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April 2008


A disgruntled Guardian reader attempts to summarise the politics of associate editor, Seumas Milne:

To recap: if we leave dictators in place in a Muslim country and do business with them, we are responsible for repression in those countries and this will encourage terrorism. If we do remove them forcefully, which means war, we are responsible for the subsequent sectarian carnage in the country and this will encourage terrorism. The only other solution is a system of sanctions as with between-wars Iraq, which I don’t remember Milne as being a particular supporter of. In summary, whatever happens we’ll get bombed and it’ll serve us right.

Pretty good, I thought. Certainly, it captures something of the knotted logic typical of Milne, and of countless resentful teenagers in sixth form common rooms. It isn’t just Milne, of course. Contorted self-abasement and pretentious agonising are practically default settings among Guardian regulars. Scanning the paper’s archives, it’s remarkable just how often one trips over headings such as Collective Complicity, How Could We Let This Happen? and - a personal favourite - Their Homophobia is Our Fault. And two weeks rarely pass without some claim that Islamic zealotry and efforts to blow up infidels are entirely our own doing - a result of “gross social inequality” and “Islamophobia” (but never the other way round). Or that alcoholism and overeating have nothing whatsoever to do with personal choices and everything to do with supermarkets, pornography and the crushing social force that is Heat magazine. Or that “hyper-frantic consumerism” and our wicked materialism must be punished, and quite severely, with rationing by the state

It’s a strange moral landscape at the Guardian, and frequently disgusting. Yet it’s hard to look away.


Another reader weighs in with an imaginary classified ad:

Puerile spokesman for defeated revolutionary movement seeks violent theocratic reactionaries for a long term relationship based on shared interests of killing westerners (commuters or office workers will do fine) and subjugating the global masses to the dictatorship of a monopoly doctrine (any doctrine will now do) and to generally obtain revenge against liberal market democracies for failing to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions as predicted by the delusional ‘revolutionary’ mass murderers of an early era.

Again, not bad at all.

My Fault Entirely

Speaking of phantom guilt and those it afflicts, over at the Augean Stables, another, related, malady has been found.

Like all potent and difficult psychological talents, however, self-criticism has its pathologies. Whereas most people dislike and avoid self-criticism at all costs, some few find it exhilarating, and engage in it unilaterally. This passion for self-criticism has created, in our day, a kind messianic pathology, what I call masochistic omnipotence syndrome, in which, “everything is our fault, and if only we could be better, we could fix anything.”

To this end, we forfeit normal protections. “Who are we to judge?” we say, as we accept as valid the stories and deeds of the oppressed “other,” no matter how dishonest the narrative and its intentions might be... From moral equivalence: “We’re as bad as you are”; to moral inversion: “No, we’re worse than you are.” The Muslim terrorists who blow up fellow Muslims at prayer in Iraq are thus to Michael Moore “Minute Men” resisting American soldiers who represent the forces of the evil empire. And if we just do this kind of moral reckoning enough, we seem to reason, we will eventually elicit good will and negotiate an end to all conflicts. “War,” we all know, “is not the answer.” We have the responsibility to repent for our imperialism and ask forgiveness for our crimes against native peoples. And all of this might be reasonable in the framework of good intentions on both sides.

But some use these principles to criticise us, not because they respect and admire the values they invoke, but only because of the positional advantage it gives them. They have no intention of reciprocating. They do not believe in these values, and they see us as irremediably stupid and effeminate for embracing self-criticism and commitments to treating others fairly... For them, our self-criticism registers as signs of weakness and an invitation to further aggression. The vulnerability we painfully but magnanimously adopt triggers not reciprocity and reconciliation, but predatory hopes.

Related ground is covered in the latest Shire Network News podcasts, which include a two-part exchange between Nick Cohen and Douglas Murray on left, right and the decidedly non-reciprocal nature of jihadi Islam. Part one. Part two. Well worth a listen.


Democratiya’s Alan Johnson chances his arm by sharing with Guardian readers a few unflattering truths.

By reducing the complexity of the post-cold war world to a single great contest in which “imperialism” or “empire” faced “anti-imperialism” or “the resistance”, parts of the left had transformed themselves into a reactionary post-left that took its enemy’s enemy for its friend. We were “all Hizbullah now” as the placards had it. Listen to John Rees, a leader of the Stop the War Coalition and Respect: “Socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein.”

America was the global oppressor and Bush was the “Number 1 terrorist”. Anyone shooting at Americans became, by that act, the resistance to empire. A collapse of sensibility followed. The reductionism in the theory licensed habits of mind and structures of feeling well-known among the older fellow travellers of Stalinism - apologia, denial, grossly simplifying tendencies of thought, moral relativism. The consequence was profound political disorientation. Tony Benn sat in front of the mass murderer, Saddam Hussein, and asked him, “I wonder whether you could say something yourself directly through this interview to the peace movement of the world that might help to advance the cause they have in mind?” Days later, Benn was less kind to an Iraqi oppositionist, spitting the words “CIA stooge!”

Naturally, Johnson’s comments don’t go down terribly well with the devout:

The only ones on the (supposed) left who “lost their way” were those who happily allied themselves with an unholy alliance of NeoConservative apologists for authoritarianism, free-market oligarchs and far-right fundamentalist Christians.

It’s dizzying stuff, and just a bit grubby.

Help fund my filthy excavations.

Virtue by Default

In the arts pages of today’s Guardian, there’s a suitably incoherent piece by the playwright David Edgar. It includes the following assertion:

Whether they like it or not, the current defectors [from the left] are seeking to provide a vocabulary for the progressive intelligentsia to abandon the poor.

I scarcely need to say much about that statement or its ludicrous assumptions, or the half dozen or so other claims that rival its stupidity, save to add that Mr Edgar’s formulation is not as rare as one might wish. But over at Harry’s Place a discussion of the above is a’rumbling and among its gems is this one:

There is another dynamic… which I would argue over-rides all the others that you have listed, and that is based on power: the weak versus the strong. This manifests itself in different ways, in different times, be it the King oppressing his serfs, the State oppressing its citizens, a religion oppressing its adherents or adversaries, a corporation oppressing its workers, etc. The progressive always stands with the weak, against the strong. And that is the difference between left and right, and it matters a lot.

Setting aside the tendentious particulars, what’s interesting to me is the broad ideological dynamic – the romantic elevation of victimhood, real or imagined - and the tangle of contradictions that necessarily follow. A position of relative weakness is, bizarrely, deemed one of de facto virtue, one that “overrides” other considerations, no doubt in the interests of convenience. Thus, for instance, a random Muslim can be designated a member of some put-upon category of mankind, by virtue of simply being Muslim. What matters, by this logic, is group affiliation and collective identity, regardless of how patronising or cartoonish that collective identity is, and regardless of how partial or notional that affiliation may be. Whether any given individual is actually put-upon, or puts upon others, or hopes to, doesn’t seem to feature in this calculation. What matters, and matters very much, is group “disadvantage” – irrespective of how that “disadvantage” came about or why it persists. Where, I wonder, does self-inflicted “disadvantage” – arrived at by vanity, ideology, stupidity or incompetence – sit in such lofty moral calculus?

Another HP commenter, one much clearer in his thoughts, replies:

The fact that somebody is weak doesn’t make that somebody automatically just or right. In Spring 1945, the Wehrmacht was weak, the Allies strong: by your logic, you should have sided with the Wehrmacht.

It seems remarkable to me that the observation directly above should need pointing out, and pointing out quite often. Yet, apparently, it does. With that in mind, I’ll repeat two passages from an essay I wrote some time ago:

For some commentators, innocence and guilt depend less upon personal actions than on the racial, economic or religious group a person can be said to belong to. Hence we’re presented with a menu of Designated Victim Groups, members of which may be afforded a measure of immunity from individual responsibility, while claiming privilege on grounds that something bad happened to someone else ostensibly a bit like them. Conversely, members of Designated Oppressor Groups are often expected to bear responsibility for actions other than their own - even the actions of strangers who lived centuries earlier. Variations of this premise underlie practically any utterance involving the term “post-colonial”.

Regarding that urge to “always stand with the weak against the strong,” which is, apparently, “the difference between left and right,” this seems apposite: 

The phrase “asymmetric warfare” has entered popular usage and many of those who use it focus primarily on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. Again, this follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available. (The words “Israel-Palestine conflict” spring immediately to mind.) Those of a critical disposition may wish to object at this point on the basis that the asymmetry of military capability is for most purposes a moral non sequitur. Simply put, if a person threatens me or my family with a baseball bat and I happen to be carrying a gun, the fact that I’m better armed is in no meaningful sense “unfair”.

With luck, I won’t feel a need to repeat this for at least six months or so. But I make no promises.

Friday Ephemera

South Park: Over Logging. Can Kyle save the internet? (nsfw) // Tetris: the Movie. // Box office receipts, 1986-2007. // Nokia’s nanotech Morph. Soon, my pretties. // Theorists, captioned in LOLspeak. Foucault, Haraway, Spivak, made to look… silly. // “A rare and precious space intended for womyn-born womyn.” // Intriguing toilet signs. // Dirty hands are a “human right” in Vancouver. (h/t, Cookslaw.) // How fingerprinting works. (h/t, Coudal.) // Caught red handed. Inevitable, really. // Gateshead Millennium Bridge. // Space junk. // A great moment in Soviet science fiction. // Beyoncé has three arms. // A brief history of LSD. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Comic book adverts. X-ray specs, ant farms, ugly rubber hands. // Hulk versus the Rain. 1, 2, 3, 4. // Nursey knows. // Astro Boy. // Tilted house, Japan. // The Japanese Uniform Museum. (h/t, Coudal.) // Posters of the USSR. // Total world domination… cancelled. // Hamas MP likes world domination too. Allah willing. // Robert Spencer on freedom of speech in an age of jihad. // Professor Guy McPherson looks forward to the Post-Industrial Stone Age. It’s for the greater good. // “If I can just focus the Sun’s rays...” // Ultimate snooker skillz. (h/t, Cookslaw.) // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Mr Ray Charles.

Phantom Subtext

Zoe Williams, whose search for radicalism was mentioned yesterday, previously thrilled us with her discovery that “hoodie” is in fact a “sleight-of-hand” and a “sinister” racial code word. The list of hitherto innocuous words that now, apparently, hold terrible racist significance continues to grow. Allah (pbuh) highlights an article by David K Shipler, who, like Williams, possesses some kind of racial Spider Sense and can detect heinous racist intent where none was thought to be.

[W]hen his opponents branded [Obama] an elitist and an outsider, his race made it easier to drive a wedge between him and the white, rural voters he has courted. As an African American, he was supposedly looking down from a place he didn’t belong and looking in from a distance he could not cross. This could not happen as dramatically were it not for embedded racial attitudes. “Elitist” is another word for “arrogant,” which is another word for “uppity,” that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.

As Allah notes,

If you take this tool seriously, there’s quite literally no good-faith way to accuse a member of a minority group of being snobbish or condescending. Every road through Shipler’s copy of Roget will lead inevitably back to “uppity,” no matter how circuitous the route may be.

It is, as ever, fascinating to watch people tilting their heads, squinting and bearing down quite hard until they can see just about everything through the unreliable lens of identity politics - a gift bestowed upon them by others, very often educators, with similar paranormal talents.



It’s often struck me that Socialism in the developed world is at heart an adolescent phenomenon, insofar as it involves a contrarian bloody-mindedness, a sort of grumpy whimsy and an imperviousness to absurdity. By way of illustration, the singing Socialist, Billy Bragg, recently told Radio 4 listeners in a very serious voice that he’d learned all of his politics from pop music. Likewise, the commentary of Seumas Milne, a diehard enthusiast of proletarian revolution, rarely makes sense in terms of logic or principle or even feeding poor people. It does, however, have its own internal semblance of logic if you think of it as the oppositional pantomime of an arrested adolescent. My other half describes adolescence as a five year bad mood, and we can, I think, forgive teenagers many of their hormonal pretentions. Adults, not so much.

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, an adult whose insights have entertained us before, today shares her thoughts on the Glastonbury music festival and its counter-cultural credentials

But how counter-cultural is Glastonbury? This question was last asked in 2002, when Mean Fiddler took over the security and the era of leaping the fence was officially over… You had to ask, as many did, would its free spirit survive?

So, you take a general hippy atmosphere, with all the crystals and whatnot, and there is a tacit anti-consumerism just to the smell of patchouli. But the truth is that ticket prices have been steep for years. The days of getting in for a quid and being given a free pint of milk are long gone. Michael Eavis, the festival’s founder, had no interest in returning to them either, being quite taken with the charitable side of the festival. This resulted in huge donations to CND and, more recently, to Oxfam, Greenpeace and local groups. In order for these noble ends to be realised, pretensions of rebellion had to be relinquished; the crowd had to pay…

So why does [Glastonbury] always look so radical, so unlike a V festival or Reading, so outside civilisation? I'll tell you why, it’s because the audience is always covered with mud. The only culture this festival runs counter to is the culture of cleanliness. It’s like the whole of hippydom in weekend-microcosm - it looks like there’s a point, but turn any stone and all you’ll find is mud and earwigs.

But... the radicalism...   

Glastonbury_radicalism_2 Glastonbury_2005 Glastonbury_radicalism_3 Apocalypse_now_2

Hygiene aside, what’s interesting is that, like so many of her peers, Williams assumes radicalism entails a free lunch, sorry, spirit, and a rejection of capitalism. If only all of this music, lighting, food and hippie paraphernalia could be done without money, or less money, or something that does what money does, but isn’t actually money. She also assumes, again like many others, that giving, er, money to CND is some yardstick of nobility and radical virtue. Anyone familiar with the actual politics of CND and its chairman, Kate Hudson - whose affiliations include the Communist Party of Britain and its declared solidarity with North Korea - might take a less charitable view. One might also wonder why CND excuses Iran’s efforts at nuclear armament, while opposing such weapons being possessed by Israel and the West. A logic that seems based on a belief that power is intrinsically very, very bad, except when others have it, in which case it suddenly becomes good, regardless of how it may be used. But such bothersome details would almost certainly hinder Ms Williams in her search for counter-cultural radicalism.

I’m reminded of a video sent to the 2006 Reading Festival by Jarvis Cocker from his home in France, along with an appeal to “smash the system.” (Cocker’s dislike of pretension and fondness for Socialism have been recurrent features of his catalogue and public commentary, though the possible contradictions of those positions have, so far as I know, yet to be set to music.) The video was to promote the former Pulp frontman’s single, Cunts are Still Running the World. (Subsequently renamed Running the World and edited to omit the salty language.) As the original title suggests, it’s a stirring ditty. More to the point, the song is meticulously tuned, both to a Glastonbury audience and the familiar rules of pop star rebellion, the two being closely related: “Your free market is perfectly natural. Do you think that I’m some kind of dummy? It’s the ideal way to order the world. Fuck the morals, does it make any money?” Edgy, I think you’ll agree. War is bad, being bourgeois is bad and free market capitalism – of which Mr Cocker is a conspicuous beneficiary – is a terrible, terrible thing. Such is the radical counterculture for which Ms Williams yearns.


Speaking of pious opportunism, here’s a piece by Robert Tracinski from 2006 on the lessons of the MoToons saga, which I think bear repeating. 

[Republishing the cartoons] is not merely a symbolic expression of support; it is a practical countermeasure against censorship. Censorship — especially the violent, anarchic type threatened by Muslim fanatics — is effective only when it can isolate a specific victim, making him feel as if he alone bears the brunt of the danger. What intimidates an artist or writer is not simply some Arab fanatic in the street carrying a placard that reads “Behead those who insult Islam.” What intimidates him is the feeling that, when the beheaders come after him, he will be on his own, with no allies or defenders — that everyone else will be too cowardly to stick their necks out.

The answer, for publishers, is to tell the Muslim fanatics that they can’t single out any one author, or artist, or publication. The answer is to show that we’re all united in defying the fanatics. That’s what it means to show solidarity by re-publishing the cartoons. The message we need to send is: if you want to kill anyone who publishes those cartoons, or anyone who makes cartoons of Muhammad, then you’re going to have to kill us all. If you make war on one independent mind, you’re making war on all of us. And we’ll fight back… 

This is the final lesson of the cartoon jihad. The real issue at stake is not just censorship versus freedom, but something much deeper: the need to recognise the real essence of the West. The distinctive power and vibrancy of our culture, the source of our liberty, our happiness, and our unprecedented prosperity, is our Enlightenment tradition of regard for the unfettered reasoning mind, left free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

And from an earlier post, here’s Salman Rushdie on his experience of the same.

When people said they didn’t publish [the cartoons] out of respect for Muslims, what they meant is they didn’t publish them because they were afraid of their offices getting bombed. And when you create that kind of climate of fear, when you concede… you don’t as a result have less intimidation… As a result you have more intimidation…

[T]he question is how do you respond to intimidation, and do you give in to it or do you not give in to it. I think that when the intimidation became as heavy as it did, the only proper response was everybody should have published the cartoons the next day. And not to do that was a way of showing that threats work.

Exactly. It’s a strange, though common, logic that leads a person to believe handing over his lunch money will keep the bully from calling again.

Related. And.