Saturday, March 31, 2007

Thoughtless Anti-Patriotism

I am, as some readers will have tired of hearing, a Telegraph reader. Sometimes this is easy to justify.

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."
Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. ..."

Nick Cohen in the Staggers this week. (Funny that Nick didn't consider that philosophical training helped Ted Honderich with 'intellectual honesty.')

Here is Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph (yes, the Torygraph really does employ a Ivan and a Boris) on the Berlin Festspiele.

It's one of many signs that Berlin takes its culture seriously - as London does too, but Berlin's music scene has a special edge, a combination of innovative daring and stellar quality, which makes it utterly distinctive.
This is partly a cultural difference. German new music often has a dark intensity and political heat reminiscent of German artists such as Anselm Kieffer. But it also reflects the fact that in terms of funding, Berlin really puts its money where its mouth is.
This isn't just the mentality of a high-spending social democratic nation that invests in high culture, though it's partly that.

That fits finding something to delight in perfectly. Good for Ivan Hewett.

The Torygraph also employs the splendid Sam Leith. He's a columnist and their literary editor. In the latter role (I assume) he commissioned Nicholas Blincoe's review of What's Left? and Mary Wakefield's review of Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The latter concludes after praising the author's courage:

Most readers of most political persuasions will bow to Hirsi Ali's experience when she tells us that violent anti-Semitism and misogyny is at the heart, not just the fanatical periphery, of Islam. But for a liberal to work for a Right-wing think tank such as the AEI? It's a little weird.
Here's a woman who has put her life at risk to speak out against militant Islam, in the service of the brain-boxes who pushed for the war in Iraq, which served if not to radicalise Islam, at least to consolidate its hatred of the West. Here's a one-time refugee, lit up with admiration for the kindness Holland extended to a Muslim in distress, joining forces with the sort of neo-cons who talk of draining the swamp of the Middle East.
One of the great lessons of this painful and mostly clear-headed memoir is that people are not identical with the nasty ideas they espouse. It would be sad if the AEI failed to encourage Hirsi Ali's most impressive talent - for compassion.

In a slow week, Sam Leith wrote about meeting Nick Cohen. Redoubtable blogger Matthew Turner said in thec comments to a post "I've known Sam [Leith] a little for about ten years and he does not look like David Milliband." Nick Cohen is allegedly (I don't want to be sued over this after all) a political journalist. You'd think he'd know what David Miliband looks like.

A dim memory stirs. Years ago, at a party, I ran into the political writer Nick Cohen. We had been chatting for a while when he peered at me afresh through the gloaming, and goggled. "So sorry," he said. "I thought you were a Miliband."

And now here's another reason for liking Sam Leith and not reading the Staggers, the man's a thoughtless anti-patriot. Of all our moral nonsenses, patriotism is the dumbest.

'Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today," wrote D H Lawrence. "They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it's a marvel they can breed. They can nothing but frog-spawn - the gibberers! God, how I hate them! Why, why, why was I born an Englishman?" Clear where he stood on the great patriotism debate.
More and more of us, it seems, stand with him. This week a YouGov poll discovered that less than a third of Britons take pride in their Britishness, and around a quarter of us feel a stronger allegiance to their county, town or village. Hooray for that, say I. Of all the moral and intellectual nonsenses available to us, patriotism is among the dumbest. It's not the last refuge of a scoundrel. It's the first resort of a dipstick.

It is, remember, middle-class liberals who hate patriotism. (Orwell, BTW, had some nasty words for 'Jingoes' as he called shallow declarers of love for the mother country.) Though Baggini isn't a typical exemplar:

For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family.

Well, bully for him! A working-class mother, yet. How could he ever aspire to being an intellectual? Imagine being, say, [t]he fourth child of Arthur John Lawrence, a barely literate miner. Ellis Sharp has some observations of the parentage of some intellectuals. You can almost hear Chris and Martin discussing a certain miner's son.

CH: What what? The fellow doesn't like England! I suspect he's all for Sharia Law and stuff.
MA: Not an Oxford man is he? What did his father do, and why didn't he follow his father into it? That's the way we do things in this country. Not like those dirty Muslims.
CH: Careful Martin, if people didn't know who we are, they might think we're racists.
[Both guffaw at Hitchens' ineffable wit.]
MA: I wouldn't say there's riff-raff down every mine, because I am, after all, a socialist, but there must have been riff-raff down Lawrence senior's mine. And what did he contribute to literature? Did he write about the struggle of defecation with the tenderness I put into my Mohammad Atta story? I doubt it.
CH: No, he wrote about sex.
MA: Well, that's the professional interest coming out.
CH: I'm afraid I don't understand, old stick.
MA: They must have had sex when he was growing up.
[CH looks blank.]
MA: To keep the coal in when the bath was full.

Today, in the Telegraph's review pages (which don't make the web until the following Thursday as a rule), there's a review of the paperback of Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam.

"Messianic violence can attach itself to any creed," he concludes. If only all commentators on the war on terror were as sane.

I've no idea who the review, Alastair Sooke, could be thinking of.

At The Altar Of The Plaster Saint

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground.

Sonnet 130

Nick points to a letter he wrote to Prospect (it's the last one) "in response to an attack from a Cookite called David Clark".

Nothing I have encountered since my book What's Left? was published has matched the pettishness of the tantrum David Clark throws in his review (March).

That review is now archived, so you can't read it unless you're a Prospect subscriber. (Why, why do they do this? Why not hide the new stuff, when you can go and buy the magazine rather than the stuff you can't get elsewhere?)

I think by now the list of Nick's enemies is so long that anyone not on it should start to worry. Being a 'Cookite' is a bad thing apparently. I thought Robin Cook was a brave, articulate, intelligent, prinicipled, and effective minister, whose opposition to the Iraq invasion was entirely cogent and clearly expressed. Nick has turned him into a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein figure. (I'm really sorry about the number of Nineteen Eighty-Four references I use, but they fit so well.) Nick won't quite say what's so bad about him, but he's someone you should hate.

It is about liberal and left-minded people making excuses for, turning a blind eye to and, on occasion, openly supporting the movements of the ultra right-a far rarer phenomenon.

Isn't there a good case for saying that, if terms like 'left' and 'right' can be applied at all to 'ultra' parties, Stalin and Mao could as well have been called 'ultra right'?

From what I can tell of the review, it's on a par with every other critical review of What's Left?

You only have to turn on Channel 4 News to hear supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami dignified as spokesmen for "the Muslims"; liberal broadcasters wouldn't dream of presenting BNP leaders as mouthpieces for "the whites."

While this is true, I think it's a problem in the way news is reported. Editors have deadlines, and you can't stand about in the street all day stopping brown people in the hope that they're of the right religion and can give a few soundbites on some complex political issue. (There's possibly also the fact that most journalists are white, and they wouldn't dream of considering that the BNP speak for them; nor would they dream of asking a colleague to speak for his or her religion.) This means they have to find someone who can make a more-or-less prepared statement. The government doesn't help as it seems to regard everyone as living in 'communities' (while being hazy about what these are) and then supposing that these communities appoint leaders after their own fashion.

On the page after Clark's effort, there was a far better piece by Bella Thomas on the condescension displayed by Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma towards Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Garton Ash and Buruma aren't Trotskyists flipping from far left to far right, but bog-standard liberal intellectuals. Yet they turn on a brave woman who has risked her life standing up for the values they profess to believe in.

Again, Nick seems confused. If Trotskyists (who have been around since the 1920s surely) 'flip... from far left to far right', then it is neither new nor rare for 'left-minded people' to 'openly support... the movements of the ultra right'. If he argues that Trotskyists aren't 'left-minded' most of his target definition of the left vanishes too.

The really keen reader may like The multicultural Issue on which has links to lots of articles pro and anti both sides - that is attacks on and defences of Buruma and Garton Ash. On the same site is a splendid piece by Ian Buruma The dogmatism of Enlightenment. Just the title tells us that we're deep into Decent territory here.

It is the fate of certain books, like certain phrases ("fascism", "Orientalism", "multiculturalism", "racism"), to be used as bludgeons to beat up people whose views one dislikes. These verbal sticks often bear little or no relation to their original meanings, or, in the case of books, to what their authors actually wrote. I suppose I should feel flattered that "Murder in Amsterdam" is gradually turning into such a book.
Professor Cliteur wishes to beat up nihilists, postmodern cultural relativists, and multiculturalists, and uses my book as his bludgeon. I can only assume he has actually read it, but his version is certainly not mine. Nowhere did I suggest that the ideals of the Enlightenment are no better than radical Islamism. My descriptions of Theo van Gogh's killer and his murderous ideology make it quite clear what I think of religious extremism. Either Professor Cliteur is incapable of grasping a complicated argument, or he wilfully misreads my book in order to classify me as a "post-modern relativist."

I'm not sure what Nick means by 'bog-standard liberal intellectual' apart from 'not a Trotskyite'. Buruma's defence of his book against mistinterpretation is a lot wittier than Nick's efforts in the same vein. Buruma wrote Against Submission for the New York Times. Garton Ash reviewed books by Buruma and Hirsi Ali for the New York Review of Books.

(Somewhat off topic, this is from Garton Ash's piece.

Where I live—in Oxford, Eurabia - I come into contact with British Muslims almost every day. Their family origins lie in Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh. They are more peaceful, law-abiding, and industrious British citizens than many a true-born native Englishman of my acquaintance.

Julian Baggini has to go to Rotherham (from Oxford) to meet people who aren't Today listeners. Professor Garton Ash finds them in Oxford. I consider this greatly to Garton Ash's credit.)

Here is Garton Ash on Hisri Ali.

In fact, she is irresistible copy for journalists, being a tall, strikingly beautiful, exotic, brave, outspoken woman with a remarkable life story, now living under permanent threat of being slaughtered like van Gogh. Among the many awards listed on the back cover of her new book of essays, The Caged Virgin, next to the Moral Courage Award, the International Network of Liberal Women Freedom Prize, Dutchman [sic] of the Year 2004, the Coq d'Honneur 2004, and the Danish Freedom Prize, is Glamour magazine's Hero of the Month Award. That's how we like our heroes - glamorous. It's no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.

Just to remind you, here's Nick again:

Yet they [Ian Buruma and Tiomothy Garton Ash] turn on a brave woman who has risked her life standing up for the values they profess to believe in.

Gosh, I really think Garton Ash overlooked the courage part.

Garton Ash further down:

Having read many interviews with her, and spent an evening in Londo talking to her both onstage and off, I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity. This does not mean one must agree with all her views.

Indeed not. Garton Ash treats Ms Hirsi Ali like anyone else: he considers her arguments. That's not a Nick response.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nick on Julian Baggini

Nick has a thoughtful review of Julian Baggini's Everytown: a journey into the English mind in this week's Staggers. The book sounds interesting and I'll probably read it some time. A couple of lines that Nick probably wrote without a glimmer of insight into himself:

"Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory."

"Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing."

So JB won't be getting regular cheques from the Mail group any time soon.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Can There Be A Decent Decent Left?

We had a bit of a dustup in comments a while ago about American academic Michael Bérubé, whether he was Decent or not and whether Crooked Timber was going right down the tubes now that he's joined it. Well, here, he enters the lists, defending himself against charges of out-and-out Decency, while staking out a position clearly critical of the majority of the Indecent Left. Can there be a pro-intervention Left which isn't Decent? See what you think.

A coming free-speech dilemma for the Decents?

It looks as if the Decents may be in a bit of a pickle soon over freedom of speech on campus. As everyone is probably aware by now, they've been making a lot of noise about the decision of the University of Leeds to cancel a talk on Islamic antisemitism by German academic Matthias Küntzel. (See Küntzel himself at Engage, and Eve Garrard at Normblog.)

Meanwhile at Normblog again, Geras links to a Times article about government proposals (promoted by Decent poster-boy Denis MacShane) to combat antisemitism on campus. Except this seems to include the "extended" definition of antisemitism:

The government will warn vice-chancellors they must not ignore antiJewish activity on campuses and must prevent prejudiced lecturers, guest speakers and extremist political organisations stirring up hatred against Israel.

Personally, I think it was disgraceful of Leeds to ban Küntzel. If the Times article is accurate, then the government will be pushing universities to ban critics of Israel. The Küntzel ban really just reflects what pathetically conservative institutions universities are. In the face of the mere possibility of trouble, they're likely to play safe and stop a meeting from happening. Just as Islamic Societies tried to make a fuss about Küntzel, you can bet that JSocs will be calling on VCs to stop speakers of whom they disapprove. If Norman Finkelstein, say, gets disinvited, will the Decents protest?

Appropriate comparisons: a guide to the etiquette of decency (part xxxx)

It is not OK for Geoffrey Wheatcroft to describe a Tory MP's concern with how the Americans see the British as reflecting the spirit of Vichy.

It is OK, indeed wholly justified, for Kanan Makiya to say that demands that Hilary Clinton apologize for her vote on Iraq are "so Maoist".

(Norman Geras, in blog posts less than six hours apart.)

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Oliver Kamm and Nick Cohen are big with the bass player out of Radiohead. It seems strangely appropriate.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

An imagined response of Aziz Parhad to David Aaronovitch's column on Zimbabwe

(Communicated to me by telepathy, on the occasion of this column.

Dear Dave,

Fuck off.

Sorry, that was a hasty and emotional response. Let me explain in a little more detail.

Fuck off, David.

You know, David, every week for the last two years, you've been writing that column in the London Times, and one of your biggest themes has been how very complicated the business of politics is. So when your Tony Blair introduces pass laws, sorry "identity cards" or banned persons - sorry, "anti social behaviour orders", you're all over claiming that it's a dangerous world and people have to take these tradeoffs very seriously. When your friend Patricia Hewitt gets in trouble over her job, or your Labour Party starts selling seats in the legislature - oh sorry, "honours", then you're always there with the lecture about how these are difficult problems, and we need to realise that they don't have easy solutions.

But when an old comrade has a civil war on his borders? I am apparently meant to pull out my magic wand and make everything all right, and the fact I haven't done so means that I am morally corrupt, and have betrayed all the values we used to share and which you, by getting a well paid job on the Times, have maintained and I, by taking a difficult political role in a developing country, have not. Fuck off, David.

" It may not be what we expected back in ’76, but the cause of liberation demands only one thing — you must get rid of Mugabe."

Thank you for the advice, "Comrade". But humour me a little more - how do you propose that I should achieve this? I have sat on my Woolworth's Harry Potter Vibrating Broomstick till my arse was sore, but still the magic does not work. Perhaps you could get out your own obeah stick and do a war dance round Gospel Oak, if you think that these things can be achieved just by willing them.

Things are awful in Zimbabwe, David. But they could be a lot worse. There is not, at present, a civil war. Do you know how bad a civil war can be, David? Look at Iraq (by the way, if you are going to compare me to David Owen, perhaps you would do better to do so from a position other than the exact same Labour Party Atlanticism which he has always occupied and where you now find yourself).

If there is a civil war in Zimbabwe, David, it will be my problem, not yours. You will probably write a few columns about it, and how it shows that the United Nations is irrelevant, or something. I will be pulling my remaining hair out, trying to house refugees, taking money out of all our other budgets and hoping against hope that the damn war stays within the boundaries of Zimbabwe. African civil wars have this habit of spreading, you know?

So when I "appeal to leaders of opposition political parties to work towards a climate that is conducive to finding a lasting solution to the current challenges faced by the people of Zimbabwe", that's what I'm talking about, in my dry diplomat's language, Comrade. I'm trying to say to everyone that they have to continue to work within the democratic framework. Specifically, I'm trying to communicate to the hotter tempers within Morgan's party that there is no crack squad of South African troops just waiting to steam in and help them if they decide to start a civil war. There are plenty of people in the Zimbabwean opposition who want to pick up the rifles and return to the bush, and who can blame them?

Well, me for one. Civil war is never the answer to any question a sane man might ask. While there is a chance that Mugabe can be persuaded to fuck off peacefully, to Saudi Arabia or Libya or something, to take the next door mansion to Idi, that's the option we go for. You might have noticed this, but we South Africans know a thing or two about the business of changing governments without setting the whole country on fire.

Maybe we should have dinner, David. All of us old comrades. You, me, Peter Hain. Bring all of your journalist friends round, we'll hire out a hall and I'll cook you all up a nice steaming pot of shut the fuck up. You see, the British really aren't all that popular out in this corner of Africa. Every time you lot make a speech about Mugabe, it reminds people that the MDC is supported by a whole load of white colonial arseholes and Mugabe gets another ten thousand votes. Make a really fulminating condemnation and Hugo Chavez gives him a tanker of oil, on the basis that anyone with you lot as enemies can't be all bad. Max Hastings, of all people, understands this - why don't you?

Do you know why you're unpopular? Let me tell you, that from my perspective at the richer end of the Third World, that it's got a lot to do with those wars of yours. Yes, the way you chucked away the United Nations, told all of us to lump it, and went off and presided over a bloodbath that even Mugabe would have found it hard to achieve. So why don't you clear up the mess on your own front doorstep, rather than dropping a bucket of shit onto mine? Go around telling people to hang their heads over Iraq, and demand that someone "gets rid of him". And I'll stay here worrying about Zimbabwe. It worries me every single day I get up, you know - unlike you, I won't be thinking about something else next week.

Look, old comrade, maybe I'm right or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's past time for the diplomatic option and war is inevitable. Maybe a firmer line from us would not be such a huge risk and could achieve something. That's the thing about politics, you never can tell; a point you have often made yourself. But are you really so god damned sure that I'm wrong, that you're prepared to take the pulpit and damn me six ways to Sunday for disagreeing with you? It is not as if your judgement on these things has been all that great in the recent past, is it?



Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why has the Left abandoned Peter Tatchell?

let's try this one again, shall we? New Blogger ate it first time round, bastard.

On topic with "World of Decency", the new ish of the Decent house journal Democratiya is out. Still no explanation why it's got a dog Russian title, but a long essay by Peter Tatchell about how the Left really doesn't deserve him any more.

PT is a national treasure, of course, but he really is flirting with self-parody these days. It used to be the case that no Tatchell campaign was complete without a high-profile slapstick stunt, like handcuffing himself to Mugabe or storming the pulpit at Canterbury. These days, no Tatchell campaign is complete without a finger-wagging sermon aimed at an undefined "The Left" for their failure to jump on his bandwagon. Since Peter Tatchell is kind of the campaigning equivalent of a footballer's WAG - he is no more able to resist the cause of an oppressed minority, than Danielle Lloyd is to stay away from a nightclub opening - there are about a million of these campaigns going on at any one time, each with Peter being appalled anew at the lack of "The Left" being involved. I don't think that he necessarily realises that some of these causes are really quite obscure.

I mean, at one point half way down, he has a go at us for not doing anything for gay Rastafarians. Did you know that any such thing existed? I didn't[1]. In any case, what the hell am I meant to do on behalf of gay Rastafarians? Since my view on Hailie Selassie is not so much "Conquering Lion of Judah, I and I and King of Kings" as "middle-ranking African kleptocrat, installed by the Brits after we chucked the Italians out", I am not really all that well placed to contribute to any debate in Rastafarian theology at even a basic level, let alone to reconcile the mainstream of that religion with whatever faction within it has decided that a revision of its position on homosexuality is in order. As far as I can tell, if someone has ended up in the position where they are gay, but nevertheless believe in the Rastafarian religion, then that sounds like bloody bad luck, but I really don't see how I can help. If the gay Rastas are having a bring and buy sale I'll go if the weather's nice, but is the sight of my pasty face on a March For Gay Rastafarianism really going to turn the tide?

If I was being mischievous, I'd suggest that we ought to consider that the common thread running between all these causes that "The Left" have failed to support is Peter Tatchell himself, and that he might want to check his antiperspirant, so to speak. I'm told that he's utterly charming in person, but he has a really annoying style in print, full of monolithic certainty and extreme language. It's bound to get people's backs up and make them think, however unfairly "no, fuck the Ahwazi Arabs, I'm not going to join Tatchell's fucking campaign if that's his attitude". He also seems to be really rather ungrateful - as I remember it, his campaign against homophobic lyrics in reggae music got a lot of support from all corners of the media industry and in local government, but in his Democratiya article it has been rewritten as Peter against the world, with no support from "The Left". This is partly Nick Cohen's "honourable exceptions" doctrine which allows you to make sweeping and false generalisations, and partly the weird habit of defining out of "The Left" anyone who behaves sensibly or normally, implicitly assuming that it is constitutive of "The Left" that they have to be nutters outside the mainstream. Anyway ...

Peter has two substantial arguments, and in both cases, I sort of agree with them, but I think they prove my point, not his.

1. People on "The Left" are reluctant to criticise repressive regimes in the Third World because they are scared of building a movement that might be co-opted at a later date to start a war.

My considered response to this can be summarised in the single word "yup". Have a look at the Darfur campaign for many examples of the Decent Left, including Tatchell himself trying to take a humanitarian campaign and paste their own doctrines about international "intervention" onto it. I for one would certainly be a lot keener to discuss the education of women in Afghanistan if the War Party weren't always trying to add it to the "plus" column of their latest military disaster, and indeed, to stick it onto the Iraq and Iran projects whenever they think nobody's looking. Not necessarily one of the least sins of the Decent Left is that they've corrupted a lot of left discourse, because everyone is frightened of the way that they abuse a lot of left wing analysis (cf, Amnesty International lodging an actual complaint about Blair's abuse of their Iraq dossier). And then they complain that left wing discourse is corrupted, rather like a man farting in a lift and complaining about the smell.

(It should be noted at this point, in fairness, that Peter Tatchell does usually step back from the brink when it comes to supporting actual wars. However, let's use the Nick Cohen standard here. He allows his movement to be led by war-mad nutters. He does not denounce Brian Brivati and Oliver Kamm (or at least, not often enough by the arbitary standard I'm choosing to use here. The logic which places George Galloway in the vanguard of the Liberal Democrat Party is much more appropriate here; Peter Tatchell does provide the raw material of propaganda to the War Party, and here he is appearing in their journal so he can't claim he doesn't know he's doing so.)

2. People on the left don't sufficiently criticise "brown racists, sexists and homophobes"[2] because they are scared of being called racists by the dreaded multiculturalisses.

Again, Peter has a point here, but makes it in a really weird way. For one thing, he is surely wrong to implicitly believe that the multicultural movement (such as it is) for greater tolerance of the lifestyle and beliefs of ethnic minority groups is a different thing from the more general movement toward greater tolerance overall, from which movement he has clearly benefited substantially because it is due to this effort on the part of "The Left" that homophobia has been driven out of polite society.

For another, he is surely aware that being nasty to minority groups, who in general have a hell of a time, is something that you have to do very carefully indeed if you're not going to cross the line into ordinary garden-variety racism. I can't find any reference on the internet to Peter's views about Pim Fortuyn and would be grateful for any pointers since I'm sure that he's said something about him. It's not exactly as if we're in any danger of the List Peter Tatchell becoming a big force in British anti-immigrant politics, but Fortuyn does represent the far end of where it's possible to take this line of reasoning, and those people on the Left who don't feel comfortable in having a go at immigrants for this reason aren't scared of nothing. A quick glance at the notorious "Harry's Place" comments boxes shows how careful you have to be about the kind of mates you tend to pick up if you make a career out of saying that we are in danger of being overwhelmed by aliens whose values are inimical to our own.

The really fundamental mistake here though is the common thread which runs through a lot of Decency - the sheer damnable egotism of demanding that one's own personal priorities must be those of everyone else. It makes a certain kind of sense if you have convinced yourself that you're engaged in the greatest intellectual struggle of our time, but for those of us who remain to be convinced (not least because there is a fucking war on, which does rather tend to consume quite a lot of energy and attention), it's just a little bit irksome to have the Decents stamping their feet and demanding that we all pay attention to them right now. Anyone who has ever had any involvement at all with left-wing politics will know that there is nothing more tiresome than the guy who keeps badgering you with "oy! Why weren't you on that demo?", and that, at base, is what Peter Tatchell's critique boils down to.

[1] I did know there were Jewish Rastafarians though, although not I think in Jamaica.
[2] This phrase copyright Nick Cohen and scheduled for more detailed analysis at a later date.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Nick overdramatizes

Nick in the Observer eight days ago:

In the end, a journalist on Index on Censorship passed one [a copy of Clareification] to me as if he were a Soviet dissident circulating a samizdat. He said I could read it on condition that The Observer didn't run photographs of its pages.

Padraig Reidy on the Observer letters page yesterday:

While I enjoyed Nick Cohen's column last week, I was a little surprised to be likened to 'a Soviet dissident handing over a samizdat'. I happily shared a copy of the issue of Clarification with him, and I asked that he not reproduce the inside pages out of respect for the source who originally supplied me with the 'controversial' student publication.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

23 Days Later

A search of Nick's site for 'Daniel Finkelstein' yeilds two posts. The Times's comment editor and blogger has reviewed What's Left twice. Once in the Times on February 14 and in the Jewish Chronicle (reproduced on the Engage website) on March 9. Nick summarized the first review thus:

But he goes on to say that I need to understand that Tories have often been far better at pursuing progressive policies than the Left.

That's a pretty fair summary of Finkelstein. Typical paragraph:

At one point in What’s Left?, Nick Cohen attacks Tony Blair for calling the 20th century a "Conservative century". He says that life was transformed in that 100 years, beyond the dreams of radicals. He can't see that both he and the Prime Minister are right at the same time. It was a Tory century because the Conservative Party was politically supreme. And the country was transformed, sometimes by the Left but often with the Tory party as the agent of change (bringing, for instance, a vigorous, more classless free enterprise economy). And in foreign policy sometimes the Left held out for human rights against the Tory pessimists but, marginally more often, Conservative optimists stood firm for freedom while much of the Left tolerated Communist crimes.

Daniel Finkelstein last week put his mind to Iranian Professor Hasan Bolkhari, and his anti-Semitic teachings and writings.

But I had one other, I suspect rather more rare, response.
Where is the Left, I wondered.

No you bloody didn't is my response.

If we want to win the battle for the Left, we have to persuade them that there are worse things than American capitalism. Anyone fancy writing a letter to The Guardian?

Whatever Daniel Finkelstein's merits as a comment editor and deconstructor of looney academics, he doesn't have a side in the 'battle for the Left' - unless, despite his certainties a mere 23 days before, he switched political sides in the last three weeks.

Somehow, I doubt that.

I am considering giving up satire, a la Tom Lehrer

Aaro's column this week favourably compares the Hutton Inquiry to a jury trial, suggesting that it is obviously bound to be more "judicial" and fairer.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Bear With A Headache

(And I don't mean Andrew Sullivan the morning after the Oscars.) Nick has a foul-tempered column this morning. Is there anyone he doesn't hate?

In 1997, Tony Blair's media minders would never have allowed him to ...

This, while true, places Blair as a pawn of his minders; Blair doesn't really do things, others move him around. I'm sure Nick is hunting for something nice to say about the PM, but he doesn't have anything.

It was a generous speech.

Not according to John Tusa in the same paper:

The almost negative response of all but the most ardent Blairites is, in fact, easily explained in the context of the Prime Minister's engagement with the arts more or less throughout his premiership. At his first 'Downing Street Summit' on the arts in 1998, he summed up by saying: 'We must write the arts in to New Labour's core script.' Some of the participants left virtually dancing a jig. The callow opening days of the Blairite premiership, with the opportunistic, fake populist themes of 'Cool Britannia' and showbiz guests at Number 10, were - surely - to be replaced by a serious concern for the arts at their best and most serious.
At his most recent 'Arts Summit' 10 days ago, Blair unwisely referred to his original 'core script' commitment, only to find that most of those attending reproached him for failing to do just that. Instead of 'delivering' (key New Labour-speak) a core commitment to the arts, there had been a curious neglect, a continuing suspicion, a studied wariness about the arts from the New Labour project. They didn't - to adapt an Alastair Campbell-ism - 'do arts'.

I've never understood New Labour's take on the arts. The last stage production Blair went to was 'The Sound of Music' (source: the BBC's Friday quiz); the height of the visual arts seems to be Kylie - The Exhibition.
I can't find the full text of the 'generous' speech, so the Guardian report will have to do. (Update 3pm Thanks to the Couscous Kid in the comments, the text is here.)

Funding to the arts had doubled since 1997, he said.
In a speech which quoted Matthew Arnold and Philip Larkin, Mr Blair pointed to the success of Alan Bennett's play, The History Boys, which had recouped £1m for the National Theatre through a successful box office run in the regions.
And he added: "The beauty of the last decade is that we have not put 'bums on seats' at the expense of quality."
The creative industries were now 7% of the British economy, he added, as well as pointing to a recent British Museum exhibition in the Iranian capital Tehran as an example of providing cultural links "at a sensitive time".

Nick Cohen:

If Blair were really the monster of so many theatre and television producers' imagination, he would have responded by slashing the arts budget.

Not if he believes the arts represent 7% of the economy, he won't. Did no one tell him that Arnold and Larkin were Tories? Both took state money: Larkin for librarianing in Hull, Arnold for school inspecting, and otherwise they went without government stipends (Arnold got a pension from Gladstone - after he had dried up as a poet).

Freedom of speech includes the freedom of artists and satirists to make fools of themselves as well as their targets, except when they run into religion - and then, more often than not, they turn round and run away.

And the evidence of artists turning and running?

Dr Patricia Fara, Clare [College]'s senior tutor, said that she and the college chaplain had apologised to 'leaders of the local Muslim community, and also other religious leaders'. They impounded as many copies of their student's satirical magazine as they could find; it has taken me weeks to get hold of a copy.

Surely Dr Fara and the chaplain are - in this context - bureaucrats rather than satirists.

In the end, a journalist on Index on Censorship passed one to me as if he were a Soviet dissident circulating a samizdat.

Even worthies from Index on Censorship skulk like schoolboys passing round 'Razzle.'

The first is a series of gags at the expense of the protesters who marched through London with placards declaring 'Behead those who insult Islam' and 'Freedom go to hell'. As the courts have imprisoned demonstrators for soliciting murder, it is outlandish that a Cambridge college should take exception to jokes at the expense of convicted criminals who are the sworn enemies of every liberal principle its academics profess to hold.

I don't know what this means. Whether you admire Muhammad or not, he was not as far as I can remember, a 'convicted criminal'. AFAIK the story, Dr Fara and others apologised for the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoon - which offended many less extreme Muslims - not for reporting, however mockingly, the antics of the wilder protestors.

Eventually, men and women in government, business and the church will ask what gives artists the right to mock them when cowardice stops them mocking others. The artists will have no principled reply.

Lest Captain Cabernet have another dig at me for straying into philosophy I don't understand, I'll keep my comment on this short. I don't think the 'right to mock' is something one earns or can lose. '[M]en and women in government, business and the church' are publicity seeking (OK, with the exception of Dick Cheney). They ask to be commented on; what do they expect?

Update: Sunday 1:30. The bits I forgot.

I also know that their offence has been whipped up by the Sunni and Shia theocratic far right that supports the rather more offensive slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims by al-Qaedaists, Baathists and Shia militiamen in Iraq.

The Ba'ath Party is secular, and hated by the Sunni and Shia theocrats.

The centre pages [of Clareification] are filled with bitchy profiles of student politicians, which suggests that the writer has ambitions to become a parliamentary sketch writer if he doesn't grow up.

Ohh, meow. And from the author of 'Pretty Straight Guys' too!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Keeping Up With The Joneses And Other Matters

Last year Cardiff (where I live) hosted the world record gathering of people with the same surname. I'm telling you this so you know, if you didn't already, there are a lot of people called Jones.
Via old Nick (why didn't I notice that joke before?), in Leaving the Left behind in the Australian Literary Review, Richard King considers books by Berman, Beinart, and Cohen.

IN Communism: A Love Story, Jeff Sparrow's new biography of Melbourne-based communist activist Guido Baracchi, there is a page-long list of abbreviations designed to guide the general reader through the factions and fractions of the Australian Left.
Needless to say, the list is essential: the radical Left is notoriously quarrelsome and acronyms are thick on the ground. Monty Python's Life of Brian is first and foremost a satire on religion but it is also a satire on radical politics: the endless debates and qualifications ("Comrades, this calls for immediate discussion!"); the divisions within and between different groups ("We're the People's Front of Judea, not the Judean People's Front!").
Nor is the Left's sectarianism confined to the pamphlet and the political meeting. In the May days of 1937, Republicans in the streets of Barcelona forgot their common enemy -- fascism -- and descended into fratricide.
One way or another, they have been fighting ever since.

King goes on and discusses all the enemies of decency (Michael Moore, Chomsky, Pilger, etc) before he comes to our boy.

For Cohen, this is the clinching disgrace: "For all the atrocities and follies committed in its name, the Left possessed this virtue: it would stand firm against fascism. After the Iraq war, I don't believe that a fair-minded outsider could say it does that any more."

Assuming Richard King is a fair-minded outsider, he appears to have said that the left didn't do that in the 1930s either. King appears to want us to believe that Cohen is right with "the Left possessed this virtue: it would stand firm against fascism" while at the same time he himself thinks that almost three score years and ten ago the left did not "stand firm against fascism". Of course 'doublethink' is what 'the Left' do, not the Friends of Decency. Confused? You will be.
Who was responsible for the satire on radical politics? It was written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese and Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle and Terry Jones and Michael Palin; and directed by Terry Jones. Terry Jones played Mandy Cohen/Colin/Simon the Holy Man/Bob Hoskins/Saintly Passer-by/Alarmed Crucifixion Assistant. Pro-war blogger Norman Geras objected to something in his daily newspaper of choice some time ago.

The Guardian, as it happens, does sometimes publish humour, or what purports to be humour, on its opinion pages. It did so last Friday, with this piece by Terry Jones - about as funny, in the event, as coming upon a three-day-old corpse in a lift would be.

I wonder if the funny Terry Jones and the unfunny Terry Jones are by any chance related?
The Left was nothing if not inconsistent in its reaction to September 11 2001.

Bin Ladenists, it was said, were the fish that swim in the sea of Islamic discontent, while the planes that felled the twin towers were chickens coming home to roost.

And, at the same time:

From the claim that the CIA created al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden, to the idea that the attacks on New York and Washington were carried out by Israeli intelligence, 9/11 and the war on terror have proven a happy hunting ground for those who would seek to cast America as at best incompetent and at worst malevolent.

Today I've learned that I believe 'the planes that felled the twin towers were chickens coming home to roost' and that the attacks 'were carried out by Israeli intelligence' (or perhaps Israeli chickens).

Chomsky's pamphlet, 9/11, (published with unseemly haste) was largely ignored in the serious journals, but proved a bestseller nonetheless.

Serious journals: good. I think by 'serious journals' King means the mainstream press rather than 'Psycholinguistics Today' or whatever. King goes on:

The most comprehensive and coherent statement of this anti-totalitarian Left was advanced in April 2006 in the form of the Euston Manifesto ...

Which says:

The present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the "blogosphere". It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere - in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life.

Serious journals: bad.

Cohen echoes Hannah Arendt's theory that terror is the essence of totalitarianism and this is the pivotal insight of the anti-totalitarian Left. Indeed, the notion of a war on terror only makes sense when set within a liberal context.

Didn't Orwell make Arendt's point rather well with O'Brien's "If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever"? (And indeed the whole of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'?) Does King mean that when John F Kennedy (who was a Democrat and hence arguably a liberal) precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis - he was fighting a war on totalitarianism and terror, but his conservative and Republican predecessor Dwight D Eisenhower wasn't? And when the US backed Saddam against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war - that wasn't fighting totalitarianism?
Did the CIA create bin Laden? probably not, but they may have helped create the Taleban. There's a good comment here on how.

You Can Have Your Cake And Eat It Too

I rather admire Peter Tatchell. But I sort of suspect that his current interest in Iran is, well, cynical. Go for Iran and the wingnuts will back you (even if they've no idea who you are).
I think it's obvious that newspapers everywhere are far more interested in local news than in information from far away places of which we know little. A train crash in China has to kill hundreds before it makes a short report at the bottom of page 5; the leader of the Opposition falling over on a beach makes headlines for years. And 'Iran oppresses women' is really no more news than 'Dogs bite postmen'.
Peter Tatchell in Tehran's heroic women steps into Nick Cohen territory.

The liberal western media - including The Guardian - has mostly failed to report these women's protests and their bloody suppression.

What is the 'liberal western media' outside the Guardian? The Mirror? The Independent? Channel 4 News? The BBC? The Daily Mail? What is Mr Tatchell's source? Iran women arrested over protest. That looks like a liberal medium to me.

The left, too, ignores the heroic struggle of the women of Iran.

That's the left, not including Human Rights Watch (link on Tatchell's piece), "International Campaign in Defence of Women's Right in Iran-UK, the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association." One of the speaker is "Ann Harrison, researcher, Middle East and North Africa department of Amnesty International's International Secretariat". But apart from them. So who's missing? George Galloway, Hilary Benn (you'd think he might have some interest), and representatives from the Eustonites.
The Guardian doesn't seem to have reported this particular action, though it did report Student rebels in Iran expelled and earmarked for army last week. And the BBC is the liberal media in the West - and it did report in detail. No one on the left has said anything - apart from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc. As per always.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

None Dare Call It Decency

Wow, check it out. From the Lyndon LaRouche organisation, a rant that starts off about the oddball "Anti-Deutsche" movement (as far as I can see from a not very good Wikipedia article, this is the crankier wing of the German anti-racist movement, quite frequently cited on some Decent websites because they are very pro-loony-Israel[1], but who rather disgraced themselves in giving "unconditional" support to the Serbian government in 1999. It then kind of joins this up to the global private banker conspiracy, which is rather the leitmotif of Executive Intelligence Review. And then the Henry Jackson Society comes in - apparently they're part of the whole conspiracy too, and the Euston Manifesto too. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that Theodor Adorno is in there too somewhere; it's an odd LaRouchie piece that doesn't have at least a little bit about the Frankfurt School.

It's loony of course. The Henry "Scoop" Jackson Society isn't a global conspiracy. It's not even a first-division Atlanticist organisation - to be frank, it looks very much to me like a club for wannabe members of the Council on Foreign Relations and related bodies. Its founding statement could fairly be summarised as "Hey! British American Project! Pick me! Pick meeeee!". On the other hand, it isn't really that much loonier than the H'S'JS's own political pontifications. I think that with the LaRouche connection, the Decents might have found an enemy of their own calibre.

[1]a neologism coined by me to distinguish between support for the State of Israel, and the political position currently described by the phrase "pro-Israel" in online debate. I used to be quite keen on "Likudist", but it really does seem to me that lots of non-Israeli soi-disant "pro-Israel" types are staking out a position that would put them well outside the right wing of the Likud party.

Are you a journalist who chucks around frivolous accusations of anti-Semitism?

Based onAaro's version of the original

1. Are you Jewish?

a) no, I am just a bloke who happens to be called Aaronovitch and regard the suggestion that my political support of the State of Israel might have something to do with my surname as rather offensive
b) of course I am part of the Jewish community, I take part in its internal debates, I write a column in the Jewish Chronicle and regularly refer to the British Jewish community as "we".
c) Who's asking?

2. What did you think of the Mearsheimer and Walt paper on "the Israel Lobby"?

a) I notice that David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan liked it, didn't he eh? Nudge nudge.
b) It doesn't seem to actually make any specific anti-Semitic claims, but coo, it doesn't half bang on about Israel doesn't it? Tin foil hats! Nudge nudge.
c) I am going to get a fucking book out of that "Conspiracy Theories" lecture if it fucking kills me.

3. What would your reaction be to convincing evidence that the IDF had committed war crimes?

a) Well, what would you have done matey, with terrorists on your front door?
b) Look I've said it was horrible. You don't know how awful I feel about this. Isn't that enough?
c) Pass me another drumstick please.

4. Have you stopped beating your wife?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Never, Never Shall Be Slaves

Or more of the same as the last post. BB has ably attacked the intention of Dave's metaphor - Iraq; I've been troubled by the assumptions in the metaphor itself.

First, I am a moral relativist, and my reasons for being one come down pretty much to a sort of Cartesian doubt. I don't know for certain whether I'm morally right about say Iraq, but I do know for certain that I've been wrong morally in the past; I also know that a lot of other people see things differently. I'm really not convinced by the idea of moral absolutes: as the man said, 'For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so'. And if you were to say to me, "But slavery really is bad", I'd probably reply, "It depends what you mean by slavery." (I suspect that Dave would not agree with the usage of slaves here (in the phrase "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" - he might prefer "patriotic draftees").

I don't know if DA reads Terry Pratchett, but I'm sure there is a joke in Pratchett very similar to his ironic dig at his pretence at John Humphreys' position.

And what is bloody wrong with slavery anyway? Three meals a day. Basic security. The Western idea of freedom isn’t everything.

I'm not sure there is a 'Western idea of freedom' - I think 'freedom' is a concept most people get into an awful mess trying to put into words. Kris Kristofferson defined it as "another word for having nothing left to lose". Anatole France was on to something with "The law in its infinite majesty, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges." (This is true in Blair's Britain, yet Dave would argue that we are free - just not to sleep under bridges.) By the 'Western idea of freedom' I think Dave means that, though he and Milton Friedman might argue over the particulars, they would agree that 'freedom' is a good thing. The 'non-Western' ('Eastern'?) idea is presumably more fatalist. Is a choice of "This Starbucks or that one?" really a choice at all? Is choice good? Is a ballot paper with eight candidates one of whom is BNP really better than one with just the other seven (suppose the deposit was far higher)?

Now, I don't think slavery is a good thing, or ever was a good thing. (And the thing I mean, I suppose, is the relationship between slave and slave owner - a thing which has at least two ways of being seen.) Slave owners maintained the right to whip slaves for instance. (I'm a fairly extreme libertarian: I don't think anyone has the right to touch anyone else without prior permission - which may be tacit of course: I'm not saying that you have to say to your partner "I'm home! Would you mind most awfully if I kissed you?" - only that it's a right they grant, not one you automatically enjoy.) This right was enjoyed by sea captains long after the abolition of slavery. But 'three squares a day and security' is not a bad deal. There are worse. I'm quite taken with Milton Friedman's idea of slavery, but I don't think my dad was ever happier than when he was in the army, which he hadn't joined voluntarily. And they had a legal right to shoot him.

But I started getting annoyed with DA when he wrote this:

Years after the American Civil War - in which 655,000 people died - leading Southerners could be found who would describe the Lincoln Emancipation as an act of "cultural genocide".

Many Southerners did - and still do - regard the Civil War as a disaster and the triumph of utter bastards; but a) I'd like a reference for "cultural genocide" (which seems empty rhetoric to me) and b) I need the phrase "Lincoln Emancipation" explained. If Lincoln emancipated people, why do the characters in books such as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (about Chicago) or John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" seem such pawns of fate? It's more than a century (and that's more than most people live) since the end of the slave trade; so why are most prisoners on death row black? Why are a disproporionate number of prisoners in the US black? Are they naturally evil? Bigger in original sin?

Britain, as Dave says opposed other countries taking slaves:

Navy captains built an illegal antislavery base on Spanish colonial soil on Fernando Po, and browbeat local African kings into allowing them to destroy slaving outposts.

Oddly enough, even the locals didn't get the point until we 'browbeat' them.

Back to my moral relativism. This is why I believe in democracy. I may be wrong, but the more people have a look, the more right they're likely to be. (I think 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' has a good idea with 'Ask The Audience' - if you ask 100 people if the sun rises in the east on in the west you'll get the right answer if you go with the majority.) And this is what we have: there is a body called the United Nations - it bases its decisions on votes by members, who are in turn, the representatives of governments. Dave praises Britain's unilateral intervention in the slave trade; there have been several recent examples of multilateral intervention in the world. Not all have been successful; not all have been right with hindsight. I don't think the UN is perfect. But its collective decisions are closer to being 'objective' than a self-selecting minority cabal of fanatics (or US arse-licking Decents) would have been.

However, I shall remember Dave's hatred of slavery (and hence slave owners) the next time he praises Thomas Jefferson.