The Unraised Hands and the Emergence of the Neo-Romantics, or Does Nick Cohen caricature the left?

As I do every Sunday morning, I read Nick Cohen’s Observer column, knowing full well that one of two emotions will occur (as is always the case when I read him); that I’ll find myself shouting at the computer with disagreement, cursing and blaspheming, or that my hands and head quiver with agreement, as if to try and convince the screen of how correct this or that assertion is, whilst secretly wishing I’d put it that way myself. There is no middle position, and I know people feel he has lost his way, but if I’m still reduced to either of these states, then who am I to complain.

Today, much the same, but in mini. Cohen, on the subject of Ian McEwan’s new book Solar and the complexities of satire, anti-postmodernism and climate change denialism, notes that:

My colleagues should note that McEwan shows that the ICA rather than the Cape Farewell project has been the true butt of satirists ever since Amis invited its relativist crowd to raise their hands if they thought they were morally superior to the Taliban and only one third did. (“So many?” I hear you gasp. Yes, I was surprised too.)

There are a number of complaints I have about Cohen’s work, that do in part stem from his book What’s Left, which takes a stab at two things which I hold rather dear, namely the left, and  certain current academic philosophy. For a start I enjoy reading the works of Slavoj Zizek, who I feel Cohen would find himself in agreement with if he looked into the reasons why Zizek’s vision of left wing politics is not to follow the liberal-left strain that runs through today. For Zizek, the European left is too far of the ilk that takes arguments like moral relatvism as sound, that is predicated on guilt (Romantic) and not evidence or analysis (reason), instead it is reduced to sentimentalities, and this is why two thirds of the redundent left raised not their hands.

Unfortunately, Cohen in his book did not aim to separate the modes of thinking, instead reduced all postmodernist language as belonging to the same quest – that of folly, not answering questions, or not saying anything at all (he rightly exemplifies Judith Butler for belonging here, but her language is a product of the time, in business-speak her Unique Selling Point that, in spite of what was written about her by Cohen, has something behind all the avant garde language Butler employs – gender is a kind of culturally constructed element that we are enforced to perform, as if it is an acting role that informs our sexual ontology – and it is this I disagree with, the style I just have to accept as what the audience wants. Cohen has no truck with this, but, then, it’s his loss – those who write with the postmodernist language, are not always postmodernist philosophers, and should be seen, in the context of the academic world, as having its equivalent in if a Guardian journalist was to try and win over Mirror-reading voters, a toned down language and subject matter, or any similar equivalent – the same man with the noble message persists behind the language, only it is used differently to suit the audience).

When I read Zizek denigrate the guit-ridden postmodern leftism that persists today, I put my argument in order that it doesn’t echo that most ridiculous form of left wing expression (for I like to think my own politics are not predicated on guilt, nor should I have any truck with politics which does), but when reading Cohen talk about the left, I almost feel as if I’m meant to take on this burden, where I might not raise my hand in the ICA. But let us be clear; the left has not lost its way, the people for whom Cohen talks about, the quaker-vegetarian chatteristas as it were, are not the left. Cohen rightly pours scorn on an expression of left wing politics which is peculiar, but like the example of postmodern language, sometimes expression fails meaning, or meaning is lost in expression. My problem with Cohen, therefore, is not what he says, for which a lot of the time I agree, but to dignify a lot of these romantic cranks – by which is meant politics of emotion not evidence, like those who didn’t raise their hand are – as leftwing is a perversion. I here call for the definitions to be modified; for those who have their politics arranged on merit of an emotional proximity must be the romantics, for those who have, as best they can, removed their emotional proximity to their politics, must be defined by any other name.


Reform Reform Reform

Cohen on Sunday said:

Like the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the further up the hierarchy [of for example RBS – but by implication he is also talking about Cafcass  – looks after the interests of vulnerable children before the family courts] they travelled, the less they knew about the true state of the organisations they claimed to be governing.

By implication, Cohen wants to show what is in jeopardy in the public sector by a culture of fear, or what Gordon Brown is being accused of at the moment (the good thing that came from the bullying accusations was finding out what we shall now call the Ballsy Bargain where, when you fear how your manager will react to bad news, deliver good news first, then let rip on the bad to soften the blow, named after its Ministerial purveyor Ed Balls).

Cohen’s contention is to highlight a spanner in the works for top-down, public sector (New Labour-esque!! – my charge) managerialism. T’is not in my name.

I was speaking to an MP yesterday who voted on the issue of the children’s bill (includes reforms of the Family Courts – remit of Cafcass), currently in its report stage, and who said that they were unconvinced by a newspaper editors’ evidence (no names were mentioned), and saw nothing but a thirst for licentious details.”

As far as I can tell, Judges = powerful lobby / MP’s unconvinced by public interest argument from newspaper eds. – I think this could be a very tricky run for Mr Straw. Myself, there might be a case for family courts reform opening up, for purposes of scrutiny, and mainly public scrutiny, just a pity the media acts as, well, a mediator to this, because I would quite agree that the spokespeople for the type of democratised reform that a lot of people – Cafcass included – would like to see should not be newspaper editors with dubious motives.

Now let us hope that that democratisation reaches the top-end of the public sector – free information be it in Cafcass or the courts cannot be left underestimated.

Is Nick Cohen a Neoconservative?

Nick Cohen is now very much in the business of criticising leftists who, according to him are in ‘bad faith’ about a number of issues, namely our opinions on Muslims, the Middle Eastern far-right and the war on terror. Sunder Katwala, who applied the term bad faith to the way Cohen viewed the left, had his lion’s share of the attack, when Cohen accused the Fabian Society of never having, or planning to promote the work of Muslim liberals who criticise fundamentalists. Responses back and forth ensued as Katwala pointed out that Cohen had shared the stage with one such Muslim at a ‘Future of Britishness’ conference held by the Fabian society in 2006.

Katwala picked out another important detail in his retaliatory attack, that ‘We also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neo-cons and Thatcherites had been Marxists’. There is a lot of weight in this comment, much of which has been dealt with by political philosopher John Gray (there is some minor convergence here that might as well be pointed out, that though Gray and Katwala are very different politically, Gray is formerly of the LSE, the school founded in 1895 by Beatrice and Sydney Webb, early members of the Fabian society).

In the twentieth century, according to John Gray, most notably in his book Black Mass, owing to a kind of spiritual vacuum, whether rightly or wrongly as a by-product of an age of scientific rationalism, faith-based utopian cults were the preserve of certain political projects. The two most obvious examples are Soviet Communism and Nazism. Gray points out that inherent to these projects is a disavowed desire for what is known as Abrahamic End-Time – a common theme in all three monotheistic religions that sees all who give themselves to God be purified and strengthened by persecution, a short period of time before the return of the Messiah – in Communism this is structured around the Hegelian influenced end-of-history – the end point of socioeconomic evolution – and in Nazism it is the subsequent dominance of the white race, and destruction of the Jews.

Unable to operate without religiously inspired ideas, secularism, according to Gray, is doomed to forever be consumed by Christian eschatology, or the view that society and the economy will eventually converge. John Gray identifies this notion not just in political projects of old, but in concurrent projects also, namely the neoconservative attempts to install democracy in the Middle East. Even if you ignore for the moment George Bush’s pursuit for evil – and the seriously questionable tones of the voice of God telling him to go to war – the war effort in Iraq had as its intellectual infrastructure ideas grounded in utopianism and convergence of social values, two things that were never on the cards any time soon in Iraq. The appeals to Christian End-Time were never more apparent than when Lt Col Brandl alarmingly stated that ‘The enemy has got a face – he’s called Satan, he’s in Falluja, and we’re going to destroy him’.

As John Gray himself has said:

Invading and occupying Iraq was never justified by any clear national interest. Since the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam has posed no serious threat to the US or to Britain. No evidence has ever existed of a connection between him and al-Qa’ida – though in the chaos of post-war Iraq the remnants of the regime may be linking up with radical Islamists to attack US forces.

Saddam was a tyrant, but the coordinates for the liberal intervention were predicated on the fact that it was of national interest, which, of course it was not.

Neoconservatism is a utopian-based political project much like the terror of Robespierre or the murderous regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler. Forces were sent to deliver “freedom” without any evidence of Iraq ever taking kindly to an installed liberal democratic programme and without any substantial evidence that attack was in ‘national interest. Despite what Cohen would have you believe, this opinion is not informed by cultural relativism or denial that evil doing had taken place under Saddam’s watch, but it is a question of the motives of the war, and whether the effort could viably safeguard against the mobilisation of fundamentalism in the aftermath, which I’m tempted to say it can not.

For those who say Nick Cohen has moved to the right I say hold back. Cohen has actually operated a utopianism common to neoconservatism and elements of left wing thinking that has unfortunately taken End-Time out of its Christian context and applied it to an existing version of secularism that can only be identified as doomed to failure. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft has alluded to about Cohen, via the Euston Manifesto signatories, why doesn’t he just come out as imperialist, after all he’d be in familiar company, ‘Mill, Macaulay and even Marx made approving noises about British rule in India’?

The twitterati, facebookworms, and other forms of web hegemony

Nick Cohen said in his column yesterday that:

At the height of the [apparently heartfelt protests against the BBC’s refusal to broadcast an appeal for the victims of the war in Gaza] in January, the BBC Trust had logged more than 22,000 complaints from campaigners who seemed desperate to do what ever they could to get aid to the afflicted. The alleged concern of almost half of them was phoney. At precisely that moment, the number of true altruists who had put their hands in their pockets and contributed to the appeal stood at a mere 13,000.

It made me think of a separate issue, namely that of internet democracy and participation. There is a lot of talk about such a thing on the web, its unique way of grabbing the attention of those who would otherwise have no interest in it, and the problems it may bring up, for example the lacking of proper online public space.

What Cohen’s point seems to be here is that online democracy – showing its colours of late with twitter campaigns of Jan Moir, the Guardian gagging by Barclays etc – is exaggerated. A modest amount are the true architects of protest, and this in turn creates a figure double that of the original as followers, uncommitted numbers in a chain of cause and afflict.

His conclusion steers elsewhere, but an obvious subtext is the worry of internet hegemony – I’m thinking Stephen Fry, now back from his 24hour abandonment of the Tweeterati –  being a new force in democracy. I’m not surprised at new forms of participation being hijacked, but am in hope that the web will create more direct forms of public input, eventually.

Further, I’m not surprised because democracy has hitherto worked on this basis anyway. Real democracy will be achieved when all forms of hegemony are harnessed. But maybe all pariticpationist forms will rely on hegemons? It is for this reason that Cohen’s figure above does not send shivers down my spine, at least no more shivers than do currently reside there.

The Failed Attempts to Destabilise the BNP

Constant observation of the legal framework is, as much as anything, the acid test with which to judge political concern. 2 days ago Andrew Dismore, MP for Hendon, raised a point of order (that was subsequently dismissed as a point of debate) on motion 52 which excludes Members of the European Parliament from gaining access to the House of Commons through passes, thereby making sure Nick Griffin can not be seen in or around the house.

All the while many established political figures and pressure groups alike pour scorn on the BBC’s decision to allow the BNP free air time on this coming week’s Question Time, it should be reminded of how much the BBC have attempted to forge the perfect oppositional panel to counter every last aspect of Griffin’s bile.

Nick Cohen in his Observer column today has noted the ways in which nervy producers have panicked about how to stage Thursday’s ‘car-crash television’ event. At first the BBC had booked Douglas Murray to oppose him, as he was only so happy to do so, but moments later the BBC cancelled his inclusion as Murray takes firm support for restricted immigration, something Griffin will not put up too much of a fight about, making him appear ‘like he was the voice of the consensus’.

For a voice on the right the BBC settled for Lady Warsi, who may not see eye to eye with Griffin on the subject of defining Britishness, but would certainly be able to share a quip o two on homosexuals, owing to Warsi’s claim that Labour allowed children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships, printed on her campaign material in the run up to the 2005 Dewsbury elections. The BBC, instead of coolly slotting strong voices from both the left and the right to pull the turf from beneath Griffin, they have ended up pulling their hair out and ‘hitting the phones as they began to realise the 1,001 ways the show could go wrong.’

Another recent aim at destabilising the BNP, gone awry, was the pressure put on them to change their all whites constitution by the Equality and Human Rights Commission

But this new core of legality and legitimacy only serves to benefit the BNP. Not only does it serve to obscure the hub of the BNP’s existence – to secure a white only Britain – but it also fragments the moral high ground of the other parities in the UK, who do not oppose non-white membership.

The same, I will suggest, goes for quotas in political parties. For example in Spain the Constitutional Court confirmed a 2007 law obliging political parties to have at least 40% female candidates on their electoral lists. This of course suited the leading Socialist party (PSOE), whose moral compass directed them in this direction anyway, recognising societal gender inequality, and taking the measures themselves to lead the way for a more egalitarian political structure. The point of failure for this measure was when the law obliged the opposition Conservative party (PP) to do the same. They of course appealed against the measure, preferring to maintain a majority of white male candidates to a mixed setting.

Until this law was established, PSOE, on the issue of gender equality, held the moral high ground over PP, and Spanish women who had previously felt vilified against, seeing the socialists as their natural friend and the conservatives as foe, now, because of the forced level of egalitarianism fostered upon PP, are no longer necessarily the nasty party, and have benefited in turn, not through any conviction, but have basked in the success of the socialists.

The same logic can be seen with the BNP now. Through no conviction of their own to redress their racism the authorities have offered them an olive branch of legitimacy, and as Sunny H recently tweeted, ‘Griffin…has always wanted to change the rules’ – for this very reason, not because at heart the BNP are a multi-ethnic, inclusive organisation, but because it takes the burden away from him to get party backing and change their constitution, all under the guise of modernisation (after all, the leaked membership list by a disaffected ex-member is enough to see why Griffin would see such a move as burdensome).

All this created fuss has done nothing at all to destabilise the BNP, in fact it has only further secured their main aim, to seem like a consensus party, when in fact they are an extreme party, employing seemingly successful methods to avert this fact, and being helped along the way by the very people who think they are taking measures to destroy them. Nick Griffin has said it himself on stage with the KKK’s David Duke in 2000:

Once we’re in a position where we control the British broadcasting media, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say, ‘yes, every last one must go’. But if you hold that out as your sole aim to start with, you’re not going to get anywhere. So instead of talking about racial purity, we talk about identity.

Oborne the Brave

Do we remember when Nick Cohen had a druken pop at two conservative columnists who were shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, he questioned their journalistic braveness (against his Martin Bright standard, who took his right wing ideas to the Statesman – like a man), Peter Hitchens for playing it safe in the Mail, and Oborne for much the same reason. Well I wonder if they took heed, I recently saw Hitchens write a reply to an article mentioning him in the staggers, and today Oborne today wrote a kind of introduction to his new book in favour of the Human Rights Act in the Guardian.

Oborne noted;

Myths abound about the act. These start out as newspaper reports. Soon they enter popular discourse. It is not long before they are used in the speeches of politicians. And yet almost invariably they are fabrications, or sometimes even outright lies. In our book we provide numerous examples. It is widely reported that hardcore pornography is available in prison thanks to the act, that the police cannot put up “wanted” posters thanks to it, and that it prevented Britain deporting Learco Chindamo, the killer of headteacher Philip Lawrence. All these stories – and many others – have distorted and poisoned public discourse on the Human Rights Act. They are false.

These myths (and/or major criticisms) about Human rights, I wondered, in which newspapers would they be likely to appear in, remembering for a moment who Oborne’s employers are? Perhaps this Metro report can help us. Of course the Metro are owned by Associated Newspapers (as are the Daily Mail). Does Oborne despair over this, perhaps not enough, causing one interested blogger to ask ‘why Obore didn’t write that in his Mail column?!’

This article by Afua Hirsch also details other examples where the Mail were responsible for erroneous reportage on Human rights, in particular the story headlined “The war criminals we cannot deport because of their human rights” which “suggested the Human Rights Act, and not – as is actually the case – a loophole in the UK’s implementation of international law, was to blame for genocide suspects living with impunity in the UK.”

She mentions in her article the case of Denis Nilsen who the press went crazy for when it noted he was allowed to view hardcore pornography as part of his human rights. Oborne himself mentions this in today’s article, as can be seen in the given quote above.

No prizes for guessing which organ of the press also had fun with this story. For those who can’t guess, see here!

Celebrity Paedophiles, the republican pricetag?

I just finished reading Nick Cohen’s very good piece in the Observer today, about Roman Polanski, and decided to comment on it myself (scroll down on this link to see), which I will re-post here.

Cohen says

Tories claim that Britain has a “liberal judiciary” but in two respects our judges are reactionaries. They will not stand up for freedom of expression, and they will not defend the rights of women or, as the Polanski case shows, the rights of girls either.

To which I replied was an admirable twist, it’s on the reactionaries’ watch that Britain is, to utilise this minging turn of phrase, “soft-touch”.

Cohen previously explained that poor old France

destroys the feudal order in the Revolution only to replace an aristocracy of nobles with an aristocracy of celebrities. The notion that Polanski – an artist! – could be arrested for molesting 13-year old Samantha Gailey turned the brain of its foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, as soft as Camembert.

It should be reminded that Sartre filled that space too at one point, lovely Johnny Paul, so maybe there is a further set of hegemonic criteria for the celebrity-filled void in France, perhaps this is all spelt out in Chinatown.

Incidentally I should like it known that I’m soft-touch myself, I’m not boycotting any of Polanki’s movies, they’re brilliant! Paedophile or not, his films are timeless classics, but the era of celebrity, as Cohen rightly suggests, should not spell the era of a new class of people, replacing nobels, and are just as free from the law. This renders republicanism a price not worth paying for. But as Sartre was bracketed as a celebrity in his day, perhaps we should choose those nobelmen and women replacements a little better, no?