Tuesday, December 30, 2008

There ain't no "just war", there's just war.

A very strange Aaro column on Gaza, one which has taken much time and rumination to Watch, and which has been the subject of widely diverging views in our comments boxes. It's a disgraceful piece of apologism! It's a level-headed assessment! It's constructive! It's repulsive! It's realistic! It's pie-in-the-sky! In fact it is all these things at once, which is why it's taken so much time ... In the end, I decided that there are so many different and seemingly contradictory things going on here, the only possible way to tackle this piece is to take a Straussian reading - the true meaning of Aaro's column is to be established by looking not at his literal words, but at precisely the opposite of what he appears to be saying[1]. But before we can do even this, we have to chuck away a good third of the column as being basically useless dreck.

There is, as ever, a clue in the conversational hed; "That's enough pointless outrage about Gaza"[2]. We established last time round with this that Aaro doesn't usually write these headlines and thinks the conversational ones are overused, but nonetheless, the sofa rule applies and the conversational headline is almost always an indicator that the sub didn't understand the point, or didn't think it was interesting. And who can blame the poor bugger in this case, when, the taste of brandy butter still in the back of his throat, he had to come up with something to describe "Aaronovitch on proportionality".

Aaro begins the thing raging and kicking shit out of strawmen and "Gallowegian" MPs (oh please, my sides), while talking such a line of rubbish about proportionality that he ought to have known (and surely would, if he'd stopped to think for even a second) that he was doing so. These paragraphs are not to be read, however, they have a different function, which is not unlike the function of a big black cloud of ink emmmitted by a squid. That is, they serve to obfuscate an important matter, in order to allow the ink-chucker to make his escape.

The thing is that, with respect to Israel as with so much else, where you stand depends to a very great extent upon where you sit. Aaro wants to write a column about the current situation in Israel and Gaza, and he wants to mention what the facts of the matter are. However, any simple factual recitation of what's happened is going to end up looking like a criticism of Israel. This is because Israel's actions with respect to the Palestinians have been very very morally wrong for a long time, and any even remotely objective historical account is going to end up making this very obvious.

And so, if you have lots and lots of friends who are strong partisans of Israel, write a column for the Jewish Chronicle which has a new editor who is a violent partisan of Israel, and your main gig is writing for the Times comment section, whose editor is also a fairly strident partisan of Israel[3], then writing a reasonably objective column about Israel is going to be personally and perhaps even economically uncomfortable, unless you make sure to say, up front and loud, which side you're on. And in doing these things, as in flattering royalty, the trowel is probably a better instrument than the mouse-whisker brush. That's the point of the "proportionate" thing - the fact that it's a recycled talking point actually makes it better for its true purpose, as it shows the writer to still be a reliable party man, whereas an original idea wouldn't. You can, as we say, take the man out of the Communist Party, but ...

So anyway, begin reading the column at "Will the Israeli action ..." in para 6, and continue. It doesn't seem particularly mean-spirited or nasty from this point on, but it doesn't make sense either. Time for the Straussian reading mentioned above; I'll take key passages (italicised below), assume that their true meaning is the opposite of the exoteric one and it will all gradually become clear:

"The message that has been given out to Palestinians, time and again, is that there is no clear advantage to be gained from being moderate. It has been all stick and no carrot"

On the face of it, this looks like normal AaronoBlairBirtist liberal imperialism - it's the analytical step beyond the "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi Gambit" into asking; how can we dissolve the Palestinian people and elect another get a government we like elected? Usually either involving some vague plan for moulding Fatah into such a government (obvious mark of a non-starter) or starting up such a popular movement from scratch. Which is also pretty much a non-starter. But look deeper, Leo Strauss says. How about if we assume that when Aaro writes the italicised passage above, what he means to say is something like "The message that has been given out to Israelis, time and again, is that there is no clear disadvantage to be incurred from being violent. It has been all carrot and no stick"?

This would fit in with a Straussian reading of the conclusion, where below I have not only italicised but bolded the four words (best considered combinatorially in pairs) I consider to be key to the whole article:

"If we are to do this then the friends of the Palestinians would be best advised to put pressure on Hamas never to launch another of its bloody rockets and to stop its death-laden rhetoric, and the friends of Israel well placed to cajole it into making a settlement seem worthwhile. All else is verbiage."

The most obvious binary here is (pressure, cajole). Palestinians[5] get "pressure", while the State of Israel has to be "cajoled". Just swapping these two about and considering the consequences is good for hours of Straussian fun. But these are more fertile fields ...

How about (pressure, rhetoric)? Aaro's here expressing a distressingly common view in regional politics; that it's OK to use military and economic force (and when I say "economic force", I'm talking about blockades here - in other words, the kind of "pressure" that kills people) to achieve wholly rhetorical ends. How many dead or ill people is is worth to get some nasty words changed in a document? Personally I think the answer is "none", but I'm in the minority here it appears. If we're taking a Straussian reading here, then the interesting question is; what purely rhetorical goals would justify the shooting of rockets into Israeli towns? My answer is again "none", but it's interesting to consider what taking the opposite position commits you too.

There's also (cajoled, verbiage). If we friends of Israel don't starting cajoling them right away, then the rest is just verbiage? Strip this clause of its, well, verbiage, and you can see right away how daft it is. Cajoling is right next to verbiage, except in the thesaurus. When Aaro says "cajoling", it's obvious that he means the opposite.

Now, this Leo Strauss thing is a bit of a joke, but I actually think that this is the direction in which Aaro's reasoning is going, and the reason this column's so convoluted is that it's largely being written by his psychological self-defence mechanisms against his conclusion. I mean, when you look at a passage like:

This is the great lacuna in our conversation about Gaza and Palestine. We simply have no idea what the arguments inside Hamas are, and how they are affected by Israeli actions.

then your first thought is surely - but on the other hand, we have a great deal of knowledge about what the arguments inside the Israeli political community, and we don't use this knowledge at all. We just assume that the most right-wing factions are the most popular, that their most obvious war-mongering electioneering is sensible policy and that the idiot airpower faction in their army are (despite the number of occasions on which they've proved themselves to be neither) good soldiers and honourable men. Why and when did the brand "Zionist" (which used to be wildly popular on the left, ask Eric Lee or somebody) get taken over by these right wing nuts and dragged through the dirt, and who let it happen? Not a comfortable line of thinking to start going down if you want to keep on good terms with Stephen Pollard ...

But in the end, go down this line we must, particularly if Aaro is to achieve his laudable ambition:

"Will it, in the long term, relieve Israeli citizens from the threat of arbitrary extinction?"

By which he of course means, "relieve Israeli and Palestianian citizens" doesn't he? I'm sure he does.

Best wishes to all our readers for a Happy New Year.


[1] A family relation of this tactic is Peter Dale Scott's "negative template" strategy for getting clues in official coverups; when someone like Dick Cheney is absent from the official record of 9/11 at a number of points where one would really have expected him to be at the centre of things, that's interesting. Note also that there is textual support for the use of such a reading with Aaro - his Rule of Reversal (in discussing statistics) is a concept he's quite proud of.

[2] Although even this is not without interest; how much outrage about Gaza would be the right amount, and would it matter if it was pointless or not? I seem to remember that Aaro did actually think that there was a certain amount of compassion that it was correct to feel about Madeleine McCann and her family, but that anything beyond this was unseemly.

[3] Don't even bother, David Hirsh and his wannabes. It's simply a fact. If Lindsey German were to write an article about Hamas which stuck remotely close to the facts, she'd lose most of her friends[4]. Both Pollard and Finkelstein have written numerous and passionate articles about their political views about Israel and I don't see why I should do them the insult of pretending to be unaware of them.

[4] Just to make this clear; any reasonably objective history is going to leave the Palestinians looking pretty bad too, but Aaro doesn't have a weekly column on Al-Jazeera and he does in the Times and JC.

[5] Another binary opposition that might interest a literary critic here would be (Hamas, Israel). These are both seemingly taken as unitary blocks which have no internal politics of their own (a fairly standard feature of Decent politics), but note that the Palestinians are rhetorically represented in Aaro's prose by their most violent and extreme faction, while vice versa, the most violent and extreme faction in Israeli politics is referred to using the name of the country itself. Two ways of obscuring the moderates.

27 Comments:

Blogger John B said...

That's surely another headline in the vein of your last CT bit, innit?

12/31/2008 01:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

I'm a bit confused by the paragraph that starts...

And so, if you have lots and lots of friends who are strong partisans of Israel,

Are you saying that Aaronovitch is only pro-Israel beacuse he's afraid he'll get the sack or he's pro-Israel because he still follows the tenants of party discipline that he ascribed to in the 1970s.

Inquiring minds wish to know.

12/31/2008 07:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

Come to think of it...

Which 'party' do you think he's maintaining discipline to?

12/31/2008 08:25:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

talking such a line of rubbish about proportionality that he ought to have known (and surely would, if he'd stopped to think for even a second) that he was doing so.

this isn't just an inkblot, though, as you go on to say. it looks suspiciously like reheated wingnut discourse. this is the key:

why no petitions ever get launched against the funders and organisers of, say, the suicide bomber in Khost at the weekend

you might as well rewrite it as 'why are marching in favour of Saddam'? the point is essentially the same. It's unfortunate for Decents that there so far haven't been a couple of banners saying 'we are all Hamas now', which rendered any opposition to Israeli killings null and void last time around...

Will it, in the long term, relieve Israeli citizens from the threat of arbitrary extinction? I'm pretty sure it will help in the short term.

This is classic sleight of hand. Hilarious in a column opposed to 'verbiage'. What the phrase means is - a few of them are under threat of death from rockets. What it looks like - and Aaro is aware - is the kind of 'Palestinian genocide is a real and imminent threat' bollocks we see so often.

Unlike the Israeli Government, whose representatives have been all over the media in the past two days, at the time of writing not one Hamas bigwig had put himself up for interrogation.

Which is a rewriting of the 'if they were serious about not killing civilians they wouldn't 'hide' among the civilian population' nonsense we hear so often. If Aaro has spent so long wondering about what Hamas were thinking, he could at least work out why the majority of those senior people still alive might not be whoring themselves out to every news agency going at the moment... Has Aaro forgotten his opposition to the threat of arbitrary extinction? Also, has he forgotten that Israel aren't allowing journalists into the Gaza Strip?

To the 'main crux' of the article, though:

We simply have no idea what the arguments inside Hamas are

Do we really know what the arguments inside Kadima are, either? Did we during the Lebanon war? Back then, as now, it looked suspiciously like these things were planned ages ago by the IDF without much government involvement at all. We don't actually know anything about the reasoning behind the tactics, why this had to happen now, etc etc. The opposition is false.

the friends of Israel well placed to cajole it into making a settlement seem worthwhile

I'll leave off the cajole/pressure discussion, and look at the other word that seems even more unfortunate - settlement. Did Aaro seriously write this? The word highlights exactly why any government of Israel has looked unlikely to ever reach an agreement with Palestine - if the settlements are so worthwhile, as they seem to be, then a resolution isn't.

Ultimately, though, my reaction is the same as it was yesterday - this piece makes absolutely no sense. It veers all over the place, which is why it's provoked so many responses in the comments - it's all things to all men. While Aaro criticises those who:

hold up placards equating Jews with Nazis, emote over dead babies or talk tough about defending Israeli citizens?

He does two of those things himself.

Also - just as an aside - if a Jewish person is, to all intents and purposes, a fascist, is the equation still off limits?

12/31/2008 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

why no petitions ever get launched against the funders and organisers of, say, the suicide bomber in Khost at the weekend

Possibly because the late gentleman and his friends aren't viewed as normal mainstream politcians, invited to talks with EU leaders, etcetcetc? Or it could just be because we're all anti-Semites, though by God if there were so many of us you'd think we'd be a bit more explicit about it.

Ah bugger it, we know how this all goes by now. But when we're talking about statistics, I would like to propose that an Israeli's chance of being killed by a Hamas rocket is lower than my chance of being killed by a Spanish driver.

(Oh, I should just note that some subs are women. Some of my best friends...)

12/31/2008 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

On the JC bit, I think Aaro would still claim to be on the left, and one has to remember the new editor, Pollard, has said that the 'left in any recognisable form is the enemey'. In this sense he might not think there's much he can do to appease Pollard, although I suppose it might also mean he is more keen to try.

12/31/2008 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

I have a question.

Stripping away extraneous stuff Aaronovitch's argument seems to be...

a) Israel was wrong not to negotiate with Hamas.
b) Israel was wrong not to dismantle settlements on the West Bank and to form a proper partnership with the Palastinian authority.
c) Bombing Gaza isn't going to help in the long term.

Is he right or wrong?

12/31/2008 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Well, that's the sentiment behind part of the article, yes, which is why I stick to my argument that the piece makes no sense, as it is all over the place, and at times seems designed to be all over the place. It's both pro-IDF tough-talking and a criticsm of pro-IDF taugh-talking; it's a piece in favour of Israeli action against settlements before dialogue but then concludes with what looks like - even though it isn't - a call for rockets to stop before anything else happens.

In essence, you are broadly right, Dylan. But the extraneous stuff is there for a reason. He claims to be opposed to pointless emoting and verbiage but the piece is full of both. And there is a reason for this.

12/31/2008 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous dd said...

Which 'party' do you think he's maintaining discipline to?

The Decent Left, of course.

I'm saying that Aaro is instinctively "pro-Israel" because of his family background and his background in Communist politics during the period when Israel was popular on the Left. He's beginning to realise that the meaning of "pro-Israel" has drifted (ironically, at least partly because of the actions of some people who claim the meaning of "left" has drifted) and that as a result, being "pro-Israel" in the Pollard/Melanie Phillips sense is not for him. But he has a) so many economic entanglements with the modern "pro-Israel" crowd and b) so many habits of mind from his Party days that it's difficult for him to realise the full implications of his own reasoning.

I think you've stripped away too much material to reach your a, b and c there - in particular, I don't think that the cajole/pressure bit is extraneous at all. The three points you've made are not wrong, but they're not Aaro's whole argument.

12/31/2008 11:46:00 AM  
OpenID splinteredsunrise said...

Yeah, I think that captures where Aaro is coming from nicely. Our Dave, of course, is not Jewish, and when he pretends to be we'll know a line has been crossed.

(Mind you, it's not as if Melanie Phillips sits upstairs in shul...)

12/31/2008 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

More or less off topic, but i thought I'd check to see if Aaro had written anything for the JC about this. His most recent piece is here - and look at the ending of the piece...

12/31/2008 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

That's really strange, the JC piece. Surely it's totally relevant here for Aaro to point out that he's not Jewish and wasn't brought up in the Jewish community (does anyone know what Michael Gove's basis for making these definite statements here - he's not even a North Londoner like Aaro). I mentioned a year or so ago that DA was clearly getting more in touch with that side of his family tree - not that there's anything wrong with that of course, but it is quite confusing for the Watcher.

Separately, does anyone have any idea why someone has decided that Sam Aaronovitch's brief campaign against American horror comics has been deemed worthy of inclusion on his son's Wikipedia page?

12/31/2008 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The CPGB was anti-Israel from 1952 onwards, and as a red-diaper baby Aaro would have been brought up supporting Nasser in the Six Day War and Syria in the Yom Kippur war. All those MiGs! He would, however, also have been brought up supporting the two state solution.

12/31/2008 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

I'm saying that Aaro is instinctively "pro-Israel" because of his family background...

This would be the long line of Lancashire weaving folk.

Sorry - couldn't resist.

But he has a) so many economic entanglements with the modern "pro-Israel" crowd and b) so many habits of mind from his Party days that it's difficult for him to realise the full implications of his own reasoning.

So basically - a) he's worried about losing his job and b) incapable of the most rudimentary level of self awareness.

I think you've stripped away too much material to reach your a, b and c there - in particular, I don't think that the cajole/pressure bit is extraneous at all. The three points you've made are not wrong, but they're not Aaro's whole argument.

Well I was going for the things that Aaronovitch actually wrote out right rather than my interpretations of the way he wrote it.

12/31/2008 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

The CPGB was anti-Israel from 1952 onwards, and as a red-diaper baby Aaro would have been brought up supporting Nasser in the Six Day War and Syria in the Yom Kippur war. All those MiGs!

Research reveals you are right!

As a juvenile collector of information on planes I tended to take the Arab side as they flew interesting MiGs and Ilyushins as compared with the boring French Mirages of the Israelis.

12/31/2008 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

Research reveals you are right!

So the winner is 'afraid of losing his job' - hurrah!

12/31/2008 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

No, not so simple - there's more to Aaro than the CPGB in the 60s you know; check out "Paddling to Jerusalem", or for that matter back issues of this blog. Although Aaro isn't Jewish religiously or matrilineally, he does regard himself as having a Jewish identity (there's a big clue in that he writes for the JC) and as having some ethnic connection with Israel.

12/31/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

Also there is the not insignificant matter of Aaro's social life - many of his friends are very vocal members of the soidisant "pro-Israel" political faction and it's no small matter to alienate half your mates over politics.

12/31/2008 02:50:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

This fairly even-handed approach sits very oddly with Dave's antics during the Lebanon war in 2006 as well... is there a chance that a return to the contortions which being 'pro-Israel' forced him into last time look like they'll be too uncomfortable to return to?

12/31/2008 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Which 'party' do you think he's maintaining discipline to?

The Party Within. See Orwell, Doris Lessing etc. It's either the effects of doing all the mental contortions being a good party-line communist requires on the rest of your personality (the Orwell, six o'clock news broadcast on the 22nd June position), or else it's the kind of personality that seeks out a party line to follow (the Authoritarian Personality position).

Either way, the Party may have moved away from Aaro, but the machinery of a good Party man is still functioning in there, whether the Party put it there or whether it led him to the Party.

12/31/2008 04:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cian said...

"Separately, does anyone have any idea why someone has decided that Sam Aaronovitch's brief campaign against American horror comics has been deemed worthy of inclusion on his son's Wikipedia page?"

Probably because its a big deal for a lot of comics fans, and has some importance for the history of comics and there has been at least one recent history on the topic.

Incidentally, one of David's brothers is a Sci-Fi geek, who has written Doctor Who novels/radio plays (not to mention Blake's Seven) and some other stuff.

12/31/2008 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I do think the whoile CP-habits thing is a bit of a red herring when it comes to Aaro. He wasn't a Stalinist in the Thirties, he was a Eurocommunist two generations later and while they weren't exactly freebasing when it came to political thinking, they weren't the Borg either.

Moreover the habits of mind we're talking about, while they may be reasonably common on the far left, aren't by any means confined to that section of the political compass. They're not unusual in party politics, in apolgetics (I use the term with caution) for state power, in religious affiliation, or indeed in any situation where you just don't fancy looking at the truth (or its complications) because it's not convenient, or where you're basically siding with the powerful guy because it's easier that way, or where one side has to be supported because behind them lies the abyss.

You can do this, of course, with the Proletarian Revolution and the Party, but you can easily do it with Israel and the Threat of Extinction: and actually it's (perhaps) surprisingly easy to do it with Liberal Democracy and the Free Market. Provided you're prepared to operate a double standard on behalf of your side, and assume bad faith as the basis for your discussion of people who disagree with you, you've basically got the intellectual set-up that you're looking for. Quite honestly there's probably more of it than its opposite.

So, anyway, Happy New Year to AW readers. Not that that's remotely likely, of course.

12/31/2008 04:26:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

it's a long time since i read martin barker's mid-80s "a haunt of fears" -- partly bcz i dropped my copy in the bath and half the pages stuck together -- but part of his argument, IIRC, is that the brit campaign against american horror comics in the 50s had been started (somewhat opportunistically)* on the communist left, but had subsequently mutated into a classic reactionary folk-panic exploited by (and helpful to) the right; anyway, as i recall (disclaimer: i may have got this totally wrong), barker's book was in part an Awful Warning against left cultural puritanism** -- that it's a double-edged weapon and etc

*or so barker was arguing -- second disclaimer: i am in no way competent to judge his facts or his conclusions
**semi off-topic semi-fact: fredric wertham's classic anti-comics work in the US cites none other than TWAdorno, and i *think* none other than adorno's work on the "authoritarian personality"

12/31/2008 05:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

Also there is the not insignificant matter of Aaro's social life - many of his friends are very vocal members of the soidisant "pro-Israel" political faction and it's no small matter to alienate half your mates over politics.

I'm a little bit curious to know how you know what Aaronovitch's social circle is like? Whatever his importance to us he's not a celebrity in the Heat Magazine manner so there's no coverage of his birthday parties and what not.

Obviously you know who the very vocal members of the soidisant "pro-Israel" political faction are because they're very vocal but how do you know they make up half his friends?

Do you have access to sources we don't have?

12/31/2008 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

Do you have access to sources we don't have?

I dunno Dylan; tell me what sources of information you've got and I'll tell you if I've got any more.

(It is not as if Aaro has never written about the political makeup of the dinner parties he attends!)

12/31/2008 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Further, at about 0045 last night he was maintaining discipline to the Sir Richard Steele's New Year's Eve Party. I was naturally in full solidarity with him in condemning more than a few representatives of the forces of Timothy Taylor's Landlord Ale. Can there be a decent NYE? Yes! We! Can!

1/01/2009 05:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to comics, I imagine that some of the answers regarding the CPGB's only ever legislative success might be available from this talk at Kew:

Kapow! Fifties Britain versus the comics menace
Thursday 22 January, 14:00 - 15:00
In the mid 1950s, Britain woke up to the threat of an invasion. 'American style' comics were accused of ruining the reading habits of vulnerable children across the country and even of inciting racism and violence. Could Captain Marvel cause crime? See the comics condemned as harmful and find out what action the government took to stamp out the comics menace.

Joseph Pugh has worked for a number of museums and galleries (Handel House Museum, Petrie Collection, National Portrait Gallery) and briefly for BBC History. He is currently an Education Officer at The National Archives.

This is a free event. Tickets will be issued on a first-come, first-served basis on the day and cannot be booked in advance.

Via:
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/events/kapow.htm

It's also going to be podcast. Nice NA.

Chris Williams

PS - Wertham was very Decent in his response to the problem: the correct response (the Eagle) was actually run by nasty relativist liberal clergy types.

1/06/2009 06:00:00 PM  

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