Thursday, February 28, 2008

All Bets Are Off

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

I nearly wrote a short post yesterday speculating that Nick would be pleased by the death of the supercasino super-delusion. He's not. He thinks our hapless Prime Minister has been lucky with his PR. And I think he's pretty much right there. I agree with his thesis - that more casinos was a bad policy.

The restraints that the Labour governments of the Sixties imposed on Britain’s casinos will go. There will be drinks on the gaming floor, no cooling off period before a new gambler is allowed to play and on-site sport betting. Beyond the regional casinos, New Labour has allowed tens of thousands of roulette machines in bookies, and poker and blackjack machines will follow soon.
Although it's not my vice, I've nothing against gambling as long as there are sensible controls.

I'm with all that. I had some doubts about 'sensible controls', but I think the Labour government in the 1960s got most things about right.

But when it [gambling] is exploding because of the Internet, those controls need to be tightened, not loosened.

Here I'd disagree - if I didn't think the subject merited proper economic research. Though I think my instinctive position would be something like, "it's better to have some control than none: if tightening controls means no one obeys the law, it's not worth it." From my point of view, a better piece than I've come to expect, apart from one pedantic gripe.

On the other [hand], Brown hopes no one will notice the thousands of new fruit machines and blackjack tables arriving soon in a casino near you.

Well, if Gordon Brown "is terrified that tax revenues will vanish into cyberspace" he must hope that enough people notice these "fruit machines and blackjack tables" to contribute to that $3 trillion war. At least there'll be none of that nauseating Monte Carlo smoke.

But then, well, oh dear. He attacks Helena Kennedy as an "unelected peer" (she's also a Caledonian Scot, a female woman, a human primate, and probably an overpaid lawyer)*. Of course, it's all about Ken.

Livingstone ... spends twice as much on PR as the entire Scottish executive ...

That sounds like a big spending difference, but Scotland has a population of 5,116,900 while London's is 7,512,400. That makes twice the money for one and a half times the target audience. More, I agree, but given business overheads and salaries in London, I'm not sure it's outrageously more.

And then, well, the now boilerplate Hollywood rant. I refer the reader to Jonanism - The belief that everybody you hate is exactly the same.

I'm certain that Hollywood doesn't care about my opinions. But it should worry that both the big winners on Oscar night were art house movies that did modestly at the box office. As a result, the Oscar ceremony got its lowest viewing figure ever. Hollywood dominated 20th century culture because it knew its audience. Now there's a gap between the films the industry celebrates and the films the public enjoys.

Hollywood - despite appearances to the contrary - is not the Borg. "It" doesn't think in the singular. I thought one had to be a little flaky to watch the Oscar bash anyway, but I didn't know psychic powers were mandatory. How else to explain the 'big winners on [the] night' influencing the audience figures? If audience figures are all that counts, why not just have a chart of ticket sales and be done with the frocks and speeches? I know this is hard to believe (more so if you've seen the Coens' earlier 'Barton Fink'), but the Oscars are about artistic integrity: the recognition of one's peers. The IMDb [Internet Movie Database] has all the past winners. Of those, 'The Departed' [2007], 'Million Dollar Baby' [2005], 'American Beauty' [2000], 'The English Patient' [1997], "Schindler's List" [1994], and 'The Last Emperor' [1988] - to cite only the past 20 years - look like art house movies to me. In 1978 the winner was 'Annie Hall'. Now I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, but Allen in more popular in Europe than he is in the US (outside NY and CA, anyway). If popularity was the issue, which of the films on the shortlist should have won? (NB, alive at the time have to be you do not.**)

I've not seen 'No Country For Old Men' yet. Yeats title good in my opion; Cormac McCarthy unforgivably bad.

Great films can contain a great deal of violence, but they use it to explore ambition, power and corruption, this was sadism dressed up as art.

Not sure here. Steven Spielberg makes films like 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Flags of our Fathers' (he produced it) as well as "Schindler's List". I don't think any of those explored 'ambition, power [or] corruption'. Nor, now I think of them, did 'A Clockwork Orange' or 'Apocalypse Now'. Sometimes, to misquote Freud, violence is only violence. To be clear, I've not seen 'Saving Private Ryan' all the way through (can't stand Tom Hanks); but the others are great movies in my opinion. And yes, I know I should see it.

As for the final thoughtlet. My jaw dropped. I am speechless.

*Of course, he may have meant that she was a peer who unlike some - Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven for example - did not win any elections. However, I think to call the former plain Mrs Thatcher an 'elected peer' would be to do a disservice to the language and to clarity.

**OK, OK, In the second film, Yoda was. Understand me, you do. Your father, I am not.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I am Equivocal about Equivocation

Captain Mainwaring, Captain Mainwaring. They don't like it up 'em. They don't like it up 'em, Captain Mainwaring.
From pretty much every episode of Dad's Army

Well, curse you Daniel Davies and commenter Don Paskini. You made me read Melanie Phillips. Worse than that, I had to trudge through a lot of accusations of anti-Semitism (all by Mad Mel, flung more or less at random - I mean our Dave an anti-Semite? as if!) to write this post. Thanks to Don, I learned that Oliver Kamm had a crack at Melanie Phillips - and, let us be clear, quite rightly.

What really gets me about Melanie Phillips is that her commenters seem to think she's some kind of scholar. Oliver Kamm speared this one by comparing Timothy Garton Ash (who knows something about both the Balkans and ethnic conflict) with her. Here is Mad Mel trying to be intellectually rigorous.

It [The decision by Britain, America and certain other European countries to recognise Kosovo as an independent state] asserts that religion matters more than nationality. [This is a bad thing.]

Now, in the same bullet point, she goes on to quote Eldad Beck speculating - in other words, writing counterfactually and entirely fancifully about Israel:

A short while after the agreement is signed, an uprising breaks out in the Galilee, in the Triangle area, and in the southern Negev desert, with Arab Israelis demanding a cultural and political autonomy that would enable them to manage their own lives while disconnecting from the State of Israel's 'Jewish' institutions.

So nationality should hold Serbia together, but nationality isn't enough to hold Israel together. I'm British (I have an - ahem - red passport to prove this) and I'm happily disconnected from Rowan Williams and the kiddie-fiddling lot.

So now the fun. Youtube has disabled embedding for this interview, so I'm not going to try on the assumption that Google's techs understand .htaccess files enough to disable embedded links. You'll just have to click through.

By tackling the issue head-on -- and crucially, using the language of values in calling the asylum shambles 'inhumane' and 'unjust' -- Mr [XXX] was not only protecting himself from the taint of racism. He was also signalling to the beleaguered majority that at last they have a champion who will stand up for mainstream decencies against the lies and smears of political correctness.

That's Mel on a certain politician found here. And here is Phillips on the US elections.

Such patent equivocation is of course absolutely telling -- and, if America were not currently in a state of mass-induced hysteria through the cult of Princess Obama, it would be lethal.

Gosh, ya think? I'd thought until today that anyone with a gig on a serious political newsheet would know enough about politics not to accuse anyone of equivocation or evasion, as no democratic party has ever been above either.

Sometimes (not often, let's not get carried away), I think, Go Oliver, Go Dave - and I mean in a nice way.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Martin Kettle tells us what very serious people think

... in the course of fighting an argument against the liberals in his head who don't want to recognise the independence of Kosovo. Apparently they're as bad as the Rwandan genocidaires, or something. The problem with Iraq is that a lot of people are apparently using it as an argument for not invading Kenya (Kenya?) Kettle is a really useful guy - if you ever want to engage in an uninspired boilerplate rant against a caricature of the most moronic version of Decency, then he is there - just as it looks like you've created a total strawman, there's Martin Kettle. The trouble is that even winning an argument against Kettle isn't particularly satisfying, as it just proves that the very stupidest possible version of any Decent argument doesn't work. Future generations will have forgotten the original sense of "the pot calling the kettle", and will only know it as a proverb against the equivalent of strawmen; "that's like the pot calling the Kettle an idiot".

Meanwhile, still turning over in my mind the fact that there was a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda. Operation Turquoise. It was a horrendously ill-planned invasion, more or less totally counterproductive and clearly aimed more at domestic political goals than any sincere attempt to help. This is the normal kind of humanitarian intervention. It is all very well to say that humanitarian interventions should not be done like Turquoise, but nobody has a plan to make them resemble it less. In related news, taking the Kosovo invasion as a model is setting the bar pretty fucking low too.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nick and the facts (part MCCCVI)

Nothing much for me to write about Nick's latest, since I don't know enough about the facts. Not that ignorance ever stopped Nick, whose willingness to recycle Daily Mail factoids rather puts in doubt the other stuff he writes about. Nick writes

Britain is a country where councils can bug the phones of fly-tippers and put spy cameras in litter bins, but tax inspectors cannot bug the offices of fraudsters or send spies into Jersey.

Er no Nick, councils can't bug the phones of fly-tippers, as quickly became clear when this one was doing the rounds a few weeks ago. The real position is set out here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saturday Prediction and Open Thread

Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism seems to be the primary source of reference on Islamic terrorism for many British Decents. Nick Cohen praises Ayaan Hirsi Ali in terms which the Pope might find overly effulgent when applied to Mary. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West would be an ideal title for a book, even if it wasn't by the first democratically elected female leader of a Muslim country. Even better, while the Telegraph thinks the "book ... received its finishing touches on the day of Benazir Bhutto's assassination" the LA Times Tim Rutten (link goes to the San Jose Mercury which reproduces the review online) says it "was finished just two days before the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Bhutto, 55, was killed". Already, I see a myth in the making. Facts - who did what when - are not what they seem.

Today's Telegraph carries the second review in two days (other papers have none so far), this time by Sameer Rahim. When I say review, by the way, I mean sustained personal attack. Here's something I didn't know.

But it is most instructive to compare her rhetoric with her record as prime minister. She complains about the rise of the "Taliban dictatorship" in Afghanistan, yet when she was prime minister she authorised aid to them and told President Clinton they would be a stabilising influence. In Daughter of the East she claims - oddly - that after she was replaced by Nawaz Sharif in 1997, "the Taliban changed colour and character".

Rahim also alleges she and her family stole $1.5 billion ("Bhutto declared her income as no more than $42,000, [but] the family bought a $3.5 million estate in Surrey") and that she was behind the murder of her brother.

I can't see Nick Cohen or Oliver Kamm passing up the opportunity to review the book. Which way shall they go? My money is on martyrdom. What say ye?

I really can't see David Aaronovitch not having something to say about the Cameron 'Auschwitz gimmick' row. At the moment, I'm not clear about what each party has actually said. The BBC seems to be wrong here:

A row has broken out over Conservative claims that Labour had not lived up to a promise of free educational visits to Auschwitz concentration camp.

But Labour have never promised "free educational visits" from the point of view of schools; according to the Observer blog:

he Labour party insisted today that since it began taking schoolchildren to Auschwitz in 1998, at an average cost of £350 per pupil, the Holocaust Educational Trust has always asked schools to contribute £100 towards the cost of each trip.

So 'free' has always meant 'free' for pupils (in theory), though obviously not if the school decides to get money by asking the parents. However, I wonder if Aaro, Kamm, Norman Geras, and Harry's Place will really let Ed Balls get away with this:

"This is a truly disgraceful remark by David Cameron and he should apologise immediately for the offence he has caused," Balls said. "Anyone who has seen the horrors of Auschwitz at first hand knows what a life-changing experience it is."

Ed, Ed, Ed, mate, you were born in 1967. They closed Auschwitz [updated for clarity that is the concentration camp] 22 years earlier. Your first-hand experience is like mine - that is, we've seen "Schindler's List" and Jeremy Isaac's "The World at War". Much fun may ensue from this, or perhaps not.

I Told You I Was Ill

I really don't know about this one: Ignore GPs. Polyclinics are the future. My first thought was that DA was being a 'friendly journalist'/'useful idiot' for the government position, but I think he has some good arguments. Shorter DA: GPs are out of date; we need something new. There are some poor arguments as well as the convincing ones.

When I saw this claim, I thought long and hard about it. And decided that this "holistic" approach [ie the current GP], is, in fact, code for "inexpert". What I increasingly want from a practice is accurate and fast diagnosis and screening, combined with the best possible advice about my condition. At the moment I tend to use my GP's practice as a way of getting referral to specialists and accessing prescriptions that I have already decided that I need.

Against this, I think calling anyone with six years university education behind her "inexpert" is a shade disingenuous. I think we've always wanted fast and accurate diagnosis (with the latter having priority). If screening requires special equipment such as x-ray machines, you're not going to get those outside of a hospital anyway. And if Dave knows what he needs before a doctor does, bully for him, but he should consider it possible that he may not always know best.

One GP further complained of how polyclinics were part of "this 24-hour, consumerist environment [which] has raised demands for a 'dial-a-pizza' approach to healthcare - instant gratification with least discomfort - with the profit-based business model that motivates supermarkets". It is hard to imagine a more contemptuous attitude towards patient demand. When did illness stop being 24 hour? And since when was minimising discomfort regarded as being somehow un-NHS?

Here he finally began to win me over. I think those are fair points. So I'm on the fence here. If anything tipped the balance, it was my dislike of anonymous comments. The first comment is from "Dr GP, London, London [sic]". And I'm the highest regarded Proust scholar in the US but I'm not going to give my name.

Edited to add I should have included a link to the Times letters in reply. I read this after Captain Cabernet's comment, and the third letter clarifies my position. (It's from a GP - I assume - in Cardiff where I live, but I don't know him.)

Sir, I don’t think most UK GPs would be too upset if we ended up with Scandinavian-style polyclinics, but the recent past would suggest that we are more likely to end up with a cross between the out-of-hours care fiasco and the patchy level of NHS dental provision. Private companies will only want to operate in "profitable" areas. The government drive for cost savings would mean the polyclinics being run by private companies employing overseas-trained doctors on short-term contracts. When complex medical problems are encountered then the quickest, cheapest way to deal with them will be to pass the buck to the hospital sector. The cost savings would be rapidly swallowed by increased admission costs to A&E.

To be clear, I don't object to the polyclinic idea or to NHS reform. I do distrust this government (and the Tories too) when it comes to running things and I side with Capt Cab on GPs/clinics "paying foreign locums to do the actual work for them".

O Best Beloved

This blog doesn't usually do jokes in Hebrew, mostly because we* don't know the language, beyond one word which will become obvious. I've done Kipling references before.

Dave, and it seems that we can call him that after all, has a pretty trivial column, Dave versus David, today. It's fun because I learned something useful, which I'll quote in a bit, and because he cites Martin Amis writing utter tosh yet again. Henman was, said Amis, "the first human being called Tim to achieve anything at all". Martin is clearly above ever using the world wide web for research.

I once wrote something similar about Nicks. I don't quite remember the occasion for my prejudice, but I had it in my head that Nicks, as they moved into middle age, were archaically boyish and irresponsible, and therefore incapable of midlife fidelity.
... In a ludicrous poll of 1,000 British women recently conducted by an organisation called, the question was asked about which man's name was most associated with genital magnitude. I am glad to say that Nick was number ten in the smallness vote, and even gladder that Jeremy was sixth. Dave, however, was considered to be the name most likely to be connected to an uberputz.

No mention, even obliquely, of the other colleagues he doesn't like: Matthew Parris and Simon Jenkins. He doesn't say how Daniel scored either...

*Me, anyway.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making allowances for what is democratically worse

Norman Geras:

Unwilling to profess a clear allegiance towards what is democratically better, a certain type of leftist is always ready to make allowances for what is democratically worse.

Christopher Hitchens on Lakhdar Brahimi:

A few years ago, his party and his government were challenged by an extreme fundamentalist movement that actually won the first round of a general election but would probably not have permitted any subsequent one. In any event, the Algerian authorities announced that on no account would they surrender the country to the "insurgency" that followed. They showed themselves willing to kill on an unprecedented scale, employing measures that the U.S. Marines would never be permitted. Repulsive though many of the tactics were, I think the FLN was broadly right. Certainly, Algeria today is a far better society for the outcome, and so is the whole of North Africa and therefore Southern Europe. These are the stakes.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's About Oil, Apparently

More notes than a coherent argument from me, I'm afraid. But that's OK (by me) because I'm not meeting a coherent argument either.

Pick any dictatorship at random and chances are you'll find China lurking in the background

Er, Russia. Oh, don't look at me like that, if Putin's a democrat, I'm a performing flea. And yes, he said, 'chances are', but then the whole idea rather needs clarification on what one means by 'dictatorship' and 'background'. Pick any country, and you'll probably find trade links with China. Even the US, gosh! Pick any dictatorship and you'll find some link to the US, gosh again!

There will be no Tibetan contingent, of course. Chinese immigrants are obliterating the identity of the occupied country, which will soon be nothing more than a memory.

I'm not sure if Tibet or its identity will 'soon be nothing more than a memory' but either way, I'm not sure I care. Countries change their names and borders all the time. As for national identity, I'd sooner bet my live savings that I can grab a fistful of sea than try to define 'national identity' to, let's be fair now, a jury of four people to their agreed satisfaction. But immigrants, eh, don't we all hate them? I don't think that China should occupy Tibet any more than I think that Israel should occupy the West Bank. But it's the army I object to, not the human traffic, in both cases.

Will Beijing be like the 1936 Berlin Olympics Hitler used to celebrate Nazism?

But isn't the thing everyone remembers now Jesse Owens four gold medals, rather upsetting the whole 'master race' thing?

Or the 1980 Moscow games the Americans boycotted in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

Actually, we did too. BBC.

I suspect the past won't be a guide because the ideological struggles of the 20th century are over. China's communists are communists in name only. They are not helping dictators because they are comrades who share their ideology.

This seems to go against Nick's pronouncements against Communists in "What's Left?" I'll admit that I'm not clear as to what a communist is or should be, though if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that they helped others because they're human, but if it comes to ideology, the left has enough falling-outs that helping anyone as "comrades who share their ideology" seems pretty unlikely.

There's a curious giveaway over two paragraphs (though I'll admit that a lot of Nick's stuff reads like he's struggling to meet some word count: so the 'filler' bits either express his 'true', 'unconscious' beliefs or are just waffle, depending on your interpretation.)

Human Rights Watch points out that if, say, Sudan were to turn into a peaceful state with a constitutional government, the Chinese would not care as long as the oil still flowed. ...
Campaign groups and governments that want to promote the spread of democracy have been far slower ...

If there is a choice between 'democracy' and human rights (and I'm not sure there is; but Nick's formulation suggests to me that he thinks that the US-based Human Rights Watch don't want to spread democracy and may even be against it), I'll take human rights any day. Just saying.

David Miliband showed he understood the dilemmas of the new century when he gave a lecture in honour of Suu Kyi in Oxford last week. He described how the great wave of democratisation, which began with the fall of Franco's dictatorship in the Seventies, moved through South America, the Soviet empire, South Africa and the tyrannies of East Asia, was petering out.

I didn't realise that any of the above were connected. If they are, how did this 'great wave of democratisation' work?

The Foreign Secretary was undiplomatic enough to continue that the economic success of China had proved that history was not over and he was right.

I think even Francis Fukuyama admits that ['history was not over'] now. God, that was a silly essay. Even when I still took the Guardian semi-seriously, I remember trying to work out if it was a joke or not.

The only justification for the Beijing games is that they will allow connoisseurs of the grotesque to inspect this ghoulish hybrid of the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism close up.

Actually, if I were the Observer's sports editor, I'd think that sending JG Ballard to the games would be an excellent idea. However, surely there are other points to the Olympic Games and the ghoulish bits will be glossed over.

I will say that I'm not enamored of the Beijing Olympics and personally support Spielberg's boycott. (I'm not sure about a competitors' boycott; I think he's done the right thing for himself and his conscience.) But the Olympics also provide a means of defection (if not now, then later) for competitors. That in itself is not support for dictators. Also, the Olympics are another channel of communication, and one that opens China to Western Commerce: I'd have though Oliver Kamm - of all Nick Cohen's contacts - would have supported global capitalism in that it ought to herald global democracy.

Fire away in the comments, I'm sure you want to. Just give your names, please.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cohen on camera

"If you say it is illegal to overthrow a genocidal tyrant, then you have to say that genocide is legal." That's the stunning piece of reasoning produced by Nick Cohen on YouTube. One has more sympathy with him when he's confronted by a 9/11-denialist nutter, but he still manages to come over as an oaf.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dusting off the "nice one fella" award

Always worth remembering that although Aaro's politics can be a little bit on the dangerous side if you happen to be physically located in one of the countries he takes against, he is unusual among the Decent Left in that he doesn't actually fear or hate the Muslims. And so it is that he writes something rather good about the Reverend Rowan. Including a dig at Melanie Phillips which appears to have drawn a bit of blood; I am pretty sure that if Mel had remembered that Dave isn't Jewish she'd have called him an anti-Semite. (I have left a remark in her comments to the effect that she has misunderstood - Aaro means to say that Melanie P is entirely entitled to have an opinion on the Archbishop of Canterbury and even to publish it, but as with the Vicar of Dibley's views on matters rabbinical, she shouldn't expect anyone else to care).

Toward the end, however, Aaro appears to take on the general question of liberalism versus communitarianism, and gets bogged down in it roughly as quickly as every other bugger, inside and outside political philosophy, who has written about it in the last thirty years. The central question being that if you have "communities" they are always going to end up putting social pressures on people within those communities (usually women and gays) which have the practical effect of denying them their civil rights, but if you don't have "communities", the world's an awfully cold place. I vaguely wish that this concern for the practical ability of people oppressed by minority communities to make use of their formal rights could be extended more often into a general program of assisting all sorts of people to make use of the rights that liberal society in general doesn't give them much practical hope of enjoying, but there you go. The question is a basically intractable one, so one can hardly blame Aaro for getting caught in it and he was much less annoying than Johann Hari's version of the same thing. Personally in re: liberalism versus communitarianism, I endorse the view of Professor John N Gray, which can be summarised as "fuck this for a lark, I'm off to read JG Ballard".

Update: compare and contrast "Clothes for Chaps".

Update Wednesday 13 February 5:15 pm by Chardonnay Chap If we're doing the Rowan Williams thing here, I may as well throw in some fun links I've found. Eugene Volokh on American courts' interpretation of Sharia law pertaining to contracts. Via Frog on Christopher Hitchens' arguments against Rowan Williams (yet again, Hitchens proves a better polemicist than logician) via IOZ who thinks it's all pretty trivial.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Like Hope, But Different

OK, this is a bit off-topic, but it does follow from Nick Cohen's scratching around for reasons to support McCain and David Aaronovitch has written about the consequences of withdrawing from Iraq.

To understand it, you'll need to have seen the Obama viral video which was posted on Crooked Timber (and elsewhere) last week. Via John Cole.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"The agents of sovereign wealth funds"

Hahahahahahaha! The man clearly does not have a fucking clue what he is talking about. Although the fact that he has somehow got it into his head that "sovereign wealth funds" are mysterious shady entities or some such is probably a good lead indicator that something pretty entertaining is in the works.

Meanwhile, Chardonnay Chap was apparently right - Nick had filed his copy too early to really say anything about Rowan Williams apart from this squib:

"All in all, Rowan Williams seems a more deserving target for mass protests this weekend. Say what you will about Scientologists, but at least they haven't come out against the emancipation of women and equality before the law."

which, (ironically in context) is pretty clearly libellous, but I doubt Dr Williams will bother suing.

Mostly Indispensable

Last month, Bruschetta Boy discussed Nick Davies' talk about 'Flat Earth News'. Reactions in the comments were mixed.

Now David Aaronovitch has reviewed the book. As far as I can tell, it's the sort of book you like when it says nasty things about people you don't, and disagree with when it criticises your side. As everyone in the media and politics pretty much hates everyone else most of the time, the result is a "mostly indispensable book".

Good clear review, and Aaro was a splendid choice of reviewer. Naturally, I don't agree with any of his opinions.

Martin Amis on Andrew Marr

If you missed him, there'll probably be a web broadcast via the Sunday Andrew Marr page.

He reviewed the papers with Amanda Platell who's pretty repugnant herself. Amis compared the press frenzy over Rowan Williams to 'Abu Hamza stirring it up' which seems about right to me. Platell said something like 'the papers can only reflect what their readers think' -- really the most amazing bollocks. Amis rightly pointed out that the Sun's coverage was grossly distorted and not a reflection of anything. All in all, he was pretty good. He did talk some frightful nonsense about the Italian population halving each generation or something and the Muslims catching up, but he was much more reasonable and cogent than I've come to expect from his recent writing and interviews.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday Open Thread

What is 'Decency'? I seem to remember someone asking why Michael Gove qualified as a Decent when he's a Tory, though I can't find the post now (and it may have been on another blog, anyhow). BB posted on Michael Gove last year.

I was going to post about the 'family resemblances' between Decents but these are harder to identify. Male and middle-aged seems to be a common factor. They seem to share a Panglossian view of 'democracy' (and I use scare quotes, for reasons I'll explain in a bit: they never do): everything is for the best in the best of all political systems. I find this a little odd, as a considerable number of them (Stephen Pollard and Oliver Kamm come to mind) are quite hostile to Gordon Brown. To me, the common factor is one of style. George Orwell put it very well:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

I thought about naming names, but I'll leave that to you.

Also, predictions. Nick will have filed his copy too early for the Archbish controversy, but probably after Super Tuesday, so the US primaries look worth a punt. ("Would you trust a man called Hussein whose surname rhymes with the FBI's most wanted criminal with the world's only superpower?"). Aaro may go for the Rowan Williams line, perhaps in the JC, and I'd like to think he'd try for the Guardian angle Jewish Beth Din could be archbishop's model. The obvious problem is that it's not clear from the sharia speech itself what Williams is thinking (if anything).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

When The McCain's Chips Are Down

Masochism, I suppose. That would explain it. Or having nothing better to do. The sad and empty life of a 'watcher' exposed! Really, I'd have been happier if Nick's Evening Standard piece hadn't been online, because that's five minutes I'm never going to get back.

Even when he has a point, as he has with Nicholas and Ann Winterton, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, Michael Martin ("the dreadful Speaker"), David Maclean, and Stuart Bell, he still manages to make it in a way which leaves me unconvinced. If a check on roughly one tenth of all MPs finds only one fiddling his expenses, chances are that Simon Hoggart is right: "the great majority [of MPs] are entirely honest."

Now, I don't know what Nick sees in John McCain, but he seems to have decided to try to convince liberals (not many of whom are likely to read the Evening Standard, shurely?) that the Nebraskan senator for Arizona (thanks Captain C in the the comments) is a good guy deep down.

Meanwhile McCain, who had, as it happens, been tortured for five years in a communist PoW camp, was so enraged by Rifkind's accusations that a "member of his [McCain's] staff feared he was about to hit him [Rifkind]".

Now, McCains was indeed tortured for five years (he remains stoically against torture). As he puts it himself:

It is this arm, this right arm, that North Vietnamese torturers worked over for days in a hellhole called the Plantation, till it was broken and bruised and lacerated. It is this arm, this right arm, that is still stiff, still scarred, still bent.

The rest of the piece, by the way, is somewhat lacking in "respect". Or from another source:

Grassley got in McCain's face, and the two pit bulls started barking at each other while the other senators in the room sat back and watched. The pair got so close to one another that the senator who tells me the story -- aware that because of war injuries, McCain's arms don't fully extend -- was convinced McCain "was going to drive the top of his head into Grassley's nose. I was convinced that bone fragments were going to go into Chuck's brain, and I was sitting there and was about to witness a murder."

Hit him? Oh, I rather think not.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Aaro sounds the tribunes for ... what?

Early notes ...

Jihadists everywhere, from Indonesia to Palestine, would see this as a huge victory

bzzzt thanks for playing, this is the "credibility argument" (c) Henry Kissinger, 1972, and the making of it is pretty much an immediate rule-out in terms of being taken seriously.

Just as the genocide in Darfur has refused to confine itself within the borders of the Sudan, but has now destabilised neighbouring Chad

bzzt once more. Minor penalty for "the genocide in Darfur" as indicative of not understanding what's going on, major penalty for "has destabilised neighbouring Chad".

We have to fight them over there, or we'll have to fight them over here. Has the debate really moved so little in the last six years? More fundamentally, Aaro (still!) does not seem to understand that in matters military, if your opponent is arguing "We do not have the manpower", then your response must contain some reason for believing "Yes we do have the manpower". If we can't stop something from happening, then rehearsing the appalling consequences of it happening are by the by. It's Decent jujitsu - to totally ignore the practical implications of what they are saying, pretend that the resource constraints on our ability to commit limitless numbers of troops everywhere in the world don't exist (and remember that Aaro is also in favour of troops remaining in Iraq "in surge numbers" indefinitely), and then complain that we're not "engaging with" their ideas by not accepting this initial false premise.

Staying in Afghanistan or even reinforcing the troop numbers there might be the right thing to do, but I would like to see the case made by someone who a) acted as if they understood that since the fracture of the cauldron of Bendigeidfran, the UK no longer has any magical resource from which armies can be pulled without limit, b) gave some sign of having knowledge of the politics of the region which went beyond debating society zingers and c) was clear in their own mind about whether they were talking about a peacekeeping/statebuilding operation aimed at maintaining political stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the interests of denying a base to al-Qaeda, or an open-ended commitment to being "the ideological and physical arsenal of democracy, thank God". Aaro appears to be quite a long way off on all three. Hopefully more to come, from me or other contributors.

PS: I dispute that the failures of Western policy have "usually been about doing too little, not too much". I also suggest that the Balkan jihadis were not so much radicalised "by the failure of the West - in another non-intervention - to prevent Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims" as by the decision of the West to use the Arab Afghans as a proxy army in a cack-handed and poorly thought through attempt at intervention, motivated far more by domestic political and economic interests than humanitarian concerns (ie, the normal kind).

Monday, February 04, 2008

A bit of a myth

Serious question: has Nick Cohen ever read George Orwell? In the comments to Captain Cabernet's post, Don Paskini points us to a review of What's Left.

There are some things you need to know about this review. Take it away D of Lawyers, Guns and Money:

First, to demonstrate that Jonah Goldberg will literally re-print almost anything he's sent, provided that it makes some positive, vacuous observation about his book.

Apparently on page 89 of the US edition (presumably) of "What's Left" Nick writes:

The reason communism doesn't seem all bad to me is the same reason the BBC gives airtime to Trotskyite comedians but not to Neo-nazi raconteurs: the far left was meant to be solidly against the extreme right. In reality, the anti-fascist left was a bit of a myth. Communists and fascists worked together against liberalism many times in the Twenties and Thirties. Rationally, I know it was a natural partnership because the similarities between communism and fascism were more important than the differences. But viscerally to anyone brought up on the Left after the Second World War, an unwavering opposition to fascism was the trait in which we could take the greatest pride. There was a hierarchy. The best society was some form of socialism that varied according to taste, and like the kingdom of God never came. The runner-up was what we had: a liberal democracy with a mixed economy. The lowest of the low was fascism or some other kind of chauvinism.

How was "the anti-fascist left was a bit of a myth"? Good grief: George Orwell was always anti-fascist, and published by the Left Book Club, Tribune, and the New Statesman. And he wasn't uncommon in his anti-fascism. "But viscerally to anyone brought up on the Left after the Second World War, an unwavering opposition to fascism was the trait in which we could take the greatest pride." I always thought that the unwavering opposition to Nazism was shared with a fair slice of the right (including Churchill), so if pressed I'd have said that "the trait in which [the left] could take the greatest pride" was free health and education. But maybe I'm odd. Also note that that paragraph starts with the allegation that 'the left' has a 'natural partnership' with fascism against liberalism and ends with the left reflexively preferring liberalism to fascism. Confused? You will be!

"Communists and fascists worked together against liberalism many times in the Twenties and Thirties." Can someone explain the following terms, preferably with examples: 'communists', 'fascists', 'worked together', 'liberalism' and 'many times'.

We have mentioned Jonah Goldberg's book before where I suggested that Nick Cohen might review it. No Cuban cigar for me! Fans of Liberal Fascism may wish to keep up with the accompanying blog.

How's this for an endorsement?

[Jonah Goldberg] I haven't read the book [What's Left?], though I've heard good things and it sits on my pile of to-read books.

And here is Goldberg with Jon Stewart.

Cohen on Amis on Eagleton on Amis - a minor factual point

And with my entry for the "Most Boring World of Decency Post Title 2008" sewn up, I note that Martin Amis is, in Nick's interview, trying to claim that "The Age Of Horrorism" does not contain any suggestions toward a policy of racial harassment.

There was no fuss, no controversy, no outraged denunciations in the liberal press, nothing until October 2007 when Terry Eagleton, a quasi-Marxist professor, announced that, ‘In an essay entitled The Age of Horrorism published last month, the novelist Martin Amis advocated a deliberate programme of harassing the Muslim community in Britain.’
‘That was three mistakes in the first sentence,’ Amis drawled. ‘It wasn’t an essay, it didn’t appear the month before and I didn’t advocate the deliberate harassing of Muslims. ‘

Welllll (I am drawling right now), actually that's only one sentence. "Horrorism" appeared in September 2006, but it was an essay (what the hell else was it? why does Amis think he's fooling anyone?), and it did contain the following passage:

Now I know some six-year-old girls can look pretty suspicious; but my youngest daughter isn't like that. She is a slight little blonde with big brown eyes and a quavery voice. Nevertheless, I stood for half an hour at the counter while the official methodically and solemnly searched her carry-on rucksack - staring shrewdly at each story-tape and crayon, palpating the length of all four limbs of her fluffy duck.

There ought to be a better word than boredom for the trance of inanition that weaved its way through me. I wanted to say something like, 'Even Islamists have not yet started to blow up their own families on aeroplanes. So please desist until they do. Oh yeah: and stick to people who look like they're from the Middle East.'

Note as well that there is no element of the "thought experiment" or "adumbrating" here - Mart "wanted to say" this. I know we have rather done the Amis thing to death over the last few posts but it is, I think, rather important to be clear about the kind of thing that people are defending here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Nick on the significance of shoulder pads.

One imagines the conversation:

Nick: Hello, is that Professor Aileen Ribeiro of the Courtauld Institute?

Ribeiro: Speaking.

Nick: This is Nick Cohen, scourge of Islamism and Evening Standard columnist.

Ribeiro: How can I help you?

Nick: I've been working on a piece that links economic trends and fashion. You know, in good times people dress up and in bad times they dress down.

Ribeiro: Well there isn't actually much evidence for that .....

Nick: Evidence/schmevidence ... would you say that after Thatcher's demise, shoulder pads were out?

Ribero: Well I suppose so ....

Nick: Well there you are then! You're going to feature in my Observer column! Bye!

There's more, of course, but since the rest concerns Nick's grasp of economics rather than his knowledge of fashion, it is best left alone.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Amis III: the Aaronovitch Review

When Republicans used to defend Ronald Reagan against the obvious snipe of stupidity, they pointed out that he was a radio baseball commentator when baseball was big; and later he was a Hollywood actor when being a star meant something. If we're to take Martin Amis seriously, perhaps we should listen to his own words, especially those which Norman Geras seems to find meaningful: [D]on't contradict your times, just don't contradict your times, if you want a peaceful life.

I mention this because I have a sense, don't you have it, that Amis's supporters - mostly Nick Cohen - think that being a novelist, or a serious thinker, is the ultimate career for anyone with a degree. Comedians are somewhere lower down the social scale. I mean, you wouldn't invite a comedian to an Islington dinner party if you hadn't been let down by a novelist. Comedy has been taking over the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for years now. Comedy is where it is at. If you can write a bit and have ambitions, comedy is far more competitive, far better paid, and gets much more attention than novel writing. Whenever Chris Morris's name comes up in the context of Martin Amis, I always that the intention is to make me think, "Oh, he's just a comedian." Instead, I tend to think that Chris Morris has demonstrated a much better understanding of the Zeigeist than Martin Amis ever has.

But enough of that, our eponymous scribe, David Aaronovitch, wrote a review of The Second Plane a couple of weeks ago. I see regular AW commentator Matthew had a couple of blasts in the comments. It's a thin and unsatisfying review: David does disingenuous. Could the bad reviews in the London Review of Books have been because the reviewers didn't like the works? No, it's the slippery left-liberal thought police.

I have the image of Aaro writing this piece, like Mohammad Atta straining over the bowl in Amis's "Mohammad Atta's Shit, Shower, and Shave" - an exhaustive examination of costive suffering - perspiration shines on his forehead as he tries to force out a good review without much to go on. Because it's not, when you come down to it, a convincing review at all.

If Amis is open to any criticism over Iraq, it is that he explores Saddam Hussein's science-fiction bloodiness - as he does in the short story In the Palace of the End - without the slightest realistic notion of how it might be brought to a conclusion.

This is a rather odd thing to say - from the rest of that paragraph, the criticism that Amis is open to would be expected to come from "the more ideologically policed section of the liberal-left intelligentsia" but it reads like Aaro's own objections. But then compare this with our man dismissing other critics:

And the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra inevitably accused Amis of combining a "patchy knowledge of world history" (as opposed, presumably to Mishra's own complete understanding) with "a primordial anxiety about cultural otherness".

Yet these criticisms, Aaronovitch's and Mishra's share a common theme: Amis hasn't a clue. Here is the interesting bit, which I is why I've called this Amis III, commenters here have noticed that Amis isn't particularly engaged or well-versed in his subject. (Johann Hari noted, "He has not been to meet any Islamists to test his theories, even though you can find plenty in Finsbury Park, a few tube stops away.")

But Amis, unlike many other writers, couldn't leave it at that. He began to look at the people who had carried out the attack, and, crucially, at the ideology that motivated them - in other words, at what they said and wrote.

What he discovered was not a group of misguided liberators, but of young men in love with the idea of death and violence, given justification by an implacable and totalitarian ideology. Amis went back to the mid-20th-century writings of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, men such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb - as someone might have returned to Mein Kampf in the early 1930s - and examined what was being taught. It is doubtful whether Eagleton - unlike Amis and tens of thousands of Islamists - has read a single word of Qutb's writings.

Yes, Qutb keeps coming up, but is that all? Whatever Norman Geras may argue, root causes do matter; Nazism wasn't just Mein Kampf but the ashes of WWI and a defeated economy and desperate times - and ingrained anti-Semitism which Hitler stirred up but did not invent. Al Qaeda and its supporters go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Kosovo. I've not read the book, and I don't intend to, but it seems that the War on Terror or whatever you want to call it is being reduced by Martin Amis to a thin sheaf of texts one can analyse. He's going to judge them by their prose works and their television performances.

Through Qutb and others Amis came to the realisation, chronicled in The Second Plane, that Islamism itself was a problem, since what it loathed about the West was, as Amis puts it, not our active seductiveness, but our passive attraction. "We should understand," he writes, "that Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it." Amis connects this existential envy to the political failure of Islam and attributes this in turn to the suppression of women in many Muslim countries.

But what 'others'? They are never named. Do they exist? If existential envy is the root of "the suppression of women in many Muslim countries" could someone explain why there is also misogyny among a small but active number of Israelis?

Lastly, Aaro cites Amis's phrase "dissonant evasion" with approval I think. Like so much of Amis's high-falutin' prose this seems to belong in a tone poem rather than a serious essay. Nice words, but they don't mean anything together.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Nick Cohen meets Martin Amis

Like Nick's other interviews, Martin and the Liberals seems to be mostly about Nick's own demons - mostly his fellow Guardian/Observer journalists. It also reads so much like a retread of earlier pieces on Amis that deja vu overwhelmed and I became convinced that I'd read the whole thing before somewhere. "Liberal intellectuals" ... blah blah blah, ICA audience blah morally superior blah, Terry Eagleton blah Chris Morris blah ...

There's rather more to Chris Morris than being "a comedian whose previous contribution to political thought was the brave observation that the Daily Mail can sometimes be a nasty paper". And, yet again, this:

That liberals cannot make a stand against a global wave of religious mayhem that is 'irrationalist, misogynist, homophobic, inquisitional, totalitarian, imperialist and genocidal,' to use Amis's list, is a moral failure as great as their predecessors' inability to see Josef Stalin for what he was and offer support to communism's victims.

I don't think there was anyone in this country who was a liberal Guardian-reader who didn't know about Stalin's purges and realise how awful they were. I do think many, rightly, in my view, didn't see Stalin's victims as 'communism's victims'. I still believe, somewhere in my heart, that there is such a thing as 'good communism' which doesn't have to be totalitarian, oppressive, and murderous.

Apparently, even though I read the Torygraph, because I think Amis is a bigot I'm demonstrating the herd instinct of the left-wing ideologue. That's me told. Moo.

Update 1/2/2008 4:16. The Johann Hari interview Don mentioned in the comments to the last post is a much better effort. For one thing, Hari gets far more material out of Amis, rather than, as Nick seems to, just going over old clippings. For another, he actually engages with Amis, even if that engagement mostly consists of saying, "But that's rubbish" to everything Amis offers.

The demographics are nothing like Steyn describes them -- today, around 3 percent of Europeans are Muslims, so it takes absurd arithmetic acrobatics to make them a majority this side of 2100, by which time it is far more likely Muslims will have assimilated to European birth-patterns.
... "Well, that’s an imponderable," Amis says. "Once they’re a majority, ...


A Guardian leader today is, in the words of Norman Geras, a short blast in praise of Martin Amis. I agree with the good professor that the remarks by 'Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski' seem philistine, but the whole piece seems wrong-headed.

Witnessing the travails of Africa, he wondered why he never met other writers out there.

Perhaps that's because - ahem - newspapers don't bother sending writers to faraway places of which we know little. It seems a little odd for a newspaper editorial to complain about the practices of newspaper editors.

A frequent complaint against contemporary writers is that they are not engaged. Where is the great novel to take on turbo-capitalism, climate change or house prices? What are all the great talents doing in their studies with their £150,000 advances, other than reimagining favourite bits of history, such as Dunkirk or the Empire Windrush? Don't they realise there is a big, often bad, world out there that needs vivid description and intelligent illumination?

I don't know about you, but I've been waiting for years for a novel about house prices. Most novelists are lucky to earn the equivalent of the minimum wage; very few get six-figure advances. Wasn't the point of 'Money' that John Self's cheque at the end was 'half way to six figures'? 'It was three figures'. From memory, because I'm too lazy to find the book.

It could also be the case that, if you wanted to know about what was happening in the world economically and politically and scientifically, reading a made-up story may not be the best way to go about this. You could try reading a newspaper (one that employs journalists rather than columnists, so not the Guardian then) or watching TV.

A stylist with the trick of defamiliarising the familiar, [Martin Amis] is also a keen student of the public realm. His writing on Islamist terrorism has made him enemies; his opinions are sometimes cruder and shallower than the language that dresses them. Still, we should prize him - for his engagement as well as his gifts.

The thing about Amis is that he's not the most well-informed writer on Islam. If you want to understand al Qaeda, you're better off looking for its roots in Chechnya and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rather than a couple of books by Sayyid Qutb.

As for Amis' language, I stand with David Sexton in the Evening Standard (quoted here):

The writing is so preening, so self-important about its own vocabulary and phrase-making that it always draws attention to its own display, not to the matter in hand. None of the formulae - 'worldflash of a coming future'; 'horrorism'; 'hemispherical abjection' - rings quite true.

Martin Amis used to have gifts, but it's because he tries to be engaged that he's become so tedious. Doesn't it say something when we're told to prize a writer because we should rather than because he's a pleasure to read? Sartre, who pretty much invented all this silly nonsense about engagement once said that he'd rather read Raymond Chandler than Wittgenstein. Quite.