Sunday, May 31, 2009

There's a Lot of Competition, You Know...

There's a bit of fun over at Harry's Place: our man was on the radio - and we missed him! Little Atoms with David Aaronovitch - Tonight 19.00 on Resonance 104.4FM. (Only it's not tonight any more.)

As readers know, David Aaronovitch actually reads Harry's Place and posts comments there. This is his first:

I wonder whether Ari's first comment isn't the single stupidest entry on this blog, even taking the fabled Benjamin into account. Oh, and I didn't go to Cambridge.

I'm not going to quote Ari. Despite the title of this post, I do think DA has a point there. Ari is then defended by someone called 'Sean'. I won't bore you with how they got onto hemp, but the following seems somewhat appropriate for a comment on a blog post promoting a radio interview to puff a book on conspiracy theories.

Today, hemp is one of the most environmentally plants on the earth, it can provide better textiles than cotton and better paper than wood. In fact, it produced both for centuries, but certain US companies make money out of pesticides used in cotton and we have been forced to use it and tree pulp for paper.

Sean also defended Ari thus:

Just looked up Aaronovitch on wiki. He is right and Ari is wrong about him getting expelled from Cambridge…he got expelled from Oxford. Ari was right about it being for his lack of understanding of German history.

Oxford, Cambridge. Who cares? Details like this are peanuts compared to the great US capitalist cotton conspiracy. What is any discussion of Dave without the wit and wisdom of South African Nick?

I can’t comment on the accuracy of David A’s Wikipedia synopsis. What I do know, is that Wikipedia is not particularly reliable as a biographic source, especially for controversial figures. This is in the nature of the Way Wikipedia is produced where there is no meritocracy and any geezer with an axe to grind can edit an article.


He studied Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford from October 1973[2] until April 1974, when he was sent down (expelled) for failing the German part of his History exams.

DA on same:

One for the records. I failed my German language prelim (not German history) at Oxford. The historian whose work we were asked to evaluate and to translate was the 19th century Swiss art historian, Jacob Burckhardt.

DA's entry could be clearer with the addition of the word 'language' after German, but that's what the non-meritocratic Wikipedia says.

However much I disagree with DA, you really have to be nuts to think he's a Nazi apologist, but at least two Harry's Place readers seem to think just that.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lazy, sloppy desk research, Aaro!

Aaro remains very, very disappointed in us. We've let him down, we've let ourselves down, we've let the whole school down, by our irresponsibility. We must try to work harder and take more of an interest in politics. No not that kind of politics, Bloggs Major, the proper kind that gets covered by the Times. How dare we vote for independents etc.

But in the process, a really shoddy piece of Google churnalism:

The independent MP for Blaenau Gwent also offered a “political revolution” on his election in 2006. He set up People's Voice as a party, with much the same prospectus as the Wyre Forest independents - all love, listening and localism. “This political tidal wave cannot stop here,” says the People's Voice website, now largely not updated for two years. More cobwebsite really.

Firstly, Welsh politics FAIL, as this is a really poor summary of what happened in BG. Aaro implies that "People's Voice" was the creation of Dai Davies; in fact and of course it was the creation of Peter Law - the current independent MP for Blaenau Gwent was the former election agent of the previous independent MP for Blaenau Gwent and took his seat after winning the byelection caused by Law's death. Blaenau Gwent People's Voice had existed before as the ticket on which Peter Law campaigned - Davies took the additional step of registering it as a party so he could campaign on a joint ticket with some other independents for the Welsh Assembly.

More cobwebsite really

Because, as everyone knows, if it isn't indexed by Google, it didn't happen. In actual fact, as pointed out in Times letters the next day, PV is still very much alive and a significant presence on Blaenau Gwent council. (They were also still sufficiently committed to the "People's Voice" name to lodge a complaint against a North Welsh group wanting to call itself "Llais y Bobl" in last year's local elections).

Really sloppy stuff - Nick Davies complains about the effect of deadline pressure on newsdesk journalists, but Aaro is a columnist who had all week to pick up the phone or have a look at local papers in Gwent.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Aaro's goulash recipe

We are nothing if not completists. Serve it at your next dinner party.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Two chapters in ...

... and it's actually quite a good book. I think readers ought to be aware that, which might not have come over from my preview and snap reaction, this is definitely not an unstructured rant like "What's Left?" or a cuttings job like "Waiting for the Etonians". It is actually a proper book. Aaro is a good writer and he has clearly done a lot of research on it over the last three years - I am still as concerned as I said I was about the non-appearance of any sensible conspiracy literature references, but he's done at least some hard time in the British Library checking up primary sources (I own three books about the Maud Allan Affair[1], but had not previously been aware of Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas's fascist newspaper, "Plain English", for example). I don't know how many AW readers are able to spend £17.99 on a book without wincing, but I think I would actually recommend it when it comes out in paperback.

The introduction is, frankly, embarrassing - it's the bit where Aaro sets out his general theory of conspiracies, favourably cites Daniel Pipes and gives his definition of what distinguishes a "conspiracy theory" from a genuine history of a conspiracy - the definition is quite literally, something where it subjectively seems unlikely to Aaro that a conspiratorial explanation is the right one. But then it gets onto the actual stuff and that's much better.

I'd forgotten that Aaro is a history buff - and is in general a much more rounded and less one-dimensional character than yer average Decent, and he knows how to build a story. The chapter on the origins and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is excellent and has more or less everything in it that you might need to know. Particularly, Aaro is generous enough to provide you with ample evidence to undermine his whole thesis - in that although the Protocols is a story of a clearly fake conspiracy, the way in which it was brought into general circulation was by the specific and purposeful actions of individuals who concealed their actions.

This phenomenon whereby Aaro aims to demonstrate that there are no conspiracies by describing a big conspiracy becomes parodic in the next chapter, on the Soviet show trials. This one's such a hoolie of a counterexample that he does have to put a little bit of caveating at the end (basically, Stalin really did (probably) believe that there were Trotskyite plotters, so there's nothing conspiratorial about a massive operation to invent meetings which never happened, falsify confessions, brainwash and create the illusion of a vast international network which never existed). The chapter itself, though, rattles along and once more, gives about as good a capsule introduction to this secret politics episode as you're going to get.

Aaro even at one point describes the reaction of altogether too many western liberals, which was to say that the show trials were obviously genuine because, well, hey, how could anyone falsify so much evidence? It is an almost perfect template for the later invention of Decency, right down to the repulsive cheerleading for a foreign imperial power which "invents its own reality".

All of which sounds like I'm having a go at Aaro, which I am, because I still don't like his thesis or his politics. But I'm not being sarcastic or trying to damn the book with faint praise; I do think that, if approached critically rather than credulously and in awareness of its agenda, it's a very good piece of work. And frankly, in anything to do with the conspiracy literature, you had better read everything "critically rather than credulous and in awareness of its agenda", or you'll end up believing an awful lot of crap.

I am now halfway through the third chapter and it's not as good - I don't really know very much about the Pearl Harbor debates, but I get the strong impression that Aaro is portraying the controversy over Robert Stinnett's book as more one-sided than it really was - he certainly takes a rather partial view of how widespread US popular support for entry into the Second World War was. But now he's started on the HUAC and McCarthy redhunts and I expect that this will be much better.

[1] A wee belter of a conspiracy story btw - it is a bit obscure and I don't want to come over like one of those guys who can't believe that "Kooks" wasn't on the Bowie Greatest Hits album, but any AW readers interested in this sort of thing ought to keep an eye out for "Oscar Wilde's Last Stand" by Philip Hoare, in second hand bookshops. It has everything - Lloyd George, a maniac MP who built his own aeroplane, secret books of treason, the Cult of the Clitoris, General Haig and an attempt to carry out a coup through the unusual method of libelling the world's most famous stripper. Everyone in wartime London was intriguing to try and destroy everyone else.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I have bought Aaro's book

So far I note ...

Citations, per my bet with PPhil in comments below: I would score it a win to me. The original bet was two out of three of Peter Dale Scott, Paul Thompson and Robin Ramsay. Of these, only Ramsay is mentioned, in a reasonably material discussion of his views. ("Little Atoms" said in the same comments that Peter Dale Scott appeared in the bibliography of the prepublication version he'd seen, but he isn't there - no reference in the bibliog, and the only reference in the index is to Paul Scott, author of the Raj Quartet, unrelated). I added Nafeez Ahmed as a "bonus ball", and his "London Bombings" book appears in the biblio but I don't understand why - the book isn't discussed and the only reference to Ahmed himself is that David Ray Griffin apparently got interested in conspiracy theory after reading a different book by Nafeez Ahmed. On the JFK and related assassinations literature, Aaro's main source is Gerald Posner, who cites Peter Dale Scott quite a lot and has debated him publicly on a number of occasions (they disagree on nearly everything), so I don't understand why Aaro didn't follow up the reference.

Other guesses from my review:

"Also inevitable is at least one reference to David Icke": or perhaps not. Not in the index or biblio - might be a throwaway line in the text, but if so I haven't found it yet. Surely an open goal missed here Aaro!

There's also surely at least a 50/50 chance that he'll libel Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.: also, apparently not.

Diana theories get in there, of course, as do lunar landing conspiracists,: and how; 20 opages on Diana and 2 on "Apollo moon landings".

Iran Contra will be tossed off in a couple of pages, Watergate in few more and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident most likely not mentioned at all: if anything, I overestimated Aaro here.

Iran-Contra gets mentioned on one page, in the para:

"Not countering Watergate, which was a rather pitiful botched conspiracy to cover up an attempt at political espionage [and firebombing, and burglary - BB], the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-6 is the closest the US has come to a full-blown conspiracy. Here, senior members of the Reagan administration sought to thwart a congressional prohibition on financial support to anti-Communist Nicaraguan insurgents (the Contras) by procuring weapons and selling them to America's sworn enemy Iran. The entire business unravelled; there were two inquiries; and two National Security Council employees were found guilty of minor felonies, their convictions being overturned on appeal on the grounds that they had been promised immunity from prosecution through testifying to Congress"

Oliver North not mentioned by name at all. Watergate gets two mentions, one in the paragraph above and one in a sentence quoting someone as saying it wouldn't have happened if Robert Kennedy had lived.

The Gulf of Tonkin also gets two mentions. Weirdly, both are in contexts where it's more or less admitted that there was a real conspiracy here (although this is by no means proved and probably never will be given that the most important documents are still classified. On p8:

"An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited. These can be as ancient as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and today may incldue references to Pearl Harbor, the Reichstag fire and the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident".

On p220 "Then she cites 1941 and Pearl Harbor [...] followed by the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which President Lyndon Johnson used an alleged attack on a US destroyer as a pretext to begin the bombing of North Vietnam, thus providing much fodder for conspiracy theorists."

I said:

Oliver Stone's film is likely to get treated as if it were the definitive summary of assassinology : not entirely true, but close as.

(and I bet he gets the official line wrong, repeating the Warren Commission's "lone nut" conclusion and ommitting the House Committee on Assassinations): he does. Fair enough if one thinks the HSCA got it wrong, but not to even mention it (except once in a quoted passage on an unrelated topic)?

I suspect that on at least one occasion, our man will use as a punchline the ridiculousness of suspecting that the military and security infrastructure of a G7 country might have been co-opted by a single Masonic lodge (something which has definitely happened). The Freemasons! Controlling the secret police! Carrying out acts of domestic terrorism as a pretext for jailing their political enemies!

Weirdly, Freemasonry is mentioned on pages 20, 23, 25, 26, 34, 36, 37, 82, 199, 208, 209 and 215 (also on p280 which is not in the index), but Propaganda Due not at all. Brown, Dan is on pp 5, 187-8, 190, 205, 216-17, 302, but Allende and Pinochet none each, plus Patrice Lumumba, zero.

I'll get stuck in and read the thing asap. My hopes are not high. I peeked at the end, and it does all end up in having a go at "relativism" as the cause of it all; this is surely crazy - conspiracy theorists are, as I mentioned in comments before, the least relativist people in the world, as they are by definition specifically obsessed with the literal truth of one specific narrative account of history and the literal falsity of another.

Final note:

Then in March 2003 American and British forces[sic] invaded Iraq in what was to prove the most controversial and divisive foreign-policy decision for both countries of the post-Cold War era. There were huge protests, followed by a widespread belief that somehow the American and British people had been lied to. Many books have covered and will cover that territory, but one consequences was a flood of conspiracy theories covering almost every aspect of Western (here defined as American, British, Israeli, and, if you have less parochial tastes, Australian) foreign and counter-terrorist policy."

That's it. That's the sum fucking total of the discussion of Iraq, except in so far as it relates to the death of Dr David Kelly. The real conspiracy here is the conspiracy to separate me from £17.99 of my money for a book that doesn't discuss the single most relevant point that its author might have had to discuss. Fuck, I'm annoyed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

It is 1933 and I am Churchill, IF Stone and quite possibly Nelson Mandela

Doop de doop, reading the Times ...

"Of course, while these precise alliances are unprecedented, our history is rich with examples of conflicts provoking realignments. While Peter objects to the fellow-travelling of churchgoing neocons with muscular liberals, he skips lightly over the 1930s alliance between the old Imperialist Churchill and the trade unionists who opposed appeasement"

reading the Comment Central blog, doop de doop ...

"The activity of the dreadful Joseph McCarthy is still much discussed in US politics. Less so the activity of people who really did spy for the communists [...] Was the famous truth telling journalist I.F Stone, actually a Soviet agent? [...] The Commentary writers believe they have conclusively proven that such a link existed. And, I must say, I found their evidence pretty compelling."

gettin' hungry, having a biscuit, doop de doop ... reading Eric Alterman

"Stone had a few conversations with Soviet agents who were working undercover in order to help them identify people in Berlin who might be helpful in opposing Hitler and the Nazis [...] There is only one other reference to I.F. Stone’s cooperation with the KGB in the 1930s, a note listing him as one of the New York station’s agents in late 1938….these 1944 and 1945 notes do not indicate that Stone was an active KGB agent or even in direct contact with it after 1938, and given Stone’s initial anger over the Nazi-Soviet Pact, it is likely that he broke relations with the KGB in late 1939"

Aaro doesn't always agree with Finkelstein as we know - I wonder how he deals with Joe McCarthy in his book?

doop de doop, wonder what's on telly?

"In his new book Voodoo Histories, my colleague David Aaronovitch makes hay exposing conspiracy theories. Let the sun shine, I say, but let's remember conspiracies exist: I don't suppose Calpurnia Caesar spent much of her widowhood telling people that, personally, she favoured the cock-up theory of history. Nor does a conspiracy theory's unlikeliness preclude it from being true. Take this one: the release of Nelson Mandela and the ending of apartheid was all a plot by the British mining company Consolidated Goldfields to protect its business interests. Endgame, Channel 4's deeply involving drama based on this strange fact, was surely enough to persuade even Aaronovitch to put his Occam's razor back in the drawer."

deedle de doo. Have a good evening, readers.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Aaro vs Atzmon

Thanks very much to Michael Rosen in the comments for reminding me that I hadn't actually done a post about the Aaronovitch/Atzmon (with a little bit of Nick Cohen) dust-up, I just thought I had. We knew from Aaro's write-up that it was a bit of a debacle for Decent Dave, but I at least had suspected that Gilad A and his fans were rather building their part in our comments section in portraying it as a wholesale triumph for their side.

Tony Greenstein however, is as near to a neutral party as you're going to get in a conflict between Gilad Atzmon and David Aaronovitch (he hates them both), and he scores it very much in the manner of Pacquaio/Hatton, with Aaro in the Mancunian role. Christ this must have been a bloodbath.

Obviously, one's joy at seeing Aaro getting it stuck down his throat on the general subject of his ludicrous blind spot when it comes to war crimes committed by states he likes, is tempered by the fact that the other side on the evening included such boils on the face of humanity as Lady Renouf. Nevertheless, there are a few important points coming out of this shit-show.

First, (and I was saying this a while ago), the brand value term "anti-semitism" is not being managed very well. There are clearly some people in the Palestinian solidarity movement who do use that movement as cover for their own anti-Semitism, and I would even give house room to the argument that the Palestinian solidarity movement doesn't do enough to root them out. There's also intrinsically a grave danger that political opposition to the current government of the State of Israel is going to slip into racial or ethnic essentialism, simply because it is an ethnically defined state. Aaro is not just blowing smoke here.

On the other hand, the charge has been thrown around so carelessly and in such bad faith that it's absolutely unsurprising that it's been devalued (anyone who chucked the charge at Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer for writing "The Israel Lobby", for example, was in my opinion doing so without much basis, and this includes an awful lot of people who should have known better). The last couple of paragraphs of Aaro's piece rather seem to realise this - there are people now who simply can't be credibly accused of being anti-Semites, who are not bothered about putting themselves in a situation where the accusation is inevitable. Ironically, the possibly the worst argument ever has come into effect; as Tony says, the charge of anti-Semitism has been thrown around at so many people for the most trival reasons (nadir)that people have begun to reason that if something like as the Walt & Mearsheimer book is "anti-Semitic", then anti-Semitism can't be all that bad[1].

In general one wants to ask the Decent Left, when it comes to the utterly laudable project of reducing or eliminating anti-Semitic discourse from British society (a project to which the Decents have bent their elbows and in service of which they've chosen a very specific strategy), how do you think you're doing, lads?

[1] I totally disagree with this line of reasoning. I think that anti-Semitism is about as bad as racism gets, and that an accusation of anti-Semitism is an extremely serious charge that needs to be supported with serious evidence, and to which the subject is obliged to respond by taking it very seriously indeed (ie, I myself would certainly not hesitate to lawyer up on anyone who I thought was seriously trying to make it against me, and I'm doing my level best to make it very clear indeed in this post that I take the general issue very seriously, and want nothing to do with the kind of people swarming round Gilad Atzmon). But it can't be denied that in British society today, people in general are getting significantly more blase about being called anti-Semitic (this point can be supported with evidence from EISCA and the CST), and I have to say that I think Tony Greenstein's argument that the term is losing its impact through overuse in frivolous contexts, is at the very least a credible and possible explanation why this might be the case. The self-styled "pro-Israel" lobby, as I've noted on a number of occasions in the past, does an abominably bad job of making a case that intrinsically ought to be easy to make.

Aaro respects the Prime Directive

Our man strikes more or less exactly the right note with respect to the whole "God, for or against" debate, demonstrating that the problem with Richrd Dawkins' "we should treat the god-botherers with naked contempt! contempt I say!" thesis is not so much the actual reasoning, as the fact that Dawkins' own personality has been shaped, and not in a good way, by the fact that the last time he listened to anything anyone else was saying was 33 years ago, and they were saying "this is your publisher, Dr Dawkins, I've got your first royalty cheque for 'The Selfish Gene' and ...[fade]".

Aaro does good humoured mockery much better. Secular humanism is much more palatable when in the hands of people who remember that a little bit of humanism is worth a whole lot of secular.