Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ignorance Is Strength

It's not that he's wrong, exactly, it's that he's not right. There's that fug of deja vu which descends when I read Nick Cohen. Everything he writes seems to be the same article. There are some turn-ups. The UN are the goodies again. The Carter administration ditto. But the familiar tropes return like something which returns a lot.

Bernard Kouchner fitted the classic profile of a soixante-huitard. He came from a left-wing family and marched in the May demonstrations, but while his comrades blindly followed the causes of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, Kouchner went off in an unexpected direction.

This is more of the 'classic profile' of Nick Cohen, isn't it? The 'left-wing' family again, and having been on a march once. And was Bernard Kouchner typical? Who were those 'comrades'?

Born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, he began his political career as a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), from which he was expelled in 1966. He worked as a physician for the Red Cross in Biafra in 1968 (during the Nigerian Civil War). He founded MSF in 1971, and then, due to a conflict of opinion with MSF chairman Claude Malhuret, the Doctors of the World ('Médecins du Monde') in 1980. Kouchner worked as a humanitarian volunteer during the Siege of Naba’a refugee camp in Lebanon in East Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War taking risks that "other foreign aid workers weren’t, even worked closely with the Shia cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr."

I've quoted the whole paragraph because it gives a much more rounded picture of the man than Nick's sketch. And how 'unexpected' is it for a qualified doctor to "work as a doctor"?

In Washington, the Carter administration began to think that it should shoulder the responsibility as well and leftists everywhere were outraged. The overwhelmingly majority saw French and American imperialism as the sole causes of suffering in Vietnam and did not want to look at the crimes of the anti-imperialist 'liberators'.

One of the great attractions of Marxism for me (and I'm not a Marxist) is that - done properly - Marxist analysis does not look for single causes: history is multi-faceted and complex. I don't think I've ever read a classically Marxist essay which has distilled any event down to a 'sole cause'. Besides, and I know this is fairly feeble, I'm sure that given a morning in the British Library I could debunk the rest of the paragraph above - where it isn't debunk-proof which the phrase 'overwhelming majority' anyway (which could mean 'all the people in pubs; not the columnists or professors or published intellectuals').

I have simple tastes in journalism. I think journalists should go out and see things for themselves; and commentators should have a perspective that comes from experience and wide reading[1].

As Paul Berman, Kouchner's biographer explained ... [straw man argument omitted here]

Bloody hell! Nick really doesn't read anybody else now. I'm starting to think there are people selling 'Watchtower' with a less-blinkered ideology.

And look out Derren Brown, Nick's mind-reading act rolls on.

Britain is sitting on the fence, as it so often has during Gordon Brown's premiership. Ministers told me that the UN has no mandate to protect the victims of natural disasters, but I sensed that they would move closer to Kouchner's position if the Burmese junta continued to frustrate the relief effort.

Then there's Nick's remarkable talent for missing the point and somehow redrawing the map of the world.

A Western diplomat at the UN Security Council meeting said objections came from China, Kouchner's old enemies in Vietnam, Russia and South Africa, which might not be a one-party state but has in the ANC only one party which can hope to win power. All knew without needing to be told that if the Burmese military were held to be illegitimate rulers whose wishes could be overruled because they lacked a democratic mandate, the same criteria could be used against them or their allies, too, and their desperate arguments reflected their fears.

Vladimir Putin is a very nasty piece of work, but he seems to have a democratic mandate. And is Putin an 'old enemy' of Koucher? Russian politics have changed quite considerably since 1968. As have South African politics. If Burma's rulers wishes are overruled it will be because they "frustrate the relief effort". I don't think democracy will come into it.

Yet again, it would a lot easier for us watchers if Nick actually bothered to name some of the people he calls "realists".

Suppose they are wrong, say the realists, and aid workers are met with armed resistance. Is the UN going to start a war for the sake of delivering rice rations?

There's a more balanced and detailed piece by Simon Jenkins by way of contrast.

PS Sorry about the title, I was really stuck for one, and starting reading Nick again. It comes by way of the first paragraph "...developed a revolutionary doctrine by ignoring the revolutionaries around him."

[1]Update 10:12 am Alan Watkins of the Independent is kind enough to demonstrate exactly what I mean. He offers examples, names names, is humorous, precise, analytical, and historical. And he doesn't quote Paul Berman or witter about families either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

>The overwhelmingly majority saw French and American imperialism as the sole causes of suffering in Vietnam and did not want to look at the crimes of the anti-imperialist 'liberators'.

Funny, I remember being in Grosvenor Square in 1968 - I was one of the first in there - but on that same day I also distinctly shouting rather a lot of abuse outside the North Vietnamese Legation.

And I managed all that without ever once being a marxist.


5/11/2008 09:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Biafran conflict meant little to the European left - WTF? It meant a lot to the hard-core British Left (one of Cohen's two main targets), because it was happening in one of our old colonies and our government was on the side of the bad guys. And it meant a huge amount to the Guardian-reading, Oxfam-donating broad wet liberal left (the other one) because, well, people were starving who hadn't been starving the year before.

Awful stuff. Does it get any better further down?

5/11/2008 10:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's not quite right to say that in this Cohen article "the UN are the goodies again". In fact, Nick goes on to explicitly identify with the US hard-hard talking point: that the UN needs to be replaced altogether with a permanent US led coalition of the willing.

Marc Mulholland.

5/11/2008 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Anon and Phil: that's pretty much what I remember too, though I was too young to care about Grosvenor Square. The 'starving millions' in Africa greatly exercised the Guardian and Mirror reading classes. But I'd like to find documentary evidence that shows Nick is wrong (and possibly lying) here.

Marc, yes indeed. At the end, he returns to this idea that there should be a sort of NATO/EU of democracies - where 'democracies' are countries Paul Berman approves of for the moment. I should have read the whole article before posting, but I can't actually take a whole Nick column in one draft: I just start shouting at the screen. He did, briefly, seem to endorse the UN - though he's done the same for Amnesty. If they approve something he likes, he's all "see - the UN likes this too! it must be good" and if they don't, it's another strike against them.

5/11/2008 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

leftwing socialist Peter Cadogan, who actually helped to organise the 1968 Grosvenor Square demo was actually secretary of the "Save Biafra Campaign".

Much of the CP oriented left weren't backing Biafra, but some of the 68ers were - plus I think John Lennon went on a fast for Biafra
Ann On

5/11/2008 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paging Dr Winston:

"I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With love, John Lennon of Bag."


5/11/2008 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

How many French leftists were, in fact, "blind" followers of Ho and Fidel?

5/11/2008 07:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ejh - it's an irregular verb: I have principles, you stick to what you know, they follow blindly.

5/11/2008 09:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Kouchner went off in an unexpected direction". Nick seems to forget that all the Soixante-huitards went off in unexpected directions. That's what it was all about: expect the unexpected! Some dropped out to the Larzac Plateau, some became Greens, some went off into international humanitarianism. It's only Nick and Telegraph readers who think that the Soixante-huitards started blindly following Fidel or Ho. Kouchner's ideas get picked up because they can be twisted a bit to fit in with liberal imperialism. (But although Berman wrote a biography of Kouchner, Kouchner himself doesn't seem to buy completely into Berman's ideas).

Moussaka Man

5/12/2008 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When does the excuse of "lack of research" end, and lying start?

5/12/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As the new ideas on human rights and humanitarian intervention began to spread, conservatives on the right and left were appalled. The 'realist' Henry Kissinger feared that they would undermine America's dictatorial allies, rightly so as events were to turn out. The 'anti-imperialist' Noam Chomsky feared they would undermine America's dictatorial enemies and again he was right to do so. Both upheld the principle that sovereign states were entitled to do what they wanted within their borders."

That isn't a lack of research, he's just lying.

The claim that Noam Chomsky opposes human rights norms for fear that they might undermine "America's dictatorial enemies" doesn't count as a misreading.

You can't make any honest attempt to understand what Chomsky is getting at and maintain that.

Chomsky, "upheld the principle that sovereign states were entitled to do what they wanted within their borders"?

That would be an odd principle for an anarchist to hold.

Nick is lying - like he did last week about Mearsheimer and Walt believing in a Jewish conspiracy.

He's even wrong about Kissinger, whose career hardly suggests deference to the national sovereignty of other states.

5/12/2008 05:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Biafran conflict meant little to the European left of his day. No struggle between capitalism and socialism was at stake. Biafra was just a terrible civil war and the only political response Kouchner offered was a demand to ease the suffering."

What is this even meant to mean?

Biafra was not just a terrible civil war, but one where several foreign powers, including Britain, intervened on the side of the Nigerian generals.

There were many forms of political protest from the left (and, to their credit, from the right) the most famous of which was John Lennon handing back his MBE in protest at the policy of the Wilson government.

Frederick Forsyth actually wrote the most famous contemporary critique of British policy and a Spectator editorial accused the government of complicity in genocide. Forsyth has described his amusement at being in alliance with Trotskyists and pacifists - presumably part of the hateful left.

And what is this nonsense about the left needing a struggle between capitalism and socialism to take an interest? Is such a struggle at stake in Iraq? The Occupied Territories?

Was that what the movement to save East Timor was about?

Does Nick ever get the urge to check if he is right about something before attacking them?

5/12/2008 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

The 'anti-imperialist' Noam Chomsky feared they would undermine America's dictatorial enemies

That really is pretty smeary, isn't it? I'll wager that he's got a quote to hand, Kamm-style, to back it up, but the quote will depend on a reading that can't honestly be sustained.

5/12/2008 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

A small error compared to the others, but

Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy transformed Kouchner from aid worker to statesman.

is of course bollocks; BK was a minister in various governments starting 1988 and was, quite famously, the UN Representative in Kosovo.

and of course:

In 2005, the United Nations adopted his language and said it had a 'responsibility to protect' the civilians victims of crimes against humanity regardless of whether sovereign governments wanted them to or not.

is not a particularly correct view of what actually happened either.

5/12/2008 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

I am also coming up short on any statement from Aung San Suu Kyi calling for foreign troops to escort aid workers. Does anyone have any idea what he's on about?

5/12/2008 07:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think he may have something there - if you look at waht the Save Burma Campaign are saying

Ann On

5/12/2008 08:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what in particular? I'm not saying it's impossible, just that I am wary of these things when raised by Nick, particularly with no quoted speech. Even the Burma Campaign seems to be saying "the regime must be forced to accept aid" in the sense of forced to do so by diplomatic means like a Security Council resolution.

5/12/2008 08:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed , if you read Nick's piece as "for the sake of Aung San Suu Kyi we must break up the UN and replace it with a club of 'democratic' nations willing to use armed force to enter Burma now", then he is (no surprise) on his own on fantasy island.

A couple of other notes. Nick says "After the disaster of the second Iraq War". So is it officially a disaster now ? Given that Nick put so much energy into promoting a "disaster", will he put any energy into trying to say why it is a disaster,or how disasters can be avoided, before promoting a new one ?

And for dishonesty, I thought his description of why South Africa was anxious about sovereignty in relation to Burma was a doozy.

Nick says " South Africa, which might not be a one-party state but has in the ANC only one party which can hope to win power" and didn't want to accuse the Burmese junta of being ".illegitimate rulers whose wishes could be overruled because they lacked a democratic mandat" because " the same criteria could be used against them" and the South African's " desperate arguments reflected their fears".

firstly, how he has managed to turn the ANC government into an illegitimate undemocratic force is , kind of disgusting. Secondly, the ANC are geenrally anxious about sovereignty because they recall the White South African government breaching the sovereingty of the frontline states, and backing warlords in Namibia, Angola etc in wars that killed millions. Maybe Nick wants to make a case that this is nto relevant to Burma, but to reduce South African politics to accusing the ANC to dictators is vile.

Ann On

5/13/2008 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Presumably it's a disaster because they didn't push on and overthrow Saddam. Well, all right, but that's your problem right here, that these democratic nations don't necessarily want to overthrow dictators, they only want to overthrow them when it suits them. They also want to back them, sell them arms, send them advisers and so on when it suits them. And this means that even when they topple dictators they don't do so in the service of installing a democracy - unless it's a democracy that suits them.

5/13/2008 07:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did I get that wrong ? I thought the second Iraq war is the one when they did overthrow Saddam - ie the current one, that Nick Supported. the first Iraq war is the one where Saddam was kicked out of Kuwait. I don't think he is counting the Iran-Iraq war (or did i get that wrong)

Ann On

5/13/2008 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I really think that Nick is admitting that the invasion
(2003) of Iraq has been a disaster. Although his writing is terrible, which makes it difficult to understand exactly what he means, I cannot see how he is referring to the 1991 Gulf War or to the Iran-Iraq War (or to Lawrence of Arabia or Winston Churchill!). I suggest we all write to him and the Observer and ask for clarification.

5/13/2008 03:41:00 PM  

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