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.

78 comments:

Organic cheeseboard said...

I've seen some people I respect (Chris Brooke chief among them) paying tribute and I'm sure he was a nice enough guy in person and he was definitely a very good academic. But I just cannot understand the fawning over his blog. To me it was one of the very worst "ageing bloke yelling at the radio and paper" blogs out there - full of seemingly wilful misreading, smearing, and frankly dreadfully presented "logical" writing which was usually illogical and difficult to follow, not to mention ridiculously pompous. The cultural stuff was dull - very little more than "I like this book/song", and his tastes deeply conservative - and the cricket stuff ok but hardly enlightening. His "profiles" profiled the good and the bad with seemingly no research done on anyone - gates of Vienna? Have people just forgotten that? It's still up on the blog.

And so, for me the problem with the tributes was the stuff they forgot. He was most definitely not level headed, calm and polite - he spent half the time claiming that the guardian was a terrorist publication and the other half calming that anyone who disagreed with him was either in the "hizbolleft" or "verkrappt left". It's that kind of deeply childish mudslinging, not to mention the tedious why-oh whys of the blog and their attendant claims that he and his mates suffered far more in their thought experiments about Iraq than anyone else in the country, that leaves me feeling that the majority of those paying tribute only saw what they wanted to see in his blog. Am sorry he's gone, as I am anyone who does early, but the fawning is ridiculous with this a welcome correlative.

In addition to the verkrappt thing, by the way, you also forgot his frequent agitation for a league of democracies to replace the UN because the UN is too mean to Israel... I also find if funny how the Euston Manifesto has been quietly forgotten in all the tributes.

Phil said...

I agree with the post & most of OC's comment, but I think (and I'm meaning to blog about this) that Norm's logic generally was airtight - and that was the trouble with it, it was too airtight. A lot of his posts had the syllogistic perfection of

1. All flying things have wings.
2. All pigs can fly.
3. Therefore all pigs have wings.

Unchallengeable in their own terms - you'd have to unpick the premises, which were generally stated in terms of such a high level of spurious logical abstraction as to make it impossible. So instead of simply saying "Jenny Tonge hates Jews", you'd get an elaborate argument to the effect that JT was critical of Zionism, some criticism of Zionism was motivated by hatred of Israel, some anti-semites hated Israel, ergo some hatred of Israel was motivated by anti-semitism, ergo some critics of Zionism were anti-semites, and while this might not be true of Jenny Tonge herself surely it would be excessively charitable to dismiss the possibility that it applied to her, or if not to her then to some of those who were so quick to leap to her defence...

That was the peculiar contribution of the Normblog to the discourse - seething, frothing, one-eyed hatred expressed through the medium of cool philosophical debate, or at least borrowing its language.

levi9909 said...

I couldn't find a link to Gates of Vienna on the sidebar at Normblog. What I did notice is that many of the tributes to Geras mentioned how he relished debate and yet there was no comment facility on his blog. Neither was there a search facility and the archive calendar only takes you to opening paragraphs of the last few entries for any given month. Strange way to relish debate but then the decent left works in mysterious ways.

flyingrodent said...

OC - Aye, a few things have to fall by the wayside, or folk get bored halfway through. The entire Hezolleft thing was a pretty stark example of the Professor's attitude to arguing - intellectual charity for me, but not for thee. No doubt I'm the same, but at least I'm aware of it.

Phil - "Hatred" is far over the top, since the general tone in speaking to those of us who disagreed was fogeyish deployment of the Big Waggy Finger Of Tut-Tut. But it is true that we got a lot of "x insane idea is good because I have logicked it, so there must be something wrong with folk who disagree". When I make sweeping generalisations, I'm aware that I'm making a guess based on a mix of previously held ideas and gut reaction, rather than kidding on that I'm right because science, or whatever.

Levi - The Gates of Vienna etc. links were always a bit of an easy gotcha, but some folk do leave themselves open to that kind of thing.

ejh said...

yet there was no comment facility on his blog

I never had a problem with this because

(a) you're not really entitled to comment on anybody else's blog if they don't want you to

(b) if you have as many readers as he apparently had, you'll get so many comments, and hostile ones at that, you'll not have time to deal with them.

That said, I didn't read him a lot. Nevertheless I got the impression that he probably lost a lot of friendships over Iraq, and I'm sorry about that. I've lost a fair few myself over politics, and it's my experience that opposing views on war makes this happen faster than any other disgareement.

I did think that "moral equivalence" - am I right in thinking the concept was his in origin? - was a racket, serving to stigmatise people for discussing things it was perfectly proper to discuss, and I felt similarly about his piece regarding the London bus bombings.

Anyway, I'm sorry. I used to mention that I once had the opportunity to half-inch a copy of Marx And Human Nature from the warehouse where I worked, but passed it up. I wish I'd nicked it now.

flyingrodent said...

I can't imagine seriously falling out with a friend over politics, unless they started swanning around in SS uniforms or something. I know quite a few people who have shitty politics and we agree to disagree, by which I mean I'm act like an enormous dick about it until they decide to stop raising the subject. It seems to work fine.

On moral equivalence, the wiki dates the term to the early 1900s, but you'll be just stunned to learn that it caught on amongst anti-communist lefties in the latter half of the century. I can already hear the sound of some trumpet lecturing folk about how the US military takes great care to avoid killing civvies when it's dropping a bajillion tons of high explosives on them. Plus ca change etc.

Organic cheeseboard said...

The comments on the nick cohen geras piece are interesting - a former student is on there saying that they perceived a big difference between the geras they knew at university and the one they encountered post-Iraq on Facebook - not sure of the ins and outs there but It seemed to indicate a shift in personal behaviour as well as thinking.

organic cheeseboard said...

A couple more things, sorry - the Gates of Vienna thing wasn't a direct link but a 'profile'. He did give space in these profiles to people he might not agree with but it still seemed a very odd choice: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/07/the_normblog_pr_1.html

another greatest hit too - I'd almost forgotten his incredibly tedious schtick about the phrase 'war on terror', which struck me as probably the most obvious of his delibrate misunderstandings. How anyone could take those pieces seriously is beyond me.

On lack of comments EJH I take the point and it was clearly his call, though it didn't stop him going on Twitter; and it does bear an eerie similarity to a lot of other Decents and their approach to 'web debate' on blogs - either only allow comments full of praise and agreement (Cohen) or don't allow them at all (Marko, Norm), or allow them and claim never to block anyone but then block any awkward dissent (HP Sauce).

Phil, you're also right on the logic thing. I have no background in Philosophy but it always struck me as really problematic to apply the kind of logic I saw contemporaries studying in their first years at University to the kind of debats Norm tried to apply it to, where the terms and ideas used were so often deeply questionable.

more than anything else though FR is right - the most annying thing about his writings was the seeming inability to acknowledge that 'understand' doesn't mean 'condone and endorse'. And I say seeming inability since he obviously did use the word to mean 'comprehend without approval' relatively often. A piece people keep on pulling up as representative of him at his best is his response to Seumas Milne's 'gilded Iranian youth' piece which is a really awful piece of writing - he very deliberately misses Milne's point.

Just to reiterate - Euston was conveniently absent from most tributes to him which I found interesting. I'd have thought Nick fucking Cohen of all people might have mentioned it, but no.

Anonymous said...

My take on the Euston Manifesto can be found here.

Dr Paul

Phil said...

On second thoughts let's not get started on Euston, we'd be here all day. When I posted my take on the EM I got mauled on SIAW - wonder whatever happened to those guys?

Speaking of blog posts and responses, how that finger could wag. And seriously, how hard would it have been to reply by saying "it's not lawless if there's a war on; my point is precisely that I regard both the US and Israel as being involved in justifiable wars"? Even argued through at length it would have taken half the number of words and been much more interesting to read.

Someone in comments on the Cohen piece talks about 'muscularity' as the distinctive style of Normblog argument, as it certainly is of Cohen's own writing. That approach of never de-personalising, never extending interpretive charity, never missing the chance of an ad hominem attack or a sneer to the gallery... it really, really pissed me off, and not only on the rare occasions when I was a target myself.

I think this is why I think it is appropriate to talk about anger in connection with the Normblog, even though he didn't let rip very often. When I read the blog I often came away positively quivering with anger, in reaction to the sheer bullying unfairness and nastiness that I saw there. I don't think it's ridiculously projective to say that I picked up the anger from the blog. You don't sneer and deride and express mock pity and belittle, then get up the next morning and do it all over again, unless you're pretty angry at some level.

levi9909 said...

Re the comments, I was just saying how most of the tributes I saw mentioned how he relished debate and yet from his apparently deliberate misunderstanding of the word "understand" through to not having comments or search facilities on his blog, I saw no evidence of this.

Re losing friends, I think Chris Bertram's Ten Years of Crooked Timber piece suggests that's the case:

That first email also invited two other people: Matthew Yglesias and Norman Geras. Yglesias (a Harvard undergrad) was a rising star in the blogosphere but had yet to morph into his current superstar incarnation. Geras I knew because we’d once been on the editorial committee of New Left Review together and he’d recently phoned me up for advice on starting to blog. Yglesias never replied, and, to be honest, I don’t know if he even read the email. But Geras joined up to the list on which we discussed the project.

That provided us with the first crisis in the (pre)history of Crooked Timber. (Actually, I think, our only real crisis within the group.) At the time, we were either just before or at the start of the Iraq war and some of us were hesitating about which line to take. Geras used the opportunity of the shared emails to bombard everyone with pro-war articles and, after he had circulated a particularly egregious bit of warmongering concern-trolling from Johann Hari, Daniel snapped. If Geras were in, then Daniel would be out. But Geras, facing a bit more scepticism than he wanted, was already sensing that the group wasn’t for him. So we were able to keep Daniel for Crooked Timber. Geras went off to promote so-called “humanitarian intervention” at a solo-blog. He’s been doing that in his characteristic style for a decade; I think we got the better part of the bargain.


Also, re losing friends specifically over the war, Christopher Hitchens was reported to have referred to his own stance on the War on Terror as "clearing out the friends cupboard". Of course both of them presumably made lots of new friends.

I'm guessing people with high public profiles are more likely to fall out over political differences than people with little or no public profile.

Phil said...

My entry for this year's Least Important Correction Imaginable contest: actually the blog where I got attacked wasn't SIAW (which is still there, if inactive), it was DSTW (which isn't).

levi9909 said...

More on losing friends over politics, this time from the Cold War era. Coincidentally I read this Mike Marqusee reappraisal of On the Waterfront this morning:
http://www.mikemarqusee.com/?p=1475 with a focus on its director, Elia Kazan.

Worth a look at.

Phil said...

Incidentally, when the Drink-Soaked Trots anathematised me by name they also went for Louis Proyect, Mike Marqusee, D.D. Guttenplan, Andy Murray*... and Chris Bertram. Small world.

*They called him 'Andrew', but presumably it's the same person. I didn't even know he was political.

Ken said...

How that guy managed to become a world class tennis player while working all the hours God sent for the Stop the War Campaign is astonishing.

My own interactions with the Norm over Iraq were polite, and his fine logical scalpel did skewer me here and there, but on the whole I'm not ashamed* of my side of that particular argument. If anyone is interested, they can find it and links to the Norm's counter-moves by searching my blog for 'Geras'.

*Except that some of my rhetorical flourishes can only be attributed to the influence of drink.

Utopian said...

Could you elaborate on what you mean by this:

'Few of us get to see our paths to Utopia paved to our specifications in the way that Professor Norm did'.

You seem to have been quite a keen Normblog reader and therefore you were presumably aware that Geras was an atheist. So this seems a strange way to describe someone's premature death from a horrendous illness, leaving behind much-loved family and friends. Or do you think that Geras would have considered it a price worth paying for the sake of some nice broadsheet obits?

I noticed one of your twitter friends commenting on how 'small d-decent' (ho ho ho) it was of you to wait a whole two weeks before laying into Geras, so I just wondered whether he/she had overlooked that particular sentence, which personally I found quite offensive, and imagine Geras's family and friends may have found even more so.

Phil said...

this seems a strange way to describe someone's premature death from a horrendous illness

Probably because it quite plainly isn't. Run along and find something else to get outraged about.

Phil said...

Ken - Norm was in your sidebar, so searching for 'Geras' (or 'Norman Geras') brings up every post you've ever written.

Ken said...

Phil - sorry I was ambiguous, or if you don't know this handy trick:

http://kenmacleod.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=geras

organic cheeseboard said...

I love that anti-Guardian rant. Suprisingly he was paid probably close to £500 by them - at a minimum - in the 2000s for a series of articles, mostly praising either the Euston Manifesto or 'What's Left', and his mates took the Decent Dole with alarming regularity, given its sheer terrorism-loving awfulness. Clearly something changed between 2007 and 2010 or his readers, like cohen, who claim he was always right haven't quite got round to resigning from their jobs with the Guardian. (also in that piece we have the recourse to unfunny Yiddish phrases ad nauseam as an effort to funny up his prose).

cor, following links in this thread I rediscovered Geras's appallingly-written 'response' to Caryl Churchill's play. Thanks for that.

another thing I'd never seen, but which evinces several of the problems with Geras's writing, one of the reasons he never got that Guardian column his mates say he deserved, is here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/jan/30/nickcohenandtheantiwarlef

There we have blanket invocations of straw men, truly tedious and deeply unfunny prolonged cricketing metaphors which don't actually work, the use of olde-time phrases which mask his actual viciousness, loads of ad hominems, hard-to-follow logical arguments which get lost in his wordness, and the Geras trademark, a claim that he'd thought more seriously about things than anyone else... how could anyone possibly praise this kind of awful writing?

Phil said...

After re-reading that column I'm rethinking my endorsement of the Prof's logic. As far as I can see it boils down to saying (a) the Euston Manifesto isn't pro-war, because we wrote it and we say it isn't; (b) we weren't attacking the anti-war Left for being revolutionary defeatists, we were attacking most of the anti-war Left for complicity with revolutionary defeatists; and (c) the pro-war Left minority has come in for much more criticism on the Left than the revolutionary defeatist Left minority, which is why nobody seems to see that Euston wasn't pro-war.

Point (a) reminds me of Ricky Gervais claiming that his 'Derek' character isn't disabled (he knows, because it's his character). Point (b) is a distinction that makes no difference, or more precisely a passive-aggressve weasel that makes no difference (attacking you? well, if the cap fits...). As for point (c), so help me, I've re-read that column three times now, and I still can't make sense of it.

organic cheeseboard said...

The Manifesto is very clear on interventionism:

"If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect"."

Thus, if anyone who opposed Iraq signed da ting, they were beholden to endorse more or less any intervention, anywhere (Geras more or less admits that in his piece, humming and hawing about how 'the topic is a difficult one' - you could have said that in the manifesto Norm); more fool them for signing it and providing Geras and his mates with what was for a while a fairly effective smokescreen.

Point (C) - and didn't the Prof just love him some alaphabetised lists - is really just eye of the beholder stuff and as you say makes little sense.

Linked to this is something that nick maybe did steal from Geras - the sense that anyone who disagrees with the author has 'gone bezerk' or has a 'tree in their eye'. That's the ultimate point the article is trying to make - and it does so very poorly.

I think that what blogging gave Geras was the chance to write about politics without the need for the kind of balances and checks which academic writing involves. That's the gist, ultimately, of his response to you Phil - 'you have to read every single blog post I write in order to understand me' - in fact his point in the piece you attack is very clear - 'everyone who opposed the murder of the unarmed Osama Bin Laden is an anti-semite because I say so'. That wouldn't have got him very far in a peer-reviewed journal.

flyingrodent said...

Could you elaborate on what you mean by this:

'Few of us get to see our paths to Utopia paved to our specifications in the way that Professor Norm did'.


Gladly - I meant that, while many of us may harbour grand schemes for the betterment of humanity, few of us will even get to see them being adopted by a political party that has a chance of implementing them.

Professor Norm, however, saw much of his grand plan adopted by the most powerful people on Earth, not least by the President and government of the USA, who hurled bajillions of dollars, immense effort and the most awe-inspiring military machine in human history at the enterprise.

I can see why some folk might mistake the concept of "Utopia" for a religious reference, but that's not the intention.

levi9909 said...

Cor, now you've explained that Utopia line it's better than when I misunderstood it a la Utopian and, unlike Utopian, I thought it was good then.

Anonymous said...

For Norm's connection to Gates of Vienna

check out

http://web.archive.org/web/20100104174911/http://normblog.typepad.com/

and look under Links

Also his profile of Dymphna

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/07/the_normblog_pr_1.html

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Dymphna_(Gates_of_Vienna)

and oh the irony!

http://gatesofvienna.net/2005/07/

'Well, thanks to a link at Norm Geras’ site, we now know why Gates of Vienna has had so many searches appear on the site meter for “how to make a bomb.” '

Finally

http://gatesofvienna.net/2006/09/i-never-thought-id-live-to-be-a-million/

'We owe a big debt of gratitude to the people who helped give us a leg up. We couldn’t have made it to a million hits without encouragement (and links) from Wretchard, Roger Simon, Charles Johnson, and Norm Geras. We owe a special thanks to Fjordman, whose guest-posts have brought in many readers we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and who introduced us to all our delightful Scandinavian commenters.'

Martin Wisse said...

whatever he might've been in his real life, on the internet Geras was a nasty piece of work, quick to claim the moral high ground but never too afraid to lie or deliberately misunderstand his political opponents, scolding socialists for allying with imaginary terrorists while cozying up to out and out racists and islamophobes like Gates of Vienna.

I never understood why so many people who he attacked on a regular basis kept being chummy with him or took him seriously for so long.

Advantages of an Oxbridge education perhaps?

chris y said...

Back in the early 80s, when I (and Bertram) first knew Geras, he was an important revolutionary intellectual - yeah, OK, big fish, small pond - who was instrumental in mainstreaming the work of Rosa Luxemburg among the British left, but was also active in any number of more immediate areas. Definitely one of the good guys.

What happened to him between his leaving NLR and the Iraq war, I have no idea. It came as a real shock to many people who had admired his work and seemed like a complete change of character. I at least found it deeply distressing, although of course there were no excuses to be made for his later positions.

Brecht:
I saw many friends
And the friend I loved most
Among them helplessly sunk
Into the swamp
I pass by daily.
And a drowning was not over in a single morning.
This made it more terrible.
And the memory of our long talks about the swamp
Which already held so many powerless.
Now I watched him leaning back
Covered with leeches in the shimmering,
Softly moving slime,
Upon the sinking face
The ghastly blissful smile.

Brownie said...

The post is utter bilge, although in true Flying Rodent style it is a most erudite exemplar of the form.

And much as I hesitate to interrupt the savaging of Norm's memory by the indecent left's dead sheep collective, I really can't let this "understanding" thing pass unremarked. However, I'm also a lazy fuck, so I'll rehash something I wrote in 2011 rather than start from scratch. It's not as if any indecent arguments have moved on since then anyway.

Firstly, I think you'd struggle to find a quote from Norm where he suggested "understand" in these contexts is just a synonym for "support" or "condone" or some oblique "endorsement" of mass-murder. The use of "understand" is bad enough; he didn't have to insinuate the speaker/writer meant more than what s/he had written.

No-one anxious to avoid apologist charges could get away with attempts to "understand" David Copeland or Timothy McVeigh; go on, give it a go. So it should be with those claiming to "understand" the pizza parlour suicide bomber or the guy self-immolating on the Victoria Line.

I can "understand" why young-men living in the Bogside shortly after Bloody Sunday might have gone along to the next Provo open day, and I have no difficulty "understanding" why some Palestinians living in the OCs join every Intifada that comes along, but the mass-slaughter of innocent men, women and children isn't and never could be my bag whatever the provocation. (And check out the 99.9% of Palestinians whose martyrdom proclivities are conspicuous by their absence.)

The only way you can "understand" these actions is if you can envisage circumstances in which you might undertake them yourself. If, however, you could and would never countenance involvement, this is a de facto preclusion of any level of understanding. By definition, you don't "understand".

So Bunting, Tonge et al with their "understanding" are effectively saying: "In the right circumstances, that could be me pulling the pin and decapitating random children having their lunch."

I firmly believe that everyone who thinks this way should be ridiculed and no amount of opprobrium heaped on them can be too much. Norm believed the same and as with most things, he was bloody right.

Cor, it's like 2005 all over again (except Liverpool's midfield is not quite as good).

flyingrodent said...

No-one anxious to avoid apologist charges could get away with attempts to "understand" David Copeland or Timothy McVeigh; go on, give it a go.

Well, I "understand" David Copeland's actions - he's a hate-filled Nazi nutter with weird gay issues. I "understand" McVeigh, who thought his government was a totalitarian conspiracy against the populace. I can "understand" how, if I held these beliefs, I might want to psychotically murder lots of people for reasons that sound crazy in the cold light of day, like a Breivik or even a Bin Laden. I can easily do that without thinking they're right to slaughter people.

But do you really want to get into a semantic debate on the meaning of the word "understand"? It does seem like a fitting legacy for the subject, admittedly.

Before we get into that debate though, I do have to point out that it would've been very, very easy for me to use that post to explicitly criticise Professor Norm for "understanding" and in fact explicitly condoning and advocating all manner of hideous violence, since he was definitely in the "lots of forms of violence are really great" camp.

You'll notice that I didn't do that, even though it would've been very easy to do so, because it strikes me as a shitty and unfair mode of argument.

flyingrodent said...

And before you respond, I get your interpretation of "understand" as "basically condone", so you don't have to reiterate it for me.

levi9909 said...

"The use of "understand" is bad enough"

Only when you've mangled the definition of "understand" as much as Norm and his acolytes did/do.

And Brownie, for all your complaint that a lengthy post is "utter bilge", all you've done is support your support for the desperately dishonest Norman Geras by being equally dishonest over the meaning of one word.

Organic cheeseboard said...

Well yeh - not only is this characteristic of geras's one rule for me, one rule for thee approach to things, it also relies on a very partial interpretation of the word "understand". One that relates to some sections of the dictionary def, but not all of them by any means - it runs all the way from "agree" to "disagree vehemently but comprehend".

And I note that we get "bunting, tonge et al" - to your credit Brownie, you name more names than Geras ever did, but all the same, it's hardly widespread and hardly indicative of a big problem.

Since you will presumably read this brownie, since you consider this a "savaging of his memory" maybe you could have rethought your association with the one site guaranteed to lay into the recently dead - harrys place? I mean, this is pretty much praise compared to your website's treatment of Harold Pinter.

Organic cheeseboard said...

Also worth nothing the really quite extreme difference between Brownie's approach to the topic and Geras's own. He said in your fave year, 2005: "Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend"...

levi9909 said...

Brownie could have named Cherie Blair while he was naming names http://www.news24.com/xArchive/Archive/Blair-Suicide-bombers-no-hopers-20020618 but that might have taken him too close to the belly of the beast. Cherie Blair of course apologized to those who misunderstood her understanding so maybe Brownie's forgiven her but surely he can't have forgotten.

Bill said...

I read Normblog regularly more or less from the beginning, as we both started our blogs at about the same time and for years I was in his blog roll, but not recently as I had largely given up political/comment blogging in the past year or so (really since Twitter became so popular and easy to use). I never agreed with much of what Norm wrote (far too left-wing for my tastes), but it was always well-written, if pompous at times. The great fault with his blog is that he never permitted comments, so debate of any kind was impossible; I read a blog post he wrote on this subject perhaps 7 or 8 years ago and whilst he wrote a lot of words, it boiled down to the fact that he really was not prepared to tolerate other views in open debate. Incidentally, another once very popular blog which never permitted comments is the US-based Andrew Sullivan 'Daily Dish', and still does not, once conducted a 'survey' which he asserted showed that most readers agreed with his decision not to permit comments - the word 'self-serving' springs to mind. Much as I liked Norm's blog, its main drawback was the same - the unwillingness to debate openly. Apart from the detailed logic of his arguments (sometimes taken to ridiculous lengths to reach similarly ridiculous conclusions) I found his references to his Jewish background one of the main draws, just as with Sullivan and his Catholic background and beliefs - I am certainly an agnostic if perhaps not entirely atheist, but I found/find both their viewpoints interesting windows into belief-systems I am not very familiar with.

flyingrodent said...

And I note that we get "bunting, tonge et al" - to your credit Brownie, you name more names than Geras ever did, but all the same, it's hardly widespread and hardly indicative of a big problem.

Yes. And even if we assume for the sake of argument that it's absolutely true that Madeleine Bunting just loves the Taliban, the correct response is "Yeah? And how many battalions has she?"

Since the answer is "None", I think that tells us all we need to know about the fierce and urgent relevance of this issue over the past decade.

andrew adams said...

Brownie,

I can "understand" why young-men living in the Bogside shortly after Bloody Sunday might have gone along to the next Provo open day, and I have no difficulty "understanding" why some Palestinians living in the OCs join every Intifada that comes along, but the mass-slaughter of innocent men, women and children isn't and never could be my bag whatever the provocation.

Right, so you understand what motivates people to carry out such actions but you do not condone the actions themselves, which I would guess is the position of most of us here. So where's the problem?

The only way you can "understand" these actions is if you can envisage circumstances in which you might undertake them yourself. If, however, you could and would never countenance involvement, this is a de facto preclusion of any level of understanding

No, that's nonsense. Of course you can understand someone's actions even if you would never actually behave the same way in those circumstances.

ejh said...

Of course it's nonsense.

I studied history at university, and in different circumstances I suppose I might have been an academic, professional historian. And the task of the historian is to try to understand, and try to get other people to understand, things that have happened in history. Which, history being what it is, are very often grotesque things, on a terrible scale. Holocausts, massacres, enslavements, the razing of cities, what you will.

But what the historian has to do is try and understand what led people to carry out (or support, or turn a blind eye to) these kind of acts. And this does rather preculde the easy, catch-all explanation that these acts occur (or are supported, or are turned a blind eye to) because the people involved are unthinkably evil. even if they sre, you ask how they came to be that way, or how their actions were legitimised by other people, at given times in given places, when they would not have been in other times and in other places.

This is not, of course, a hard thing to grasp, provided that you are not disinterested in grasping it.

Of course it's possible that some people are irredeemably evil, just as some are irredeemably stupid and some are irredeemably malign. But personally I look for other explanations as to why apparently intelligent people should prefer to be so bloody stupid.

organic cheeseboard said...

I'd imagine the Geras/Brownie response would be something along the lines of picking up your "how their actions were legitimised by other people" idea - that is, if we misread 'understand' as 'condone', then somehow terrorism becomes less taboo in society, or some such.

I've just been reading up on Geras's approach to all this and it's actually worse than I remembered, though in fairness he does name names. He says:

Not everyone in search of understanding and explanation is an apologist for what they want to understand and explain. This should go without saying; otherwise there could be no historians of fascism, or genocide, and no sociology of crime. But as everyone knows from daily life, lame excuse-making under cover of understanding also happens. This is, so to put it, a theoretical possibility, and one that is sometimes empirically instantiated.

well yes. So he goes on to differentiate between the two, right? Nope - he claims that everyone he's discussing is in the latter camp, with absolutely no evidence. And the people he singled out as the best examples of a phenomenon of which there are 'many other' examples? They were as follows: Mundher al-Adhami, someone I've never heard of and who is barely even a presence on Google; a piece by Dilpazier Azam, who needs no comment surely but obviously does not speak for a very large group; and Madline Bunting, whose piece Geras definitely does misrepresent to a frankly offensive degree. It really wasn't very widespread.

He then more or less echoes Brownie:

if understanding and not justifying or condoning is what it is really all about, why is this 'understanding' discourse never deployed by the same people when racist thugs, angry about immigration, carry out hate crimes?

Well, partly because it'd be hard to know what 'the same people' think if we're talking about the two marginal voices I mentioned first; but again, he so badly misrepresents Bunting that you can't include her in this list. His 'clincher' is something unproveable and in the eye of the beholder.

This is the problem with so much of Geras's writing - it's the same old straw man ranting dressed up as logical.

but to reiterate, Geras himslf says:

to understand is not necessarily to condone

a shame that he never actually bothered to think about the other side.

Phil said...

I think it's rather important to understand people like McVeigh and Copeland and what motivated their actions. Apart from anything else, if the answer is "weird random personal screw-ups" we can all breathe a lot easier than if it turns out to be (for example) "ignorant anger of a sort which is shared quite widely and cultivated by people who want to sell papers". Anyone slinging "apologist charges" at somebody trying to understand the far Right deserves to be told to shut up.

Geras's quoted argument shares the structure of his attacks on anti-Zionists - a kind of double undistributed middle. First step: some anti-Zionists can reasonably be suspected of anti-semitism; X is an anti-Zionist; therefore X can reasonably be suspected of anti-semitism. Second step: some sincere anti-racists condemn issue Y; X does not condemn Y; X is therefore not a sincere anti-racist.

It's the most awful hogwash, really.

ejh: what the historian has to do is try and understand what led people to carry out (or support, or turn a blind eye to) these kind of acts

Geras wrote about just this problem in his 1998 book The contract of mutual indifference. From memory, I think even then he was more concerned to condemn than to explain.

levi9909 said...

I don't want to lower the tone here but I've just read Aaro's Normfest contribution. It's headed, Farewell to Norm, a thinker, not a fighter.

The last line:
Norm always, always played the ball, not the man

Of course, that would mean a lot to Aaro, ad hominem smears not being his thing at all.

http://normfest.org/2013/10/21/david-aaronovitch-farewell-to-norm-a-thinker-not-a-fighter/

Phil said...

Longer and even more unbelievable quote:

Trying to find arguments that gave proper shape to my instincts about the world, I went to Norm, online, and often found them.

And found them expressed in the language of humour, proper scepticism, close argument and an absence of rancour. Norm always, always played the ball, not the man.

The part about the ad homs is weird enough - considering that both Norm and Aaro indulged in them with relish (Aaro more than Norm, to be fair) - but absence of rancour? Are we talking about the same blog? Or is it only rancour if you use swearwords?

flyingrodent said...

And found them expressed in the language of humour, proper scepticism, close argument and an absence of rancour. Norm always, always played the ball, not the man.

I think this just tells us that Aaro, like most folk, is very easily impressed by people who tell him things he wants to hear.

Brownie said...

"Well, I "understand" David Copeland's actions - he's a hate-filled Nazi nutter with weird gay issues. I "understand" McVeigh, who thought his government was a totalitarian conspiracy against the populace. I can "understand" how, if I held these beliefs, I might want to psychotically murder lots of people for reasons that sound crazy in the cold light of day, like a Breivik or even a Bin Laden. I can easily do that without thinking they're right to slaughter people."

For real? That’s weak as piss and I suspect you know it. The three things you do above are:

1 – describe Copeland
2 – reference McVeigh’s own description of his motivation, and
3 – explain that if you were either of them and thought along their lines then you would likely carry out the same acts.

This is not nearly “understanding” deployed as it was by Tonge and Bunting when Geras critiqued them. Merely describing person X and recounting why s/he committed act Y is pure reportage, and I can’t believe you really need me to explain why number 3 is horseshit. If I liked disembowelling prostitutes, I can see how I might have been Jack the Ripper. This is called logic. Do I – or you - on any reasonable interpretation of the word “understand” why Jack the Ripper did what he did? Try telling your close friends and family that and see if they are willing to assume that you are playing a simple logic game.

“But do you really want to get into a semantic debate on the meaning of the word "understand"?”

Why are you asking me? It’s not unclear what Tonge and Bunting et al meant, yet when Geras calls them out for it you revert to most anodyne definition of the term you can come up with.

Brownie said...

Andrew Adams
“Right, so you understand what motivates people to carry out such actions but you do not condone the actions themselves, which I would guess is the position of most of us here. So where's the problem?”

You’ve rather missed the point of my use of those examples. It really isn’t difficult to “understand” why a 18 year old Bogsider circa 1973 might have joined the PIRA or why a Palestinian in the OCs might take potshots at the IDF. Both are in a rather different ballpark to walking into a pizzeria in Jerusalem and self-immolating or pulling 11 Protestant workmen off a minibus at Kingsmill and summarily executing them. If Tonge had written about her “understanding” of the motivation of young Palestinians to be part of a second intifada, I’m sure she would still have attracted some criticism but nothing that would have got her fired. But she didn’t; she imagined being a suicide bomber, a route that 99.9% of Palestinians – that’s actual Palestinians actually living under actual oppression – have no problem eschewing. All things being equal, I’m sure Tonge would prefer the 15 innocent civilians (including 7 children) who just happened to be in the Jerusalem Sbarra pizza restaurant a month before 9/11 were still alive, but conferring any level of “understanding” on such acts is a deliberate attempt to (as Geras wrote) muddy the moral waters.

“Of course you can understand someone's actions even if you would never actually behave the same way in those circumstances.”

This is so disingenuous I can barely bring myself to respond. We “understand” the father of the murdered child who kills the paedophile responsible, or the wife who stabs her abusive husband, or the patriotic young man who takes up arms against his oppressors. But you’ll very rarely read about the “understanding” of the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians because in all but very few contexts (the suicide-murder of Israelis being one, it seems) no-one is prepared to write that shit, because to most sentient beings such acts cross a bajillion moral red-lines that no right-thinking person can imagine themselves crossing in any circumstances. Let me know when you read about anyone within a light-year of a column in the MSM expressing “understanding” for the murder of an Asian grandfather on his way to mosque by a fascist-sympathising nut.

Brownie said...

“And the task of the historian is to try to understand, and try to get other people to understand, things that have happened in history. Which, history being what it is, are very often grotesque things, on a terrible scale. Holocausts, massacres, enslavements, the razing of cities, what you will.”

Which is why every British child in school is taught about the Treaty of Versailles, for example. Our libraries, on the other hand, are not fit to bursting with historian output that concedes a level of “understanding” for the Final Solution. There are no ‘but for the grace of God’ confessionals or simple logic games where [insert your favourite WWII historian] imagines him/herself participating in the Wannsee Conference in, ya know, the right circumstances.

This pretence that the objections to Tonge/Bunting/etc are borne of a reluctance to want to know why bad people do bad things really is crashingly tedious.

Brownie said...

organic helpfully provides the necessary from Geras himself:

Not everyone in search of understanding and explanation is an apologist for what they want to understand and explain. This should go without saying; otherwise there could be no historians of fascism, or genocide, and no sociology of crime. But as everyone knows from daily life, lame excuse-making under cover of understanding also happens. This is, so to put it, a theoretical possibility, and one that is sometimes empirically instantiated.

So, what was Tonge up to, do you think? Was it a clarion call for an expert study of the ideological stimuli that lead some people to commit mass-murder? Or was she, even just a little bit, soft-soaping anti-Israeli violence? Or at least diluting the responsibility of the (clearly provoked) suicide-murders?

I have trouble accepting the first explanation if not for the rather obvious reason that I don't know anyone who thinks it's a bad idea to try to work out why crazy shit happens. Just who is it that is disputing this?

I would remind everyone that Tonge was sacked by that well-known Eustonite and decent-leftist Charles Kennedy.

levi9909 said...

"do you really want to get into a semantic debate on the meaning of the word "understand"?"

Someone had to ask.

Brownie - Your contrast of the rise to power of Hitler being explained by reference to the Treaty of Versailles and no one trying to understand the root causes of the holocaust is spurious. The reference to the Treaty of Versailles is to establish the root causes of the whole shebang of the rise and rule of the nazis. Without looking at what the nazis did why mention their rise to power?

Similarly if you can understand minorities of people joining the PIRA (since they were minorities) then you can understand the even smaller minority who would simply kill protestant civilians for being protestants and you can understand them by reference to the same root causes.

Clearly what upsets you (and Geras) is that Tonge and Bunting (and Cherie Blair) might be drawing attention to the root causes of any aspect of the Palestinian struggle and you don't want those root causes too closely scrutinised.

And that's the bit you are misrepresenting. They are saying there is a root cause for these things. You are (and Geras was) saying they are supporting and encouraging these things.

flyingrodent said...

This is not nearly “understanding” deployed as it was by Tonge and Bunting when Geras critiqued them

Yes, we've established that you have a different interpretation of the word to most people, Brownie. I said that there was no need to reiterate the point.

But really, this argument was tiresome and pointless in 2005, and it isn't improving with age. Let's grant that, say, Bunting thinks bombing civilians is awesome. Let's say she regularly advocates for it using slippery and antiseptic language to make unpleasant violent acts sound more palatable.

Well plainly, it would be easy to make a case that this resembles the Professor's enthusiasm for creative destruction. No doubt you'll disagree and say that bombing people while trying not to kill them is entirely different, but that's simple, obvious casuistry. If you are presented with a course of action which will certainly lead to civilian deaths and then do it anyway, then you have decided that these deaths are acceptable to you. The pretence that this represents some wholly separate behaviour to the common psychopath is farcical.

Now, look at this post. Would it have been much more useful and edifying if I'd spent it thrashing Professor Norm with accusations of "apologism" for this or that horror? Should I have focused less on his rhetorical habits, and more upon pretending that he was some kind of blood-soaked monster?

Because that's what I would do, if chose to argue in the same manner as you.

This is before we spot that, even if we assume that you're right and I'm wrong, well, so fucking what? Had Bunting issued a fiery denunciation, would a single human now dead have avoided their fate? Would Iraq now be an oasis of democratic tranquility, or would peace reign on the streets of Palestine?

Obviously not. Which is why I made that point about the Prof's appetite for triviality - going from strident calls for more and better violence one minute and then, when the whole thing goes horribly wrong, taking a series of pissy hissy fits because some columnist said something that could be interpreted as a call for violence, if you looked at it with your eyes a bit screwed up.

Is this really a useful and illuminating pastime? Taking bitchfits about bugger-all because you're a bit pouty that your grand plan turned out to be a murderous error?

I don't think so but then, that may be why nobody asked me to write an obit for the Professor, and instead asked people who think murderous errors and hissy bitchfits are great and noble to write them instead.

Brownie said...

Similarly if you can understand minorities of people joining the PIRA (since they were minorities) then you can understand the even smaller minority who would simply kill protestant civilians for being protestants and you can understand them by reference to the same root causes.

Nope, that's just it. Most people would indeed make a distinction about what is "understandable" in each case (that's even without your reference to your "root cause" as the sectarian murder of protestant civilians is not and never has been attributable to the quest for a unified Ireland). Of course analysis of why events like Kingsmill happened is possible and should be encouraged: relevant data points would include the loyalist sectarian murders that preceded Kingsmill and the fact that many of the Provo old guard were interred and too many over-promoted young wolves were calling the shots, etc.. But experts and commentators willing to offer some form of "understanding" for events like Kingsmill are noticeably thin on the ground.

Clearly what upsets you (and Geras) is that Tonge and Bunting (and Cherie Blair) might be drawing attention to the root causes of any aspect of the Palestinian struggle and you don't want those root causes too closely scrutinised.

Yes, that's just it. I don't want to see *any aspect* of the Palestinian struggle scrutinised...that's me who has already conceded that it's not hard to understand why a young Palestinaian might join an intifada.

Attributing to your interlocutor positions that s/he doesn't hold may help you to make your arguments, but at the end of the day it's still misrepresentation.

Brownie said...

Let's grant that, say, Bunting thinks bombing civilians is awesome. Let's say she regularly advocates for it using slippery and antiseptic language to make unpleasant violent acts sound more palatable.

Why? Neither Norm nor I claim/claimed any such thing. I'm perfectly satisfied that Bunting doesn't get off on suicide bombing. The problem with this sort of Tonge/Bunting language is that it seeks to provide a different explanation for this phenomenon other than the one that most readily presents itself. "What is an oppressed Palestinian expected to do if not commit the suicide-murder of random civilians, any number of whom may be antipathetic to the Israeli government and all of whom are known to the bomber to be completely innocent of any crime done unto him/her?" Of course the guys who flew planes into building were not from Gazan slums, but from middle-class Cairo suburbia and with a few university degrees under their belts. What all these suicide-murderers share is a brainwashing, one that has convinced them that their death-cultist vision of the afterlife promises eternal ecstasy if they would just do_this_one_thing. Ever noticed the dearth of secular suicide-bombers?

There is a common theme if anyone - Bunting, Tonge, you - genuinely wants to look for it, but that's rather more uncomfortable for preferred politics than settling for the racism of low expectations that equates 'oppressed Arab' with 'potential suicide bomber'.

Brownie said...

No doubt you'll disagree and say that bombing people while trying not to kill them is entirely different, but that's simple, obvious casuistry. If you are presented with a course of action which will certainly lead to civilian deaths and then do it anyway, then you have decided that these deaths are acceptable to you. The pretence that this represents some wholly separate behaviour to the common psychopath is farcical.

There is a rather significant body of work on Just War Theory that collectively argues otherwise. Disagreeing about which wars deserve our support (and which individual acts within a conflict) is one thing, but asserting moral equivalence between all war, ever, and the work of random psychos is just silly. I doubt you even believe that yourself.

Which is why I made that point about the Prof's appetite for triviality

But it's not trivial or rare or insignificant. This muddying of the moral waters - especially from the left - happens with nauseating regularity and entreaties to accept that the cult of suicide-murder as a natural consequence rather than an abomination and that it's really no worse than anything else that happens in conflict is a philosophy worth challenging.

flyingrodent said...

Why? Neither Norm nor I claim/claimed any such thing.

The point being that, even if we accept that you're right about this - even if we agree that you're understating matters considerably, in fact - then it's still barely a historical footnote.

"It's not trivial or rare or insignificant"? Given that the era saw half the region collapse in flames with a vast bodycount and the President of the United States claiming an unlimited right to kill any human being on Earth without having to explain himself, I'd say that what you're complaining about is the definition of trivial and insignificant.

And notice, that's if we assume that you're right, which is by no means clear, given that you're reliant upon the idea that a word doesn't mean what it's generally taken to mean; what every dictionary in the language says it means.

All of which is really taken to hilarious levels when you or the Prof do your "Oh no we are being misrepresented, somebody is trying to twist our euphemistic calls for extremely violent military action into some kind of support for extreme violence" schtick.

When you're willing to assail people in this denunciatory mode, based on little more than a dictionary quibble, why do you imagine that others should seriously entertain your demonstrably flawed ideas on Just Wars with far, far more charity?

flyingrodent said...

And while we're at it, let's note again that in an era of blood-curdling civil wars and occupations; extralegal detention and torture; legal assassination and destruction, you regard some hack saying she "understands" a suicide bomber as an unacceptable "muddying of the moral waters".

Do you have any idea how utterly ludicrous that sounds? Because it sounds pretty damn comical from where I'm sitting.

levi9909 said...

No one's misrepresented you here, Brownie. I made an assumption based on your claimed understanding of the word "understanding". I shouldn't make assumptions of course, and Flying Rodent is much better at this than me, but your subsequent ludicrous resort to the concept of Just War confirms that my assumption was perfectly fair.

Brownie said...

Or more concisely, why are we talking about *this* when we should be talking about *that*?

There are a few answers - one which would point out that we're not exactly short of examples where *that* has been discussed with some regularity (not least by Norm himself), demonstrating that it's hardly a zero sum game - but the most obvious one would be that you decided to reference *this* in your original post, and in doing so misrepresented, in m view, what Norm's point was about this "understanding" business.

And once more, it's not I who is retreating to literal dictionary definitions to make my point. That's you guys and your tiresome insistence that anyone who objects to Tonge's/Bunting's invocation of the term is resolutely opposed to to gaining any insight into why some people do these things. I'm all for that and the Norm paragraph OC quotes above reinforces the value of gaining such "understanding", but this is not nearly what Tonge was writing when she informed us that she was just a bit of personal context away from becoming a suicide-murderer herself.

"I think if I had to live in that situation, and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself."

If Tonge had to live in "that situation", the facts tell us there's a 99.9% likelihood that she would eschew the opportunity to blow herself up taking innocent civilians with her. An honest assessment of 'what it would be like if' in this instance doesn't inevitably put one in the shoes of a suicide murderer. Far from it. These acts are aberrations even by the standards of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the temptation to dilute agency is too great for Tonge. The message is that if suicide murder is the result, imagine how bad the provocation must be? Imagine how intolerable "that situation" she refers to be must be?

However else you think I am misrepresenting Tonge and however much you insist there are other subjects more worthy of our attention, are you genuinely denying there is even a scintilla of truth to my interpretation of Tonge's view in this matter? Are you going to insist that this was nothing more than an honest broker's exhortation to gather more data because, you know, knowledge is good?

Brownie said...

but your subsequent ludicrous resort to the concept of Just War confirms that my assumption was perfectly fair.

FR wrote:

If you are presented with a course of action which will certainly lead to civilian deaths and then do it anyway, then you have decided that these deaths are acceptable to you. The pretence that this represents some wholly separate behaviour to the common psychopath is farcical.

FR doesn't make a distinction between, for example, an act of war that inevitably leads to civilian death and the deliberate targeting of civilians by psychos. Anyone who didn't mention Just War theory at this point shouldn't really be commenting on these matters, so whatever nutbar "assumption" about my views you think you have had confirmed, you are very, very likely to be wrong.

levi9909 said...

I think in the narrow case that you're trying to restrict this to, thereby starting a classic WillYouCondemnathon, Tonge might have been saying that she supports the Palestinian cause and that people should try to understand that cause rather than dismissing it on the basis of the politics of the last atrocity.

The restriction of the discussion to one case is a smart move by you though, Brownie. Geras used to do it all the time. At one time I thought he said that the suggestion that a unitary democratic secular state with one person one vote for the whole of Israel and the occupied territories meant "Fuck the Jews, no less". I searched and searched for the post before finding "To hell with the Jews, no less" re the same article. I think he changed it but the meaning was the same.

ejh said...

Ever noticed the dearth of secular suicide-bombers?

Well one answer is - in Sri Lanka, no.

But another answer is - for God's sake do one, Brownie. Because you can either call people apologists for murder, or debate with them. You can either use phrases like "the racism of low expectation", or debate with them.

Similarly, you can either put the most convoluted, unpleasant interpretation you can on other people's words, or you can inists on the most narrow, generous interpretation of your own. But this "you're-misintepreting-me-this-is-whatyou-really-mean" bullshit is the sort of thing I spent my days on the internet avoiding.

It's not just a complete waste of time, it's bad-faith waste of time, because if you really believed it, you wouldn't waste your time on these dreadful people on whom you are wasting your time.

As our host basically says above, who the hell wants to do this 2005 stuff all over again? And who the hell wants to do it with you? Really, can't you let us alone to be apologists for murder in peace?

organic cheeseboard said...

Brownie - could you be so kind as to provide a reference for where Bunting commits this heinous crime? I'm not a fan of hers, but Geras's identification of it in her work is a deliberate misreading. Maybe she did it elsewhere, but still.

Because without that, then this:

This muddying of the moral waters - especially from the left - happens with nauseating regularity and entreaties to accept that the cult of suicide-murder as a natural consequence rather than an abomination and that it's really no worse than anything else that happens in conflict is a philosophy worth challenging.

comes across as nothing more than straw man argument. As I've said, Geras identified 3 culprits, 2 of whom were truly marginal - one of them has seemingly never been published again, and the other was a member of something close to Hamas - and one of whom he simply misrepresented.

So where is this 'nauseating regularity' you speak of? And equally, whither everything else in your description? It's mostly invented.

And in terms of the Geras quotation I brought up, on recourse to historians etc - it's eye of the beholder stuff. Most of Geras's blog posts seemed to me like intermperate rantings and justifications for really horrible things dressed up as cool-headed logical thought, and demonstrated little 'understanding' of much in general, really; but you'll presumably disagree.

orgnaic cheeesboard said...

Ever noticed the dearth of secular suicide-bombers?

Oh dear, i missed this one. as EJH says, Sri Lanka...? you might have missed that but others didn't.

What all these suicide-murderers share is a brainwashing

I fully agree. and in every account I've read of this brainwashing (Ed Husain's the most notable example), the brainwashers, whosoever they be, focus on Western crimes against Muslim people.

flyingrodent said...

are you genuinely denying there is even a scintilla of truth to my interpretation of Tonge's view in this matter?

I'm at work here, so I'll quickly note that while anything is possible in this wide world, it's probably not enough to hinge these grand denunciations upon the interpretation of a single word. You find this highly convincing - I don't, and there we're likely to leave it.

And even if it were proven that you were absolutely right tomorrow, it wouldn't matter. It would change nothing and mean nothing. It's a convenient non-issue, deployed precisely because yourself and the Prof had little else to do but look for distracting things to complain about while your war went round the u-bend.

So in short short, I suppose that I'm saying that I "understand" why you'd get so very het up about this kind of who-gives-a-damn non-scandal from seven years ago, and see it as a matter of world-historical significance.

But you know, don't use your Holmesian powers of interpretation to deduce that I actually mean that I "advocate" and "endorse" going daft about politically convenient non-stories.

Because that would be silly.

levi9909 said...

We should leave it there but there have been secular suicide bombers in Palestine too, not just Sri Lanka. Some have been organised by the Marxist PFLP - http://jewssansfrontieres.blogspot.co.uk/2004/11/pflp-suicide-bombing-condemned_01.html

Phil said...

It's not just a complete waste of time, it's bad-faith waste of time

Before catching up with this thread I was reading a (positive) paper on Chomsky & musing that the reason I stopped reading Chomsky was a bit like the reason I stopped reading the Normblog - because they both seemed to be angry all the time. I then spotted a flaw in this argument, relating to ahem some blogs I frequent, where being angry doesn't seem to get in the way at all. But perhaps this is the thing that bugs me - writing as if you're permanently angry with people you also despise (the propagandists and commissars in Chomsky's case, everyone too stupid to agree with him in Norm's).

ejh said...

Couple of things that would be worth throwing into the pot of any good-faith discussion about atrocities and evil.

One is this story (via here) about people who carried out anatomy research using the bodies of dead Nazi prisoners, some of whom were specially selected and executed for the purpose. I am in no way sure what conclusions to come to about this, but it mae be noteworthy how few people chose to reject that kind of research, or speak out against it even when it had long been safe to do so.

The other is the example of My Lai, in which atrocities were carried out not by individual psychopaths, nor groups of people whose shared political convictions had led them to believe in the acceptability of murder, nor even people whose experience of conflict had warped their sensibilities and eroded their humanity (since most of the troops involved had not been in Vietnam long).

Now again, I don't know exactly what conclusions to come to, but I would say that in the first place, it is no help to complain that "understanding" what was done might mean that you could envisage doing the same thing yourself. Of course you could because these things were done by people like you. Just ordinary guys, no special experiences or special opinions or special psychiatric problems. Ordinary guys.

In the second place, one tentative suggestion might be that in times of conflict, we (where "we" means at very least a non-trivial proption of people) objectify our fellow human beings, consider them as the Other, cease to think of them primarily in terms of their humanity but rather in terms of imagined characteristics, which we ourselves have attributed to them.

Part of the problem here, of coruse, is that you can see that happening to various groups in our normal, everyday life, in the beliefs about this groups that are shared by large sections of the population and the approval that majorities often give to punitive actions against these groups. And while this obviously falls short of measuring people's heads for suitable skull sizes, it does at least raise the question as to whether the difference is one of degree rather than kind, that what happens is that when times and situations change, the level of acceptable violence against out-groups changes, and that appalling acts are not only carried out by peope who are not themselvs abnormal, but approved of (openly or otherwise) by much wider numbers of people too.

Now that might not be right, but the things is, it's a discussion that you have to have as grown-ups, without name-calling or the throwing-up of hands, precisely because it involves treating the appalling as if it might not be abnormal. You're not proposing doing these things, but you may be proposing the thesis that they are often done by otherwise normal people. You cannot have that discussion if in order to have it, you are assumed to be approving or accepting the acts you discuss (and you also can't have it properly if you have to surround it with all sorts of ritual condemnations).

I'd like to have that discussion properly, one day, with people who know what they're talking about, but I'm not going to be screamed at for having it, and so I'm going to have to leave this one, at this point, with the thoughts above. Another day, perhaps.

organic cheeseboard said...

You might throw in Abu Ghraib to that list too EJH.

Off topic and of no interest to anyone but myself, I thought I'd follow up my request to Bronie for the smoking gun on Madeline Bunting by searching google for 'normblog madeline bunting'. I'd suggest you try it. Seems our Norm had quite a fixation on her (which is fine though he did elsewhere rail again people who fixated on him, Aaro and Cohen as "some of its denizens to the point of appearing half-crazed"), but nowhere does he actually nail down where he gets the idea of her as an 'apologist' from. He is however spectacuarly rude in almost everything he wrote about her and plays the woman, not the ball on a very consistent basis.

over like dover street said...

Well "Maddie" (which is not what she calls herself, but how Decents invariably refer to her, displaying once again that innate respect for women which is the hallmark of this school of thought)was always something of a Jane Fonda figure for Geras and his cohorts - the mere mention of the name was sufficient to send them into a feeding frenzy. Ditto Karen Armstrong - it seems women who are sympathetic to an understanding of religious belief enrage them to an unseemly degree. I suppose the immense courtesy and sagacity in debate which Norm supposedly invariably displayed is a bit like the poshness of Victoria Beckham - it has meaning only in the context of those they chose to surround themselves with.

Brownie said...

Just three points before I bow out:

1 - Sri Lanka, or the platypus defence as I call it. There's a reason why my question about the dearth of secular suicide bombers elicits the same response every time from those committed to denying the dominant influence of religion and the culture of martyrdom that characterises the vast majority of suicide attacks.

You can start here

2 - On the regularity and significance thing, the commentary offered by Bunting and Tonge and others I can't be arsed to Google on suicide bombing is just one strand of the wider discourse on Islamism proffered by a not inconsiderable number of commentators (mostly from the left) that seeks to dilute the agency of those engaged in a battle with the civilised world. Islamism and the atrocities it spawns are presented as reactive phenomena, the inevitable consequences of whatever the US/Israel/the west does, as if the adherents were entirely without their own ideology and just simply waiting for the next thing to get angry about before strapping on their suicide belts. You can take a different view on this, of course, but denying the existence or extent of this recurring narrative is self-delusion writ large. It's fucking everywhere, people.

3 – ejh, self-awareness was never your strong point, which is why you can write a comment about my display of bad faith debating and bookend it with false clams that I’m calling people apologists for suicide bombing, and moreover do so on a thread where I’ve been explicit that this is not what I’m alleging and not what I think as regards Bunting/Tonge or anyone else for that matter. That you would insist the opposite even now reveals you as a fool or a knave. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

It’s been a blast.

Brownie said...

it seems women who are sympathetic to an understanding of religious belief

I think that's the euphemism of the year award 2013 all sown up.

I don't think I've seen much evidence of this sympathy to an understanding of religious belief in the matter of how it influences the policy decisions of US presidents. That particular example of the form has always seemed fit for scorn rather than sympathy. Maybe southern Baptisits need to blow up a few more cafes to get the necessary attention?

over like dover street said...

Armstrong's "The Battle For God" is precisely an attempt at a parallel understanding - perhaps it would be better to use "verstehen" here in order to avoid misrepresentation? - of Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms, but I doubt if many Decents would have read it. I have no idea why you think blowing innocent people up in cafes or pizza restaurants is more heinous than doing it in other locations, but I can assure you that for most of us Bush fils would not have to be responsible for any more deaths in order to gain attention. He is a Methodist, incidentally.

flyingrodent said...

Just three points before I bow out:

Points 2 & 3 taken together look like a wonderful example of simultaneous cake-consumption and retention to me, but let's just say that they aren't and not think too hard about whether it describes anything of actual import, for the sake of our sanity.

Organic cheeseboard said...

"the commentary offered by Bunting and Tonge" - to reiterate, Bunting is not guilty of this as far as I can tell. Geras deliberately misread her. If this stuff is indeed "fucking everywhere", it's odd that Geras and you can't find better examples and insist on naming someone who is innocent. I appreciate you can't be bothered to look it up, but when one of your main examples doesn't work, and when the only others named are ultra-marginal or active terrorism-sympathisers, it's hard to get so agitated about this supposed problem.

Anyone would thing this was a diversion as Rodent has also said.

Larry T said...

Aw, reading this has made me come over all nostalgic. Just one thing I wanted to add regarding this:

Islamism and the atrocities it spawns are presented as reactive phenomena, the inevitable consequences of whatever the US/Israel/the west does, as if the adherents were entirely without their own ideology and just simply waiting for the next thing to get angry about before strapping on their suicide belts..

Remember where this argument came from. In the run up to the Iraq war, and at other times, the argument was often made that rampaging around the middle east would be highly likely to produce an increase in the terrorist threat we face in the West. And that, as we all know, is exactly what happened.

So then the Brownies and Norms of the world had to find some way to dodge the chorus of "told you so". And the scheme they came up with involved a massive load of cod philosophy about agency and causality, whereby no-one was allowed to say that UK foreign policy had increased the terrorist threat, because in doing so they would be depriving the terrorist of their own agency, and painting Islamism as entirely reactive, and blah blah.

The argument's most embarrassing outing was probably on Normblog, but not by Norm:
http://crookedtimber.org/2005/08/06/jimmy-doyle-on-human-agency/

Larry T said...

(My second para is a quote from Brownie above and was meant to be italicized.)

levi9909 said...

Very strange, it appeared italicised in my email notification. Let's try again, cos it bears repeating anyway:

Islamism and the atrocities it spawns are presented as reactive phenomena, the inevitable consequences of whatever the US/Israel/the west does, as if the adherents were entirely without their own ideology and just simply waiting for the next thing to get angry about before strapping on their suicide belts..

levi9909 said...

Curiouser and curiouser....

flyingrodent said...

Remember where this argument came from.

That certainly matches up with my memory of events. It's also spot on, for example, for the ludicrous arguments after the recent murder of Lee Rigby - you'll recall the thread where a certain someone demanded that we all ignore what the killer said on national television, because to do otherwise was much the same as agreeing that the murderer was correct.

A fitting legacy for the era and its great thinkers, I suppose.

Phil said...

For anyone still checking back here, here's a "deliberate calumny against the Jews" (in Norm's words) from 2013:

"Having visited Auschwitz twice - once with my family and once with local schools - I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."

And here's Norm from 2002:

"It is a tragedy of its own kind that from the people which had suffered so much in Nazi Europe, and during a long history of persecution before that, should have emerged what is today an oppressor state. To guard against misunderstanding: I am not talking of the separate tragedy of the Palestinians which is a consequence of this fact ... I am referring specifically to the Jewish dimension: that out of this people, with all its own historical experience of injustice, should have come so grave an injustice towards another people."

Funny old world.