One Hundred Things Norman Geras and I Corresponded About Over the Last Decade

Country music (including but not limited to Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss, and its relationship to suicide) — Marxism — The war in Iraq — The case the British government made for the war in Iraq — Media coverage of the war in Iraq — Differences between British and American media coverage of the war in Iraq — Dead socialists (including the question of whether or not Paul Sweezy was in fact dead: he wasn’t when we began corresponding on the question, but later he was) — Favourite novels — University admissions — Boycotts of Israelis — Blog technology issues — The paradox of democracy — Paul “The Thinker” Richards — Defamation law — French headscarves laws — International rugby partisanship — New Zealand and whether it is a dull country — Amnesty International — Italian anti-war demonstrations — Christopher Hitchens — The precise distance from Boulder, CO to Birmingham, AL — My Normblog Profile — The number of Red Sox supporters who have Normblog profiles — Where the Wild Things Are — Bob Dylan — Favourite films — A Mighty Wind — Nashville — Joan Baez — George W. Bush — The Hutton Inquiry — Lucio Colletti — Why the film Life is Beautiful is so terrible — The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Mobile telephones — Cricket — The various ways in which my students used to pronounce the name “Geras” — Rock stars — Exam marking — Arnold Lobel and his Mouse Tales — The Butler report — The Campo de’ Fiori in Rome — Shakespeare plays — Obnoxious right-wing writers (including Mark Steyn and Andrew Bolt) — American airport security checks — Terrorist threats — Socialist Register — The 2004 US Presidential election — Baseball — Visiting Oxford — Thomas Hobbes — Roman libraries — Classical composers (especially Schubert) — Jokes about rational choice theorists — The Tour de France — Etienne Balibar — Favourite actors — The excellence of kittens (and, more generally, cats) — American street names — Wendy Cope — Footnotes in Capital — Umpiring — Passport applications — Margaret Thatcher’s resignation — Margaret Thatcher’s poetry —  Jews for Justice for Palestinians — Chavez and anti-Semitism — Academic plagiarism — David Aaronovitch as marathon runner — x-RCP front organisations — Robert Wokler — Academic jobs — Musicals — Australia — The rubbish-collection regime in Oxford — Tony Judt — Whether or not the Euston Manifesto was part of a “common, hysterical defense of the Anglo-Dutch financial system, and their permanent right to loot the economies of the world” — American practices of memorialization on campus — Flooding in Oxford — The Beatles — Jerry Cohen’s valedictory lecture — The New Left Review — Loyalty oaths — A Dance to the Music of Time — Merton College, Oxford — Visiting Manchester — Critical opinions about America — Puzzles involving marbles — Traffic robots — The Beach Boys — Tony Blair’s relationship with God — Bernard-Henri Levy looking funny in photographs — Authorisations to use military force — John Stuart Mill on international intervention — The Eurovision Song Contest  — Adam Smith — Nick Cohen’s views about torture — Alfred Hitchcock films — The thorny question of whether seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was on drugs — The problems of travelling between Oxford and Cambridge.

Biggest regret? In July 2004, Norm wrote, “Might you have an interest in watching a Test or some part of one with me?”, and I never took him up on the suggestion.

His final words of the correspondence, from the start of this month: “My own care from the NHS has been exemplary.”

Camels, Wheels and Martin Ignoramis

Traffic has recently gone through the roof at the ironically-named Socialist Unity Blog, as Andy Newman has been giving us all invaluable blow-by-blow coverage of the split in the Respect coalition [now here and here]. And having built up a huge readership for the blog, it can finally turn its attention to the issues that matter — so Tawfiq Chahboune has been brooding on the issue that bugged me here and here, concerning Martin Amis, camels and wheels. Continue over the fold for the relevant portion, or visit the original over here.

Continue reading “Camels, Wheels and Martin Ignoramis”

Ironies of History

Back when I was a student some time in the early 1990s, I remember discussing with a friend our impatience with the transformations then underway in the economic policies of the Labour Party, then led by John Smith and with Gordon Brown as the Shadow Chancellor. And we joked that we wouldn’t mind the shift to the right so much if the substance of the new policies could be presented to the electorate in properly Marxist language, labour theory of value, declining rate of profit, calculations of relative surplus value and all the rest.

And, as so very often, be careful for what you wish for, just in case it comes to pass. The very same Gordon Brown, freshly arrived at the top of the greasy pole, has just been calling for “vigilance“. So, see over the fold for the entry on “Revolutionary Vigilance” from R. N. Carew Hunt’s indispensable Guide to Communist Jargon (1957), pp.143-5…

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Let the Barking Begin…

(Actually, the barking’s been going on for quite a while now, and the echo-chamber’s becoming quite oppressive.) Over on the other side of the Atlantic, MaxSpeak reads drivel so you don’t have to. Below are a few links to some of the more diverse contributions from the right-wing Brit-bloggers…

Leading the way, Andrew Sullivan: “BIN LADEN’S VICTORY IN SPAIN: It’s a spectacular result for Islamist terrorism, and a chilling portent of Europe’s future…”

Laban Tall, by contrast, reckons it was a “Victory for Murder“: “Whether or not the Madrid bombings turn out to have been the work of Islamic terrorists, the results of the Spanish elections will undoubtedly be seen by Al Quaeda as a sign that Western democracies don’t have the stomach for the fight”.

For Peter Cuthbertson, on the other hand, it was “A terrible day for democracy” Why? Because “The aftermath of mass murder ought to be a time when ordinary, decent people recover their inherent sense of moral absolutism and feel an unshakeable determination for the ruthless assertion of justice.” OK. And what does that make the Spanish electorate? They are “selfish, myopic dupes”.

And, finally, Melanie Phillips, of course, is a commentator who is well-known for her balanced, nuanced judgements. She calls it a “Victory for terror“. “The Spanish general election result is a disaster. The Spanish have reacted to the atrocity in Madrid by dumping a government that was committed to fight terror and replacing it by a government that will appease it. Eleven million Spaniards took to the streets last weekend to show their solidarity in the face of terror, and two days later voted to abase themselves before it. Al Q’aeda could not have more perfectly choreographed a result that serves its cause…”

Perhaps Chris Lightfoot or the guy who wrote the Daily Mail headline generator could write a useful Rightwing-Bloggerage Generator to save us all time in the future?

UPDATE [10.30pm]: Graham (see comments) points us all towards this very useful site which might one day replace Sullivan, Tall, Cuthbertson, Phillips et al. Thanks, Graham.

UPDATE [16.3.2004]: Peter Cuthbertson rightly notes in the comments that he only ever said that those “who let the events of 3/11 swing their vote in favour of the party they thought would antagonise Bin Laden less” were SMDs, not the entire electorate. Apologies.

Interpreting Spain

Isn’t the simplest explanation for what happened in Spain just that the splendid response of the population — with eight million on the streets in protest against last week’s bombings and in defence of Spanish democracy — had the effect of raising the electoral turnout; and that when turnout rates rise in the context of a general democratic mobilisation, Left parties are more likely to benefit, given that it’s the poor, the unemployed, the working class, the less well educated and so on who are, other things being equal, those who are less likely to cast a ballot? And that all the witterings about whether the Socialists are craven defeatists in the struggle against terrorism (they probably aren’t) or whether Mr. Aznar was opportunistic in attempting to pin the blame on Eta for short-term electoral reasons (he probably was) pale into relative insignificance beside this fact?

I conclude that yesterday was a great day for Spanish democracy.

UPDATE [2pm]: Via SIAW, I see that there’s a much better treatment of the PSOE vote over at AFOE

UPDATE [17.3.2004]: Chris Lightfoot has crunched a few numbers, and the provisional conclusion to draw is that I’m barking up the wrong tree here. The data’s very imperfect, however. On the other hand, as Harry is pointing out, there’s some evidence that the PSOE was moving ahead of the PP even before the bombs went off.

War on Terror

From the Melbourne Age:

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark was frisked at Sydney Airport for explosives in an incident that has embarrassed the Australian Government.Despite having a NZ security officer with her, Miss Clark was pulled out of a queue on October 28 and given a body scan with a new explosives detection device to make sure she was not a bomb-carrying terrorist, The Age has learned.

Senior Australian Government sources said the incident was an embarrassment. It was not regarded as the right way to treat the leader of Australia’s close ally, they said

“You won’t be surprised to hear the New Zealand Prime Minister was not found to be carrying any explosives,” a spokesman for Transport Minister John Anderson said.

One of the odder political organisations I’ve ever belonged to is the London branch of the New Zealand Labour Party, which was basically run out of Austin Mitchell’s office at the House of Commons, and its infrequent meetings usually took place to coincide with Helen Clark’s visits to London.Happily, she didn’t blow us up on those occasions, either.

Yes, But

[A few words in defence of the “Yes, but…” reaction to the events of 11 September 2001 follow. If you think that no defence is possible, you may want to stop reading now.]

The second anniversary of the atrocities of 11 September 2001 has come around, and there has, of course, been a lot of media coverage. There’s also been a bit of coverage in the media I read (other people’s blogs, really) critical of what we might call, because it has often been called, the “Yes, but…” response to the attack on the World Trade Center from many on the liberal and left end of the political spectrum, at home and abroad.

Many people, it is charged, said things like this, that “Yes, the attacks were awful, but we shouldn’t forget that the Americans have done bad things in the world before then”. And it is often contended that saying things like this has the effect of mitigating the atrocity, explaining it away, excusing the perpetrators, blaming nobody, blaming the victims, and other bad things. These attacks on the “Yes, but…” crowd are often – not always – meant by those who make them to constitute an indictment of what is sometimes called “the Left”, by drawing attention to its moral blindness, relativism, postmodernism, pathological anti-Americanism, and so on (fill in various other failings here).

Amid the more polemical contributions on this subject, there’s some reasonably temperate discussion of the matter today over at the Crooked Timber blog, in response to one of Chris Bertram’s characteristically thoughtful posts, and it is reading this that has prompted me to write this. (His new Rousseau book, by the way, is a fine piece of work: I’ve read a little bit more than half of it, and I’ll have more to say on this subject, probably, soon).

For it seems to me that if we’re to pick over the contextualising “Yes, but…” language that was around — and it was around — in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 (some of it, I am sure, falling from my own lips) we need to do some work in turn to remember the context in which that kind of language was itself used.

In the days following the Twin Towers atrocity, there was an awful lot of talk in the press and from the politicians which had the effect of decontextualising the shocking events of that day: “The planes came out of a clear blue sky”, we were told, repeatedly, as if the attacks themselves came out of the blue; there was a press discourse of America’s “innocence” being shattered by the violent destruction and loss of life; commentators were quick, too quick, to say that “everything changed” on September 11, and so on.

This kind of discourse was politically highly useful to a White House which decided very quickly to reverse its hitherto reasonably isolationist policy and adopt a new and highly interventionist foreign policy stance — one which has brought us the War Against Terrorism, the attack on Afghanistan and, more recently, the war against Iraq (as well as the US Patriot Act, etc.), and all of whose effects, for good and ill, are yet to be felt. The President, furthermore, had his own explanation for why what had happened had happened: “They hate our freedom; they hate our democracy”, he told us, in his speeches which set out and sought to justify this new American foreign policy.

Thus it was only to be expected that those who contested the policy — and there were lots of reasons for contesting the policy, as we all know — also sought to contest the underlying series of claims and justifications underpinning that policy, which included already-politicised claims about the causes of the events of 11 September. Against a President who rested content with over-simplistic (if not entirely stupid) public explanations for what happened, his critics had to explain that things were, as they saw it, a bit more complicated than that. But, in the circumstances, that was something which was very hard to do without saying things that could, either at the time or subsequently, be considered a piece of “Yes, buttery…”, for the “but” marked, as it were, the moment when the speaker began to set out at least part of the grounds of his or her political disagreement with the Administration’s view of things.

And that’s how, it seems to me, that troublesome “but” needs to be understood in most cases: not as the product of a morally defective desire to excuse atrocity, but as part of an (as it turned out) politically ineffective attempt to resist the drumbeat of war.

Of course, in the circumstances, some people on both left and right did say some pretty stupid things, and some people, both for and against the Bush administration, said some things which some of those who heard them found offensive. But that’s what happens in a politics of high stakes, and the stakes were extraordinarily high in September and October 2001.

UPDATE: Marc Mulholland has some sensible words on Yes Buttery, too, over at his Daily Moiders.