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.

“Copyright extension is the enemy of” creativity and learning. No to the EU extension on sound copyright.

Updates – scroll to the bottom.

This post contains arguments and resources on sound copyright to persuade you to write to your MEPs now (more at the bottom).

The EU votes on copyright extension on 23rd March. The big stakeholders in the music industry – namely the BPI (i.e. back catalogue owners) superstars and creators who think an extension will earn them more than it’s actually predicted to – have lobbied for an extension of sound copyright term (for disambiguation see this UK Copyright Service overview of current law for different media – and note that the licence they use is Creative Commons licensing) from 50 years to 95 years – that’s nearly double. The UK government is currently supporting 70 years. The evidence is against them. From Sound Copyright’s briefing:

“The Commission estimates the performers’ share of new sales revenues from the proposed extension at 10%. However, this conveniently ignores their own statement that redistribution will be highly skewed in favour of the top earning 20% of performers. From that 10% share “between 77% and 89.5% of all income … goes to the top 20% of earning performers”. For the vast majority of performers the projected extra sales income resulting from term extension is likely to be meagre: from as little as 50¢ each year in the first ten years, to as “much” as €26.79 each year.”

and moreover:

“Each major label would be expected to gain €8.2million—€163million over the 45 year term. That, in turn, works out at €205,000—€4.075m per label per year. This is a windfall for record labels.”

Or those who own the rights to the back catalogues. More evidence via the links towards the bottom.

I am not at all into IP, but don’t ask me for an alternative to safeguard creators against competition on an open market against behemoth corporations who take their stuff and undercut them. That’s one trouble with markets – they tend to bring out the realist in people. IP law introduces the principle of public interest into the two extremes – monopoly for the creator forever and a free-for-all in which the creator fails to earn a living at all. Basically, the public interest – access to cultural and scientific heritage – is expressed in the time-limitation of copyright. For more  about this see the Billy Bragg link at the bottom.

Last years Times letter – copyright extension is the enemy of innovation – fought convincingly on the ‘benefits to creators’ front*. Another more recent letter coordinated at the Centre for Intellectual Property and Policy at the University of Bournemouth, to Culture Minister David Lammy – this emphasises needless criminalisation of and growing unrest among the end users.

You can get the 2006 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property free of charge from Her Maj’s Treasury. It made a number of recommendations about intellectual property (IP) in a digital age, notably number 3 – for the European Commission to retain copyright at 50 years. The University of Amsterdam Institute for Information Law (in a study for the European Commission) also found the case for extension to be flimsy (p6-7 of that summary – not entirely comprehensible explanation but the sentiment is clear, see too this letter). However, there is every chance that the EU will be argued into ignoring these recommendations. The US offers much longer (there is mounting pressure against the bonkers copyright law in the form of an inspiring and gathering campaign for the scientific and cultural commons).

Still not convinced?

  • Watch The Open Rights Group short vid – How Copyright Extension Actually Works.
  • Watch Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group at the Sound Copyright conference.
  • The most recent and most entertaining thing I’ve seen in the past week – watch and/or listen to James Boyle talking about his book (free download – on my iLiad – if youre getting an (e)reader, make sure you can do this with it) Public Domain – Enclosing the Commons of the Mind at the RSA.
  • The RSA is also behind the 2006 Adelphi Charter – a short and readable  position which seeks to balance innovation, creativity and IP in a digital age. It flags public interest and rights to education, health, employment and cultural life.
  • From the US, listen to Larry Lessig, founder of a place I wish I followed more closely, Stanford University’s Center for the Internet and Society and chair of the licence scheme for individual creators, Creative Commons.
  • Alternative revenue? The Nine Inch Nails business model is talked about.
  • Relevant (because he is in favour of copyright extension, and because while most people love the artists they love, they have little love for the record industry and will nick music if they think that paying for it mostly serves that industry) read and listen to Billy Bragg (in strangely-presented Register pieces) on the difference of interests between artists/performers and the industries who use them for revenue. He argues “don’t keep clobbering the end user” and he argues against “life of copyright” deals which deny artists revenue from recorded work and hike up the price. He has co-founded the Featured Artists Coalition to, among other things, make the case for royalties from work which is used by, say, Google, YouTube and Nokia. He wants a reconfiguration of the music industry around the artists rather than the companies. If he had his way already, the current debate about extending copyright would be very different because the predicted gains of the record companies would be vastly less as a proportion, and the debate would be straightforwardly about balancing artists’ interests with public interests without the public having to tactfully point out that the principle beneficiaries of copyright extension are the record companies and the superstars. But he doesn’t, and they won’t.

Contact your MEPs to turn up to the session* on 23rd March and vote against copyright extension and in favour access to our shared cultural heritage. I based my message round:

*One thing I’m not sure about is “the session”. I’d like to have given details, but they weren’t to hand.

Update 28 Mar 09

After a cooling on the extension, this from Music Week:

“The industry has been dealt a savage blow in Brussels today with the European Council throwing out a revised term proposal.”

On the midnight news last night they said that UK government, which favours the extension, swung round because there was no guarantee that the royalties would reach the artists (when did it ever not look like it was going to be a record company scoop?) I don’t fully understand the jargon “session fund” and “clean slate proposal” and no time to find out. But this is at least good news for now.

In other good news, the EU failed to pass a draconian 3 strikes and you’re banned from the Internet law against illegal downloaders.

Eric Hoffer on the ideal devil

Probably the wisest and most heart-melting stevedore to work a dock, I’m attempting Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) as part of a trio of books on fanaticism. The other two are Hannah Arendt‘s The Origins of Totalitarianism (also 1951) and Roger Griffin’s Modernism and Fascism (2007). I heard Griffin speak recently and was utterly captivated.

Below are some excerpts from The True Believer which consider the function of demonisation and the psychological effects on demonisers of confronting them with their own injustice. What he describes is distinctly familiar and relevant to the campaign to boycott Israel. There aren’t 23 editions of The True Believer for nothing.

Chapter IV: Unifying agents – Hatred

Section 66

Common hatred unites the most heterogeneous elements. To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship, and thus sap his powers of resistance. Hitler used anti-Semitism not only to unify his Germans but also to sap the resoluteness of Jew-hating Poland, Rumania, Hungary, and finally even France. He made a similar use of anti-communism.

Section 67

It seems, that like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is one. We have it from Hitler – the foremost authority on devils – that the genius of a great leader consists of concentrating all hatred on a single foe, making “even adversaries far removed from one another seem to belong to a single category”. When Hitler picked the Jew as his devil, he peopled practically the whole world outside Germany with Jews or those who worked for them. “Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States.” … Again, like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent. When Hitler was asked whether he was not attributing rather too much importance to the Jews he exclaimed “No, no, no! … it is impossible to exaggerate the formidable quality of the Jew as an enemy.” Every difficulty and failure within the movement is the work of the devil, and every success is a triumph over his evil plotting.

Finally, it seems, the ideal devil is a foreigner. To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.

Section 69

That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience.

There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them. We do not make people humble and meek when we show them their guilt and cause them to be ashamed of themselves. We are more likely to stir their arrogance and rouse them in a reckless aggressiveness. Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of the guilt within us.

Section 70

There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness.

To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him.

Section 71

The most effective way to silence a guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.

Section 72

A sublime religion inevitably creates a strong feeling of guilt. There is an unavoidable contrast between loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice. And, as one would expect, the feeling of guilt promotes hate and brazenness. Thus it seems that the more sublime the faith the more virulent the hatred it breeds.

Section 75

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.


Hoffer, E. (1951). The True Believer. Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper & Row. pp95-97

eReader, hyperventilating with guilt – so much £, oh well…

I think I’m going to spend a significant amount of money on something I first saw on the District Line last month – an iRex iLiad Reader (second edition).

It has an electrophoretic display (eInk, tiny dyed particles which collect or recede according to an electrical charge) which doesn’t refresh or require backlighting and consequently allows a claimed 14-hour battery life. It’s roughly the same dimensions and weight as a book and for me this is a big draw – I don’t like reading from regular laptop screens because of glare, ergonomics, and the matter of having something heavy in my shoulder bag as I roam round London. I find my various other devices uncomfortable for reading as well.

It supports PDF, XHTML, TXT and MP3 – at the moment that means journal articles, out-of-copyright ebooks from e.g. Project Gutenberg, podcasts, subscription services via the iRex site and a growing number of copyright ebooks too. This will suit me fine. Mostly I’m PDFs and HTML.

It has a stylus and handwriting recognition – you can use it to generally take notes and you can annotate the texts and integrate the annotations. I take things in best if I do the ‘dialogue with the text’ thing and scrawl all over it.

OK, you can’t do much else with it except read, write and draw – apart from Libresco’s subscription service (newspapers etc) there’s nothing interesting to do with the Internet connection, no animation, no colour – although there is sound and it functions as a hard drive for moving stuff around. This is more than fine by me – I usually carry at least one book and several papers with me at any one time, I have to carry the books in an old cardboard Amazon pack so they don’t get dog-eared – more weight – I take notes on paper because I draw, and then find myself separated from old pads when I need them. Now I’ll have everything on cards.

I feel extremely guilty of extravagance. But I read a lot which, besides being good in itself, reclaims the time London always tries to steal. Reading makes perfect sense of my commute. And now I can read on platforms with my gloves on. And I’m saving the trees. Besides, I am such a Cinderella of learning technology, always trailing edge – I want to be glamorous around campus and become known as an inspiring technological trailblazer.

So what the hell.

There are reviews – an early overview from Sandra Vogel, a more technical assessment from Ego Food,and a fuller more recent Sandra Vogel review. The bloke who let me play with it on the train really liked it and his enthusiasm was infectious – I’ve been thinking about it ever since. So when I came into a bit of extra £ I thought about it some more, and it didn’t seem any less appealing, nor did my purse-strings constrict. I want it – I will have it, why not?

OK, I went and bought it from Libresco, which says it’s iRex’s official distributor, the bloke was really helpful and I’ll tell you tomorrow whether I have it.

The first thing I’m going to put on it will be David Hirsh’s Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: cosmopolitan reflections. The second will be That’s funny, you don’t look antisemitic by Steve Cohen. Then the most recent issue of Democratiya, and probably all the previous ones too. I’ll probably stick the Euston Manifesto conference MP3s on it too. Then all of the AWL’s recommended reading for their week school on Marxism and Anarchism. And that will be one ream of paper saved – and that’s if I print at 4 sides a sheet.

Oh it’s going to be great.

The Peculiar wait is over

bicycle near Lambeth Bridge by Matt HaynesThe arrival of issue 11 of Smoke (a London peculiar) means I can get up from under the letterbox.

This issue, Matt Haynes tips over some bins in Wapping, Adam Zucker is mistaken for a Canadian on the Central Line, there’s a picture of a monstrous cyclist made of foliage next to Lambeth Bridge. Bus of the month is the 108. London’s campest statue is in the Port of London Authority Building, Trinity Square. I’m still laughing at ‘Things Not To Do In The Isle Of Dogs’ (first I read it and though “That is not at all funny”, then I saw the picture). The fiction is always much better than it looks at first – Tricity Bendix always looks good to start with.

As I stare at the pixelated head of this issue’s London’s Ugliest Dog, I’m renewing my pledge to write a piece. Nobody ever writes of Barkingside. I’ll mention how the Central Line enfolds us and the liminal bridge on Forest Road keeps us from Essex. The bed hair of the new Fairlop Oak and the spurious reckoning of the More Than A Farmshop retail entity on far side of the tracks. The sinister relocation of the zebra crossing near the school so it’s closer to the roundabout exit. The best pitta in the world (Yossi’s). The library roof. The St Bernards who have do their rescue training at Fairlop water because they’re banished from Britain’s beaches. There’s no other place for this stuff but Smoke.

I won’t write about the clairvoyant shop because it’s vanished.

If you just take out a little subscription to Smoke, Matt Haynes won’t have to get a distributor any more and neither will he have to cycle to foreign places (Harrow) with a box on this handlebars. It’s a third way.

Matt, Jude I don’t mind if it’s late – don’t get a distributor if you don’t want to. I’ll be ok under the letterbox – another Matt brings food in the evening and something new to read.

Oh – you did.

New Statesman’s got learning difficulties

Remember the New Stateman’s ‘A kosher conspiracy?‘ cover from 2002, the congratulations from the racists, the outcry from the anti-racists, and the apology for an apology mustered up by the then-editor Peter Wilby (weighed and found wanting in Bernard Harrison’s The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism)?

A load of old codThe New Statesman has provided more than enough reasons to keep an eye on it over the past few years. It’s irrepressible – in a bad way.

The 17th September cover is here – search for the issue on the New Statesman site.

So we have ‘Stitch-up. How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq’ – fairly regular fodder these days. But underneath we have an arresting juxtaposition – they’re foregrounding a review of a book about the Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer, a pair of US academics who’ve been widely discredited for their scholarship and widely welcomed (hopefully but not necessarily – see below – by different people from the ones who are discrediting them) for their antisemitic thrust – who believe that the Israel Lobby (code for rich and powerful Jews) is responsible for leading the US government by the nose into its war with Iraq.

Now, am I being a tad touchy, or is the message from the New Statesman cover – delivered in small saccades of vision and small saccades of reason – that a bunch of powerful and single-issue Jews ‘intimidated’ America into ‘misleading’ Blair into going to war with Iraq?

Kampner’s the editor now and considering the hauling over the coals Wilby got, if I’m right maybe he’s experiencing the self-satisfaction of somebody who feels himself to have made a brave stand in the face of enormous “pressure” and “extraordinary venom” from those (members of the Israel Lobby?) who want to suppress his honest, intrepid journalism. If so, I hope he gets a rude awakening because – surprise – it’s exercised the antisemites. Comments on the article:

“The term “Jewish lobby” is too kind … Hollywood is run by Jews…all 5 top media corporations are owned, or run by Jews … I am reminded of Gordon Brown`s first speach as PM. He talked about fighting”racism”, but he made a specific mention of “anti-semitism”…another tug on the forelock…total obediance to the Jewish led Western elite. One only has to look at all the Jewish oligachs in London….princes paying homage to Lord Jacob Rothschild….oh dear….did I mention something that I shouldn`t have?lol”
[i.e. Jews control and subjugate politicians]

“On the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ blog the J-word can only be associated with praise, sympathy for victimhood, or support for Israel – anything else will get a post removed or posting rights withdrawn.”
[i.e. Jews control the media]

“…we will not be held hostage or used by any group because of their claims that their own personal ethnic nightmares or loyalty to another country for any reason, ethnic or religious or historical trumps the common good of all other citizens or the original principles and purpose of America … Anyone who disagrees is free to look for a better deal in another country.”
[i.e. Jews know your place or we’ll be asking you to leave.]

“Fact is, every time there’s even a sniff of anything relating to the Israel-Palestine issue in this magazine, the zionists crawl out of the woodwork. Check anything by John Pilger if you dont believe me.”
[i.e. Zionists (meaning Jews) are vermin]

(No mention of the Christian members of the Israel Lobby – it’s the Jews that get people going.)

Not that the antisemites seem over-repressed in the current climate, but an article about the book in Forward notes a creative new approach to ‘criticising’ Israel which attempts to neutralise all charges of antisemitism:

“Step one: Publish your views in as provocative a manner as possible. Use words like “apartheid,” as Jimmy Carter did in his book, or paint Jewish lobbying efforts in darkly conspiratorial terms, as Walt and Mearsheimer did in a paper published last year. Step two: Dare the Jewish community to lash out at you, then whine about being victimized by bullies. Step three: Implore fair-minded liberals to line up behind you, forcing them to choose between endorsing your vision — however skewed — or becoming part of the censorship juggernaut.”

I haven’t read the book but I’ve read critiques by Eliot Cohen, Anthony Julius, Ben Fishman, Harry’s Place, Judeosphere, Forward, Kenneth Stern and others on the 2006 London Review of Books article on the same topic by Gidon Remba, Jewish Current Issues, and many more. There’s an excellent 2006 video debate between Mearsheimer and five other pre-eminent scholars and politicians from different backgrounds. The video is notable for Shlomo Ben-Ami differentiating between Israel’s interests and those of the ‘Israel Lobby’ (he’s not the first), for Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross itemising the errors in the research and pointing out systematic bias, for Martin Indyk making the charge of antisemitism, for a cogent discussion of why the US and Israel are allies, and for no defence whatsoever of the quality of Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work from any of the panellists other than Mearsheimer himself. The main charge is based on the quality of their research – they had access to an abundance of primary sources but based their work on secondary sources instead (this relates to the charge of bias). The Jewish Current Issues article linked above contains an involved fisk of a few footnotes (though I can’t vouch for it).

The New Statesman reviewer Andrew Stephen doesn’t really rate the book either – at least not for its substance. He’s primarily excited by the attempt to tackle ‘The Lobby’ in the face of “this most painful of subjects” (meaning not just antisemitism, I think, but also the “painful” accusations of antisemitism) and all the fur that flew consequently. “Phew” he says, “The j’accuse statements run thick and fast”. And later with a frisson of something not very nice which I can’t quite put my finger on, “Heaven knows what Mearsheimer and Walt have been through, but we should all now hope that it has been worth it”. (I don’t – I hope they really regret it.)

After making an early point about how undesirable it is that US antisemitism should have been driven underground and made taboo – I think Nick Cohen would call that ‘throat-clearing’ – he proceeds to welcome the book as a “step forward” in defiance of – get this – “indeed, anti-Semitism”. If I have him correctly, we’re to “be grateful to” Walt and Mearsheimer for writing a book which antisemites welcome as antisemitic at a time when “this most painful of subjects” antisemitism is coming in for such enormous “pressure” and “extravagant venom”. This is very mixed up, but maybe that’s what you get when you attempt to praise Walt and Mearsheimer. Then he openly uses quotes from an Israeli journalist to “say the unsayable for me” (once again that rusty old prophylactic against the charge of antisemitism) and make unsubstantiated claims about the divided loyalty of a number of the so-called lobby’s key members.

And while he does allude to the inaccuracies which, according to most reviews, perfuse the book, he is very supportive of the main thrust – that “the Israel Lobby can [his italics] be extraordinarily ruthless and unpleasant” and adds a couple of anecdotes of his own which he calls “chilling” but which, under the circumstances, deserve a pinch of salt. In one, he’s at a party, gets on the wrong side of ‘The Lobby’ and is never invited back. In the other ‘The Lobby’ takes against a perfectly decent republican from the 1970s who supports the sale of fighter planes to Saudi and ruins his career by funding his democrat opponent. They both raise too many questions to constitute evidence.

Then finally a brief section, which reads like a note-to-self, to consider the motivations behind “passion and intensity” of organised support for Israel, an observation that the book is little more than a “prosecutorial chargesheet”, and a reference to what he calls a “genuinely sinister” non-Jewish lobby (PNAC) – presumably to diffuse any accusation of stereotype. These fill one short paragraph out of two-and-two-thirds pages – more throat-clearing.

So here’s where, after many second chances for the New Statesman, I’m negotiating with Matty to end the direct debit I set up for him some years back. I’ll suggest Prospect or the New Internationalist if he wants something to fall asleep under.

OK, I’ve made the suggestion. He’s somewhat resistant. I’ll lobby him over the weekend – comments are open below.


Night at EJ and JR’s with Matt. Degenerated into dressing up, and playing a game where you each take the worst book you can find and try to construct a crazy narrative in small fragments. I also tried Nigerian palm wine (£2.99 from Payless in Peckham) but it just tasted sweet, sour and kind of oily…

The next morning we posted three letters to Iranian excellencies on behalf of Haleh Esfandiari, passed through Borough Market for good olive oil and don’t ask me what I did for the rest of Saturday. Oh yeah, talked to my mum and got sucked into Israel again. Well, it’s time I did, but this time I won’t let it divert me from other important concerns. And I cobbled together a chronological philosophy reading list from the web sites of various UK universities.

Next day we went to the Museum of Brands and Packaging. Last time we visited when it was in Gloucester, we had happened on the owner-curator Robert Opie up a step ladder amongst the exhibits, and yesterday he was still there manning the phones (we got lost amongst the cattle-like locals who evidently never deviate from the track they make between home, work and tapas bar) and talking to the visitors. Not every day you get to do that. He told us about marmite jars, squirty cream and wartime recycling. I could have stayed longer, but as it was EJ and Matt left for the pub long before JR and I were ready. Then we went to a pub somewhere near Portobello Rd (which is populated by very creepy people, can’t put my finger on it) and I was able to contribute quite usefully to, and learn from, a conversation about Orde Wingate’s Burma company the Chindits, on account of having read a book I bought from the Cartoon Museum.

When we got home I got into bed and read Plato’s Symposium followed by the Allegory of the Cave. Ferris Bueller reminds me Socrates. Atticus Finch is distinctly Socrates-like, as is Sodapop Curtis. Or maybe it’s the way they are adoringly revealed to us through the accounts of their acolytes. My eyes were opened to Greek homosexuality, the acceptable face of which seems to have involved what the translator calls lovers befriending and – importantly – mentoring and initiating younger boyfriends. The thing about Socrates was that he turned convention on its head, and the younger men regularly ended up wooing him. And he was hard work to woo. The Cave is a must-read for anybody involved in education – if only because it’s quoted so liberally by people trying to make one point or another.

Sunday I started booking our accommodation for the Cambrian Way, then left for the natural history museum in windy rain, where I met pregnant S, pregnant A, and their husbands, and their little two year olds Holly and Olly. It was really good to see the children – Holly is like Augustine’s Angle and very talkative and Olly is cautious and untrusting at first but also self-contained. I’m always just on the verge of making friends with him when we go our separate ways. Started reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on the train.

Then I tried to get WW1 in cartoons from the Cartoon Museum, because WW2 was mind-blowingly good, but the Cartoon Museum is shut on Mondays.

Came home and Matt was re-insulating the loft after we removed most of the stuff for the electrician to rewire. This time we have fibreglass that stays in its bags. We almost got environmentally friendly stuff but then we didn’t (he found some half-price while he was at B&Q buying a £50 (!) strimmer. Booked most of the rest of the Cambrian Way, spoke to Gina, tended the first that Matt lit. It’s now 22:00 and the fire is dying. Shower and then either Leon Wieseltier or Marcus Aurelius, I’m torn.

Gutenberg Project and how to bind what you print from it

If a book is out of copyright, chances are it’s here for free. Project Gutenberg is one of the great reasons for the Internet.

Only please let people not throw away their printouts (old boyfriend of mine used to bind entire photocopied books with some G-clamps, cardboard, glue and two bits of wood. I don’t remember him sewing them but according to this Instructable – – it’s the thing to do.). Because I really don’t think I can read from my handheld (and consequently I’m avidly awaiting the mainstreaming of e-books – or are they e-readers?)

Arthur Koestler

I read Arrow in the Blue with mounting excitement. Halfway through The Invisible Writing, I feel that he has anticipated my most nagging ideas and made sense of them. We’re of an ilk – same temperament, same values*, same outlook. Which is worrying, because I’m all over the place myself, and he’s not very highly regarded in the area of philosophy. But I should dismiss as fancy the feeling that if I read all his books plus his biogs I’ll see my own future.

(*A big exception – on all levels he betrays women. I think his biographer David Cesarani records that he hit and/or raped his wives. He’s not my hero.)