Thursday, October 24, 2013

For Norman Geras

I'm late - again.  Like so many who followed his blog and corresponded with him, I was not surprised, yet shocked nevertheless, to hear that Norman Geras had passed away after a long illness.  Having read a number of the touching tributes to him, I'm struck by how little I could say that is in anyway original.  Not that originality is what is required at such times.  Many have talked about his writing, what it meant to them, and what they did and didn't agree with.  I recognise much in what has been said but would want to stress the way in which I found, as many others obviously did, normblog to be an invitation to have a conversation, whether you agreed with him or not.  This could, and did, take the form of reciprocal posts across the blogosphere - which were then carried on to the email circuit.

That my experience was nothing unusual is testimony to how generous Norm was with his time towards his readers.  For my own part,  I have reason to be particularly appreciative since what disagreements we had were largely a consequence of my own belligerence.  This commitment to conversation was reflected in his work and regarding this there's a point worth stressing: "It's still out there", as Max Dunbar says, and what a substantial archive the weblog of Norman Geras actually is.  Until recently, it was updated most days - often more than once.  I can't think of any columnist who could have held my attention for so long.  I don't want to do the, 'I agreed with this, but not with this', too much but I will say that his writing on contemporary antisemitism was nearer the mark than just about anyone writing today.  But I love the fact that the last post by this man of letters was not about politics but books.

I have been reflecting on the question of whether and to what extent you know someone with whom you've communicated electronically but never met?  I came to the conclusion that you don't really know them at all.  One face-to-face meeting is worth a thousand emails, which is why when Norm asked me a few years back if I "ever came down this way", I regret that it was at a time when I was too confused and disorientated even to leave the house for too long.  Then, after the trouble had gone, so much time had elapsed that I was too embarrassed to take him up on the offer.  I didn't know Norm - but I wish I had and I miss him anyway.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Revolution and the cult of youth

Is the Secretary for Education Michael Gove leading a revolution in English education?  I don't live and work there so I can't be sure but from what one can gather, the answer might be yes.  Some acquaintances of mine who I like and respect think this is a good thing.  I'm not so sure and can think of at least two reasons why they might want to be careful of what they wish for:

a) Monotheism has the theodicy problem and in the same way all political dispositions have fundamental questions that they find difficult to answer. I've always thought for conservatism it is this: "What do you do if your enemies come to power?"  In the Occident, the answer seems to have been neo-conservatism.  This is the political stream in which Michael Gove and his ilk stand.  I have to say, I find it extraordinary that anyone can believe that someone who berates the recipients of aid from food banks for their lack of budgetary prudence is motivated in his education reforms by a concern for the poor.  Or maybe he is, but it's a kind of liberalism (because whatever Gove is, he certainly isn't a conservative) that pre-dates the 'New Liberalism' that could be found at the end of the 19th century.  This is another way of saying that revolutions can be from the right as well as the left - and from what one can gather, Gove's tenure as Education Secretary belongs firmly in the former category.

b) Revolutions are about the annihilation of the present order.  There's more than a whiff of this mentality evident in the following extraordinary story.  A young lady, only twenty-seven years old, was appointed as head of a primary school in Pimlico, London.  Free-school guru and professional loud-mouth Toby Young denounced critics of this appointment - in a revealing phrase - as 'dinosaurs'.  Because to expect a headteacher to have either experience or qualifications is so, like, 1970s.  Oh ye unions!  The zeitgeist has dispensed with your services.  Only unions could insist on such antediluvian credentials.  I'd like to think Mr Young would re-think his attitude in light of the news that the headteacher in question has abandoned her post after only a few months into the job.  But of course he won't.  People like that never learn - they 'move on' instead.

I'm left thinking - not for the first time - where are the proper conservatives?  That she didn't have a PGCE is an issue but a bigger one for me is she was only twenty-seven!  Once was a time when no-one would have disagreed that this is far too young.  I envy her in some ways.  I would have never imagined I could have ran anything, never mind a school, when I was that age and I doubt I could even run a department now.  The fault lies not with her but with those who appointed her.  It is characteristic of those who imagine they're in the vanguard of revolutionary change; if you are all about the destruction of the present, it is inevitable that you fetishise youth and the presumption and confidence that (sometimes) goes with it.  The problems only emerge when once you've killed off (figuratively in this case) all the old guard who know how to do stuff, you find you're left only with the zealous.  Then you find zeal is only a small part - and perhaps one that isn't even necessary - of what you need to do any job properly.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

On Appeasement

James Bloodworth rightly takes issue with those who would make the Cold War a simplistic 'goodies vs baddies' narrative.  His is not an argument of moral equivalence - merely a reminder that those he agrees were on the right side made some pretty unpleasant allies along the way.  For those of us of a certain political political background, most of the familiar cases are cited: Vietnam, the secret bombing of Indo-China, the Chilean coup and support for apartheid South Africa.  One could have added the support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and, of course, the Ba'athist regime in Iraq.

A couple of observations: he's right to say that conservatives could do with being reminded of it but I'd add that the left has never forgotten it.  While there's obviously nothing wrong with that in itself, perhaps it should be admitted that this has not always been for the right reasons?  As the history of the Soviet Union unfolded, it became increasingly absurd to suggest that there was some kind of moral equivalence between the capitalist West and the Communist bloc with regards to how people living under these systems were treated. However, when it came to foreign policy, where the capitalist West was more explicitly allied with the enemies of freedom in various parts of the world, making the moral equation between the West and the USSR was not absurd.  It's perhaps controversial but I would suggest that this is why there remains on the left such a fixation with the politics of Latin America and particularly the Middle East.  I'm not making a moral point - just the suggestion that some of the self-styled 'anti-totalitarian' lefties may have unwittingly inherited a preoccupation from the 'Stalinists' they profess to abhor.  Witness the way anathemas are dispensed to those who fail to take the 'correct' view in relation to whatever regime is the latest to receive the 'Hitler of the Middle East' epithet.

One is reluctant to mention Appeasement because discussion of this in the MSM, never mind the blogosphere, is invariably infantile but James Bloodworth's plea for history not to be re-written needs to be taken a little further back because it touches on the ambivalence to dictatorship on the right that he mentions.  One of the aspects of the rise of Hitler that needs to be honestly confronted is that both the right and the left were initially divided.  Those who are fond of using their pulpits in national newspapers to accuse contemporary politicians of being Neville Chamberlain demonstrate that their interest in the period is limited to mining it for easy moral lessons.  You certainly don't get any sense of why they think the policy was ended.  Every school pupil knows that after the sacrifice of the Czech nation, it was understood by Chamberlain, Halifax and the rest that Hitler could not be trusted.  Less often noted in relation to the abandonment of Appeasement was that the Hitler-Stalin Pact had destroyed the argument - used more frequently than some on the right might care to remember - that as unpleasant as National Socialism was, it served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

This is not to suggest that the international left was pristine in its opposition to fascism.  Apart from people like Lord Rothermore, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ended an ambivalence on much of the right towards fascism - but it marked the beginning of a similar attitude in some quarters of the left that did not end until 1941.  It is indeed right, as a number of historians have noted, that Communists were always and everywhere the most prominent among the resistance movements that grew up under the shadow of the swastika in occupied Europe - but it should be noted that this was only the case after Barbarossa.

But this ends as it has begun - a reiteration of Mr Bloodworth's central point: imagine yourself to have been on the right side in the historic struggle against totalitarianism if you will - but it is the talk of children to suggest this was managed without moral compromise, as it is to think there was noone who did not belong to your ideological stable who was on the same side.  Like Ralph Miliband - veteran of  Operation Overlord, opponent of Stalinism - for example.

With enemies like these...

Ever had a disagreement with someone and then remembered too late something you could have said that would have been a witty and winning line? One of the fun things about teaching is you get to go back and do it over and over again: a comment that seems sharp and spontaneous has actually been honed with practice. Medhi Hasan's 'smack down' of the Daily Mail on Question Time so obviously belongs in that category. It's this that makes the subsequent revelations about some of his - how to put it? - job-search history seem not merely embarrassing but positively bizarre. When he was rehearsing his lines for Question Time in his head, can he really have forgotten about this?
"Dear Mr Dacre, 
You might find it odd that the political editor of the News Statesman is asking you for a job. That's understandable but I've been comparing the long lists of people we don't like and I've found there's more of an overlap than you might think..."
People taking the piss is the least Mr Hasan can expect but although what he's done is pretty funny, it's annoying too because no doubt the Mail and its supporters will feel it undermines the - in my view, completely justified - outrage about their disgraceful piece on Ralph Miliband. First Alistair Campbell and now Medhi Hasan; they must be thinking, "With enemies like this, who needs friends?"  And people with better things to do with their time than to follow this in any detail will now be more inclined, if they're aware of it at all, to think that all papers and the hacks that write for them are just as nasty as each other.  Which can't possibly be true.  All the ones that agree with me about stuff are largely decent, honest and nice.  But just in case...

Maybe someone other than a journalist could have been invited onto the telly to criticise the conduct of journalists?  Like a politician, for example.  How about Nick Clegg?  All this has also had the unfortunate effect - or fortunate, depending on your point of view - of making him look good by comparison. He said what Medhi said but it was better for a couple of reasons:

a) The charge of hypocrisy doesn't - at least on this issue - stick, since he hasn't, as far as I know, ever asked the paper he's criticising for a goddamn job.

b) He has a better claim to tolerance credentials than Mr Hasan on account of the fact that he doesn't - again, as far as I know - go around describing people who don't share his world-view as 'cattle'.

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