Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.

A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.

Suffering

As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.

Hypocrisy

From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.

Pragmatism

Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.

Humanity

Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.

Utopianism and curiosity

Not every far-fetched ideal is utopian. Utopianism is a bad yearning, political ideology acock persistent ignorance.

One of the best things I’ve listened to this year is political risk consultant Ian Bremmer, author of ‘The End of the Free Market‘, presenting at the RSA on state capitalism after the financial crisis.

An excerpt from a review of the book (by somebody who fears central planning):

“The provocative — and ultimately false — premise upon which some of Bremmer’s argument is based is that the financial crisis revealed the inherent weaknesses in unregulated free markets.

He describes a meeting at the Chinese consulate in New York in May 2009 at which China’s vice foreign minister stated: “Now that the free market has failed, what do you think is the proper role for the state in the economy?”

Bremmer recognizes that this premise is laughable, but he is astute in seeing that state capitalism is an important political force.

Kenneth Minogue reminds us, “Capitalism is what people do when you leave them alone.” So, for Bremmer, state capitalism is “a system in which the state dominates markets, primarily for political gain.”

Bremmer emphasizes that state capitalism is not 17th-century mercantilism rehashed; international trade is not a zero-sum game, and the historical forces that gave rise to the British East India Co. are no longer at play.”

There’s another review in The Torygraph, none in The Guardian. I’ll add a review from the political left if I can find one.

The joy I took in the presentation was only partly because I adore puckish, enthusiastic presenters (including my pin-ups Jonathan Zittrain, Christopher Hitchens and Cindy Gallop). It was because he was committed to a multi-factorial, multi-perspective god’s eye view of economic risk which didn’t flinch from the complexity of globalised circumstances, so much so that he was the equivalent of an entire panel. I was also very interested in this bit [audio, 23:34] shortly after a question about the far right reaction which was answered in more depth:

Qu: What’s been the reaction of the far left?”

IB: Oh. The far left’s reaction has been … “The free market has failed, and what we really need is the Chinese system”, right? I mean, the far left reaction is basically [China’s Vice Foreign Minister] He Yafei’s reaction. You see, what’s interesting about both the far left and the far right – I don’t think either of them believe it. Not the mouthpieces. I think they’re just – now of course I would say that, right – you know, that’s the worst criticism you can possibly damn on somebody: “You know what? I know you’re saying that but you don’t actually – I don’t think you believe what you’re saying”. I’ve done that on TV before, and it’s fun because they don’t know how to react to that – “Whaddaya mean I don’t believe what I’m saying?” – “No you don’t, you are a shill”. I mean, I think that – look, I’m a political scientist and ultimately I’m a curious person – I want to kind of try – I’m not intending to be ideological, I’m trying to get a sense of what’s going to happen. My view is that if you can tell me what’s going to happen, and you can tell me even where we are right now, that’s 8o%. And then you can tell me about where you want to go given where we are.”

It’s idiosyncratic but I was so impressed by this that I listened to the presentation several more times – it covers environmentalism, why multinationals hesitate to go into China, the importance of immigration, what happens when constituency becomes important, and many other interrelated facts briefly and in rapid succession, but – paradoxically perhaps because it was one of the few explicit principles, as opposed to fact-backed predictions – the part transcribed above is a touchstone.

This reminds me of another RSA thing when Conservative panellist Francis Maud was talking about the differences between conviction and weathervane politicians and I had the feeling there was something in between he’d missed out. It’s the curiosity to form genuine questions and collect evidence which don’t simply nod towards a preordained conclusion, so that conviction grows from research and is so well-evidenced that the weathervane goes your way too (well, sometimes). Active curiosity is the most important thing for anybody interested in politics. Most have it, but if utopians did they wouldn’t be utopians.

Sometimes he could do with not talking about people as if they were so many ants but all the same, Ian Bremmer is an exhilarating assimilator of facts and ideas. To read: his book.

Bonus links: Rosie on Hitch22.

The Finkler Question

I finished Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker longlisted ‘The Finkler Question’. I hardly read fiction (something I regret) and my other half was surprised that I couldn’t put it down. Truth is I was scouring it for insight about the state of my life, no part of which is untouched by the Middle East conflict. Most recently, I was volunteering in the local woods and somebody involved with the Israel Coalition Against Home Demolitions gave an impromptu lecture – “as a Jew”, you understand – during a tea break. Even in an Essex wood, having just encountered two incidents of arson, we’re to be lectured about Israel? Something is wrong. And that isn’t the half of it.

The Finkler Question is peopled by this type of activist and other characters who react to them. Does the Mann Booker longlisting mean that these activists are noteworthy when in a world of just priorities this novel would only be of niche interest? Or perhaps it speaks differently to different people – like The Independent, Bloomsbury avoids the subject entirely:

The Finkler Question is a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.”

Now for me, that review summarises only part of the book I read. I read a very interesting and sparklingly funny novel mainly about British Jews living with an imagined Israel, and about how some purported friends of Jews are not after all good friends to Jews.

Spoiler follows.

Julian Treslove is an unchallenging and patchily reflective secular philosemite. This philosemitism has its origins in a fixation with his Jewish school friend Sam Finkler, a figure of intellectual superiority and insouciant mystique which Treslove imprints as essential Jewishness. Because this philosemitism is so bound up in the part of Finkler’s character which outwits and confounds Treslove, neither Israel, Jewish culture nor Jewish religion contribute to it; it is unaffected by Finkler’s earlier transformation (in reaction to his father) from ardent Zionist to equally ardent anti-Zionist. It is an essentialising infatuation. Through the lens of Treslove’s fascination, innocent queries and – later in life – the jealous self-consolation of a rival, Finkler emerges as a frequently ridiculous figure, but Treslove’s philosemitism endures. The third major character in the book is their former teacher, over three times their age when they met, Czech Jewish emigree Libor Sevcik. Libor and Finkler have been recently widowed, Treslove would like to have been, and the three commune.

Treslove’s strange inner life seems, among the characters of the book, to escape general notice. He isn’t after all the archetypal everyman character his work as professional look-alike suggests. He has a gloomy penchant for women who look terminally ill whom he invariably bores into hating him. He shows no interest in the two sons he accidentally fathered, keeps creating figments of Jewishness where Jewishness doesn’t exist, and from the beginning we learn that he is also extremely fearful of personal accident.

In the briefest unguarded moment Treslove is mugged. For the next few days he has nosebleeds and undergoes a deep change. His attacker had uttered a phrase he resolves (after days of skewed meditation) was “You Jew”. Formerly his admiration of Jews was vicarious and empty of personal aspiration. Now, as victim of an antisemitic attack, he experiences not the appropriate response of empathy but a dramatic and welcome change of identity, a sort of reverse trauma: he begins to think of himself as a Jew. The Jewish identity which steals upon Treslove consists of jollity, good sex and burgeoning energy. As Finkler’s and Libor’s fortunes and spirits decline, Treslove’s seem buoyant. He begins a relationship with Hephzibah, a Jewish woman who doesn’t look terminally ill, on whom he dotes in the same vein as his former girlfriends but is well-received.

Hephzibah is somebody who “dissolves Jewish differences”. Her Jewish sensibilities are British and early 21st century (not anti-Zionist, not centrally pro-Israel). She smells of the orient and cooks with intensity. All this, when they become acquainted, warms Finkler. Imagining that Hephzibah and Finkler have an exclusive Jewish affinity, Treslove’s besottment with Jewishness, devoid of spiritual, religious, or cultural content, consisting entirely of affected yiddish phrases, and notwithstanding his keen awareness of antisemitism, arrives at its inevitable destination of jealousy and suspicion.

Meanwhile he and all of the other characters are becoming aware of the encroachment of anti-Zionism, in the name of Palestinian rights, from the background into the foreground. Finkler is principle personality in an anti-Zionist group he has named ASHamed Jews, “which might or might not, depending on how others felt, be shortened now or in the future to ASH, the peculiar felicity of which, in the circumstances, he was sure it wasn’t necessary for him to point out.” Jacobson’s satirical account of the characters and exploits of ASHamed Jews is closest to life, and recalls the narcissistic silliness of the activists in Tariq Ali’s Redemption.

“The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. ‘It could explain where I get my comic genius from,’ he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”

ASHamed Jews marginalises itself with its inbuilt silliness and internecine fighting. Its threat to British Jewish life is a small part of a constellation of other antisemitic events, related and unrelated to Israel, which eat away at the morale of British Jews, most of which are counterparts of actual instances in British current affairs.

Finkler’s son enacts the ideological foundations of ASHamed anti-Zionism with antisemitic effect. Treslove’s son Alfredo is exposed to Holocaust denial in the company of British men in keffiyot. The great grandson of Libor’s friend is blinded in London by an Algerian shouting “Death to all Jews”. An orthodox Jewish child is surrounded by a mob of jeering, jabbing children, only saved by Treslove and a dog walker. There is the inept and category-defying act of wrapping the doors of Hephzibah’s not-yet-open Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture in bacon. Video blogger Alvin Poliakov attempts to restore his foreskin with “a system of weights he has devised using cpper jewellery, keys from a children’s xylophone, and a pair of small brass candlesticks”. Hephzibah begins to dread the opening of the museum, assessing that the mood is wrong for learning about the positive contribution its Jews have made to British life.

Libor, stricken by the death of his wife, articulates the historical awareness of the Holocaust generation, as well as escapism and a paralysing, impotent fatalism. Finkler’s wife, Tyler, a convert to Judaism, has the most trenchantly contemptuous insights about the Jewish content of her husband’s anti-Zionism, and contrasts with Treslove’s gropings. On Finkler’s domination of ASHamed Jews in the media, “‘They’ll soon realise their mistake,’ Tyler had prophesied. ‘With a greedy bastard like you around, they’ll soon discover how hard it is to get their own share of shame.’” Tyler is at first Jacobson’s main vehicle of argument against anti-Zionism but is dead by the time the book begins.

In the later parts of the novel, Finkler becomes unbearably uncomfortable. He is puffed up, but as a professional thinker, even at “the show-business end of philosophy” he has a public stake in his powers of reason. He also has integrity, and Jacobson perhaps allows himself some wish-fulfilment with the development of Finkler’s thinking about Israel and his willingness to contest some forms of anti-Zionism. That thinking doesn’t lead, here, to Zionism or a pro-Israel position, but to his reasoned dissociation from ASHamed Jews and – a less reasoned response to kinship – a reconciliation with his own Jewishness.

Other reviews:

contains no culture, religion or spirituality.

Press TV on the tube

presstv-ad

Press TV, the TV station of the Iranian ayatollahs (they don’t appear because they’re unphotogenic and scare the kids) is advertising on the tube. I don’t really claim to get the iconography or the strange name (is it an acronym? The idea of a ‘press’ is certainly retro). And the strange fish-eye planet, or is it a lens? Or a button to press? Or is is an ‘O’ as in ‘op(p)ress’?

A voice for the voiceless?

Iran has one of the higher proportions of voiceless journalists in the world, so the irony is jangling. But in itself, the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless is very noble.

I was invited as a panellist on one occasion, and politely refused because having a voice on a broadcast funded through (by? who knows?) the Iranian ayatollahs involves thinking on your feet lest you become a foil for some or other piece of propaganda disguised as a debate between equals. I was in a studio audience once too. Giving the voiceless a voice is fine.

However, when you look at some of the other people who host their programmes, they’re not a good cross section of the voiceless. Rather they are people who are voiceless because they’re marginal and they’re marginal for reasonable reasons. George Galloway is a pompous demagogue who admired Saddam Hussein. Tariq Ramadan (he’s rather well-represented actually) is politely homophobic, although he’s willing to debate about it so he must be a decent chap. Yvonne Ridley defends the Taliban. Update: inappropriate people like Alan Hart get to chair debates. There is a deep antipathy to Zionists. ‘The Zionists’ are basically anybody who supports the existence of an independent state of Israel, particularly if, as is so often the case, they happen to be Jewish. Oliver Kamm:

“I have appeared twice on it — the second time purely because Tony Benn was one of the other guests, and I consider he has an easy ride in the media. I have no criticisms of Gilligan as an impartial moderator.

But I recall him being surprised when, in a discussion of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, he read out some chilling antisemitic remarks of President Ahmadinejad — and found that they elicited vigorous applause from the invited audience.”

If it was anything like the audience I attended with, it was young, international (though mostly Anglo-English I think), brimming with self-righteousness, over-eager to interrogate and if possible humiliate ‘The Zionist’ with their questions, but mostly courteous and keen to listen. Well-meaning kids – but well-meaning is never sufficient. The road to hell, and all that.

24/7 News Truth?

I’m reading on conspiracy theories at the moment – one book which attempts to place them within an idealistic tradition and another which aims to apprise its readers of the threat they pose. Strange to say that ‘truth’ has a funny way of sounding heroic when it’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” or “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, and wild-eyed when it’s blaring at you from a poster on a Central Line Train advertising Press TV.

Indeed, Press TV have introduced its readers (there’s also a website containing material it presents as news-truth) to Nicholas Kollerstrom, a former UCL academic (special interest in crop circles) who lost his job at UCL for arguing that the Holocaust was a fabrication (in fact he considers it “the greatest lie ever told”).

In a bout of wishful thinking, Press TV has expunged Israel from its maps.

I think that the way Press TV engages in debate is good. However, debates are always framed within a consensus. When they break out of that consensus they become controversial, or should. A responsible news service will not flinch from controversy, but will flag and explain it for its audience in ways which promote critical engagement with the details. It may restate the different varying values, prompting the audience to come to an opinion based on their own.

The framing of debate may sound like an act of suppression, but it happens all the time. It certainly happens on Press TV. Press TV would never host a debate on population control which included somebody who was in favour of paying Chinese parents to euthanase their surplus children and aged relatives. The reason it wouldn’t is that the equitabile framework of debate, giving equal voice to the various positions in an argument, can legitimise ways of thinking which should remain, to use a turn of phrase, unthinkable. Oliver Kamm says “…the most significant aspect of Press TV’s role is its ability to insinuate into public debate the worst and most pernicious ideas around”.

Press TV is 24/7 something, but not News Truth.

People are changing. Opinions are changing. The news is changing. Why do you still watch the same tired news channel?

Because I know how it’s funded and I’m satisfied its charter will oblige it to strive for neutrality. It’s very important to avoid bias in your news – leave that to the commentary. Guess what you find when you search for Press TV’s governance documents. The first thing a search for ‘governance’ uncovers is “Israeli lobby hinders change in the US”. There’s nothing more relevant. Guess how much turns up when you go looking for criticism of the Iranian government. And its About Us page? Given its stated “revolutionary” aims, derisory.

Martin Bright and Oliver Kamm have it right – Press TV is something to tolerate. Toleration implies deep disagreement with the tolerated thing, but no intervention. Because unlike Iran, this country has a healthful tradition of free expression to defend.

Update 13 June 09: Press TV has failed to report the hugely important news that there is rioting in Tehran tonight after irregularities with the general election which returned Ahmedinejad to power.

Update 28 June: “Voice for the voiceless”? In the aftermath of the Iranian elections, Iran has been unvoiced by the men who run Press TV, who have organised for democratic reformists and prominent members of the labour movement to be imprisoned and tortured, possible executed.

Update 28th June: open letter on Drink-Soaked Trots to get Press TV adverts off the London Transport System. I agree.

My news channel isn’t tired – it’s fresh. It attracts input from the most talented production team and the main global players. Occasionally it’s even funny. Not as funny as this, though.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other childrens books

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be this December 10th.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Children’s Edition is a book for young children with pictures by star illustrators.

Tonight on The Learning Curve I heard Jane Ray talking about its genesis. She said that the article on torture was very difficult to illustrate. What would you have tried to show, for young children?

Here’s what Jane Ray did.

It’s been a good week for me and children’s books – I also discovered Sadie the Airmail Pilot by my occasional reader Mr Kellie Strøm (Norman Geras’ Profile 266)  And I dug out my favourite book in the entire world, an ABC called ‘A Beastly Collection‘ by Jonathon Coudrille. I owe that man (never met him) a hell of a lot, more than I can explain at this stage of the evening – you’d have to read it. You really must.

Formative political books

There’s an interesting thing going round the Greens with people listing their formative political works.

JimJay on the Daily Maybe started it off with a list which he observes to be dry but whose Rees, ISJ, Cliff and Callinicos gave me unpleasant pavlovians – I first came to them in the context of their aggressive perspectives on Israel. Matt Sellwood’s list looks intriguing.

Mine? Thinking about it. With some concern I realise I haven’t read a single book of social or economic theory any of the more recent fix-it manuals or paradigmatic works of the left (or right or centre for that matter). This might explain and also justify my lack of political thrust.

Among others I am suddenly very curious about, I would very much like to know Bob’s, Sonti’s, Marko Attila Hoare’s, Yish’s, Barkingside 21′s, the AWL’s, David Hirsh’s, Norm’s, Eve Garrard’s, Snoopy The Goon’s, Peter Tatchell’s, Mod’s, Max Dunbar’s and Harry’s Place’s.

Update: see Matt Selwood, Scott Redding, Adrian Windisch, Peter Sanderson, and Weggis.

There is no political theory under my belt. My most politically formative works coincide with my most formative personal works:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harpur Lee (but that’s fiction)
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (fiction)
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (fiction).(This is where I’m going wrong.)
  • Arthur Koestler’s two volume autobiography (aha – fact, garnished with Koestlery spin)
  • The writings of Orwell.
  • Crossland’s (ed) The God That Failed (ex-communists fire the opening salvos of the cultural Cold War)
  • Triomf by Marlene Van Niekirk (fiction)
  • The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (poetry)
  • The various writings of the Eusties – particularly David Hirsh, Eve Garrard, Norman Geras, Anthony Julius, David T, Marko Attila Hoare.
  • Nietzsche’s Will to Power (his bad reaction to cosmic upheaval of modernity)
  • Joyce Da Silva’s work on animal sentience.
  • And of course, Nick Cohen’s What’s Left.

I know, because I have heard plenty of recorded lectures, that I am influenced by Mill, Paine, Locke, and (particularly because he understood that being a good citizen is a consuming pursuit) Rousseau, but I have not yet thoroughly read a work of theirs. I am a poor political reader in general – I read a lot but my political reading is short and journalistic.

So, here we are. I sympathise with the people who turn decisively from the Stalinists. My domestic and international politics progressive, egalitarian and democratic. My economics are socialist – but baselessly so.

Techno-affection

A widespread finding from JISC research into learners’ experience with  e-learning is that learners feel emotionally attached to the technologies they own. (Other commentators view this phenomenon as a symptom of post-humanism, cyborgism or brain outsourcing.)

Last night I resumed use of my iRex Iliad after a spell without a charger during which it lay lifeless with dark lesions of e-ink all over its poor screen.

The new charger arrived recently so I resuscitated my little machine and we’re up and running again.

I wanted to get Alan Johnson’s Global Politics After 9/11 – The Democratiya Interviews, and so I went to its spot on the Democratiya site expecting to shell out £9.95.

But the PDF from the Foreign Policy Centre was free. Once again I was wracked with gratitude. This model, which you still can’t count on, makes so much sense when you’re trying to disseminate ideas – charge people for any physical containers (DVD, book, etc) but make anything freely reproducable freely available.

E-readers are the best way to take advantage of these new forms of dissemination. They avoid the musculo-skeletal problems which are associated with reading from a computer but unassociated with holding something like a book. In their low energy use (although the iLiad could improve on power management) they also avoid environmental problems associated with using large amounts of paper and ink.

So within moments I had Global Politics After 9/11 – The Democratiya Interviews on my iLiad and was in bed with Michael Walzer followed by Saad Eddin Ibrahim. I do like that e-reader.

I recommend the interview with Ibrahim. His account of Islamists who win support on social issues, come to power democratically and subsequently find themselves subject to democratic pressure is very helpful if you’re attempting to make a cool assessment of Hamas and Hesbollah.

‘Waterstones Recommends’ the Brothers Grimm, Lydia and Dear Deidre

Further to news of Amazon’s publication and promotion of Persecution, Privilege and Power, I remembered how the other month I was surprised to a standstill in front of one of the promotional ‘Waterstones Recommends’ stands of the Gower St branch of Waterstone (huge academic bookshop at the heart of the University of London). Volumes 1 and 2 of Zionism: the real enemy of the Jews by Alan Hart were actually being promoted by Waterstones. Here’s what Alan says (I’m not linking to it but it’s easy to find):

Israel is the criterion according to which all Jews will tend to be judged. Israel as a Jewish state is an example of the Jewish character, which finds free and concentrated expression within it. Anti-Semitism has deep and historical roots. Nevertheless, any flaw in Israeli conduct, which is initially cited as anti-Israelism, is likely to be transformed into an empirical proof of the validity of anti-Semitism…. It would be a tragic irony if the Jewish state, which was intended to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, was to become a factor in the rise of anti-Semitism. Israelis must be aware that the price of their misconduct is paid not only by them but also Jews throughout the world. In the struggle against anti-Semitism, the front line begins in Israel.

Dross, and the whole thing, both volumes, is like that. The book isn’t authoritative and it isn’t scholarship, it’s a largely unsubstantiated apology for antisemitism from a very ideosyncratic and obviously mistaken commentator who finds favour with blinkered and facile people whose existing prejudices and wonky analyses he confirms. What the hell is it doing on the ‘Waterstones Recommends’ stand? I approached the nearest assistant with a simple question about the criteria for promoting a book in this way. The assistant referred me to the floor manager. He was wary. He said it probably meant it was on a college reading list. Potentially this was an even more disturbing development so I asked him to check whether this was the case and if so which course, and he obliged. But to my relief it wasn’t on a reading list. He got confused and started to explain that booksellers are not in a position to make political decisions about which books to sell and which not, so I cut him short because wasn’t what I was getting at. I told him no more than the truth about the thrust of the book and argued that I had no problem with it being sold but it shouldn’t be promoted because it’s a bad book by any critical standards, it appeals to cranks, to promote it is to rehabilitate crankishness and that many people consider it racist in its double standards. The floor manager said he didn’t know why it was there, and shortly after that told me that he would take it off the stand. (I hadn’t asked for this but it was what I’d hoped he’d offer to do.) The last time I had seen this book was in the British Library shop (and that astounded me too). Its publisher, World Focus Publishing, seems only to be dealing with Alan’s work (is it by any chance owned by Alan?) Its web site says:

“The take over of British publishing houses by conglomerates with agendas of their own and vested interests to protect has destroyed the independence of British publishing.

Well, not the whole truth. There are many things which can come between the reading public and their books – not least market forces – so he’d really have to justify blaming the publishers. Amazon has opened things up immensely, in fact. But he continues:

One consequence is that far too many books are published and pulped and books such as ZIONISM: THE REAL ENEMY OF THE JEWS simply cannot be published – because they offend powerful vested interests.

I’m not a powerful vested interest. I’m somebody who is worried about antisemitism, views Israel as a product of antisemitism, thinks that blaming Jews for wanting a state of their own is completely ridiculous, and understands the promotion of anti-Zionist literature in Waterstones as part of the same phenomenon which has seen antisemitic literature promoted by Amazon, as mentioned above. My sphere of influence is dinky, but I exert it as best I can, which is my right. Alan Hart, like Sue Blackwell whom World Focus Publishing name-checks, is patently, terminally, incapable of responding to antisemitism while he persists in peddling the lie that Israeli Jews – half the world’s Jews – are the culprits of antisemitism while only anti-Zionists are blameless victims. This stuff is appalling pile of tabloid cod which belongs far, far away from academia (my emphases):

Because the Nazi holocaust was a Gentile crime, there was nothing any decent Gentile in publishing, the media in general and politics feared more than being accused of anti-Semitism. Zionism played on this fear by asserting that criticism of its child, Israel (a unilaterally declared state for some Jews but claiming to be the state of all Jews), was by definition a manifestation of anti-Semitism – i.e. an attack on all Jews everywhere. This was, as it still is, propaganda nonsense, but it worked wonderfully well for Zionism. I mean that out of fear of being falsely accused of anti-Semitism, mainstream publishers, most media people and virtually all in public life shied away from truth-telling about Zionism and its contribution to catastrophe in-the-making.

No case for Israel then, Alan? What about 1947 UN Partition Plan? No case for Jews arguing robustly for a state of their own after the Holocaust? Or were they just supposed to go home again and pick up where they left off, give or take their businesses, homes and savings? It gets worse:

It was to force the re-opening of informed and honest debate closed down by the Nazi holocaust that I spent more than five years of my life researching and writing Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews.

Alan, everybody and their dog. Pappé. Finkelstein. Brenner, Mearsheimer ‘n’ Walt. Cooper. Neuman. Rose. Rose. Fisk. Pilger. Chomsky. Shlaim. The list goes on. These people are not in any way suppressed – on the contrary they’re positively thriving on anti-Zionism.

The underlying thesis of the book is that because of the settlement facts American support for Zionism right or wrong has allowed to be created on the ground, in defiance of UN resolutions and international law, it’s now too late for any U.S. administration to call and hold nuclear-armed Israel to account; and that only the Jews of the diaspora have the influence to do it – cause Israel to change its ways and make peace on terms which almost all Palestinians and Arabs everywhere can accept. But… I also say that it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the Jews of the diaspora to play their necessary part in bringing Israel to heel and averting a Clash of Civilisations (Judeo-Christian v Islamic), unless and until they receive the maximum possible in the way of reassurance about their security in the lands of the mainly Gentile world of which they are citizens. What, really, do I mean? Though I am myself a goy (non-Jew) -

Oh god, here we go.

- I know that deep down almost every diaspora Jew lives with the unspeakable fear of Holocaust II (shorthand for another great turning against Jews) and thus the perceived need, if only in the sub-consciousness, for Israel as an insurance policy – the refuge of last resort. And this is one of three related reasons why only a very few diaspora Jews are prepared even to criticise Israel’s behaviour, let alone engage in activities to cause Israel to be serious about peace based on an acceptable minimum of justice for the Palestinians. Though they will never say so in public, the vast majority of diaspora Jews, because of the past, are too frightened to do or even say anything which they think would be interpreted as antipathy to Israel and could have the effect of undermining the wellbeing of Israel as the refuge of last resort for all Jews. The second reason for the silence of so many diaspora Jews on the matter of Israel’s behaviour is the fear that if they speak out and appear to be divided, they will encourage anti-Semitism. The third reason is fear of the reactions of fellow Jews.

Where is the empirical evidence for this? (Nowhere – not in this particular piece and it’s a long piece.) Are there even any examples? (No.) We have a bald pile of grotesque stereotypes, enitrely unsubstantiated. It reads like a cross between Dear Deidre and Mariella Frostrup’s column in The Observer Magazine (a good while ago she went on a course and became an agony aunt – it would be really funny but she lashes out at men all the time). Later, Alan puts forward a modest proposal:

So what if anything can be done to encourage diaspora Jews to play their necessary part in calling and holding Israel to account?

In my Epilogue, The Jews as the Light Unto Nations, I call for a New Covenant, not between the Jews and their God but between the Jews and the Gentiles.

The New Covenant I propose is a deal between the two parties – the Gentiles who are the majority in the many lands of which most diaspora Jews are citizens and those Jewish citizens (Jewish Englishmen, Jewish Frenchmen, Jewish Germans, Jewish Americans and so on). And the essence of the deal is this. In return for diaspora Jews using their influence to cause Israel to be serious about peace on terms the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and all Arabs can accept, and actually accepted a long time ago, the Gentiles commit to destroying the monster of anti-Semitism. (I write that it will not be enough for us Gentiles to put the re-awakened sleeping giant back to sleep, and that we must drive a stake into the monster’s heart, to kill it for all time).

(Alan regards lots of things as monsters and sometimes as well as writing like an agony aunt he also reminds me of the Brothers Grimm). Next, terms and conditions for the new job role of Light Unto Nations:

What, actually, is required of diaspora Jews in terms of their New Covenant obligations?

They must begin by recognising modern Israel for what it is – a Zionist state, not a Jewish state. If it was a Jewish state – i.e. one governed in accordance with the moral principles of Judaism – Israel could not have behaved in the way it has since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1948; behaviour which can be described, objectively, as (at times) brutal and cruel, driven by self-righteousness of a most extraordinary kind, with contempt for UN resolutions, without regard for international law and which, all up, makes a mockery of the moral principles of Judaism.

Thereafter the main New Covenant obligation for diaspora Jews would be to make common cause with the forces of reason in Israel for the purpose of changing it from a Zionist state into a Jewish state.

And finally we get inspirational Coach Alan. This bit is pure Lydia from the opening credits of Fame:

Perhaps that is the real point of the idea of the Jews as Chosen People… Chosen to endure unique suffering and, having endured it, to show the rest of us that creating a better and more just world is not a mission impossible.

To paraphrase, Alan proposes to hold Jews to a higher standard than any other people under the same circumstances. The weirdo actually subscribes to the ‘light unto nations’ stuff. It’s awful, really squirmy to read. There we are, it got written – these things do. But on the ‘Waterstones Recommends’ stand? What are we to make of that?

The British far left and its turn to…

As told by Tariq Ali in 1999 in his novel Redemption.

Spoiler follows.

It’s 1990. Foremost theoretician of the World Movement Ezra Einstein (modelled on Ernest Mandel) has called an Extraordinary Congress to discuss what is to be done about the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc and its workers’ spontaneous and eager lunge at capitalism. Delegations from across the world attend his every word. The octogenerian, who only minutes previously lactated to feed his first newborn child, begins by asking delegates which countries have witnessed the largest mobilisations of urban and rural masses over the last decade. He then elaborate on the implications.

“What then is to be done? The answer is obvious. We must move into the churches, the mosques, the synagogues, the temples and provide leadership. Our training is impeccable. In this regard I would say that the comrades of PISPAW, of the Burrowers, of Comrade Pelletier’s organisatio, as well as many smaller groups here, are better suited to this than the French PSR or the Mexican PPRRS. Their style, and I say this as a compliment… their style of education, their recruitment practices, their apprenticeships are so close to some of the Christian orders that I am confident we could make gains very rapidly. Within ten years I can predict that we would have at least three or four cardinals, two ayatollahs, dozens or rabbis, and some of the smaller Churches like the Methodists in parts of Brtain could be totally under control.”

And after hypothesising about the origins of the RESPECT coalition with such prescience, he continues his dialectic:

“I realise that this means changing everything. Everything. But at the end we might come out stronger. I ask you not to reject what I have said out of hand. I know it seems shocking. We, the vanguard of the vanguard, moving into religion? It sounds appalling, COmrades, but it’s the only way. I warn you if we don’t do this together you can forget about being the vanguard of anything. The only van we’ll ever see is the guards van of these new revolutions as they pass us by.

“I can see that many of you are shocked, but Comrades, there is one more fact we have to grasp. One of the weaknesses of Marxism and all the other isms descended from it has been a lack of understanding of ethics, morality and, dare I say it, spirituality. We propound what we know is false because our intellects persuade us that it ought to be true. Our dogmas liquidate our intuitions. That’s where the religions have always been able to trump us. All this will change. We have planted the seed. Long live the World Republic of Self-Management based on Workers’ Councils. I notice some of you laughing (Shouts from hall of “We remain true to Marxism-Trotskyism.”) You do, do you? Every great movement has had to contend with people like you. The Donatist heresy split the Christians two hundred years after the death of its founder. The Donatists, like you my dear comrades of the Satanist League, claimed that they were the only true believers. That they and they alone had a direct relationship to the divine law. To God! They dismissed any effort to relate to the problems of life on Earth. Just like you, my dear comrades. I will end with paraphrasing St Augustine’s rebuke to the Donatists: “The clouds roll with thunder,” he shouted at them, “the clouds roll with thunder, that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout Earth: and these frogs sit in their marsh and croke ‘We are the only Christians.’” The similarities would, in other circumstances, be amusing. Today I find them extremely disturbing. Thank you comrades.”

And so Ezra Einstein hops off secularism as lightly as a grasshopper. Most of the delegates have difficulties swallowing this. One wonders “If tactics and strategy could be so elastic as to lose all connection with the goals, then what was the point of anything”. A veteran from the bench of honour, old enough to have been expelled by Trotsky for raising money from an innocent – in fact model – cooperative agreement between his taxi service and the Parisian Prostitutes Collective, intervenes with a report of hitherto secret correspondence between Trotsky and the Pope including a codicil “addressed to the movement on the possibility of religion outlasting science and our attitude” and departs for Mexico City to retrieve (fabricate) it.