Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Rain On the Second Plane Falls Mainly on Martin Amis

Via Alex H via email, Leon Wieseltier reviews Martin Amis' "The Second Plane", and it is a really very unfavourable review indeed, with at least three gasp-out-loud moments of literary viciousness. I have invited Leon W to the Aaronovitch Watch annual awards ceremony.

Wieseltier himself is unlikely to have a great time at the after-party though, because he is not really our type of guy, having been an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War occupied the same position as Aaro on the subject of the Lebanon invasion, and in general a supporter of mindless belligerence as a strategy for US foreign policy.

But Is He Decent? I think no. We've discussed the issue of what it means to be Decent quite a lot (or at least it has been discussed in what I like to think of as AW's extended family). My own minor contribution to the debate has been the proposal that Decency is an aesthetic politics rather than anything else, and that appears to be what's at issue in the Wieseltier review.

Leon Wieseltier's own background here is pretty easy to summarise; he's a Yank leftie of the old school, he's deeply religious and he is an Israeli nationalist[1]. The first is not particularly at issue here, the second I think explains his choice of target (Mart's book is chock full of saloon-bar atheism cropped from Hitch) and the third explains why he scores so many wounding hits.

I've argued here and elsewhere that Decent support for Israel is skin-deep; what I perhaps didn't notice enough is that in a lot of cases their support for America and Britain isn't much deeper when they are considered as actual countries rather than rhetorical devices. There is a strong analogy here to the strange views of the "pro-life" movement on contraception; since effective contraception is bound to reduce the number of abortions, one would have thought that someone who was genuinely anti-abortion would be massively in favour of the widespread distribution and publicising of contraception. But they're not, they're against it. And the reason for this is that they're not really "anti-abortion" - they're pro a particular and quite wide-ranging political agenda, and the question of abortion rights is simply the most politically relevant battleground for that agenda. The War on Terror plays a similar role in Decent politics.

Where Wieseltier differs with the Decents is that he seems to regard the War on Terror (in sense of the attempt to stop terrorists from destroying our way of life) as an object in itself, whereas if he were a true Decent, he'd know that this is only one theatre of the much wider Greatest Intellectual Struggle Of Our Time. Wieseltier thinks that the Muslims can believe what they like, as long as they don't bomb us and don't object overly much when we bomb them. Someone like Michael Gove or Mart or Hitch would of course vehemently disagree; they're damn well not allowed to believe just what they like; they're certainly not allowed to have an identity as Muslims and double triple not allowed to have a political agenda around that identity. This means that on such subjects as senselessly picking fights over headscarves, worrying oneself into a lather over demographics and ethnically profiling people at airports, someone like Wieseltier is more or less bound to end up on the opposite side of the fence from someone like Mart, even though in a lot of the rest of his politics he's one of their ain.

A similar analysis could be carried out in order to slide a Rizla between the Decent Left and ordinary neocons. Once more, the key distinction is between people who actually have an aim in the world and care about achieving it, versus people who fundamentally want to sit around knocking pud and loudly condemning things. Wieseltier thinks that Martin Amis is confused in regarding himself as being a literal soldier in the war against Islamism but it's not a confusion; it's a conscious choice to regard what's printed in the pages of the Guardian as being equal in importance[2] with what happens on the streets of Basra.

And that's why it is that Wieseltier ends up saying "I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful". The criticism here is not entirely unfamiliar to us here at Aaronovitch Watch; it's that of one who sees an important job being done very badly, set against the view apparently shared by both Amis and Aaro that the important thing to do is pick a wagon to jump on, and that subsequent carping about the driving is the sort of thing only a Guardianista would do.

Anyway, bruschettaboy sez; worth a read. Thanks Alex for the heads-up.

(Note: Of course, as pointed out in this piece at TPM, Wieseltier was one of Paul Berman's biggest boosters, so there is more than an element of pot and kettle here.

[1] There's really no point in euphemising this, although the ENGAGE tendency do tend to get very worked up indeed over "the age old anti-Semitic trope" of "divided loyalties". I am not accusing Wieseltier of treachery, duplicity, disloyalty or anything else; just noting that the national interest of the State of Israel is a political issue which is important to him, which it transparently is. The history is very unfortunate here, as accusations of divided loyalty have indeed been used in anti-Semitic purges, but at the end of the day there surely can't be much gain in pretending that Wieseltier doesn't have a deep and genuine commitment to the State of Israel, something which I very much doubt the man himself would deny.

[2] "Equal in importance" is the wrong phrase here, in a way. There's a sort of hallucinatory postmodernism to a lot of Decent thinking, in which the very concept of one thing being more important than another is deprivileged; Gerry Healy's funeral in 1998 is on an equal footing with the price of buns. Of course, this is part and parcel of the Decent retreat from reality - importance is only a concept that makes sense if you have limited resources, and in the purely intellectual world of condemnation and solidarity, there is no scarcity.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dave Disappoints

Hello. I read Dave's Paddling to Jerusalem yesterday, and I found it unexpectedly good. I rather liked Dave again, and I felt bad for being mean about him here.

Then I read The rats are sinking Brown's ship and remembered why I was mean.

(To commenters bubby and Moussaka Man, I read your comments when I logged in to post this. Thanks for alerting me to Jackie Ashley though.)

Jackie Ashley has got a reply in already. Bummer, I was going to cite her as a Brownite ... but I'm getting ahead of myself. She defends the Guardian, so I can leave that. I am impressed by her charm offensive: Dave compares Guardian staffers to the rats of his title - "they plunged into the water and made for their nests on Purity Island" - while she calls him "One of the sharpest commentators in the Times". (Of course, that could be derogatory to that august paper.) Dave:

You get a better write-up in The Guardian if you are Fidel Castro or the leader of Hamas than if you're the Labour Prime Minister.

As Jackie Ashley says, she's fairly pro-Brown. (See He may be disappointing, but Brown isn't a disaster for instance. She's intelligently critical of him, but why the hell not if the alternative is unreadable sycophancy?)

As with his last column, I wonder who Dave is writing for. The Times isn't overflowing with support for Gordon Brown is it? (I don't read that much of it to be sure.) Why pick on the Guardian? That's not a rhetorical question. Why not say positive things about Brown rather than his critics on another paper, which very few of his readers are likely to read themselves, are crap? That was a rhetorical question.

So what does The Guardian say? Does it explain the Government's case and urge the NUT not to be so bloody selfish? Get out. “This strike was not whipped out of thin air, but born of genuine resentment,” blah, blah. “Tony Blair used to claim education was his first, second and third priorities, and teachers feel that Labour should be treating them better...” equivocate, bleat. This stuff lacks the necessary resolve and character that would have elevated it even to pusillanimous.

Both quotes come from last Friday's leader. I think CP Scott had a point with "Comment is free. Facts are sacred." Good for him. Did I miss something or did he really insist that the purpose of the Guardian was to "explain the Government's case" as well? I think the anonymous writer was rather too much on the side of the government.

Take a slightly longer view, however, and the government's record appears much better. Over the decade salaries have gone up by a fifth in real terms, which is one reason why the rate of vacancies is down by more than half since 2001. That reality looms large in the minds of cash-strapped ministers who are aware that parents are more interested in class sizes than they are in teachers' pay.

And now comes the point when I abandoned my watch duties. I couldn't actually finish the article. I gave up at this point.

It's no better in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The creatures who moaned about Blair and bigged up Brown are whingeing again. Anything difficult, like 10p, and they don't see it as any part of their job to explain or defend their own Government. Much easier to bend the ear of a passing hack about the hard time they had back in the constituency. And they thought politics was all about cutting the ribbons on new hospitals.

Actually, I gave up at 'creatures'. But I had to copy something, so I finished the paragraph.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What's The Point?

If anyone can identify a point to Nick today, please tell us in the comments.

These were yet further examples of the union [National Union of Teachers] succumbing to its persistent fantasy that tweedy teachers can replace muscle-bound factory workers and become the new vanguard of the proletariat.

Is there a prize for most cliches in one sentence? I'd like to think that Nick was influenced by the late T.S. Eliot when he wrote

It's easy to be all things to all men when the economy is booming.
[Most of article before coming back to ...]
Although political writers have insisted for a decade that Labour had to decide which side it was on, it found it easy to be all things to all men when the economy was growing.

But I think a sub-editor nodded off several paragraphs earlier.

While I'm asking for help from readers, has anyone worked out yet why David T of Harry's Place (which is currently unavailable having exceeded its bandwidth yet again, so link goes to the cached version) thinks David Edgar libelled anyone? I can't see why Edgar is even responding to David Mamet. The man's a fool.

BTW, the Rant Review version of the David Mamet screed has many virtues - being intentionally funny (not in the bits Mamet wrote, obviously), having some grasp of history, etc.

Norman Geras took Mamet's claim "I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart" seriously. Has he not seen Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables, or House of Games?

But speaking of David Toube, as I was, I see (via Mike Power) that he's in at number 71 in the JC Power 100: The people shaping Jewish life in Britain. Yes, that means there are 28 less influential Jews in Britain[1]. Maybe they should sue. The Jewish Chronicle does promise to give us the top 66 in the following two issues. Is it so wrong of me to hope that Michael Sophocles makes the top 10?

[1] Ken Livinstone is no 76, and he's not Jewish, so I can't claim to understand the criteria. I didn't know David T was Jewish (not that it matters), and perhaps he's not. The JC likes Livingstone. H'sP think he's an anti-Semite. It takes all sorts.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

These Columns Write Themselves

Nick in the Standard. It's sad that I have to do this, but you may need some background: Times: Deutsche Bank crackdown on expenses of elite financiers; Crunch spells end of the City expense account (from the ES so probably the story Nick was referring to.

What seems like toughness to Deutsche Bank still looks like extravagance to those outside high finance. The mismatch in perceptions explains why this credit crunch will be different from previous economic crises.

Seriously, why is the 'mismatch in perceptions' different from 'previous economic crises'? It doesn't look any different from previous booms to me. Bankers pay a lot for lunch with clients. Who knew?

We are at the end of an unprecedented boom which has brought immigrants from all over Britain and the world and so transformed London's social geography that our old stereotypical certainties no longer make sense.

People never moved to London in the past. No, not at all.

Comedians and pundits scoff about "Hampstead intellectuals" and "Islington Lefties". Every time I hear them, I mutter, "get real".

Do they? He means buffoons like this.

Islington? Surely its bruschetta-eating middle classes are still in a fury with Blair about the Iraq war

Or this one (emphasis mine).

Sex, preferably gay and maybe incestuous, is a very good thing we are told. I looked across the playhouse and realised the intellectual crisis in London’s theatre I mentioned last week was deeper than I thought. Even the Islington audience seemed bored and embarrassed.

Good news for regular commenter Matthew: Nick identifies what he means by 'middle-class'.

A friend on The Economist worked out that a family setting out in London needed an income of £250,000-plus to count themselves wealthy - not rich, just upper-middle class.

Nick returns to his old socialist self and drops the self-pity for the final para which is less Marx or Keynes than Dr Pangloss.

The boom has shifted Londoners up and down the social hierarchy and turned us into Europe's most cosmopolitan city. If the cash machine breaks down, the gulf between the bankers and the rest will narrow - and London will change again into a poorer but more equal city.

We wish to become more equal and therefore we have economic depressions. (I'm sure this doesn't work.)

It's not as if the novels of Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell aren't all about characters, usually in London, shifting up and down the social hierarchy. I don't know how one reckons cosmopolitanism, but London's been near the top since Roman times.

Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

Which reminded me about 'immigrants from all over Britain':

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road which takes him to England!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bruschetta and Blue-Collar

A funny old column from Dave on Tuesday. Why did the Times even print this? Our man doesn't pretend to be an economist, and it's not an area he's shown much interest in. Nor does he pretend to be in America. He's not even watching the US election build-up over there; we all know he's over here and getting his info from a few blogs and the limited column inches even former broadsheets devote to the democratic process in faraway lands.

More to the point, who did he even write Free trade: Clinton/Obama's mistakes; The Democrats are shamelessly pandering to the fear in Pennsylvania heartlands about jobs for? Who does he intend to persuade? Why?

Could there be a clue in his opening question?

Are CNN anchors the grandest beings on the planet?

Why CNN? (This question asking gets a bit wearing, but I'm nearly done now.) Could it be that CNN "rates as America's number one cable news source" - in other words beating News Corporation's cable news? (That's it with the questions, as you were.)

It would help me a lot if certain journalists were a bit more like bloggers and linked to the stories they cite. Or at least named names, or gave dates, or something.

According to Senator Clinton's camp, although her husband was involved in getting Nafta passed, she was always iffy about it. No, say the Obamians, we have her on tape saying Nafta was good, as recently as 2004. Well, retort the Clintonites, we have Obama in the same year opining that US exports have “benefited enormously” from Nafta. “The fact is,” Mr Obama complained, “she was saying great things about Nafta until she started running for president.” And so was he, she replies.

The problem here is that all the statements above can be true. Wikipedia on NAFTA. From that, here's a page on the Center for Strategic and International Studies on a "thorough evaluation of NAFTA in all of its ramifications [by] 16 specialists" NAFTA's Impact on North America.

This volume covers many of the political, social, and nontrade changes that have accompanied NAFTA over the past 10 years, and the authors project what to expect in the next 10 in such areas as labor, education, business, and security. NAFTA has not cured all internal ills in the three countries concerned nor solved all the problems among them. Trade has flourished, but has not abolished trade disputes. Intergovernmental problems still arise between the NAFTA countries--as they do between all countries, no matter how friendly--but they are now discussed and, for the most part, have become more amenable to satisfactory compromise. This is true for such thorny issues as environmental protection and drug trafficking, and soon perhaps for migration. The authors assess NAFTA for what it is--a trade and investment agreement that has succeeded in its central purpose and in the process has brought three countries together in a variety of noneconomic areas.

In short, the authors conclude that NAFTA is basically good but it's still politically expedient to be 'iffy' about it over certain "thorny issues".

As so often, I've nearly forgotten my original purpose. This is David Aaronovitch back on the Observer.

In the summer of 2003 Lanchester revealed his own run-ins with the bruschetta orthodoxies.

And this was the same man on Tuesday.

This is what John McCain, who is not playing to the blue-collar audience quite yet, is free to argue.

Who is left for Dave to trust?

Update Sat 12:10 pm If I'm right about the CNN sneer above, we can expect Dave to weigh in against the Beeb next. At least he knows about broadcasting. God, I love the BBC.

The Orwell Prize has been awarded

And it was won by Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh. Comiserations Nick. Johann Hari won the journalism prize, so I suspect we will be hearing about that quite often going forward.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Back to basics

And back to business as Aaronormal. We're actually a week in arrears now because I want to say something about his latest on trade policy, but let's clear the backlog a bit; viz this column, where one ends up wanting to say that "A thing can be true even though David Aaronovitch says it".

Professor Falk is indeed wildly unchoosy about the books he writes forewords for. And I would tentatively advance that a man who acts surprised about the political reaction to Israel/Nazi analogies is an idiot, whatever he is Professor of. And in general the fact that some of the minor UN human rights talking shops are so bloody, bloody keen on passing meaningless and unenforceable resolutions about Israel is a bit of an embarrassment that somebody who takes the UN seriously ought to do something about. Perhaps one might want to consider why it is that so many countries who agree on almost literally nothing else might agree so unanimously on the subject of the Palestinians (worldwide and virulent anti-Semitism being only one of a number of possible explanations). And perhaps one might also wonder whether the constant passage of anti-Israel resolutions has anything to do with the fact that these resolutions are known by all involved to be definitely consequence-free, and whether the totality of this state of affairs is really all that good for the world. But withal, with all of this, the UN always has the chance to not make an arse of itself and ought to be criticised for not taking that chance more often. So the gut instinct of AW is that in this case, Aaro is on the right track.

Except, except ... we are old and wise in the ways of Aaronovitch Watching, this blog is older than the cheese in my fridge. And the number one principle has always been that Aaro is often at his most dangerous when at his most superficially sensible. And indeed, I find myself struggling to deliver that pat on the back. Consider the career of Steven Milloy ...

Milloy is the proprietor of "", a website devoted to uncovering the junk science used by political hacks to push specific policy agendas. He cut his teeth exposing the junk science linking cigarette smoke to lung cancer, has moved on to exposing the junk science of global warming, is a big critic of the junk science which holds that mosquitoes develop resistance to DDT and so on. In other words, a deeply worthless man, who has produced some of the worst works of corporate "sound science" hackery in a pretty horrendous canon.

But of course, it would have been possible for a smarter operator than Milloy to have achieved a lot of his goals without ever having written a single thing that he could be criticised for. If one were to simply constantly attack and critique methodological flaws in scientific papers on one side of a controversy while ignoring similar or worse flaws on the other side, one could end up creating a very misleading impression of the state of science, without ever having written a single paper that was itself dishonest. Milloy, of course, wasn't smart enough to do this.

Aaro, in a different field, is. I somehow missed his article about John Bolton, or about Dick Cheney, or about any of the nuts, imperialists and maniacs on the side of American unilateralism. Of course I missed them because they weren't there. Aaro is, as always, working the frame[1]. He's defining the acceptable terms of who ought to be taken seriously on matters of international human rights as having a left edge somewhere around Joe Lieberman, and a right edge practically nowhere. Often this is preliminary to presenting a Blairite party line as the sensible middle way between two extremes, but not always; in this context, the general weakening of the credibility of international institutions is an end in itself, and if the UN wants to stick its dick in a van der Graaf generator, Aaro is only happy to help turn the crank. So .... not a bad article in and of itself, but remember that rule one of Watching is to watch.

Update: I would have thought that the other theme of Aaro's column – the policing of the borders of what it is and isn't acceptable to say about Israel (basically, left edge is a long way to the right of Ha'aretz and right edge is a micron to the left of Melanie Phillips) – was so obvious as not to need mention. I am personally so confused about how one might discuss the economic and social grounds of the Palestinian intifada that my policy is to avoid the subject whenever possible and to speak bluntly when unavoidable; I do wish someone like Aaro would produce a style guide. Bonus points for claiming that the Darfur resistance doesn't kill civilians, by the way.

[1] I am assuming that this is the case; a still less charitable interpretation would be that Professor Falk is simply a talking point of the week somewhere.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Alan Not The Minister responds

And, like Roy in Bladerunner, for a short while Euston burned so very very brightly ...

Yes of course he actually said that, do you think I'm lying or something?

Other highlights:

David Miliband's recent speech on the democratic imperative set out a post-Blair not an anti-Blair foreign policy. If Euston helped to create the political space for that speech to be given then it was all worth it.

Quiz time! First read this paragraph:

The intellectual and campaigning energies that created the manifesto continue to pulse. Go online and look at normblog, Harry's Place, Engage, Labour Friends of Iraq, Democratiya, and the work of all the contributing online journals, blogs, signatories, journalists and activists.

then guess which blog title was *not* accompanied by a link.

I note that "Not The" is following the Eustonaut house style in responding to me without mentioning me by name. While this obviously deprives me of the oxygen of publicity and doesn't reward my childish and troll-like behaviour, it is a bit rough on the poor old readers who might not understand what the fuck this is all about. It's also potentially counterintuitive, because deprived of context, a great big essay "Euston! Fuck Yeah!" about a recently-deceased political movement might come over a bit unattractively self-important.

A few more notes by Chardonnay Chap 22/4 12:00

There's another connection between Alan 'NTM' Johnson and Roy Batty (apart from the appropriate surname) in Blade Runner.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

You know, fire doesn't burn in space. The shoulder of Orion isn't a physical place (Dick or the scriptwriter was probably thinking of Betelgeuse, not that makes any more sense. I don't know what C-beams are. And is that Tannhauser as in the opera by 19th post-leftist Richard Wagner? Probably, Philip Dick was fond of throwing in references to orchestral music. In short, Roy saw some fairly doubtful things. Also, reading his life as 'burning brightly' is a triumph of existential interpretation: elsewhere he says of his revenge-taking, "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave." Roy's short life was fairly shitty: that's why he and the others escaped. (Harrison Ford's Deckard is a slave too: he has no choice but to hunt the replicants, even though he should realise that he's one himself.) Well, if that's how A'NTM'J sees the Euston thing, so be it.

Did he also say, "The reductionism in the theory licensed habits of mind and structures of feeling well-known among the older fellow travellers of Stalinism - apologia, denial, grossly simplifying tendencies of thought, moral relativism." Why yes, he did. None of these could be said of his apologia for torture.

I think there is something wrong with John Rees' "Socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein." But it's the bit about 'standing with' and 'unconditionally' at that. If he's stuck to "opposing oppression wherever we find it" he'd have been just fine with me.

Anti-Americanism. A lunatic book like Thierry Meyssan's Le 11 Septembre 2001, l'Effroyable Imposture (translated into English as 9/11: The Big Lie) - was given respectful attention in Le Monde Diplomatique and sold 200,000 copies in France within one month of publication.

Alan Johnson never misses the opportunity for conflating the views of one reviewer with those of the publication the review appears in. A couple of things about Le Monde Diplomatique. Its circulation is 350,000 in France (just over the New Statesman's 30,000 [source: Google]). One of of every two magazine readers buying a particular book seems unlikely. In the comments below, Alain Gresh, deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, has said that the magazine criticized the book. The book's own website states (I've taken out footnote references):

The first articles about The Big Lie were not published in French newspapers. When the book began to appear in French bookstores and Thierry Meyssan had not been invited yet to any television program, two newspapers, one in Chile and another in Hungary, talked about his research on 9/11 with interest. Later, French dailies Le Monde and Libération wrote full pages to accuse him after the author’s appearance at the Thierry Ardisson’s show (France 2) on March 16. The position of the two newspapers that accused him of “lying” and “revisionism” was completely accepted by the French media as a whole. But abroad, countless newspapers highlighted the pertinence of the research.

Not much evidence of widespread anti-Americanism there. Johnson again:

Albert Camus warned that a love of freedom and progress can become "weirdly inseparable from a morbid obsession with murder and suicide".

Certainly true of Albert Camus himself. Since Americanism (is there such a word? anti-anti-Americanism seems too cumbersome) professes to love both, what does that say about us?

The Paul Berman quote in which the link is wrapped round the words "a few Jews" (for reasons I really can't fathom) comes from a New York Times review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (link goes to the whole thing on one page; subs may be required). Berman doesn't produce any evidence for his statement about large publics, but, if Berman says it, Johnson believes it.

Johnson's hubris and vanity are staggering. He takes credit for David Miliband's speeches though there's no evidence that the Foreign Minister needed the 'political space' (?!) to be created.

The most fun reaction to all this comes here. I don't like using 'here' as link text, but read it first before you know who wrote it.

I am the more concerned to make these points, registering my dissent from the usage 'post-left', because Alan's latest deployment of the term links it, explicitly, with the aims of The Euston Manifesto, and so might be taken to commit others amongst its supporters. As the principal author of that document and one of the group that formed around it who attended all of the drafting meetings (and pretty well all of the meetings, period), I feel in a good position to say that that linkage was not there in the manifesto itself or in the thinking of at least some of those who produced it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Inaccurate and poorly researched books

OMG, the author of What's Left? has written a column complaining that some books are inaccurate and poorly researched. Whatever next? For those familiar with Nick's recent writings there are some great lines:

he says he filled the gaps in her knowledge by relying on other people's research.

You don't say?


For all the talk of the net changing the world, it remains a parasitic medium which depends on old-fashioned sources, which readers could more or less trust. Most bloggers bounce off online articles written and edited by professionals.

That's right. We at Aaronwatch "bounce off" articles written by professionals, like, er , Nick. We just left out the "more or less trust" bit.

By the way, Nick's discussion of Thomas Kohnstamm and Lonely Planet suffers from similar epistemological difficulties to those with his treatment of ex-jihadis who've now seen the light. There it was "fantasist says I see clearly now", here it is "self-confessed liar says I'm telling the truth now, honest."

(Oh, and Nick tells us we shouldn't vote for Ken. Nothing new there.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Some Catching Up Required

I didn't post on last Sunday's Nick because I really hoped someone else would. Also, every so often, I get a life. Sorry about that. Lets the side down, I know.

B2 said somewhere that he thinks Nick is a good writer. Let me say this: I rate David Aaronovitch much more highly. Our Dave only slips when he makes some argument which he knows is disingenuous or at least akin to the three cups trick. In poker terms, the drop in style is a 'tell'. Let me show you where I have a problem with Nick Cohen. I'll pick, almost at random, the first paragraph from his latest Observer contribution.

Magna Carta is such a Fellow he will have no sovereign,' snapped the Jacobean jurist Sir Edward Coke as he fought the arbitrary power of the Stuart monarchy. Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Sullivan might have lacked Sir Edward's succinctness, but last week they delivered a defence of the rule of law that was as stirring.

I think this would pass the tests of all my English teachers of good prose: colourful, but the right side of purple. But for me, while 'snapped' is an unexpected verb, it does presume an emotion on Sir Edward's part which Nick has never witnessed: it's pure projection. I'm not sure where Windows is with innovations, but Mac OSX has had a thing called 'Stickies' - a sort of virtual 'Post It' notes' - for ages. I've got the advice of those I consider 'good writers' on mine - Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard. From the last of those:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

And quite right too. Shakespeare doesn't tell you how people say things.

Nick then sets about a very sensible column, which is why I'm writing this now. I want to get this up before tomorrow's edition comes online. He makes one mistake early on which I think is worth jumping all over.

Brave and undeniable, but Whitehall did have a cynical argument against the judges, though not one that would stand up in court. Saudi Arabia is a special case, it runs. Most despotisms are like Zimbabwe, nasty, corrupt and poor. Saudi Arabia is nasty, corrupt but fantastically rich because of its oil wealth. So when it threatens to cancel orders for Eurofighters or suspend co-operation in the war against al-Qaeda unless we obey orders, we can appease it, safe in the knowledge that the Saudi monarchy is a one-off. No one else has the strength to hurt our economy. No precedent is being set.

But this isn't all that's happening. Craig Unger wrote on the Comment is Free a much more trenchant analysis of Saudi corruption. But let's take the example of Saudi "co-operation in the war against al-Qaeda". I agree that they've threatened to withdraw this, but what evidence is there that it ever existed? IIRC, Unger's book "House of Bush, House of Saud" suggested that the reason the US under Bush Snr was so keen on the Gulf War (short version - crazed despot invades fascist state, spreading reactionary racism, sexism, torture, depravity, and corruption to a state already steeped in reactionary racism, sexism, torture, depravity, and corruption) was because Saddam could in theory push through gallant little fascist Kuwait into gallant enormous fascist Saudi Arabia. This was in 1991. In 1993, al Qaeda attacked on US soil for the first time with the bomb in the Twin Towers. Everyone was surprised. Saudi Intelligence had been silent. Ditto with the Embassy bombings in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000. A retarded six year-old may have concluded by this point that either a) Saudi Intelligence had overtaken chocolate teapots as the image of inappropriateness or incompetence of the moment or b) they were on the other side and weren't going to help us anyway. Then came September 11, 2001 [1] The Saudis didn't warn about that either. They did get, to quote Unger:

But ultimately at least 140 Saudis, including two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, were evacuated without having gone through a formal interrogation. In addition, the Saudi role in financing radical Islam somehow escaped being a central focus of the war on terror.

What can I say? Saudi "co-operation" on terror is entirely bogus. Saudi Arabia is proudly theocratic (OK, not in the usual way; the clerics have a deal with the royal family) and anti-Semitic. I don't understand why Norman Geras hasn't resigned his Labour Party membership over this and started writing to the relevant government departments at least daily. The government treats the contract as if the Saudis were giving us £40bn - they're not. Like anyone in a deal, they think paying us will cost them less than doing it themselves. We get some jobs and some profit, which all goes to tax revenue, and perhaps fewer benefits paid out. That's not worth losing our integrity for.

I don't want to go overboard on the economics here, because B2 may jump in and show me up for the clown I am, but I remember the 'Jobs Not Bombs' crusade in the early 80s (as I'm sure Nick and regular here Justin do too). I don't think armaments spending is ever the way to go. It's wasteful and, if anything, it encourages governments to go to war (see the past decade or so or WWI).

(I used to prefer the Robert Wyatt version but I've decided that "The King's" original is superior.)

But then it all goes wrong.

This year, David Miliband announced that the forward march of democracy had halted. The Foreign Secretary didn't just mean that countries such as Zimbabwe had sunk into thug-rule and penury. He meant the belief that societies could prosper only if they embraced representative government was vanishing. He could no longer reassure Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents that history was on their side.

I don't have a source for the Miliband quote, but I can't see why a single case (Zimbabwe) proves this. I'd have thought that better examples would have been Pakistan (where democracy has clearly seen better days) or Putin's Russia. I doubt however that David Miliband, much as I dislike him, would ever have meant anything so stupid. There seem to be at least three possible things here: the forward march of democracy a) goes forward; b) stands still; or c) goes backward. Miliband seems to have gone for b; Nick interprets this as c - without any justification I can see. Whose belief? Why is it vanishing? I'd think the important point for Aung San Suu Kyi is that history is on her side - or not: not what David Miliband believes.

Nick does get back to his old indignant stride at the end:

The 'light touch' regulation of the City Gordon Brown boasted about for so many years meant in effect that Britain profited from offering international finance a latitude it couldn't find in New York. We can't shake off our dependence on funny money, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron showed when they reacted to the judges' ruling by moving to curb the power of the judiciary to expose corruption and intimidation.

I was going to do Aaro's missing (from here) columns too, but it's too late for me. Some other time perhaps.

[1] God, I sound like Martin Amis. But Yanks do have dates wrong, you know.

Monday, April 14, 2008

This Day In History

On April 13, 2006, the Euston Manifesto was launched. I think it would be a shame if this momentous anniversary went completely unmarked, other than by a six week-old plug for Alan Not The Minister Johnson's book. (I have checked, there is nothing on Normblog, Comment is Free, or the New Statesman blog either). So:

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear Euston Manifesto
Happy Birthday to you

Perhaps they are saving the big party for the anniversary of the "real world" launch on May 25th, but if so they're leaving the publicity a bit late.

Update (thanks to Jonathan in the comments). Alan NTM Johnson, on the other hand, perhaps provides the Euston Manifesto with the best epitaph it's going to get:

"3 Human rights for all.
We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Nick Goes Green

Only kidding. Nick's blog has a piece he published in Swedish magazine Axess, Vänster om, höger om (Left turn, right turn). It's mostly recycled stuff which we've gone over before. You'd think before he wrote about the history of the Left again, he might have a wee word with, say, Norman Geras, who might just know a little bit about the subject.

FROM the 1880s to the 1980s, socialism defined what it meant to be left wing. European leftists aruged about what socialism meant. Russian, Chinese and the poor world socialists murdered each other in disputes about what socialism meant.

Nick's degree was a PPE, wasn't it? Surely 'left wing' is the adjective of the noun 'socialism' so the first sentence carries no information. And what he means by the second and third sentences is "In non-socialist countries, ink was spilled over the interpretation of socialism; in supposedly 'socialist' ones, the governments killed people." Stalin, Mao, etc killed peasants who were generally too poorly educated to argue about the meaning of abstract political ideologies and too poor to care as well as fellow intellectuals and former comrades. When "socialists murdered each other" it was almost always in power struggles which would be familiar to readers of Niccolo Machiavelli; it's always about who gets to be the boss man, not which end you open your eggs. The left in Britain, which is the only part I'm remotely qualified to talk about, has always kept its distance from the murderous dictatorships. The British Labour Party, and for that matter the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Trots, have been clear that the society they were looking to create would be very little like Russia or China.

Move forward into the 21st century and the left has changed beyond recognition. Socialism is dead, destroyed by the terrible crimes of the communists and the success of market economies, most notably in Asia.

Thanks to commenter Paul Flewers on a previous post, I read his The Evil of Banality: Martin Amis Discovers Josef Stalin.

It is quite incorrect to declare that there was ‘no suggestion’ in the 1930s ‘that the [Ukrainian] famine was terroristic’ (p.7). The US journalist William Chamberlin visited the stricken areas in the autumn of 1933, and subsequently stated that famine had been ‘deliberately employed as an instrument of national policy, as the last means of breaking the resistance of the peasantry to the new system of collective farming’ (‘Russia Through Coloured Glasses’, Fortnightly Review, October 1934). Chamberlin, it should be noted, was no penny-a-liner or dilettante dabbler like Amis, but was possibly the most seasoned observer of the Soviet scene of the interwar period.

The Great Leap Forward was in 1958. The Cambodian Killing Fields were in 1975. These were all well known to everyone who read The Guardian. Nick seems to have gone to university a little later. He still managed to be a socialist. These events - which I agree were absolutely terrible - did not kill British or European socialism.

As for the "success of market economies, most notably in Asia" I still think that the best places to live on this planet are parts of Western Europe and Scandinavia - countries with market economies and strong regulatory states. I wouldn't live in South Korea for anything. I'm sure Nick isn't thinking of Japan whose economy, rather than being 'free market' is, according to the CIA Factbook, based on

Government-industry cooperation, a strong work ethic, mastery of high technology, and a comparatively small defense allocation (1% of GDP) helped Japan advance with extraordinary rapidity to the rank of second most technologically powerful economy in the world after the US and the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China, measured on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. One notable characteristic of the economy has been how manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors have worked together in closely-knit groups called keiretsu. A second basic feature has been the guarantee of lifetime employment for a substantial portion of the urban labor force. Both features have now eroded.

After that, it all gets too depressing to both with. And we've done much of it before. I'm sure some of you will disagree with the above. B2, you're welcome to step in and correct my economics.

Minding Our Grammar Schools

Thanks to 'Anonymous'1 in the comments to the last post, Nick's latest Evening Standard piece.

Does anyone know if Nick went to a comprehensive or a grammar school? He's arguing (again) for the retention and expansion of grammar schools.

But whatever strategies they [British academics/universities] follow they can't provide a remedy for the effects of bad secondary schools because it's too late to pick up the pieces at 18.

Hmm. The name of this blog is, as you can see, 'Aaronovitch Watch.' Let's have a look at our main watchees late dad, Sam Aaronovitch.

SAM AARONOVITCH was a working-class intellectual. The child of Jewish immigrants in the East End of London, he was part of the enormous contribution by the Jewish community to radical politics in Britain....
Although in his party career he had already written several books - on questions of economic policy in particular - he embarked on an academic career as the king of late starters when he was near 50. He once explained his difficulties in filling in applications for university posts. "Education: St George's-in-the-East Secondary, Stepney 1930-34; Balliol College, Oxford 1967-71."

Why does Nick believe that all comprehensives are bad and all grammar schools are good? Comprehensive education may not suit everyone, but that's not an argument for keeping fee-paying schools. Even so, I'm not convinced that schools are that important. I was hoping that Terry Pratchett was educated in a comprehensive. He wasn't, but he wasn't a grammar school boy either.

Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, England, the only child of David and Eileen Pratchett, of Hay-on-Wye. He passed his eleven plus exam in 1959, earning him a place in a technical school (High Wycombe Technical High School). Pratchett described himself as a "nondescript student", and in his Who's Who entry, credits his education to the Beaconsfield Public Library.
His early interests included astronomy; he collected Brooke Bond tea cards about space, owned a telescope and desired to be an astronomer, but was no good at mathematics.

Back to Nick:

Lord Adonis, the Blairite education minister, had the better idea of helping gifted state-school children compete with Balls and his kind by offering residential and online courses.
The result was telling. The teaching unions attacked the scheme, and 900 of the 3,100 secondary schools in England and Wales refused to take part.

I've tried to find out more about this. I did come across this wonderful exchange in Hansard.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we strongly support field trips and other forms of education outside the classroom and have sought to simplify the regulations. We do not have any evidence—nor has Ofsted provided any—that the number of children going on school trips is declining; indeed, from the anecdotal evidence that we have from schools, we think the opposite is the case. Research into residential education by the Scout Association and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 2005 found that 86 per cent of primary schools and 99 per cent of secondary schools offer pupils at least one residential education opportunity, of which outdoor education was the most popular type, so the opportunities do appear to be there.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, long ago when I was a practical teacher, I taught a class in which all the pupils got to Oxford and Cambridge but none of them knew where the Rhine was. Can the Minister assure us that people will know where the Rhine and Danube are in Europe?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have many skills as a Minister but imparting that information to the nation’s youth is not among them.

An old Times article says that The adviser who was given a peerage and with it the task of transforming education has run one school before — it was a disaster.

Also in the Times (from last month) NUT head Bill Greenshields wants nationalisation of private education.

I can't find any reference to this suggestion by Lord Adonis or the reasons the teaching unions opposed it. Can any readers help?

[1] We're going to have to give them numbers, I think.

Update 9:30 Since so many commenters have mentioned their own backgrounds, I went to a comprehensive too. As I've mentioned before it was Royal High, a comprehensive, despite the name, though it only became one (and co-educational too) the year before I started. Nick Cohen favourite Robin Cook went there when it was a fee-paying boy's school in the middle of Edinburgh. Ironically enough, since I've talked about satire recently, Ronnie Corbett - the "working class one [with the Morningside accent]" here, went there too. So maybe I got a grammar school education from a comp. But I don't think so. Look, if I'd gone to public school, it would have been Fettes. And you all know who's a Fettes old boy, so I'm bloody glad my parents were too poor.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Indie goes Decent

Roger Alton, the former editor of the Observer who made it the mouthpiece of Decency, has now been appointed to edit the Independent. Of course the Indie's Iraq coverage has been rather good but completely inDecent, courtesy of Patrick Cockburn. (And then there's the small matter of the Indie's Lebanon-based Middle East correspondent.)

Those who make the money decisions at the Indie must think that catering to the "I used to be a Trot but now I'm a Blairite" demographic makes sound commercial sense.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Satire Is Dead

Nick is on about satire this week. I'm disappointed that 'satire is dead' bush yields only 172,000 pages. I expected a million or so.

Actually, our boy makes some good points. Nick calls Brown a "demented spendthrift who stuffed the pockets of bureaucrats, IT salesmen, management consultants and hospital consultants while the patients whose money he had taken lay in NHS beds slowly dying in pools of their own excrement" which is a little over the top, but not that much.

Update, by Bruschettaboy: NB that Nick Cohen knows less than Aaro about macroeconomics, if such a thing were possible. There is some good stuff on problems in the NHS there, but the overall characterisation of Brown as a "demented spendthrift" has no very sound basis in the PSBR figures and is purely and simply a George Osborne talking point. You can see that no thought has gone into the piece from the fact that Nick gaily throws around all sorts of numbers of different orders of magnitude as if they were equally important; sort of like a Burroughsian cut-up technique applied to the Pre-Budget Report. By the way, one third of the "Squandered" trillion pounds of "Our Money" referred to in David Craig's book has gone into the benefits system, so if you're an Observer reader receiving state benefits or a pension, you might be interested to know that Nick Cohen considers you a complete waste of Decent people's money. Or if you're a doctor for that matter, you parasitical bastard bleeding the workers dry with your fancy pay rises. Where's Pol Pot when you need him? Sorry, Chardonnay Chap, appallingly rude of me to butt in like that. As you were.

While his attacks on Brown's economic competence are well-placed (and the sort of commentary that a former-broadsheet should carry), his digs at satire are, well, laughable.

He [Henry Naylor, chief writer of Headcases] shouldn't be so cocksure, because if not for 100 years then for a good two decades, British satire has had a dire record.

Nick is still mates with Francis Wheen of satirical rag Private Eye isn't he? (Not that I think the Eye is any great shakes either, if it comes to that.) Has he shared this view?

Spitting Image's writers presented Margaret Thatcher's ministers as cowering eunuchs, and looked lost when the supposed sycophants overthrew her.

Oh come on, everyone was surprised. I read the Guardian and the Independent in those days. and I don't recall any political observer saying anything like "You've got to watch out for Geoffrey Howe."

I think Nick gets satire completely wrong. He seems to think it should carry accurate political analysis first and humour second when it's the other way around. He thinks satirists should concentrate on politicians rather than on celebrities, when there's no point in mimicking someone if only a few cognosenti recognise the imitation. Despite what Nick seems to think, even if there was a heyday of British television satire in the 60s, the Frost Report etc didn't "draw blood" on a regular basis.

At the risk of sounding like Tony Benn when he's sounding off on "issues", good satire doesn't concentrate on personalities, but on, I suppose, issues. Jon Stewart is a superb (in my opinion anyway) comedian, but his commentary doesn't just stick to the obvious ad hominems (Bush is a moronic dry-drunk sort of thing) but goes into the twisted logic behind the stupidity. The problem with "Spitting Image" was that it got locked into 1-dimensional characterization. A good newspaper cartoonist (oxymoron watch, where are you?) could show, for instance, John Major as "a grey but decent ditherer" one day and as "an obstinate man tormented by resentments" the next because, strangely, both are true. Proper satire doesn't depend on a one-to-one relationship with reality.

As for the "crisis of confidence in British culture" - that's just bollocks.

In other Decent news, Martin Amis gets a good kicking in the NYT from Michiko Kakutani (via Steven Poole).

Indeed "The Second Plane" is such a weak, risible and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes it convinced that Mr. Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism, as he’s thoroughly discredited himself with these essays as any sort of political or social commentator.

I'd forgotten how up his own arse Amis could be.

The solecism, that is to say, is not grammatical but moral-aesthetic - an offense against decorum; and decorum means 'seemliness,' which comes from soemr, 'fitting,' and soema, 'to honor.' 9/11, 7/7: who or what decided that particular acts of slaughter, particular whirlwinds of plasma and body parts, in which a random sample of the innocent is killed, maimed, or otherwise crippled in body and mind, deserve a numerical shorthand? Whom does this 'honor'? What makes this 'fitting'?

Since 'decorum' does mean 'seemliness' why not say 'seemliness' in the first place? And it's a pity that 'Remembrance Day' falls on the eleventh day of the eleventh month and it's traditional to observe two minutes silence at the eleventh hour on that day? Who decided (apart from this being the anniversary of the end of WWI) that this numerical shorthand, etc, almost an entire generation of young men, etc?

This last is not exactly a Decent watch, but related to MA's Islamophobia (not a word I really like, but there doesn't seem to be a better one - bar 'out and out craziness'). Amis not so long ago published a book with the title "The War Against Cliche" - he seems to think he's being original or percipient in his condemnations of Muslims. Amis has lower-browed counterparts and they have confirmed, in confirmation was needed, that online commenters to newspaper articles make on despair of mankind in general. Andrew O'Hagan, who is generally a pretty sensible commentator, wrote Fear of Islam is ruining our chance for peace in the Torygraph and attracted 100% wingnuts. What is really shocking is they repeat the usual prejudices against Islam without having read or understood the piece. "The difference between the IRA and Islam is that Allah says 'Die for me'. Jesus said 'I died for you'" (Posted by F. and U. Adenufyet on April 8, 2008 8:33 AM) Apart from the IRA = Jesus thing, which I really cannot get my head around, and the travestying of Islamic beliefs, O'Hagan's starting point was the story (BBC version) of the "desecration of nearly 150 Muslim graves at a French World War I cemetery". I know next to nothing about French colonial history, but I think these soldiers were actually volunteers. I admit no one actually asked them to die for France, but that was what it came to.

How blinkered, how prejudiced does someone have to be not to be able to say that the vandalism of graves (which in itself reminds me of Tony Harrison's "V") and using swastikas at that is a vile act? (NB, I am sort of hoping that Aaro picks up this story for the JC.)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Notes from the new Decent philistinism

Michael Gove:

I was intrigued by Kevin Spacey's plea last week to bring back Play for Today. Did he see any of these when they were broadcast in the 1970s? I remember trying to watch these dreadfully earnest exercises in socialist-realist art during my childhood and thinking that watching live footage of people queueing for a bus would be more compelling. Play for Today was such a terrible exercise in viewer patronisation that it was directly responsible for making the snooker that was on at the same time on BBC2 a huge TV success. Even though we were all watching in black and white.

A Guardian article, outlining the depth of talent that Gove is patronising here. It is hardly the BBC's fault that no Tory has written a decent play for the last fifty years, is it?

Bring us back a coconut, Dave

ohhh Aaro ...

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.

If you guessed that the Cayman Islands Financial Services Association was a broadly benevolent local development organisation, perhaps dedicated to the provision of microcredit schemes to village-level weaving projects, you're wrong.

David Bree, CIFSA Director and Managing Director of DMS Management, said he was delighted to have the UK journalist as a guest speaker.

“This is the second in our series of luncheons and we are delighted to have David Aaronovitch as our guest speaker. As CIFSA looks to broaden the speakers we bring down to the island, we are excited to have the opportunity to bring such a quality speaker over from Europe,” he said.

“We have had very positive feedback from our first luncheon featuring US journalist John Fund and are delighted to have Deloitte as the premium sponsor for this event, with DMS Management, Stuarts Walker Hersant Attorneys at Law, AON Cayman National, and Brac Informatics Centre as standard sponsors. The Cayman Observer is once again a media sponsor and there are still limited sponsorship opportunities available.”

I think this provides useful context for Aaro's latest bit, on how there really is no reason to subsidise rural post offices "out of general taxation". My guess btw is that it will be the same talk on "Conspiracy Theories from JFK to Princess Diana", so if you heard it in Dundee I wouldn't make the trip to Grand Cayman specially.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

That Oath Stupidity Again

I recently finished Andrew Robinson's The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone. (Highly recommended and the subtitle rather understates his talents.)

Please bear in mind that Young lived during the Enlightenment which our Decent friends are so fond of (and was exceptional even among obvious contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin and Humphrey Davy). Page 56:

He chose to spend the requisite years at Cambridge University, in order to obtain the degree of bachelor of medicine (M.B.). ...
In going to Cambridge University, Young finally had to cut his links with the Quakers. In 1797, in fact as late as 1871 [my emphasis, DW], every candidate for a bachelor's degree at Cambridge had to declare that he was "bona fide a member of the Church of England as by law established." Dissenters were excluded.

That was loyalty oaths then. This is loyalty oaths now. Pacifist Cal State teacher gets job back:

A Cal State East Bay math teacher and practicing Quaker who was fired for refusing to sign a state-required loyalty oath got her job back this week, with an apology from the university and a clarification that the oath does not require employees to take up arms in violation of their religious beliefs.

The article continues:

State governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for playing a time-traveling cyborg in the popular 'Terminator' series, grated "I'll be back" to assembled journalists before firing bazooka rounds into their ranks ...

No, I made that last bit up.

Is there a reason we're not big on loyalty oaths? Could it be that (as someone noted, but I've typically forgotten who) Voltaire, Diderot, and de Sade were all educated by Jesuits and all were atheists? That Jefferson was probably a Deist? That Thomas Young (above) was brought up a Quaker (but probably atheist or agnostic). That Newton was a Unitarian? That no one worth anything has ever believed in the received bollocks?

Could it be that if we'd stuck with such ridiculous pretences we'd still have candles for light and the fevers of the plague for warmth?

If I took this whole British loyalty thing remotely serious, I'd declare war on those heathen Yanks now! Although, god knows, they're even worse at the jingoism frothing.

Bonus track: "That's not unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful."

The International People

Aaro has to do a bit of barrel-scraping to find a column for the Jewish Chronicle The new polite antisemitism.

By minor serendipity these two things happened on Tuesday of last week. First there was the laconic posting in the comments section accompanying my column in the online edition of The Times. I’d written about the row over the oath. Anyway, in amongst the “I am British and they’ll have to force me to take an oath over my cold, dead body” stuff, was this from “Edward” of Lincoln. Repeating a line that I’d used, Edward simply appended: “Ah the international people. Don’t you just love them?”

The comments moderator didn’t see it, and nor would many of the readers. But Edward knew and I knew who “the international people” were; his opening “ah” was one of confirmation (yes, this is what they are like) — and “don’t you just love them?” meant more or less the opposite. The International Jew, the rootless cosmopolitan, the eternal outsider, the underminer of nations, don’t you just hate them? And there it was, slipped in there, as it couldn’t have been for anyone else.

The line that Edward quoted was from Dave's defence of the oath, My oath to the Land of No:

Well, if a bint on a rock with a stick can be a vital British symbol of togetherness, then why can we not have an oath?

It's an odd line - 'bint' is much more a Jeremy Clarkson word than an Aaronovitch word. As far as I know Britannia went out as a symbol of Britain about the same time the German army stopped wearing spikes on their helmets. And she's now gone from our coins. The argument seems to go, "We have a silly symbol already, so why not do something equally silly, but 21st century silly rather than 19th century silly?" Immanuel Kant it is not.

This isn't to defend Edward, who's plainly barking: he's accusing our man of being an internationalist (I read that comment as code for 'Trot', but DA is sadly probably correct in his interpretation) because he's arguing for national solidarity.

I've called DA's column 'barrel-scraping' not because I've any desire to defend the anti-semite who writes to the Times, but because lunacy is rife among comment-leavers. Going by the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' you'd think half the country had a shape shifting alien as an imaginary friend. The Telegraph blog the other day on What is the nature of Tony Blair's faith? attracted a commenter with the moniker 'yes2faith' who said:

...he [Blair] has also recently joined the counterfeit church so he should be completely at home.

Trust me on this, there isn't anything 'new' about idiots who read the right-wing press being rabid racists, and the Jews are not uniquely singled out.

He may have a point that 'a soft antisemitism is waxing' but where he does almost support this, he wavers.

Then we got enmired in definitional stuff. Was one particular Guardian columnist — who I recognise from my old street-fighting, caucusing days as a Stalinist throwback to the anti-imperialist alliance — invoking blood-libel imagery in a description of the IDF in Gaza? Heads were shaken, positions occupied. In fact, I was as sure he’d have said it about any army he didn’t like — Israeli, American or British — as that he wouldn’t have said it about the Russians, the Al Aqsa Brigades or the People’s Liberation Army.

Indeed, a lot of the anti-Israeli stuff could be said about any army the speaker doesn't like. That does not make it anti-Semitic.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Fish Rots From The Head

Via P O'Neill this short (about 22 seconds) extract from a Paul Berman interview. Berman: "my thoughts and Dick Cheney's thoughts have nothing in common".

Berman is a "muscular liberal" isn't he? (At least, I hope the term doesn't mean Arnold Schwarzenegger when practicing free-market economics.) Could someone please explain what the egg of truth thing means? And if 'democracy' is so important, whose philosophy is more important? Dick Cheney who has been voted into office several times or Paul Berman?

On a similar theme, I return to perhaps the most disgusting post ever by Christopher Hitchens.

The most surprising thing about Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker essay on the Abu Ghraib depravities is surely its title. It is headed "The Gray Zone." Can that be right? It seems to be generally assumed that the work of the sniggering video-morons is black and white: one of the very few moral absolutes of which we have a firm and decided grasp.
But Hersh's article wants to argue that the fish rots from the head, as indeed it very often does (even though, metaphorically speaking, one might think that the fish's guts would be the first to decay). And in order to argue this top-down process, he decides to propose that it began with Sept. 11.

(The link in Hitchens' piece no longer works; I have altered the text above the include a link which does.) You can tell he's insincere from the opening gambit of trying to argue with what the title means. In fact it comes from a paragraph very close to the end of the piece.

"Congress is going to get to the bottom of this," the Pentagon consultant said. "You have to demonstrate that there are checks and balances in the system." He added, "When you live in a world of gray zones, you have to have very clear red lines."
Senator John McCain, of Arizona, said, "If this is true, it certainly increases the dimension of this issue and deserves significant scrutiny. I will do all possible to get to the bottom of this, and all other allegations."
"In an odd way," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, "the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized." Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. "Some JAGs [Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps] hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war," Roth told me. "We're giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar."

I suppose the chief difference between 'journalism' and 'blogging' is that one involves actual researching material and the other sitting on your arse complaining about grammar. I will leave the reader to work out which of those I consider 'the Dupe', as Norman Geras unaccountably calls him, to be. I'm a blogger, so I'll draw attention to Hitchens' poor grasp of what a metaphor is.

Via Mike Power, a rather wonderful Vanity Fair article by Philippe Sands1.

The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a “trickle up” explanation: that is, the decision was generated by military commanders and interrogators on the ground. This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration—by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees—lawyers—who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option. This is the story of how the torture at Guantánamo began, and how it spread.

I know I've mentioned this before. I'll almost certainly mention it again. 'Decency' = apologia for torture.

[1] A suspiciously French sounding name. So, Miss-you Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey, do you think whether your argument is "correct" or "incorrect" is a more relevant point than who are the people making the arguments?

Update Sat 20:47. There's an argument going on in the comments between regular commenter Justin and Hawkforce (who I think is a Harry's Place regular). As I couldn't post my response in the comments, I'll take the liberty of posting it here.

EJH: [To 'Why can't we expect better things of them?] "Because the history of superpowers suggests otherwise?"

I largely agree. We seem to be talking about that most booby-trapped of subjects: morality. The good things which have come from superpowers have been morally neutral.

The USSR did pretty much all the above for Afghanistan. Apart from the peace bit of course.

Seriously, I nearly wrote either a post or a very long comment somewhere to the effect: When we were in India, we build the railways and constructed an efficient civil service because it suited the Empire. These things may have lasted and helped India become the world's largest democracy, but they were done selfishly. The nation-building in Iraq was done, in theory, altruistically. That is to say, it was done on the cheap. Educating, say, Indian kids in Latin to serve the Empire was an investment. Educating Iraqi kids to read, er, because it's a bit touchy-feely, but who gives a fuck when it comes down to it? is a waste. And it was money saved. Well, the US has learned one thing from history. They learned that we educated Ghandi. And they're determined it won't happen to them. We, poor fools, gave up India with limited bloodshed. Cheney hopes to improve on us. He's doing great.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Free Tibet in every packet

Tibet seems to be the latest decent cause du jour (as noted at the Decentpedia). Since my own knowledge is pretty limited, I'm going to limit myself to a couple of observations. First, the Decent narrative is, as ever, one of a people yearning to be free who are crushed by diabolical totalitarians. Well maybe. But note the contrast with other contexts where the Decents line themselves up on the side of the forces of modernity against the the remnants of medieval servitude. If the Decent tardis went back to 1949, who is to say that they wouldn't have been denouncing the lamas in terms currently reserved for Qaradawi and the Taliban and lining up with the Chinese Communist Party, as the representatives of "progress"? (cf also the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, of course.) Second, I note that they are busy recycling the claim that the Chinese have killed 1.2 million Tibetans. A few moments googling tells me that this claim is hardly uncontroversial, to say the least. More to the point, how come the Decents recycle such factoids uncritically when it suits their agenda, but express pop-eyed incredulity when standard techniques produce answers they don't like for Iraqi excess deaths?

Aaro revisits a theme

(Update: don't ignore the Mary Kaldor post below, just because I have no concept of sensible pacing - bb)

Aaro in satirical mood. Come on, everybody, calm down for Christ's sake; the world isn't such a dangerous place, immigrants aren't boiling our swans, crime isn't rising. So count your blessings and stop being so angry about everything. Except terrorism, of course, you should still keep shitting yourselves about that (that last bit was me editorialising). Aaro has a pop at Martin Samuel, trying to portray him as a thinking man's Clarkson (which he is, a bit) and ignoring the fact that he's done a few fantastic pieces of opinion journalism recently (like this one; even the one Aaro deservedly mocks is written with energy and style, and although it's quite studiedly economically illiterate in mistaking the signs of prosperity for inflation, Aaro is not well placed to criticise anyone for that).

Of course it's in the general line of "don't criticise your betters", which I seem to remember I used to get much more angry about in the younger days of this blog - but after five years of that fucking war and the rise of organised Decency it troubles me less; how can you really work up a froth of rage about Aaro when the Times also prints Gove? It's like ignoring North Korea and Zimbabwe and always concentrating on criticising Israel. Which I also do.

The cars stuff, btw, has a bit of backstory: since the housing crisis began and therefore interest has dwindled in the only section of the Ham & High anyone really cares about, that newspaper has been spicing up its local news pages by serialising an extended interview in which Tom Conti calls Aaro, at length, a cunt, in retaliation for Aaro slagging Conti to "an audience at Burgh House" (I think this is like the posh equivalent of doing stand-up). In the mean streets where I come from this might have been settled by a gentlemanly fight in a car park (and, I suppose, in the meaner streets that I don't come from, by a volley of gunfire). But up in Hampstead they have their own folkways, so this feud will roll on.

Did you see, by the way, that I brought up the subject of the subprime lending crisis at the start of the last paragraph? That was "foreshadowing", because the interesting thing about this particular strand of Aaroism (tolerance and understanding for our social superiors, ASBOs and deregulated labour markets for the plebs) is that it's going mainstream. As far as can be seen, John McCain's current economic policy is that there should be no bailout of the housing market, no assistance for overstretched subprime borrowers, but that "the financial markets" need to be the recipients of large amounts of taxpayers' mun, while the long term solution involves more deregulation. We've noted in the past that Aaro lacks an economic policy; maybe this is the one. It's a combination of the "risk-obsessed society", social and economic benefits of removing, on the one hand, and traffic-calming schemes and their moral equivalents on the other. Obviously this could be presented (and to Aaro, probably subjectively feels like) as a sensible pragmatism, but one can't help noticing that it's always the rich and/or powerful who get the benefit of the doubt and need our tolerance, understanding and often money, while it's the man in the street (even if that street's a leafy one in Hampstead) who needs to be taught a few sharp shocks. Sort of Frank Furedi for thee, Ben Bernanke for me.

New byline photo, by the way (or possibly a bit of Photoshop work on the old one). Either way, they've sorted out the terrible lighting and shadows that gave Aaro bags from hell under his eyes, and cropped it a bit lower across the forehead to make his hair look a bit less unruly. It's an improvement, though I do wish he'd make a decision about that beard. It has to be said that this is one area in which Aaro has Martin Samuels' number for sure.

In related "having a pop back at Aaro" news, the Bishop of Durham tries to defend his use of the phrase "killing surplus old people". To be honest it doesn't convince.

[1] A sidebar on the sort of subjective experiences which can shape a man's mental picture of what the labour market's like: Aaro noted in his stand-up act, and in his London mayor column, that his move into political journalism was highly fortuitous, as it came at a time when he had passed and surpassed his Peter Promotion Point and was stuck in a middle manager's job in broadcasting, while being no good at administration and during a period of middle management downsizing. At this point he "discovered not only that I could write, but also that I absolutely loved it[1]" and moved into print journalism at the Independent. Which is true and fair enough; Aaro's a good writer and deserves his prominence. But he's also a very good friend of Peter Mandelson (they were Young Communists together and Mandy got Aaro the job on Weekend World, and 1995 was pretty much the apogee of Mandelson's trajectory. Aaronovitch Watch (incorporating World of Decency) is not going to condemn anyone for taking their breaks where they find them, but it has to be recognised that there were lots of middle managers getting shoved out of the TV industry at the time, many of them also intelligent and interesting people who could have written award-winning columns. If things had zigged rather than zagged, one can easily see an alternate version of history in which Aaro experienced the sorts of economic policies he recommends from the other side.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I Heart Mary Kaldor

Or, the Intelligent and decent Decent, a post in one act.

We've only mentioned Mary Kaldor once before which was a reference to her interview with Alan Johnson. tehgrauniad printed a frankly pretty crap and unrevealing interview yesterday. There is one highlight however.

More generally, the gap between the ideal of human security and the facts on the ground poses a conundrum of which Kaldor is all too aware.
"The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes," Kaldor admits, a sentiment she spells out in stark terms early on in her book.
"It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense. Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention."
A crucial and recurring problem for those who intervene, even those with the best of intentions, says Kaldor, is the psychological distance and the cultural barriers between the so-called internationals and the local population. Kaldor remembers an instance in Iraq where she was appalled by the insensitivity and arrogance of a young, uneducated American talking down to a highly qualified Iraqi with a Phd. While this was an extreme example, she sees the same dynamics in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Being a nasty old reactionary, I seem to remember Archimedes or Pythagoras or one of those guys being cut down by some unlettered Roman legionary while drawing geometrical diagrams in the sand. It's the way it goes: brute force versus brains. The "highly qualified Iraqi" should be lucky he's still breathing. Have gun: can do without cultural sensitivity.

The Johnson interview is typical A'NTM'J - ie utterly bizarre.

Johnson: But it is legitimate to bomb sometimes, isn't it? What about bombing Serb positions to make them stop shelling ordinary Sarajevans as they shop in the market?
Kaldor: I was very unhappy about it at the time, and I am even more so in retrospect. I was in favour of intervention in Kosovo but I was very unhappy with the use of air-strikes. I just think it's unacceptable. I mean, what happened at Nuremberg was victor's justice. We should have also addressed Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The problem with the liberal internationalists and their alliance with the neocons is that they believe in wars for human rights so they have flipped over to the human rights side instead of holding peace and human rights together.

Please note that I don't support the "shelling [of] ordinary Sarajevans". However, mortar positions were shelled throughout WWI for example and the bombing/shelling didn't make them stop. There's an implicit claim in Johnson: kill them all, and they'll stop. It's not supported by history.

Update 4:50 pm Alex in the comments suggests that I was wrong about Sarajevo. It looks like I am wrong and NTM was right.

Spreading Democracy

I've just had a jaw-dislocating "WTF?" moment. The following headline from the Torygraph came up on my RSS reader: Pentagon: Bush's authority trumps torture law.

The Pentagon approved the use of harsh interrogation techniques against terror suspects on the grounds that President George W Bush's authority during wartime trumps any international ban on torture, a declassified memo has confirmed.
The Justice Department memo, released on Wednesday and dated March 14, 2003, outlines legal justification for military interrogators to use harsh tactics against al-Qa'eda and Taliban detainees overseas so long as they did not specifically intend to torture their captives.
Most controversially, it defines torture as the intended sum [my emphasis - DW] of a variety of acts, which could include acid scalding, severe mental pain and suffering, threat of imminent death and physical pain resulting in impaired body functions, organ failure or death.

While I know that 'democracy' is used by all sides to mean 'good things' and 'what we believe' surely it has to include 'transparent laws' and 'law making and law interpretation being public - either through the parliamentary debating chambers or the judiciary and NOT through the military or the civil service in secret'. How clandestine law interpretation (and wrong interpretation at that) and violation of human rights puts 'Bush republicans' at the 'pro-Western' end of the Egg of Truth is a mystery to me.

what's left of Aaro watch

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been outed.

But I'm a little more concerned by the authors of Aaronovitch Watch, some of who are connected with a Trot totalitarian (as if there were any other kind of Trot) blog.

Now speaking as a Decent anti-Decent with indecent antecedents I have to say I’m shocked and outraged by this revelation.

Come on Ben, don’t be shy. Tell us more about these “connections”. Umbilical? Drug related? Exactly how “concerned” are you, you little chin stroker you? On whose behalf? And how many is “some? “And what is this “blog” of which you speak? I’m dying to know.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hands across the water

Here's one way in which the controversy over liberal interventionism is like the Second World War; rather late in the day, when our trusty little band of Watchers has all but been ground down beneath the Mighty Egg Of Truth and our Empire is a shadow of its former self, the Yanks are coming to save our asses.

Leaving aside the narcissism involved in the implicit claim that making banal arguments about liberal democracy being preferable to totalitarianism represent great courage, I'm confused about the causal mechanism here. Protests that had no impact on a domestic government's rush to war can be expected to topple dictatorships in other countries? Protest movements in Iran will be helped by being associated with western groups?

Sweet as a nut.

[Paul Berman]He's made it very difficult to present the war as an extension of the liberal and humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s in which Tony Blair played a distinguished and honorable and brave role.

Maybe it was hard to "present" that way wasn't. Anyway, apparently we were supposed to believe that the leader of the most important American ally in the war couldn't influence Bush's conduct at all, but some liberal hawks with no electoral constituency who supported the war for the right reasons could. Evidently, the fact that this kind of stuff is presented in a frame of self-congratulation for telling the Hard Truths that war opponents are too blinded by Bush-hatred to see adds to the comic effect

The temptation to just coast along and just put up a link to that post every week or so instead of proper "World of Decency" blogging is palpable. If it wasn't for the Yanks we'd be speaking German, you know.