Thursday, 24 January 2013

Political dilemmas: even harder than you may think

One reason this blog fell into disuse in the autumn of 2010 was that I had formerly employed it to pontificate quite a bit about politics. But it’s not been a good last few years for politics... and I’ve lost a bit of fight for the subject (for which, inter alia, I like to blame Ed Miliband.) That said, in the autumn of 2010 I also got onto Twitter, and became accustomed every morning to reading political opinions, long and short, with which I agreed, and found to be more robustly and eloquently expressed than my own. (And I didn't even have to pay for them - talk about a guilty pleasure.)

The stuff I don’t agree with, meanwhile, I find I mostly haven’t the will to tackle. I was a bit nettled last week, though, by this New Statesman piece from Rafael Behr – and not, you understand, solely on account of the gruesome photo that tops it off.

It gets underway well enough, seeming to be a piece on Labour ‘recoiling from the whole spectacle of government on a shoestring’ – a problem on which Hopi Sen has been doing some hard thinking for a while. Behr further ventures that the British public ‘do seem grimly reconciled to the idea that politics, which used to be about favours bestowed from the Exchequer, is now about pain selectively inflicted’ – a debatable point, but one that Janan Ganesh also makes quite a lot.

However this is what Behr’s piece winds round to (with my emphases):

"There is a caricature of Labour’s public-sector debate that pits the frugal, reforming idolators of Tony Blair against spendthrift, reactionary disciples of Brown. The distinction is increasingly meaningless. Orthodox Blairites are a rare and neutered breed and even they accept that Balls, for all that the Tories paint him as Brownism incarnate, is wedded to budget discipline. The real tension is both subtler and more profound. It is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of investment in public services and the impulse to imagine different ways of effecting social change. It is the dilemma of how to rehabilitate the abstract principle that government can be the citizen’s friend while also attacking the current government as a menace to society. It is the battle between Brown and Blue shades of Labour which remains unresolved, because Ed Miliband is personally steeped in both."

You could nearly imagine Miliband a brooding colossus, astride two great clashing ideas... In fact what Behr describes at the end there is not a ‘dilemma’, not by any definition. A dilemma is a choice between two more or less equally undesirable options: it’s what politics is mostly made out of. But for Labour it is a perfectly pleasant and natural thing – the usual day’s work – to offer itself as the citizen’s good angel, while pointing out that the other lot all have horns on their heads.

I suppose if you accept Ed Ball’s conversion to fiscal toughness, and also feel that his 5-point plan for growth is what the Coalition really should have been doing since 2010, then you could also take a view that Labour has progressed from its recent and rather backward stint in government (and from its nominal leader in that ‘moment’) and is now in ‘profound’ contemplation, even if only about new ways to keep on saying the things it's always liked to say. But if the unfinished Thoughts of Chairman Brown and the pamphlets of Blue Labour are really all that Ed Miliband has to mull over for inspiration then I can't see that this current version of The Party is engaged in any kind of dialectical process at all.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Say what you like about Hitchens...

The posthumous intellectual reputation of Christopher Hitchens still comes under regular assault: sometimes ‘more in sorrow than anger’ blah blah, sometimes with the avowed intention of nailing some lasting badge of shame onto his collected writings. No-one can be surprised by this, since he was consistently repudiated by aggrieved ex-co-thinkers of the left while he was alive – a little bit at first because of his loathing for Clinton, then a lot on account of his advocacy for the ousting of Saddam.

Unlike some admirers of Hitchens’ writing I don’t find any of the attacks made on either side of his death to be outrageous, indecent etc. Hitchens could certainly dish it out, and didn’t tarry much if the target of his wrath was recently deceased or clearly en route to the terminus. He seemed to feel these things needed saying regardless, and that it was ‘important to have the right enemies’, which will tend to keep you speaking freely. (Also - does it need saying? - he wasn't right about every last thing, and not everything he wrote was end-to-end brilliant; and if you wrote as much as Hitchens did then there will, and must, be blood.)

Evidently his skin stayed thick and his wit keen during the cancer. Recently I watched an interview he gave to Laurie Taylor for Sky Arts in 2011, in which Taylor put the familiar question of whether Hitchens was bothered about the kind of intellectual company he kept post-Iraq (also, unspoken but clear, whether he missed the warm exchange of fraternal regards with Chomsky, Tariq Ali et al.) ‘It takes a lot to make me cry’, Hitchens shot back, confidently if a tad wearily, before Taylor could complete the thought.

A while back I was given and enjoyed reading Hitchens’ Mortality, the short book of thoughts and notes made as he neared the end. All of it is expressed so candidly, searchingly, elegantly that I would hope to read nothing else of cancer until the great history to come of how its cure was found... (That said, I do wish I could take a razorblade and chop out Mortality’s slack preface by Graydon Carter, who – perhaps imagining himself as generous as was Time to Paul Claudel – describes Hitchens’ opinions on Iraq as ‘curious’, twice in the space of a few pages.)

With Mortality I must also regretfully accept this is the final Hitchens. I have come to terms, too, with a longstanding feeling that after September 11 2001 it just wasn’t – couldn’t be – as much fun to read him as it had been Before. (One more reason to wish Osama Bin Laden a hot place in a dream Hades.) The retooling of Hitchens’ regular Slate column under the banner of 'Fighting Words' only confirmed that he now felt there was only one political issue worth writing (and voting) on. It was needful, and he did it well, though the fierceness of the disagreements on that single issue seemed always to be lagging behind actual conditions ‘on the ground’. After 2001 Hitchens did begin to write more about literature than before, which made for diversity, and was all highly erudite, but not really the thing that had made him a must-read in the journals where I first discovered his stuff...

That’s it, see. When I now sit and conjure up the pleasure of reading Hitchens it’s all from the 1990s: his Nation 'Minority Reports' warning and urging over Bosnia (‘for the last time...’), or even (lest we forget) welcoming a Labour leader he first thought ‘unbearably Lite.’ Or his long LRB essays, bashing Isaiah Berlin over Vietnam or hailing Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost. His interviewing Mailer, for that matter, in the New Left Review, and stressing the great man’s adherence to ‘an idea of the Left’ – an effort that now feels like less of the absolute essence.

I suppose what I hate most is starting to sound the slightest bit like George Galloway, who, in one of his attempts to debate Hitchens over Iraq, came out with a notably pathetic sorrow-over-anger spiel lamenting whatever befell the Hitchens he once loved - the guy who had such a store of snappy, quotable, unimprovably moralistic one-liners about (mostly American) political creeps, phonies and psychopaths?

It’s a mawkish tendency in myself, I know. You have to wipe your nose and move on (though not MoveOn.) There needs to be ‘a nuanced goodbye to all that.’