Saturday, November 16, 2013

Remembrance Day

This far removed from Remembrance Day, I can probably get away with these sentiments.

I am a bit offended, to see men who send soldiers to die for no good reason bowing their heads to the Cenotaph. The Cenotaph exists because it would've been impractical to dump the corpses of half a million men on Whitehall, where those who sent them to die could see them and atone for their many sins.

It's no more fun to see a Blair or a Brown or a Cameron bow their heads in memory of the men they sent cruising around the Sunni Triangle in piles of shrapnel on wheels. These politicians have no place at Remembrance services, since their main function has been the creation of more orphans and widows, and better lies and excuses.

Mind you, it does take a certain kind of brass balls to show up for such an event.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Ducks In Moscow Fly Backwards In October, Comrade

So, GCHQ and its tireless quest to keep us all safe from the kiddy-fiddlers.

Let's ratchet up the rhetoric instantly by noting that if you'd been permitted to ask Leonid Brezhnev what the Soviet Union's spies and secret police did for a living, he'd likely have called forth a cavalcade of contemporaneous villains - double agents, capitalist stooges, counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs and so on, all of them bent upon the infliction of all manner of harm upon the people and the nation.

And importantly, he'd be at least partially correct. This was the Cold War after all, so we know that the USSR was certainly crawling with spooks and traitors.  Nonetheless, let's also note that for as long as the Soviet Union existed, its people were afraid to speak openly in front of their own children in their own homes, lest the entire family disappear forever overnight.

And so the British security services invoke regiments of modern monsters: domestic jihadists and net-nonces and glowering foreign terror networks, and inform us that we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men are prepared to do violence etc and so forth.  I notice that around 80% of our free press relates this to us as a matter of absolute fact, rather than assertion, so there's a way to go yet before we get that Pravdatastic national consensus.  A secret state is necessary to protect our hard-won democratic revolutionary  freedom, yadda yadda yadda.

And yet, I can recall no democratic stamp being slapped onto the legitimacy of our spooks.  They grew from a genuinely authoritarian war government and have metastasised in secrecy, undiscussed at election after election. Has a major political party ever pledged to shed light upon their works?  If so, it's passed me by. The full extent of their democratic bona fides encompass the mere facts that politicians like spies and the public aren't much arsed, ergo we shall have spies. If you disagree, well, there's the door.

And already I can hear complaints - how unreasonable and childish, to imagine that a vast secret state apparatus operating far beyond public oversight could be considered to be reminiscent of the KGB.  Do you want the Taliban to kidnap your wife and insert a nuclear warhead up her innocent, trusting bottom? I lose count of the variants and accessories, but the nuts and bolts are reliably mass-produced to the point of being indistinguishable.

So let's note for now that our current tolerance of snoops and spooks is a huge and remarkable historical outlier.  You wouldn't know this from the opinion pages alone, but for most of human history, secret policemen have been feared and reviled with just cause.  Even in the modern era, Britain's fellatial embrace of spymasters is something of an exception to the global rule, one that causes consternation in other democracies.

Let us consider, briefly, the idea that the public's - also unusual, in the grand scheme of things - ability to choose between two institutional factions who will not make any serious effort to oversee our secret services, somehow elevates our spooks to some wholly different and more desirable status of benign accountability than the Soviet model.

Because once we buy that, we might as well start buying inspirational newspapers to learn the latest on tractor production and technological advancement in the smelting of pig iron. Because it's the same sales job in a gaudier guise.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

A Requiem For a Blog

So Normblog is now off on the Big Hiatus, prompting elegies and tributes throughout the land. Whether you agree or disagree with the content, I'd say that the one point they all share is entirely accurate - that Normblog was one of the great pioneers of the blogging game.

Try as I might, I can't imagine blogs without the Professor, much as I can't picture modern opinion thinkery without Chris Hitchens.  More than any other I can think of, Normblog really should be seen as the archetype of the form.

I'm not qualified to appraise the author's rich and varied cultural output, since my own narrow interests extend as far as football, dick jokes and shouting at people about war being awful, but that does qualify me to comment on the blog's political meanderings.

Readers will be unsurprised to discover that I don't recognise the supposedly deep and considered heavyweight cogitation that the obituaries describe, and that I take a less charitable view.  From my perspective, I think you can split Normblog's political blogging into a few distinct categories:

- Finger-waggy, history-heavy lectures upon the virtue of the current political settlement, usually prompted by some no-mark calling for a non-specific revolution, the jailing of public figures etc.  The prime example here was the Prof's response to the financial crisis, which IIRC was to ignore the globe-spanning corruption and destruction and the resultant austerity catastrophes, in favour of ticking off the only popular protest movement that emerged from the ruins.  Marxism certainly isn't my specialist subject, but Normblog's decision to focus on hectoring of a bunch of nameless hipsters and students suggests that I know even less than I thought I did.

- Sensible-sounding calls for men of violence to do insane and wildly dangerous things.  Generally along the lines of "I read about the suffering of the oppressed people of Abroadistan today.  All decent people would agree that it's now necessary to (antiseptic-sounding euphemism for killing lots of motherfuckers) after which (Cough, cough, mumble) ...Freedom and human rights throughout the region".  Worryingly vague on the specifics, but rock solid on "first principles", which was always a bit of an obvious dodge around practical reality.

- Reminders that e.g. The Taliban are cruel and vicious, presented in tones that suggest that only the author and his mates were aware of this.

- Assertions that democracies can indulge in all manner of violent and lunatic behaviours, because the mere act of people choosing which version of the Thatcherite consensus they wish to rule confers some form of law-swerving legitimacy. Usually deployed in a stentorian lesson on how Americans shooting fuck out of people for no sane reason is an entirely different phenomenon from other foreigners shooting fuck out of people for no sane reason.

- A tiresome and annoying pretence that some minor opinion columnist must logically be saying a thing which he or she patently has not said. The best example is the Prof's ten-year habit of kidding on that he couldn't grasp the meaning of the word "understand", a word he regularly portrayed as meaning "condone and encourage (violent incident (x))", rather than, you know, "comprehend". This one was odd at first, and only became more embarrassing and annoying with repetition, much like a non-stop, decade-long rendition of The Welly Boot Song would.

- Requests for others to engage with the author's ideas, usually accompanied by implications that we hadn't given a matter as much deep thought as the Prof had, or that we were unaware of our biases.  The classic is "I can see it from here, so maybe something is blocking your view of it... Maybe if you came over here, you'd see it". Basically a series of repeated requests for vastly more intellectual charity than the author was ever willing to grant anyone else.

- Lengthy "thought experiments" of the "You hear your neighbour beating his wife and  grab  your trusty rocket-launcher" genus. I imagine that even Normblog's most avid readers would acknowledge that the sole function of these whimsical scenarios were to simplify complex matters well past the point of bathos, with the aim of justifying whatever wacky suggestions couldn't be argued for in their own terms. Of course, the answer "let's ignore that scenario because it's preposterously reductive and self-serving" was merely a symptom of the speaker's unwillingness to engage.

- And of course, the huffy complaints that people the Prof had spent years barracking and denouncing refused to credit his good intentions - roughly, "Why oh why oh why won't these godawful bastards admit that there were good reasons for supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq?".  A reader who got their news from Normblog alone would swiftly conclude that this shameful reluctance to afford charity to the madcap ideas of Professors Emeritii of Politics was one of the major injustices of the era.

And that word, "Iraq", really has to be raised in any critique of Normblog, much as a history of the Scottish international football team is likely to feature the word "defeat". The early blog scene was characterised by men - and it was almost entirely men - acting up like amateur McArthurs, putting cardboard boxes on their heads and driving their imaginary tanks all over Mesopotamia, and Normblog more than most.

Of course, once the lofty humanitarian rhetoric dried up and the entire escapade went shit-shaped, there was little else to do but issue sniffy pronouncements upon the villainy of public figures and opinion writers. Thus did blogging generally move from pushing little tin tanks around the atlas, to a long and dull police action upon the outer boundary of acceptable discourse.

The Professor attacked the task with gusto and an insatiable appetite for triviality. No academic was too insignificant to be held up as an exemplar of the whateverness of the modern left; every single sentence became ripe for a point-scoring pounce. No matter how violently the Professor's preferred policies exploded, he could always be counted upon to produce some representative badthinker to belabour. Where the consequences of these decisions were seriously considered, they were dismissed in a Walter White-esque manner in which most actions could be justified individually, without ever considering whether every small and mean act was but a minor part of a greater and more terrible whole.

To use the Prof's own methods, "Imagine you're watching the aftermath of a grotesque terrorist bombing on the news, and you turn to your wife and say, Fuck me dead Violet, that's a really horrible tie that Huw Edwards is wearing tonight".

It's for this reason that I say that Normblog was the apex of the form - an era of violent right-wing monsters rampaging like beasts across the planet, while a bunch of  white academics argued in fiery tones that the biggest issue of the age was some conveniently abstract demon like "relativism", or some similar nonsense.  Like the Cold War, but with even more irrelevant bullshit.

But you know, that wouldn't sound very nice amongst the tributes in the broadsheets, so it isn't said, but it does have that added force of being true.

Few of us get to see our paths to Utopia paved to our specifications in the way that Professor Norm did, and even fewer will get Guardian and Tines obituaries that slide over our errors so smoothly, to portray the production of windy variations on "I agree with the government" as an act of outstanding courage.

Well, Nick Cohen said in his tribute that he owed most of his political and moral thought to Professor Norm. I imagine that we can all draw our own conclusions from that.