or war crimes, just with being ineffectual. The US who were entirely absent (according to Marko), get off. Is this justice? We can't get hold of the perpetrators - and if there is one thing I have learned from Norman Geras, it's to remember who is really guilty - so we'll squeeze someone else. I know nothing of Dutch politics beyond Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Pim Fortuyn but I imagine there's a lot of political capital at stake here.

The reason this post is going to be so long is that I'd like to also analyse what I think Marko missed in his comment. As I've said, this may be over-analysing, but having read Marko's blog, I think this sort of stuff is what he thinks about day-to-day. To recap, Marko included the Taliban, who I think were funded by the US originally - and their prominence can be blamed on the CIA and the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Snr administrations, but not Clinton's. If Marko is blaming Clinton (Jan 1993- Jan 2001), he's quiet about an elusive organisation called Al-Qaeda.

I think that Decent mythology (if we can reify it as such) wants to set up Martin Amis ("It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.") as a latter day Moses. It all started then, out of the blue, like a plane growing from a dot to a fly to something you can recognise with wings and a fuselage.

It didn't, of course. For America, it started in the first month of Clinton with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Whatever you think of Osama bin Laden and cronies, they are planners. They didn't wait for the election, see that the Democrat won and then work on a bomb plot. This had deeper roots. Can we at least blame the President for lack of vigilance? If you like, but it's going to come back when we return to the Twin Towers.

In 1998, there were the United States embassy bombings. Still Clinton, still al-Qaeda. And not long before the election which Gore lost (or "lost" depending on taste), there was the USS Cole bombing.

I mentioned my ex-partner in my previous post. I should not drag her up again, but she was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, so 9/11 will mean a lot more to her than it ever will to me. (She spent most of her life in California.) Our fiercest political argument was over Richard Clarke. She thought he was a loon; I think he's a hero. I thought (and still do) that if Gore had, er, been given the presidency (which he won - ducks flames), 9/11 would not have happened. I think this because of mostly-forgotten Craig Unger. Saudis were allowed to enter the States without the checks they had been subject to.

I think Clinton, Gore, and Clarke handled al-Qaeda and Saddam as well as they could. I can understand claims to the contrary. Marko does not make them. I wonder why.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gaffes, McCain, Obama, and Oliver Kamm

My American ex-partner used to say that the British media get everything about the USA wrong, and doubtless my commentary here will be no exception to that. I do my best: I try to stick to reportage from the States rather than that filtered through the papers here, and I make no apology for my getting a lot of that from blogs.

I haven't followed that much of the primaries. Still, I think Clinton made a gaffe. And by golly this is a gaffe. Arguably this was one too.[1] As was this. Related to that, a gaffe by the incumbent.

Oliver Kamm likes a line from Charles Krauthammer so much he's used it twice this month. First here:Iraq, foreign policy and the Democrats and a week later here (also posted to Comment is Free). Krauthammer:

What started as a gaffe became policy. By now, it has become doctrine. Yet it remains today what it was on the day he blurted it out: an absurdity.

Oliver's logic here is interesting. He links to the CNN coverage of the Clinton-Obama debate which in turn links to a transcript. (Note, BTW, the date: 23 July last year.) Oliver also links to Renewing American Leadership an essay by Obama which appeared in Foreign Affairs July/August 2007 issue. Now, the front page of the Foreign Affairs site links to an essay from the July/August 2008 issue. That may have been over-researching the issue, but I am now sure that I'm on solid ground when I claim that Obama wrote his piece before that particular Clinton debate.

"Our policy of issuing threats and relying on intermediaries to curb Iran's nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional aggression is failing. Although we must not rule out using military force, we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran."

Now, Obama's "gaffe" which he managed to spin into a policy was this:

Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.

So, as far as I can tell, Obama has always supported talking to Iran, Syria, etc. Clinton calls this naive and thinks the US shouldn't. In other words, she wants to perpetuate the status quo.

But all is not lost for Oliver. Not yet, anyway. The "gaffe" position is more tenable than I've made it seem. The question he was asked was just a little leading. I'd use a cricket or baseball analogy here but for two things. I don't know much about either sport, and I don't know anything about the intention of the questioner.

QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.

In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?


Diplomacy is not about being friendly. It is about achieving goals through negotiation. If the leader of the western alliance gives up a bargaining chip in advance, then he is making it less likely that western diplomacy will work. In the case of Iran, diplomacy has been conducted by the EU three (Britain, France and Germany) since 2003, with the aim of persuading the Islamic Republic, through a mix of incentives and penalties, to cease permanently its domestic activities in uranium enrichment.

Obama clearly agrees with the first sentence. Not talking, however, is not a bargaining chip. For that matter, I can't see why anyone in the US is happy that the EU is apparently negotiating on its behalf. As I'm sure I've said before, I think Jonathan Powell is right on this one.

"It's very difficult for democratic governments to do - talk to a terrorist movement that's killing your people," he said. "[But] if I was in government now I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban; and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida."

MSNBC had another take on that debate.

“I was called irresponsible and naive because I believe that there is nobody we can’t talk to,” said Obama, drawing loud cheers. “We’ve got nothing to fear as long as know who we are and what we stand for and our values.”

Oliver also alleges that Obama has not attended the Senate foreign relations committee's subcommittee on European affairs (of which he is the chair). This is discussed on the Democratic Underground site and found to be a substantive charge.

That really should be it, but since I'm here, some more links and stuff. Gene Zitver: First Jewish President?; Jon Swift (an American with a traitorously Irish-British name - but if George Bush can be forgiven that ...) Is Barack Obama Good for the Jews?. Only one of these is a parody. Obama on religion.

Marko Attila Hoare pops up on Harry's Place.

I rather hope they do, as I hope McCain will win. Last time we had a fluffy, feel-good Democrat with no serious interest in foreign policy as president of the US, it meant a whole string of international disasters (Rwanda, Srebrenica, rise of the Taliban, etc.). And the international situation is more menacing today than it was in the 1990s, particularly where Russia is concerned.

The Taliban did indeed rise during the Bill Clinton years, but their antecedents were the Mujahideen who were armed by the previous presidents. Reagan may have been "fluffy [and] feel-good ... with no serious interest in foreign policy" but he unequivocally wasn't a Democrat. I agree that the Rwanda Genocide happened also during the Clinton presidency and that the US could have done more about it. Canada, according to the Wikipedia entry did support the UN fully; but it was under the Liberal party at the time. I don't see any evidence that a President to the right of Clinton would have done any more. Srebrenica, surely, was a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Marko seems well versed in these matters, so I'm sure he'll explain the exigencies of preventing massacres when most US defence spending goes on high-tech rather than ground troops.

Last word to Christopher Hitchens reviewing Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

Still, Obama does possess one faculty that is almost unbelievably rare among today’s candidates. He is an internationalist, has lived in other countries and cultures and likes to travel. In making an otherwise boring point about “energy independence”, he notices that when he was in Ukraine the whole promise of the democratic revolution there was negated by the simple fact that Moscow could cut off the gas and the oil. He describes the atmosphere of Jakarta - a city that he rightly says most Americans cannot locate on a map - with a rather evocative power

[1] How wonderful if that idea crossed the Atlantic. David Cameron hoodies anyone?

Update Thursday 19:22 BST (nb comments are GMT). Well that went well, better than I expected and comments so far - when not discussing the arcana of US athletics jargon at least - have been favourable concerning the relevance of the above to Decency. So here's some more. To come back to Nick Cohen, let me remind you that I posted about Nick's piece on McCain here. (There's a comment by B2 which brings in Kamm and "Brendan Simms (a Scoopie)".) Short version: Nick praises McCain for physically intimidating Malcolm Rifkind (whom I believe to be small and unprepossessing) though McCain is disabled to the extent that he can't hit anyone. Anyway, there's a book called The Real McCain; there's an accompanying site with a blog, from that Important Questions For George Stephanopoulos To Ask John McCain This Sunday (this Sunday has passed, and he presumably didn't).

Doesn’t your legendary temper make you too dangerous to be trusted with the presidency of the United States? Your anger, even toward friends and allies, is legendary. You purportedly dropped the F-Bomb on your own GOP colleagues John Cornyn and Chuck Grassley. In the book, The Real McCain, author Cliff Schechter claims you got into a fist-fight with your fellow Arizona Republican Rick Renzi. Allegedly, you even publicly used a crude term, one which decorum and the FCC prohibit us from even saying on the air, to describe your own wife. Which if any of these episodes is untrue? Don’t your anger management problems make you too dangerously unstable to be president of the United States?

There are other goodies among those 12. But let's come back to Harry's Place's comments.

I can’t stand Obama, due to his horrible fake persona and his fanatical iPod-owning poseur moron ’sorry everybody’ ‘hay let’s re-fuck-up-Iraq’ followers.

Yes indeed. Let's lay into iPod owners. (I'm on my second, BTW, I don't claim to be impartial here.)

Given your wealth and privileged upbringing, aren’t you - and not Barack Obama - the elitist?
You have called Barack Obama an elitist. Yet you recently returned to your exclusive private high school, one which now costs over $38,000 a year to attend. Your wife is the heiress to a beer distribution company, reputedly owns 8 homes and has a net worth well over $100 million. Your children all attended private schools, academies which also happened to be the primary beneficiaries of funds from your supposed charitable foundation. Shouldn’t the American people in fact view you as the elitist, and a hypocritical one at that?

If Eton has two "halves" a year (given Eton terminology, it could be any number) McCain's alma mater is more expensive than David Cameron's. Anyway, despite McCain's expensive education, his wealth comes from his (second) wife. Sriously, I want a hoodie with "fanatical iPod-owning poseur moron" on the back (to go with my LOLcode T-shirt).

Let us not forget Michael Ledeen. How little I knew when I suggested Hitchens be known as the 'Dupe'.

Finally (this time I mean it), as the comments have brought up Clinton v Bush on international knowledge, I loved this review from Saturday's Torygraph. Nicely underwritten and the opening made me laugh out loud. (Warning, I do have a sick sense of humour.)

Late in the spring of 2003, optimism was running high among supporters of the recent invasion of Iraq. The US attorney general, John Ashcroft, hoped to have the rule of law up and running within 30 days, while Lane McCotter, his man on the ground, learned with some excitement that the country already possessed serviceable correctional facilities. He had found a recently abandoned complex of concrete cell blocks that looked "just like the prisons I ran in Texas".
Even after four ex-inmates arrived at the compound's gates, asking for permission to dig up the remains of their amputated hands, McCotter remained convinced of its potential. By August 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom had its first maximum security jail.

Yes, the coalition didn't even know of the reputation of Abu Ghraib when they arrived. Operation Iraqi Freedom indeed!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Aaro the uninfluential

I think we can all sign up to this campaign. Aaro is, of course, not Jewish, but as an "influencer of Jewish life", surely to fuck he's got to rank above Melanie Phillips, hasn't he? Wot a travesty.

(btw, readers, have we done this one before? sorry if we have. All this Watching kind of blends into a homogeneous mess after a while).

Tell me more, at length, about those awful whingers, Dave

Q: What's more irritating that people who go on all the time about their petty grievances?

A: People who bang on incessantly about their petty grievances about people going on all the time about their petty grievances?

(I am sure that someone is just itching to make the hilarious joke in comments which would be possible if one were to continue the recursion in order to indict me for going on about Aaro's whinging. Then someone else can extend it to a further round and we will all just die laughing. Please, no thank you, Colin Hunt).

There is of course a sting in the tail. Aaro suddenly states, on the basis of zero evidence, that GPs who are opposed to the introduction of polyclinics have selfish reasons for doing so. Might or might not be true, but the manner in which Aaro is aarguing for it gives no confidence at all.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Nick on academe

There's a lot to agree with in Nick's latest. He's right that the government has incentivized research in universities at the expense of teaching, and that this isn't necessarily in the public interest. He's also right that the current RAE doesn't work too well and that the proposed employment of metrics in the future may result in some perverse outcomes.

Nick being Nick, however, he can't write the thing without screwing up in various ways. Partly this is because, being lazy, he hasn't done his own research but has simply recycled what Jonathan Bate says in the new conservative magazine Standpoint.

Picky commentary:

Britain has a university system in which the last measure the government uses to judge the quality of academics is their ability to teach. Instead, tortuous bureaucracies assess the merits of the research produced by every department in all the 200 universities.

Actually, government recognized that the incentivization of research risked damaging teaching, and introduced a parallel system for assessing teaching via the QAA. However, the Subject Review process that was carried out around 1999-2000ish didn't work very well. A serious journalist would (a) have known this and (b) thought about some alternative.

If I sit down with builders, dentists or accountants, I have no way of knowing what their opinions will be. Within seconds of talking to an academic, I guess their views on every major political issue.

Wow. Decent telepathy at work. No-one could say that Nick doesn't wear his prejudices openly. FWIW, as an academic, I'm continually amazed by he bizarre and unpredictable views of my colleagues. Some of them even agree with Nick.

Luckless workers at a Bristol warehouse are sending 200,000 scholarly books and papers to the 1,000 or so professors who adjudicate on 70 panels like the judges of beauty contests.

Why luckless? I'd have thought that the whole miserable exercise was a stroke of luck for them, if for no-one else.

City firms give lavish bonuses because they don't want to lose staff to rivals (prestige), because they dealt on insider information (cheating) or because they pulled out of the sub-prime market just in time (luck).

Hmm, I think I'll leave Bruschetta Boy to comment on the coherence of that sentence.

Finally, Nick's last para:

Labour should not be happy with helping those that hath. If it wants to reform education, it should begin by noticing that working-class students are dropping out and middle-class students are paying fees for substandard courses, because the first concern of the universities isn't teaching. Ministers would do better to redirect public money to make sure that it is.

So Nick thinks that government should use its funding power to micromanage public services? Well maybe it should, but I seem to recall Nick deploring this kind of thing in earlier columns (control-freak New Labour etc.).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Plea to Readers

This one comes under "world of Decency" I think. Can anyone explain the Harry's Place masthead? First, they had Galloway whom they don't like[1]; then they had Blair, whom they did; now there's an Obama poster.

Incidentally, Gene has asked "is it fair to say that Barack Obama (assuming he wins the November election and all) will be our [sic] first Jewish President?"

Answer: No.

Further 'World of Decency' stuff: what has happened regarding Obama? (I know I can be accused here of reifying 'Decency'.) Nick Cohen was definitely anti (the byline photo is a hoot) and Oliver Kamm quoted Charles Krauthammer (conservative columnist comes out for conservative politician shock!). Now, Obama has a flavur.

[1] Never let it be said that the big stories don't break on AaroWatch first. Harry's Place is not fond of George G. You read it here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The reification of things which might not exist

Update: Don't miss Chardonnary Chap's take on this article, posted below this one due to vagaries of New Blogger.

The last but one post rather turned into a contrarian defence of managerialism, more or less by accident - what this blog needs is a rigorous regime of targets for "number of on-topic and minimally coherent posts". What I actually wanted to write it about was Nick's assumption without checking that the UK's public sector had indisputably got worse over the last ten years, proving something or other. When in fact it hadn't.

I was picking up on that one because it formed rather a theme with Aaro's col this week, where he starts off by banging on about fictitious moral panics and then finishes up by propagating one of his own - the apparent "culture" of boys in education who are ignorant and fail to achieve because they hate "swots".

As far as I'm aware, Aaro only has daughters, so I don't really see that he has any special inside track for the subculture of schoolboys. So he's basically on the same epistemological footing as the rest of us - we know that there's a boy/girl distinction in educational outcomes because we can see it in the data, but we don't really have any convincing theory of why that might be the case.

This is always fertile ground for codswallop, and Aaro's theory is of a piece with his mate Michael White who has diagnosed the epidemic of knife crime in the UK (which is actually one of those trends which shows up everywhere except the numbers; the Metropolitan Police are the only people keeping separately identified statistics for knife assaults and the data series is pretty trendless) and traced it to its root in the liberal-left's unaccountable reluctance to call unmarried mothers the dirty sluts they are.

I've mentioned in the past (only about a hundred times, Bruschettaboy) that Aaro's true politics are those of Birtism, and I think that the three examples here show why Birtism is doomed as a political and media project. The problem of understanding isn't that the media has a "bias" against it - it's that social and economic policy work is difficult, and that frankly, it is often difficult enough working out what the hell is going on, let alone explaining it. Which means that the "mission to explain" ends up becoming what's all too obviously visible in Aaro, White, Kettle and all's journalism; a mission to excuse the latest piece of crap legislation coming down the track, in the name of a tendentious theory of a problem that might not even exist.

Aaro out and about

Being witty and entertaining to an audience of financial services professionals in the Cayman Islands, on the subject of "economic nationalism". Some choice quotes:

"By bringing respected and influential journalists such as David Aaronovitch to Cayman we achieve multiple objectives for our membership and the Cayman Islands overall. First, we encourage journalists to take a fresh look at who we are today and how we comport ourselves as an offshore centre - to move past the stereotype. That is certainly the experience that Mr Aaronovitch shared today."

Many attendees have noted that the insights Mr Aaronivitch shared at the CIFSA luncheon have turned out to be previews of his popular column in The Times.

In past reports of Aaro junkets (specifically, the Brunei trip) he has claimed that the local press stitched him up. None the less, I will certainly be keeping an eye out for any forthcoming column on those fuddy-duddy Old European countries with their quaint socialistic insistence on people paying their income tax, and the value of discretion and a light regulatory touch to today's globalised, mobile and indubitably progressive investing class.

Update: Hang on one cotton-picking minute! Then

"One of the United Kingdom’s best-known journalists, broadcasters and commentators, David Aaronovitch, will address the second luncheon of the Cayman Islands Financial Services Association (CIFSA) at The Ritz-Carlton (Grand Cayman) on Wednesday, 16 April.


The Cayman Islands Financial Services Association (CIFSA) has expressed satisfaction with its mid-May luncheon featuring special guest speaker UK journalist David Aaronovitch.

Was it postponed or (I like to believe this because it is funnier) does Aaro have a regular monthly gig at the Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman?

Update 2: No, this is getting decidedly weird. Aaro is quoted in extenso in this report dated 17 April (speak truth to power by the way, big man, and do follow the link there AW readers, it's hilarious). So he was definitely there in April. I guess the likeliest explanation is that Caymannetnews has got the date wrong.

The Only Culture I Like Is Yeast

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.


BB has dealt with Dave on drinking habits already. (But will probably appear above this post, because I started a draft before work this morning.) Having spent the article talking about sub-cultures and fashion in history, he concludes "Mornington Crescent" style with:

Underachievement is a huge problem, but what can governments do about the anti-learning culture in our schools and on our screens, where “swots” are to be pitied and the playing of football is the sole reliable virtue? It's in the culture. Like racism or smoking, it takes decades to shift. It isn't Balls; it's us.

This doesn't seem to come from anywhere; as BB says "he starts off by banging on about fictitious moral panics and then finishes up by propagating one of his own." Do our schools really have an anti-learning culture? And is it remotely true that "swots" are pitied? School cultures really are quite mouldable; and that is what government is for. The playing of football is one of those things that binds us together; I know a lot of clever, academic people who like watching or playing football.

His last sentence loses me. Where does anyone argue that something is "Balls"? And what "isn't Balls"? Underachievement in schools? Ruff wearing? Middle class Merlot imbibing?

And could our man do any research? Justin covers this one very well. DA is usually a much better writer than Nick, but, possibly because I haven't followed this story, I can't tell if he's joking or serious. "So we got ideas for extending ASBOs to persistent public drinkers ..." Come on, that has to mean "tramps". Where are they supposed to go?

I think "it's us" - ie "it's you, you smelly lot" is now a DA trope. Blame the readers.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Of course, the maverick who can't be told what to do is practically a stock character in journalism

It appears that Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, Nick's usual source for matters loranorderical, isn't picking up the phone this week. And so he must move on to other sources; in this case, the pile of "A Touch of Frost" DVDs next to the telly. I am not even sure that the "do it by the book" politician-boss is actually a particularly uniquely British figure, but that's by the by; the fact is that Nick really, genuinely does appear to have got his information about modern management practices in the police force from a work of fiction.

And a Civitas pamphlet about managerialism, and Chris Dillow's book, but both of these sources suffer from a problem which Aaronovitch has regularly identified in his journalism and on which point he is substantially correct - they do rather ignore the fact that things have been getting much better in British public services over the last ten years, not worse. If you measure success in the NHS, the education system and the police force by outcomes (rather than by the complaints of their employee lobbies), then this is pretty undeniable.

It's true, possibly (although a purist would actually probably like some evidence before concluding even this much) that the modern regime of targets, measurement and management has made the public sector a less enjoyable place to work, and that the resulting reduction in employee goodwill has had a financial cost which has needed to be compensated for by higher expenditure.

But frankly, speaking in my current mood as one of those liberals Nick endorses lower down, I am not necessarily sure that this is a bad thing. Although the public service ethos, like the charitable instinct, is intrinsically a very good thing, is it really a reliable way to run a railway? I've always been uneasy about the fact that important services for the poorest people in society have been so totally dependent on the goodwill of moral saints rather than the firmer foundation of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay; also note that, outside the police force and army, the burden of being guilted into working for less than you're worth "for the sake of the community" falls disproportionately on women. If we pay public sector workers something closer to market price and demand more results from them, this can't be counted as definitely a bad idea unless it doesn't work.

And in general, as measured by the crime, exam results, mortality, etc, etc figures, the record of the last ten years ain't bad. So when Nick says that " Despite the increases in taxation and national debt, Britain has not benefited from their selflessness." (and a quick glance at the net debt figures show that this is not really an accurate picture in and of itself), he's wrong.

The thing about fuckers like Dirty Harry, Morse, Frost, House, the Robin Williams character in Dead Poet's Society, etc, is that they are all about proclaiming their unique Whitmanesque spirit and dedication, as against the mindless, petty dead hand of management. But in fact, does anyone ever bother checking up that their claim to "break rules, but get results" is actually true? I'm pretty sure that if you actually added up the numbers, they wouldn't look so good. Ten times out of ten, when someone claims that they want to "just get on and do the job", they mean that they only want to do all the fun parts of the job and leave all the difficult or boring bits to some other poor fucker. Which might or might not be a viable organisational model, but it does leave the question open of how we motivate the poor fucker, something upon which Dillow, Civitas and Nick are basically equally silent[1].

David Ogilvy, among many other very intelligent maxims, nearly all of which have fairly general application, used to say that nearly every person you brought in off the street was probably capable of writing one really fantastic advert. But that this was of basically no use to him professionally, since what he needed was people who could turn out good adverts consistently, and to order. That's the whole underlying problem here - you just can't build any sort of scalable system based on the assumption that important parts of the job will be done by a maverick genius walking to his own personal drumbeat.

This is a really depressing and shameful fact and people have been complaining about this since TS Eliot, since William Morris, since Ned Ludd, but the fact is that nobody's really found a replacement for Taylorism yet and when they do it will be as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution. But in the meantime, we don't do ourselves any particular favours by talking crap about results, or by pretending that knuckling under to producer group lobbies or introducing bullshit voucher systems has anything to do with "democracy".

Endnote: By the way, Nick started his journalistic career in Birmingham in the 1980s. Anyone who covered the same beat as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad knows perfectly fucking well why it is that the British police today have such a huge and unwieldy burden of paperwork weighing them down.

[1] Actually Chris D, if I understand him right (which I might not since it always seems desperately unconvincing to me) tends to claim to have some sort of silver bullet solution that would get rid of nearly all of the administrative overhead in modern business and public services, by having smaller work units run as workers' co-operatives. Frankly, I think this is putting more of a load on Hayekian spontaneous organisation than it can bear, and needs to be accompanied by something approaching an actual conspiracy theory to explain why this amazing and simple model has never actually been used or worked anywhere. (Employees of the John Lewis Partnership or textiles manufacturers in Mondragon; spare me, please).