Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Now I have a chance to get back on line, what caught my eye most was the article by Johan Hari taken apart by Oliver Kamm here, Eric here, and Norm here. This was based on an earlier book review of Nick Cohen in Dissent, which, in my view, seriously distorted Cohen and drove Oliver Kamm to post an even more vigorous rebuttal. There is little to add to the authoritative savaging Hari has received but I will pick up on a few additional points that irritated me most.
First, there is a level of carelessness about history in his review. The most egregious is that he uses unspecific references to give an air of historical authority to his statements (the emphases are mine):
“if you talk, as virtually all serious scholars of jihadism do, about the role the US played in smelting jihadism”
“There is a near-total consensus among historians that the Versailles Treaty helped to create the trough of national humiliation and grievance in which the fungus of Nazism could grow”.
I would like to know precisely who these ‘serious scholars’ and ‘historians’ are. My suspicion is that his use of such unspecific terms is merely a rhetorical cover for his own lack of rigour.
(In fact, Hari has distorted both the views of Keynes, who he cites approvingly, and of historians on the rise of Fascism. They were less concerned with ‘national humiliation’ than with the economic consequences of Versailles. Of course, the event that precipitated the disastrous rise to power of the Nazis was the Wall Street Crash and not the Versailles Treaty. However, Hitler would not have come to power without the mistaken collusion of von Papen and here Cohen’s strictures on apologism and accommodation with irrationalist forces would seem highly apposite. In addition, that Versailles posed problems for a nascent German democracy was obvious, what it didn't do, as Hari seems to imply, was to bring forth Nazism as a necessary response.)
Secondly, in his tiresome rehashing of ‘it is all about oil’ (as if control of vital resources by a malignant dictatorship did not constitute a genuine concern), Hari ignores the fact that strategic interests and political and humanitarian principles are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Those moments when they combine are often the ones when action is often most purposeful, the Second World War being a prime example. There is another dimension too. The second Iraq war was an attempt to resolve an existing conflict. Sanctions and containment were having a disastrous impact on the Iraqi people. The Oil-for-Food programme was seriously flawed and a way had to be found to end the existing situation. There were two choices. The first was to come to some accommodation with the regime to keep Saddam in power in return for oil concessions. The second meant regime change. The choice of the latter was hugely to the credit of the US administration, to execute that change so badly was hugely to its debit.
Finally, Hari’s assertion that everyone is still stuck in 2003 and only concerned with Galloway is so ludicrously without empirical foundation as to be laughable. True the grotesque Galloway always makes a pleasing target, but just read the output of those associated with Euston and beyond and you will find an impressive discussion of all that Hari says is being ignored and more besides. Just take the example of Christopher Hitchens. He has certainly raised his sights from Galloway; he is now taking on God.
Friday, July 27, 2007
The heat wave has broken. On Thursday, the shade temperature on the patio reached 46C and it was still over 30C in the early hours of a sleepless night. Then a North wind swept down over the hills, scattering plastic garden furniture, and yesterday was a breezy and comfortable 32C. The distant landscape emerged from the heat haze and the thick, dry air dispersed. Today, I woke to clouds and a cool 28C even though the stone flags radiate heat under my bare feet. A little dappled sunlight is falling on the vine and some birds are making themselves heard over the incessant cicadas. The garden is sighing with relief and even a lover of warm weather like myself is joining in.
Monday, July 23, 2007
2. This may not be Nazi Germany, however these morons like to pretend it is (scroll down for the story). Nazi re-enactment societies are growing. ‘These Nazis are mostly called Kenneth and have wives in floral dresses chasing after hubbie’s tank shouting, “you’ve forgotten your Luger, darling”’.
3. And now to the real thing. The BNP are planning a survivalist retreat in Croatia for when the oil runs out. Paranoia goes with the territory of far right politics and I can't help thinking that their fate would be the same as that of New Germania.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
I mention her because I have been sitting under my vine reading Ed Husain’s ‘The Islamist’. I have read some reviews and extracts, mainly about its descriptions of Islamism and of Saudi Arabia, but was not prepared for the book itself. None of the reviews I have seen have mentioned that is a description of a spiritual journey that, once completed, led to where it started. In that sense, it is about returning home. And the home is a tolerant Britain and a devout spiritual Islam. The two are anything but incompatible.
Husain is a serious and deeply religious writer. His flirtation with Islamism was a teenage rebellion that embodied the arrogance and the lack of respect of youth, easily exploited by the older men who send others to kill. His rejection of the complex array of Islamist political movements is based on their intellectual weakness, poor Islamic scholarship, and their distance from the message of the Prophet about compassion and kindness. For Husain, Islam is deeply spiritual and personal. The common media cliché that there is no division between Islam and politics is an Islamist construct. Husain’s Islam is not totalitarian, but democratic and tolerant. It is rooted in centuries of learning and scholarship, not a casual identification with a set of repressive, recently fabricated doctrines. The Islamist is not a book about religion; it is a religious book critical of a political movement.
The book is also an open challenge to Western misunderstanding. Not only are the many Islamist movements often perceived as one but also the confusion between Islamism and Islam is ubiquitous. A typical example is a soft relativist piece in the ‘Islamophobia’ vein by Karen Armstrong, ‘An inability to tolerate Islam contradicts western values’ (also see Norm). In contrast, Husain argues that Britain has been too tolerant of Islamism, allowing it to flourish and take root, displacing his beloved Islam. Armstrong does not make the distinction between the two and reveals an unattractive aspect of her position - fear. Confronting Islamism ‘could also become a major security risk’. Though it has become another cliché, Husain’s book deserves to be called brave. It is an intellectual assault on the roots of Islamist thought and a defence of spiritual Islam. It is against the appeasement that Armstrong seeks.
As an atheist, I can’t share Husain’s position but I can understand it. It is effective in the same way that an erudite Marxist can be the best critic of Stalinism. What is more, Islamism is not the only contemporary flirtation with totalitarian ideas. In a disturbing piece in Die Zeit on the contemporary arts in Berlin, Georg Diez, outlines the growth of ‘totalitarian chic’ ; ‘… a new thirst for the irrational, anti-democratic and totalitarian in all sorts of corners’. He writes,
One could also join Isaiah Berlin in calling it the temptation of totalitarianism that takes hold of intellectuals and artists when the calmness around them begins to drone too loudly; or if they scent something on the horizon, something more exciting or uplifting than democratic monotony. Because they are particularly keen to cultivate this distaste for the individual, because they indulge themselves in fantasies of cleansing and revolution, which find their redemption in destruction.
More chilingly, he concludes,
The idiocy of politicians is usually reactionary. But the idiocy of artists is sometimes visionary.
Which brings me back to Eleni. It is easy in the somnolent heat of a Greek summer to forget the history of the modern Greek State. Eleni was a child during the catastrophic war with Turkey and an adult during the Nazi occupation and the terrible fratricide of the Greek Civil War. Her life has been lived under the shadow of the totalitarian dreams of her generation. The collapse of the Colonels’ junta brought democracy and EU accession to Greece and so her later years have been lived in peace, prosperity and the pleasure of village squabbles. It is not to be taken for granted.
Why should another generation of Elenis have to endure the horrors caused by the impatient ignorance of young ideologues? This is the precise question that Husain asks of his co-religionists. The first line of defence against totalitarianism is intellectual, and in some places the walls have been breached. Ed Husain’s book is an attempt to rebuild the barricades.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Sunday, July 15, 2007
But if you don’t know what’s in King James (Bible) and how it sounds, you won’t understand a lot of what’s in Shakespeare or Milton or John Donne or George Herbert, to name only a few examples. Enormous numbers of phrases in common use would be opaque to you. You wouldn’t know where they came from. They would be empty.
Look, religion was our first attempt at philosophy. It was the first and the worst, but it’s still part of our history and tradition. As it is, children don’t know where anything comes from—they don’t know the literary canon or the historical record. So I think to be religiously literate is very important.
I still agree with Norm here and here and here that there is sufficient empirical evidence to question any notion that religion is necessarily a force for evil. Those who are driven by religion to virtuous and courageous acts may really be acting on a universal and fundamentally secular moral conscience, but their rationale is religious and religion may have been a key factor in transforming them from passive dissidents into active resistors. However Hitchens is absolutely right about language, literature and culture.This is illustrated by a recent article by Madeleine Bunting. Despite her remarkable tolerance for radical Islam, she is less forgiving of Christianity in politics. Writing about Gordon Brown, she gets it spectacularly wrong when she says, 'religion has re-emerged as a central inspiration of political rhetoric'. Sorry Madeleine, It has never gone away.
Probably the most original and impressive piece of social history I have ever read is Jonathan Rose's wonderful The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. The book is a celebration of working class autodidact erudition and also discusses the political significance of literary language. If you were to identify the sources of popular literary tastes they would lie with Shakespeare (and Rose documents the vast working class enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the 19th Century) and the King James Bible, both masterpieces of poetic English language and, amongst much else, moral discourses. Lyrical language fired the popular imagination and embodied a morality which found its expression in early socialism. Rose argues that the failure of the Communist Party to gain much of a foothold was due to its abandonment of literary language in favour of the obscure jargon of a middle class elite that had no resonance with a working class schooled in Milton and Bunyan. "Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman's Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision in politics" (p.299). Ironic when you think how much Marx himself, and his children, adored Shakespeare.
In terms of contemporary mainstream politics, whereas Blair was all New English Bible, written in ugly modern English for Anglicans who actually believe in God, Brown's language is closer to the King James version, a bible for people who just like the sound of religion rather than religion itself. Whether Brown is trying to merely recover the sound of ethical socialism or ethical socialism itself is a moot point.
And, of course, we need that language, that emotional and ethical engagement with beauty. Compare the lyricism of Blake with the barbarities of post-modernism and see where each will lead you. And what do those who apologise for terrorism do? What do those who see the oppression of women as acceptable in different cultures do? They overwhelm our emotional moral revulsion with carefully constructed rationalisations that twist what we know to be wrong into something that can be accepted as right, or at least convenient. Language misused can be egregiously deceptive.
If this emotional, lyrical and moral language is rooted in religious traditions, it doesn't mean that religion is the sole possible vehicle for morality. I haven't read Hitchens' book yet but from the interviews I have seen he seems to be right in the tradition of the 19th Century Freethought movement, in that he is arguing that what is damaging is the religious mode of thinking. Given the quality of his prose he is well placed to contribute to the development of a secular ethical language and to address the issue raised by Sam Harris in his book, "The End of Faith".
We live in societies that are still constrained by religious laws and threatened by religious violence. What is it about us, and specifically about our discourse with one another, that keeps these astonishing bits of evil loose in the world? … Mitigating this problem is not merely a matter of reining in a minority of religious extremists; it is a matter of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that makes no appeal to faith, and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone. (pp. 223-224)
So what would such an ethic look like? Harris again;
We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically – with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings – without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime? (p.226)
A secular politics that celebrates life is more lyrical and beautiful than a religious one that worships death and seeks to impose a state of utopian misery by the use of extreme violence. In reality, the devil most certainly does not have the best tunes.
Friday, July 13, 2007
It may puzzle the more pompous as to why this body of men and women, these ardent revolutionaries of the spirit, spent so much time engaged in occupations usually considered more suitable for bored children on wet afternoons. The answer is, to quote the preface, that “Surrealist play is more like a kind of provocative magic”, that it “breaks, the thread of discursive thought” and, above all, helps to confirm the primary Surrealist belief in what they called “objective chance” or “the certainty of hazard”. These games will prove to you that not only was Lautréamont justified as to poetry; one could add a rider: “Surrealism too can be made by all.”
Their version of charades sounds fun, though I am still trying to work out the best way to mime, “How do you reconcile your love of women and your taste for sodomy?”
(Thanks to Mike)
Thursday, July 12, 2007
It is difficult for me to comment as an Englishman, but there is a good article by Tom Gallagher in Open Democracy on the SNP’s attempt to co-opt the Muslim vote in Scotland, which has an all too familiar feel to it
Gallagher contrasts a perfunctory commendation for John Smeaton with more fulsome praise of the Muslim community and highlights the leading role of the Muslim Association of Britain’s Osama Saeed in a rally held on June 6th. According to Gallagher, Saeed ‘called for an enquiry into the root causes of terrorism in Britain and appeared confident that the finger of blame would be pointed at departing prime minister Tony Blair, who was condemned at the rally more often than any bomb-carrying doctor’.
Gallagher is sharply critical of Salmond’s opportunism (he was opposed to intervention in
Sounds familiar? Gallagher doesn’t miss the parallel either.
‘A separate Scotland could turn out to be a modern, efficient state that harnesses the energies of its people, including those achievers who previously had to go abroad to make their mark in the world; or it could be a kind of leftist London authority on a larger canvas’.
It is worth reading the whole article here.
Monday, July 09, 2007
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Nick Cohen’s piece this Sunday brings him back to domestic politics and the failure of the Labour Party to be a party of labour. He can’t resist a favourite theme though,
Although I can't remember ever meeting a lecturer who admitted to voting Conservative, the leftishness of the post-modern academy is an obscurantist and exclusive ideology with few concrete plans for the improvement of the lot of less fortunate citizens here or abroad.
This is a harsh criticism and possibly overstated but it contains a kernel of truth about theoretical abstractions and, most importantly, that, for the middle class left, Iraq has been a huge distraction. The noisy activism of the ‘anti-imperialists’ and their determination to force a disreputable academic boycott of Israel has completely overshadowed proper concerns with social equality and political economy.
My disenchantment with New Labour was all to do with the failure to challenge the Thatcherite settlement and their too eager, and guilt-free, embrace of wealth and privilege. The battle for ideas is the starting point for an egalitarian left renewal and political economy should be central.
Saturday, July 07, 2007
Alexander Chancellor pointed out that the sad death of George Melly coincided with the ban on smoking in public places. Though he had cancer in both lungs and emphysema, Melly continued smoking to the end. Chancellor comments that Melly ‘was a member of that diminishing band of admirable people who do not think that good health and longevity are the only purposes of existence’.
Simon Jenkins too had a pop at the new law this week in a silly article, playing the trick of extension and false analogy (no-one is intending to ban domestic pets and it isn't the same). Though I am far from an authoritarian on smoking, I do wonder at the definition of the need to feed of an addiction that may kill you as freedom.
Now I am off to a smoke-free pub to drink loads of health giving beer.
And, of course, the ‘rot set in’ with the ‘post-war welfare state’. Another of Peter Hitchen's rants? No it is Terry Eagleton on the state of radical literature today.
For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.
Salman Rushdie? ‘… moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in
Only Harold Pinter is an ‘honourable exception’. This is a big clue for anyone who has cringed at Pinter’s embarrassingly awful political tirades. The criterion for inclusion amongst the pantheon of great radicals is to agree with Eagleton, especially on
So what have these writers done to upset the eminent critic? Exactly what Orwell did; take a morally consistent line against totalitarianism. This is from Orwell’s essay, Why I Write; ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as 1 understand it’. Note that these terms are not mutually exclusive but complementary. For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.
Amongst those he praises are Brecht and Sartre, who, despite their considerable literary qualities, both accommodated themselves to Stalinism. And this should really get to Nick Cohen; Eagleton writes that “Virginia Woolf” (a particular bête noir of Cohen’s) “places herself to the left of almost every other major English novelist”. His view of radicalism is a narrow one, as is his literary canon.
I suggest he goes back and studies Orwell properly and then consider whether radical literary greatness is signified by writing unthinking tirades against Western democracies, combined with apologetics for totalitarianism, or by clarity of thought, a rigorous mental honesty and a consistent commitment to human liberty.
Norm adds an additional and important point
Friday, July 06, 2007
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Sorry Scribbles, we didn't even get him - Charles went to Toll Bar in South Yorkshire.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
My shared anger was roused by two comments from one of the male panellists who I was unable to identify by voice alone. I can't guarantee total accuracy either as I jotted them down as I heard them, but the import is absolutely correct. The first was bad enough. 'There are other theocratic countries, not least Israel". All right, he should go back and look at a simple primer of political theory and learn the difference between a theocracy and a secular, liberal democratic, ethnic nationalism, but so far so depressingly familiar. Then I heard a chilling phrase that took the breath away. "We cannot bring everything back down to the Jewish problem". Shit. Did I hear that? The Jewish problem? Is mainstream British liberalism using the language of the Holocaust?
The world has turned upside down and I need a drink.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Only at the tail end of the coverage was it admitted that a car bomb might have been parked outside a club in Piccadilly because it was "ladies night" and that this explosion might have been designed to lure people into to the street, the better to be burned and shredded by the succeeding explosion from the second car-borne cargo of gasoline and nails. Since we have known since 2004 that a near-identical attack on a club called the Ministry of Sound was proposed in just these terms, on the grounds that dead "slags" or "sluts" would be regretted by nobody, a certain amount of trouble might have been saved by assuming the obvious. The murderers did not just want body parts in general but female body parts in particular.
The last person I can remember openly voicing such sentiments was one Peter Sutcliffe. I think that he too claimed to hear voices from God. As Hitchens says, 'The least we can do, confronted by such radical evil, is to look it in the eye (something it strives to avoid) and call it by its right name'. I don't recall the press having as much trouble doing this with the Yorkshire Ripper.
(via Will at the Drink-soaked Trots)
Sunday, July 01, 2007
This is a must read from the Observer. Former Islamist Hassan Butt writes,
When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.
By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.
Butt passionately urges Muslims to turn away from violence and, in passing, excoriates Ken Livingstone who, he claims, 'refused to acknowledge the role of Islamist ideology in terrorism and said that the Muslim Brotherhood and those who give a religious mandate to suicide bombings in
However, this is not just a 'bash the apologists' article but a thoughtful, brief exposition of Islamist doctrine. Butt argues that what drove him to support terrorism in the past was the sense of 'fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world'. He sounds very much like the young radicals who embarked on terrorism in
... come forward with a refashioned set of rules and a revised understanding of the rights and responsibilities of Muslims whose homes and souls are firmly planted in what I'd like to term the Land of Co-existence. And when this new theological territory is opened up, Western Muslims will be able to liberate themselves from defunct models of the world, rewrite the rules of interaction and perhaps we will discover that the concept of killing in the name of Islam is no more than an anachronism.
This very much echoes Tony Blair's comments about 'absurd' Islamist doctrines, but then Blair mentions a 'false sense of grievance'. He is still seeing rationalist, if deluded, sources for Islamist ideas. Butt is far more convincing, and chilling, when he describes the ideological basis of the movement as the extension of the premises of Islam by two critical steps.
Their first step has been to reason that since there is no Islamic state in existence, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr. Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world.
This revolutionary doctrine justifies an irrationalist and endless war for an unobtainable global goal and, whilst in the process of failing to obtain it, it advocates a duty to randomly kill large numbers of people and feel wholly justified in doing so. Butt is clearly right that there is an ideological challenge to be met and one hopes that the Islamic scholars will come forward and contest these doctrines effectively. The consequences of them not doing so is frightening. Those of us who are secularist non-Muslims have another duty, to contest fashionable apologism, whilst our governments (and this feels awkward from someone influenced by anarchism) act in collective self-defence.
This should read, "whilst our governments and baggage supervisors ... act in our collective self defence.
Number one in the Observer's list of 50 lost movie classics; Herbert Biberman's 1953 film, Salt Of The Earth can now be viewed on-line here at the Christie Books Channel.
Made at the height of McCarthyism by blacklisted left-wing artists (the director was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten; screenwriter Michael Wilson's name was kept off Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), this politically committed movie recreates a strike by Mexican-American zinc workers against the appalling conditions at their new Mexican mine. A marvellous mixture of naivety, passion, agitprop and forceful feminism, it was the subject of official harassment during production and banned from US screens for a decade but became a cult movie for young radicals in the 1960s.
Not everything on the channel is good. I have just watched a repulsive four minutes of unutterably stupid propaganda called Mr Blair Goes to War (yawn).