Saturday, January 31, 2015

10th bloggiversary

I can't believe it's a decade this month that I've been blogging.

On my first day of blogging, I posted nine short posts. My first ever post was a picture of Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi. My second was a link to the Alliance for Workers Liberty attacking Stop the War's alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. My third post was extremely obscure, linking "left-wing clown Michael Moore" with poet John Sinclair and a right-winger called Gerald L Atkinson. My fourth post was on Israel/Palestine, linking to AWL again. The fifth was on the French ethnographer Loic Wacquant. The sixth was on another anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, and what he said about cultural relativism. The seventh was the story of a union organiser in Colombia, living in the shadow of assassination by the hired thugs of American mining corporations. The eighth appears to endorse Hugo Chavez's land reforms and links to the appalling website of the Stalinoid ex-Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency. Finally the ninth links to a superb attack by Joe Lockard against a dreadful leftist paean to Iraqi Islamist thugs.

A few themes there, obviously, that I settled on as the main topic for the Bob From Brockley project, especially in the second and ninth: the articulation from within the left of a critique of the kneejerk anti-American, borderline antisemitic bullshit that has become dominant on the left in current period. Here's Lockard:
It is one politics to demand an end to US violence in and neo-colonial occupation of Iraq; it is another matter entirely to call for solidarity with some of the most retrograde theocratic forces allied with equally retrograde ultra-nationalists and remaindered Ba’athists. They have nothing in common with any progressive politics; indeed, when in power in Iraq the latter forces were responsible for suppressing left-wing political movements and torturing their members. A secular call for solidarity with Shiite theocrats in Iraq is reminiscent of when members of the Western left trailed behind pro-Khomeini demonstrations during the 1970s, but were appalled when Iranian progressives followed immediately after the Shah’s supporters on post-revolution arrest and execution lists.
 But there are also a few discontinuities. I was still optimistic about Chavez, for example. The kind of short one-link/no comment posts would by ephemeral tweets now rather than recorded for posterity on the blog. And I was probably more eclectic in coverage than I became, not having fixed on a core purpose for the blog.

It's been a strange ride. I probably got too obsessive about the blog over the first four or five years, devoting too much time to it for not enough return, as I watched my readership grow from single figures to double figures to triple figures. The times I started getting four-figure readerships were generally later, when I invested in quality rather than quantity.

But I made some good friends, some of whom became in-the-flesh friends not just virtual, both in my neighbourhood and across the world (I won't name you all, but you know who you are!). I found a kind of community that provided some succour as I felt increasingly politically homeless. I'm proud of a handful of posts.

Below the fold, some of my greatest hits, but mainly I wanted to say thank you to my friends and readers and to all those who've been writing on their own blogs stuff that has provoked and inspired me, and those who have fought the good fight along with me.

My most-read posts:

Friday, January 16, 2015

The New Centrist explains why Michael Lerner is an ass

This is a passage from a recent, dreadful article by "Rabbi" Michael Lerner of Tikkun:
"That media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we'd respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president."
In an email, my buddy The New Centrist has an answer to Lerner's question:
They responded with awards.
Actually, there are plenty of reasons that Lerner is an ass, but that's a good one to start with.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Seymour on the Paris attacks

This is a guest post by Contested Terrain

There is a strange pattern of intellectual retardation on the Left, when otherwise sophisticated individuals are encountered with the nexus of topics relating to anti-Muslim racism, antisemitism, political Islam, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc.

Richard Seymour’s new article in Jacobin on the Paris attack on the office and journalists of the Charlie Hebdo is the latest example of this.

Seymour’s article portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors. In his account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this, amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.

While Seymour is absolutely right to warn against an anti-Muslim backlash -- already, multiple mosques have been attacked, and there is reason to fear an increase in an already hostile mood towards Muslims in Europe -- the article is so distorted, that it raises a mystery. This is because his approach here so drastically departs from his otherwise sophisticated analysis of actor groups and strategies.

Seymour’s strength is his deployment of a hegemony theory to understand the development, resilience, and remaking of power blocs. He treats these not as homogenous and undifferentiated objects, but as amalgams of different groups, group interests, and motivations, which sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally join, or are joined together, by common projects.

But in his article on the Paris attacks, this sophisticated approach to social dynamics is entirely lost. It is replaced by mechanical movements between two homogenous forces, a racist French public and an anti-racist Muslim response. Of course, he does not say this so explicitly, but this is the general parameter of his argument that is so upsetting the magazine’s readership. At the root of these vocal objections to Seymour’s portrayal is his article’s silence on the radical Islamic motivations of the actors behind the killings.

In stark contrast to Seymour’s generalised and mechanical portrayal, Juan Cole presents an argument which one might expect of someone like Seymour, and what one can find in the latter’s writings, when dealing with the actor groups and the intentions of competing hegemonic forces. Cole argues that the perpetrators of yesterday’s shootings are linked to a specific group of actors with a specific political strategy.

He writes:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
Here we have a specific focus on actor groups taking strategic action within a specific social context. You can usually find this kind of analysis in Seymour’s other writings, but not when it comes to this topic.

The interesting point here is not simply the stark contrast between portrayals, but the contradiction between Seymour and himself; between his portrayals in his better writings, on actor group plurality and strategic action on the one hand, and his generic and mechanical portrayal in the Jacobin article.

And it is not an uncommon reversion for otherwise intelligent people.Think of Judith Butler’s repeated defense of Hamas and Hezbollah as “left and progressive forces”. In both of these individuals, you cannot convincingly trace these political utterances back to a stable set of theoretical ideas which they hold. It is a disjuncture.

But are these just idiosyncrasies, or is there is a pattern at work, which drives otherwise sophisticated people to trip up, to stumble, to lose intellectual sophistication, and to begin spewing dogmatic cliches?

That’s the real puzzle. Why do otherwise intelligent people revert to vulgar representations and dogmas, when the topic turns to these issues? Why do these complex of issues retard the intellect of intelligent people? That is a mystery.