Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Guardian/Observer split

As any fule kno, the Decents hate the pro-jihadi moral-relativist Guardian but think better of its sister paper, the Observer. Richard Brooks has an interesting piece in the Sunday Times examining why the Observer took a pro-Iraq-war stance and the Guardian didn't, and suggests connections both to an earlier feud over Wakefield/MMR and to the hand of Alistair Campbell. Full details will appear, apparently, in a book by Rusbridger-sidekick Nick Davies.

More here and here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Serious Novelist

Since commenter TimP requested that we mention Nick's latest especially this bit:

I expected the audience to go along with him. Just as urban legend has it that you are never more than six feet away from a rat on the streets of London, so dismal experience has taught me that you are never more than six feet away from an apologist for tyranny at a meeting of London liberals. (A good example of this came a few days later when Martin Amis, a serious novelist, was confronted by Chris Morris, a light entertainer, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Amis was so exasperated by the betrayals of principle that he asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they considered themselves morally superior to the sexist, racist, homophobic and psychopathic Taliban. Fewer than a third did.)

Isn't there some sort of catch where if you say you're "morally superior" to someone you automatically disqualify yourself from being moral at all? I mean, isn't the proper answer "I hope so" or "I try to be" rather than the chest-beating "Me moral, you Taliban!" or whatever? Anyway, what is a 'serious novelist'? I'm sure Nick has complained somewhere that modern novelists or Hollywood, or some cabal of bad guys (sorry for being so unspecific, but I can't find the piece) is or are ignoring contemporary issues. I finished The Death of Dalziel earlier this week (very good, I thought that previous couple showed a fatigue of form, but this was pretty good, if not among his very best). A sample:

'Useful? I've spent time more usefully reading Martin Amis,' he sneered. 'If you really want to marginalize me, why don't you just send me to the seaside and ask me to count grains of sand?

Page 159. That was Pascoe for any Hill readers among us: Dalziel is in a coma at this point, having been blown up by a bomb planted in an Islamic video shop. That's a contemporary plot, even if the prose fails the third of Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing (I read Leonard on the recommendation of Martin Amis) - 'Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.'

I should pause the tape here. I'm ambivalent about Martin Amis. I think some of the early stuff (after the largely forgettable 'The Rachel Papers' anyway) was brilliant. His tastes led me to both Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. I found 'The Information' pretty much unreadable, and I skipped "Time's Arrow" because I thought the same idea was better done (and better written) by Kurt Vonnegut. Though Amis stole (being a mature poet) from Vonnegut, he didn't acknowledge his debt, preferring the stately and respectable highbrows of Bellow and Nabokov as his inspirations. (Personally, I'm in awe of all three in their own ways.) I think Martin deserves Terry Eagleton, like Ugolino in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Eagleton can't tell 'wrote' from 'spoke' and Amis' "an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx" is a veritable hit. On the other hand, Amis gets out of jail because Eagleton accuses him of having written something he merely said in an interview, which is the sort of legal defence tactic Amis would deny anyone more brown than, say, Peter Hain, and circumcised to boot. (I don't mean Jews, my dear, I'm not talking about Israelis or Jews.) But can he write? Oh yes. Is he influential? Oh yes.

Resume tape: Thursday 18 October 2007 21:26.

'You're talking like an old man, Roy,' I told him. 'People have been complaining that standard are slipping ever since Shakespeare started writing comedies.'

Robert Harris: The Ghost. I meant to just slip that in, reading the first chapters in bed last night. I've finished it now, and rather than drool about it, I suggest that readers nip down to their local bookseller and read from after the break on page 218 until they're persuaded to buy the damn book. The prose is so good it reminded me of Amis at his best: "The Moronic Inferno", say.

Harris had suggested in "Imperium" that he felt the "War on Terror" was (ahem) exaggerated and a bid to seize power.

Oliver Kamm likes Robert Harris unlike his friend Stephen Pollard. Nicholas Blincoe wrote a stunning review in the Torygraph. (He'd already given the thumbs up to Naomi Klein and the thumbs down to What's Left?.) "Imperium" begged some big questions: was Rome a democracy? Politicians had limited terms; they were appointed by the electorate; but women could not vote, nor could slaves. Harris was skeptical about the War on Terror before; now he's cynical. I think a reassessment is due.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Nope, stumbling back away from it


Friday, October 12, 2007

Stumbling towards sanity?

Amazing news! The chief theorist of Decency has (it appears) taken a massive step back from the Euston Manifesto!!!!

In a debate with Conor Foley[1], The Civilised Norm Of International Society makes the following characterisation of his point of view:
Finally, at no point does Conor squarely face the case on which I was basing my argument for a right of humanitarian intervention: conditions in which it is agreed (let us suppose by him and me amongst many others) that there is urgent need for intervention to stop something appalling and ongoing, a genocide, or something else of humanitarian-crisis proportions; no security council authorization is forthcoming (for one bad political reason or another); nothing of sufficiently multilateral scope is going to happen for a long time either. Is it the law in these circumstances that the people being killed by their thousands must just be killed and that's all there is to it? I say that that is not a law worth supporting. It is my central argument. Conor doesn't engage with it.

One can see that the empirical fact that people tend to be "killed by their (tens and hundreds of) thousands" in interventions too is yet to permeate, but the important bits are the words I've emphasised above. Compare to this and this from 2004, where the criterion of urgency was discussed and thoroughly rejected, and I think it's impossible to deny that there has apparently been significant movement in Geras' thought - he links to these discussions in his post as if they're part and parcel, but I don't see how they can be. The relevant passage from the Euston Manifesto also bears quoting:

If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

"Imminent humanitarian crisis" is a much more defensible criterion for a humanitarian intervention than a subjective criterion of "appallingness", so it is unsurprising that The Universally Recognised Norm Of Civilised Law has retreated to it. However, the Decents in general have a nasty habit of sallying forth from dug-in positions when they think they can recover some lost territory, so it is important to note this watershed event just in case he ever tries returning to the view that wars can be justified either as a substitute for Hague indictments or in the name of entirely hypothetical "Uday and Qusay" scenarios.

[1] I see that Norm is prepared to mention Conor by name and argue with him directly, for the meanwhile. I suspect, however, that as he starts losing the argument, he will discover a "curious obsession", and the small and prestigious club of people who can only be addressed through poorly-thought-out cricketing analogies will gain another member.

Kamm versus McCann on Guevara

Oliver Kamm, looking as smug as ever, appeared on BBC Northern Ireland's "Hearts and Minds" to debate Eamonn McCann on the legacy of Che Guevara. Here's Kamm's account:

McCann had the bright idea to claim simultaneously that Guevara's taste for revolutionary violence was (a) taken out of context, and (b) comparable anyway to the activities of the ANC under apartheid. In case you want to check the second assertion [emphasis added by Capt Cab] , you should note that Nelson Mandela has never shot without trial teenage members of his own organisation for petty pilfering, or authorised the execution of his party comrades on grounds of their ideological deviation.

A word of advice to Oliver. If you are going to say things like that, it is best not to provide a link to the programme concerned. Those who watch will find that (a) referred to a quotation and not to Guevara's taste, but, more pertinently, McCann's claim (b) was specifically directed to the activities of MK, the ANC's security apparatus in camps in Mozambique and not to Mandela.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Another Side of Chris Hitchens

I shared HP Sauce's delight at George Galloway making a prat of himself in the Big Brother House. Didn't they think of it as the moment when he lost all credibility? I wonder what they would have written if Galloway had appeared like this?

Time for a will-you-condemn-a-thon?

Conor Foley has a nice pice on CiF about the risks posed by the possibility that the Turkish military will engage in cross-border pursuit against the Kurdish PKK. Of course, this would be a disaster for the Decent project since, as any fule kno, Iraqi Kurdistan is a kind of earthy paradise.* However the propensity of the PKK to spray civilians with machine-gun bullets does open the prospect of a good will-you-condemn-a-thon. After all, the Euston Manifesto does tell us:

We are opposed to all forms of terrorism. The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime under international law and all recognized codes of warfare, and it cannot be justified by the argument that it is done in a cause that is just. Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries. This does not justify prejudice against Muslims, who are its main victims, and amongst whom are to be found some of its most courageous opponents. But, like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

The absence of condemnation of recent PKK operations by Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Aaro, Geras, HP Sauce, the Drink Soaked Trots, and sundry other Decents has been noted.

(*Any resemblance between the utopia that is Iraqi Kurdistan and early Israeli kibbutzim, Cuba, Nicaragua (at least their imaginary counterparts) or any other place that young Decents may have idealized their pre-Decent days is not co-incidental.)

Monday, October 08, 2007


Alan M. Dershowitz, the Decents' fave American lawyer is keen on Anthony Julius, their fave British lawyer. Anthony likes Alan too, as Alan's website tells us:

"Anthony Julius -- Great Britain's most prominent barrister -- described him as "the advocate for the Jewish people."

Were I not a deplorable pedant I'd refrain from pointing out that this statement isn't accurate. (No, not the "most prominent" bit!) Anthony isn't a barrister, he's a "solicitor advocate". It does make you wonder whether Alan gets any other facts wrong.

Profiles in Decency: John Rentoul

John Rentoul is the ultimate courtier.

... and in many ways, what else is there to say? This "Profile in Decency" has been on the books for about six months, and I have been completely blocked, because once you've written that, what else is there to say about the man? His name sounds a bit like "Rent-A-Tool", which I footnoted as a joke to use, but I've actually made negative progress recently, because I deleted the word "Blairite" when his outpourings on Brown, Cameron etc, made it clear that the man was no one-note sycophant. Rentoul swims around, looking for an arse to suck on, like a peculiar species of remora, and it seems that more or less any old arse will do.

I have a slight suspicion that the real threat to political pundits from the Web comes not from the claque of wankers like me on blogs, constantly nitpicking and comparing them to arse-sucking parasitical fish, but from the simple convention of the chronological list. This compendium of weekly summaries of Rentoul's column is a far more savage indictment of his twist-in-the-wind, kiss-up-kick-down journalism than any anal limpet simile I could come up with. I suspect that he might get away with it in print, as the weekly Rentoul will just wash over the readership in a fug of Westminster nudges and winks, another voice in the jabber of columnism. But when you are brought face to face with a great big vertical slice of them, it becomes absolutely plain - this man has no consistency whatsoever from week to week. If Labour are on 43% and the Tories on 34, he will praise Brown to the skies and mock the weakling Cameron. If the Tories are neck and neck, he will laud Cameron and excoriate Brown. It's not obvious what Rentoul gets out of this - more or less nothing in terms of access as far as I can see, and it's visible that he actually hates both of them for not being Blair - except the sheer joy of grovelling itself, the same thrill that must have once upon a time caused Danes to tell Canute he could turn back the tide.

So it's hard to analyse Rentoul, because it's hard to tell what is his genuine view, and what is just the journalistic equivalent of a big sloppy kiss on the seat of power. His most recent piece on the subject is pretty boilerplate Decent deadendery, using the figleaf of (never-specified) Iraqis who "want us to stay". But all the piss and vinegar has gone out of him (well, all the vinegar anyway); compare it to this piece of chutzpah from spring, where he declared that the real tragedy of Iraq was the damage it had done to Decentist politics. In all honesty, Rentoul appears to be to be a Decentist by default.

He doesn't really have any interest in foreign policy, other than in as much as it reflects on Westminster power struggles, any more than he has any real interest in economic news except in as much as it has a bearing on the same. He's a teenage scribbler at heart, with a vision that stretches out to the next set of opinion poll numbers. Happy to be a useful idiot of whatever revolution is going on, and with quite a line in viciousness to any person or thing that deviates from the ideological line. It's obvious what function the Rentouls of this world perform under Communism or feudalism, but his continuing relevance in a parliamentary democracy certainly makes me think that we haven't yet achieved the perfect system of government.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ceased To Be A Human Being

Please read Robert Farley on Christopher Hitchens.

As you may have heard, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Vanity Fair this week ruminating on the fact that a young man, recently killed in Iraq, may have taken one of Hitchens columns as inspiration for joining the US Army. Hitchens response to this event is occasionally moving, and I'm reluctant to trample into what is clearly an emotional situation both for him and for the family of the young soldier.

Utterly splendid and on the money.

By the end, Daily has ceased to be a human being, and instead has become the other side of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens idolizes Orwell more than any healthy writer should another, but he's never quite been able to take the last step, and actually go to Spain (such as it were) and put himself in physical, as opposed to rhetorical, jeopardy. Now, Daily has done it for him, and "by sending messages from the grave" reaffirms Hitchens courage and sense of purpose.

In other news, Norman Geras hasn't mentioned the Dupe for a long time now. (Or, if he has, it's been on religion rather than Iraq.)

Pundit Watch

David Aaronovitch has many virtues as a columnist. He's not so bad on media issues and is usually fairly sound on crime and race (though he prefers these things to be centrally managed). But political pundit? Forget it.

Now, my presumption is that the Prime Minister is prepared to make tough decisions, because if he isn't, then there's not much point to him. And if he is, then perhaps he should go to the country very soon. Polling evidence is now being backed up by the results of local council by-elections, all suggesting that there is beginning to be a settled view in the country that Mr Brown deserves to be given his chance.
Mr Brown is a serious rather than a cautious politician, and this is a huge decision, but if he wants the freedom to do the difficult as well as the easy things, then he needs to put the Long Election Campaign behind him. At which point -- in his very deep voice -- he can answer the really profound questions.

Brown: Calling election would have been "easiest" thing to do. So DA: calling an election is a 'tough' decision; Brown: calling an election is an 'easy' decision. At least both agree that Gordon took the harder course. No one else seems to. Another prediction bites the dust. So: will DA a) quietly forget this one; or b) turn on 'Bottler' Brown, the man who let his backers down?

FWIW, I think Brown should have called an election because the traditional democratic method is you get your mandate first, then you wield it. If Brown wanted to be able to say he had the backing of the voters, he had to have the cojones to ask them. Also, if Brown had been as successful a chancellor as he no doubt believes he was, the next five years should be pretty good, and his term should see us out of Iraq, possibly with the capture of bin Laden (he can't really hold out forever can he?) and take us up to the Olympics (which Labour wanted, and I increasingly see as a looming disaster). With five years in hand rather than three, he has a better chance of riding out any problems on the way. Like the poor cat in the adage, indeed.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Easily led

Michael Burleigh reviews Andrew Anthony in the Telegraph

After a spell at City and East London College, Anthony went to London's School of Oriental and African Studies where he took a degree in history and politics. Mediocre lecturers inducted him into the alphabet soup of the 1980s sectarian hard Left; the SWP, RCP, WRP and CPGB among them. He was so committed that he went to Nicaragua for six months, as part of a work brigade designed to free up fighters for the Sandinistas.

I can see how charismatic, charming, or brilliant lecturers might have turned Anthony's head, but he seems to have been seduced by mediocre ones.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More Kamm and No Wiser

Oliver Kamm September 23, 2007:

The most important story of this week and of most others is one on which there is a paucity of public information. We know that Israel made a bombing raid on Syria on 6 September. Everything else is conjecture or the product of unattributable briefing, but The Sunday Times gives a lucid account: ...

[Long excerpt]

Oliver Kamm today:

There is an important article in The Spectator by James Forsyth and Douglas Davis about Israel's bombing raid on a Syrian target on 6 September. The authors of the article believe we narrowly escaped World War III. They reconstruct events this way: ...

First thing to notice is that an Ollie post isn't really complete unless the word 'important' appears in the first sentence. The second thing is that the Forsyth and Davis story is, as OK noted a fortnight ago, "conjecture or the product of unattributable briefing" and differs considerably from the Sunday Times version.(I like "They reconstruct events ...". The Times seems more reliable.

Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.

Enquiring minds may want to know how "the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material" and I'd be glad to be disabused of my ignorance of forensic processes which can determine the country of origin of radioactive material.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.


What was in the consignment that led the Israelis to mount an attack which could easily have spiralled into an all-out regional war? It could not have been a transfer of chemical or biological weapons; Syria is already known to possess the most abundant stockpiles in the region. Nor could it have been missile delivery systems; Syria had previously acquired substantial quantities from North Korea. The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear.

This version suggests that a commando raid gathered "soil samples" (stranger things have happened - in Mordor, for instance) and that a newly arrived nuclear shipment contaminated the soil extremely quickly. It also goes in three paragraphs (I cut two) from "Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear." to "The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear." I'm also suspicious that these tests revealed nuclearosity or nuclearity or whatever without any mention of isotopes or any of that tricky physics stuff.

But Oliver called this an "important article". Not as news presumably, but as analysis.

The scale of the potential threat - and the intelligence methods that were used to follow the transfer - explain the dense mist of official secrecy that shrouds the event. There have been no official briefings, no winks or nudges, from any of the scores of people who must have been involved in the preparation, analysis, decision-making and execution of the operation. Even when Israelis now offer a firm 'no comment', it is strictly off the record. The secrecy is itself significant.
Israel is a small country. In some respects, it resembles an extended, if chaotic, family. Word gets around fast. Israelis have lived on the edge for so long they have become addicted to the news. Israel’s media is far too robust and its politicians far too leaky to allow secrets to remain secret for long. Even in the face of an increasingly archaic military censor, Israeli journalists have found ways to publish and, if necessary, be damned.

Not even "winks or nudges" - so the whole of the foregoing was made up? And this is Kamm's original piece.

This is an extraordinary development. And what is most extraordinary about it is what has not happened. Israel, even more than the United States, is a polity where it's very hard to keep things secret. Yet this one hasn't been leaked.

Will someone reveal where Kamm and Forsyth and Davis get their information (which includes Israeli pilots' briefings, not normally released I'd have thought)?

UPDATE: edited because I quoted one paragraph from OK twice and forgot to insert the link to the Spectator. Also when I read the Spectator piece there were two comments (there are now five; three of which are skeptical) the first of which asks a reasonable question ("Sir If an operation on the scale of that suggested by Douglas Davis and James Forsyth's article had taken place, would there not be distinctive and measurable radioactivity in the area?") and the second says "...I've got to read your news to find out how close we came to World War 3..." In other news, if I hadn't stopped my bike at a junction yesterday morning, I'd have been flattened by a truck. A blog post on how close I came to death seems imminent.

This morning in the Torygraph: US 'must break Iran and Syria regimes'. I suspect that the Sunday Times and the Spectator are dupes of neo-con propaganda. (The US Senate won't buy regime change on its own, so let's try the WMD thing again.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Mote and beam alert

Kamm on Benn:

"I recall with particular distaste his invincible belief that those who disagreed with him on, for example, nuclear disarmament, were dishonourable and dishonest men."