The Art of the Hit Piece…

Here are some assertions any leftist would have rightly deplored as irrational, dishonest smears:

  • The Soviet Union opposes free market capitalism. Therefore, Western opponents of free market capitalism are obectively supporting the Soviet Union.
  • Al Qaeda opposes US foreign policy. Therefore, Western opponents of US foreign policy objectively support Al Qaeda.

Alastair Sloan would recognise these claims as smears. Nonetheless, in his hit piece on the historian Tom Holland – who argued, in a Channel 4 film, that ISIS takes inspiration from Islamic texts – he uses this logic:

  • ISIS believes in a clash of civilisations. Therefore, if you believe in a clash of civilisations you are obectively supporting ISIS.

Intelligent people will have questions to ask before accepting that the English historian and the Islamic terrorists have comparable beliefs. To what extent do they believe civilisations clash? What do they think are the causes? How do they believe we should respond? Sloan has no answers to these questions. He is equating them for argumentative convenience.

Is there any kind of clash of civilisations? Sloan has no arguments. He just implies that there is not. The closest he comes to making arguments for his ideas is in his claim that “anyone with a Wikipedia-level knowledge of Islam [agrees] that setting people on fire or drowning them in cages hasn’t much to do with a religion which is avowedly peaceful”. No one claims that all Muslims are violent, or that all interpretations of Islam promote violence. But many Islamic scholars do promote the idea of “offensive jihad”, which upholds the virtues of fighting to spread belief in Allah. Sloan has nothing to say about them because he is aggressively, evangelically incurious.

“Anyone who wanted to make the opposite case more,” writes Sloan, in his bafflingly inelegant prose, “Had to explain why so few Muslims were violent – if Islam itself was the problem.” Later, Sloan claims that jihadism is caused by ” legitimate grievances”. Some jihadists have legitimate grievances. On the other hand, so do Yazidis, and Egyptian Christians, and sub-Saharan Albinos. So do millions of people across the globe. Why do so few people with legitimate grievances not become terrorists, if legitimate grievances are the problem? Well, there can be more than one problem. There really, really can.

What Sloan lacks in arguments he makes up for with rhetoric, using every disingenuous trick in the book to discredit Mr Holland and his alleged ideas. Attempting to appear noble, he says Holland “no doubt [has] the best of intentions” but he later says:

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi could not wish for a better pro-Daesh propagandist, though that surely was not Holland’s intention. Or was it?

So, does Holland have the best of intentions or might he be a propagandist for Baghdadi? On Twitter, Mr Sloan brushed this off as a “semi-joke intended to provoke…conversation”. Many things provoke conversation that are also insulting and borderline defamatory.

But perhaps Mr Sloan is not so calculating. Perhaps his ideas are simply incoherent. In the beginning of his piece he says – doubtless in sorrow and not anger – that Holland’s film “had the potential to be a fascinating dive into a deeply important topic; how Islamic is the Islamic State”. Later, he says, of ISIS, that “one can focus on their extreme ideology, which is interesting in a parlour room sense”. Is it interesting and important or not?

Sloan’s piece is full of throwaway smears. He writes that Holland’s previous film on Islam “drew a staggering 1,200 very justified complaints” but does not even try to explain what was wrong with it. Sloan’s article drew a number of hostile comments but I took the trouble to explain its faults nonetheless.

I am by no means an unqualified defender of Mr Holland or his film. How could I be? I have not seen it. But Sloan makes no attempt to accurately characterise its arguments (or similar arguments that have been made) but shoots squid ink over the question and runs away. He is a smear merchant of a depressingly familiar kind, and it is depressing that Peter Oborne, who some still think is a valuable conservative commentator, recommended his article as “important”. There are many adjectives that would have been more appropriate.

Posted in Media, War | 6 Comments

A Hundred Years of Communism…

My essay on communism has been published by Quillette

We must give the Bolsheviks their due. Their success in gaining power was astonishing. A ragtag gang of activists and intellectuals, they seized control of Russia in October, 1917, and defended their rule in a vicious, bloody civil war. No one can deny the force of their conviction, or the scale of their courage, or the keenness of their talents.

But wielding power was a different matter. Revolutionaries dream that crops will grow out of their fire but in most cases it leaves scarred and arid earth instead. Collectivisation, with its monstrous violence and inefficiency, left millions dead in Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus. Paranoia and persecution, all too evident in Lenin’s “cleansing” of “harmful insects” — landowners, dissidents and priests the Bolsheviks interned, starved, tortured and killed — reached its absurd apotheosis in Stalin’s purges.

Posted in History, Ideology | 3 Comments

In Praise of the Human Body…

Yesterday I ran my first half marathon in one hour and forty-six minutes. The first sixteen kilometres were tough but fun. There were people cheering. There were kids with water, juice and raisins. There was pathetic thrill of overtaking people.

The last five kilometres were hard. I had a stitch. My shoulder ached. The shuffle function on my phone kept offering acoustic ballads, which, it turns out, are the worst possible music for endurance exersize. Still, I dragged myself around the course, muttering swear words, and managed to finish a lot sooner than I had expected.

This morning, I feel good (apart from my toes, which are swollen and red, like overripe strawberries).

A half marathon is a trifling achievement compared with marathons, triathlons or Ironman triathlons. There are thousands of people across the world who could have strolled around the course as a warm-up for their exersize. But to some extent achievement should be measured by potential and at least by that standard I feel rather proud.

Proud, but also fortunate, because my physical abilities, such as they are, exist largely in spite and not because of choices I have made. I have subjected my body to malnutrition, alcohol intoxication, cigarette smoking, extended periods of underuse and every chemical the food industry has invented. I have walked a lot, and eaten the occasional salad, but given all the punishment I have inflicted on myself it is astonishing that I am at all athletic.

The human body is an impressive thing. A computer, however modern and expensive, must be treated carefully, and nursed through bouts of ill health, before dying in, at most, five or six years. Some people are unlucky enough to have genetic or environmental accidents that leave them ailing or impaired but most of us can live into our sixth, seventh or eighth decades without enduring a traumatic level of physical pain – even when we treat our health with indifference or folly.

I have no wish to understate the suffering of people who are not as fortunate as myself, but, still, I think it is humbling to appreciate the strange power and genius of the human body – especially if we have not treated ours too well.

Posted in Personal | 5 Comments

Lost Cause Conservatism…

Daniel J. Mahoney reviews a book of conversations with Roger Scruton, and concludes

Near the end of this delightful and instructive book, Mark Dooley notes “Scruton’s reputation is certainly not what it used to be.” He is now a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature and has recently been knighted by the Queen. It is a far time from the 1980s when Scruton was something of an intellectual pariah…Thankfully, these days are mainly behind Scruton. In the conclusion of this volume, Dooley asks Scruton if he is hopeful “about the cause of conservatism generally.” Scruton responds that he is not.

For all that I admire Scruton, it must be sad to reflect that such a glittering career has co-existed with the failure of one’s beliefs.

In the New Yorker, meanwhile, Joshua Rothman profiles the conservative Christian Rod Dreher…

He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

I am not an orthodox Christian (or any kind of Christian) but this sounds like a rather limp position to adopt.

Finally, on Twitter Peter Hitchens announces

I have completely given up politics. Instead I am writing the obituary of the country. Do what you like. Nothing will come of it.

I have criticised Mr Hitchens’ doommongering before. I am no great optimist. Much of what is good will die and much of what is bad will come to be. Nonetheless, I think that what is valuable deserves spirited defence, not tired resignation.

I also wonder if the ability of these men to find a place in our progressive age is partly due to the idea that they have accepted defeat. They have not turned their backs on their conservative causes yet appear to have accepted that they have been lost. This makes them no threat to cultural orthodoxies. It makes them museum pieces: interesting but irrelevant.

Posted in Conservatism, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

In Defence of Jeremy Corbyn…

On June 8th, the Labour Party is expected to lose. Its loss, indeed, is all but inevitable. The only thing that is in question is the scale of the defeat.

A great TV series could be made about the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. On his watch, the party has slumped from disaster to disaster; miring itself in endless avoidable controversies and handing the Conservatives an ever-widening lead even as they have endured referendum defeats, resignations, leadership elections and all the uncertainty surrounding the British departure from the European Union.

I have little sympathy for Corbyn, whose economically illiterate leftism and contemptible sympathy for IRA and Islamic extremists would make him unfit for running a town council, never mind a country. Nonetheless, I have a little sympathy. I say that not just because he is a mild eccentric who likes to make jam and photograph drains. I say that because his opposition are insufferable.

By “opposition” I do not mean the Conservatives. I mean his opposition on the left. They talk a big game about “saving Labour” in the aftermath of his defeat but are as bad, or worse, on everything that means that he will lose.

His rebel MPs attack him for being out of touch, uncharismatic and unelectable, yet are the same jokers who thought Owen Smith – remember him? – could lead them to power. They are either as ineffectual as Mr Corbyn or as obnoxious. Why should one be more impressed by Wes Streeting, a combination of Adrian Mole and Pandora Braithwaite, or Jess Phillips, whose astonishing ability to insult her constituents makes Corbyn look like a PR professional. John Mann MP talked up Labour moderates in a column for The Sun and the best that he could say is that Streeting has “film star good looks”, a claim even his mum would think was overstated, and “Phillips  sounds like she has walked off the set of Coronation Street”. Phillips comes from Birmingham. Corrie is set in Manchester. Are they all the same, these provinces?

Then there are the self-styled “centrists” of the commentariat: a curious breed, whose overrepresentation among opinion columnists is greater even than that of people with the name Jolyon. The likes of Dan Hodges, Nick Cohen and Oliver Kamm attack Corbyn for being unattractive to the electorate yet their liberal internationalism – with its combination of military adventurism abroad and all-but-open border immigration at home – would make them as appealing to their average voter as a Great British Bake Off remake starring Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding.

As it happens, I would like a functioning opposition. Brexit is, even at best, no kind of panacea, and with the Conservatives stuffed with conmen and careerists it is important that they be held accountable. Corbyn cannot do this but he is not alone. His rivals are quite as preposterously dim.

Posted in Britain, Politics, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Marxist Philosopher, In His Own World…

The failure of communism in Eastern Europe, and the failure of Western Europe to become communist, left Marxists disillusioned and resentful. They turned, increasingly, to internationalism, projecting their ambitions onto peoples in the third world, with, in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuala, almost uniformly atrocious results. Such third worldist attitudes inspire at least some of their support for multiculturalism.

Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, and one of the most influential and renowned Marxists writing today, has published an absolutely bonkers essay on immigration. I respect a lot of my ideological opponents, and Badiou’s writings on the other subjects might be respectable, but this essay is completely, mind-blowingly bonkers.

Badiou’s argument is universalist: “there is only one world”; “one sole world of living women and men”. He thinks this idea is more profound that it seems to me. To him, we face a choice between “one world in which we all exist in equality” and two worlds with “separations, walls, controls, hatred, deaths, fascism, and ultimately war”. Why it is impossible for us to maintain different regions in single world without descending into hatred, fascism and war is never mentioned, let alone explained.

Multiculturalism, Badiou argues, struggling to apply his concept to the real world, should entail an affirmative process of interaction, not a hostile demand to integrate. Sometimes, of course, this can be valuable. We have all enjoyed sharing ideas with different people. How, though, it prepares us for dealing with, for example, female genital mutilation, honour crimes and religiously sanctioned domestic abuse is beyond me. I despair of theorists offering prescriptions that are totally abstracted from actual lives. Nice as Badiou’s idea might sound extremely limited precedents for success.

But wait! He argues that “persecution will not reinforce the process of creation, but the process of purification”. Attempts to force people to integrate will reinforce their attachment to malign aspects of their identity. There is some truth to this, no doubt (I am no advocate for “persecution”) but Badiou’s argument is terribly incomplete. We know that “young islamists ready to martyr themselves for the purity of their faith” respond not just to persecution but to difference, disagreement and derision. The novels of Salman Rushdie or the art of Charlie Hebdo persecuted no one yet ended in bonfires and bullets. It is morbidly ironic that Badiou sings the praises of ” creative identity” while ignoring this.

Badiou goes from being disingenuous to bonkers later; exposing his bitterness towards his culture and compatriots by saying that it is with migrants that “a new politics to come is to be invented” to save us from “nihilist consumption and policed order”. “Let the foreigners teach us at least to become foreign to ourselves,” he writes, fervently, “To project ourselves out of ourselves, enough to no longer be captives of this long occidental, white history that is finished, and of which we can no longer expect anything but sterility and war.” It is as presumptuous to be so dismissive of the culture that one’s countrymen still value, in their different ways, as it is to cast migrants, with their humble thoughts of jobs, wages and benefits, as one’s ideological saviours. One also observes the same vague yet impassioned optimism that drove communists in the twentieth century. Some things never change.

Posted in Identity, Ideology, Multiculturalism | 8 Comments

Politics Sucks…

I’m sick of politics. I’m sick of elections. I’m sick of referendums. I’m sick of reselections. I’m sick of deselections. I’m sick of negotiations. I’m sick it of it all and yet I’ll keep consuming every scrap of news that comes my way because I am addicted to this toxic, nauseating filth.

Yet I worry about those of us who are weird enough to find politics interesting and exciting. Most people aren’t like that. Their eyes glaze over when you mention words like “candidate”, “debate”, “campaign” or, worse, “ideology”. They prefer TV, books, football, cars and gossip. That is normal. We are the weird ones.

What I fear is that our morbid interest in political machinations detaches us from their actual consequences. What I fear is that we are so captivated by the news cycle that we abandon our sense of perspective. What I fear is that we are immersed in some kind of hideous soap opera, applauding each bizarre twist and turn, while forgetting that the damn thing is a documentary, and we are all minor cast members and not merely viewers.

Tear yourself away from this spectacle now and then. Leave sketch writers, wonks, pundits and other such pathetic creatures to fixate upon it while the world burns down. Think about the past and think about the future. Think about your friends and think about your family. Think about your dreams and think about your nightmares. Then look back at the grotesque pantomime playing out before our eyes in the grand old decaying theatre we can never leave.

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | 13 Comments