Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Righteous and Wrong"

Malise Ruthven on Paul Berman in the New York Review of Books:
It is tempting to conclude that in mounting this intemperate attack on Garton Ash, Berman is really writing about himself. Despite his implied claim to be one of the few journalists or intellectuals from Western backgrounds “to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas,” phrases such as “carelessly adopted positions,” “flippant phrasing,” and “paucity of research” constantly spring to mind when reading his book.

A bad name

Graham of H*rry's Pl*ace has us bang to rights. (He's talking about Socialist Unity, but we're in his sights too.)

What would John Cole do? Probably this. Sorry.

Friday, July 30, 2010

I don't know it it's the whole story, but it's certainly part of the story.

You're either with the bigots or you're against them

Yesterday Captain Cabernet linked to Howard Jacobson, who wrote the following.

The mood of those months inevitably found its way into my novel. I wanted to record what it was like being Jewish in this country then, when it seemed reasonable to ask whether loathing of Israel would spill into loathing of Jews - such a thing is not beyond the bounds of possibility - and whether a new Kristallnacht was in the offing.

All I can say today is, perhaps Jacobson is not so wrong. Hatred of minority group. Check. Nasty, bigoted politics based on fauxtrage. Check.

Update Saturday 31/7 10:30 am: should have written this last night, but this is getting a lot of reaction. Statement on Cordoba House Controversy J Street and commentary on that from Matthew Yglesias (also Jewish).

Yes this is becoming something of an obsession with me too. Comments on Standpoint blogs don't count for much. The only person who bothered to reply to my comment made my point better than I could hope to, so I left it there. I think that the ADL have sided with some really poisonous and bigoted people.

Another update Sat 3:45 pm. I like this tweet:

My alienation from and disgust with the "organized Jewish community" (and the polity of Israel) is close to complete.

Another update Sat 9 pm Gawker: ADL Sides With Bigots Against Ground Zero Mosque, Officially Outlives Its Purpose. I've yet to see any Decent commentary on this. Norman Geras seems to have taken today off, perhaps tired out after strenuous huffing at Ed Miliband. Do let us know if anyone defends the ADL's "ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain —unnecessarily — and that is not right."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Does anyone have a mirror?

One hesitates to get involved in family quarrels, but the Decents are getting all enthusiastic about Howard Jacobson's latest psychologising screed in the Jewish Chronicle. Jacobson writes:

When it comes to Jewish anti-Zionists, their Jew-hatred is barely disguised, not in what they say about Israel but in the contempt they show for the motives and feelings of fellow-Jews who do not think as they do.

So why is Jacobson, in showing contempt (as he does) for fellow Jews who do not think as he does, not (by his own lights) also displaying "barely disguised" Jew-hatred?

If you were doing a radio program on intelligence failures of the pre 9/11 era, would you call it "The Truthers Were Right"?

A bit of a shame, to say the least, that Aaro has decided to have a go at the William F Buckley line in McCarthy revisionism. Like trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Field-Marshall Haig (something which one historian in every single generation of right-wing farts to come out of Oxford has tried, always in the belief that they are doing something new and scandalous), McCarthy rehabilitationism is the sort of thing that wins you points in debating competitions - that is to say, you can make a sort of case, but the case has to be based on attack rather than defence, kicking a few holes in the oversimplified conventional wisdom on the subject and hoping that nobody looks too closely at the actual detail.

Basically, if you're doing McCarthy rehabilitation, you have to bang the table hard and shout that there were! communists! in the US government! and concentrate very hard on the fact that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were actually guilty. You then basically shut up and hope that people will start arguing with you about McCarthy's methods and you've basically progressed to the next round, because you get to look all magnanimous in making concessions about the illiberal abuses of process in the prosecution of people who were, after all, basically guilty. You don't even need to wheel out the Barry Goldwater quote about extremism in the defence of liberty if you catch the judges' eye just right.

What you don't want to do if you're arguing the pro-McCarthy case, is let anyone take a look at what McCarthy actually believed. His most famous speech (the "conspiracy of infamy so black" one) is all about his assertion that Dean Acheson and General George Marshall had spent the previous twenty years undermining the USA for the benefit of Soviet Russia, and that Marshall in particular had sent tens of thousands of American troops to their deaths in this cause. In the language of 9/11 Truthers, McCarthy was a MIHOPper, who was certainly prepared to entertain theories that President Truman himself was a Soviet agent even if he disclaimed personal belief in them.

There certainly was Soviet espionage in the higher levels of the US Government in the 1950s. There certainly was a need for a thorough investigation of this. The fact that this vitally necessary investigation fell into the hands of an immoral and crazy conspiracy theorist is not something that anyone should be making any sorts of excuses for, and it wasn't a question of his "methods" - what McCarthy actually believed, was crazily wrong. There were plenty of anti-communists who were not wrong in the same way, and who hated McCarthy.

If Aaro did a documentary on the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, would he call it "George Galloway was right?". Or perhaps "Norman Baker MP was right?".

Footnote: an interesting detail from McCarthy's infamy speech:

It was Marshall, with Acheson and Vincent eagerly assisting, who created the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war.

which just caught my attention, as Decent idol Henry "Scoop" Jackson was later obsessed with the possibility of an anti-Soviet alliance with China (a rich vein of embarrassing Scoop quotes, almost on a par with his colourful views on the subject of the Japanese).

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Fall at the First Para

One of the joys of stopping Aaro Watch was not feeling that I had to read Nick Cohen. But I did this week, anyway, and I regretted it.

Much of my 'watching' is really concerned with style, and Nick's seems to have declined over the years. Still, for lots of reasons, his first paragraph is particularly bad. I commented (I'm DaveW), but it's annoyed me so much, I'm going to vent here too.

And the Lord said unto Cain: "Where is Abel thy brother?" And he said: "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" And he said: "What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground." Like David and Ed Miliband, I come from a left-wing family. Red diaper babies were not taught to "do" God by our parents, only to do him in. The Miliband boys will not have learned that the first story in Genesis after the Fall is of brother murdering brother, and the book goes on to describe how Jacob tricked his older brother Esau into selling his birthright for a "mess of potage".

Nick seems to be arguing that the Miliband brothers come from a similar background to him, and that he can therefore infer what their schooling was like. He's doesn't talk about their education with reference to interviews with or publications by Ralph Miliband or his two sons, all three of whom have in fact said quite a lot at one time or another. Rather than doing research, he relies on inference, and he really ought to know that that's not good enough. He seems to imply that neither the Milibands nor he were taught the Book of Genesis, so it's rather odd that he quotes it.

But I've been talking about style, and Nick picks words with a carelessness that is more audacious than his mind-reading. "The Miliband boys will not have learned..." It would be simpler to have written that they "did not learn" but that would be clearly in the realm of facts that one could check. "Learned" is also passive [update: wrong! see third comment], and they could have picked up the Cain and Abel story even if they weren't taught it.

I decided to try to research this. David Miliband's adopted son got [a] place at Church of England school despite not being baptised. The interesting thing here is that Boris Johnson (among others) went to the same primary as David Miliband, and Primrose Hill was and is a state school and therefore under the Education Act 1944:

The Act also introduced compulsory prayer into all state-funded schools on a daily basis. This clause was amended by the Education Reform Act 1988, which specified that the act of worship should be of a broadly Christian message unless such a message was deemed to be inappropriate for a particular school or group of children.

My understanding is that the "broadly Christian" part was taken for granted in the original 1944 Act.

If a columnist has to speculate when he could write from research, is there any point in taking his conclusions seriously? I'm not even going to discuss the rest of the piece. He's pro-David and anti-Ed. And anti-Balls too in Standpoint. I don't suppose very many Labour members take Standpoint, so the influence of Nick's prejudices on the Leadership election is likely to approach zero, but "I hate Ed Balls" isn't really Pulitzer standard political journalism is it?

Rant over.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

For your edification and delectation

This is cruel, but I can't help it. Those of you who follow David Aaronovitch on Twitter will know he's very partial to the opinions of his mate John Rentoul. Yesterday was no exception:

New Improved Banned List | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs

Rentoul has described the "banned list" as an attempt to hold back the tide of witless cliché during the long election campaign.

I'm sure that just because Aaro made a BBC programme, he didn't write the website copy.

David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable about the McCarthy period.

Cliche? Check. Witless? Check. Should the above appeal to you, further details are here. 1:30 pm Radio 4.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Decent Historian

As AaroWatch winds down, and we look back on the last ten years or so, we might reflect that the Decents were pretty poor at intellectual cheer-leading or talent-spotting. They insisted on treating Paul Berman as an authority on contemporary Islam when it was pretty clear that he didn’t know much about the subject at all. They repeatedly wrote as if Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? was a significant contribution to political debate, when it was an incoherent mishmash, built around a stupendously vague notion of what in fact was ‘left’ (such that John Major and Douglas Hurd’s foreign policy could somehow be placed squarely in the book’s firing line). The nadir came with Alan Johnson’s softsoap Democratiya interview with Alan Bostom – "And how about the denial of intellectuals in the West?"-- a man even Little Green Footballs regarded as "a bit too much of an Islamophobe headbanger".

But here’s a curiosity. Throughout the Decent decade, there was one prominent scholar, at the height of his powers, enormously productive, brilliantly clever, hugely multilingual, with a fluent writing style, very well connected in both Britain and the United States, with particular interests in the idea of Enlightenment values, the history of European Jews, the crisis of Dutch multiculturalism, and contemporary European antisemitism. These were all the standard topics of Decent obsession, concerning which he argued positions entirely congruent with the wider worldview of the "anti-totalitarian left" -- and yet one hardly ever saw his name in the oceans of bloggish and not-so-bloggish commentary on Decent affairs. In what was for the most part the intellectual desert of the Decent Left, he and his writing could have served as the most extraordinarily fertile oasis -- yet for some reason, which I don’t begin to understand, the caravans of columnists and the camel-trains of bloggers repeatedly passed him by. And, for a Decent scholar, he even had an ideal name.

Jonathan Israel is Professor in the School for Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. This is about as cushy a job in contemporary academic life as there is: it comes with few obligations beyond the opportunity to get on with one’s research, fantastic library facilities, and considerable patronage. The faculty of the Institute is stellar, and, over the years, has included Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Clifford Geertz, Albert O. Hirschman, and the man who coined the term "decent left" himself, Michael Walzer, who has now been associated with the Institute for thirty years, for most of this time as its UPS Foundation Professor. Israel’s research has changed its focus over the years. He started out as an historian of colonial Mexico in the 1970s, and spent the 1980s and 1990s writing about Spain, Holland and the Jews from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. More recently, he has reinvented himself as an intellectual historian in order to write his colossal series on the European Enlightenment. There have been two huge instalments in this sequence -- Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) -- and one smaller helping -- A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (2009) -- a book which summarises Israel's main argument to date and prepares the way for the yet-unpublished third volume in the sequence, on the era of the American and French Revolutions.

The dominant trends over the last few decades among historians have been to disaggregate "the Enlightenment", to deny that this label can pick out one, trans-European intellectual phenomenon, and instead to focus on particular contexts, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Neapolitan Enlightenment, or (in one of J. G. A. Pocock's recent books) an "Arminian Enlightenment". Israel has returned to an older tradition, associated with Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, in order to defend the existence of an international Enlightenment, or, perhaps better, to defend the existence of two. First, there is a Moderate Enlightenment, associated with, inter alia, Newton, Locke, Leibniz, Smith, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau (after 1755) and the bulk of the American Revolutionaries. Second, there is the Radical Enlightenment, deriving its inspiration from the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, and including Bayle, Diderot, D’Holbach and Helvétius, Rousseau (before 1755) and many of the French Revolutionaries, including Sieyès, Condorcet and Mirabeau. And Israel emphatically takes sides -- the Moderate Enlightenment he repeatedly finds to be conservative and inegalitarian, little better than a defence of the ancien régime status quo; against it he champions the Radical Enlightenment, with its core commitments to liberty, equality, the denial of religious authority and the defence of the secular state.

It's obvious why the Decent Left ought to like Jonathan Israel's vision of Enlightenment, which gives determinate content to the idea of "Enlightenment values" and uncomplicatedly presents the Enlightenment as an unfinished project with immediate political relevance to the present. This comes out especially clearly in Israel’s powerful 2004 Pierre Bayle Lecture [doc] delivered in Rotterdam, which begins with reflections on the recent murder of Theo van Gogh and proceeds from there by way of a discussion of the Dutch Golden Age and the arguments of Pierre Bayle (one of Israel’s heroes, and, as it happens, also one of mine) to an indictment of the contemporary model of Dutch multiculturalism -- and to criticism of the European press for its coverage of the Jenin "massacre", with its "obvious bias rooted in ancient theological stereotypes and prejudice".

Israel has other affinities with the Decent Left, too. He doesn't like postmodern currents in recent scholarship, for one thing, but there's also something of the "with us or against us" psychology of Decency, too, in his historical writing, as he slots people into either his Radical or his Moderate Enlightenments, seeing black and white where many other observers just see varying shades of grey. Thus: Bayle is one of the good guys, so he isn’t just an atheist (itself a controversial judgement, but one which is probably correct), he’s a specifically Spinozist atheist (which seems to me to be to be a real stretch, in light of Bayle’s characteristically sharply sceptical turn of mind). But -- as is not the case with the Bermans and the Cohens -- there really is a "there" there, there really is something worth engaging with, and arguing against, and the engagements and the arguments are in full swing: here, for example, is the distinguished French historian Antoine Lilti, writing in Annales [pdf, French]; or, in a less academic vein, here’s Samuel Moyn in the pages of The Nation, here’s a robust response on the World Socialist Website, and here’s one version of the subsequent exchange between Israel and Moyn (the other version is in the correspondence columns of The Nation, and not available, as far as I can tell, to non-subscribers online). All good clean fun, and highly educational.

But, as I say, it's all a bit of a puzzle. If I were a Decent blogger, I'd have been drawing loud attention to his various publications over the last few years, and praising them to the skies. But they’ve all chosen not to, for whatever reasons of their own. And so, as AaroWatch prepares to disappear forever beneath the cyber-waves, let this tiny bit of Jonathan Israel-related consciousness-raising be its gift to the wider wonderful world of Decency, on which this website's been so very parasitic for quite so long.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Do we need a new post?

I'm only asking. If so, on what?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Was Byron A Decent?

I've had this one on my mind for a while - a subset of the "Decency in Literature" project which has been kicked around in the comments and one of the valedictory posts I've wanted to get out as we slip away into the post-Aaro Great Silence. Basically, occasionally leafing through the Penguin edition of "Don Juan", one comes across a really interesting argument between the editor and the author over the subject of Byron's ridicule of Lord Castlereagh.

As Peter Manning notes in the back matter gloss on Byron's line from the introduction "The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh",

"Modern historians, who are not swayed by partisan animosity, acknowledge his merits and the shrewdness of his policy, that benefited British interests and helped to achieve stability in Europe, urgently needed after the Napoleonic turmoil. He strove to keep Russia or Prussia or Austria from gaining the overwhelming domination that Napoleon had earlier won. Partly for this purpose he cooperated with Metternich to limit the power of Russia and Prussia, and joined Talleyrand and Wellington in preventing the ruinous dismemberment of France that her Continental enemies wanted. From the conference at Aix-la-Chappelle (1818) onward, he condemned the efforts of the Quadruple Alliance to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations and pointed as precedent to the rebellions in South America. Though in 1821 he conceded Austria's legal right to quell the revolt at Naples, England under his leadership dissented from the deliberations at Troppau (1820) and Laibach (1821) that sanctioned the principle of repressive intervention. The reader of Don Juan should also remember that Castlereagh tried hard, but failed, to persuade the Congress of Vienna to abolish the slave trade. He was not the blundering scoundrel that Byron excoriated. His suicide in 1822, preceded by acute depression, was caused by overwork and the strain of his many official responsibilities.

Manning is actually being a little too easy on Castlereagh here in my opinion; the depression which caused his suicide was not really brought on quite so much by overwork per se as by the stress of being the main sponsor of the Six Acts, aimed at repression of the movement for democratic rights for the working class, in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre. Castlereagh's also not remembered particularly fondly in Ireland, although it should be emphasised that this is for political reasons (he was Lord Lieutenant and responsible for the 1800 Act of Union, regarded by O'Connell as a traitor) rather than because of brutality (he was actually a quite strong advocate of Catholic emancipation and indeed resigned over the issue; lots of literary scholars writing on Byron seem to assume that Castlereagh "enforced brutal measures on the Irish" because the British government usually did, but it's not true - Byron is particularly unfair about this).

But the Six Acts issue came late in Castlereagh's life and Ireland was pretty incidental to Byron's hatred of him. The real animus against Castlereagh on the part of Byron, Shelley and the rest of them was that in their view, he sold out the Italian city states (and Greece, but it was the Italians that really got them going). The basic reason that Byron invites travellers to "stop … and piss" on Castlereagh's grave is that he wasn't prepared to take Britain into a war with Austria for the sake of self-government in Genoa and Naples. As with all Decent causes, this is basically a just one; the way in which the great powers carved up Europe via the congresses of Vienna and Laibach and et cetera was certainly not edifying. However, this was ten years after the Napoleonic Wars! Can you really blame Castlereagh for thinking that Europe probably deserved a break from all the slaughtering and the horror and everything, particularly since it is not actually as if the Neapolitans were labouring under the Austrian jackboot, or that King Ferdinand was promising them freedom (the clue is in the word "King").

My opinion is that Byron's views were of a part with the general Decent horror of diplomacy. ("When you ask about the bloodshed, they tell you an omelette can't be made without breaking eggs. When you ask where's the omelette, they start blethering about Douglas Hurd").

A bungler even in its disgusting trade,
And botching, patching, leaving still behind
Something of which its masters are afraid,
States to be curbed and thoughts to be confined,
Conspiracy or Congress to be made,
Cobbling at manacles for all mankind,
A tinkering slave-maker who mends old chains,
With God and man's abhorrence for its gains

Byron's entitled to his view, but the fact of the matter is that the Congress of Vienna, at which Castlereagh played a major role, kept Europe at peace for decades. A congenital weakness of counterfactual analysis when carried out in the Decent press (it's the stock in trade of the Henry 'Scoop' Jackson Society), is to analyse the potential benefits of war against the potential risks of a negative outcome, while ignoring the fact that simply not being at war is a major benefit of not being at war.

So - was Byron the Christopher Hitchens of his day? Was Castlereagh the Henry Kissinger? Discuss.

When a man has no freedom to fight
for at home,
Let him go fight for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glory of Greece
and of Rome,
And get knocked on the head for his labours

Monday, July 05, 2010

Grandees? What Grandees?

Some political journalist none of you will have heard of tweeted:

The tectonics of voting reform | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs

In which John Rentoul argues that the Tories are in the process of converting to being in favour of the Alternative Vote. And since they're for it, guess what? He ends:

Meanwhile, Andy Burnham has come out on the Labour side against change, dismissing it (to The Guardian) as “a kind of fringe pursuit for Guardian-reading classes”. Since then Denis MacShane, a Labour MP and moderniser has said:

If AV delivered unending years of right-wing government in Australia why are Labour grandees so keen on it?

All change.

Yes, I did write a post about Aaro's tepid support for AV. But, apart from him, who are these Labour grandees? IIRC, changing the system was mooted in the 1997 manifesto. The Jenkins Commission was chaired by the eponymous former Labour grandee. After 1997, Labour lost interest in actually doing anything about the voting system.

I think we can file this under, "Why does Denis MacShane talk such bullshit?" He seems to be siding with some imaginary rebels against a non-existent status quo. Also "moderniser"? That's so 1994. And "unending years" - aren't they, er, over?

Of course, AV or AV+, or STV could be more democratic than FPTP, which would be a good reason for supporting reform, regardless of which party is favoured. That is, if one truly believes that democracy is a good thing and an end in itself. I doubt these 'grandees' exist, but I still hold some hopes for democracy, rather than mere opportunism, in the Labour Party.

Also, of course, we're not Australia.

You have to face up to the facts ...

... and the facts are that the Observer doesn't fucking like Noam Chomsky and they never will. Excellent review-of-a-review, which really does capture the strangely posterized colours of any engagement between Chomsky and Decency - all the arguments are basically the same, but the colour, brightness and contrast get turned up to max.