Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Roll on, the six month strike

“Strike as long as you like”, Ross Clark combatively advises council strikers today in The Times. Why? Well, in the usual aren't-I-clever way of the Blusterer column, he's making the case that, in fact, none of these workers does anything useful, so we won't notice if they stop doing it. Aha, they'll just put themselves out of jobs!

The difference between now and 1979 is that council workers no longer do much in the way of real work,” Clark informs his readers. Instead of fulfilling any useful function, “they are employed in trifling bureaucratic matters that few of us will miss.” Everything important, or at least rubbish collection and grave digging, has apparently been contracted out.

Ross Clark's hoping that “these bolshie town hall employees will strike for six months or more”. Then “[a]ll they will achieve is to expose the pointlessness of their jobs.” After some silly-sounding job titles plucked from the Guardian's Society section he's done – off to spend his fee. If unargued, bald assertions are all you can manage, the Blusterer's four hundred word limit is a great boon.

Of course, if those assertions are shown clearly to be false in the same edition of the paper as that column, it might be thought of as a slight problem -- that is, if the aim isn't just to provide rich people with something to hear-hear over breakfast.

Because it does appear that he was wrong, at least if functioning schools are deemed “useful” -- or libraries, or leisure centres. But maybe these state institutions aren't really of much concern to the moneyed Times writer. What about the very things Clark claimed would be unaffected? Bafflingly, in spite of that glorious privatisation he mentioned, the strike “disrupted refuse collection, street cleaning and the running of courts”. “In some places, burials were cancelled.” Is this enough?

No? How about – admittedly the preserve of the lower orders, by dint of their location – the Mersey Tunnels, reduced to emergency vehicles only, or the Mersey ferry service, or the Tyneside Metro rail service, or the Tyne Tunnel crossing, all closed? According to Unison, “120 schools, 24 libraries and 15 leisure centres” were closed in Liverpool alone. All, one must assume, because their operations hinged on “trifling bureaucratic matters”.

Even the North East Chamber of Commerce seemed to mind, claiming it would lead to “transport havoc”. But roll on, the six month strike – Ross doesn't care.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Mark of a Dogmatist

Sadly Oliver Kamm's latest post isn't in itself very interesting. It's perhaps worth commenting on, though, just because it is a model for Kammology.

First, the reference to a current event – the hook. In this case it's Norman Kember, and his apparent slowness or unwillingness to thank the brave military men who stormed a building devoid of kidnappers to rescue him.

Then we have the segue into a tangential discussion of what Oliver read in his Big Book of 20th Century British Politics. “[T]he fact that gratitude is late and grudging is not in itself a reason to begrudge it”, Oliver pronounces, throwing on his schoolmaster's gown. “What seems to me more interesting than the etiquette is the insight afforded into modern pacifism.”

Oh, and it is! For it allows him to name check his hero, the “great” Reinhold Niebuhr (a pro-war theologian), and to flash some entirely irrelevant factoids about earlier pacifists and the CND. The only price was spewing forth an entirely incoherent argument, but who's going to notice that among all the fussy verbiage?

The Christian Peacemakers, according to their own statement, hold to a commitment to non-violence. This is somehow transmuted, via Kamm's tortured analogies, into support for totalitarianism. Note that this isn't de facto support, deriving from non-opposition to totalitarians. Kamm draws a distinction between that and what he accuses Kember et al. of when he suggests that Albert Hassler and Norman Thomas were, in spite of their pacifist stance, opponents of totalitarianism, even in spite of Thomas's endorsement of Charles Lindbergh and involvement with the America First Committee (which campaigned against fighting Nazi Germany).

“Something”, we're gravely told, “went badly wrong with the pacifist movement in the 1930s on this side of the Atlantic, when it was infected by a stance of neutrality towards despotism.” Later we learn that “[t]he same happened in the US after Thomas's death in 1968.” This is all by contrast, in Kamm's world, with the America First people, even though they explicitly campaigned for enforcement of the 1939 Neutrality Act.

If what Kamm says means anything at all, he is suggesting that those ungrateful Christian Peacemakers are, by virtue of their tardy thanks to the military, on a par with what he diagnoses to be a pro-Soviet element among the CND (and later, a pro-Iranian element), and secondly that that tendency was in some way qualitatively different from the pro-Nazi element among American isolationists.

But nowhere is it made clear why helping the Soviets or Iranians was dramatically worse than helping the Nazis. At most some vague attempt is made at drawing a distinction between “personal” and “political” pacifism, but this founders on the fact that the American isolationists were, by any reasonable definition, political pacifists (that's the bad sort, apparently). Nor is it made clear just what the relation is between a slow thanks and a campaign against fighting a totalitarian state.

All that matters is that Oliver can employ his stock of pub quiz knowledge, show everyone he's read a bit of Niebuhr (he even gets to fling out a favourite quote), and reach one of those wearingly pompous conclusions. The final paragraph comes with all the usual pretence at fine grain scholarship, blotted by a desperate bid to relate the preceding witterings to the story at hand:

I cannot but think that the moral compromises (I use the weakest and most generous term I can find) involved in this type of politicised pacifism have their counterpart in the response of the Christian Peacemakers to the rescue of their comrades. Servicemen took personal risks to free the pacifist captives; tardiness in expressing thanks has the mark of the dogmatist. That is a politer term than bigot, but in this case the difference is a matter only of degree.

What could it all mean? Since Kamm makes such a token bid for the tag “rational analysis”, the two remaining explanations I see are a) it's all a joke or b) it's a sort of psychological therapy for Kamm.

Did anyone challenge him?

The Harry's Place vacillations on free speech continued today, in characteristic form.

“Does anyone who attended Saturday's March for Free Expression in London have anything to say about it?” asks Gene, following up with a defensive remark about the “sneering” naysayers who didn't go. And, would you know it? Dave T stepped in with a report.

“OK. It might not have been the biggest rally I've ever been on,” admits Dave, although he understandably didn't want to produce a number, because a conservative estimate was perhaps five hundred. It would be unkind, in the light of this, to draw attention to the “Stopper Shortage” article on Harry's Place earlier this month, indulging in what might be termed “sneering” over only ten thousand anti-war protesters on the last march.

It would be wrong too to pick up on Dave's sudden belief that “free speech is a precondition for democracy”, and point out that he supported prosecuting BNP activists for exercising that right.

Perhaps more interesting, because it's new as far as I know, is Dave's defence of protesting with those whose beliefs you strongly disagree with. Any reader of HP will know that the hookup between socialists and fundamentalist Muslims is deeply frowned upon among the muscular left. And we know from Gene that going on a march with a man who has a possibly anti-semitic placard is also wrong, at least if the placard holder hasn't been “challenged”. “Did anyone challenge him?” cried Gene into the wilderness, back in June 2004, over a “chilling photo” depicting just this.

But when it comes to a free speech march endorsed by Harry's Place, well, that's different. “I will not let the dubious politics of some other participants dissuade me from supporting what are important, progressive humanitarian values," Dave endorsed Peter Tatchell saying, solemnly ignoring everything Harry's Place had said in the past about anti-war demonstrations.

As well he might, for the Freedom Association, who were invited to speak at the rally, have a long history of attacking the things that Harry's Place allegedly holds most dear. For instance, in the mid-1970s they acted as proto-Thatcherite strike breakers (she reportedly described their anti-postal union operations as the “best thing since Entebbe”). Of course, on the general rule that labour disputes are only of concern if they involve Iranian bus drivers, it's hard to say that Harry's Place would care. But if that's not enough, you have the campaign to break the boycott of apartheid South Africa, and similarly stringent views on Rhodesia and immigration.

So the obvious question about the Freedom Association speaker is: Did anyone challenge him? More generally, will Dave T and Harry's Place follow their usual path of flitting to whichever elevated principle most conveniently allows them to reach their predictable, preordained conclusion?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Freedom of speech... for people I agree with

Today Dave T makes another of his garbled contributions to the debate over free speech:

One of the strongest arguments for Freedom of Expression the protection of speech facilitates the exploration of conflicts of belief: freely and without restraint.

He goes on to offer a rib-tickling chant for the free speech march:


But of course not republishing the cartoons at issue was the line advocated by two Harry's Place contributors, and not disputed by Dave T. (Brownie cunningly suggested that, instead of the originals, anti-semitic cartoons be published instead. Gene chipped in with a stern reminder that to republish would be to offend the Iranian bus drivers Harry's Place cares so much about.)

He should therefore have altered his “strong argument” to:

One of the strongest arguments for... the protection of speech [is that it] facilitates the exploration of conflicts of belief: freely and without restraint... but if that speech would cause offence then this argument evaporates.

This applies especially when those being offended are Harry's Place pundits. Back when two BNP activists were acquitted of inciting racial hatred, Dave T was similarly muddled. In fact, such was his bemusement that he went spiralling straight into doublethink mode.

“What it boils down to”, we're told, “is this”:

Racist rhetoric should be condemned, discrimination combatted, and racists exposed and fought. However, the State shouldn't punish speech unless there is a direct causal, and intentional, link between the speech and a physical attack, an act of discrimination.

So you might think that meant dear Dave was against prosecuting Griffin and co., because nobody suggested Griffin calling Islam a “wicked vicious religion” had a direct causal link with violence or discrimination. But of course not. Smoothly adopting the exact opposite of the conclusion that his ringing declaration demanded he went on:

That said, I can't fault the prosecution. There is no point in having a law on incitement to racial hatred, unless what appear to be clear cut cases are prosecuted.

He reiterated this in a further posting. So we can add a second modifier:

One of the strongest arguments for... the protection of speech [is that it] facilitates the exploration of conflicts of belief: freely and without restraint... but if that speech would cause offence then this argument evaporates... and if a law exists that looks like it could curtail that speech it should be used.

In other words, the State shouldn't punish speech unless it wants to punish speech; and one should uphold one's principles right up to the point where they conflict with the law, whereupon they should be abandoned, because we might otherwise have wasted ink on the statute books. Thanks Dave -- it's much clearer now.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Kamm, The Guardian and bollocks

A few days ago, Oliver Kamm made the mistake of publishing his letter to Guardian about the Chomsky interview affair, a letter he co-signed with David Aaronovitch and Francis Wheen. (In the strange world of Stephen Pollard the three of them were “three musketeers”, using their “forensic” powers to uphold the "traduced" Emma Brockes's “bona fides” via this self-important, prolix communication.)

In the months since the interview, Kamm hinted in his habitually pompous way that great things were afoot regarding his complaint about the Guardian's retraction of the interview. It was all stalled, apparently, by the need to appoint a readers' ombudsman of appeal, to whom complainants could turn when Ian Mayes, readers' editor, failed to give satisfaction.

This situation was, it would seem, quite satisfactory to Kamm. It allowed him to characterise as temporary the present state of affairs, with the Brockes interview discredited, and Srebrenica not available as a stick with which to beat Chomsky. On 20th February, for instance, he reminded his readers of his “very long letter” on the subject. He also mysteriously drew attention to Brockes being shortlisted for an “Interviewer of the Year” award on a site so amateurish it has "British" misspelt in the title, and in a competition boycotted by three newspaper groups, as if this in some way preemptively validated his complaint. (Of course, if the awards did mean anything, one could point out that Brockes didn't win, while the Guardian itself was deemed "Newspaper of the Year".)

This was only the latest of a stream of bulletins on his campaign against a Guardian retraction. He also notified us of developments on 15th November, 19th November, 22nd November, 28th November, 1st December, 12th December and 4th January.

Now Kamm's made the error of letting the world read his tedious correspondence. It quotes at great length both Guardian reporters' and Diane Johnstone's writing on Srebrenica. And it tells us that Chomsky took part in a campaign against the suppression of Diane Johnstone's work. But what it doesn't do is quote any of Chomsky's books or articles on Bosnia, or justify what Kamm contends – that it is Brockes who is owed an apology because her infamous “massacre in quotes” claim was essentially correct.

All the letter even purports to do is show that “Chomsky most certainly does seem to believe that, in the sense that international legal and human rights organisations, NGOs and reputable reporters understand it, Srebrenica was not a massacre” -- that is, it makes the case that Chomsky "seems" not to agree with some loosely defined organisations on usage of an ill-defined term, “massacre”. It does not claim to show that Chomsky ever referred to the Srebrenica massacre in quotes, which is what Brockes wrote in her interview – the letter doesn't even address this basic factual error.

One premise is that Johnstone minimised the Srebrenica massacre, by putting the term in quotes herself. Even here the letter falls down. Johnstone did refer to the Srebrenica massacre in quotes, but did not deny that many people were killed there. The sentence that Kamm et al. quote where “Srebrenica massacre” is written in quotes does not show what they claim, because it is a quote of what the Clinton administration referred to – they aren't scare quotes announcing an authorial view. She did question the official casualty figures (even today only a few hundred bodies have been found), and she did suggest that the killing at Srebrenica was emphasised to serve anti-Serb propaganda ends. The rest is essentially quibbling about terminology, where we see them, for instance, complaining about use of the “quasi-judicial” term “executed”. In sum, all they show is that Johnstone was sceptical about Western claims regarding the killing at Srebrenica.

Even if it were true that Johnstone had, in the sense of Brockes's interview, declared the non-occurrence of the Srebrenica massacre via quotation marks, it would not have implied anything about Chomsky's own views, let alone writing, on the subject. The link Kamm et al. try to make is that Chomsky endorsed Johnstone's book, Fools' Crusade. But this, just as with the Faurisson case that Kamm also likes to mention when he can, is an astonishingly flimsy ground on which to base very serious claims. The argument boils down to “Johnstone implied A, Chomsky says Johnstone's work is valuable, therefore Chomsky believes A”.

Balanced against this hand-waving non-argument is the easily verifiable reality that where Chomsky has been explicit about Srebrenica he has quite clearly accepted that there was a massacre there. If Kamm has, as he has suggested, read all of Chomsky's books, then why didn't he see this fact as relevant? Presumably, if he wasn't just being dishonest, he views his own inferences regarding Chomsky's beliefs as overriding what Chomsky has actually stated. If this is indeed the case, one would surely have expected him to have mentioned and justified it, an outlandish view though it may be.

As it is, the letter moves breezily on to conclude that Brockes was “certainly entitled” to her “interpretation” of Chomsky's defence of Johnstone's work. But the question isn't one of entitlement to views; it's one of whether Brockes was factually accurate in what she wrote. She wasn't, as the Guardian accepted. Unlike Kamm et al., Brockes herself has made no public statement that she felt she was wronged by the paper in its handling of the complaint. Nor has she released her tape of the interview, which would surely bolster her case if it contained anything like what she alleged Chomsky said. She is reported to have accepted the outcome.

So should we. The only people, surely, who could set any store by such a feeble, witless defence of the indefensible would be those as detached from reality as Stephen Pollard and his three musketeers.

More on this at Aaronovitch Watch.

Update: Having read through this again, I think I need to clarify something. It was misleading to say, "even today only a few hundred bodies have been found", with reference to the Srebrenica massacre. Several thousand bodies have been found, of which (as far as I know) several hundred showed signs of being blindfolded and/or bound before being shot. The question of how many of the remaining bodies were Muslim massacre victims, or how many victims there were overall, is something I'm not in a position to evaluate. Right now, it seems probable from witness statements and missing persons lists, if not forensic evidence, that there were several thousand Bosnian Muslim victims.

What Liberty Means

Liberty, says the strapline at Harry's Place, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear. That doesn't include people publishing cartoons that offend Muslims -- Harry's Place didn't support that, on vague and hypocritical grounds of causing offence. And it doesn't include commenters at Harry's Place, whose comments, it seems, are sometimes deleted by those running the blog on the grounds of... them being what they don't want to hear. In other words, it's a pretty circumscribed liberty.

The most egregious example I've seen occurred yesterday, when David T, most bumptious of all Harry's Place commentators, ran into an argument about jilbabs. Neatly ignoring the actual content of the Law Lords' ruling, which emphasised that the school in question was largely Muslim, had a Muslim-friendly uniform policy already, and had only drawn the line at an all-encompassing jilbab, Dave T weighed in with his own back-of-an-envelope reasoning for why the Law Lords were wrong.

This looked, and looks, like an attempt by Harry's Place to look balanced alongside their fervent advocacy of the Iraq War. A few vague motions towards placating Muslims, and they can make everybody happy that their support for invading Iraq was based on elevated democratic principle rather than crude islamaphobia. In this, Dave T and the others are simply following Blair's lead with his preposterous Religious Hatred Bill.

When this was pointed out in their comment space, David T replied with a "Fuck off." After some mockery of this inarticulate response, and more of the same from him, he responded by deleting almost all the nasty comments, rendering the comments thread nonsensical (see, for instance, the first comment). Today all that remains is one strangled reply from him, giving a sense of the level of his debate. It says, "You're still a cretin."

I say all this not because its intrinsically interesting, or because I ever thought Harry's Place was actually committed to any sort of real debate; but to explain why I've begun this blog. I want to say things that the self-styled "decent left" would rather weren't expressed, and obviously that requires a forum not controlled by them -- hence this blog.