Friday, June 30, 2006

The mysteries of the public mind

The two by-election results in Britian this morning, in which both major parties fared badly, will no doubt prompt much puzzling amongst the great and the good over the mysterious workings of the public mind. In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland gives a flavour of what we can expect from the general commentary to come. He says that, "In these two seats, both main parties were punished by their traditional supporters, angry over the drift to the centre."

The two main parties have only drifted to the centre if the public opinion is excluded from the political spectrum. The
British Social Attitudes survey, widely accepted as the barometer of public opinion in the UK, clearly shows that on the central issues (aside from immigration - unsurprisingly given the tabloid hate-campaign) the public is to the left of the entire political class; corporate media and politicians alike. The survey has consistently shown that a majority advocate public ownership of key services and a rebalancing of the tax system so the wealthiest pay their fair share, amongst other unthinkably extreme positions - at least unthinkable for those in power.

So uncontroversially - assuming that (a) public opinion is relevant in a democracy and (b) the facts matter - the main parties are not drifting toward the centre but fighting over the a small patch of ground on the right. We can therefore dispense with the image of “traditional” voters angry about “modernisation”: red-faced luddites shaking their fists and railing against the sober and steady march of progress.

A lot of the widespread mystification, speculation and conjecture amongst said political class over the question of why people distrust politicians and increasingly don't vote in elections, whilst a fascinating diversion I'm sure, can probably be put to bed once we acknowledge the basic fact of where the “centre” is, and where public policy stands in relation to it. We might then move to the more interesting questions of who politicians are aiming their policies at if not at us and, more crucially, how we can establish genuinely representative government. The
dynamics at work are not peculiar to Britain, the evidence for us to study is plentiful, so some answers should not be too hard to find.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Beaumont's lament


What an entertaining little rant from Peter Beaumont in his review of Chomsky's "Failed States" in this morning's Observer. Hard to pick a favorite bit but mine was his comparison of a few Chomsky supporters emailing him their comments about his news coverage to being persecuted by Stalin, and then his describing those same people as "shrill".

Then again maybe its his attempt to show that Chomsky equates the US with Nazi Germany, coupled with some delightful inverse snobbery: "Is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT?" - scholars, eh? what do they know. Of course, as should be obvious, that's not what Chomsky sees at all. The argument Beaumont fails to keep up with is a very simple one. What Chomsky says is that even the worse tyrants - Hitler, Stalin, etc, - claim good intentions for their actions, so we should know that rhetoric alone , e.g. Bush and Blair's support for democracy, does not prove good intent; that requires evidence. How this is the same as equating Hitler and Bush is absolutely beyond me.

This isn't the only, almost comic, sign that Beaumont is out of his depth. He appears mystified that Chomsky concentrates on US crimes as opposed to those of others. Again, its very simple: we focus on the crimes for which we share responsibility first, (unless, that is, we're hypocrites). As a US citizen he focuses on US crimes. Chomsky deals with that point inumerable times in his written work, and within the first ten pages of Failed States.

Beaumont cites reapeatedly his considerable journalistic experience (which of course isn't the ...ahem...."willy-waving" that he accuses Chomsky's supporters of), but the gaps in his research are embarrassing. For instance, (addressing Chomsky) "Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views?". Well no, Chomsky's said time and again that America enjoys more political freedoms that perhaps any other state in history, and that its citizens are obliged to speak out against their government's crimes precisely because there's no fear of being persecuted, tortured or murdered. This stuff isn't hard to look up.

"[Chomsky] can find enough to say about America's misdemeanours during the Cold War; but nothing about the genuine fear of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutally efficient human-rights-abusing states in history." Of course, Chomsky's hasn't ignored the so-called context of the Soviet threat. He's written plenty about the "genuine fear" of the Soviets, such as it was. Several chapters of Deterring Democracy for example. Again, Beaumont just hasn't done his research.

The rest is extremely light on argument, as opposed to assertion and..well, hyperbole. But then describing the person whose work you're discussing as having a "nagging, bullying, wheedling voice" is hardly going to be the starting point for a serious critique.

Here's a challenge for the UK broadsheets: come up a serious, sober, substantial and heavyweight critique of Chomsky's work. Not of the Oliver Kamm, Nick Cohn, Emma Brokes, Peter Beaumont standard. Something meaty and challenging. Something that doesn't fall apart if you so much as breathe on it. A large amount of your readership I dare say have read Chomsky and would welcome some good open discussion of his ideas. Surely this isn't the best you can do.


In my earlier post here it seemed a waste of time to rebut everything Beaumont says point by point, where noting a couple of his more glaring errors give a pretty good flavour. But the more I look the more this looks like plain shoddy journalism, nothing more sinister, but which certainly can't pass without comment.

Another example:
Beaumont says "At other times, [Chomsky] elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: 'A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. "Stuff happens," in Rumsfeld's words.'That's all pretty puzzling - as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception."

Here's what Chomsky says on the page preceding the quote from the Jordanian journalist:
"It is common to say that claims about WMDs in Iraq were quickly undermined when, after an exhaustive search, no traces were found. That is not quite accurate however. There were stores of equipment for developing WMD's in Iraq after the invasion". Not WMD's - equipment for developing WMD's, including the radioactive materials crossing into Jordan. As Beaumont attempts to show of Chomsky's work, "quotes taken out of context" do indeed obscure the facts.

And then "Between pages 60 and 62.....[Chomsky] cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000."

On page 60, Chomsky cites certain press allegations that UN official Benon Sevan received an unexplained payment of $160,000. On the next page he cites the final report of the Volker commission that accused Sevan of banking $147,000. On page 62 Chomsky states that "whilst Sevan's $150,000 [clearly splitting the difference between the two transparently cited allegations for the sake of argument] was a major story for months....." Sevan's reports into the devastating effects of sanctions on Iraqi children, a rather more important issue, was barely touched on by the same media.

Eureka! Chomsky exposed as a fraud! Seriously, is this all you can manage? This we call "Taking on Chomsky"?

Beaumont says: "[Chomsky] does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic".

Didn't run this past a lawyer first, did you, Peter? Where does Chomsky "portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic"? Its a pretty serious charge so where's the evidence? Does his mentioning the self-described behaviour of the KLA have any bearing on what sort of a man Milosevic was, as you feebly try to prove? What about Chomsky's description of the Milosevic regime as "brutal and corrupt"? Not helpful to the argument you're trying to make? Shame, but he said it. Is it not possible to see the Kosovo war as less than manichean and morally pristine without being a Milosevic supporter? Can we hold these two thoughts in our heads simultaneously? Isn't your criticism rather like calling someone a bin Laden supporter because they criticise the "war on terror"?

Since I'm here, one more, from the diatribe about Medialens
"I might have had shouting matches with the Boss about the war, and he's certainly condemned me as a 'bloody Maoist', but he has never tried to censor what I write."

Again, bit of research would've helped here. Chomsky (and indeed Medialens for that matter) are clear, very frequently, that they are talking about often unconscious self-censorship, not censorship. For example, as Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr "I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)", i.e. if Beaumont, or his boss, needed censoring they wouldn't be employed in the first place.

Beaumont was obviously desparate to get his little tantrum off his chest, but perhaps he should have calmed himself before going off half-cocked like this. As I say above, lets have a serious discussion of Chomsky; not these half-baked middlebrow babblings.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Haditha, Ishaqi: so what else is new?

Steve Bell’s cartoon in the Guardian yesterday: “Haditha: so what else is new?” echoed many people's view that the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by US troops at Haditha was most likely not an isolated incident but the tip of a very large iceberg.

Two years ago, a "
senior Army officer" told The Telegraph that "My view and the view of the British chain of command [my emphasis] is that the Americans' ….. don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful".

Given the potency of the word “untermenschen” (the use of which
wasn’t isolated), and the source of these comments, this should have set several alarm bells ringing. In fact the story of widespread, substantive allegations of US brutality is there for anyone who wants to report it. The most obvious person to start with is Dahr Jamail, a freelance American journalist who co-wrote this Guardian piece on Falluja with Jonathan Steele last year. Jamail’s compiled a wealth of eyewitness accounts of atrocities like Haditha. To anyone familiar with his work these stories in Time and now from the BBC are tragic, but old news.

Though Jamail is probably the best, he is by no means the only source of information on possible widespread atrocities. Take this account of US attacks on hospitals and
health centres in US magazine The Nation, for example. As I say, the story's there for anyone who wants to report it. Last year I wrote this article showing how allegations of atrocities and other war crimes are consistently ignored by the mainstream media. I doubt that it would have been so easy for supporters of the war to poor scorn on the Lancet report into Iraqi deaths in the conflict - which gave a figure of 100,000 as of October 2004 - if the realities of coalition conduct had been open to proper scrutiny in public debate.

Given the fact that Britain helped start this war, we share responsibility for whatever happens in the course of it. We should therefore at the very least be aware of the serious question of whether atrocities committed by our side in the conflict are not isolated, but widespread. The media could make a belated start by giving Dahr Jamail the prime time tv news interview that his brave work surely deserves.