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The Gregory Deal July 23, 2012

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Decent Left, The Left.

Meant to post this before ,a while back Maureen O’Sullivan posted the Gregory Deal on her website .

You’ll need your glasses but for those that haven’t seen the deal (which was reproduced in Robbie Gilligans book on Tony Gregory) it’s worth a look.
The first page of the deal below…

The Left! I knew it was them! Even when it was the Bears, I knew it was them. October 12, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Capitalism, Decent Left, International Finance, Media and Journalism, The Left.
1 comment so far

Question: At a time of unprecedented financial upheaval, when – for the first time in a generation – the basic assumptions of free-market capitalism are coming under widespread scepticism, how should someone who publicly presents themselves as the conscience of the Left respond?  Answer (if you’re Nick Cohen): by attacking media executives, of course!

So goes Nick’s latest screed in the Observer, where he seems to suggest that the most interesting development in recent weeks was the appearance of Shameless actor David Threlfall on a demonstration against child poverty.  His overall argument, in a nutshell, is that if poverty increases on foot of the current market crash, programmes like Shameless (which portray individuals living in poverty as figures of fun) will only make it worse. 

Nick’s descent into old-fogeyism has been well documented on these pages since the blog’s inception.  While, at first, we regretted that a journalist who wrote so powerfully about the dark side of the Blair government had abandoned all his critical faculties when it came to the Iraq invasion, reading Cohen now is little more than a sometimes amusing look at how inventive and eccentric he can be in the accusations he puts to liberals, the media and, above all, The Left.

Even by Nick’s standards, though, this latest piece displays a remarkable audacity.  Like too much recent commentary, he simply accepts the current financial meltdown as if it was some kind of natural disaster, spending little or no time analysing its causes or the proposed solutions.  Indeed, he takes it as a given that it will generate an increase in poverty, but never considers the implications for those in poverty of government responses (i.e. investing massive amounts of public funds in an attempt to maintain the stability of financial institutions).  Instead, he prefers to attack an actor, and ‘media executives’ more generally. It’s almost as if he’s become a parody of himself.  All the usual tropes of a Nick Cohen article are there: the media, elitism, the failure of the left; all he needs is a reference to Judith Butler and you have a full house.

I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Shameless, but did’t really find it to my taste.  Rather than attacking those in poverty, though, I thought it somewhat over-romanticised, a little like Stephen Frears’ adaptation of The Van.  However, I certainly haven’t seen enough to argue with Nick’s assertion, and he is spot-on about Jeremy Kyle and Little Britain.  Indeed, he does actually make quite an interesting point about how the British electorate has, in the past, transferred its allegiance to the Conservative Party in times of recession.

But, really, is this the best he could come up with as a reaction to the current situation.  It’s almost like a columnist whose first piece after the 9/11 attacks is complaining about shoddy engineering in skyscraper construction.

This is not to say that Nick would have to adopt the SWP line on the crash (“Yes, we know we’ve told you that global capitalism was in crisis before, but this time we really mean it”) as a genuinely left-wing response.  If he wanted to stick to his usual argument on attacking the Left on everthing, which now seems to fit him like a comfortable pair of old slippers, there is ample genuine opportunity.  At the risk of descending into Cohenesque generalisation, not to mention ignoring the beam in my own eye, it’s much to the discredit of the Left that we have yet to see a strong, sophisticated left-wing response.  In one sense, it’s hardly surprising.  The anti-globalisation “movement” (if it can be called a movement) has by far the greater claim to be the authentic voice of contemporary anti-capitalism than, say, the Socialist International.  However, its defining characteristic – what Paul Kingsnorth describes as ‘One No, Many Yeses’ is also, perhaps, its greatest weakness in the current climate.  As so disparate a group of movements, organisations and individuals, it’s never going to be able to come up with the same kind of collective response that we saw, say, in the coordinated interest rate cut last week.  This is why, perhaps, the response among political parties styling themselves as left-wing has been so disappointing.  Either an uncomfortable dither, with some vague pieties about the need for additional regulation in future or, further left, a retreat into the same old pieties.

What’s interesting, in the case, is that Nick’s response has been exactly the same.  Rather than make the effort to analyse the situation with any kind of insight or originality, he does adopts the same approach as those he enjoys maligning so much: retreating to the single, transferable argument.  For someone who spent so much time in his recent book criticising the Left for abandoning bread-and-butter, economic issues in favour to self-regarding multi-culturalism and identity politics, it’s amazing he’s got so little to say about the most significant economic issue for years.  What’s left, Nick?

A horror of facing March 22, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Decent Left, Iraq.


When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?  – J.M. Keynes

There are times when brute stubbornness, an unwillingness to concede defeat and to plough on regardless, can be a virtue: attempting to give up smoking, completing a particularly interminable Resident Evil game or arguing with racists over on politics.ie.  On most occasions, though, it’s a character flaw, demonstrating a lack of self-confidence and an inability to look at oneself critically.  We see this ably demonstrated in Christopher Hitchens’ piece in today’s Irish Times entitled ‘Invading Iraq was a just cause, and much good has come of it’.  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The article is a reprint of Hitchens’ contribution to the ongoing series in Slate various pro-invasion writers reflect on the Iraq war five years on entitled ‘How did I get Iraq wrong’ (Hitchens’ response is the wonderfully blunt ‘I didn’t’).  It’s, in many ways, a rehash of many of the arguments he made in the run-up to the invasion and in the early stages of the occupation that can be found in his (in retrospect, rather unfortunately named) collection A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.

While he goes some way to acknowledging the already well-documented incompetence, arrogance and short-sightedness that typified the occupation, he still makes the case that, on balance, the decision to invade was the correct one.  He writes:

 A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society.

Some of these are obviously true, others are far more arguable.  More complicated though is the question he poses in asking “What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?”, a question well worth the asking.  Where his argument is most seriously flawed is in his failure to seriously address it, or to look in any detail at the negative consequences of the occupation, other than to say:

None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves.

One could be generous and assume that Hitchens is using the Abu Ghraib abuses as a metaphor for the wider failure of the occupation forces rather than just the scandal itself.  Even then, however, there’s no acknowledgement of the full scale of the disaster that has befallen the Iraqi people, no indication that Hitchens fully appreciates the full extent of the tragedy.  Perhaps most damningly, there’s not a single direct reference to the Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion, even leaving aside the question of whether the invasion caused those deaths.  Instead, reference is made to a more vague “chaos, misery and fragmentation”.

Fragmentation is a term that might well be used to describe the current state of the so-called ‘Cruise Missile Left’.  The pre-invasion consensus in support of the war has been shattered.  Some, like Nick Cohen and (as splintered aptly calls him) Oliver Kampf are at one with Hitchens in sticking to their guns.  Others, like Norman Geras or the Traitor Hari have, to greater or lesser extents, repudiated their previous positions.  Even those who now view their initial support for the war as misguided tend to remain convinced that their moral judgement was correct, and that their primary mistake was in misreading how badly the coalition forces would handle the occupation (a judgement which, by its very nature, can ony rendered in hindsight).  None, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seriously tackled the question of whether a pro-invasion position was the correct moral one at the time.  Certainly no one has addressed this point as Andrew Sullivan (not even a leftist) in his own piece of self-criticism from the same ‘How did I get Iraq wrong?’ Slate series.  Sullivan writes:

I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides (the one point in favor I did not put a question mark over was the existence of stockpiles of WMD!), the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and the righteousness of this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn’t really engaged in a truly serious moral argument. I saw war’s unknowable consequences far too glibly.

This is the kind of clear-thinking and honest assessment that one would like to be able to associate with Hitchens, who remains a far better writer than any of the others listed above.  Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn’t appear to be able – or, more likely, willing – to honestly ask himself the same kinds of questions.  It may well be that he’s just too arrogant and egotistical to do so, and refuses to admit where he’s wrong.  It’s also possible – on a more generous reading – that he feels that it’s precisely because of the disastrousness of consequences of the invasion that he feels the need to continue to justify his original position.  If Hitchens was wrong in the first place, then all the lives lost since 2003 have been completely wasted.  If, however, overthrowing Saddam remains the right thing to have done, then they can be seen to have been sacrificed in the name of a higher good.

One event, in particular, may be key to this.  The most affecting thing Hitchens’ has written on the invasion is this piece in Vanity Fair, where he describes his discovery that a young U.S. soldier killed in Iraq was heavily influenced by Hitchens’ writing to enlist and serve.  It’s the only piece by Hitchens on this subject that I’m aware of that shows a genuine humanity and something approaching an emotional honesty (although one notes, of course, that again there’s no acknowledgement of the suffering of Iraqis – the only victims of the war in this are American).  Just as Gore Vidal has stated that, in his view, the Second World War wasn’t worth the life of Jimmie Trimble, his boyhood love, could it be that Hitchens somehow has to believe that the Iraq War must be worth the life of Mark Daily?

In the introduction to his short book on George Orwell, Hitchens writes:

‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’  Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’.  It’s oddly well put.  A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact.  So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’.  The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’.  Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoublying of efforts to overcome the obvious.  The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.

If this is the test of the great writer, it’s one that Hitchens in this case unfortunately fails.  While he undoubtedly retains his facility with words, it’s his horror of facing the unpleasant facts about his support for the invasion which continues to undermine his credibility.  One can only hope that this is something he might overcome as he completes the memoirs he is apparently working on at present.

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