Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology


Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done any book reviews, so it’s a good enough time to start an overview of the summer’s reading. And where better to start than with Dave Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, which has become quite the talking point. In fact, Decent Dave has now established himself as the commentariat’s conspiracy theory man, in the same way as his mate Francis Wheen became the mumbo-jumbo man. This is not necessarily a good thing, for reasons I’ll get into presently.

The book itself has been sharply dissected elsewhere, so I’ll keep my remarks on the text fairly brief before moving onto some more general political and methodological points. Firstly, what’s right with it is that it’s not badly written – certainly it’s not a scattergun rant like What’s Left?, but then Aaro doesn’t really do rant. And while he doesn’t know enough about the key issues like the JFK assassination to convince experienced conspiratologists, they aren’t the audience. There’s enough there for the general reader – Aaro is particularly good on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he’s evidently studied in detail – and most of his judgements are sensible. He even cites Chomsky positively, which is usually treif for Decents.

So that’s what’s right about Voodoo Histories, which is by no means an unenjoyable read. Now for what’s wrong with it. First is the question of what a conspiracy theory actually is, something that Lobster magazine has never been able to definitively answer. Yet, Aaro has succeeded in making an exact science of conspiratology. He defines a conspiracy theory quite simply and precisely as an explanation of events that seems unlikely to David Aaronovitch. Having set up his plausibility threshold, Aaro doesn’t even need to examine the evidence to dismiss a conspiracy theory. What’s the matter with this? I quote from Robin Ramsay’s review:

What is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what they think but the way they think. The basic premise of conspiracy theorists is the bastards are lying to us. This is not only demonstrably true sometimes, since 1945 and the wartime experience of disinforming the Germans, lying to the population became an official policy of this state, as well as the normal behaviour of the British ruling class and its civil servants who had been in power for most of the preceding centuries.

Aaronovitch’s ‘plausibility threshold’ is set too high and does not correspond with reality. Because his knowledge of recent history is limited, his ‘plausibility threshold’ falsely categories events as beyond plausibility – ‘conspiracy theories’. There’s no mystery here: he hasn’t read the evidence. Nor, as a mainstream journalist and broadcaster, can he afford to do so. And so his account of the Kennedy assassination (and other assassinations) here is inadequate; as is his account of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty in 1967, as is his account of America’s entry into World War 2, as is…. I can’t be bothered going through the whole thing in that kind of detail.

Robin makes his case well, and there is good reason why Aaro’s reliance on the test of plausibility is not good enough. Aaro’s dismissal of 9/11 conspiracy theories, for instance, is based on the idea that it is wildly implausible that the US government could have brought down the Twin Towers. Yet if nineteen jihadis with limited resources could bring down the Twin Towers, why is it inherently implausible that the US government, with all its resources, could do so? Want to fake a moon landing? Give me a couple of actors, some convincing-looking props, a movie camera and put me in Iceland’s volcanic desert and I can give you footage of a moon landing. Now you want to tell me it’s inherently implausible that NASA could have done it?

Let me digress a little. Many readers will have seen and enjoyed the movie Conspiracy Theory. You will recall the basic dramatic device, which is that the Mel Gibson character – and this may not have been too much of a stretch for Mel – believes just about every far-fetched conspiracy theory going. However, his researches rattle some bad guys, and soon it turns out that, even though Mel is deeply paranoid, they really are out to get him. The problem Mel faces, given his demonstrated paranoia, is convincing people that he isn’t talking rubbish. It works pretty well as a metaphor for conspiratology.

Look, when it comes to 9/11, my position is that al-Qaeda did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. In terms of the 7/7 London bombings, it’s fairly clear that Mohammad Sidique Khan and his mates did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. Which is not to say that there aren’t unanswered questions that the powers that be would prefer not to talk about – at the very least in terms of the security services’ failure to see what was coming – and that conspiracy theorists, whatever about their faulty frameworks, may not turn up some interesting things. Aaro’s approach – to engage in shameless nutpicking of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and then to huff that the spooks couldn’t possibly have had the ability to do it – is about as unconvincing as you can get.

(Parenthetically, the Decents’ Occam’s razor seems to malfunction when it comes to 7/7. We have a fair idea why Mohammad Sidique Khan did what he did, because he told us in his suicide video. Mostly, he spoke about Iraq. Yet the standard Decent line on radicalisation of young Muslims is that this has nothing to do with British foreign policy, but is entirely due to the works of Sayyid Qutb being available in some mosque bookshops, and the government not giving enough money to Ed Husain.)

At this point, the reader will probably be thinking of Aaro’s previous as a WMD Truther, and the author of That Bloody Prediction. But this is just the flip side of Aaro’s plausibility threshold. Aaro’s complaint – and you can see here the influence of Birt’s Mission to Explain – is that conspiratism takes hold because the broad masses are systematically mistrustful of their rulers. The trouble is that Aaro systematically gives our rulers the benefit of the doubt. It was inherently implausible that Mr Tony Blair, a pretty straight guy after all, would lie his head off to take Britain into a war of aggression. And what of the revelations that have emerged since? The US and Britain playing silly buggers with the UN weapons inspectors so as to provide a pretext for war? The escalation of bombing raids over Iraq in the second half of 2002, aimed at provoking Saddam into hostilities? These things pass Aaro by – they are beneath his notice, and if we pay attention to them, that’s just a sign of our own moral delinquency.

There are a couple of other points I’d like to make. The most obvious one is that there is a difference between Conspiracy and conspiracies. Aaro actually illustrates this in his opening chapters – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion invented a spurious conspiracy, but there was certainly a conspiracy to circulate the document. As for the Moscow show trials, well, it was clear the great Trotsky-fascist saboteur conspiracy didn’t exist, but the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence to prove that it did. (And managed to convince lots of British Fabians, who took a never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to the evidence.) The appeal of the Grand Conspiracy Theory – that a cabal of Masons or Jews or Illuminati or Communists are secretly pulling all our strings – is that it gives us an easy framework for understanding the world, and a defined group to either blame or join.

But while the Grand Conspiracy doesn’t exist, there are plenty of conspiracies about, and some of them are pretty big. Aaro would no doubt find it inherently implausible that a Masonic lodge could take over the secret service, police, military and judicial infrastructure of a major European country, or that in the same country a secret army of state-sponsored neo-Nazi terrorists would carry out false-flag bombings which the state would then blame on the left. Yet this did happen, and is very well documented. To bring things closer to home, there are lots and lots of conspiracies in the north of Ireland. This can lead one to a generalised conspiratism – this guy is an entertaining example – but it would be foolish in the extreme to say that, for instance, it is inherently improbable that Robin Jackson and Billy Wright were British agents of long standing. There are certainly persistent stories pointing in that direction, although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have unimpeachable documentary evidence.

On a more prosaic level, as any political scientist since Machiavelli can tell you, all politics is conspiracy – as long as you’re prepared to have a flexible definition of conspiracy. If you ever go to a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, you might think that a dozen people meeting in a room above a pub to discuss how to overthrow the government is pretty conspiratorial, even if it appears to be on the Mickey Mouse scale. I direct readers to Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers by Annie Machon, who surveilled the SWP on behalf of MI5 (a conspiratorial organisation itself):

It was a moot point whether the SWP had ever posed a realistic threat to the state. But after I’d carried out months of painstaking research, I was in no doubt. Although individual members of the party were committed, the SWP was small, relatively poor, and their politics fell outside MI5’s criteria for investigation – they neither had links to a foreign power, like the communists, nor did they practice entryism, like [Militant]. Their policies advocated educating people so that they could take part in a democratic movement to replace the existing political system. This was hardly the stuff of revolutionary nightmare.

Which kind of calls into question why the organisation just described has an internal regime that would be more suited to operating illegally under a military dictatorship, but I suppose if that’s the regime you want, fair enough. Militant of course spent decades pretending not to exist, constructing an elaborate fiction whereby the party was simply a paper, the members were “readers”, the Central Committee was the “editorial board”, and the annual conference was a “readers’ rally”. The CPGB, with which Aaro had some acquaintance, had lots of secrets, many of which Andrew Rothstein and Reuben Falber took to their graves.

Let’s take it out of the further left and into the political mainstream. Here is Peter Hitchens, in his entertaining new book The Broken Compass, on collaboration between the political and media classes:

The word ‘conspiracy’ suggests conclaves of sinister armed men in great cloaks and Guy Fawkes hats whispering in taverns by rushlight, with their hands on the hilt of daggers – a scene which seems ridiculously far removed from our world. How can anyone suggest that such things happen in our time? Actually it is this antiquated picture which is ridiculous, and misleading. The confidential co-operation of which I speak is far less picturesque, and a good deal more effective, than anything Guy Fawkes ever did. Those engaged in it wear well-tailored suits, sit in modish, well-lit London restaurants and carry BlackBerries, not daggers. Even so, they do not like others to know what they are up to and are careful to conceal it from the great mass of people who are unaware that it is going on.

The Hitch goes on to explain, mainly by reference to the mysterious bonding ritual known as “lunch”, how politicians, journalists and spin doctors collaborate in matters ranging from the artifice of a PR stunt to the spinning of a policy announcement to (perhaps the most important) the way in which certain politicians get a much better press than others. In The Triumph of the Political Class Peter Oborne details how, when the Tory leadership fell vacant, the press began to talk up Alan Duncan as a realistic contender. Eventually Duncan withdrew after failing to secure the support of even one fellow Tory MP. How was this? Well, Duncan was known for giving very good lunches, he assiduously courted and was courted by the press, and had his original support base extended beyond himself, that could have taken him a long way.

It’s conspiracy, yes, if you are prepared to leave the cloaks and funny hats aside and accept a more prosaic type of conspiracy. How, for instance, are we to explain the last fifteen years of Labour Party history if not in terms of the Blair and Brown factions conspiring against each other, the factional warfare all the more rancorous for the lack of policy differences. This is why, if I’m interested in the machinations of Labour insiders, I turn to Jackie Ashley in the op-ed pages, because Jackie has some feel for the actual Labour Party and is cynical enough to know factional conspiring when she sees it. Polly Toynbee is still waiting for New Labour to turn into the SDP in her head, and holds to a quaint idea of public-spirited politicians who just aren’t selling their policies well enough. Aaro, with his toxic mix of Eurocommunism and Birtism, wants us to accept policies devised by our benevolent rulers that we don’t like but will be good for us anyway.

And here’s the final irony about Voodoo Histories. Aaro gives us his usual matey style, setting himself up as the fearless wielder of Occam’s razor, the tribune of common sense. (I must admit, in my jaundiced way, that Aaro’s record with common sense is not self-evidently brilliant enough for me to find this wholly convincing. And his curt dismissal of Iraq is a bit too much like the way Wheen chortles about chiropractors and crystal healers without mentioning Sound Science.) But the strange thing is that the Decents, as a group, do see themselves as Illuminati, Dave more than most. They believe themselves an enlightened vanguard preaching the truth to the befuddled masses. They have their own revealed truths that make little or no sense to outsiders. (Aaro’s favourite blog, Harry’s Place, is full of puffs for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia thesis, aka The Protocols of the Elders of Islam.) They see things that ordinary people can’t see, such as the horrific levels of anti-Semitism at those Islington dinner parties that Nick Cohen keeps getting invited to. They delight in uncovering webs of sinister associations amongst their enemies, most of which associations don’t even exist. Rather often, they manifest some of the same traits of group psychology as, well, conspiracy theorists.

And now, here is Decent Dave popping up all over the place, assuring us that things are basically for the best, and we need to trust the powers that be, and any narratives that he finds implausible are conspiracy theories and therefore inherently absurd, and anyone putting such narratives forward must be a paranoid crank. If Aaro didn’t exist, some propagandist would have had to invent him.

Take up thy Kant and walk


Also spricht Normski:

Grayling underestimates the problems of ignorance and prejudice by writing as if it is only religion and totalizing ideologies such as Marxism that close people’s minds against inquiry, experiment, the critical scrutiny of received ideas, and so on. The situation is much worse than this. He must surely have noticed how, right across the political spectrum, and right across the metaphysical spectrum, people can become dogmatically attached to their viewpoints, unwilling to be persuaded by contrary evidence, inflexible in changing their minds, locked in to certain combinations of belief which they share with their peer group.


The virtues of open intellectual inquiry may not be spread evenly across human populations, but the vices of dogmatism and resistance to a change of mind are to be found far and wide. Hardly anyone is altogether free of them.

Maybe this is just my cynicism talking, but I am instantly reminded of the good professor’s recent line of argumentation on Iraq. Which goes roughly like this: “All right, the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster, and in retrospect supporting it might not have been such a great idea. But I still hold that supporting the war made me, Norm, morally superior to those who predicted from the start that it would be a disaster.” Ain’t dialectics brilliant?

Elsewhere, Norm ruminates on whether Holocaust denial should be criminalised. I actually agree with Norm that it shouldn’t, but I’m not dying about his line of argument:

However, by extending the meaning of harm to cover the propagation of ideas, the dissemination of words, they loosen the principle so that it becomes next to impossible to apply in an objective way, despite their own plea to the contrary. Violence against persons, and therefore against groups of people, is obviously a harm; and direct incitement to violence in situations where this clearly helps to bring on its occurrence may be included in the same category as being a proximate cause. But the further back you go from the criminal act of violence, the more difficult it becomes to establish a clear connection between someone’s speech-act in spreading a belief or idea and the violent harm itself.

This isn’t bad so far. A lot of well-meaning attempts to restrict “hate speech” fall down by moving away from the concept of direct incitement to that of restricting speech that may form the mood music for things we don’t like. Norm could have mentioned, but didn’t, New Labour’s attempted crackdown on “glorifying terrorism”, which was justified under the rubric of “indirect incitement”, a deeply dubious concept. Norm could also have mentioned, but didn’t, Denis MacShame’s current campaign to legally restrict criticism of Israel, on the alleged grounds of combating anti-Semitism.


To criminalize putatively harmful beliefs opens the way to such notions as the defamation of religion.

This will not do, Norm. We expect better from you than arguing from consequences – aren’t you supposed to be the first principles maven? I’m also struck by Norm’s oblique reference to defamatory attacks on religion. Generally, Decents will at this point talk grandiosely about the Enlightenment and Voltaire[1], but I can’t help the cynical side of me thinking of something else. Far be it from me to suggest that Ethics Man might have a base motive, but my mind keeps turning to the enthusiasm of many of Norm’s mates for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia gobbledegook, aka The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Islam. Just look at HP Sauce on an average day. One doesn’t accuse, one merely throws out the suggestion.

[1] Given Decents’ fondness for proclaiming themselves the heirs of the Enlightenment, it’s striking that they never reference Voltaire’s thoughts on the Jews. Some of which were so pithy, the Nazis helpfully compiled them into a single volume.

More gems from the wacky world of militant secularism


Regular readers will have noticed that this blog hasn’t covered the Decent Left much of late. Truth be told, apart from the new book by coincidence theorist David Aaronovitch, and Nick Cohen’s increasingly desperate attempts to commit suicide by cop at the Observer, there isn’t all that much to report. The end of the Bush-Cheney administration took the wind out of their sails, and they’ve never really recovered. I hear that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson is planning a big new reinvention in September – or at least another one of his thousands of online vanity projects – but even NTM will be hard pushed to inject some life into it.

No, I expect it will be more of the same old crap. Norman Geras boring on about universal values, how the values that he, Norm, stands for are truly universal, and how (insert fancy footwork here) these universal values are consistent with special pleading for Israel. David “Mr” T running more exposés about Gilad Atzmon, in between lunches at Nando’s. Marko D Ripper holding forth on how the Serbs are trying to sap and impurify all of his precious bodily fluids. HP’s resident guest lunatic Morality Blog popping up in the comments boxes to dishonestly accuse people of being dishonest. This will all be bound together by a portentous manifesto that will sink without trace after two weeks of frantic puffery.

The trouble is, I get bored easily, and while one can always get some enjoyment from shooting fish in a barrel, you don’t want to always be shooting the same fish in the same barrel. A bit of variation is nice. So, while I may come back to the Decents if they say or do anything interesting, in the meantime let’s keep with a theme from recent weeks and pop over to the “National Secular Society”, a body that is to secularism what Mel Gibson is to Catholicism. The NSS’s weekly upload of articles normally has something to pique the interest. And indeed, Titus Oates decides to eschew Papist plots this week in favour of bashing the Presbyterians. But more of that later.

I was first struck by this article on the withering away of Judaism in the United States. The article hails the growing number of “secular Jews”, by which it apparently means atheists with Jewish surnames. Actually, the spin is that increasing numbers of US “Jews” are choosing to identify themselves by ethnicity rather than religion. Well, it depends what you mean by Jews, I suppose. Orthodox congregations aren’t doing too badly, and of course haredi communities are growing rapidly. There is, on the other hand, a noticeable decrease in religious observance, and increase in marrying out, amongst those liberal Jews who weren’t very observant in the first place.

I saw this and wondered how it fit in with the article run by the NSS the other week on the court ruling in the JFS admissions case, attacking the idea that the organised Jewish community (in this instance, the United Synagogue with which the JFS is affiliated) could decide who was Jewish for the purposes of admission to Jewish schools. The two don’t mesh together very well – and the JFS article was deeply confused – but the “secular Jews” line is probably a safe one to take, lest the NSS annoy their mates at Harry’s Place. The Saucers, particularly the Jewish ones, are very big on Jewishness as a racial category but don’t particularly like Judaism.

Just so the Catholics don’t escape for a week, there’s also a piece on how the Sarkozy administration in France is destroying the constitutional separation of church and state. This seems rather unlikely, given Sarko’s frequent appeals to laïcité whenever he wants to bash the Muslims. And indeed, all this amounts to is foreign minister Bernard Kouchner creating a panel of religious experts to provide guidance to French diplomats in being culturally sensitive in whatever countries they’re stationed in. This doesn’t seem problematic to me, unless you belong to the missionary school that says that cultural sensitivity is an expression of weakness, and western diplomats’ role is to elevate the natives to our level of civilisation.

But now to the main event, and NSS head honcho Titus Oates bursts into prose to lambast Gordon Brown. The occasion for this is an interview Brown gave to Premier Christian Radio. Now, Brown doesn’t talk very much about his Presbyterian background, but when he agreed to go on Premier it was only to be expected that he would be asked about this background, and about his thoughts on issues of Christian concern. Which is what he spoke on, although in rather general terms:

In Britain we are not a secular state as France is, or some other countries. It’s true that the role of official institutions changes from time to time, but I would submit that the values that all of us think important – if you held a survey around the country of what people thought was important, what it is they really believed in, these would come back to Judeo-Christian values, and the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of.

It’s not really exceptional, if you’re talking about the values of the culture and where they come from. If we say that the cultural values of Spain or Poland are informed by Catholicism, or that Moroccan or Iranian culture is shaped by the Islamic tradition, that’s no more than a statement of fact. Indeed, as Friedrich Nietzsche liked to point out, the morality of secular humanists is basically New Testament Christian morality minus its theological underpinnings. For some reason, secular humanists get very irate when you say this.

Brown continues:

I think it’s impossible because when we talk about faith, we are talking about what people believe in, we are talking about the values that underpin what they do, we are talking about the convictions that they have about how you can make for a better society. So I don’t accept this idea of privatisation – I think what people want to do is to make their views current. There is a moral sense that people have, perhaps 50 years ago the rules were more detailed and intrusive, perhaps now what we’re talking about is boundaries, beyond which people should not go. And I think that’s where it’s important that we have the views of all religions and all faiths, and it’s important particularly that we’re clear about what kind of society we want to be. So I think the idea that you can say: ‘What I do in my own life is privatised and I’m not going to try to suggest that these are values that can bind your society together’, would be wrong.

Again, this is not outrageous, unless you believe that political leaders have no place talking about values – and again, I hold that you have to be a pretty extreme utilitarian to believe that values and morality shouldn’t have any place in political discourse. What Brown says is more or less in tune with the mainstream of British liberal Protestant thought. It isn’t consonant with the common British view that morality should be totally privatised, but that isn’t something that many politicians could state openly.

Anyway, Titus waxes wroth here, taking as a jumping-off point some remarks Brown makes about diversity, cohesion and integrating immigrant populations:

What are we to make of this in relation to Mr Brown’s claims that this is a “Christian country” run on “Judaeo-Christian principles”? What must the Muslims think of that? The Government seems to be plying the “Muslim community” (i.e. the “faith leaders”) with bribes on the one hand and then telling them their religion is secondary to Christianity on the other.

Leaving aside the faux concern for Muslim sensitivities, which is belied by the “appeasement of Islam” stuff Titus puts out on a regular basis, the trouble is that I don’t think Brown said what Titus said he said. Did Brown say that Britain was a Christian country run on Christian principles? No, he did not. He talked in a somewhat woolly way about the Christian derivation of British values. But to Titus, that’s as near as damn it Brown advocating a theocratic government.

Not for the first time, the NSS’s output reminds me a little of the Workers Revolutionary Party of blessed memory. Gerry Healy would always take one of two tacks: either the revolution was around the corner, or the fascist coup was around the corner. Titus has a rather similar shtick, based on alternating triumphalism about the decline of religion (which often includes suggesting that lots of people who identify as religious are lying, and should really be counted as atheists) with his “OMG! The theocrats are taking over! If we don’t watch out, Britain will be just like Iran!”

Gerry understood very well that this sort of thing helped to galvanise the troops. But it can be a bit enervating, and it leads me to think that maybe Titus would do well to cut down on the caffeine.

Credit where credit’s due


I must confess that these days I read Private Eye more out of duty and habit than real pleasure. Certainly, I don’t anticipate its arrival every fortnight the same way I look forward to the latest issue of, say, the American Conservative or the Journal of Forensic Sciences. In fact, it often succeeds in annoying me not inconsiderably. Oh yes.

But the latest issue has picked up a bit. As regular readers will know, one thing that tends to get up my goat is the flagship Street of Shame section. This is where the Eye exposes bad journalism, with a nice little sideline in exposing cronyism in the press. Sadly, it’s been undermined over the last few years by the whole phenomenon of the Decent Left. Concretely, it’s either ignored or actively defended some shocking examples of bad journalism, and it often looks as though this is not unrelated to the perpetrators being mates of the bloke who writes Street of Shame. For instance, the Grauniad‘s infamous faked interview with Chomsky, which wasn’t given the treatment it deserved, I assume because Francis was off signing open letters demanding that the Graun retract its retraction.

But this issue, we finally see an appearance from Nick Cohen, who’s been a frequent beneficiary of this sort of thing. This is apropos of Nick’s inebriated rant at the Orwell Prize, which gets covered in some depth. Now, if only the Eye scribes would make an effort to remember that having a go at targets close to home increases your credibility… I know Ingrams was very aware of that.

We also have regular Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’, who takes time off from bashing the Mooslims to deal with the question of electoral fraud. In particular, Birmingham, where the combination of postal votes on demand and the patriarchal relationships in the Kashmiri community have created an electoral regime that would make Bob Mugabe blush. Maybe it’s me, but I honestly can’t remember any Decents previously having a problem with this outrage. Possibly it’s because the main beneficiary, as Ratbiter points out, is the Labour Party. Possibly it’s because, as Ratbiter doesn’t point out, one of the main critical voices has been Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob, and because those disenfranchised have been Asian women and youth, who are much more likely to vote Respect. Still, good to see the issue get an airing.

And we also discover that the Kuwaiti royal family have, for a considerable sum, retained the services of Mr Tony Blair. Taken on the back of Mr Tony’s million-dollar bung from the Israelis, you can see why he’s an ideal honest broker for the Middle East peace process.

A return to form, then. Keep it up, guys.

Oi! Nick! No!

You know, I always liked Nick Cohen, and even now sometimes hope that he’ll pull his finger out and get back to the sort of journalism he used to do so well. But increasingly, he does just make me bury my head in my hands. Notably with this tired and emotional performace at the Orwell Prize shortlist debate, whereat Nick goes in to bat for his mate Martin Bright whilst wrapping himself in St George’s aura. Suffice to say, giving Peter Hitchens room to scold you is not a desirable outcome, and this could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to appear at a public debate with a bottle of wine in hand. There but for the grace of God would many of us find ourselves.

Physician, heal thyself


Sometimes you do get presented with an open goal. Last night on Nolan Live, Angry Steve was discussing the credit crunch and made some remark about us all tightening our belts. The texters were mighty tickled at the image of the portly host tightening his belt.

And here’s Norman Geras:

What I think it’s at least partly about is having a ‘costless’ conscience. Over Afghanistan – as, for many of them, over Iraq – they do not count the costs of the policies they favour, only of the policies they oppose. The former costs have nothing at all to do with them. If what they recommend goes badly in some way, it’s just the way of the world; but if what they oppose goes badly then it has everything to do with those who supported it. It’s a fool’s method of political calculation: recognizing no hard choices, everything obvious and easy.

This is Norm’s response to peaceniks calling for the withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan, whom Norm taxes with failure to take moral responsibility for the possible humanitarian disaster that might ensue.

One might ask whether this means the Decent Left are going to take moral responsibility for the actually existing humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, which do have an immediate connection with the wars that Norm has supported. But one would be mistaken. A basic tenet of Normism is that, if you’re Decent, the purity of your motives effaces the consequences of things you support. Which is nice. On the other hand, Indecent leftists like your humble host can quite easily be berated for things they didn’t support. Which is often quite aggravating if you’re on the receiving end.

It’s like judo. If you’ve ever thought that Norm’s strictures on international relations could be used to criticise Israeli actions, you very quickly learn that such an argument can be blown out of the water by accusing the UCU of being awash with anti-Semitism, or insinuating that present-day Venezuela is comparable to Stalin’s Russia, or some similar dodge.

Isn’t it cheering to see that Norm’s grasp of the dialectic remains as sound as ever?

Buffoon gets bitch-slapped

I’ll be honest, the Nation is in the normal run of things not a publication I read very often, and that’s deliberate on my part. It goes back to too many years of being much too annoyed at the Dude’s pronunciamentos, although that’s a little unfair as he’s long since gone.

Likewise, I would normally not take much notice of a new book by Bernard-Henri L’Oréal, far and away the most aggravating of the Nouveaux Philosophes. (Glucksmann is probably just as offensive politically, but at least he doesn’t do that hair-flicking thing.) The news that BHL had a new book out on the moral bankruptcy of the left excited me not at all, since it seems to be a variation on the man’s long-running theme of proclaiming himself the conscience of the left while simultaneously dumping enormous buckets of shit over everything the left has historically believed in.

My curiosity was piqued somewhat by a rather strange review from Nick Cohen. As usual these days, this says rather more about Nasty Nick than it does about his putative subject, but the theme is that the Nouveaux Philosophes are the French analogue to Britain’s Decent Left. This manages the remarkable feat of actually lowering my opinion of the Nouveax Philosophes.

However, I note that BHL has now been taken to task in a manner befitting, and in the Nation no less. (Hat tip.) The assassin in question is the estimable Scott McLemee, and while Scott’s always worth reading, this finds him in top form, not least on the great Yankophile’s invincible ignorance of American politics. And all I can say about that is, it’s probably better than the old windbag deserves.

Bernard-Henri Lévy. Because he’s worth a good kicking.

The Court of Decency versus Osama Saeed and Alex Salmond

This morning we turn to the latest Private Eye, and I am pleased to note an appearance by regular Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’. This column is usually worth a chuckle or two, although not intentionally one presumes. Unless it’s really a devilishly clever spoof of Nick Cohen…

The target this fortnight is Osama Saeed, with a sideswipe at Alex Salmond. Osama is the Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow Central, which alone would be enough to raise our columnist’s ire – the thought of running a Muslim candidate in an area with lots of Muslim voters! But Osama is also the boss of an outfit called the Scottish Islamic Foundation (SIF), which spends most of its time lobbying for Muslim faith schools, and in which capacity Osama has received a cheque from Alex Salmond.

Now then. The Decent Left don’t like Alex Salmond, although I suspect they dislike him for the wrong reasons. And they – or at least the denizens of Harry’s Place – really don’t like Osama Saeed, who’s an articulate Muslim critic of British foreign policy, and so obviously an enemy of the people. In fact, at HP Sauce they occasionally like to produce some barking mullah and loudly demand that Osama condemn this mullah, of whom he may or may not have heard.

Anyway, Ratbiter asserts that the SIF is nothing less than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t actually produce any evidence, but I suppose the chain of reasoning goes like this: Osama’s political background is in the Muslim Association of Britain; the MAB is an offshoot of the Ikhwaan; QED. And, since the Ikhwaan revere Sheikh Qaradawi, this provides an opportunity for Ratbiter to dust off Qaradawi’s more outré pronouncements on wife-beating and female circumcision and use them as a stick to beat Osama, and by extension Alex. You could, I suppose, ask Osama what he thinks on these subjects, but where’s the fun in that?

So, the general thrust is that the Scottish Government is in a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ratbiter further insinuates that, as Osama has been interviewed on BBC Scotland, the Beeb’s Caledonian operation is also in thrall to the Brotherhood. This seems to show a lack of understanding of how broadcasting works. If Oliver Kamm appears on Newsnight, does that mean the Decent Left controls the BBC? No, it’s because Ollie has something distinctive to say. One can fault the range of voices for being too narrow – it’s nothing short of a scandal that, in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, Scott Ritter couldn’t get on Newsnight despite demonstrably having something important to say – but there’s no need to invoke conspiracy theories.

Some useful background to this was provided a little while back on the invaluable Aaro Watch:

What winds up Scottish Labour (and indeed English Labour) about the SNP and Osama Saeed is not so much that a political Islamist is being allowed to participate in mainstream politics, but that a political Islamist is participating in mainstream politics without the primary aim of delivering block votes for the Labour Party. The latter exist in some numbers but are quietly hidden away, invisible except to the small and insignificant few who closely follow municipal politics. Their grasp of English is also often poor, which prevents them saying anything embarrassing in public.

Quite so. There’s also the assertion that the SIF is unrepresentative, which may or may not be true (I’m not sure they claim to be representative) and a bit of a whine about Muslim groups that haven’t got funding from the Scottish Government. These are unnamed, probably sensibly when you bear in mind the few Muslim groups that do meet the approval of the Decents.

Finally, the really interesting stuff about religion in Scotland is the assiduous courtship of Scottish Catholics by the SNP, which has been trying heroically to shed its Orange patina. That it has made some progress has been evidenced by increasingly friendly coverage in The Universe, and confirmed by the Glasgow East by-election. The SNP’s Muslim outreach is really a subset of the same thing. If pushed, the Decents would probably have a go at the Catholic stuff too, but anti-Catholicism just doesn’t have the same frisson as sticking it to the Muslims.

Rud eile: It may be worth pointing out that the column in question is a more or less straight regurgitation of this article in Democratiya. But don’t put too much money on this blatant plagiarism making it into Street of Shame.

Yes, it’s Decent Wrestlemania! A muscle orgy of no-holds-barred head-butting, elbow-smashing and body-slamming!

One of the beneficial side-effects of the American election is the developing smackdown on the Decent Left. Which shouldn’t really be surprising, as the Decent Left, after all, is little more than an attempt to recreate American neoconservatism in a British setting. I mean, in terms of actual British politics, the Decents qua Decents have very little to say except to boo and hiss various people (George Galloway, Seumas Milne, the SWP) who have incurred their wrath over Iraq or Israel. It figures that, were they to fall out, it would be over American politics.

So, the current lineup is this. Oliver Kamm has pleasantly surprised me. I was fully expecting Ollie to maintain his unbroken record of endorsing the furthest right candidate in every foreign election he’s ever blogged about by backing McCain. And he did show distinct signs of leaning in that direction. But, say what you like about Ollie, he does have his lines in the sand, and militant secularism (allied to an almost Füredite belief in scientific progress) is one of them. Therefore Ollie has now denounced McCain, on the grounds that offering the VP slot to the creationist Sarah Palin showed McCain to be totally Unserious. Good work, Ollie. By the way, how was it that for the last eight years you didn’t notice the presence of multifarious religious wingnuts in the Bush administration?

Now we turn to the Decent Left’s resident Mr Angry, Marko Attila Hoare. Little Marko has firmly nailed his colours to the McCain mast for months now, with a logic that roughly runs, “Americans might be better off with O’Bama, but I don’t live there, so fuck the American people, I’m going to make my call on Balkan tribal grounds.” And so he has done, proffering in support the Manchurian candidate argument. This will be familiar from those wilder sections of the American right where it’s commonly argued that O’Bama is a closet Muslim. Marko, by contrast, offers up a scenario whereby O’Bama is a puppet of a foreign axis of evil – that is, the Greeks, the Serbs and the Armenians – and therefore can’t be relied on to follow as robustly Turkophile a foreign policy as Marko would like. You might think that Marko’s argument would be damaged by O’Bama’s VP pick, Joe Biden, the favourite senator of howling Croat nationalists everywhere. But I am confident Marko will overcome this little difficulty. As I see it, he has three options. He could change his mind, but his Trotsko-sectarian training means he tends to see that as a sign of weakness. He could decide that Decency cannot abide a howling Croat nationalism gap, and amp up his own rhetoric accordingly. Or, the most likely scenario, he could come out with an enormous dollop of verbal flatulence, where in thousands of words of tendentious bluster he says that what Biden seems to be saying is of no real significance, and he, Marko, is correct now as he always has been. If we’re really lucky, he might doodle us one of his legendary diagrams.

Nick Cohen has written some really weird stuff. Most recently, he seems to be suggesting that you’re a snob if you don’t approve of Palin. (Has Julie Burchill commandeered Nick’s PC?) I predict Nick’s approach will be to do what he did in the London mayoral election. He spent months ranting and raving about what a bastard Ken was, but was most indignant at charges that he was going to vote Boris. No, just before the election he constructed some fantasy scenario whereby Brian Paddick could win the mayoralty. One suspects, though, that the cumulative effect of his columns was to Boris’ benefit. So the equivalent would be to publish a raft of stuff on what a bastard O’Bama is, and then, about two weeks before the election, to endorse Ralph Nader or somebody. But you never really know with Nick, do you?

All this ought to be of little significance. After all, the traditional approach of Labour Atlanticism (apart from taking cheques from the CIA) has been to support whomever occupied the White House – there might be a little bias to the Democrats, but not such as to disrupt business as usual. (This, I believe, is Aaro’s position.) It remains to be seen whether the Decents as a milieu cleave to their Labourite or sectarian origins. However, given their propensity for calling you an enemy of the people if you deviate even slightly from their agenda…

Ah, fuck this, there’s only one thing for it. The L Ron Hubbard of the Decent Left must speak out. Yes, Norm, I’m talking to you. Where do you get off not saying where you stand? And by the way, not that I’m a great fan of O’Bama, but doesn’t the Decents’ willingness to even consider endorsing McCain kinda undermine their claim to be any kind of a left?

Mad Max: The Cold Warrior

I remember being in Dublin ten years or so ago when Democratic Left voted to dissolve itself into the Labour Party. At the time, everyone I spoke to was firm in the belief that this marked the end of the Stickie experiment in Irish politics. “And about time, too” was frequently added. It was a bit surprising, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have been, that the Sticks would very quickly take over the Labour Party and have an iron grip on it to this day.

I thought of this a few weeks ago when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was interviewed on The Daily Show. Webb was promoting his new book, which is all about restoring a fair and just America. Jon Stewart, of course, is sharp enough to know that America is not based on fairness and justice but on the free market.

Stewart: Sir, I had no idea you were a Trotskyite.

Webb: Well, it was a bunch of Trotskyites who got us into this war in Iraq.

Actually, for generational reasons, about the only neocons left who actually were Trotskyists are Kristol the Elder and Podhoretz, but it’s a useful bit of shorthand for that intellectual tradition. More precisely, I suppose, the roots of the neoconservative movement are tied up with the late Max Shachtman and his tendency. And that’s an interesting little footnote for Cold War socialism.

You’ll recall that Shachtman’s WP/ISL led an independent existence for a whole eighteen years after breaking from the SWP in 1940, generally identifying as a Trotskyist current if in an increasingly loose sense. That was certainly the case in the 1950s when Cliff, having been knocked back by Pablo and Mandel in his attempts to get them to offload the bandit Healy and award Cliff the Fourth International franchise, arrived at the arresting notion of an alternative FI based around a lash-up between his group, the Shachtmanites, with a few other groups holding unorthodox theories of Russia. In this we can safely say that Cliff was twenty years ahead of his time, so it isn’t surprising that this cunning plan never took off.

In 1958, having arrived at the conclusion that their declining organisation had no future, Max led the ISL into Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party. And here’s where our Irish analogy comes in. The SP, despite being an established brand with a largish paper membership, turned out to be even more decrepit than the ISL. Within months Max and his mates had taken over the whole outfit. They did not, however, lead it to the left as one might have supposed. Instead, they led it to the right at a rate of knots and, by the time of Shachtman’s death in 1972, the majority found themselves in the Nixon camp. How did this happen?

The Shachtmanites had a lot of interesting thinkers, not least Max himself, who was apparently an attractive figure to a certain type of young intellectual, as well as being a bit of an annoying smartarse. They didn’t, on the other hand, have much theoretical output that’s stood the test of time. What did distinguish them was an absolutely consistent and ironclad Stalinophobia. And by that I don’t mean simply anti-Stalinism, but rather the exaggerated and one-sided anti-Stalinism criticised so heavily by Trotsky in the 1940 split. That’s what eventually led them from what was, if anything, an ultraleft position during WW2 to the destination of Cold War liberalism.

Not that it was a quick or straightforward evolution. Certainly, Shachtman’s The Bureaucratic Revolution, a little volume of Max’s greatest hits, was given a bit of judicious editing to make Max look as if he’d always been as staunch a foe of the Evil Empire as he was by then. No, for a long time the Shachtmanites’ Big Idea was the Third Camp, which has lately been given a bit of an airing by Max’s would-be apostle Matgamna. The idea (probably emanating from Joe Carter) was cooked up to avoid defending the Soviet Union during the Finnish war in 1939, and posited that in a clash between Stalinism and democratic capitalism (or even fascism, in the case of Mannerheim’s Finland) you back neither side but instead look for independent movements of the working class. Great in principle, somewhat more difficult in practice.

And made more difficult still by the Shachtmanites’ refusal to have anything to do with working-class or national liberation movements that had even a tangential connection to Stalinism, the logical outcome of Carter’s bright idea that the western communist parties were new bureaucratic ruling classes in embryo. Sometimes the convolutions could be quite funny. Tim Wohlforth has a nice story about how Hal Draper agonised over the Vietnam War, not wanting to back US imperialism but unable to find a local movement measuring up to his stringent anti-Stalinist standards. Hal apparently got very excited on discovering the Cao Dai religious movement in South Vietnam, who at the time were running their own private army. Could this be the fabled Third Camp? Alas, it soon transpired that the Cao Dai programme was to convert Vietnam into a theocracy…

It was so much easier, in the long run, to just defend democratic capitalism and put off the struggle for socialism to an indefinite future. And so you get the drift into Cold War liberalism, with old Marxist polemical skills being put to use on behalf of new masters. In Shachtman’s case, that meant none other than Scoop Jackson. But it shouldn’t be inferred that the Shachtman group’s support for Scoop’s presidential candidacy in 1972 was purely mercenary. No, they backed Scoop because he was the only candidate saying the Vietnam War could still be won. And when McGovern secured the Democratic nomination, they refused to support him, and a significant number went directly over to Tricky Dick. Hence Socialists For Nixon, that whimsical precursor of modern-day neoconservatism.

What a sad way to go out. And what’s the excuse of those who want to recreate this sorry devolution?

« Older entries