Apostles of Empire find romance… pity about the wife and kids…

This is too delicious to miss:

The internationally celebrated historian and TV presenter Niall Ferguson has broken up with his wife of 16 years after a string of adulterous affairs.

The 45-year-old Harvard professor has left former newspaper editor Susan Douglas, with whom he has three children, for his mistress, the Somalian-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

At which point Ms Douglas may be thinking hard thoughts about the nature of sisterhood.

Professor Ferguson, whose books, television programmes and work with financial hedge funds earn an estimated £5million a year, is understood to have been in a relationship with Ms Hirsi Ali since last summer.

Today, The Mail on Sunday can reveal how Ferguson’s philandering behaviour – described by one confidante as ‘more akin to a Premiership footballer’s louche ways than an esteemed professor’s’ – wrecked his marriage to Ms Douglas, one of Tory leader David Cameron’s closest friends, a leading member of the Tory ‘A-list’ of potential parliamentary candidates and a former Fleet Street editor.

Will Dave include this in his list of examples of Broken Britain? Or why it’s necessary to bolster the institution of marriage? I doubt it.

The British historian Sir Alistair Horne, with whom he is currently writing the authorised biography of Henry Kissinger, is said to know about the affair, as does Mr Kissinger. However a spokesman for the statesman declined to comment yesterday.

‘It’s rather awkward because both Sue and Niall know Henry and his wife Nancy, neither of whom can understand why Niall has been bringing women other than his wife to private dinners,’ said a source.

Allowing Kissinger the moral high ground would be quite a feat…

He is seen as a contentious figure in literary circles, prompting one rival historian to declare: ‘He has the kind of face you want to punch.’

Indeed so. Which is why this has me roaring my leg off. Get the whole story in your super soaraway Mail.

Norn Iron academics big up Nelson

Amongst all the celebrations of Mandela’s 90th birthday at the weekend, you may have missed the news that the great man got an honorary doctorate from Queens. A nice gesture, and I’m sure Nelson was most gratified.

One recalls how the McMordie Hall in the Students Union was renamed the Mandela Hall in the 1980s, the name under which it’s now universally known. The unionists, of course, went buck mad at the university’s prime entertainment venue being named after a notorious terrorist. Thereafter their annual attempts to change the name – the George Best Lounge was one memorable suggestion – became a reliable source of entertainment.

The strange thing is that, due no doubt to the influence of unionists on Senate, the university authorities never recognised the name change. For all I know, it may officially be the McMordie Hall to this day. And they give old Nelson a doctorate? How’s that for chutzpah?

Rud eile: The unmissable Gail Walker does Zimbabwe this week. Apparently it’s all the fault of the liberal trendies. Also Mandela, but mainly the liberals. You know, at least Peter Hitchens, who believes in blaming the right people, was on the ball in pointing out that Uncle Bob came to power and committed his worst atrocities on Mrs Thatcher’s watch, and it was John Major’s government that awarded him the famous knighthood.

By the way, Gail, if you will insist on making extravagant claims about what “liberals” or “lefties” are saying, some names would be nice, or even the occasional quote. Otherwise people might get the unfortunate impression that you’re just making stuff up and being deliberately vague in your attributions so as not to be actionable.

Blair’s Chair


Some things really do defy commentary. It appears that, as Mr Tony Blair finally leaves office, he’s going to be appointed by the Quartet (a cabal of the big imperialist powers) as “peace envoy” to the Middle East. Yup, that’s right, the junior invader of Iraq is going to carry lots of credibility as an honest broker for peace. Are the Quartet taking the piss? I mean, why not appoint Rumsfeld?

Mr Tony’s first task will be to aid the cause of the Palestinians by supporting the Fatah coup and coordinating punishment of Hamas for the crime of, er, thinking the election results meant anything. This is a bit like the way, every time Serbia has an election, the EU sends in the diplomatic SWAT teams to ensure that the Radicals can’t form a government no matter how many votes they get. In the same way, the Palestinians have got a Henry Ford democracy where you can have any government you like, as long as it’s Fatah.

And, just to underline the great man’s peacemaking credentials, it is reported that Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies is establishing a Mr Tony Blair Chair in his honour. The Institute, by the way, is run by one of our most prominent revisionist historians, Marianne Elliott, and the Blair Chair is being endowed by – guess who – the Dublin government. Nice one Bertie!

The greatest living analytical philosopher


 It’s a long time since I’ve read Joe Heller’s Good As Gold, so I’m paraphrasing here, but there was one scene in particular that I remember. The titular professor is talking to a student disappointed that he enrolled in a course on “Monarchy and Monotheism from the Mediaeval to the Modern” but then finds himself reading Shakespeare’s history plays. The professor explains that anyone interested in literature should read Shakespeare, but the faculty are savvy enough to know that nobody will unless they call it something else. Hence the misleading course descriptions.

The student replies that he isn’t interested in literature but religion, and only enrolled in English because they seemed to be offering so many courses in mysticism and transcendent experiences. He asks whether he should transfer to Theology and Gold replies no, they’ll have you reading Weber and Durkheim. If you’re really interested in religion, he says, you should try Anthropology, but be quick or it’ll all be subsumed into Urban Studies and you’ll be reading Shakespeare’s history plays again.

Do you think this is an exaggeration of academic life? Consider the trouble that Philosophy departments, at least the analytically minded ones in the English-speaking world, have had with the anti-philosophers. Kierkegaard, they reckon, really belongs in Theology. Does Nietzsche belong to Philosophy or German, or something else? I don’t know how things are run now at Queens, but it used to be striking that Marx was palmed off on the Thomists in Scholastic Philosophy, basically because Jim Daly was keen to teach Marx and nobody in the Philosophy department was interested. Bergson, of course, is barely taught anywhere, but that’s another story.

This brings me back to Analytical Philosophy. At the risk of provoking Chris, it’s my somewhat jaundiced opinion that, except for maybe two areas, AP in the narrow sense (as opposed to a broader speech community identifying with the AP tradition) is more or less dead as a research paradigm. Most of its practitioners have given in to historicism to some degree or other. However, those two related areas – formal logic and meaning – are pretty damn big ones. In the area of meaning in particular, there is quite a rich tradition starting with Russell, Carnap and the early Wittgenstein (although not the later Wittgenstein) and carried on by Quine and Chomsky.

But hold on, you say. Isn’t Chomsky the leading figure in modern linguistics? Yes, but that just goes to show how difficult these academic categories are. Just about every practicing linguist at least pays lip service to the importance of Chomsky’s work, even if it has no relevance whatsoever to their own research. In that sense, we are all Chomskyans now. And very few people will put in a kind word for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though many practicing linguists will have at least a sneaking feeling that Sapir and Whorf were onto something.

The reason for this is that Chomsky’s work, though extremely important and valuable, is only marginally connected to areas like sociolinguistics that interest me. In fact Chomsky’s work is on such a level of abstraction that it’s perhaps more accurate to call him an analytical philosopher of mind rather than a linguist. And this isn’t merely a question of Chomsky’s admiration of Russell the man – there is a direct connection between the Chomskyan paradigm of language and mind, and the idea you find in Russell that language can be boiled down to something approaching mathematical logic.

This works for Chomsky, partly because Chomsky these days posits a fairly minimalist model of universal grammar, and partly because Chomsky, as I’ve said, works at an abstract level where linguistics overlaps with psychology and philosophy, and tends more to philosophy the more abstract it becomes. Chomskyan linguistics is to all intents and purposes a different subject from applied linguistics, and I tend more and more to the view that they should be formally separated.

This is not to say that Chomsky’s insights can’t be applied on a practical level. However, lots of people have tried to apply them in a mechanical way and have ended up looking like idiots. The basic reason for this is that, as the later Wittgenstein brilliantly demonstrates, and as any sociolinguistic fule kno, grammar isn’t logical. Language, as it exists in the real world, is not amenable to being bent into a logico-mathematical framework.

There is of course an alternative to a formal separation, and that’s to strengthen the practical aspect of linguistics. It is a long-running scandal that you can qualify in linguistics without ever doing any fieldwork, just by writing essays on deep structure. Since much of the most important work to be done in linguistics remains in the field of description, it’s my belief that every PhD candidate in linguistics should be required to do at least some fieldwork, even if their interests lie on the abstract level. And, who knows, some insights from this practical work may turn out to be of value in those more elevated registers.

I have annoyed a philosopher


While getting stuck in to Johann Hari (age 13¾) and his comical misunderstandings of Slavoj Žižek, I included a brief (and slightly flippant) thumbnail sketch of analytical philosophy. Over on the indispensable D-Squared Digest, this drew a response from Prof Chris Bertram of Bristol University, who I remember (though he probably doesn’t remember me) from the far-off days when he was on the New Left Review, before he and Norm and Branka and the rest discerned greener pastures elsewhere. I’m slightly bemused as to why Chris would defend AP, as he isn’t an analytical philosopher but a post-Rawlsian (or neo-Kantian) political philosopher. Nonetheless, I’m pleased to discover that Chris is still alive, and will post a considered piece on AP shortly.

But young Johann’s use of postmodernism as an all-purpose insult (he also ties it to that other modern swear-word, “Leninism”) is illustrative of a more general tendency among those sections of the British punditocracy who aspire to be intellectuals, and also links back to my long-delayed critique of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? That is, and this may pain Johann, Nick and Francis Wheen, but their take on philosophy is uncannily congruent with that of the Socialist Workers Party. Our pundits may not remember this – Johann would be too young and Nick’s memory has been dodgy of late – but the SWP spent the entire decade of the 1990s on a huge crusade against the danger posed by postmodernism to civilisation in general and rational thought in particular.

This too involved some comical misunderstandings, although they would hardly have been apparent to the SWSS students who wore “Bollocks to Postmodernism” T-shirts. The reader will recall the famous book Against Postmodernism by Alex Callinicos, the Greatest Living Philostopher Known to Mankind. This was quite a stylish and enjoyable polemic, marred only by Alex’s seeming confusion as to what postmodernism was. Drawing on Renaissance Man Chris Harman’s critique of the retreat of the European far left, Alex tended to identify the postmodernists with the Nouveaux Philosophes, who of course were a completely different tendency. Therefore, apart from a ridiculous lack of proportion that implies Francis Fukuyama was leading an army of PoMo barbarians in an assault on Hackney, Alex assumes that the postmodernists were attacking Marxism from the right.

This is wrong. Alex, one assumes, will be aware that Lyotard cut his teeth in the neo-Trotskyist Socialisme ou Barbarie tendency. This is not a coincidence. The postmodernist critique was aimed primarily at the French Communist Party tradition of Marxism, or if you prefer neo-Stalinism. Therefore the postmodernist challenge was an early part of the philosophical deconstruction of Stalinism, which one would have thought would endear it to a neo-Trotskyist like Callinicos and woolly social democrats like Hari and Cohen alike. In fact, I would argue that the main problem with the postmodernists was their failure to distinguish between Marxist philosophy and Stalinist ideology, a failure rooted in their inability to come to grips with the Trotskyist tradition.

So there was a lot of value in the postmodernist approach, except that they went too far and developed into the philosophical equivalent of Lenin’s infantile ultraleftism – who can forget Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution? – a kind of intellectual analogue to the Spartacist League (only more polite). In fact, it is my contention that Alex would have better occupied his time by writing a book called Against Spartacism, because you’re more likely to meet a follower of Jim Robertson than a loyal follower of Derrida at a British university.

And this brings me back to the point. You wouldn’t guess, from reading our pundits, that analytical philosophy was actually the establishment position in British academe and has been for about 50 years – Cohen and Elster, cited by Chris, were revising Marxism using the techniques of analytical philosophy long before postmodernism came on the scene. Instead, they prefer to ignore what is taught in British philosophy departments in order to pretend that postmodernism is sweeping all before it. Frankly, this is bollocks. While postmodernism has gained some influence in sociology and humanities departments – which were pretty much post-Marxist by the mid-70s – it remains utterly marginal in philosophy departments. And, you know, Marxism Today didn’t require Foucault or Derrida to do what it did. It simply required Jacques, Leadbetter and Aaro.

But does this seep through into our public discourse? No, it does not. And, while postmodernism has plenty of faults, it deserves to be taken seriously, not to be used as a prop for Johann, Nick and Francis in their Beavis and Butt-Head attempts to make French thought look much sillier than it really is. At least postmodernism attempted to form a limited model of social criticism, something analytical philosophy has never been.

The swami of unionism

Amidst all the excitement of the Stormont elections, one barely noticed footnote has been the appointment of Professor Paul Bew of Queens to the House of Lords. Lord Bew of Trenchcoat can thus swank about in an ermine robe and sit next to his latter-day patron, Lord Trimble of Garvaghy. He can enjoy the company of great thinkers of our time like, well, I suppose Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black. And this is a fitting way for Bew to end his political trajectory.

These days Bew is best known as one of Ulster unionism’s small and hardy band of intellectual boosters. He was of course a long-time member of Trimble’s kitchen cabinet. Today he is a bigwig at the neoconservative Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, a body whose patrons are a motley assortment of Cold War loons and whose journalistic farmhands include towering intellects like the oleaginous Kissingerite Oliver Kamm and the howling Croat nationalist Marko Attila Hoare. This marks him out as an honorary member of Nick Cohen’s Decent Left. But ‘twas not always thus. For most of his career, Bew was an early Althusserian Stalinist, and had some claims to be one of Ireland’s leading Marxist intellectuals.

It has to be said, though, that this was Marxism of a very peculiar kind. Bew was a member of the Workers Party, a group that managed to marry Irish Republicanism with Stalinism and replicate the least attractive features of both. Indeed, Bew adorned the WP’s ard chomhairle for many a year. His Marxism was therefore geared towards the practical needs of his sect. In doing so, it reached a level of sophistry wondrous to behold.

The best example can be found by simply turning to the seminal book The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (1979), by Swami Bew and his disciples Gibbon and Patterson. Don’t bother with the book as a whole – what you need to know is in the introduction. Therein Bew, Gibbon and Patterson declare that they have produced the first Marxist analysis of Norn Iron – all that has gone before is not Marxism but “Connollyism”. The three stooges dispense with this unscientific doctrine and restore Marxist orthodoxy by stripping out all that bollocks about imperialism (Leninist or otherwise). Instead, the Orange Bantustan was declared to be a normal bourgeois state, where sectarianism was a mere excrescence. In fact, there was a class struggle between “reactionary” and “progressive” wings of unionism, and the job of socialists was to support the progressive wing in its project of reform. Totally absent was any reference to the nationalist working class, except insofar as this imaginary progressive unionism had to be defended against the “Provo fascists”. Bew simply followed the logic of his ideology by becoming an advisor to David Trimble, the leader of unionism’s progressive wing.

But even before Bew made the break to unionism, this gobbledegook became part of the official theory of the Workers Party, and served to mislead the many thousands of workers influenced by that group down the years. It also influenced whole generations of politics students at Queens, where Bew acted as mentor to leading intellectuals like Austen Morgan (hagiographer of Connolly’s opponent Walker), professional red-baiter Anthony McIntyre and, er, Ian Óg Paisley. And goodness knows how many young socialists had their radicalism knocked out of them by exposure to this provincial variant of Stalinism.

So now Bew, alleged “expert on the Troubles”, scourge of any socialist who claimed imperialism had any relation to modern Ireland, has joined the appointed house of British imperialism’s legislature. In his rightward gallop, he now figures as an analogue to the late Gerry Fitt, only without the working-class background and instincts. And his former disciples must be green with envy that they haven’t been elevated alongside him. Having done just as much damage as Bew, surely they deserve a pleasant little sinecure on the red benches.