Tuesday, March 17, 2009

OK, so Hazel Blears isn't Hitler ... so what?


I am not saying anything as crass as that it doesn't matter what the government does, as long as you live in a liberal democracy. What I am saying is that, if you don't have a liberal democracy, everything else goes to hell. And it does strike me that, right now, we are in a nasty phase of attacking democratic politics and its inevitable representatives, the politicians, for their deficiencies and taking refuge either in populism, legalism or magical thinking.

I wish I had more time to discuss this, but I'll just note that it is false to say that "if you don't have a liberal democracy, everything else goes to hell". Lots of interesting intellectual developments and social movements have taken place in non-liberal societies where the cracks and spaces where the state doesn't look provide places for people to write, think, discuss etc. Where did Aaro's precious Enlightenment happen? Not in a liberal democracy, that's for sure. And how about in Teheran and Beijing today, is everyone just marching in step with the official line or is there writing, film-making etc going on that's actually quite interesting? On the other hand, what New Labour has in common with the only dystopian modernism that Aaro can imagine is a panoptical aspiration to see and control everything, to meddle with every detail of private life and to impose a supposedly benign managerial normalisation on everyone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The contradiction contained in your own brief rejection of Aaro's argument is breathtaking. Under China's government in which opposition is not permitted and expression is suppressed, lots of interesting and useful things happen. Yet New Labour's urge to micromanage is necessarily depressive of creative freedom. How the hell does that work? Or are you just being awkward for the sake of it? Cato.

3/17/2009 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It helps if you actually read the post, rather than skim it looking for "contradictions", Cato.

3/17/2009 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cato writes: it helps if you deal with the argument, Martin, rather than implying that other people's capacity to read and understand English is less than your own.

3/17/2009 11:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And thus Aarowatch enters its final doomed spiral of decay.

3/17/2009 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

A prophet is not without name except in Aaronovitchwatchcountry

3/17/2009 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

I'm afraid that Anonymous/Cato/whoever does have serious comprehension problems.

My point was not that China, Iran or, for that matter, Ancien Regime France are OK, they aren't. Rather, I was responding to Aaro's self-serving contrast between liberal democracy and fascism, which he was using to support an argument that we really shoudn't worry about surveillance, databases etc (because Hitler didn't need them!).

Any society that achieves comprehensive surveillance of its citizens is a threat to freedom, however notionally democratic it is. And many authoritarian societies, because they don't intrude everywhere, leave spaces for freedom to flourish. That was the point I was making.

3/17/2009 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Cato, it's Aaro's totemic clutching at "liberal democracy" even when it's not being very liberal or democratic that's hard to take. What governments do matters more than how they identify themselves.

3/17/2009 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaro quotes a report:

Historically, IBM's punch-card machines were essential to the efficient operation of the massive system of population surveillance that enabled the Nazis to single out Jews and other ‘undesirables' for imprisonment and extermination.

And then extends this:

What “singled out” Jews was not their existence on a German database

Which is not what the report is saying at all - it's saying that IBM was essential to the efficiency of the Nazi system.

Aaro continues:

It took me nearly no time to discover that there is really only one source for this contention - a highly controversial book on IBM and the Holocaust by an American journalist called Edwin Black. Sure enough, Black's book does appear in the report's appendix, though the contested nature of his argument isn't mentioned at all.

Well, the book won two major American journalistic prizes and from what I can tell IBM has never contested the claims made in the book in a court of law. In fact the claims in the book are not really contested at all.

In any case, since when has a book being contested, dubious, or downright dishonest ever stopped Decents from using it as 'evidence'? and since when has Aaro's ignorance ever been proof that something is or isn't true? The book came out in 2001. Presumably a while after aaro finished his extensive historical survey of all literature on the holocaust (his undergrad degree which was completed in the mis-70s, I'm guessing). any history written after that presumably doesn't matter since it mentions stuff that hasn't been mentioned before...

This is the truly philistine aspect of Decency rearing its head again.

So how depressing it is [...] that we count cameras but won't join parties

Well - Aaro doesn't count cameras, does he? i thought that was the whole point of the article. and if 'we' count cameras, which party should we join? Labour?

Oh and by the way, i foolishly clicked on the link from Nick Cohen's website to his 'comrdae' Ayaan Hirsi Ali's website today. Dear me. With comrades like that...

3/17/2009 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on Ejah you've got admit that the fire has gone right out of this blog. It's all running on reflex and a kind of weird meomentum. Either you guys need to raise your game or get off the pitch otherwise what was a once great institution that brought hours of fun filled procrastination to many will be remembered as this limp salad of a blog whose participants can't even get excited about their own invective.

3/17/2009 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

There's a cross-Decency pushback on at the moment about civil liberties issues. Presumably the Batsignal was activated after the Convention on Modern Liberty. See Rafael Behr's twattish piece in this week's Obscurer.

The shorter: yes, the government has passed a lot of laws that would be really useful to a dictator - but they aren't Hitler! So, no need for the constraint of power through law or the active citizenry or really anything from the history of Western political thought in the last 2,000 or so years. Keep shopping. By the way, No2ID people: you're doing a great job, so I'm going to patronise you as well as insult you.

3/17/2009 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

BTW, what singled out Jews in Nazi Germany was the fact it said "Jew" on their identity cards.

Operating an actual database, as opposed to a Hollerith or manual card index, was a leetle bit tricky before the invention of the transistor, the von Neumann architecture, practical mass storage, operating systems etc etc etc.

But they tried very hard; he surely knows, and I'll bet he's actually referred to it in print, the fact that the Reichsbahn billed the SS for each prisoner's fare at their one-way holiday special block booking rate, and paid the occupied countries' railways their standard transit rate for each train.

And you know, they probably didn't do that on the back of an envelope.

3/17/2009 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

There's so much wrong with that column, I gave up reading it over breakfast this morning.

So last Wednesday morning I went out and about counting CCTV cameras with another journalist - much younger than me. We agreed that (a) there were lots of cameras and (b) we didn't know what many of them were there for, and didn't have time to ask.

If they didn't have time, would it be overly 'authoritarian' to suggest that they should have started sooner? Two journalists admit they don't know something, and can't be arsed to find out, that's a 'dog-bites-man' story isn't it? No, as you were, it's journalism as usual.

And speaking of journalists, who was the mysterious (why can't Dave give names and dates and such?) "high-brow Establishment figure"? Andreas Whittam Smith, Dave's former boss. None of this 'full disclosure' lark for our brave scribbler!

If the captain hadn't beaten me to it, I'd have condensed DA into one memorable sentence: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K, without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

3/17/2009 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

One possible response to Aaro might be that liberal democracy and possessive individualism, while they co-exist all right, are not all that close to one another, and once you take the collectivist, socialist project out of the equation then political discussion does tend to be taken over by the saloon bar, scapegoat-of-the-day, screaming-at-the-television element. (It's noticeable, incidentally, that political discussion is noticeably less crass where I live now than where I used to. Though presumably this will change.)

Re: Hazel Blears not being Hitler - no, of course she's not. She is, however, an ambitious and unprincipled cynic with a fondness for illiberal measures and making an appeal to illiberal instincts.

She tends to remind me that just because political figures operate and exist within a liberal democracy doesn't mean they're either liberal or democratic themselves. I'm not contravening Godwin or even talking about Italy here: I'm partly saying that many politicians who prosper in Western democracies would prosper, I think, just as well in other systems (which is among the reasons why I am sceptical of people making too many noises about how democratic Western societies are, and even more sceptical about the claim that because a democracy employs armed force it is doing so in support of democracy).

I don't particularly think of Peter Mandelson, say, as a democrat - not if I'm thinking of a democrat as one who likes to operate democratically, by which I here mean "relies on the strength of their argument and does not employ dirty tricks". And Mandelson may be more of an operator than most, but he's not all that atypical.

3/17/2009 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm partly saying that many politicians who prosper in Western democracies would prosper, I think, just as well in other systems

In the case of New Labour, I'd say Blears (the 'yes-man' [sic] - see Monbiot) and Straw (the enabler/survivor) are two good examples.


3/17/2009 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Straw and Robin Butler were the two British pols I thought of while watching Paolo Sorrentino's movie about Giulio Andreotti this evening.

3/18/2009 12:26:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Does Butler count as a "pol"?

3/18/2009 07:25:00 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Yes. As Andreotti would say, everything is politics, one of a small elite of opinions he shares with Ulrike Meinhof.

It is the fundamental weakness of British politics that the one thing that is never discussed is power, and what else do you think a Cabinet Secretary spends their life dealing in?

3/18/2009 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Yes, but the point here is that the Cabinet Secretary isn't democratically elected, so the question isn't one of "democratic" politicians whose practice and instincts aren't very democratic, but the different one of how democratic our democratic state structures actually are. Of course the questions are related, but they're not the same.

3/18/2009 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

I'm partly saying that many politicians who prosper in Western democracies would prosper, I think, just as well in other systems

You only have to look at the Eastern Block, where politicians seamlessly moved from the old to the new. The difference between liberal politics and the systems you got in pre-Revolutionary France is not as great as people like to think. Patronage has moved around a little bit, including to the populous, but the basic structures of power (and distraction) remain.

3/19/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

It is worth recalling in this context, that Aaro's move into print journalism was after a career in television middle management, and that his career started as an acolyte and protege of John Birt. Managerialism isn't something he just fell into.

3/21/2009 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is worth recalling that Aaro's move into journalism got a helping hand from Peter Mandelson. He didn't just fall into journalism.

Moussaka Man

3/22/2009 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moussaka Man, in what way did Aaro's journalistic career get a helping hand from Mandelson? Please specify, because I can't find any evidence for this very interesting suggestion.
Phil D'bap

3/22/2009 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See this blog just under one year ago.

Moussaka Man

3/22/2009 11:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil D'Bap writes: that's not very helpful, is it? MM, you wrote it, so at the very least you could help me out my giving me the link or repeating the evidence. Please.

3/23/2009 07:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil D'Bap further writes:
All I could find from last year was this from last summer: "Does Aaro have to keep on reprinting NuLab talking points for the rest of his working life, because of the help he got from Mandelson in getting into journalism? Moussaka Man"
So let me ask again, what help was this, Moussaka Man? Even roughly?

3/23/2009 07:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil D'Bap

3/24/2009 06:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil D'Bap concludes: It was rubbish, wasn't it, Moussaka Man? You have no evidence whatsoever that Aaro got a "helping hand" into journalism from Mandelson. Shame on you.

3/25/2009 07:44:00 AM  

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