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.