Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Stop Press! Stephen Pollard's abandoned the left

Perhaps the strangest reaction to the preposterous Euston Manifesto is that of Stephen Pollard. In what he portrays as a separate splintering from the left, Pollard yesterday announced the “Maida Vale Manifesto”. The tone and trajectory are predictable from the first two lines:

“We the undersigned have always thought of ourselves as being on the Left. We have held it as axiomatic that the Left believed in fighting tyranny, liberating the oppressed, and spreading wealth and power.”

As you'd expect, he goes on to berate “leftists” for their morally degenerate reaction to September 11th and alliances with “Islamists”. Although he concedes that “[t]here are many decent people on the Left”, he concludes that “[t]heoretical arguments about what is or is not a proper left-wing position are now meaningless” and “[t]he Left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy.”

It's interesting that, in spite of wishing the Eustonites luck, he views their much trumpeted document as “meaningless” (and presumably them as the enemy, if he buys their self-description). But what I find truly astonishing is his attempt to pretend that he ever was on the left. Of course, Harry's Place contributors, Oliver Kamm, Norman Geras, and many others, have also claimed a place there in the face of all evidence, but how were we to know Pollard even pretended to be left-wing?

The Euston Manifesto takes an explicitly undecided stance on economic questions, with a vaguely Blairite wave towards “economic equality” and “development-as-freedom”. Generally, decentists like to maintain a facade of socialist leanings by avoiding discussion of the subject. But Pollard has never, as far as I'm aware, troubled to conceal his love of tax cuts, private healthcare, etc. In other words his position has long been indistinguishable from assorted small-government conservatives on both domestic and foreign policy, whereas the Euston signatories like to maintain a convenient haziness on the former.

Today's rant in the Times confirms Pollard's generalised dislike of the public sector. Michael Heseltine's description of it as “a bloated, badly run, inefficient impost on the taxpayers’ back” was not a caricature, as Heseltine intended, but “wholly accurate”, we learn. And it would be wrong to think this was a recent trend, or even a shift in economic outlook accompanying his dislike of alleged al Qaida apologists: way back in January 2001 he was complaining to Wall Street Journal Europe readers of Conservative timidity towards attacking the NHS.

For at least five years, Pollard has pursued an aggressively pro-Israel, pro-US foreign policy, campaigned against the NHS, and advocated spending public money on private school vouchers. He's moaned about high taxes, and retailed (and written) Adam Smith Institute propaganda. In that time he's never identified with a recognisably left-wing position. Yet, apparently on the strength of once being a Blairite Labour Party researcher, he claims to have only just broken from the left.

The only innovation in the Maida Vale Manifesto, then, is the admission that he now views the term “left-wing” as “meaningless” -- which it plainly is in his hands.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Just the Norm

Much as it pains me to do anything that might even slightly increase the triumphalist arm-waving accompanying the launch of the “Euston Manifesto”, it's simply too tempting a target (unlike, for instance, the comparably self-important and inane “Unite Against Terror” initiative). Like all bar room soliloquys, it's long and tedious, so I'll confine myself to making a few points.

Broadly speaking, the manifesto is a statement of the obvious, larded with unsubtle jabs at political opponents who are, as ever for the decentist “left”, left-wing: nobody on the right is worth criticising. So we're for “democracy” and against “tyranny”; we want “human rights for all” and “equality”; we oppose “racism”. We like “critical openness” and “freedom of ideas” (and, oddly, Linux). So far, so dull.

Strangely, though, the manifesto also elevates to a principle “opposing anti-Americanism”:
“That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.”
What do they mean by “country”? If it doesn't mean “people”, it seems to mean “government”. The US's extraordinary history of supporting dictators, then, is axiomatically excluded from the discussion. To draw any lessons from it would be to exhibit “generalized prejudice”.

Elsewhere, under innocuous headings, we see the usual Harry's Place jibes re-draped as high-minded scruples. “No apology for tyranny,” they declare in Principle 2, when they mean “we don't like George Galloway”. They decline, they inform us, “to make excuses for... reactionary regimes”, forgetting in their rush to stick it to Respect that they regularly make excuses for George Bush.

“Human rights for all,” the Eustonites shout, but only so they can moan of “double standards” underpinning attempts to hold Bush accountable for Abu Ghraib. In the “elaboration” on this subject, Guantanamo, etc. are “roundly condemned” in the preamble to a near-identical gripe about people trying to hold democracies to higher standards than dictators (how dare they!).

In principle 8 they're “Against racism”. Who wouldn't be? Except that the racism they highlight most specifically (leaving aside the cancer of anti-Americanism) is “prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula 'anti-Zionism'”. It's a fairly clear warning to those taking Principle 7's purported even-handedness on Palestine too seriously: get too anti-Zionist and you'll be suspect.

They're in favour of “critical openness” and “[h]istorical truth”, but these are just openers for insinuations of holocaust denial, Stalinism, etc. among their opponents.

Nowhere do they address the catastrophic increase in death rates in Iraq since the invasion, the bombing casualties, the shooting victims – i.e. everything that shows that even by the same standard as dictators they've actually made things worse there if human suffering has any relevance. Nor do they apparently care, for all their vaunted commitment to democracy, that most Iraqis want US troops out.

Even on its own terms it isn't a new manifesto for the left, because the only novel elements are not principles, or commitments, but simply over-familiar and weightless complaints about political opponents. “Millions”, the second elaboration solemnly informs us, “live in terrible poverty.” You don't say. “We repudiate the way of thinking according to which the events of September 11, 2001 were America's deserved comeuppance, or 'understandable' in the light of legitimate grievances resulting from US foreign policy,” we hear, as the manifesto switches from Oxfam Press Release to Hitchens-lite. That's slightly newer, but it's still a straw man dating from 2001.

Alongside all this, perhaps the strangest tack is the attempt to pretend that the Euston group in some way incorporates the principles of some who opposed the Iraq War. Even though the defining, the creating, issue for decentists as a group was this war, they step back from suggesting that supporting it is crucial. This appears to be an attempt, like so many others, to suggest that their pro-war fervour derives from some deep-seated liberal creed rather than an ever-changing collection of debating points.

But if this is so, if you can oppose “the justification for the [Iraq War]” and still be a decentist, what is the point of the whole thing? Do all these highfalutin principles funnel into nothing more than loud support for Iranian bus drivers? Here the manifesto descends into incoherence, because Eustonites believe Saddam's overthrow was “a liberation of the Iraqi people”, and you have to be in favour of liberation if you sign up. (In practice, the aim seems to be to foreclose fundamental criticism in favour of Andrew Sullivan-style, “sack Rumsfeld” fault-finding, but the language is too vague to be sure.)

So what do they stand for? Well as far as we know, they're self-described leftists who rank Linux and combating the scourge of “anti-Americanism” alongside “equality” as founding principles – surely a minority group.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

He can't help it

I nominate this Harry's Place posting for a special “blame everything anti-war commentators say on racism and naive determinism so we can pretend we're more progressive than them” prize.

Simon Jenkins, you see, ended his column today with the comment:

If ever there was a regime not to goad into seeking nuclear weapons it is Iran. Yet that is precisely what British and American policy is doing. It is completely nuts.

after making the point that “[e]very sabre rattle in Washington must be music to Ahmadinejad's ear”, because it threatened to “heighten nationalist fervour and increase hatred of the west”. This sentiment was paraphrased in a subheading that drew Harry's Place ire.

Marcus sees this as “patronising, infantalising [sic] guff” because it suggests, he claims, that “Muslims have no free will”.

How he reaches this conclusion is perhaps worth considering. He is apparently suggesting that Jenkins's analysis derives from a strange and unstated belief that, on account of being Muslim, Ahmadinejad et al. are incapable of independent action. Somehow Marcus feels able to discard out of hand the idea that Jenkins could simply be applying geopolitical logic, and instead leaps to his own peculiar conclusion.

The reason, of course, is that Harry's Place and other decentists frequently need to divorce cause from effect, because otherwise they might have to explain how, for example, Britain got safer after the Iraq invasion increased terrorist sympathies and activity. In the same way, they're now trying to defend the US's belligerent Iran policy. They also like to pretend that opposition to Western interventionism is racist, because that's one of the few ways they can lay claim to being on the left. Here we have a succinct combination of the two.

Foam at the mouth

Since Stephen Pollard unrepentantly posts trivialities to his blog, I feel entitled to point out the mysterious fate of his latest four hundred words, a perspiring after dinner speech apparently designed to land the portly one a restaurant reviewing sinecure:
I am lucky enough to have eaten in Restaurant's Top Three, and many others beside. I could tell you that the meal at The French Laundry in California was the most perfect of all I have ever eaten, that the butter and greens alone at Arpege in Paris made the €328 cost worth it, and that The Fat Duck far exceeded my already over the top expectations.
Oh and he will tell us. He also informed Pollard watchers yesterday that this gourmandising paean was to appear in The Times, presumably, given its length and Pollard's record, in the ever-forgiving Blusterer column. But tragically two other pieces have appeared since then in that space, and there's no sign of it anywhere else. Somehow the comment editor felt a barely coherent Tim Luckhurst rant about immigrant marriages, and an intemperate eruption regarding Dr Who from Leo McKinstry, were more important.

It's a poor substitute, but until The Times gets desperate fans can enjoy a further sampling of that between-mouthfuls eulogy here:
The ‘Tierra 2005’’consisted of a polystyrene box, with a mound of parmesan foam inside. It was as full of flavour as any meat. To add to it I was given a bag of "raspberry muesli". The combination was breathtaking.
One is reminded of Pollard's strange assertion in the Guardian that opera is better than theatre because, well... because it's got music in it, and it's, um, better. The breathless argument by assertion style is probably better suited to generic Brown vs. Blair pieces for the Mail.

Update: Commenter "delworth" points out that I was wrong -- the piece did appear, in the Food and Drink section. It was still a lousy article, however.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

It's much ado about nothing, it's not so simple, so calm down

Judging from his recent output, David Aaronovitch's main purpose now is to persuade people not to worry about what governments might be doing (when he's trying to be serious, that is: his attempted rib ticklers are, like almost all examples of columnists seeking to demonstrate their satirical abilities, not worth remembering).

Last month began with a bid at making out Guantanamo to be far more complicated than human rights-crazed simpletons will allow. After irrelevant sniping at Rowan Williams's silence on Darfur, he moves on to a critique of improbable plotting in Michael Winterbottom's film on the "Tipton Three”. He doesn't say he thinks they were guilty, just that they look like maybe they could be.

We're told the apparent innocence of the inmates discredits their case, because if there were a good, or at least simple, case against Guantanamo it wouldn't hinge on inmates' innocence. One might think Rowan Williams had already made such a general argument, not contingent on any inmate's innocence, in the comments Aaronovitch quoted at the beginning of his article:

“any message given that any state can just override some of the basic habeas corpus-type provisions is going to be very welcome to tyrants elsewhere in the world”

But no. For Aaronovitch, nonsense about fundamental juridic principles and their worldwide impact is irrelevant; the only argument against Guantanamo worth addressing is one he suggests is made implicitly in a film about three individuals. Why? Because then he can mask his basic, crude, argument – that we should detain without trial anyone on vague suspicion of guilt – with a pretence of fairness and nuance.

His next attempt at governmental exculpation was even vaguer. “In the end,” he announces after some pseudo-sophisticated padding about a theatre trip, “I think it's unlikely that much – if any – influence was bought, or much policy bent by donors to political parties.” So that's OK then. Except the accusation was that peerages, not influence or policy bending, had been bought.

But “is this absolution for Mr Blair? Absolutely not.” He's guilty of being “hypocritical and myopic”, apparently – damning charges. This hypocritical myopia innocently led him to nominate friendly creditors for peerages: the only question is how he could have missed how bad it would look. And besides, “democracy costs”. “Getting the message out costs.” So we should accept corruption, basically, unless we're prepared to hand taxpayers' money to political parties. It's part of the “messiness of democracy”.

Curiously Aaronovitch seeks to portray such whitewashing as brave, via the device of complaining that if he had attacked the government he'd have received congratulatory letters on his bravery. “There is nothing safer for a writer than being told by everybody just how brave one is,” he says, boldly eschewing this course for some edgy defence of a right-wing government in a right-wing newspaper. He stands alone as a voice of sanity, prompted by “the misunderstood little boy in me”, pluckily standing up for the government.

Dave “voice of reason” Aaronovitch is back today, asserting, as ever without actual evidence, that Bush won't attack Iran and that Seymour Hersh's widely-reported New Yorker piece was wrong.

While he doesn't have evidence, he does have insinuation. Not everything Seymour Hersh has said previously has been right. One quote, about Bush being “messianic”, might have come from a “political opponent of Mr Bush”. Hersh doesn't name all his sources, Aaronovitch reveals, as if this were a new or surprising phenomenon. “How [Jeremy] Bowen knows whether Hersh's sources for this are good or not is anyone's guess”, he intones. “The problem here is that we simply have to take Hersh and his judgment on trust.”

And who would trust one of the world's most successful investigative journalists, with all his sources and concrete claims? Who would bother considering the US covert operations reported to be already underway in Iran? Or the government consultant “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb”? Or the Pentagon adviser recounting the White House view that “the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war”? Or European diplomats or the IAEA? (Not to mention the fact that claims of an impending Iran attack are hardly confined to Seymour Hersh.)

None of it matters, because a multi-chinned former NUS president has pronounced: “My own uninformed guess,” he says, “is that there's a lot of contingency planning going on about Iran, just as we plan for the unlikely eventuality of an avian flu pandemic.” So there.

(For a helpful rundown of Aaronovitch's strangely naive position on the Iraq War, see here.)

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Unholy Alliance

One of the peculiarities of the self-described “decent left” is a combined obsession with the the alliances of the SWP, and a total lack of sympathy with their aims. Over the years it's spawned a stream of articles detailing their machinations, as if these had any bearing on whether the Iraq War was right. Today's Comment is free contribution from David T of Harry's Place is a fine example of this smear-by-association genre.

The piece almost reads as if it's from a disaffected member of the SWP, rather than somebody who supported the Iraq War, and who has displayed no concern for left-wing causes except where they can be plausibly painted as in alignment with Bush's agenda. It warns of the dangers of the “unholy” SWP/MAB alliance as if courting such bedfellows might damage a valuable movement. “Why”, Dave asks, “do these rightwing falangists [anti-homosexual Muslims] so fascinate a revolutionary socialist organisation?”

Rather than accepting the obvious explanation – that they both opposed the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns – he meanders off to flaunt his intimate knowledge of Trots via a decade-old article in the International Socialism Journal. He contends that, because they both make up the Respect party, they must be in some sort of long-term alliance, and this in turn is explained by a plan to swallow up Islamist members once they realise Islamism is “contradictory”.

But none of this really matters, because Dave isn't interested in the future of the SWP, or the left. What he cares about is discrediting the anti-war movement. He affects concern that members of an organisation ritually denounced by decentists, “have been forced into an absurd and overblown defence of the Islamist politics”, even though he's deeply happy about this as far as it's true; he deploys sociologist-speak to worry vaguely that the alliance has emphasised “essentialist religious categories”, even though the alleged SWP strategy he quotes explicitly aims for the opposite outcome. Finally, he asks in pseudo-newspaper columnist style, “the romance between the left and Islamist politics is bound to come to an end, sooner or later”, so “will love turn to hate?”

Who cares? Certainly not Dave, except in as far as such a falling out might make his job as a Bush cheerleader easier. He isn't on the left, let alone a “revolutionary socialist”; he doesn't support unions unless they're being targeted by opponents of Bush: he is a thoroughgoing Blairite. Whether the SWP were allied with the MAB or not, he'd still be criticising them, because they oppose his beloved war – that's the only reason he's interested in them. All the rest – the pretence of a concern for the future of left-wing politics – is a transparent pretext for wheeling out what he views as discreditable aspects to a prominent anti-war organisation. It's a bait and switch, based on a temporary claim to be associated with a movement he despises.

One might equally pose another question, given Dave's love of George Bush. The romance between the pseudo-left and Christianist politics is bound to come to an end, sooner or later, so will love turn to hate? Unlike him, I'm not going to pretend I care.