Monday, July 28, 2008


Just a little grace note to the last couple of Nick and Aaro columns, as they once more try to join the winning team. As Aaro puts it

But even if he had been a half-Chinese ballet-loving Francophone, he would have been hated by some who should have loved him, for there isn't an American president since Eisenhower who hasn't ended up, at some point or other, being depicted by the world's cartoonists as a cowboy astride a phallic missile. It happened to Bill Clinton when he bombed Iraq; it will happen to Mr Obama when his reinforced forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan mistake a meeting of tribal elders for an unwise gathering of Taleban and al-Qaeda.

Nick has the same idea although less clearly - Obama is too good for us horrible liberalssess because he's American.

It's clear what the underlying purpose here is - the Decents are swimming out toward the USS Barack Obama because they can see a handy evacuation vehicle from the rock they're stranded on with respect to Iraq. If he wins (which frankly looks likely), then they can come along for the ride and at some point in the future Iraq will be in the past and they'll be able to write something on the Guardian website without a hundred and twelve comments popping up reminding them about it. And all without having to temper their Atlanticism. Hurray.

The strange thing though is the insight into the underlying political psychology here. Aaro pretty much admits that, when the left of the world turns against Obama, it will be because of him carrying out an illegal act of international aggression - in other words, they will be right to criticise him. The connection here between people criticising American presidents and American presidents doing a lot of pretty awful things is just ignored here - or at least, it's noted, but only as a curiosum that can't possibly have anything to do with anything else.

This is surely the roots of Decentism in left-grouplets at work; Aaro and Nick have so much history with party lines that it's still hard for them to get their head round the idea that other people might make their minds up based on what actually happens, rather than who said what about who agreed with who at the Third Party Conference in 1912.

I mean really. One might as well note that Aaro was an opponent of Ian Smith and yet he now condemns Robert Mugabe. He claims that this isn't such simple anti-Zimbabwean bigotry but just you watch - as soon as Morgan Tsangverai orders unarmed demonstrators to be machine-gunned, he'll be condemning him too.


Blogger ejh said...

there isn't an American president since Eisenhower who hasn't ended up, at some point or other, being depicted by the world's cartoonists as a cowboy astride a phallic missile

I'm inclined to ask Aaro to produce the list of cartoons in full: and especially one of JFK, who I should point out was assassinated the year before Dr Strangelove came out (Yes, I know, somebody may indeed have used him in a cartoon after he was dead, and I look forward to seeing it.)

I don't see this as being a far-left grouplet thing. I just think that in Aaro's case at least, it just seems so obvious that "modernity" (as he might put it, and as I might not") is so much better than the past and possible alternatives, that he can't and won't see that there might be good and rational objections both to the current state of affairs and the Top Nation within them. It has to be irrational hatred or something.

Indeed this might be where the roots of Decency in the Labour Right might be more to the point, since that was historically the only section of the left which was enthusiastic about the foreign policy of the US. It's one of the many oddities of Euston that it wanted to insist on the generally beneficial nature of America's role in the wider world, which is not really a thesis many on the left would have accepted in the course of my lifetime. The reason, of course, being the facts, and notably the long list of invasions, bombings and the provision of military aid to obscene governments.

Then again if we decide that everything revolves round "fascism" (as Nick appears to) then it is, indeed, always the Second World War, the Yanks are always Coming, and the fact of them coming is necessarily a Good Thing.

Oh, and the Conference in 1912 was the Sixth...

7/28/2008 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaro and Nick have so much history with party lines

Not really. When Aaro was in the CP the party leadership was even more right-wing than Western Communist Parties usually were: liberalish, greenish, anti- (what would later be called) Old Labour and very anti-Trot. I don't think he's moved all that much. Nick genuinely has moved, but his background's pretty solid Labour.

I'm with ejh - I think the Atlanticism and anti-Communism of the Labour Right, from Bevin onwards, is the main reference point here. TGISOOT is a very Cold War way of thinking.

7/28/2008 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The funniest thing about this recent Aaro/Cohen output on Obama is that Nick, certainly, has spent the last 4 months or so trying to justify left-wing support for McCain, on the grounds that according to someone untrustworthy he was once annoyed by some tories. Now that it's clear Obama will win they're castigating people who expressed an interest in him early on (an interest they ridiculed at the time) as fairweather fans who will ditch him if he does something they disagree with.

I'm not sure what the point of this is, though. It is more than feasible to see Obama's reinvigoration of the US public's interest in politics as a good thing, while also not expecting to support everything he'll ever do. I don't know anyone in Britain who thinks he'll change the world, but I know a lot of people who think he'll be better than Bush.

The position Nick and Aaro seem to be taking is ridiculous if you follow it through to its conclusions, as the (excellent) Tsangverai anagloy makes clear. The problem seems to be that as usual in the world of Decency, there can be no nuance, you have to give a politician your undivided support FOREVER or you will be 'unserious', or something. It shows just how out of touch Nick is in particular with the man in the street, either in America or Britain, that he thinks that the majority of people spend their time conducting will-you-condemn-a-thons in their heads, that he thinks the majority of people are as loyal to political ideals as he thinks he is.

I'm reminded of that hilariously odd portion of the euston manifesto about America - where if you even dare to suggest that the country has made some foreign policy fuckups then you are a fascist, or something. For Nick to support an outspokenly anti-Iraq war candidate is an example of just how easily, in reality, this ratbiter will abandon a sinking ship. But he has form - remember the mayoral campaign?

7/28/2008 01:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Nick and Aaro know quite well that people make their mind up about US presidents based on what they do, especially if the US presidents commit acts of aggression. They are however courtiers to a political class that cannot let go of the special relationship with the US (and cannot let go of the modernity thing) so cannot admit that US presidents have been known to commit acts of military aggression. The role of Nick and Aaro is to throw up a smokescreen about rampant anti-Americanism so that the politicos don;t have to face up to questions about the legality or not of certain invasions.

Moussaka Man

7/28/2008 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I think Aaro's moved a fair bit, but the point is that to locate his attitude in far-left party-line-ism is misleading. First, the CP wasn't like that, not by the time Aaro was involved: it was notoriously divided and in fact not particularly monolithic intellectually. However, it was very concerned, and especially in the NUS, with the project of marginalising and excluding all its rivals to the Left. Maybe a thread can be discerned there: while most of the Decents are largely interested in screaming at the left, Aaro mostly prefers to ignore them, and at any rate not to take them seriously.

(I should say that to some degree I find that the exercise of tracing one's current political views from the organisations one belonged to a generation ago a little unsatisfactory. It's interesting, and if one discerns a pattern then it can be instructive, but it can also militate against the requirement of the OP that we accept that people may actually be making up their minds based on what they actually think happens. It's useful, and I'd be the last person to deny that a youth spent in leftwing politics has a formative effect on one's subsequent political views and development* but we should be careful not to overdo it.)

[* Compulsory Orwell comparison: it's a bit like the effect of a public school education, as discussed in Orwell's review of Connolly's Enemies of Promise.]

7/28/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Oh, while I'd consider Aaro a courtier, I don't think it's a description that fits Nick Cohen at all well.

7/28/2008 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger AndyB said...

Is it just me, or does "it will happen to Mr Obama when his reinforced forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan mistake a meeting of tribal elders for an unwise gathering of Taleban and al-Qaeda" read as a sickenly off-hand way to describe and normalise the incineration of a group of innocent people. I can't really see someone managing to get away with a similar line about, say, a non-Western government mistaking Western aid workers for CIA spies and having them shot as a consequence.

7/28/2008 03:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One might as well note that Aaro was an opponent of Ian Smith and yet he now condemns Robert Mugabe.

Come on BB, you've been reading HP again, haven't you? One of the second eleven was arguing just last week that anyone who didn't like Ian Smith or South African apartheid had absolutely no right to criticise the Iraq war and its cheerleaders, since they all involved regime change. I shit you not.

7/28/2008 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was actually going to flag up that HP post myself because its quite one of the most astonishing things I've ever read. Its terms of historical illiteracy and false analogies nothing else comes close. Its right up there with the antisemitic pizza slice as a classic HP moment.

Here goes...

But any country is likely to fall victim to instabilities when a strong but unjust regime is removed. And the replacement leaders we have previously feted as “freedom fighters” may prove to be failures and worse. Look at what is happening in Zimbabwe for example. The dire present state of that country is now far worse than when Ian Smith ran it. Does that mean we should have left Smith in charge ? I cannot imagine any one on the Left saying that, certainly not on the “anti-imperialist” wing. Why then is such a similar argument heard from the stopper Left re Iraq, that we should have done nothing because of the future possible bad consequences ?

Even in South Africa there is still a very high level of violent crime affecting both black and whites. In fact since 1994 272,000 people have been murdered. and the murder rate in South Africa is now higher than in Iraq. Some of the apartheid regimes supporters predicted law and order would break down if the regime was changed and unfortunately to some extent they were correct. Surely if you use the “we told you so line” on Iraq you should likewise criticise the lack of foresight of the anti-apartheid campaigns on this. But we don’t hear about anti-apartheid campaigners having “blood on their hands”.

The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland could also be seen as the unintended result of the removal of a stable but unjust regime, NI for the majority Protestants before 1968 was a stable and peaceful country. But the government was unjust and rightly, progressives campaigned vigorously for its demise. Unfortunately the result of regime change there was nearly 30 years of violence.

7/28/2008 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland could also be seen as the unintended result of the removal of a stable but unjust regime, NI for the majority Protestants before 1968 was a stable and peaceful country. But the government was unjust and rightly, progressives campaigned vigorously for its demise. Unfortunately the result of regime change there was nearly 30 years of violence."

Christ. Who is this dickhead?

7/28/2008 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And fucking hell, the first few commenters all nod in earnest agreement.

7/28/2008 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

It is the fish barrel again though, isn't it? I mean spotting stupidity on HP is like spotting public schoolboys at the Henley Regatta.

7/28/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I note from the comments that the poster's grasp of history is such that he thinks British troops were only sent into NI after the imposition of direct rule, rather than three years before.

7/28/2008 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I did try to draw out the N.Ireland analogy with limited success. Also can anyone understand what Brett's first comment first sentence means?

7/28/2008 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the numbskull also posts (or used to post) here:

And Flying Rodent's question is fairly pertinent - do David T and the other people who run the site bother to even read the guest posts before they're put up? judging from the amount of lazy historical errors and general lack of sense in that post, it doesn't seem like it. In fact I can't remember of a single original post i've ever read on there which read like it had been edited.

But then again judging from the responses at the top of that thread, the regulars do genuinely seem to be happy with absolutely any old guff that lets them have a go at 'stoppers', no matter how wretched it is...

7/28/2008 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger AndyB said...

You total wankers. You've tempted me into visiting Harry's Place for the first time in years. I swore off the stuff after I realised I was wasting too much of my time getting riled at idiots on the internet, when there are more than enough genuinely powerful people it is worth getting mad at, and that I can spend the rest of my free time playing on the Wii.

However, since I'm there I'd like to comment on this comment from 'Roo':

"It’s all deeply racist. The essence is that white people have consciences and should know better, they are morally culpable. However, black people are driven by tropisms or instinct alone. So in any situation where something’s going wrong you need to find the white person - it’s their fault, whatever their involvement. Black people have no morality or ethical sense, they can’t be blamed for anything they do. The Left has effectively lifted it’s racial politics from Victorian missionaries."

Now, this is a pretty dumb imagining from whole cloth of the way that 'Leftists' think. But at what little points it connects with reality it highlights what the decents always seem to miss. Power. Why might it seem that the 'Left' always blames white people - and I'm not saying that it does, simply that it seems that way -? Because for most leftists, and this is where they often can be differentiated from liberals, in so much that power is a central feature of a leftist analysis of the world. It isn't about disconnected ideas, or uncaused and hence unexplainable actions - and how obscurantist is that from those who dress themselves as defenders of reason? And when you start to consider who has power and, therefore, who is responsible for the shape of the world, the fact that these lines of responsibility and causation lead back to white men has nothing to do with the racism of leftists, and everything to do with the actually existing racism written into the structure of the global society. Not that such a consideration ever concerned a Decent. It'd kinda stop you marching behind the tanks of an Empire written through with racism, wouldn't it, to think that the world consisted of more than battles between abstract ideas, but involved concrete material forces.

Right, back to working on my bowling.

7/28/2008 06:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well its vaguely interesting that Harry's Place is now vetting this kind of crap. Its a bit Adrian Mole. Maybe that's the explanation, its somebody's teenage kid.

Flying Rodent is fantastic. Wasted on those fools obviously, but quite magnificent.

7/28/2008 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh the Aaronovitch thing. Yeah its a weird argument blaming people for changing their mind about a politician if he does something they disapprove of. We can't all have Aaronovitch's insight into the next eight years. Maybe that column got accidentally mixed up with one denouncing fickle football fans for deserting when their team does badly?

Still its better than Nick's argument, which seems to be that people are voting for Obama because they're racist, but embarrassed to admit it (though they still make obvious racist comments), which is why they think Obama will be the greatest president ever, oh won't they be disappointed when he nukes Mecca (decent Tardis goes both ways).

7/28/2008 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know looking thinking again I am not sure that Nick's piece in the Observer is not actually more mad than the HP stuff.

I mean Nick actually makes the case that Bush has been a 'friend' to liberals.

Tying aid provision to abstinence programmes, tax breaks for obscenely rich, waterboarding, the Patriot Act, Shock'n'Awe (definite totalitarian overtones there), Extraordinary Rendition, white phosphorous, Lebanon War 2006, sabotaging of the ICC, sabotaging of the chemical and biological weapons convention, planning a nuclear attack on Iran (S Hersh).

What's liberal?

7/28/2008 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

You know at the end of Brazil where Peter Vaughan says to Michael Palin, "I think we've lost him"?

7/28/2008 07:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bubby, poor sweet naive Bubby.

Don't you know that liberals are simply repressing their jackbooted fascist natures, just as homophobes are secretly queer. I mean seriously, why would they make such a song and dance about human rights if they weren't hiding something.

Uncle Nick KNOWS.

7/28/2008 07:23:00 PM  
Blogger flyingrodent said...

What's liberal?

I think Nick means that the hated Bush has given "Liberals" an excuse to ignore the evils of Islamofascizzle and TGISOOT, which is certainly one way of looking at it.

God knows what Nick actually means any more when he says "Liberals". Whoever the archetypal "Liberal" is meant to be, he sounds like the impossible offspring of a seedy three-way tryst between a barking 9/11 Truther, George Galloway and Bertie Wooster.

This is what happens when your political pundits start getting all their ideas from the internet, is my guess.

7/28/2008 10:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't Nick a liberal? I thought that him and Anthony were meant to be standing up for liberal values.

7/29/2008 07:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is scarcely an article by Nick or Andrew Anthony that does not mention postmodernism and moral relativity and betrayal of the Enlightenment. But have they ever written a coherent article that defines these terms or explains why these labels can be attached to "liberals" or "European elites" or "anti-racists" or whoever is this week's whipping-boy? Or have they ever signposted a text that does this? I started looking at this area on Wikipedia and it led to the US Christian Right: why am I not surprised?

Nick doesn't say who he is referring to when he talks about "European elites" so I'll have to guess he means any European public figure who opposed the invasion of Iraq. These European elites seem quite capable of defending their position on the basis of moral guidelines like international law, the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions and could probably defend these guidelines on the basis of Enlightenment values. I guess that Nick and the others think that there is a higher morality than the one in these guidelines (and that international law etc betrays this higher morality), but have they ever defended that position openly (rather than just hinting at it)?

I actually find a lot of Nick's stuff to be "post-modern": complex, obscure, reliant on undefined and shifting concepts, bordering on parody. There is a lot of huffing and puffing about morality without a clear statement of what the moral code is. He appears to be proposing a morality that relies heavily on identifying "fascists", which is an inexact science, and that blurs the important distinction between aggression and defence.

So have the Decents ever clearly set out what they mean by postmodernism and moral relativity
and why they think "European elites" or "liberals" are infected with these viruses? Shouldn't the Observer ask Nick to explain what he means before printing another of his articles?

Moussaka Man

7/29/2008 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

I suspect Chapter Four of What's Left? is the closest we're going to get, although it is the most extraordinarily confused garbage, as I tried to point out in the various posts on the bottom half of this page.

7/29/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

So he's incoherent, poorly-researched and writes from the general direction of the saloon bar.

Why should he different from any other columnist?

7/29/2008 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger donpaskini said...

Do we still do predictions for what Nick will write about next week?

If so, I predict that Nick will recycle an article by Greg Hands MP about how guidebooks are all left-wing and act as apologists for radical Islamists. The Lonely Planet has been particularly guilty of this since it was bought by the BBC. It already reads uncannily like one of Nick's article so he could probably just copy most of it out.

Only caveat is that Nick might not read so possibly will have to wait for Harry's Place to link to it.

7/29/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just to return to the 'postmodernism' question, i always find it really funny that Nick's favourite 'serious novelist' Martin Amis is one of the writers most obviously inspired by postmodern philosophy and theory, in terms of his approach to writing (eg unreliable narraots, author as character in the novel, tedious metafiction, breaking down the 4th wall, innately self-parodic etc etc). And his best books (Money and London Fields) are just as disgusted with contemporary morality as Qutb was back in the day...

7/29/2008 06:50:00 PM  
Blogger Nathaniel Tapley said...

I've always thought that the Decents' wilful misunderstanding of post-modernism was lifted pretty much wholesale from the chapter on it in Francis Wheen's 'How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world'. (The chapter itself, chapter 4, is a garbled reworking of a Terry Eagleton article from 1995, and Richard Evans' 'In Defence of History', and displays actual comprehension of neither.)

They regularly conflate postmodernism with relativism, when, especially as they are so keen on citing academic responses to postmodernist historians, the two are not the same thing. Many postmodernist historians hold simply that in writing a text, in selecting the words and facts that one uses to describe events in the past, one must, because both language and the people using language are imperfect tools, write history that is, by its very nature, not objective.

They do not (on the whole) suggest that, as absolute objectivity in the creation of a text is impossible, that there were no discernible facts in the past. Wheen conflates arguments against some practices and tendencies in postmodernist history with structuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernist literary theory.

He fails to see the distinction between saying: "It is impossible, in language, to convey an event utterly completely and utterly objectively" and saying "There is no such thing as objective truth." Although our experiences of the world are subjective, accepting that does not mean accepting that they are equally valid, or equally true.

Unfortunately, it's now a lazy mantra to bash postmodernism without distinguishing it from relativism - even Derren Brown has a pop in his book (p. 265).

Anyway, I can't see Francis Wheen quoting Terry Eagleton so approvingly nowadays. As someone mentioned above, in the Eagleton v Amis debate, the Decents seem to be on the side of the relativist post-modernist who freely indulges in thought experiments, rather than the arch-materialist who wrote a defining anti-postmodernist article...

Sorry to have blathered, I just think Wheen's book made it acceptable to dismiss postmodernism in a word as 'relativism', and to assume anyone who didn't was a recidivist leftie backslider.

(Note - I very much liked both Francis Wheen's and Derren Brown's books. I just think they could do with reading E.H.Carr...)

7/30/2008 12:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to add to the odd Decent relationship with Eagleton, it's odd to seem Nick Cohen shriek the word 'Marxist' as an insult at Eagleton. Presumably he doesn't do so with his Eustonaut mate, Norm Geras...

Equally odd, as you rightly say Nathaniel, is the dismissal of Amis's more, er, 'controversial' statements as a 'thought experiment'. not sure that there is scope for allowing such things from the 'other side' of TGISOOT.

7/30/2008 08:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Alan Sokal is another source for the Decent's take on post-modernism, though that might be via Francis Wheen again. I've always been a bit suspicious of Alan Sokal's book, as where I had actually read the people he was criticising, he had completely misunderstood them (his take on Bruno Latour is whacky). At least half of the people they attack for being postmodern are poststructuralist (a very different thing), and a few are actually critical of the postmodern tendency (on which David Harvey's book is characteristically excellent).

Many postmodernist historians hold simply that in writing a text, in selecting the words and facts that one uses to describe events in the past, one must, because both language and the people using language are imperfect tools, write history that is, by its very nature, not objective.

Surely all good historians would believe this? I would imagine that the more careful one was to write without a pre-existing agenda of some kind, the more aware you would be of how hard it is not to bias even through simple selection of sources. Actually, my guess would be that only historians who have a strong agenda (that awful Cambridge man who does that leadership series on TV, for example) would believe that one can write "objective" history.

One of the things that irritates me about the whole relativism debate, is that anyone who actually does careful qualitative research of some kind knows that it is impossible to be objective, or have a neutral stance. The debates that irritates the Decents about "what is truth", "facts", etc are methodological debates about how to deal with these problems, not an attempt to pretend nothing is true. It's honesty about the limitations of research. Positivism doesn't work.

7/30/2008 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

You're not talking about Andrew Roberts?

He's set quite a pattern, Roberts: a very appealing career path for young Oxbridge reactionaries. Write a lot of very pompous*, though well-researched**, pieces, in which no lefist or radical can ever doing anything good or well-motivated. Have them published as articles (or, where they are books, reviewed) by newspapers whose readers share your prejudices. Where a proper historian would weigh carefully the evidence they collect, always be judgemental. Avoid producing peer-reviewed work which is neither lucrative nor productive of fawning admiration from wealthy people. Continue in this vein for the rest of your life.

Also see Sebag Montefiore, Murray, etc.

[* you have to have come across Oxbridge Tories to know exactly what I mean here: very well-read, but enormously fond of themselves and inclined to address any given issue as if they were handing down a judgement from on high. Also specialise in imagining that they are giving careful consideration to every question but always, remarkably, conclude that poor people have too much money and that wealthy people pay too much tax. Good examples would be Michael Gove and Dominic Lawson.]

[** in Roberts' case, possible because he was the heir to the British KFC franchise and therefore had no need to work for a living.]

7/30/2008 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, Andrew Roberts. Though Sebag Montefiore would do equally well. Having just looked them up I'm quite relieved to discover that neither of them are academics. Though I guess if Brenda Simms can serve as a model I probably shouldn't be, or for that matter Neill Ferguson since he stopped doing real history.

I'd be fascinated to see what an expert made of Montefiore's latest book.

7/30/2008 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I should say that you don't of course have to be a proper academic historian in order to write history: but in order to be considered a historian you do at least need to hold your work up to the same standards as professional historians would. Large sales and gushing reviews don't constitute those standards, though of course at the same time it's possible to sell lots of copies of a well-reviewed book and it to be, nevertheless, good history as well as a good read.

Just not if it's written by Andrew Roberts.

7/30/2008 10:39:00 AM  

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