Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kamm on Hari

A bit busy, but we certainly ought to have a Johann Hari discussion thread and this is it. Oliver Kamm appears to believe himself to be striking body blow after body blow, but so far his main arguments appear to be a) grammar flames weak enough to be actively embarrassing b) the assertion that Kamm takes the neoconservatives at their word and this is Hari's problem and c) some crap about George Orwell which is not even right (I noted in the comments on the past tense Harry's Place post that Cohen's review in the latest Decentiya is fairly and squarely an attempt to claim the mantle of Saint George).

Meanwhile, Kamm also appears to be claiming that Hari must be lazy or dishonest rather than making an honest mistake (if mistake it be), because "No one to my knowledge has ever accused Nick Cohen of writing impenetrable prose. His argument here is characteristically clear". Which rather invites the question that if Cohen is such a clear and lucid writer, why does he need to spend nearly all his waking hours telling every single reviewer that they have completely misunderstood his book "What's Left?". After all,

Johann is entitled to change his views and apologise for what he formerly argued; but in his indictment of those of us he terms the pro-war Left, he is duty bound to give an accurate account of our position. If he seeks to depict the malign influence of neoconservatism on our thinking, then he is duty bound also to give an accurate account of that movement and its role in US foreign policy

is an admirable sentiment, but the twin issues of "changing one's views" and "giving an accurate account of other people's position" are two that I would have tried to stay away from in a defence of Nick Cohen, rather as Harold Shipman's lawyer always tended to steer the subject away from murdering grannies and toward more general issues of NHS policy. Oliver also uses the Hari review to continue to push his quite odd view of the Versailles Treaty (capsule: flawed because it was not nearly draconian enough on the Germans) and to once more suggest that this is the sensible view of nearly all reputable historians and JM Keynes can fuck off). But more of that anon. In the meantime ....

Update by Bruschettaboy. No you haven't gone mad. Some of the comments don't make sense anymore, because I have chopped a short comic poem entitled "The Ballad of Oliver Kamm". OK is a long time bete noire of AW, and several of the editors have a long history of swapping insults with him. However, this post has now been linked from the Johann Hari blog, and if we get a load more traffic as a result, I think that the fun and games will not look right divorced from context. Rest assured our loyal readers that AW has not got out of the personal insults game, far from it, we're just a little bit subtle. I might revise this decision at any minute, and the post will certainly be restored when this has all blown over. I just have a horrible feeling it will indeed all end up in court and even quite good jokes tend to die the death in such situations. Aaronovitch Watch, the quiet voice of reason.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Shorter Geras


"If I'd foreseen what a terrible disaster the Iraq war was going to be I wouldn't have supported it. But I supported the war for good moral reasons, whereas the people who opposed it opposed it for morally despicable reasons. So even though they were right and I was wrong about what would happen, I'm still virtuous and they're still vicious."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Forecast Returns!

I've a feeling that something like this may come up from one of our watchees. Not that particular version, obviously, but the Hewitt-Petraeus line. (Via John Cole who subsequently got some stick.)

Has the Staggers completely lost Nick now? I was never a huge fan - when I used to buy it in the 80s, I stuck to the book reviews at the back rather than the worthy stuff at the front, but to call the current issue a lot of toss is probably overestimating its worth several times over. How, exactly, can a clever guy like David Miliband put his name to this crap? (The one bit I liked was the last paragraph with 'John F Kennedy got this right. He said foreign policy should be based on "idealism without illusions".' I didn't know that - and that's quite a clever philosophical joke. DM sees it as deep. Dipshit.)

Not a prediction, but a request: please Aaro, do a domestic, liberal piece - smart people I knew who smoked cannabis or something. You do those well. Stick to anything you can write from experience or can fill out with useful quotes from phone interviews. No third-hand Iraq stuff. Please. As for Nick, go interview Richard Dawkins. I like Dawkins, and as long as he does all the talking, you can't go wrong. If what you're writing starts to sound like "When I were a lad, ..." just shred it. Now.

OK Predictions: Aaro - cannabis; Nick - Iraq, going well says US general.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Withdrawal Method

As requested in the comments to the last post, let's talk about Dave. (It's a good job that subeds are responsible for the headlines, because Someone wake me from this nightmare of withdrawal is simply terrible and not justified by the text at all. DA does use 'Everywhere the fantasy of disengagement was being dreamt.')

Pretty much everything is wrong with this particular column, IMO. DA's talent seems to have deserted him. (What does 'nervously content' mean? Or 'Americans were also distancing themselves from themselves'?) His trademark these days seems to be sniping at other (usually unnamed) journalists in publications Times readers are unlikely to have seen. So for reference, here is Mark Malloch Brown's interview in the Torygraph with Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson. (I'm not sure why that paper sends two female writers to do the job of one, but they often do get the goodies - the quotes which other papers then report.) And here's the fourth paragraph of that piece (which readers may judge for themselves):

Irwin Stelzer, Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man, called his [Mark Malloch Brown's] appointment, "appalling".

And a hatchet job appears as soon as possible in the Times! Now that's what I call a coincidence!

I read that piece at the weekend, and thought 'Good for Brown and Brown.' This view isn't shared by David Miliband, it seems.

Then David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, slammed the French windows shut again. America was our most important single ally, and being joined at the hip with it was an objective of foreign policy. "We are not into the game of hints," he told Sir Mark. So stop saying dumb things and go off and do the job we just appointed you to do.

As far as I can see, Miliband didn't say this to Lord Brown. I googled "We are not into the game of hints" and found the provocatively titled Minister of Malarkey.

Mr. Miliband, too, must have been surprised to read that his new subordinate sees himself as "the older figure, the wise eminence behind the young Foreign Secretary." Mr. Miliband wasted no time in giving an interview of his own in which he laughed out loud at Lord Malloch Brown's pretensions.

Asked if the British government had changed its tone toward the Bush administration, he replied, "No - a straight answer to a straight question. We are not into the game of hints. If we want to say something you will hear it from the Prime minister and you will hear it from myself."

I haven't yet found this interview, but New Labour watchers will no doubt rejoice the Broon regime is just as fond of ministers spinning against each other as Blair's was. It's like Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan all over again. There's a constitutional issue here, I think. Miliband thinks he and Brown can set policy; I'm not so sure. Brown wasn't elected, and Labour should still be 'bound' (if that's the word) by the 2005 Manifesto. It's quite something that they can treat a minister as if he were barely fit to photocopy their press releases. Where does Brownite policy come from? Not from cabinet discussion, it seems. Yet from Miliband commits to US 'special relationship' (The Times) we learn that Miliband has altered UK policy.

He slimmed down Britain's 10 major foreign policy objectives to just three: fighting extremism, climate change and a more effective EU.

"Fighting extremism" is a terrible way to say - whatever it is Miliband means. Putin could be an extremist. Gadaafi certainly is. So is Mugabe. Are we going to fight all of them? (I take it that 'fighting' applies to both 'extremism' and 'climate change' but not 'a more effective EU'. But I'm not taking odds.)

Far from not working, the surge has only just reached its peak, and even sceptical observers concede that there is real progress, one consequence of which has been a diminution in Iraqi deaths, though an increase in American ones.

The Initial Benchmark Assessment Report is too long and complex to summarise here (I've also only skimmed it), and it does say that there has been progress, but that isn't a good summary of its conclusions. Grauniad:

But it [the report] admitted insufficient progress on eight of 18 congressional benchmarks, mainly concerning political reconciliation. Results were mixed on two other political benchmarks, and "satisfactory" progress was reported in the remaining areas, which mostly concerned military issues.

Iraq's a mess. Best thing to do is slag off the New York Times. DA notes that there is "not one single word in the [NYT] editorial about what Iraqis themselves wanted the US to do". There is one sentence on what Iraqis want in his article: "The calls from Iraqi politicians, local leaders in Anbar, the Kurds and many other groups for the Americans to stay on for the time being were not even referred to." Now, George Galloway is a British politician, Iqbal Sacranie is a local leader - if I could just think of some faction to replace 'the Kurds' I could rewrite DA's sentence to suggest that lots of people in this country eagerly await the collapse of the Great Satan America. And it would be no less true.

I wrote this last night, and I'm not happy with it - especially the last para. So blast away, me hearties.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Triumph of the Willis

I read Nick's latest on Sunday, and I really hoped someone else would have a shot.

In Die Hard 4.0, a cyber-terrorist paralyses the eastern seaboard of the United States. The lights go out all over New York, roads are gridlocked and airports closed, and a panicking citizenry hears rumours of anthrax attacks.

If this sounds a touch familiar, the writers and director are careful to emphasise that resemblances to 9/11 only go so far. The criminal mastermind isn't an Islamist, but Thomas Gabriel, a deranged computer genius. When the US government refuses to fund his research, he cries 'one day you will be sorry you spurned me', or words to that effect. Gabriel doesn't have a political motive for throwing the nation into chaos.

Indeed, this plot does sound familiar. It sounds like this:

A gang led by the German terrorist Hans Gruber invades and secures the building, under the pretense of wishing to secure the release of various terrorist operatives. The party-goers are subdued and it is revealed that the group are really thieves who plan to steal millions of dollars in bearer bonds from the building's security vault.

Imagine the cheek of it! They stole the plot of a movie where the baddie acts like a terrorist, but he's really just a thief! I think the makers of the original should sue. In that film and the second sequel, the baddies were played by Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons respectively. In Live Free or Die Hard the baddie is Timothy Olyphant - yet more evidence of Hollywood's sickening bias against white Americans. Everyone knows that all the real bad guys went to RADA, yet this movie shows an American as a villain. Will they stop at nothing to distort the truth?

Nick is of course quite right to point out Hollywood's bias in favour of our friends who wear towels on their heads. Who can forget the deluge of movies about the IRA, ETA, whatever Timothy McVeigh's lot were called, Latin American death squads, Baader-Meinhof, and so on and so forth. The United States was involved in fighting in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975 and what did liberal Hollywood give us? M*A*S*H. (Oh, and The Green Berets, but there was a notable shortage of contemporaneous films - and MASH was supposed to be about Korea.)

The global mayhem since 9/11 has not affected film in America, nor television in Britain, to anything like the degree a reasonably well-informed media buff would have predicted on the day.

Indeed, since 2001, contemporary politics has dropped out of Hollywood. Once saluted for its documentary-like coverage of say grassroots revolutionaries, Los Angeles based film-makers have now shrunk from the real world to one of total fantasy. Even British hero James Bond in the 2006 Casino Royale faces terrorists who look nothing like Osama bin Laden. What a far cry from the original book which was almost a trainspotter's guide to the modi operandi of the KGB. And regardless of the politics of the star, the Die Hard movies are liberal in intent: McClane is pretty much an anti-James Bond character, blue-collar, not part of the state machinery; the only person who believes him in the first film. is a black uniformed policeman, all his superiors take Alan Rickman at his word. Bond is about class and education getting you through; the Die Hards are about the integrity of the absence of both.

I was both a lefty and the 80s and the kind of saddo who stays for the credits of films. In No Way Out the two heavies who chase Kevin Costner are listed as "Contra #1" and "Contra #2". (See, more left-wing bias: why couldn't they have been left-wing crazies? Because, perhaps, there wouldn't be any of those in the Pentagon at the time?) And that's pretty much it for filmic reaction to internal conflict.

In Back to the Future, Executive Decision, True Lies and dozens of others, Arabs were off-the-peg bad guys. Yet after 9/11, the stereotypes weren't fleshed out with an all-too-real psychopathic ideology, but abandoned.

Does he really mean that the minor roles in Back to the Future given as "Libyan Terrorist" and "Libyan Van Driver" count as some kind political statement? Apart from the barrel-scraping, there's an assumption that the first real act of aggression against the US by Arabs or an Arabic nation was in 2001. Yet even an unreasonably ill-informed media buff could have named the Iran hostage crisis or the growing hostility of Libya at the time. (And were Libyans any more 'fleshed out' after Lockerbie?)

Meanwhile, the actor playing Guy of Gisborne in the BBC's reworking of Robin Hood for the 21st century explained that the old story was now about 'the perpetuation of terror' by the powerful. 'It's almost in the bad guys' interests to keep Robin alive - like the modern situation with terrorists. Guy and the Sheriff need him as a scapegoat, to keep fear in the hearts of the people'.

If Nick had read a certain novel by a Tribune journalist who turned on the left, he might realise that the above is more or less a paraphrase of Emmanuel Goldstein.

The BBC's logic [that the government was the real villain, hyping up the threat to justify placing the British under the iron heel of the national security state] is absurd when I write it out on paper but it makes psychological sense on the screen.

Well, that logic worked very well in an anti-Communist novel.

Sorry about the title, I'm uninspired today.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Cry Media!

David, David, David. What are we going to do with you?

First, there's the title. Don't blame Campbell. It was the media's fault. David doesn't come up with any suggestions for reforming the media - as far as I can tell, he thinks all journalists (possibly bar himself and a couple of mates) are incorrigible scallywags: shallow and lazy and mendacious and greedy. But by pointing the finger at everyone, nothing gets done. The media is just rotten, so what do you expect?

First off, I think the comparison between the books by George Tenet ('Director of the CIA till the summer of 2004') and Richard Clarke ('former counter-terrorism boss') and those of Christopher Meyer and Alastair Campbell is specious. I've only read the Clarke one, and he is hostile toward Cheney and Rice, while admiring of Clinton and Gore, but his reasons for this are to do with policy: Rice ignored him until September 2001, despite al-Qaeda attacks on the US (the first World Trade Center; the USS Cole; the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya). On the other hand, Christopher Meyer wrote about 'second-class politicians ... being seen in their underpants' which concerns the book-buying taxpayer somewhat less than whether she is going to be murdered in her bed. Campbell is no better than Meyer:

The next day "another Austin Powers moment", Mr Campbell went upstairs at No. 10 to find Mr Blair wearing yellow/green underpants and nothing else, "what a prat he looked".

The best bits in The Blair Years.
There seem to be two sorts of disclosure - one of policy-making in camera as it were, and the other of cheap scenes from a stage farce. (See Bob Dylan: "But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked.")

I agree with DA that the argument that politicians and civil servants won't be able to trust each other if the latter is allowed to publish is unconvincing - but provided civil servants stick to the Clarke-type memoir, not the Meyer one. DA then turns to a second - and in my opinion straw - objection: 'since [Campbell] had left stuff out, his diaries would be almost worthless'.

It is true that Campbell has left out some of the great Brown-Blair arguments, but that doesn't make the diaries unvaluable, it just means that any scholar of the period will bear his selective reticence in mind - as you do when assessing any historical document.

One would hope that 'any scholar' would actually try to get her hands on the manuscript diaries, not the edited version. DA seems to think that these are the only criticisms of Campbell. But there's a better one; not that they're compromised, but that they're trash.

So Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton and Alastair Campbell walk into a McDonald's on a desolate Blackpool sidestreet, late at night, in the rain ... There isn't a punchline to this joke, but it's entirely representative of Alastair Campbell's diaries, and, in its way, it tells you a lot about the diarist and the government in which he served. There's the self-satisfied revelling in power ("the staff were gobsmacked when we trooped in") combined with childlike awe at being in Clinton's presence. But above all, there's the sense, which leaps from every page of the diaries, of government as one continuous mistake: a frenetic, shambolic, unplannable, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute botch job.

Guardian: Alastair Campbell's victims bite back. While the Times has been critical itself, Aaro finds a rival to blame:

Monday’s editorial in The Daily Telegraph described Campbell as an "enormity", a “notorious bully” who had, with Mr Mandelson, "effected the debauching of our democracy with an ethic of pathological deceit", variously using "distortion", "outright mendacity" and "intimidation". "It damns the Blair years anew,” the Telegraph concluded, "that such men continue to prosper from the defilement in which they conspired."
You might say all this about Reggie Kray, but once you interrogate the sentiments behind such fruity language applied to a press officer, however senior, you are left with some questions. Who exactly was “intimidated”? What did they fear? How precisely was democracy debauched? If journalists were reasonably robust and did their jobs properly, how could “spin” make any real difference?

(That editorial is here. I'm impressed that they used 'enormity' correctly.)

But one blow Humphrys did land was to remind Campbell of his own ancient discourtesies as a journalist towards John Major. Watching the disgraced former Mirror Editor Piers Morgan abusing Cherie Blair in last week’s BBC documentary was to be reminded of the extraordinary, unbiased gittishness of much of the British press. No wonder the one great falling-out between Tony Blair and Campbell, as revealed in the diaries, was over Cheriegate. Mr Blair, who had never been a tabloid journalist, felt that the animal destructiveness of the media frenzy could not be appeased. Campbell later discovered how right he was.

I like 'gittishness' and 'animal destructiveness' and admire the mental gymnastics that allow DA to write this without ever thinking than his pen, as it were, is pointed at his foot. I can't stand Piers Morgan, but in the Guardian piece linked above he does explain his argument with Cherie Blair.

"There you have, in Alastair's own words, absolute confirmation that the Daily Mirror - the vociferously Labour-supporting newspaper - had done the dutiful thing, going to them with a sensitive piece of information very early in the day, and taking them into our trust. And they responded by handing our scoop to our immediate commercial rival to fuck us over! I don't necessarily blame him, because it was his partner and Cherie that did it, but how can you have a relationship of trust after that? He underplays the bit about Blair, actually. Tony was pathetically apologising for what his wife had done, which was really embarrassing and demeaning."

Who's gittish there? And this is what Campbell thinks of the press (from the same article):

TB was doing an interview with David Baddiel at Millbank, which was excellent. It was a more reflective interview than usual and TB put a lot more of himself into it. Ulrika Jonsson [TV personality] was doing Major for the same series [hilariously entitled The Enormous Election with Dennis Pennis]. TB said to Baddiel: 'How come I get you and Major gets Ulrika?'"

There's the Campbell ideal interviewer - a comedian or a whatever-it-is-that-Ulrika-does. Its good point? "TB put a lot more of himself into it". No policy; just personality. Dumbed-down entertainment. DA earlier:

In any case, far greater frankness is now demanded from public institutions than 30 years ago, as the publication of otherwise classified documents during the Hutton and Butler inquiries proved.

Why is 'greater frankness' demanded now? Couldn't be the media could it?

If journalists were reasonably robust and did their jobs properly, how could "spin" make any real difference?

Journalists are not robust. Spin clearly has made a difference, and all the smoke and mirrors in the world can't change that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nick at the Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Nick Cohen speaks out at the annual beanfeast of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (as far as I can tell, they're the favourite Trots of the Harry's Place crowd). Surprisingly they agree on two key matters, those being one, that it's all the fault of those bastards in the People's Front of Judea SWP and two, that matters would be helped by a lengthy and impenetrable rant about fin-de-siecle Russia. If that's the sort of thing you think you'll like, give it a look in parts one, two and three.

Highlight for Watchers relates to the lofty ambitions of the Euston Manifesto, which apparently doesn't believe that the pile of bodies in Iraq is anything to do with them (no really; recall that the official Decent line on this from their chief theorist Norman Geras is that the insurgents were morally obliged to help all Iraqis enjoy the benefits of democracy, therefore the coalition was morally entitled to assume a cakewalk, therefore any baleful consequences of said cakewalk not showing up are Not Our Fault Guvnor).

When people like me say these things, we are accused of putting forward a pusillanimous programme in the Euston Manifesto, when in fact it is an achievable programme, and a programme which actually has not murdered tens of millions of our fellow citizens as totalitarian societies, which begin in Europe in the twentieth century with Lenin, the first of the great totalitarians, have done.

I am reminded of Jay Gould's joke on hearing that an office-boy had been caught fiddling the petty cash:

"don't be too hard on the young man; remember we started small ourselves"

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Is Nick On About? Part Whatever

Funny one from Nick this weekend.

Labour and Tory politicians used to move in different worlds. The classic career path for a Conservative minister was to accept the relatively low pay of Westminster - low in comparison with what he could have earned in business, that is - as the price of having a say in public life. He would strive to get to the top of the greasy pole and go off to make 'real money' in the City on retirement.

Emphases mine. Better historians than me will probably be able to name names, but I'm fairly sure that some Tory ministers managed to work in the City while in office. Ken Clarke is perhaps the obvious contemporary example, the Tories had until recently regarded elected office as a part-time occupation at best.

When they [Labour politicians] left politics many became bureaucrats - Roy Jenkins and Neil Kinnock went to the European Commission - or journalists - Roy Hattersley, Richard Crossman and Harold Wilson's press spokesman Joe Haines - or just retired and wrote their memoirs.

One might note that European Commission bureaucrats are extremely well remunerated - quite a lot better than MPs, trade unionists, and academics. (BTW, I'm not entirely convinced that Trades Unionists are paid less than MPs; it depends on the union I suppose. I did find one article from 1998 which claimed that Arthur Scargill's salary then was '[£]65,000 a year.') I don't quite buy Roy Hattersley as having converted to journalism: he seems to write less now than he did as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (when he wrote a weekly column for the Grauniad and squeezed out some books, and kept up book reviews - an output not far short of Nick's really). Not all Labour politicians were above making money. Crossman despite (according to Nick) earning more an MP than he would have as an academic, decided to combine his backbench career with editing the New Statesman. And Joe Haines was never a politician at all. Unlike Campbell, he was just a press secretary.

In fact, Haines is the closest parallel to Alastair Campbell the 20th Century Labour Party produced. Wikipedia's rather dry stub says of his post-Downing St years:

Later, he was a columnist at the Daily Mirror and became official biographer in 1988 of Robert Maxwell, the Mirror's then owner, in an attempt to pre-empt the unofficial and less reverential work on Maxwell by Tom Bower.

A man of great principle then - given that he knew Maxwell better than most.

Yet Nick does have a valid (IMO) point.

The point that's worth dwelling on is that in the 20th century no Labour MP or party worker would have cared what First Group spokespersons said. The assurance of their American comrades that this was a union-busting firm that victimised low-paid workers would have been all they needed. Old taboos, not all of them foolish, would have been stirred. Some things weren't done, and this was one of them.

However, I'm not clear as to who he's getting at. Alastair Campbell isn't a "Labour MP or party worker". The rot set in with Blair. (To bang my drum yet again, I still think the Labour Party is much worse off for not holding any kind of contest for the new leader: this has meant that Brown is in no way accountable to ordinary members as he should be.) But Blair and Brown aren't named: who else is responsible for the close ties with union-busting Rupert Murdoch? If I can have my ideés fixes, so can Nick.

Although I can't remember ever meeting a lecturer who admitted to voting Conservative, the leftishness of the post-modern academy is an obscurantist and exclusive ideology with few concrete plans for the improvement of the lot of less fortunate citizens here or abroad.

I don't think 'leftishness' is a word, or in this case is even a coinage which denotes anything. I think the class of Labour-voting lecturers extends well beyond the 'post-modern academy'. When not attending dinner parties, Nick doesn't seem to bother with New Statesman get-togethers. Roger Scruton has a pretty impressive list of contributions to Nick's other employer. (And I very much doubt he's that isolated.)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The dinner parties continue

Richard Littlejohn tells us:

Nick Cohen reveals in the film that he goes to dinner parties in Islington where remarks are made about Jews that no-one would ever dream of making against any other ethnic groups.

So why does he keep going? Why doesn't he walk out there and then?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Momentous developments!

Dave agrees that the "North London dinner party" gag is a bit of an old chestnut.

No stop it you churlish bastards. This is good news and we should all be happy about it. Any comments along the lines of:

Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf

shall be censored with an iron fist in the comments. Meanwhile, blah blah blah privacy - a more or less unobjectionable bit of curmudgeonry with, AFAICT no wider political objections, although the dig at speed cameras and CCTV does rather give the game away that the "human need for privacy" is going to be subject to the well known Aaro benefit of the doubt if it ever comes up against ID cards or some goddamnable database. Btw, the gay Tivo thing has been around for a few years, so I'm guessing Dave's mate has "improved" a story that has rather done the rounds.