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Friday Ephemera

Intellectual Life

Today’s Guardian editorial sings the praises of that “radical literary magazine,” The London Review of Books: 

So essential to Britain’s intellectual life... The editorial care taken is a cause for wonder and cheer.

The LRB is also praised for,

The standard it keeps up.

Those who diverge from the Guardian’s definition of standards may feel less enthusiastic. Let’s not forget the LRB’s default anti-Israel bias, perhaps best summarised by the magazine’s editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who told the Sunday Times: “I’m unambiguously hostile to Israel because it’s a mendacious state.” There’s also the LRB’s history of excusing Islamic terrorism with wild inversions of reality. As, for instance, when Charles Glass fawned over the  “uncompromising programme” of Hizballah and its “intelligent” use of “car bombs, ambushes, small rockets and suicide bombers.” It’s always heartening to see literary intellectuals being titillated by random savagery and casually disregarding the openly genocidal statements of Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah. I suspect readers of the LRB will be studiously unaware that in 2003 Hizballah’s TV channel broadcast a 30-part “history” series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But then this is the kind of “intellectual life” that sees fit to publish a breezy hagiography of – wait for it - Robert Mugabe

We’ve seen such things before, not least in the Guardian itself, and in such elevated organs as the New Left Review. As when the Marxist art critic Julian Stallabrass pondered the “spectacle” of terrorism and seemed more than a little aroused by the “vanguard politics” of “Islamic revolutionaries” who “harden themselves against mundane sentiment.” According to Mr Stallabrass, “the 9/11 attacks did no more than return to the US a taste of the force it has wielded across the globe.” A view shared by the Cambridge historian and LRB regular Mary Beard, who described the events of that morning as a “predictable outcome of US actions,” while putting the words terrorist and terrorism in ironic quotation marks. Ms Beard also pondered the feeling that “America had it coming” and likened jihadist terrorism to “extraordinary acts of bravery.” The Guardian’s then comment editor Seumas Milne also framed terrorism in quotation marks and said with eerie confidence, “Americans simply don’t get it.” This, on September 13, while human dust was still, quite literally, settling on Manhattan.

The London Review of Books is of course Arts Council funded.



If the Independent is the Daily Mail for those who recycle, then the London Review of Books is the Reader's Digest for soi-disant liberals.

sackcloth and ashes

'So essential to Britain’s intellectual life'

The LRB's own puff-piece about their readership suggests a somewhat restricted definition of 'intellectual life':


Yes - the message is very intellectual: "Sorry - the website is closed for maintenance. Come back later."


Americans don't get it like Europeans got it back in 1939...we had to wait until 1941, but you folks are oh so much smarter than us...


If someone flew an explosive packed Cessna into these coordinates it would do more to deter Terrorism in the UK than possibly any other act.,-0.101892&sspn=0.002402,0.004823&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=York+Way,+London+N7,+United+Kingdom&ll=51.534144,-0.121617&spn=0.002403,0.004823&t=h&z=18



The LRB tells us its readers are “the intellectual elite of the world.” Which perhaps says more than they realise. Though it is often a distillation of the bien-pensant consensus - aimed at well-heeled, leftwing elitists who see no contradiction in being leftwing elitists.


"...while putting the words terrorist and terrorism in ironic quotation marks"

Funny how the LRB article on "Zionist terrorism" didn't have any ironic quotation marks.


Given the likely perpetrator of such an MO, would that not constitute a "friendly fire" incident?



“Funny how the LRB article on ‘Zionist terrorism’ didn't have any ironic quotation marks.”

Ah, but Israel is a Designated Oppressor by virtue of being more militarily powerful than any one of its numerous enemies. Don’t forget, the LRB peddles a worldview common on the left – i.e. that the militarily weaker party is sympathetic by default and/or entitled to indulgence irrespective of their actions and intent, and especially if the conflict involves Israel or the West. As Eugene Goodheart puts it in the piece linked below, it’s a belief that “whatever violence or cruelties issue from the weak are then morally justified by weakness.” It’s a standard Guardian / LRB line.

For example, see Charles Glass’ morally frivolous comments in the LRB about Hizballah and its so-called “weapons of the weak” – by which he means suicide bombing and the use of human shields, including children. As Goodheart points out, Glass simply ignores how these “weapons of the weak” rely for their effectiveness on *deliberately* targeting civilians and placing a much lower value on the lives of non-combatants. And it’s a strategy that works precisely because of a moral asymmetry – one that doesn’t seem to trouble the “intellectual elite” at the London Review of Books.

I’ve mentioned this kind of moral asymmetry before:

“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’.”


"Weapons of the weak" depends on where you draw the line for "weak". The "weak" that brandish such weapons keep their own civilians (who are weaker) in line by exercising power over them.


"Glass simply ignores how these "weapons of the weak" rely for their effectiveness on *deliberately* targeting civilians and placing a much lower value on the lives of non-combatants."

Hamas body armour...

sackcloth and ashes

'The LRB tells us its readers are “the intellectual elite of the world.” Which perhaps says more than they realise. Though it is often a distillation of the bien-pensant consensus - aimed at well-heeled, leftwing elitists who see no contradiction in being leftwing elitists.'

I can't access that page now, but the telling statistic was a readership of 44,000 approx, which is a bit laughable for a journal that claims that it is read by 'the intellectual elite of the world' ('The Economist', in contrast, has a measly 1.4m copies per issue). There were also some telling stats about how many of the readers (according to a 2000 survey) had incomes of over £40,000, were gourmet connoisseurs, and who had annual holidays in Tuscany and other swish spots. The other claim which made me laugh was that their output was hoovered up by decision-makers and high-flying academics. Again, the latter will read 'The Economist', 'Survival', the Adelphi Papers etc ... but I don't see the LRB having any credibility there.



“...but I don’t see the LRB having any credibility there.”

And just how seriously should we take a magazine that regularly publishes the “theorising” of Slavoj Žižek? Ooh, he’s so edgy.


“The ‘weak’ that brandish such weapons keep their own civilians (who are weaker) in line by exercising power over them.”

Well, this default underdog sympathy can lead to some peculiar reversals. As when Iran’s nuclear armament efforts were defended by... Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I mean, you couldn’t make this up.

sackcloth and ashes

Indeed. Zizek is a parody.

Incidentally, I should also have added the US journal 'Foreign Affair's (circulation 200,000) as one which has more influence amongst global policy-makers and intellectuals. Funnily enough, I've never seen them publish Zizek, Tariq Ali or any of the other crowd who've found themselves a shelter in the LRB. What a perfect combination of pretentiousness and irrelevance!


A combination of pretentious irrelevance which would easily surpass Boris's Piffle Tower if all back issues were stacked up.

David Gillies

Many years ago I remember my father scoffing at a report on a 'conference of intellectuals', noting that no-one worthy of the name would ever call himself an intellectual (q.v. Groucho's Paradox).


Most of that 44,000 will be in positions of power and influence, and will be overwhelmingly left-wing. Its impact is way beyond the size of its readership.

I thought the Guardian offices were on the Farringdon Road, they must have moved. It is telling that opposite their old building was the Arts Council England, and just up the road Amnesty International. The Farringdon Road could have been described as the artery of the left-wing Establishment.


I share Rob's surprise about the move. The area around Kings Cross is notorious for its population of drug fiends, women of ill repute and moral degenerates.

A punchline at this point would be superfluous.


Of course, "left-wing" is unecessary in the phrase "left-wing Establishment". There isn't a right-wing establishment.

David Gillies

Good thing about Farringdon Road: it's just round the corner from Smithfield Market, and meat porters work daft hours, so if you were, say, a student at Imperial back in your youth and you were particularly in need of a pint at 5 a.m., it was a top-notch destination. First Circle Line train of the day from South Ken: sorted.

Alvin Lucier

"There isn't a right-wing establishment."

ha ha ha ha

Subject of the Realm

"the 9/11 attacks did no more than return to the US a taste of the force it has wielded across the globe.”

Not nearly. The US and its toady Britain has a lot more coming to them.


"The US and its toady Britain has a lot more coming to them"

That's "HAVE a lot more coming to them". You are moidering the Queen's English. Any other murder you might be interested in? Please, do tell.


Mary Beard, October 2001:

"But almost the oddest response has been our terrified certainty that there remains a plentiful supply of suicide pilots and bombers. Anyone who has scratched the surface of early Christianity will realise that full-blown martyrs are a rare commodity, much more numerous in the imagination than on the ground."

Number of jihad plots and bombers since 9/11: 14,318.


Subject of the Realm,

“The US and its toady Britain has a lot more coming to them.”

I realise you’re fond of the drive-by comment and the unargued, even cryptic, assertion, but maybe you could indulge us with something more... substantial? Just to make things fun.


I’m reminded of a piece in the New Statesman that described the London bombings as “a stunt” carried out by “overgrown adolescents who had nothing better to do,” and in which those who plot such things were dismissed as “a handful of cranky extremists.” This was published at a time when British, Canadian and US security services had already thwarted *nine* attempts to hijack aircraft – including a tentative plot to hijack a plane leaving Heathrow and then crash it into Canary Wharf. Viewed in this light, the terms “stunt” and “cranky” seem a tad unfortunate.

But it’s just another facet of a denial that’s often defined the New Statesman, the LRB, the NLR and the Guardian. For instance, whenever Western foreign policy is wheeled out as the sole and “obvious” explanation for resurgent jihadist sentiment, there’s a question that doesn’t often get asked, or answered. How does Western foreign policy explain the rise of jihadist movements in over a dozen countries with no obviously contentious role in Iraq or the Middle East? How do events in Iraq explain Islamist movements in Thailand, where random Buddhists – including monks and female teachers – have been targets of beatings, burnings and beheadings, and where Sharia separatists have mounted bombing campaigns, with 41 bombs being detonated in the space of 30 minutes?

What about Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya in Egypt or Al-Ummah in India, or the jihadists in Malaysia, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and Singapore? The jihadist movements in Indonesia, for instance, cite motives that are independent of Washington and London and which are based explicitly on what they see as core Islamic imperatives and the teachings of Muhammad. Mukhlas Imron, the Bali bombing “mastermind” and leader of Jemaah Islamiyah explained his actions not as a response to Iraq or Afghanistan, but as intended to advance the creation of a vast Sharia state covering Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. Imron pointedly cited Muhammad as his inspiration: “You who still have a shred of faith in your hearts, have you forgotten that to kill infidels and the enemies of Islam is a deed that has a reward above no other… Aren’t you aware that the model for us all, the Prophet Muhammad and the four rightful caliphs, undertook to murder infidels as one of their primary activities, and that the Prophet waged jihad operations 77 times in the first 10 years as head of the Muslim community in Medina?”

Other Indonesian jihadists, including the Indonesian Council of Mullahs, published a book, Jihad and the Foreign Policy of the Khilafah State, outlining their religious motives with appeals to Islamic precedent. The book was found in Indonesian bookshops and as page 64 of this manual helpfully explains, “Indonesia [will] be the foundation of a Southeast Asian Caliphate that will launch jihad against other nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and Papua New Guinea until they have all submitted to Islam.” In order to achieve this glorious aim, “all pockets of resistance must be subdued.” And, “If the [unbelievers] reject [the call to Islam]… then war must be waged against them in order to remove any obstacle [to] implementing the Islamic ruling system upon them.”

Faced with such statements, it isn’t clear how one can still claim that jihadist terrorism is simply a result of Western foreign policy, rather than of a fanatical ideology with a history and ambitions of its own.

sackcloth and ashes

'Subject of the Realm' has made an arse of himself/herself here yet again.

Incidentally, talking of the 'LRB' and its supposed open-mindedness, I can't help remembering this aspect of Mary-Kay Wilmers' response to 9/11:

'Three days after the attack, [David] Marquand, one of the LRB's regular contributors, was asked to review 'The Rivals', James Naughtie's book about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Marquand is, by quite a long way, the finest writer on the left today. He has written a number of classics, all characterised not just by the strength of their argument but also by the clarity of their prose. And he is far from being a Blairite, let alone a lackey. Most of his pieces have been critical of "The Project".

In his LRB review, however, he turned to Blair's response to 11 September, which he summarised thus: "Blair's handling of the post-11 September crisis was impeccable." He filed his piece on 17 January. The next day, he received the following response from Ms Wilmers: "There's a problem... I can't square it with my conscience to praise so wholeheartedly Blair's conduct since 11 September... I feel quite strongly that the US response, and ipso facto ours, has been at the very least questionable... I hope you won't think I'm being doctrinaire – or incomprehensibly convoluted." She was, in other words, refusing to print his piece because she didn't agree with it.

As Marquand put it in reply to Ms Wilmers: "Frankly, I find your message outrageous... I have never before had a piece rejected on the grounds that it departed from the party line of the publication. I'm utterly shocked that the LRB should apply what amounts to censorship to its contributors... You wouldn't have been praising Blair; the praise would have come from me. If you feel really strongly that my opinions are shocking or wrong-headed, you could perfectly well publish them with an appropriate editorial disclaimer. What you are really saying, camouflaged by this talk of conscience, is that the contents of your paper have to conform to your personal prejudices, and that dissident voices need not apply. For a journal that purports to be one of opinion and debate, that is monstrous."'



But of course. Doctrinaire delusion is so much easier to maintain if you can control the terms of the debate and continually beg the question. If you search the archives, you’ll find plenty of examples of this kind of pathological denial, most of which involve the Guardian. But other publications were also humming with delusion. In October 2005, the Socialist Worker published a ludicrously flattering profile of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, stressing the jihadist’s “kindness” and “determination.” The article’s author, Loretta Napoleoni, claimed jihadists are “the new anti-imperialist ideology” and theirs is the “global anti-imperialist creed.” Once again, the explicit imperialist intent of the Islamist groups in question was casually overlooked, apparently on the basis that “Western imperialism” is what all good hearted people should be worried about.

While Ms Napoleoni was rhetorically fellating her latest swarthy brute, Zarqawi’s supporters were outlining their movement’s totalitarian ambitions. As one jihadist website announced: “Islamic Sharia is the right religion and anything else is wrong and rejected, including the [democratic] constitution. No human being is allowed to make laws, which is the right of Allah alone… Participating in drafting legislations and the constitution is equal to infidelism and blatant polytheism. Whoever believes in [democracy] or calls for it is an apostate and an infidel…” In his numerous audiotape fatwas, Zarqawi had made his totalitarian agenda abundantly clear: “We have declared an all-out war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology.”

Ms Napoleoni had somehow managed not to notice such unambiguous details, all of which were readily available. Instead, she was busy revealing “the truth” to readers of the Socialist Worker. And this isn’t a matter of carelessness. Inverting reality and sustaining the illusion takes effort. There are any number of things that have to be ignored and any number of things that cannot be thought about.

A little perspective, perhaps?

To take only the most recent issue, I read interesting pieces by Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes, Andrew O'Hagan, a fascinating piece on honour killing, Frank Kermode, Alan Bennett and John Lanchester. (OK, so it's an anniversary issue).

There's no denying that the LRB can be cosily radical; whenever I see a piece by Zizek I have to restrain myself from tearing the magazine into tiny little shreds.

But wouldn't you be just the tiniest bit suspicious of a magazine that you found yourself in complete agreement with, week in week out?

sackcloth and ashes

'But wouldn't you be just the tiniest bit suspicious of a magazine that you found yourself in complete agreement with, week in week out?'

I don't know, Lee. You'll have to ask the LRB subscribers that question. My earlier post shows that the editor is really uncomfortable with any proposition that challenges posh-left orthodoxies.



“But wouldn’t you be just the tiniest bit suspicious of a magazine that you found yourself in complete agreement with, week in week out?”

Yes, I think I would, were such a publication to exist. And I’m not trying to evaluate the LRB’s literary merits, whatever they may be. (I vaguely recall an interesting essay by Jonathan Lethem on Marvel Comics.) The issue is the professed political and intellectual “radicalism,” which very often entails regurgitation of the usual modish prejudice and moral contortion. Which, all things considered, doesn’t seem terribly radical, or honest. It isn’t a matter of airing contentious views. It’s the peddling of absurdity in intellectual drag.

I agree with "modish prejudice and moral contortion", David, and also Sackcloth's "posth-left orthodoxies". To take one example, I found the NYRB ran many articles before the invasion of Iraq that cleaved to what would later be called a Euston Manifesto position. It just seems a bit off to close the initial post by mentioning the Arts Council funding. What point is being made?



“It just seems a bit off to close the initial post by mentioning the Arts Council funding. What point is being made?”

A certain elitist narcissism perhaps? A feeling of being entitled to other people’s money, whether they wish to give it or not? Or maybe the kind of fatuous, self-regarding “radicalism” highlighted in the link below?

It’s perfectly legitimate to object to coercive public subsidy of the LRB or any publication, especially when the content includes the items mentioned above.

The legitimacy of your objection is not in question. Object away. I'm rather saying that it's surely an overreaction to oppose public funding because of the smug leftish orthodoxies of a small minority of the political articles. Isn't that like calling to shut off public funding just because you don't like the Alan Bennett diaries?



“I’m rather saying that it’s surely an overreaction to oppose public funding because of the smug leftish orthodoxies of a small minority of the political articles.”

That isn’t the basis of the objection, it’s just an added irritation. (If people wish to rhetorically fellate jihadists or equate terrorism with “extraordinary acts of bravery,” they might at least have the decency to do it on a genuine commercial basis or on their own dime. Expecting and accepting public subsidy only adds to the distaste.) The basic point, I think, is that quite a few artists and publishers seem to imagine that the functions of the welfare state should include saving unprofitable productions from an uninterested public. I summarised my general objection in the comments following the piece linked above:

“It helps if you think of the issue in terms of individual autonomy and personal freedom. When a person is taxed they lose some autonomy – their degrees of freedom are reduced, and sometimes they’re reduced quite a lot. Some reasons for inflicting this reduction are easier to justify than others... But depriving individuals of some autonomy and freedom shouldn’t be done lightly, though it very often is. And taking money from people via taxes in order to indulge artists whose work wouldn’t succeed on a commercial footing isn’t an entirely persuasive reason. And, contrary to the grandiose claims above, objecting to this reduction of autonomy doesn’t make one mean or vulgar.”



More panhandling from the Royal Opera House...

Love the summary: "We're special, the arts, so we deserve more tax money."

The Colonel


Good post. Have you seen Standpoint?

"With a circulation now approaching 50,000, the fortnightly boasts that is the most important literary journal, not only in Britain but in Europe... Last October, the LRB celebrated its 30th anniversary, apparently in robust health. With a circulation of this size, it should at least be breaking even. Yet the LRB has always received an Arts Council grant, now around £21,000 per annum. No other comparable literary magazine has enjoyed such long-term, inflation-proof, no-strings subsidy from the taxpayer. The Arts Council offers no justification. It merely states that the money is used to pay contributors. Perhaps the Commons Public Accounts Committee will inquire into how the taxpayer benefits from singling out the LRB for preferential treatment. The magazine's accounts, as submitted to Companies House, do not include a profit and loss account, but they do reveal that the LRB has to service a debt of more than £23 million, paying interest at a rate of eight per cent, and rising by £3 million a year."

I wonder if taxpayers would approve of year after year bailing out an elite leftwing clique? Good job we don't get a say, eh?


Colonel, thanks for the heads-up.

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