I’ve been tempted to comment on the spat between Nick and Johann, but that’s been quite adequately covered elsewhere. But I do want to make a few comments on Decency, and I’ll come back to these points in greater detail later. In particular, I’ve been meaning to write about the uses and abuses of Orwell for quite a while. But for the time being, let’s take three basic points: on the apple not falling far from the tree, on the incidence of multiple Orwells, and on the linguistics of Decency.
Firstly, as has been observed on multiple occasions, the Decent Left, and especially its more ideological wing, contains a huge proportion of former leftist sectarians. This shouldn’t be surprising. People rarely outgrow completely their early selves, much as they might like to believe otherwise. A good example is the late Monty Johnstone. It is well known that, prior to becoming the CPGB’s expert on Trotskyism, Monty had himself been a Trotskyist, during the Second World War, when it was neither fashionable nor profitable. This was not only important for his hatchet work – many a Trot made himself look an idiot by debating Monty, only to find Monty knew much more Trotsky than they – but arguably played a big role in his long-term dissidence within the CPGB.
Hitchens Bros are another good example. Pete, of course, likes to paint himself as a conservative nowadays, and affects the air of an old-time Home Service announcer, but he retains an SWP streak a mile wide. As for the Dude, on reading his recent biography of Orwell I was struck by its resemblance to Cliff’s Lenin. Not stylistically – Chris is still a much better writer than Cliff – but structurally. It is in fact a book about the kind of man Orwell could have been had he been lucky enough to have the Dude around to advise him. So it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, surprising that British Decency embraces lots of superannuated sectarians, many of whom retain their sectarian habits.
Secondly, Orwell. Many of the journalistic Decents, and I’m thinking especially of Cohen and Wheen, hail poor old Orwell as their precursor. Well, there were at least five different Orwells, depending on the period, so it depends very much on the Orwell you mean. Nick claims as his role model the Orwell of 1936, picking up his rifle to go and fight fascism in Spain, but this is more than a little disingenuous. Firstly, Orwell’s actual politics of his Catalan period – his semi-Trotskyist period in other words – would instantly repel Nick. They would seem to him Chomskyan, or even reminiscent of the Nick of yesteryear. Actually, the Orwell that seems to inspire Nick and Francis (Aaro I discount as owing more to Ehrenburg) is Orwell’s wartime writing, and not even the good stuff – most of that writing was pretty lively – but the large percentage of his wartime writing that consisted in heaping abuse on those intellectuals who continued to hold positions that Orwell himself had held only a little while earlier.
Finally, the role of linguistic criticism in analysing Decency. Wheen and Cohen (who nicks his writing on this wholesale from Wheen) may not recognise the linguistic turn in philosophy, but the linguistic turn recognises them. Let’s start with the application of cant phrases. To take an easy example, when the Engageniks say “racism”, they don’t mean racism. They mean anti-Semitism, and they are so promiscuous in that allegation that it has no meaning from that source, except to mean “people we don’t like”. Similarly, if you read a Guardian article on Serbia by Ian Traynor, it’s a fair possibility that Traynor will be writing about “democrats” versus “extreme nationalists”. Leave aside Traynor’s prejudice and incomprehension – you need to understand that, when Traynor refers to “democrats”, he usually means Sonja Biserko, Nataša Kandić and the little coterie of neo-Jacobin farmhands in Belgrade who actively want the Yanks to occupy their country; meanwhile, “extreme nationalists” refers to, er, most of the population, including principled anti-nationalists who, for whatever reason, baulk at the full Imperial agenda. Now apply this to the Eustonite discourse on the need to support “Iraqi democrats”. If this isn’t an entirely platonic reference to entirely hypothetical people, it usually excludes most of the Iraqi people, including most of their elected representatives. In fact, sometimes it seems to refer exclusively to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
I’ll just conclude with Baudrillard. The linguistic turn in philosophy does not claim that there is no reality outside language. What it does posit is that language is a means for ordering cognition, and we can’t have unmediated knowledge of reality. The most we can hope for is to achieve a working approximation. Got that?
Now, there is no shame in not understanding Baudrillard. Alex Callinicos, the Greatest Living Philostopher Known to Mankind, doesn’t understand him. Nor does Johann Hari. Then you have the dumbed-down version from Wheen. What all these characters in common is that none of them seem to have read, or understood, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Rather, they prefer the weasel argument of referencing the title and taking it absolutely literally. What Baudrillard meant was not that there wasn’t a war – his essay dealt with the gap between the actual war experienced in the Gulf, and the simulacrum of war experienced by the media audience in the West (or better, the global North).
Now, let’s apply this to Decency. Orwell, let’s remember, picked up his rifle and went to Catalonia to really fight fascism, putting his life on the line in the process. During the Balkan wars, there was a segment of the commentariat who thought that “fighting fascism” was coterminous with writing op-ed pieces calling for the bombing of the tribe they had decided to be the epitome of evil. The laptop bombardiers of Farringdon were, in a magnificent vindication of Baudrillard, virtual warriors playing at fighting a virtual war against a simulacrum of a foreign nation. This might have been amusing, but it was intensely aggravating for those of us who went out to the Balkans and tried to do some useful work, only to be derided as “appeasers” or even “Chetnik fascists” by people whose only contribution had been to hold forth over lunch at the Gay Hussar.
And so it goes. We hear endless calls to “fight fascism”, “show solidarity”, “support democrats” and “take sides”. What this seems to boil down to is “write columns in the Observer” and “slander the people we used to agree with”. Hear that? It’s Baudrillard chuckling, and Orwell spinning in his grave.