Saturday, 18 September 2010


The initial reaction so strange and unexpected.  My first thought, when considering a title for this piece, was Scum.  But this would give him far too much importance.  After all, it suggests something either you hate passionately or fear greatly; yet I feel nothing at all about him. Like the columnists in the Mail and Express it is as if he lives in another country, of which I have no interest.   He’s somebody I read many years ago, who was on my side, therefore the right one, but even then I thought him a bit of a poseur, a cocktail rebel…  Then he switched sides, glorying in all that carnage; for democracy, he would have us believe.  So we mustn’t use strong words about a non-entity, an insignificant belle-lettriste injecting himself with pomp and self-importance, with intellectual gravitas, as an athlete their steroids.

The chapter “Something of Myself” abounds in empathetic references to Franz Kafka, William Morris, Theodor Adorno, Betrand Russell. Gore Vidal, Orwell… (Sudhir Hazareesingh in the TLS 16/08/2010)

David Runciman describing a type describes him:

What he most resembles, to an almost uncanny degree, is a particular kind of political romantic, as described by Carl Schmitt in his 1919 book Political Romanticism… political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’.  They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.  As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae…  Romantics loathe abuses of power, but invariably end up worshipping power itself, sometimes indiscriminately: ‘The caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem.  Here everything can be substituted for everything else.’

The TLS review includes a photograph which illustrates Runciman’s point exactly: he’s with three guerrillas(?) in Kurdistan at the time of the first Gulf War, and he holds what looks like an automatic rifle. Engaged intellectual or celebrity photo shoot?

He is also the intellectual snob par excellence. Hazareesingh quotes him referencing John Ruskin, William Blake and Joseph Conrad, all in a tiny piece about travelling to South Wales as a lad.[i]  All experience it seems must be mediated through books; which suggests the somewhat self-conscious feel of much of what he writes.  This is a court sophisticate who, clothing everything in irony and wit, is always at a little distance from the raw experience.  Norman Finkelstein captured this well when he once described him as having no core values; he’s just a master of the clever put down.[ii] Words, it is only words.

For Hazareesingh he is a conformist, pure and simple:

[the book] reveals a life which was dominated by conformity.  Revolutionary in times of global anti-imperialist upheaval…[he] became a neo-conservative when the prevailing winds turned; an internationalist when the calls for cosmopolitan solidarity still resonated across the globe, he converted to American patriotism when the Eagle reasserted its dominion over world politics. (This reminds me of Paul Johnson, another floating voter, who he has ridiculed remorselessly)

Though he makes mistakes of his own.  He calls the first Gulf War both just and legal, and says that those who opposed it were wrong.  However, whilst there may have been people who opposed the war on simple pacifist lines – no more killing! – a coherent and rational alternative view was proposed, and was systematically excluded from the mainstream.  This was to take Saddam Hussein’s offer of a negotiated withdrawal seriously; which included a just settlement of the Palestinian question and a nuclear free Middle East.  Negotiations on the basis of these terms may have saved many lives.   This was rejected by the Bush administration.  The history suggesting that once a war became a possibility, the moment Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US ruled out any diplomatic settlement in order to exercise their war machine.  They wanted to use the invasion to project American power, in the first crisis since the end of the Cold War.  And we shouldn’t forget the slight matter of blackmail and arm twisting – was this all ‘just and legal’?[iii]

Another debateable comment is the ascription of excellent thinking (“at his most impressive”) to describe these thoughts on Zionism.

[It] grants the anti-semite’s first premise about the abnormality of the Jew.

You almost feel sorry for him; he’s so mixed up.  Why should Zionism make the Jew abnormal?  Zionism has its source in the European nationalist movements of the 19th century, which later spread across the world, leading to massive de-colonisation after World War II.  Zionism was simply another national movement perceiving itself, and correctly, as a weak ethnic group.  What made Zionism different from most of European nationalism was that it had to conquer another land in order to meet its aims; it was nationalist and imperialist, but without an imperial homeland; unlike the settlers in Rhodesia or Algeria.[iv]  It is this reason, that Zionism was another settler colonial society, that has caused all the problems.[v]  So, given the historical context, far from Zionism making the Jews unusual it actually makes them like any other nascent nation; the actual reverse of the author’s statement.  Though we should of talk of Israel, not Zionism – it is a country now, and not a movement.

Runciman describes a very mawkish encounter with the mother of a son who was inspired by the author’s writings to join the war, and later died there.  He says about its inclusion in the book:

This is the war romanticised.  It is also, frankly, nauseating.

No better word to describe those in the pubic eye – particularly our politicians and journalists – who were cost-free cheerleaders for the war.  Let’s look at them now, overweight, with their red faces and wobbly wine-bellies, in their short skirts and pompoms wriggling their arses for Democracy and Free Trade.  Those empty abstractions that camouflage power and greed; death and mutilation. Ummmm.  Maybe I was right, and Playboy is too charitable….

[i] In a letter to the TLS he refers only to a slight mistake in the review, writing of his surprise, coming as it does from a Baillol man (my emphasis).  The pomposity and snobbery is extraordinary.  Maybe this is part of the attraction, like the popularity of stately homes in the National Trust.
[ii] His piece in Counterpunch sums it up rather well.
[iii] See Phyllis Bennis in Beyond the Storm for the military and financial assistance that the US promised to countries voting for resolution 678 that allowed for war.  To Yemen, who voted against, the US cut its aid package of £70 million:
Within minutes of the Council vote, Yemen’s ambassador Abdallah Saleh al-Ashtal was informed by a U.S. diplomat in full earshot of the world via the UN broadcasting system, that “that will be the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.”
[iv] This explains why first Zionism and later Israel has always looked for a great power protector.
[v] See Ngugi wa Thiong’o on Democracy Now! and how in these types of society the  acquisition of land becomes all important.  And leads to violence.

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