Archive for April, 2009


April 30, 2009

Urban75 was the first political website I got into and from the looks of this piece the site is still worth reading. Here Donna Ferentes offers ten basic characteristics of comment box crazies.


Arrogance. They are always fact-seekers, questioners, people who are trying to discover the truth: sceptics are always ‘sheep’, patsies for Messrs Bush and Blair etc.

Inability to answer questions. For people who loudly advertise their determination to the principle of questioning everything, they’re pretty poor at answering direct questions from sceptics about the claims that they make.

Inability to employ or understand Occam’s Razor. [C]onspiracy theorists never notice that the small inconsistencies in the accounts which they reject are dwarfed by the enormous, gaping holes in logic, likelihood and evidence in any alternative account.

Inability to tell good evidence from bad. Conspiracy theorists have no place for peer-review, for scientific knowledge, for the respectability of sources. The fact that a claim has been made by anybody, anywhere, is enough for them to reproduce it and demand that the questions it raises be answered, as if intellectual enquiry were a matter of responding to every rumour. While they do this, of course, they will claim to have ‘open minds’ and abuse the sceptics for apparently lacking same.

Using previous conspiracies as evidence to support their claims. This argument invokes scandals like the Birmingham Six, the Bologna station bombings, the Zinoviev letter and so on in order to try and demonstrate that their conspiracy theory should be accorded some weight (because it’s ‘happened before’.) They do not pause to reflect that the conspiracies they are touting are almost always far more unlikely and complicated than the real-life conspiracies with which they make comparison, or that the fact that something might potentially happen does not, in and of itself, make it anything other than extremely unlikely.

And this one is the key:

Fondness for certain stock phrases. These include Cicero’s ‘cui bono?’ (of which it can be said that Cicero understood the importance of having evidence to back it up) and Conan Doyle’s ‘once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth’. What these phrases have in common is that they are attempts to absolve themselves from any responsibility to produce positive, hard evidence themselves: you simply ‘eliminate the impossible’ (i.e. say the official account can’t stand scrutiny) which means that the wild allegation of your choice, based on ‘cui bono?’ (which is always the government) is therefore the truth.

The stock phrase is always the giveaway. You can while away a whole lunch break on a CiF thread playing bullshit bingo. Look for perjorative repetition of ‘Zionism’ or ‘Zionist’; exhortations to ‘Open your mind’ to anyone who disagrees; and of course the ultimate: ‘They were war-gaming it, you fool!’


Why We Are Still In West Baltimore

April 29, 2009

My review of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood is now available on 3:AM.

I’m Explaining A Few Things

April 29, 2009

My review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke appears to have degenerated into a debate about Iraq, as every debate on the antiwar left eventually does. It’s a truism, also, that the antiwar left can’t say anything about Iraq without resorting to tones of hyperventilating pomposity. Mark Thwaite has criticised my response to Stephen Mitchelmore. I have a lot of time for Mark, particularly his pieces on the capitalist crisis, so it’s a shame to be denounced so severely on his website.

Mark says it’s instructive to draw parallels between WW2 and Iraq, particularly ‘to someone who supported the slaughter in Iraq, as Max did.’ Now, my position on Iraq would take a whole new post to set out but, for the sake of argument, I will outline it briefly. I marched on February 15. I was concerned about civilian deaths and convinced that Saddam would simply be replaced by a more compliant dictator. Later, I came around to supporting the invasion on the grounds that Iraqis wanted rid of Saddam. I still think some good has come from the war but considering the amount of bloodshed and horror I find it hard to disagree when Mark says that ‘the outcome of the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq has been chaos and death on a huge scale.’

Mark takes exception to my claim that it’s outcomes, not motives, that matter. This is not to forget ‘how and why wars occur, how we got into Iraq, how the invasion was sold to us’. It is not to forget ‘the anti-semitic nature of much Anglo-American domestic discourse in the 20s and 30s’ (and today). It’s just an acknowledgement of how actions affect consequences and the relationship of means to ends. I’ll say again. Most of us are aware that – who’d have thought it? – the government is up to no good. Of course people have to be held accountable for their decisions but I think the antiwar left has suffered, and is suffering, from an obsession with the purity of motive, prioritised over solidarity with struggling people in another part of the world. Put Bush and Blair on trial for war crimes. Pull troops out of Iraq. Then what? It strikes me that Mark’s side of the argument has not really thought beyond this.

Mark tells me that I have misrepresented Steve, who was making a ‘factual equivalency’ not a moral one. I’ll accept that. But given that Steve has, in the past, drawn comparison between an NYT critic and a fictional SS officer, and between a book blogger and Leni Riefenstahl, it’s surely an easy mistake to make. If Godwin’s Law was on the UK statute books Steve would be looking at ten years by now.

Finally, Mark reiterates Steve’s claim that reviewers have blood on their hands:

Well, sadly, those who clamour for war from the safety of their front rooms don’t have to take responsibility for their words, but they should be reminded that they help create the conditions that make war acceptable and that they thus bear some of the responsibilty for the death and destruction that war brings.

It’s strange that Mark and Steve spend so much time going after literary critics, or novelists, or fictional characters, for their alleged responsibility for the war, and so little time going after the politicians and businessmen who actually made this war happen. The act of writing is not a hyperdemic needle. This very exchange proves that people are just as likely to reject as to accept a written argument. Or perhaps Mark thinks that critical reading is beyond the masses of men and women who vote and pay taxes? Some words from Christopher Hitchens come to mind: ‘No political coalition is now possible with such people and, I’m thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.’

The death of the great British dream

April 28, 2009

morverncallarr2ukThere is understandable cynicism about the wisdom of continuing to pay your Labour party subs in this day and age but I looked at the budget last week and thought, hey, erm… isn’t this sort of good? 50% top rate, massive public spending? It would have been so easy and acceptable for the government to do an austerity budget like everyone predicted. Cut public spending, cut taxes for the rich to bribe the non-doms to stay in the country, the basic continuation of doctrinaire capitalist policies and, oh, here’s another trillion or so for the banks. Credit would have been given, talk of a Labour recovery in the Street of Shame, approving noises about ‘hard decisions’ mumbled in the cities and shires.

Instead the Tory press has been sent into a stampeding frenzy because they believe that the rich will bail out if asked to contribute a fair proportion of their income. The wealthy are supposed to be able to keep all the money they make on the off chance that, just maybe, and by some unknown alchemy, the rest of us will somehow benefit. Well, we tried that for thirty years and look what happened. For its multitude of faults Labour does seem to recognise that the era of ideologically pure monetarism is over. So what if the billionaires leave? Let them go. Door’s there. Give the rest of us a chance at wealth creation.

I think history will credit this budget. I’m not sure that the election is a foregone conclusion. Cameron’s party is seen as too nebulous and liberal in its politics, its leader too much of a part of the old political class, to offer a real alternative for the raging grassroots. I think more and more opposition votes will go to the far right. Still, my predictions are generally wrong.

The crash was not just the end of the great game. It was also the end of innocence. In Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, the protagonist’s father, a train driver and trade unionist, explains the true facts of life, work and money:

The hidden fact of our world is that theres no point having desire unless youve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams. You get told if you work hard you get money but most work hard and end up with nothing. I wouldnt mind if it was shown as the lottery it is but oh no. The law as brute force has to be worshipped as virtue. Theres no freedom, no liberty; theres just money.

This is the thing. For the market to work, for ‘confidence’ to remain at acceptable levels, people have to deny these essential facts, every time they get up in the morning. The lover of life can work hard all week for his weekend but in the long term the dream must be bought into. And it has never been harder to sustain this fragile delusion. Why pay for a house for twenty years when the bubble is going to burst and leave your time and money worthless? Why have children when they will likely have to stay at home until well into their twenties? Why work for half a century when your pension fund is going to get pissed away on the stock exchange? It doesn’t help when people protesting this state of affairs are clubbed down in the street.

Awakening from this broken dream will be the first tentative steps towards a better world.

Springtime for Mitchelmore

April 27, 2009

humansmoke4I’ve made my debut appearance on This Space as Stephen takes issue with my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.

He challenges the last few lines: ‘Oppressors don’t fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator’s placard: ‘WAR MEANS FASCISM’. The truth is the exact reverse’ and asks: ‘Isn’t the reverse true only because the phrase is chiastic?’

Well, what I meant by that was that fascism means war. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, this is true in two senses. Fascism means war because it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. And fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for fascism’s defeat. 

Mitchelmore writes that the reception to Human Smoke ‘has been troubling because the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers’ responsibility for more recent atrocities.’ Does this mean what I think it means? The responsibility of literary critics for, say, the bombing of Gaza? Mitchelmore doesn’t spell things out. I suppose that’s for the tribunal to decide when we are all shipped off to the Hague.

For all the reviewers haughty disgust at Baker, the fact is the British did not declare war on Germany to end oppression of European Jewry. Forgive me for repeating the obvious, but it was only when Nazi Germany invaded a sovereign nation that war began.

Well thanks, Steve, but most of us were aware that governments don’t act from simon-pure motivations. But outcomes are more important than motives. It’s possible that Churchill was right for the wrong reasons and Ghandi was wrong for the right reasons. Even Baker’s sources make it clear that non-intervention would have resulted in an imperial carve-up between enduring slave empires. This is William Shirer from page 146:

‘The peace that Hitler offers Britain and France,’ Shirer said, ‘is something like this. Stop fighting – you keep your empires – we won’t bother you. As for Eastern Europe, all the little countries in what was once Poland, well that’s the affair of Germany and Russia. You keep away from there. Peace on that basis is possible.’

You won’t have seen this coming, but Mitchelmore goes on to make parallels between World War Two and Iraq. My review is not a defence of the war on Iraq, but let’s follow his tangent anyway.

It’s worth pointing out too that those, like Max Dunbar, who supported the invasion of Iraq, it wasn’t Saddam’s oppression that prompted the US and UK governments. Indeed, he was toppled at his least oppressive, least dangerous time. In the 80s, at the height of his well-sponsored reign, the powerful whose aggressive policies Dunbar so admires, encouraged a terrible war on Iran and, in order to maintain military support, turned a blind eye to the gassing of civilians that would later be used to back-up spurious warnings of WMD that were themselves used to justify an invasion.

Again, it may stun Mitchelmore to know that the facts around Western support for Saddam, and the true motives behind the 2003 invasion, are available outside the Medialens chatboards. What next? A daring expose on the Pope’s religious orientation? Writing in 2005, British Iraqi writer Huda Jawad argued:

Many supporters of Saddam’s removal were under no illusion as to the motivation of the coalition forces for their adventure in Iraq. But, despite the hypocrisy, historical betrayal, and greedy track record of previous endeavours of ‘freedom’ in my part of the world, I, like many others who despised Saddam and all he stood for, could not help but see the window of opportunity that those in power had conspired to open. Perhaps the thirty-year nightmare of Saddam’s regime could finally come to an end?

Again, it’s outcomes, not motives – although Mitchelmore is on stronger ground in his pessimism about the future of Iraq.

He goes to talk about Iraq’s ‘non-violent resistance,’ citing Chomsky, who in an interview with Iran’s propaganda channel said this:

What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways.

Neither Chomsky nor Mitchelmore give any more details about the nature of this non-violent resistance – I’m assuming they mean organisations like the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and the Union of the Unemployed. I’ve always supported the IFTU rather than the official Glorious Iraqi Resistance™ which spends most of its time killing Iraqis for the political crime of trying to vote or worshipping at the wrong mosque.

Finally, I’m accused of ‘using suggestion’:

For example, Ghandi, he tells us, was ‘a committed racist’. If one decides every pronouncement made by each individual quoted by Baker is relevant then juxtaposition is impossible. Surely that is the point of juxtaposition, or is thinking for one’s self – awareness of resonances and alternatives – problematic for some?

Well, since Baker takes recourse to the private utterances of individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt to support his case, I felt it would be informative to include some background on the ugly side of pacifism. Mitchelmore also upbraids me for using the term ‘lazy moral equivalence’: which is no surprise, as it’s a technique he’s fond of using. Thus: ‘The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia’.

Finally, Mitchelmore claims that ‘oppressors do fear pacifism’, and gives the example of The White Rose movement, a non-violent dissident group in Nazi Germany. They aren’t featured in Human Smoke, and their resistance was more courageous than that of any British or American pacifist, then or now.

(Incidentally, technologically savvy readers can now follow Stephen on his Twitter account, which he’s named ‘Twitchelmore’; a title displaying elements of humour and self-awareness that are entirely absent from the main body of his criticism.)

Accessory to empire part 94

April 27, 2009

There has been loads of intelligent comment on Terry Eagleton’s piece in the Guardian, in which he tries to portray atheism as an extension of empire. I admit that my first reaction was one of weary disgust. I find that the contributions made by the pro-faith left to contemporary debate have become so poor, repetitive and badly argued that there’s just no point engaging. I did address Eagleton’s basic argument in this post. If he, Bunting, Milne etc ever change the record I will come back into the fray.

Check out the counterblasts from Mick, Martin (who has the link to the longer version of Eagleton’s piece, which you can read if you’re an LRB subscriber) Ophelia and Russell Blackford.

Two points in the article stood out for me: that we apparently have to choose between freedom of expression and anti-imperialism, and that the fact that some Islamists are terrorists is the only criticism of Islamism that can be made.

On this last point, Ophelia has the best response.

That’s it – that’s all he admits – ‘terrorism’ – by which he makes sure to let us know at the beginning he means only blowing legs off, he does not mean the terrorism of threatening girls with death if they keep going to school, of butchering girls who refuse a marriage or want to marry someone of their own choosing or get a job or wear jeans or refuse to wear a hijab, of yanking girls out of school and out of the country and marrying them off to a stranger. How dare he keep silent about all that? How dare he rant and rave at Hitchens and Grayling for not keeping silent about that?

Update: And Eve Garrard makes an excellent point in Martin’s comments.

I haven’t read the LRB piece, but critics of Enlightenment values who claim that they’re responsible for racism and imperialism might like to note that racism and imperialism are doing very nicely in parts of the world relatively unaffected by those values; and furthermore those countries which have done most to overcome gender and race discrimination, including the slavery which has been and in some places remains one of its most terrible manifestations, have been those which are most influenced by the values of the Enlightenment.

‘Be Nice To Me, Freud, I Know It Can’t Be Good’

April 25, 2009

My review of Jane Haynes’s book is up now on 3:AM.

Where to begin?

April 25, 2009

Kammo runs an occasional series called ‘Great Historical Questions to Which the Answer is ‘No’. This week he’s highlighted Ed West’s article, in the Torygraph, which asks: ‘Is Britain the world’s first politically correct totalitarian state?’

This is West:

[T]here are just too many cases of people being arrested for homophobia, racism or other thought crimes for this to be treated as anything other than state policy. Of course Britain isn’t Orwell’s Oceania or Bolshevik Russia yet, but it is a tyranny nonetheless.

Do you know anyone who’s been arrested on such a charge?

There is a strain of British conservatism that is inherently self-pitying and conspiratorial. Ed West is the equivalent of leftists who claim that democracy is no better than fascism. But while such pseudo-radicals are regularly and rightly laughed out of town, anti-PC hysteria is widely accepted in public life. It is unchallenged. It is a major factor in the resurgence of the far right. It will get worse as the recession deepens and the crowd starts looking for people to throw on the bonfire. Political correctness gone mad is the singular mainstream conspiracy theory.

For all their talk about standing up for common sense the rightwing commentariat does seem to be living in an alternate reality. As Kamm noted in another context: ‘It’s at times like this that I realise how oddly unmerited is the reputation of British conservatism for social pragmatism and working with the grain of human nature.’

The Torygraph’s champion of free speech slams Evan Harris for his part in getting the UK blasphemy law repealed. ‘If you want to fight for freedom,’ West says, ‘fight for the peoples’ right to be racist or sexist or Islamophobic or simply rude.’ Now, it’s vital that people have the liberty to make tedious ‘politically incorrect’ jokes. But what is West saying here? That there is no point in freedom unless you use it to say stupid and ugly things? Seriously? Is that all we’ve got?

This transcends politics. The personal slides into the political so easily. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that because they can’t get a housing transfer or find a city centre parking space we are living under a dictatorship. It’s a huge collective human failure of imagination and proportion and empathy.

In the comments, Tom Chivers puts West in his place:

It’s only 45 years since a Tory party candidate campaigned on the slogan ‘if you want a n***er for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. Political correctness might be clumsy, it might go too far, it might occasionally lead to silly situations, but it is infinitely preferable to what went before.

And what is worse is when people start making stuff up about it. ‘Winterval’, for instance, was never about not offending Muslims, but a PR stunt by Birmingham City Council in 1997-98 to get more people shopping, and yet it is brought forth EVERY YEAR as yet another ‘political correctness gone mad’ story.

And saying that Britain is a ‘politically correct totalitarian state’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so depressing that your comments box will fill up with agreement from blustering Colonel Blimps who miss the good old days of untrammelled racism and homophobia.

On that subject, Tom might want to check out West’s next piece, entitled: ‘South Africa is going down the plughole. What do the anti-apartheid campaigners have to say about that?’


Political correctness: to blame for everything

Bravo Jubilee

April 23, 2009

My review of Charlie Owen’s latest police procedural is now up at LitMob.

A writer’s life

April 23, 2009

Of all the commentary in the wake of J G Ballard’s death this is the best.

Before he had even got his first short story published in the late 1950s, Ballard had survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, been separated from his parents, been interned in a prisoner of war camp where he lived off weevils, joined the RAF and served in Canada, been an encyclopedia salesman and even worked as a porter in Covent Garden market.

Ballard had a life experience that few modern writers can hope to match. To generalise wildly, the career path of most young (successful) writers goes something like this. Go to university – preferably Oxford or Cambridge – and read English. While there, start writing novel and get a few pieces published in the university magazine. Move to London after graduation, start a creative writing postgraduate degree and pick up some work reviewing books for the literary supplements while tidying up the fourth draft of your novel. You then get your novel published, which gets a few kind reviews thanks to the contacts you’ve made and sells precisely 317 copies.

I wonder if we’ll see his like again.

Read the whole thing.