Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On the roads again, I just can't wait to get back on the roads again

People are indeed, so bloody rude these days, Dave is correct. However, I have two caveats here, the first being that an n=1 survey of the owners of large shitting dogs is not really statistical best practice, and the second being that I am nervous about whether it is really a good idea to extend the observation that "people are so bloody rude these days" into a political program.

There is, as we all know, a lot less dog fouling on the streets of London than there used to be, and this has to be counted a success of the relevant legal changes and enforcement measures that took place. But there is an undertone here - it's a commonplace of my contributions to this blog that the bits of Aaro's journalism which on the face of them look reasonable that need the closest Watching, because they are often little pawn moves aimed at establishing a point that is going to be used later as the foundation for something much less congenial. I think it is the case here - the dog and motorist anecdotes are all about establishing one of Aaro's central theses.

This is the "left lobe" theory that people in general behave in a way that, on the basis of the standards they use when talking about public life, they would find repulsive. This is the basis for a lot of the authoritarian strand in Aaro's politics, for quite a lot of technocracy and for the tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to those who would rule over us, rather than to us. It's saloon-bar Rousseauism (NB: AW has at least two contributors who know one hell of a lot about Rousseau - I am neither of them). Keep an eye out.

On the other hand, Aaro ought to be given some credit for avoiding the equally dreadful populism of the Clarkson lobby - people like Motorists' Voice are more or less as appalling as he says they are. The frustrating thing here is that traffic management is an area where there is actually a lot of good science, and it would make you weep to know how little influence it has on public policy.

The trouble is that it's quite a mathematical subject. It ought to be pretty intuitive to see that "drop a pelican crossing everywhere there has been a fatality" is not going to be the best planning algorithm for pelican crossings (although I suspect it by no means be the worst). But going into the actual details of how you site and program traffic lights gets you pretty quickly into the mathematics of laminar flow, which become pretty hairy - I certainly gave up on Operations Research at this stage.

I think Aaro could give it a rest with his Resident's Association populism (traffic humps are a really bad solution to more or less any problem apart from joy-riding, and the trouble with a lot of these street furniture solutions is that they stick around long after the pattern of land use has changed). But the Clarkson lobby much worse, and Aaro does well in identifying their central intellectual debility - the seeming belief that traffic conditions in the UK have not changed since the 1960s, and that it is the job of government policy to facilitate them continuing to act as if this isn't a fallacy.

Painting GATSO cameras yellow so that they can be seen to give speeding motorists a "fair chance" is about the stupidest thing in the world, and most of the objections to road pricing are on the same level (the specific GPS tracker model of road pricing does raise genuine civil liberties objections in my view, and goes against the principle that it is the roadspace that needs to be priced, not the car). Aaro is also substantially correct on the weird economics that the motor lobby is fond of; I don't recognise the actual numbers he uses for the cost of motoring versus public transport, but there are about a million competing estimates flying around and his numbers are definitely ballpark.

I'd like to hear more about Belle, though, she sounds like quite a sort.

PS: "Don’t you dare …". Still the saloon-bar conversational style in the headlines, but at least this is a new one rather than yet another "I'm sorry but" or "No".

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Where are they now", part XXIV. This week, Ahmed Chalabi

From Nick's book

"I got to know members ot the Iraqi opposition in London, particularly Iraqi Kurds whose compatriots were the targets of one of the last genocides of the twentieth century. They were democratic socialists whose liberal-mindedness extended to opposing the death penalty, even for Saddam Hussein. Obviously, they didn't represent the majority of Iraqi opinion. Equally obviously, they shared the same beliefs as the over-whelming majority of the rich world's liberals and leftists and deserved our support as they struggled against fascism. Not the authoritarianism of a tinpot dictator but real fascism: a messianic one-party state; a Great Leader, whose statue was in every town centre and picture on every news bulletin; armies that swept out in unprovoked wars of foreign aggrandizement; and secret policemen who organized the gassing of 'impure' races. The Iraqi leftists were our 'comrades', to use a word that was by then so out of fashion it was archaic.

When the second war against Saddam Hussein came in 2003, they told me there was no other way to remove him. Kanan Makiya was on their side. He was saying the same things about the crimes against humanity of the Baath Party he had said twenty years before, but although his arguments had barely changed, the political world around him was unrecognizable. American neo-conservatives were his champions now, while the Left that had once cheered him denounced him as a traitor.

Everyone I respected in public life was wildly anti-war, and I was struck by how their concern about Iraq didn't extend to the common courtesy of talking to Iraqis. They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld."

I've bolded the sentence that actually motivated me to write here, because it seems really quite hypocritical. Let me explain. I have a number of points of disagreement with Nick over this passage - in particular, I disagree that the Iraqi opposition was anything like as monolithically in favour of invasion as he claims. The Kurdish parties were, for the very good reason that they already lived in territory controlled by NATO forces in the quasi-independent no-fly zones. But the people who faced the realistic prospect of actually living with the invasion and its consequences were decidedly more cautious about the whole prospect.

With one notable exception, of course. The Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi. Nick was really rather close to this group. He wrote this encomium to them in April 2002, seeing them as the moral equivalent of the ANC. In July of that year, he appeared to be suggesting that he would even withdraw his support for a war in Iraq if INC weren't put in charge (this was during the transitional period, when Nick's support of Bush and Blair was more critical and qualified). By August, he was saying " But the moral calculus would change if the West met the demands of the Iraqi National Congress". It doesn't look to be too much of an exaggeration to say that Ahmed Chalabi sold this war to Nick.

His support and contacts with INC continued right into the war - here's a piece from January 2003, which is rather interesting as it shows that Nick was fully aware that the original war plan was not to bring democracy to Iraq. He also appeared to be taking briefings from them quite uncritically - in February 2003, Nick claimed that the INC was an umbrella group including SCIRI, which was very misleading - in fact, SCIRI had a very short term alliance with INC which stopped basically the second that they realised that Chalabi had an agenda which favoured a much longer US occupation than SCIRI wanted. (This bit of the Observer archive is also rather interesting in that on the very day that Nick was choosing to have a go at his domestic enemies on the Left, Kanan Makiya was also appearing in the Observer, flacking for the big and disastrous Cheney plan, his support for which rather had the effect of tarnishing him in the eyes of anyone who prefers to listen to people with a clue what they're talking about).

So I think we can establish that Nick was really rather close indeed to Ahmed Chalabi and the INC. It is not as if he wasn't warned that this was a bad idea, by Mark Seddon in this case (via the excellent Wikipedia page on Nick Cohen - I think I know who maintains it and well done, it's fantastic). HE had very definitely taken on borad Chalabi's vision of a secular and democratic Iraq (how SCIRI were going to be fitted into this I am not sure), fully de-Baathized and with Chalabi in the top job, and it looks like that was what sold him on the war in the first place.

But, since the war … not so much. Searching the Guardian website gives one mention of Chalabi in Nick's column in 2004, here as a footnote to an article about Howard Shipman. And nothing else. And now in the book, history has been rewritten so that it was Kanan Makiya who was the driving force. I think this is unlikely, because Makiya spent most of the period immediately before the war carrying out lobbying in the USA, where he is a professor at Brandeis University. Nick did have contacts with Makiya (oddly, he refers to Makiya offering him "coffee and digestives in his London flat". Makiya lived and worked in London between 1979 and 1983, but not since, so if he owned the flat from those days, he's made a packet on it. Chalabi did live in London, where the INC is based).

I think this is rather unfair. Makiya was an important dissident, but since the invasion, he has remained in the USA. Chalabi, on the other hand, has continued to be involved in Iraqi politics, presumably at great personal risk to himself, and served as the Deputy Prime Minister as recently as May of last year. Surely to god, if "supporting those Iraqis who are struggling to build democracy" means anything, it means not snubbing an old mate who is actually doing that job? What was that phrase again?

"They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld"

What's that you're saying? Chalabi brought it on himself? Precisely how did he? BY lying about WMD? I don't think so. Nick hasn't turned on anyone else for lying about WMD, and if anyone was providing "multiple rationales" for invading Iraq, Chalabi was. In fact, Chalabi's actions since the invasion certainly seem to show that he was a lot more serious about building democracy in Iraq than Blair or Bush were.

Is it because Chalabi was an Iranian spy? Well, has that charge ever been proved in a court? Recall that Nick took up Chalabi's cause at a time when Chalabi was well known to have been a convicted fraudster. Nick referred to "disputed accusations of fraud", which I think refers to the CIA expenses fraud claims. He doesn't mention the bank fraud charges which were proved in a Jordanian court, but I suspect that at the time he took the Christopher Hitchens line (Hitchens was another big Chalabi fan) that these charges were established in absentia in a court run by a military dictatorship and thus probably trumped up.

However, the Iranian spying charges have never made it anywhere near a court. They've never been tested at all. The CIA floated them out into the public domain and just left them there. They didn't even convince sufficiently many Iraqis to prevent Chalabi from restarting his political career. Although the cold-shouldering of Chalabi does date to about the same period in 2004 when these accusations were first made, they are so insubstantial that a man who swallowed all the fraud problems before the war can surely have no basis to drop Chalabi for this.

I find myself concluding that in the absence of any other explanation (and I tried to get some comment from Nick, on the Guardian chat last week), we have to at least consider that Nick has dropped Chalabi because he nowadays finds him politically embarrassing. It is good to see that there are at least some of the old traditions of the Left still going.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Everyone's a critic

I see that Nick is not taking the sage advice to not bother reading his own reviews …

What strikes me is how many of them have so little to do with the actual book. Here's Philip Hensher in the Independent, about the time he got into an argument with a Welsh woman. I wouldn't link to this normally, but it's part of a genre which Nick has ventured into on several occasions in the past; the one-sided recounting of an incident which very much looks like it might have been much more the author's fault than he recognises. Reading between the lines of the Hensher piece, one cannot help but think that it is at least as likely that he acted like a knob and suffered the consequences, rather than having been made the victim of the cancerous groupthink of the Left. Nick has yet more sympathy for how 'orrible the Left is to Tories in another review from the Standard here - oddly, he doesn't correct Michael Burleigh's (false) claim that Nick grew up in a Jewish household.

Nick does appear to have missed one or two reviews though.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

From the commonplace book of David Aaronovitch

yes yes yes, I know you're all gagging to know what happened at the Nick Cohen "live chat", but we have an Aaro to watch. (Matthew has a couple of Nick nuggets for those that can't wait).

This week's Tuesday column has the "sofa rule" conversational headline ("Not likely!"). It actually has one good point in it. But it reads weirdly - different paragraphs appear to be contradicting or talking past one another. The Jyoti Basu anecdote is funny enough, but it doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the article and the attempts to refer to it in the ending paragraphs look really forced - and Aaro has shot his bolt with respect to ministerial hypocrisy last week with "dyslexogate" anyway.

The good point is that, in general, the local campaigners are full of it on this one. The IPPR study captures the central point perfectly - that there are economies of scale in emergency care, and that a combination of large hospitals and fast ambulances is better in terms of clinical outcomes for serious cases. But I don't think Aaro really tackles the reasons why the protestors are protesting. I see three.

First, is simple Nimbyism. It's true that the fast ride to the big hospital can be better on average. But if you accept that we need fewer, larger hospitals, it is still better for me if the one that's near me is one of the big ones and the one near some other bugger is one of the ones that closes down.

Second, although this may be true for serious emergency cases, these don't actually make up the majority of A&E experiences. Most times you go into an emergency room, it's not a life or death situation; it's just a matter of something that effing hurts, and you want it sorted out sooner rather than later. Small local hospitals are going to have shorter wait times for cases lower down the triage list, which, barring unfortunate coincidence, is closer to the median voter.

But third, and in my view most important, there's something "more than rational" about the politics of closing down hospital A&E departments. The issue here is the slight wrench that you feel in the stomach when you pass a hospital and see the sign saying that it has no A&E. It's a real instinctive reaction, because you can't help picturing yourself walking up to that hospital, bleeding or in pain, and being told to go somewhere else. The fear of being turned away from a door is pretty close to a Jungian archetype - being turned away from a door certainly gets a starring role in the Bible, for example (and I note that you tend to get a lot of local protests aimed at saving maternity units, too). Call me Frank Luntz here, but it's not something that can be argued against with the results of a linear programming model.

But anyway, paragraphs that don't speak to one another. In the para. beginning "By 2008", Aaro notes that the big increase in NHS spending has had big effects in terms of clinical outcomes. Two paragraphs later, we're "spend lots more money and don't get much more work". Well no, Dave. That wasn't the problem with GP contracts at all. If we hadn't got much more work, then the piece-work contracts that GPs were put on would have worked out more or less according to plan. In fact, we got shed-loads more work, meaning that the piece-work contracts suddenly turned ruinously expensive. Note, though, that this is a) a financial problem, not a medical one and b) not exactly a completely unheard of phenomenon in the history of piece-work contracts. The way you deal with it is by extending the minimum targets for next year, same as you do with salesmen on commission.

And then it's just a blah about Cameron. Ooh, hey he doesn't have many policies, does he? Aaro wants to say that Cameron is in favour of increased marketisation (not clear whether he thinks this is a good or bad thing), but the evidence isn't there, so he dances around the topic. Then he says that you can only be radical "if your radicalism goes with the grain of your assault on power". Whatever the hell that means. Have a look back at Labour in the 1990s - stakeholding, the Third Way, etc - and tell me that the current, very radical, policy agenda has anything to do with it. I suspect that the sudden lunge at the end in the direction of an endorsement of Brown looks like either triangulation, or a warning shot from the Murdoch organisation across the bows of the (other) Boy Dave.

The status quo is no longer an option. Again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This Still Seems Like A Crap Argument

Because I'm an old fart now (45 this year), I remember things some younger readers may not. I remember drawing in the living room with crayons when the TV was on - it was showing adult, eg boring, stuff, the news as it happened - and I saw things that looked a lot like the crayons I was using. They had the rather cooler quality of exploding. That was a war in black-and-white, and I've been unable to see crayons since without thinking "BOOM! (wow!)" My parents also took the 'Guardian' (as it was before trendy lower case fooling); round about the same time it had a front page they couldn't hide from me - a still spectacular photo of a soldier just like one of my plastic models: his arms thrown up and his body bending back from the knees at the impact of a bullet. This was, of course, Vietnam. The war Bobby Kennedy (much praised by Martin Kettle)'s older brother Jack got the US into. One other thing I remember - and I can't place this at all, again black and white, but some air force base in the US, the pilots all came running out shouting "War! War!" happily. I come from a military family: that is my dad served in WWII: but he regarded the US and US pilots in particular as nutters.
And there is of course this. I can't find one with Slim Pickens wah-hooing.
Why mention all this? Because Jonathan Derbyshire has an interview with Oor Nick.

In Ian McEwan’s novel 'Saturday', the protagonist Henry Perowne watches as demonstrators gather for the massive anti-war march of February 2003. He is struck, and slightly disturbed, by the levity of the crowd. 'Everyone is thrilled to be out together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other.' The protestors may be right, Perowne muses: leaving Saddam’s sanguinary dictatorship in place might, just, be preferable to aerial bombing and invasion. But they ought to be 'sombre' in this view – it's a dreadful moral calculus, after all, that weighs summary execution and 'occasional genocide' against the hazards of regime change.

Yes, by god. They should be sombre, as young people going into an adventure ought to be. Less of this joy in being alive, less unconditional happiness and goddam vitality. They should be (sorry I love this):

Hail continual plodders hail
Lengthen out the tedious tale
Pedant still in head and knee
Dull of humour not a trace
Permanently commonplace
Sans genie et sans espirit

Hollingdale from Nietzsche. Young people, eh Jonathan? They'll be having sex next. Kill 'em all, I say. It's not like war is fun or anything.
Get it while you can, and don't let the bastards grind you down.
Slim Pickens (when I find the right vid): Wah-hooo; wah-hoooo; yee-ha!!!!
Update: here it is.
And this is sombre. And finally, since Vera (above) interupted Der Fliegende Hollander Shall We Dance? War is great fun. I can't see why peace shouldn't be too.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Nick inveighs from the pulpit (part MCXVIII)

Once upon a time, a rat exterminator had a bright idea of how to solve the rat problems of central London. A thermonuclear device would do the trick, at least for a time. Some people objected, pointing out that the destruction of human life, historic buildings, economic disruption etc would be too high a price to pay for such a measure. The rat exterminator regarded such people with scorn: they were campaigning to save the rats, he claimed.

Well, in a way he was right. After all, they were opposing a policy that would have eliminated the rats. In a similar fashion, Nick (for it is he) labels those who opposed the Iraq war as opposing the overthrow of a fascist regime.

As for the rest, perhaps Aarowatch should just stop bothering with Nick. The extracts from his forthcoming book are just what we've come to expect: claims that "the left" and "liberals" believe the disgraceful proposition P, just on the basis that some leftist or liberal somewhere has been recorded as uttering P. etc etc etc

One line I did think worthy of comment:

"Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don?"

Who is the target of Nick's attack here? Richard Rorty? Michel Foucault? I really don't know. But I do know this. That any "don" teaching a course on multiculturalism, toleration or justice has a duty to inform his or her students both of the liberal universalist line promoted by people like Brian Barry and also of existence of the various relativisms. Perhaps Nick has bought into a David Horowitz-style fantasy in which "leftish postmodern" lecturers simply announce some weird line to their students as "the truth". My experience is that most university teachers do their best to get their students to think through the arguments for and against a position. Nick thinks teaching is like preaching. But then he also seems to think that journalism is preaching. Maybe he should have become a vicar, or an Imam.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Dave Walks The Line

Television is chewing gum for the eyes
Frank Lloyd Wright1

Note to Anon2: we do sometimes agree with David Aaronovitch, but not because we are coming round to his way of thinking. There are columnists and blogs I hate - Melanie Phillips, Little Green Footballs, Martin Kettle. I 'watch' Aaro and Nick because our world views aren't tangential, but are pretty similar, and up to a few years ago were closer to parallel. For me, this is at least partly a mental exercise - what do I really believe here? I certainly don't hate Aaro; he's not unreadable (as Melanie Phillips is), but he sees a different slant to me on most liberal points. I'm not giving the party line here, or pandering to 'right thinking people'. I am a blockhead who does not write for money.

I think DA is pretty good today, especially as he seems to have written his column very late (probably before Jade was voted out, but that hardly required psychic powers).

The Sun headline yesterday, accompanied by six horrible pics of Jade (whom the paper monstered last time around, as well) was "Evict the face of hate". The irony was that the page itself was the face of hate. A columnist condemned Jade’s hate speech. "She shrieks racist obscenities, her piggy eyes bulging as she struts round the house like a demented toad." And that, presumably, is just what Our Lord would have written if He were a columnist.

That's a pretty good attack on The Thunderer's profitable younger sister. (The Sun not Jade Goody.) And spot on. I'll give Dave this, he took a risk with the para before, and I think a lot of people who comment will have misunderstood his intent. Some of his regular fans will fall over themselves to agree with:

I loathe and fear Jade. Her mother, Jackiey Budden, who was evicted last week, was the stuff of my nightmares: slack-gobbed, dead-eyed, yowling, incontinent, illiterate and needy. She had never heard of a dilemma. "What’s a dimella?" she asked Big Brother. Mum and lass are trailer trash - crazy-making underclass folk who'd want to kill you because you once read a book and didn't call your father a c***.

But Dave is being ironic. Sadly, this bit isn't:

The argument over the stock cubes has a more solid hold on the nation's sense of history than the walk in the woods.

Nicely put and nicely pat - and like a lot of too-good-to-be-true sentences, utter rubbish. It's true most of the nation have forgotten 'the walk in the woods' (the best Wikipedia can come up with is the play) - but then most of them probably weren't born, and the point of walking in the woods was that the negotiations were off the record. The event is as mythic as Alfred and the cakes, and about as relevant to proper history. Also, DA lets slip that, despite what he says later, he really does think we're thick.

Dave's former paper, tehgrauniad has been pretty disgraceful over Big Brother. I can't remember if it owns shares in C4 or vice-versa but they're in bed together somehow. In the week it printed a C4 denial:

However, Channel 4 has confirmed that fellow housemate Jack Tweed did not call Shilpa a 'Paki' as had been reported on many websites.

Rather disingenuous when you consider what the alternative theory had him say. And the Comment is Free homepage has a disgraceful Steve Bell cartoon (not archived as far as I can tell), showing a recognisable Jade wagging a finger and foregrounded by "Sponsored by ASBO warehouse" (oh ho ho Steve) and a mobile phone smoking a cigarette (how non-U!) and apparently topped with either a nipple or more likely a condom teat. How the underclasses breed! We must stop them before they flood us. (Use 'Muslims' for underclasses if Mark Steyn or writing for the Sun of course.)

1 My Oxford Dictionary of Quotations thinks this was the ever-quotable 'Anon' (not our Anon, the smart one), but I'm sure it was Frank.
2 aka 'Paulie' - allegedly.

Interlude: the Sofa Rule and Disambiguation

First, this is BB2, aka the nice one, aka known as Backword Dave. I've finally got round to getting a nick for myself, and this is it: Chardonnay Chap. (I think there's a Tom Tomorrow cartoon where libruls are accused of drinking Chardonnay, so that's where that comes from. I prefer red.) So now you know who's who. BB is still B2.

Now, the 'sofa rule.' I can remember arguing about this quite a bit in the 80s, when such discussions could just about be passed off as 'popular culture' and 'how we were going to bring revolution to the masses' rather than 'what I saw on the box last night.' I think it was invented by Ben Elton, anyway it went along with 'alternative [to] comedy' and its very much part of a reaction against a certain sort of programming which probably appealed to white, middle-aged producers. The sort of sitcom it's supposed to be against continues in 'My Family' (it that what it's called? the one with Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wannamaker and the guy in the phone ads). The reason it is (supposed to be) crap is that the comedy is about middle-class, middle-aged home owners who don't actually do anything much, and their spouses (ditto) and their kids writing about whom is like those round robins Simon Hoggart likes to collect (eg smug and boring) or else is picking on those who can't answer back in kind.

Ben Elton went on to write 'The Young Ones' (with sofa) and 'Blackadder' (no sofa); so even there the rule is only partially observed. The thing is good sitcoms depend on situations: not on people bouncing jokes off one another (most of the 'My Family' dialogue) and that tends to require people who wouldn't choose to be together - such as "Dad's Army" or "The Office" where you have tensions and character types which make for real drama.

The "sofa rule" probably applies to sets more than anything else. Even in the early 80s, most TV had to make do with a very few sets. So you want a set where people who are not going to get on have access. "Dad's Army" brought men (and it almost exclusively male) from all classes together in a church hall which is itself part of a territorial dispute with the vicar. Instant tension. You don't get that in a semi. Americans excel at this. 'Cheers' has one set; two if you count the back room Sam and Diane argue in sometimes. "Friends" had three sets: Monica and Rachel's apartment (sofa); Chandler and Joey's (no sofa); and "Central Perk" (sofa). Frasier had three: Studio (no sofa); Cafe Nervosa (no sofa); and apartment (sofa). Clearly there are lots of good sitcoms with sofas: "The Simpsons", "Father Ted", "Black Books" (in Dylan Moran's flat), and, god, lots of others.

The greatest sitcom of all had a sofa, which was put to use in its first ever episode. The problem with sofas is that they're in people's houses, and you want someone to enter so there is conflict of some kind. So scene: lead character is watching television on sofa, apartment door opens and neighbour enters in dressing gown, hands in pockets. He sits hands still in pockets: he pulls out a slice of bread in each hand.
Kramer: Got any meat?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sorry, but

I am close to being able to coin something similar to the "sofa rule" for Aaro columns. The sofa rule is a useful metric for judging the likely quality of a televised sitcom; you simply count the number of sofas you can see, and if it's a number greater than zero, the likelihood is that it's going to be awful[1]. And so it is with Aaro columns that have a faux-conversational headline. (His mate Martin Kettle also has a line in faux-conversational heds, so it generalises). If this column had been called something like "I don't recognise this ghastly Britain", my heart wouldn't have sunk nearly as low as it did when we got buttonholed with the "Sorry" at the front. The "Sorry" in question is worth an essay in its own right; partly, it's the "sorry" of the pub bore and partly it's yet another example of the Decent Left (domestic grown-up liberal fraktion) desire to paint themselves as plucky little battlers against we the chattering classes, with only the shining sword of truth and the trusty shield of the actual policy of the current government to protect them. The one thing it isn't, is an apology from Aaro for berating us; he thinks we're bastards.

This is not to defend Libby Purves, for fuck's sake. Nobody wants to do that. And the whinging chorus of the Times editorial page is indeed often very dispiriting indeed (by the way, it is entirely worth reading Daniel Finkelstein's comment blog, because his summaries of the Times opeds almost certainly reflect what he had asked his columnists for, rather than what they delivered. This week, Aaro was meant to be giving us ""Surging" is not enough to win in Iraq and the Middle East"). But, and this is hardly a brand new insight of Aaronovitch Watch, whingeing about other people whingeing, is still whingeing and it's often even more annoying than the other kind. If you sneak ahead to the end of Dave's column, you'll see that he doesn't actually have a specific plan or project for all of this talk; his conclusion is just that is it just him, or is everything (in the world of commentary and culture) shit?

And in any case, surely there is a big element of crocodile tears here. Aaro has written on a number of occasions in favour of detention for 90 days without trial, so his indignation at Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto's treatment appears to be only that it happened to a history professor rather than a suspicious looking swarthy type. He is also in favour of identity cards surveillance cameras, smoking bans and Asbos, so his conception of the relationship between the individual and the state does not look like one in which the first word of the phrase "liberal democracy" is doing much work. And while he'll stand up for the right of people "short of incitement, to say and publish what they like" in principle, he is right up there with the John Lloyd agenda of putting in place all sorts of informal sanctions and principles of journalistic professionalism to police the boundaries of what can actually be published without ruling yourself out of polite society (sorry to harp on about this, but John Stuart Mill certainly thought it was important and so do I). It is hard to escape the view that, as an old Eurocommunist, Aaro's seventh paragraph bears rather close reading - it is indeed the "cause" of liberal democracy, rather than any of the specific structures of a liberal state, that Aaro is in favour of, and "the worst democracy" is pretty much all he's really prepared to defend.

And so we reach the end, in which Aaro tries to claim that Ed Balls is a bit cheeky for referring to the anti-Communist[2] side in the Cold War as "we". This stuff writes itself.

Then it's punchline time, and it's based on a massive misunderstanding. Did we really use "all the weapons of culture" to "join ideological battle with Soviet-style Communism[3]"? No we didn't. There was one side which turned over its culture industry to the production of propaganda for its political and economic system, but it wasn't us; it was the Soviet Union. I realise that Aaro's cultural consumption in the 1970s and 1980s might have been rather different from the mainstream then, but even so this is quite a mistake.

It looks like he's been talking to Michael Gove again. Gove is the current theorist of the "Battle of Ideas" - he often really does talk as if the Greatest Intellectual Struggle of Our Time is going to take place in Homeric style, across the centre of the Oxford Union, with the free world represented by Michael Gove in a Spartan helmet and Islamist totalitarianism represented by Tariq Ramadan, two falls, two submissions or a knockout. It has the major advantage over the Henry "Scoop" Jackson Society's plan that this would probably cost no more than low five figures to organise, but it's just as insane, and most "battle of ideas" theorists are also Scoopies, so no net gain there.

We've been proselytising the Muslims since roughly 516 AD and they've been proselytising us for about as long. With not much effect on either side. The one thing I think it is safe to say as a generalisation across Muslims, is that they really don't respond well to patronising lectures. We brought down the Berlin Wall with Coca-Cola, blue jeans and dodgy heavy metal. The first two are still in mass production, and Eddie Van Halen is still around if we need to ramp up on the third. The era of mass anti-Communism was a massive great failure in terms of actual progress made against global communism. The big lesson of the Cold War is that you defeat mass ideologies by boring them to death; without big headline conflicts to stir up the old patriotic fervour, sooner or later the massive gap in living standards leaves them feeling sillier and sillier and they give up. No specific action is required of the mass citizenry, which is why this is the perfect means of long term strategic conflict for a type of society that can't actually command its mass of citizenry into big projects.

If one was producing intelligent propaganda aimed at the Islamic world, one would be making films about young British Asians, and how they manage to peacefully come to terms with the conflicting demands of their religious and traditional roots and modern British society. If we're not producing loads of those at the moment it is not because we're too busy complaining about the trains. It's because we've made so many of them over the last ten years that they've become a fucking cliché.

[1] Before fans of The Royle Family get stuck in, I actually first came across this rule in an interview with Henry Normal, and like all other statistical generalisations it is not intended to cover every single data point.
[2] The Decent TARDIS has clearly been at work here and the Cold War was apparently a struggle against "totalitarianism", rather than Communism. I would actually quite like to see the episode in which Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper go back in time and rearrange things so that "we" didn't support any dictatorships and didn't destablilise any democracies.
[3] I swear to you that we also fought the Cold War against all forms of communism (and not a few liberal social democracies), not just Soviet-style communism. Did Aaro really not notice this through the Eurocommunist years? Did he think that he was in charge and able to pick and choose his wars then, too?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Decency Will Eat Itself

Nick has at the Indy's books editor Boyd Tonkin today. I don't buy the Indy, but Ellis Sharp does, and you can find his assesments of Mr Tonkin here, here, here, here, and even here where he uses the same joke as Nick. Using the fine interpretative skills I polished reading the likes of Leavis and Empsom, I think I've gleaned that Ellis doesn't like him, but your view may differ.
However, this blog carries no brief for Mr Tonkin, but I'd like to make two observations for the defence. Nick asks

Don't literary editors read books anymore?

Literary editors have never read all the books they receive. They send them out to reviewers, and keep a few back for themselves. Second, Nick's bloody book isn't even out yet, which is a pretty good reason for not having read it.
Update Monday 7:45 pm. This isn't really relevant, but I'm adding it anyway, as I think AW(INCW) readers will find this amusing. Very very thin excuse for this: Boyd Tonkin is the books editor of the Independent (see above) and Martin Amis meets whatever our criteria are this week for 'being a decent'. Also I found this via Ellis (again). I'm a little surprised that Harry's Place haven't found this and linked approvingly. Martin Amis: You Ask The Questions. My favourite (warning - strong language follows, not that I imagine that will deter any of you):

The phrase "horrorism", which you invented to describe 9/11, is unintentionally hilarious. Have you got any more? JONATHAN BROOKS, by email
Yes, I have. Here's a good one (though I can hardly claim it as my own): the phrase is "fuck off".

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Anti-American Is We

We is Anti-American. Some people see anti-Americanism everywhere (because all words are propaganda: you are with us or against us: if you did not support the Iraq war, you were for the other side QED).
Here at AaroWatch we think Bush is an idiot, a psychotic, a spoiled kid who failed to grow up and who wrecked what little brain he had with alcohol and drugs, a man who defaulted on his national service, and a klutz who is unfit to flip burgers.
Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that at last someone has come along to defend us and say with Nick Cohen "Why it is right to be anti-American"*.

The accusation is as predictable as late trains. You are arguing in a pub, or addressing a smaller audience on the wee-small-hours show on Radio 5. The chat may be about economics or multinationals or the entertainment industry or foreign policy or the corruption of politics - the subject is increasingly and revealingly irrelevant. Just when you are flattering yourself that you have got to the very nub of the issue, your opponent breaks in with a voice somewhere between a sneer and bray and announces that "your problem is that you're anti-American". To right-thinking - that is, left-leaning - people, the insult should be absurd. To be anti-American rather than, say, anti-corporate, is to make a reactionary substitution of nationality for politics. Like anti-Semitism, it is "the socialism of fools".
Deployers of the jeer assert racism and more: they are certain that anti-Americanism is the modern equivalent of collaborating with Hitler. I've been trying to keep count of the number of intellectuals who have responded to 11 September by disinterring George Orwell's worst piece of Second World War writing. So far, the Observer and Sunday Times, America's Voice and two other conservative websites have used his condemnation of conscientious objectors, in an admittedly tense 1941, as a text for our times. "In so far as it hampers the British war effort," Orwell said, "British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the USSR. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi."
Orwell, of all people, ought to have known the sliminess of the Stalinist adverb "objectively" - "objectively the Kulaks are pro-fascist" - even if he'd forgotten that conshies filled the peacetime jobs of soldiers. Since 11 September, his emulators have held that "objectively the anti-American is pro-Bin Laden". Barbara Amiel, the Daily Telegraph commentator (and wife of the Telegraph Group proprietor, Conrad Black), quoted a speech Harold Pinter made on 10 September in which the playwright said: "I believe that this brutal and malignant world machine [America] must be recognised for what it is and resisted." To which Amiel replied: "For years Pinter's words, in speeches such as these, have been an incitement to violence. No amount of bons mots can quite distance him morally from what took place the next day." Noam Chomsky has, inevitably, received the same treatment.

At last our position is stated with admirable clarity - and not a little passion. If only the drafters of the Euston Manifesto had consulted with this fellow before they wrote

6) Opposing anti-Americanism.
We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking.

No, wait.
We tip our revolutionary caps of the people to Jamie for the link.
*Link text altered because I'd like to make it easy to find this particularly splendid essay for anyone who wants to Google 'Nick Cohen'.


Nick's blog is not dead. It has not shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain, or joined the choir invisible. Posts appear irregularly: Nick's Standard and New Humanist gigs are not much in evidence.
However, he has a new post. Not written by him, but the first notice of his forthcoming book, which is called something like You're All A Bunch of Bastards and can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The first notice - I can't call it a review - appeared in today's FT Magazine. (I don't buy the FT - is the magazine the usual place for arts reviews? It's not in tehgrauniad, Torygraph, or Indy.) It's by John Lloyd (presumably the former editor of the Staggers).
It's a review of - after copying and pasting into my text editor (Smultron, should you care) - 936 words. That's quite a creditable essay. What does Mr Lloyd say about Nick's book? He spends 718 of those discussing a production of Candide at Paris's Theatre du Chatelet. Lloyd's point seems to be Communists in 1956 - good; leftists (few use 'Communist' now) in 2006 - bad. I would have more sympathy with Lillian Hellman if she hadn't

shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including the assertion that she knew nothing about the Moscow Trials in which Stalin had purged the Soviet Communist Party of Part members who were then liquidated. Hellman had actually signed petitions (An Open Letter to American Liberals) applauding the guilty verdict and encouraged others not to cooperate with John Dewey's committee that sought to establish the truth behind Stalin's show trials. The letter denounced the "fantastic falsehood that the USSR and totalitarian states are basically alike."

Lloyd objects to the rewritten Candide thus:

Instead, this was a satire on the US.

Wikipedia on Hellman:

Hellman had also opposed the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky by the United States. Trotsky was the former Soviet leader and Communist who became Stalin's nemesis in exile (and eventual victim of assassination), after the Soviet Union instructed the U.S. Communist Party to oppose just such a move.
As late as 1969, according to Mellen, she told Dorothea Strauss that her husband was a 'malefactor' because he had published the work of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Mellen quotes her as saying "If you knew what I know about American prisons, you would be a Stalinist, too." Mellen continues, "American justice allowed her now to maintain good faith with the tyrant who had, despite his methods, industrialized the 'first socialist state.'"

I'm one of the Leftists Nick sets out to condemn. It's not me who is arguing that Canadian director Robert Carsen's rewrite is an unjustified satire on the US, and Hellman's "intent of the piece was to draw an implicit parallel between that committee’s increasingly frenzied investigations and the Inquisition that condemns to torture and death both Candide and his unvaryingly positive tutor Pangloss". So Hellman was OK (despite being a Stalinist, who thought the killing of others for dissent was justified) while Carsen is not OK - for opposing a war and Guantanamo. Apparently the left has declined morally. It weren't like that when Lloyd was young, blackwhite was blackwhite in those days, and everyone agreed about that. No duckspeak like Hellman duckspeak.

Bernstein’s score has remained, which saves the opera from being as half-witted as it sounds. All the same, it illuminates an important feature of our age.
For much of the past decade, the radicalism of the left has undergone two profoundly important shifts. Its themes have become popular in polite society ...

So radicalism has become, one might say, chic. Perhaps Lloyd should write a book and call it Radical Chic. There is a book of that title about Leonard Bernstein, no less.
In the 218 words which remain, Lloyd turns to Nick's book. I can't tell if he's read it or just looked at the contents, though he does quote Nick once.

"We have," he writes, "no right to turn our backs on those who want the freedoms we take for granted. The best reason for offering them support is because we can." And that, even amidst the chaos of Iraq, remains a good motto for democrats of any stripe - one that Voltaire, himself a flayer of hypocrisies, knew and which his contemporary adaptors have forgotten.

Shorter Hellman before McCarthy "Help, help, I'm being oppressed". Shorter Hellman on other writers before show trials: "good riddance". Contemporary, apparently, doesn't include the Stalinist Hellman.
Update 12:42. I remember Hellman because I was given Edward Sorel's Literary Lives for Festivus. (I enjoyed it: he hates everyone.) His final cartoon of Hellman shows her sitting in a sleigh besides Stalin, which is pulled by two enormous doves. He wrote beneath it:

Facing exposure in court for extensive fabrications in her autobiography, Hellman dies. Her estate is worth $4 Million in part because she finagled the rights to [Dashiel] Hammett's work, which should have gone to his daughters. At her funeral she is hailed for her "Integrity, Decency, Uprightness."

I'm sure John Lloyd would agree with that. (I've decided to email him, since Nick kindly gives his address, so he can reply, should he wish to.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dave this isn't difficult

For chuff's sake, Dave. If the presenter of the Today programme is spotted sitting down in Burger King enjoying the delicious hamburgers, then that's not news. If, on the other hand, the chief executive of McDonalds is seen in Burger King enjoying the delicious hamburgers, then that's news. It's rather like if the News Corporation were to employ an editorial columnist who spent all of his time banging on about how he regards the BBC's Today Programme, the Guardian and unnamed "left wing magazines" as the really crucial venues of British public debate ... sorry bad example. Did you know that in the Coca-Cola head office for the UK, they have all sorts of euphemisms for Pepsi, because you're not even allowed to mention Pepsi there? I'm not sure this is true, but someone once told me it in a pub. Anyway, surely the point is that while Ruth Kelly has a clear parental duty to do the best she can by her son, and nobody would criticise her for that, she has no such duty to remain Secretary of State for Education.

Massive bonus Aarospotter points, by the way, to anyone who can provide evidence of Aaro knowing "the difference between setting and streaming" earlier than, say, last week. I certainly only found it out then, because I think there was an article in the Saturday Guardian castigating people for not being clear about it. Or maybe the Observer (which I notice didn't carry the Nick Cohen column, what's up with that?). Anyway, my point is that I'm not feeling guilty about not knowing the difference between setting and streaming precisely because I have not accepted a public role in which it is important.

A bit of a backlog has built up, I note ... I'll try and clear it.

Update: Ruth Kelly got moved out of Education a couple of reshuffles ago, didn't she, now I come to think of it. Though I note that as Equality Secretary For Everyone Except Gays she was no keener on eating her own cooking. She's now Secretary of State for Communities. Me neither.