Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Decent Historian

As AaroWatch winds down, and we look back on the last ten years or so, we might reflect that the Decents were pretty poor at intellectual cheer-leading or talent-spotting. They insisted on treating Paul Berman as an authority on contemporary Islam when it was pretty clear that he didn’t know much about the subject at all. They repeatedly wrote as if Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? was a significant contribution to political debate, when it was an incoherent mishmash, built around a stupendously vague notion of what in fact was ‘left’ (such that John Major and Douglas Hurd’s foreign policy could somehow be placed squarely in the book’s firing line). The nadir came with Alan Johnson’s softsoap Democratiya interview with Alan Bostom – "And how about the denial of intellectuals in the West?"-- a man even Little Green Footballs regarded as "a bit too much of an Islamophobe headbanger".

But here’s a curiosity. Throughout the Decent decade, there was one prominent scholar, at the height of his powers, enormously productive, brilliantly clever, hugely multilingual, with a fluent writing style, very well connected in both Britain and the United States, with particular interests in the idea of Enlightenment values, the history of European Jews, the crisis of Dutch multiculturalism, and contemporary European antisemitism. These were all the standard topics of Decent obsession, concerning which he argued positions entirely congruent with the wider worldview of the "anti-totalitarian left" -- and yet one hardly ever saw his name in the oceans of bloggish and not-so-bloggish commentary on Decent affairs. In what was for the most part the intellectual desert of the Decent Left, he and his writing could have served as the most extraordinarily fertile oasis -- yet for some reason, which I don’t begin to understand, the caravans of columnists and the camel-trains of bloggers repeatedly passed him by. And, for a Decent scholar, he even had an ideal name.

Jonathan Israel is Professor in the School for Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. This is about as cushy a job in contemporary academic life as there is: it comes with few obligations beyond the opportunity to get on with one’s research, fantastic library facilities, and considerable patronage. The faculty of the Institute is stellar, and, over the years, has included Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Clifford Geertz, Albert O. Hirschman, and the man who coined the term "decent left" himself, Michael Walzer, who has now been associated with the Institute for thirty years, for most of this time as its UPS Foundation Professor. Israel’s research has changed its focus over the years. He started out as an historian of colonial Mexico in the 1970s, and spent the 1980s and 1990s writing about Spain, Holland and the Jews from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. More recently, he has reinvented himself as an intellectual historian in order to write his colossal series on the European Enlightenment. There have been two huge instalments in this sequence -- Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment Contested (2006) -- and one smaller helping -- A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (2009) -- a book which summarises Israel's main argument to date and prepares the way for the yet-unpublished third volume in the sequence, on the era of the American and French Revolutions.

The dominant trends over the last few decades among historians have been to disaggregate "the Enlightenment", to deny that this label can pick out one, trans-European intellectual phenomenon, and instead to focus on particular contexts, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Neapolitan Enlightenment, or (in one of J. G. A. Pocock's recent books) an "Arminian Enlightenment". Israel has returned to an older tradition, associated with Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, in order to defend the existence of an international Enlightenment, or, perhaps better, to defend the existence of two. First, there is a Moderate Enlightenment, associated with, inter alia, Newton, Locke, Leibniz, Smith, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau (after 1755) and the bulk of the American Revolutionaries. Second, there is the Radical Enlightenment, deriving its inspiration from the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, and including Bayle, Diderot, D’Holbach and Helvétius, Rousseau (before 1755) and many of the French Revolutionaries, including Sieyès, Condorcet and Mirabeau. And Israel emphatically takes sides -- the Moderate Enlightenment he repeatedly finds to be conservative and inegalitarian, little better than a defence of the ancien régime status quo; against it he champions the Radical Enlightenment, with its core commitments to liberty, equality, the denial of religious authority and the defence of the secular state.

It's obvious why the Decent Left ought to like Jonathan Israel's vision of Enlightenment, which gives determinate content to the idea of "Enlightenment values" and uncomplicatedly presents the Enlightenment as an unfinished project with immediate political relevance to the present. This comes out especially clearly in Israel’s powerful 2004 Pierre Bayle Lecture [doc] delivered in Rotterdam, which begins with reflections on the recent murder of Theo van Gogh and proceeds from there by way of a discussion of the Dutch Golden Age and the arguments of Pierre Bayle (one of Israel’s heroes, and, as it happens, also one of mine) to an indictment of the contemporary model of Dutch multiculturalism -- and to criticism of the European press for its coverage of the Jenin "massacre", with its "obvious bias rooted in ancient theological stereotypes and prejudice".

Israel has other affinities with the Decent Left, too. He doesn't like postmodern currents in recent scholarship, for one thing, but there's also something of the "with us or against us" psychology of Decency, too, in his historical writing, as he slots people into either his Radical or his Moderate Enlightenments, seeing black and white where many other observers just see varying shades of grey. Thus: Bayle is one of the good guys, so he isn’t just an atheist (itself a controversial judgement, but one which is probably correct), he’s a specifically Spinozist atheist (which seems to me to be to be a real stretch, in light of Bayle’s characteristically sharply sceptical turn of mind). But -- as is not the case with the Bermans and the Cohens -- there really is a "there" there, there really is something worth engaging with, and arguing against, and the engagements and the arguments are in full swing: here, for example, is the distinguished French historian Antoine Lilti, writing in Annales [pdf, French]; or, in a less academic vein, here’s Samuel Moyn in the pages of The Nation, here’s a robust response on the World Socialist Website, and here’s one version of the subsequent exchange between Israel and Moyn (the other version is in the correspondence columns of The Nation, and not available, as far as I can tell, to non-subscribers online). All good clean fun, and highly educational.

But, as I say, it's all a bit of a puzzle. If I were a Decent blogger, I'd have been drawing loud attention to his various publications over the last few years, and praising them to the skies. But they’ve all chosen not to, for whatever reasons of their own. And so, as AaroWatch prepares to disappear forever beneath the cyber-waves, let this tiny bit of Jonathan Israel-related consciousness-raising be its gift to the wider wonderful world of Decency, on which this website's been so very parasitic for quite so long.


Blogger John B said...

"If I were a Decent blogger, I"

-> wouldn't be a hack promoting and/or slating your mates' books, opinions and power-struggles from the days you and they were Student Union Trots together. And therefore wouldn't be a Decent blogger.

7/21/2010 03:05:00 PM  
Blogger Barrett Pashak said...

By drawing attention to the decisive importance of Spinoza in the development of radical democratization, Jonathan Israel provides a firm historical basis for ongoing political praxis. I would suggest, however, that the Left needs to seriously examine the work of the grievously neglected German-Jewish writer, Constantin Brunner [1862-1937], who, drawing on his profound insight into Spinoza, provides a thorough intellectual/spiritual grounding for radical thought and action. Brunner says much that would appall most Leftists, but to those willing to follow him, he opens up limitless horizons for reflection and practical activity.

7/21/2010 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Of which Student Union were Aaro and Cohen Trots?

7/21/2010 04:09:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

Neither Aaro nor Cohen were student Trots (Aaro was a Eurocommunist at Manchester). But on the other hand, neither are they primarily Decent bloggers.

7/21/2010 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave Weeden said...

TCK: Splendid. I suppose the simple, and very well worn, answer would be: the Decents are better at being "against" than for. (Unlike D2, I think I have to count both Aaro and Nick among the Decent Left.) The Enlightenment they're for seems best defined as "secularism plus benefits of science" - I don't think any are interested much in contemporary science (or the history of science for that matter). I think there's a bit of identity politics in Decency too. But I know that the Decents hate identity politics when they come across it, so this may just be projection on my part.

Sort of off-topic. What the hell is happening at Harry's Place? I've seen two recent posts I agree with Brownie and Marcus and two bonkers ones Michael Ezra and Alan A. I haven't even dared to venture into the comments, so I've no idea how they went down.

Captha: milty

7/21/2010 06:25:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Dave, actually the comments on the Pinoche/Allende thread were surprisingly sensible. You will always get the odd right wing loon explaining that Pinochet had to turn Chile into a brutal military dictatorship in order to prevent Allende turning it into a brutal Communist dictatorship but a lot of people pointed out that the claim that the US was not directly involved in the coup was either not neccessarily entirely true and in any case rather besides the point given the great lengths it went to to undermine Allende.

7/21/2010 10:03:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

this is a really interesting article. It ties in with my well-rehearsed schtick about Decency and intellectual incuriosity, though - that the majority of priment members of the grouping are relatively well-off, secure in employment, and seem able to get away with not actually doing much wider reading. That's why nick on literature will only ever consider some novels he read in the 80s and the new McEwan and Amis; it's part of the reason why there are so few works of political writing that they are united behind (ie only actually Paul Berman - and the majority don't seem to have even noticed he's got a new book out). The love-in for Anthony Julius has always baffled me, but then again he gave free office space to Euston back in the day...

But ultimately this is the case:

the Decents are better at being "against" than for.

It's definitely the case - there's no other way that Nick Cohen would buy lunch for someone with the views of Chas Newkey Burden. This is the main reason why HP Sauce has the readership it does. It's also why Euston was doomed to fail from the start, because it was all about what they were against, not what they were for.

D2 will forgive me, but I think what he meant was that Aaro and Nick aren't primarily blogers - they are members of the Decent Left.

i do not understand why they've allowed posting rights at HP Sauce to michael ezra, he's a pre-school version of Oliver Kamm. oh, maybe that does make sense actually.

7/22/2010 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I'm not necessarily against being more against than for, if you follow. I reckon many people are in that situation one way or another, myself included, largely because of what's happened to the socialist project over the last generation or so.

That said, the whole idea of "can there be a Decent Left?" as a question is to state that the Left, mostly, are not decent. In asking it, you're defining yourself against the Left as presently constituted, rather than saying that there are things you dislike, you don't necessarily know how to get rid of them but you'd like to oppose them nonetheless. It's this that gives Decency its denunciatory tone, or if you prefer, appeals to those to whom denunciation appeals as a style. Aaro's a little different, I think, because he's not really a denouncer - he's more someone for whom the left to his left is finished, gone, nothing to say, can be dismissed in a blanket fashion. Which is at least better than being assailed by all these little internet Vyshinskys.

I confess I hadn't heard of Jonathan Israel, which makes it rather hard for me to criticise anybody else for not having done so. I think it possible that there are some thinkers who, by the very virtue of the breadth of their reading, are not accessible to the politically-minded public, or at least not directly influential on them - they're perhaps influences on influences. I'm often struck when accessing, say, Crooked Timber, that somebody can be referred to as an important philosopher, writer or thinker and I've not heard of them. Then again my degree was in History and not in Politics or Philosophy.

7/22/2010 08:13:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

btw, LRB racism shocka...

7/22/2010 08:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've yet to meet anyone who has read all the way through Radical enlightenment, however committed they are to its themes: that is a banal reason for it not being taken up by the quick-fire journo-Decents. I do remember very un-Decent Tom Nairn plugging it soon after it came out. Israel's latest and shorter book, A revolution of the mind, looks more like fodder for the Decents. Though I suspect that even that one will be too much for easy consumption.


7/22/2010 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I guess we have to bear in mind that, to use a prominent example, Nick Cohen's favourite 'historian' is, er, John O'Farrell, and his favourite 'anthropologist' is, er, a drinks industry plugger unaffiliated to any academic institution. NK has it right - easy consumption all the way...

7/22/2010 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

sorry, RK

7/22/2010 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is where Tom Nairn praised Israel's Radical enlightenment:

7/22/2010 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I have to say I find myself wondering what, if anything, Aaro will say about Tomlinson, especially given that De Menezes was such a low point.

7/22/2010 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

Wildly O/T -

The hummers of 'radicalization' understand very well how people can be persuaded towards mass murder; but they understand not at all how half the country (to say nothing of the wider world) could have thought there was a moral case for going to war, despite the fact that it might anger some of those opposed to doing so.

Yes, I'm sure it was the "moral case" that inspired so many. Nothing to do with those consarned WMDs...

7/22/2010 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

This could conceivably be a self-defeating prophecy, but I would expect something along these lines:

A terrible cock-up, but the pathologists' opinion was divided so the auths' hands are tied, (er, because they can't do you for hitting someone with a stick unless they can prove you killed them.)

There is no way of working out whether it was the dodgy pathologist or the other two who was right, e.g. by looking at the reports and photos and seeing if one of them might have missed something, like say a haematoma.

Basically we know as much as we ever will, draw a line, we must accept, rules is rules, level playing field, mischief-making and paranoia.

Certainly an inquiry would just be too expensive (see teh Deficit), and, er, put the family through another ordeal.

We must also think of the police who are under great strain, and ask: is it fair to pick out one officer who acted, er, no worse than others, just because he had bad luck?

We must also avoid drawing connections between this and De Menezes (poss. mention of Bully-Manner's recent remarks, whatever they were about).

It may be possible to criticise policing tactics but that is not the issue here today (nor will it be on any other day).

Look forward not back, there are of course lessons to be learned, though I have not the slightest interest in articulating what they might be.

Of course, smelly fucking hippies will disagree, baying for blood and claiming that there is some vast [etc]...

But er, anyway, whatabout that ceremonial window-cracking photo-op...

DA would obviously add:

1. a veneer

2. a quirky twist, catchy angle, beguiling bit of contrarianism. Ideally, something impudently self-serving, like: 'this didn't happen to those who were kettled', or 'this is why filming the police is bad', or something of Teh Bard's clumsier phrases stuffed into the middle of a sentence somewhere.

7/22/2010 07:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

previous in reponse to ejh

7/22/2010 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Top Aaro news: Steve Cram is reading Voodoo Histories

7/23/2010 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good old David North of World Socialist Website! He's a sharp eye for any discourse that might dis Trotsky, no matter at what remove. His polemic against / taking leave of Gerry Healy back in the day is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read.

Marc Mulholland.

7/23/2010 08:34:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

World Socialist Website is a funny outfit -- I don't really know much about it, but I've enjoyed some of their film reviews over the years.

7/23/2010 08:57:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

The Healy book apears to be on Google Books in its entirety. I notice Spinoza turns up early on.

7/24/2010 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Aaro twitters: Roger Graef excellent re Tomlinson on #today. Incisive and devastating on danger of loss of confidence in the police.

7/24/2010 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BTW if Steve Cram has already read the 'McCarthyism/populism/isolationism/blah' chapter, he might want to listen to the author reading from a script whose message appears rather different:David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable about the McCarthy period.

Apparently there were even more military and industrial spies in the US than previously thought .

Of course the newly-discovered and relatively marginal bits and bobs are billed as meaning McCarthy was right, rather than having a very slightly lower false-positive rate than previously thought. (Whether it does better at avoiding the old type-one than the admirably heuristic assuming everyone's a red is not entirely clear.)

In infotainment world, this probably also means he gets a day-trip across the border of the paranoid/accurate dichotomy.

There's no indication that Aaro's writer is going to start distinguishing HUAC's blacklisting and vague demonisation of citizens from the specific accusations of treachery in high places that ended McCarthy's career.

(You wouldn't expect the beeb to be much good at such distinctions, being mired in a false conception of 'conspiracy theory', at least at editor level and above.

McCarthy doesn't even fit cleanly into the reasonably serviceable, if rough-and-ready, typology I (and R Ramsay) subscribe to: that is, one that distinguishes the vague and sweeping xenophobic propaganda of the powerful from citizens' determinate suspicions about establishment corruption.)

7/24/2010 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Roger Graef on Today. I agree with Aaro: the idea that the police apologise upfront, don't dissemble and obfuscate, and don't give the impression of impunity is actually a very good one.

7/24/2010 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CC: I agree with you. Reporting Aaro's opinion wasn't triumphalist but punctilious.

Ah, except 'appearance' is perniciously weak - at which point I can start griping at Aaro for being a govt-house consequentialist about police power.

7/24/2010 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

not 'appearance', 'impression'.

7/24/2010 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Christ, that clip has the phrase "appeal a decision". That's the BBC and the Telegraph in the same week.

I'd comment more on the substance of what Graef said, except that as far as I could see there wasn't very much. Hayman rather better for my money, though unless I missed it, neither of them asks about the first autopsy, which is the key to the whole business. Who selected Freddy Patel to carry it out and why did they do so?

7/24/2010 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Ah, I was looking for this:

But whose lapse is this? On whom should we turn our ire? It would be easy to lay the blame at the door of the CPS; however, to do so would be a facile and would fail the cause of justice. For while the CPS may have been laggardly in pace, they have at least been transparent.... In fact, this appears to be a miscarriage bought about by maladministration, which may or may not prove to be a deliberate act, on the part of the City of London Authority. As it currently appears that the CPS’s case has been hamstrung by the Authority’s choice of pathologist.

It appears bizarre in the extreme that the City of London Authority chose Dr Patel in the circumstances. Especially given that the more usual procedure would have been to refer the case to the Forensic Pathology Service, a body of nine independent forensic pathologists, tasked with dealing with such occurrences. One cannot help but wonder if this signals a dangerous level of incompetence and insensitivity on the part of the City of London Authority or something more insidious. It is imperative that we know one way or the other all details of the case, if trust in the police and the City of London Authority is to be maintained. As I see it, the fundamental question that needs answering is: who chose the first pathologist and by what means?

(While I'm drawing your attention to the Independent, this item also caught my eye.)

7/24/2010 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I heard a report saying that Patel didn't know that there had been any physical trauma.

1. though it would be better if there were a proper chinese wall, pathologists do in fact rely heavily on what they are told about the events preceding death. In such circs, inferences get drawn from what you're not told.

2. I wonder if in fact he might have been told something even more suggestive of no-trauma, like 'he collapsed' (strictly true but a conversational misdeed). And that could well have been done deliberately.

That's assuming Patel was a useful idiot, rather than being actually biased or compliant.

re CPS: I don't think the 'sharp dispute' is irresoluble, as the CPS have claimed (or someone has on their behalf, can't remember). Pathology is science, not some ineffable art.

The Patel move was more or less sufficient, given CPS inertia vis-a-vis plod, to head off a homicide charge, though it was probably not necessary, other expedients being available, e.g. the Cash-for-Honours trick of hiving off the decision to a friendly, unaccountable, silk.

7/24/2010 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Actually I would want it to look like I was being more generous to the CPS that they deserve. The failure to bring the assault charge on time was pathetic at best and the refusal to allow a jury to decide between conflicting pathological evidence is not too brilliant either. At least those failures can be ascribed to nothing more sinister than a general reluctance to proceed, though: the appointment of Patel has a very bad smell.

(I've not forgotten the role of the IPCC, either, nor the bullshit police story, nor the willingness of most of the media to repeat it.)

7/24/2010 03:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course there were Reds under the Beds in the 1930s - 1950s USA. It was acknowledged, and the FBI were doing something about it.
McCarthy's exaggerated it for his own political ends, leading to a lot of people losing their jobs and a wave of paranoia until he was stopped.

The only good result: we got Robin Hood on TV.


7/24/2010 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I am afraid I misled people in claiming that the David North/Gerry Healy book is on Google Books in its entirety: unfortunately it only goes as far as page 38 of 125. Still, there's an amusing story on page 33.

And if anybody wants to read the whole thing, I bet Ollie Kamm's got a copy.

7/25/2010 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Guano - but HUAC had already started the process. The blacklist, for example, was HUAC.

The FBI under Hoover also took part in the political side of the Red scare, the side that was to do with ideology (thus aimed at teachers, authors, filmmakers, and taking the form of an inquisition in the high style) rather than sober policework and quiet diplomacy, aimed at, er, those with access to secrets.)

McCarthy can be seen as blowback from that side of things. His innovation was to start publicly denouncing government politicians and officials.

This suited his party at first, in opposition, but he had to be stopped in the end, and was. The other good consequence was that his four years of wild accusation brought the virulent phase of the Red Scare to a head, leading to its demise.

1. Opposition to the political Red Scare increased more or less in proportion to the inconvenience McCarthy was causing to powerful politicians. No doubt Murrow et al had some effect, but M's big radio speech was only a few months before McCarthy was censured and put out to grass. The underlying causal relations remain obscure.

2. Note this acount contradicts Aaro's Decent History of the Second Red Scare, which portrays it as idtenical with McCarthyism properly so-called. Aaro also portrays it as arising from grassroots paranoid hick types, expertly combining the two tools of Decency: nutpicking and guilt by proxy. He picks a minor character (name?)whose political views (exaggerated by Aaro, 3 tools) happen to take a meandering route through Hofstadter terroitory, picking up some anti-semitic flavour on the way, and treats this idiosyncratic random walk as domenstrating some deeper connection between all his unwitting bedfellows. And all of his motives or midset are those of all of them, of course. Aaro does bad history.

3. The fact that there was a coverup illustrates B things: a. that coverers up need not share any motives or in any way be complicit with those they are covering up. b. in many circs the probability of a coverup given the thing to be covered up gets big. Thus belief in a coverup of aliens is much more to do with beief in aliens than belief in coverup.

7/25/2010 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

They found some spies recently didn't they, swapped some and moved on? Largely of interest because one of them was deemed 'fruity' enough for front pages.

But then it's all muslims under the mattress these days, isn't it.

7/25/2010 03:57:00 PM  

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