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August 21, 2007

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EBD

Andrew Anthony's (seeming) detour into a description of his fellow Brits' (non) reaction to a young girl being assaulted with a broken bottle is a more useful approach than the usual in the cause of examining the cultural crisis that's been playing out more openly since 9-11.

Political forces are huge and ineffable, but the motives and urges of the individuals who comprise the larger effect are neither -- until these motives and urges are collectivized. But even then they'll be off the table, which might be the whole idea.

Collectivists use of language itself suggests that the quotidian personal characteristics and motivations of its adherents are completely irrelevant, by virtue of the fact that huge and important problems -- e.g. "overwhelming inequalities of power" -- are being addressed at all times. As in, there's revolution to serve.

The private motives of conservatives -- to make obscene profits, to run roughshod over Gaia, to subjugate and exploit those more noble and pure than us, etc etc -- are legion in the expressions of the left. But what is the motivation -- what are the personal urges -- of, for example, Madeleine Bunting? "The louder Tony Blair expounds 'our values' and 'our way of life,' the more vacuous the phrases sound. How do British values look to an African? Perhaps they might see through our illusions quicker than we can, and see the brittle, episodic relationships which constitute many lonely lives; the disconnectedness whereby strangers live together as neighbours, colleagues, even friends and lovers, with little knowledge and less commitment to each other..."

Leaving aside that a Hutu might have an entirely different sense of what "disconnectedness" means, her description of a western dystopia in which citizens have "little knowledge and less committment to each other" is a description of a society whose traditional, shared values -- i.e. sense of community -- have been weakened, to negative affect. Her solution, as far as I can tell, involve the continued dismantling of traditionally shared values, the vilification of those who appreciate and defend those values, and -- in a way that will remain apparent until she is pried loose and freed from her own words -- the provision of political/cultural support for highly-motivated foreign soldiers-for-the-cause who share her impatient and angry desire to quicken the pace of the dismantling.

She couches her desired goals in different terms than that, but you don't need to scratch the surface very deeply to see that she wishes to destroy that which she is born of, and that which her fellows are of.

Hardly a remedy for a society suffering from disconnectedness and lack of commitment, yet unquestionably the prescription of a very large group of westerners.

"How do British values look to an African?"

Well, who's asking?

David

EBD,

“But what is the motivation -- what are the personal urges -- of, for example, Madeleine Bunting?”

Well, Milne’s capacity for denial, even of his own actions and decisions, is so pronounced and so unrealistic it isn’t readily explicable in terms of the ostensible subject matter, and much the same might be said about Bunting. Bunting is equally unwilling to register the possibility that her own political preferences might have destructive consequences, among them the social phenomena she bemoans at length. Evidence has little, if any, discernable impact on her default attitude, which doesn’t appear amenable to argument or factual refutation. And the fawning exchange with al-Qaradawi is remarkable in its unrealism.

It was quite funny to read Milne’s comments regarding Andrew Anthony and the “psychodrama of angry middle-aged men in which the political issues are not necessarily the main point.” I wonder if Milne realises he’s speaking of himself. I’d agree that Anthony’s book, or at least the extracts from it, seems self-preoccupied, but that’s precisely what Milne is, and much moreso. Milne’s politics are as a matter of routine factually unreliable and morally insupportable – they make no sense in intellectual terms and bear little relation to reality. And when a supposedly knowledgeable person makes claims that are *so* fanciful and inaccurate, and makes them so often and so adamantly, despite repeated refutation and all evidence to the contrary, it casts doubt on that person’s motives. One has to entertain other factors – “personal urges”, if you like.

AntiCitizenOne

Projection + Envy are the two symptoms of leftism.

Horace Dunn

One of Orwell’s themes (and don’t we always come back to him?) was the interplay between language and thought. When discussing people like Milne and Bunting, Orwell’s ideas come to the fore. Vanity has a large part to play, too.

If a westerner wants to extol the virtues of western society he would do well to throw a few disclaimers into his pronouncements – “even so, western democracy remains terribly flawed” or “having said that, our achievements must be viewed in the light of the suffering we have caused” etc etc.

All well and good. After all, no sophisticated person should see only one side of the story. But, so often, such disclaimers are introduced purely to demonstrate the speaker’s learning and sophistication. The speaker fears that, if he leaves them out, he might be viewed as complacent and parochial, even – God forbid – patriotic.

I can’t help thinking that, with the likes of Bunting and Milne, their need to be seen as progressive and sophisticated is so acute that the disclaimers have become the main meat of their arguments. The clauses that most thoughtful people would insert into their sentences have, in an act of syntactical terrorism, achieved total prominence.

David

Horace,

Yes, patriotism and expressions of cultural confidence alarm some “sophisticated” Guardian contributors. Joseph Harker, for instance, seems convinced such things practically make a person racist.

“…the interplay between language and thought.”

Well, it’s hard to miss the growing use of phrases like “social justice”, which sounds difficult to oppose, but is rarely defined. Or the readiness with which terms like “racism”, “NeoCon”, “warmonger” and “rightwing” are deployed, generally to shut down debate. (See many of the readers’ comments following Andrew Anthony’s articles. Invoking the Daily Mail, however bizarrely, has become a kind of leftwing Kryptonite.)

There is, I think, a link between the denial and unrealism of Bunting, Milne, et al and an increasingly censorious attitude among many commentators on the left. (Bunting demonstrated this censorious urge at last year’s Hay literary festival, where a “discussion” of Islam and free speech was hastily curtailed when some basic facts were stated.) When I see attempts to stifle debate, or to control the terms of debate, or to shut down thought before it can happen, I most often find those attempts coming from the left. This wasn’t always the case; but right now I don’t see too many leftists standing up for free speech and the testing of ideas. I do, however, see plenty of creeping censorship in the name of “sensitivity” and “inclusiveness”.

And if a person doesn’t want an open debate to take place and wants to define in advance what kind of language is permissible and which subjects are off-limits and which facts are unmentionable and what constitutes a “phobia”, that usually indicates the weakness of their position and, more to the point, an *awareness* of just how weak that position is. And this is something fantasists are more likely to want to do, for fairly obvious reasons.

Dr.Dawg

OK, you two: maybe time for a little balance on the Orwell front.

"Well, it’s hard to miss the growing use of phrases like “social justice”, which sounds difficult to oppose, but is rarely defined. Or the readiness with which terms like “racism”, “NeoCon”, “warmonger” and “rightwing” are deployed, generally to shut down debate."

Not to mention "anti-Semitism" (to shut down criticism of Israel), "leftist" (to dismiss opponents' arguments out of hand), "activist" (a term which by itself conjures up a whole range of dubious activities), "postmodernist" ('nuff said)--the list goes on and on. Conservatives are in no way immune to this sort of thing.

David

Dr Dawg,

“Conservatives are in no way immune to this sort of thing.”

Of course, but that doesn’t really alter my point about unrealism and censorship and how they might relate. I didn’t claim the left has a monopoly on censoriousness, or indeed on denial and unrealism. I took that as understood. But the prevalence of censoriousness and the urge to determine in advance what is permissible or unmentionable is, in my experience, now most obvious on the left. I don’t think this was always the case, but right now I fear it is, certainly in the UK. I think it’s also pretty evident that the majority of new and tendentious terms that have recently appeared, and which serve to prejudice or inhibit discussion, are products of (or most loudly endorsed by) leftist thinking. Ahem. *Some* leftist thinking.

And I should point out I don’t generally use the word “leftist” to simply dismiss something out of hand. I tend to use it to describe people and organisations that define *themselves* in similar terms, and as shorthand for ideas that are – unremarkably – defined as such by the people who advance them. Of course, any particular example might well be deserving of dismissal, and they very often are, but I try to point out why. Or at least hint.

David

Footnote to the above:

Perhaps your local experience is somewhat different, but censoriousness and the urge to control language are, here, most obvious on the left, and quite clearly so. It’s also significant that the left-leaning blogs I have some regard for have been defending free speech and the testing of ideas, not against the right, but against assaults by others on the left.

Dr.Dawg

David:

That wasn't meant to be a dig at you personally. I use similar shorthand myself. But I did want to make the point that the supposedly triumphant left is under considerable attack right now. Not only does the screechy Daniel Pipes run a US-wide snitch line (Campus Watch), on the very best McCarthite principles, to ferret out any professor who utters a word of criticism against Israel, but we get this sort of thing as well:

[quoting shamelessly from his own blog]

"A couple of American academics have run into a buzz-saw before their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, has even gone on sale. As reported by CommonDreams, some of their fellow academics have reacted swiftly to diss the book and shut down discussion:

"The subject will certainly prompt furious debate, though not at the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Jewish cultural center in Washington and three organizations in Chicago. They have all turned down or canceled events with the authors, mentioning unease with the controversy or the format.

"As a sometime literary critic myself, I was most impressed with the critical methodology employed by Aoibheann Sweeney, director of the Center for the Humanities at City University of New York. 'I looked at the introduction,' she said, 'and I didn’t feel that the book was saying things differently enough [from an article written previously by the two authors].'"

I realize that these two examples both bear upon Israel, but they are the two that come most readily to mind when charges of left censoriousness are raised.

David

Dr Dawg,

No offence taken. I can’t really comment on the example you cite as I’m not familiar with the details. Though, again, over here censoriousness is much more prominent on the left. But my point goes beyond any one particular example (from any part of the spectrum). I’m more concerned with trends towards controlling what kind of language can be used in debate and public conversation, and thus what ideas can be tested - and who presumes to tell us. Not just who’s invited to speak, or not invited, or who badmouths whom, which happens all the time. It’s the much broader creep of certain language (and restriction) that’s of most interest to me. Campus speech codes, for instance, or institutionalised “sensitivity” and “inclusiveness.” “Islamophobia” is perhaps the most obvious and loaded example, but there’s also “cultural racism”, which has appeared in the Guardian several times without actually being defined. It *sounds* bad, though, which is presumably what matters.

To return to my earlier point, the lovely Ms Bunting will, I’m sure, find it easier to ignore the blindingly obvious if she can also limit what questions may asked in her presence and what facts may be mentioned. If she can deploy loaded neologisms and inhibit language more broadly, that will liberate her from reason and evidence even more. It’s not just Bunting, of course. It’s all those who will be encouraged to use terms and associations of ideas that suit her, and suit those like her.

Dr.Dawg

Well, I'm not hard-line on language usage, although language is important (I guess I'm a soft Whorfian--gosh, that looks odd, but I'll leave it). Short of obviously hateful speech, it's ideas that are important in my opinion, not how we (often clumsily) phrase them, and we need the latitude to get down to the necessary discussions.

For example: I don't happen to like organized religion. I believe, with William Blake, that the minds of true believers are like standing water, and breed reptiles of the mind. And I can assure you that my criticisms of Islam in this respect are every bit as trenchant as those of Christianity. But there is so much genuine race-hatred and Islamophobia that have flowed into the debates that we leftists often react to that with not-very-successful strategems, or with silence. We become afraid that our criticisms will just be fuel for the fire, and, worse, that they will be confused with all of that other fuel.

So, for example, take the cartoon stuff in Denmark. A gratuitous religious slur on a peaceful part of the Danish population--which remained peaceful after the publication--became a free speech issue. How can the left react? I, for one, don't oppose that principle. I do oppose gratuitous insult, however: I don't go out of my way to insult Christians, for example. But any protest to this effect on our part was taken as sympathy for the devil. In that context, I'm not about to make public speeches about the plain stupidity of believing, as georges put it earlier, that God intended us all to learn 7th century Arabic. I will automatically try to counter the demonization and racism that are erupting all around us. It's a knee-jerk reaction, but not, in my view, altogether a bad thing.

David

I wouldn’t accept the term “Islamophobia” as useful. It’s a tendentious question-begging device, one that was originated for less high-minded reasons and is propagated most often with equally dubious intent. And I wouldn’t describe the cartoons as “a gratuitous religious slur.” I’d suggest they ought ideally to be seen in the context of the article they accompanied and the events that prompted them, locally and globally, which were somewhat less than “peaceful”, and in terms of Muhammad’s own actions and purported revelations. But I’ve had that conversation quite a few times and don’t wish to have it again tonight. (Though the archives are yours to browse. A few relevant items are linked below.)

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/05/the_resilience_.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/06/respect-and-fea.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/05/facts_versus_fe.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/04/dangerous_excus.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/03/intimidation_re.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/03/the_passiveaggr.html

However, if someone presumes to tell me what I can say, or how I ought to say it – ostensibly for the benefit of someone else – they’re unlikely to be accommodated. And campus speech codes are, I think, rather more sinister than anything they’re supposed to combat.

georges

Islam is not a race.

A religious belief is an opinion (or a set of opinions). It is not an a brute fact of nature about a person, as his/her race is, or as her sexual orientation might be. Being a Muslim is more like being a Tory, a Liberal or a Socialist than being black. Pace Michael Jackson, if you're black you can't change that fact: there's no racial equivalent of religious conversion. The Anglican Bishop of Kent is an ex-Muslim who attacks Islamic beliefs more forcefully than other churchmen less intimately familiar with those beliefs - much as ex-Communists like Leszek Kolakowski are more vigorous in attacking Marxism than most Tories. So. "Islamophobia" makes no more or less sense than "Toryphobia", "Newlabourphobia", "Neoconphobia", "Anarchophobia", "Monarchophobia" etc. Interrogating religious beliefs, in exactly the way we interrogate political beliefs, often in a rough and ready fashion, is par for the course in a free society.

Compare the Muhammad cartoons with this cartoon (entitled "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism" by William Hogarth, made 250 years earlier:

http://www.library.northwestern.edu/spec/hogarth/Decay13.html

It seems to me that the Hogarth cartoon is more insulting and unfair than any of the Muhammad cartoons.

David

Georges,

From this,

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/05/the_resilience_.html

“Those who find their deepest convictions mocked… are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling…

Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism… It is not, in fact, a fine sentiment to require respect. Respect is not an entitlement. It is, at most, a quality that is earned by the intellectual resilience of one’s ideas in the public square… If those with deeply held convictions find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out. As one group succeeds, then others will perceive the incentive to fashion comparable demands…”

EBD

David, maybe you're right that domestic leftist appeasers of Islamism are simply unwilling to register the possibility of destructive consequences of their actions, but regarding Milne specifically, I think he's registered and on the road. In uniformly portraying those who consider the west their mortal enemy as justified in their perceptions, and in making the case -- unless you squint real hard when you read him -- that the cause of the west's enemies is politically allied to his own, he might fall just short of openly supporting the destructive consequences that have been prescribed for us, but the one consistent underlying argument he never stops making is "We deserve it."

In the course of excoriating those -- including numerous Muslims -- who might disagree that the west is responsible for the behaviour of jihadist Muslims towards it, and portraying his own argument as a slam-dunk, he writes "It is only necessary to listen to what the bombers say themselves. Just as Bin Laden has repeatedly spelled out that his campaign is about western occupation of Muslim lands..."

But Bin Laden and more than a few British Imams have made abundantly clear that the struggle is for a global Islamic caliphate, and to "unify the word of Ummah under the banner of "No God but Allah.'" So when Milne says we should listen to bin Laden, it reads as "listen to me selectively use bin Laden's words as backup for my argument about the reasonableness of Islamists' goals."

Dawg: You said you agree with Blake's statement that true belief breeds reptiles of the mind; it reasonably follows that in your opinion Islam too - as one of the exemplary "true beliefs" extant -- breeds reptiles of the mind. Question: If a cartoon panel containing no image but only -- artfully done -- text saying "Islam breeds reptiles of the mind", would you consider that a gratuitous religious slur?

And -- just out of idle curiosity -- do you consider the Danish cartoonists, during that period of time when they were in hiding, to have been "Islamophobic?"

That one's a joke. I'm off to Wichita in a pile of fruit, I'll check in Sunday.

David

EBD,

“Maybe you're right that domestic leftist appeasers of Islamism are simply unwilling to register the possibility of destructive consequences of their actions, but regarding Milne specifically, I think he's registered and on the road.”

Quite possibly. I find it hard to accept that he’s so selectively unaware or so unable to comprehend detailed rebuttals. But, again, if he’s aware of all contrary evidence and *still* believes what he seems to believe and still wants what he appears to want, he is then, by most definitions, a fantasist. We are, after all, talking about someone who praised the “genuine idealism” of Stalinism, prompting outrage from those who, unlike Milne, actually lived under the shadow of that “idealistic” phenomenon.

Horace Dunn

Dr Dawg, you said:

“OK, you two: maybe time for a little balance on the Orwell front.”

I love it when you come on all peremptory. Seriously, though, folks, I do enjoy hearing you and David (and others) argue. It’s good stuff: entertaining, though provoking and challenging. And courteous too, by all that’s holy.

You’re right, of course, to point out that leftists have no monopoly on the kind of strong-arm linguistic tactics that David mentioned (indeed, he conceded the point). Here in the UK, back in the 1980s, the expression “Loony Left” was much used in the conservative press. Articles appearing under this banner usually lamented the amount of hard-earned taxpayers money being spent on all manner of weird collectives. Frankly, these articles sometimes had a genuine point, but uttering the words “Loony Left” became a very effective way of closing down debate about homosexuality, race, immigration and so on. That was back in the 1980s, of course, but I’ve noticed that the expression “Loony Left” has started to reappear.

David

“And courteous too, by all that’s holy.”

The house rules are pretty basic. I ask only that people are reasonably civil. The “reasonably” bit allows plenty of leeway for barbs and pith, but I draw the line at spitting, biting and/or heavy petting. And if anyone’s caught dealing drugs, the house takes 20%.

Horace Dunn

David

I once heard of a London club which has two house rules:

1) If you're not willing to pay for a drink, don't engage the other members in conversation.

2) Don't piss against the bar.

I regret that I can't remember the name of the club in question. Perhaps I imagined it since entering "piss" and "club" into google takes me to places I never dreamed of going.

Horace Dunn

Oliver Kamm's view is interesting:

http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2007/08/liberalism-just.html

David

Thanks, I saw. I think Oliver is kinder to the Guardian’s history than I would be, but he does have a point:

“Merely to recall these stands, on all of which the newspaper was right and farsighted, gives one a jolt. As one former Guardian columnist put it to me the other day, he did not fancy resurrecting that role in order to vie for editorial space with Osama bin Laden.”

I’m not sure what’s more striking; the grotesque deference to Islamism by a self-styled “progressive” paper, or the fact that so many of its contributors and readers refuse to register the transformation, or what it implies.

As Norman Geras pointed out recently…

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2007/08/for-every-barry.html

…a typical response is to pretend that this ugly phenomenon is confined to just a few, albeit prominent, figures. But that simply isn’t true. Variations of this mindset (and many of the same unhinged claims) appear regularly across the left-leaning media, from the Independent and the New Statesman to the Daily Kos, the LRB and the New Left Review. And when the Guardian – the mainstream organ of the British left - publishes some variation of this nonsense on an all but weekly basis, and does so for several years, then the dysfunction is clearly more than some fringe aberration.

Horace Dunn

Thanks for that, David. I hadn’t seen the piece on Normblog. Stepping back into MilneWorld, though, I was intrigued by this statement:

“Anthony's book is in many ways an eerily familiar - though slightly less hysterical - reprise (right down to the title) of Nick Cohen's recent What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way.”

I haven’t read Anthony’s book, but I have read Nick Cohen’s. Well, perhaps my phlegmatic disposition made me insensitive to Cohen’s hysteria, but I didn’t spot it. I wonder if anyone else (apart from Milne) did.

I was also intrigued by his statement that the US has “imprisoned tens of thousands of Muslims without trial”. This is a genuine question. Has the US imprisoned tens of thousands of Muslims? I know about Gitmo, of course, and that there are prisons operating in Iraq, but do they really contain tens of thousands of Muslims? And were they selected for imprisonment in this way because they were Muslims, or for other reasons?

David

Horace,

When I think of Nick Cohen’s writing, the word “hysterical” doesn’t readily leap to mind.

Perhaps Milne is trying to give the impression that the US, being unspeakably evil in all respects, is rounding up Muslim architects and poets, purely for being Muslims, because that’s the thing evil empires do to pass the time. I’m guessing, of course, but not *entirely* frivolously. Don’t forget, another colleague of Mr Milne’s, Al Kennedy, playfully implied that “on 9/11 covert US government intervention killed thousands of innocents and handed the country, if not the world, to a ... torture-loving, far-right junta.”

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