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Sometimes a lot isn't enough. Cocaine gives you a body-shaking, brain-quaking rush of power, pleasure, and self-esteem. But for some people it's not enough, so they take crack too. The London Review of Books is a bit like that: it's crack to the Guardian's cocaine. The Guardian gives you a heady cocktail of pretentious, polymorphous progressivism and self-righteous, solecistic pseudo-intellectualism. But for some people it's not enough, so they read the LRB too. If the LRB called itself the London Review of B*ll*cks it would be much more honest and accurate: this is the sort of "journal" read by people who take Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Zizek, Kristeva & Co. seriously. I read it in the same spirit as I read books on viruses, bacteria, and parasitic worms: it's both horrifying and fascinating to see how the world's various pathologies manifest and maintain themselves. Some pathologies, like malaria, are physical, some, like Marxism, are mental. Like the Guardian, the LRB is devoted to mental pathologies, but like the Guardian again, it isn't entirely worthless. There are occasional gems amid the mountains of dross and sometimes the subjects it covers in obsessive depth are worth covering in obsessive depth. I remember a very good article on the origins of yoga from a year or two back, for example, and the feuds pursued through the letters column are sometimes very funny, especially when one antagonist is a po-faced po-modernist and the other is taking the pee. Yes, you'll even, every now and then, find contributors to the LRB who don't take Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Zizek, Kristeva & Co. seriously -- and say so too. But most of the time, even the most exigent and discriminating connoisseur of solecistic pseudery and mixed metaphory will find his cup overflowing with nugatory nuggets of academic anivocalism.
If you are a member of the Guardian-reading community, do you appreciate it as you should? Are you truly engaged in terms of issues around what makes this paper so outstanding vis-à-vis notions of fiercely committed, über-intelligent progressive journalism? Here's a little test. This is a sub-heading from a recent article by the Guardian journalist Gary Younge:
"Trayvon Martin's death is lifting the lid on the US's racist underbelly."
How did you react to that? Well, if you didn't laugh out loud, I'm afraid you don't appreciate the Guardian as you should. If you didn't spot the solecism either, I'm afraid you don't even appreciate the English language as you should. That sub-heading sums up what makes the Guardian so outstanding in terms of issues around semi-literate, pseudo-intellectual, self-righteous progressive politics. I also suspect a sub-editor was deliberately taking the pee of Mr Younge, who is famous for his mixed metaphors -- my favourite is probably the "kernel of a message" that took "centre stage" after black folk had been trying to "hammer it home for decades". Believe me, it is not easy to write as badly and thoughtlessly as that. Guardian journalists do it with ease, though few with the fluency and skill of Mr Younge. His article this time was about a murder in the US. Travyon Martin was a thirteen-year-old Black choirboy who was returning home from inventing a cure for cancer when he was set upon by fifteen neo-nazi skinheads with close links to the Republican party. The skinheads gang-raped the defenceless teen, tortured him with cattle-prods, then beat him to death with copies of Mein Kampf printed on paper made from non-sustainable rain-forest resources.
That's the way the Guardian would like it to have been, anyway. In fact, the death of Trayvon Martin is a bit more "nuanced" than that and not the simple story of evil white racism that the Guardian would like it to be. They've still tried to spin it in the right direction by using a photo of the victim that is three years out of date, to pretend that the victim was much younger and more innocent-looking than he really was. Lying in a righteous cause is no crime to Guardian journalists or to most Guardian-readers. But sometimes the Guardian does use accurate, up-to-date photographs that reflect an important reality. For example, there is a vile sexist myth that feminists are ugly, embittered, and over-weight. The Guardian demolishes this myth by publishing photos of its feminist columnists, who are revealed to be... Then there's Polly Toynbee, Queen of Compassion and Concern. She looks like a cross between Rosa Klebb and a phosphorescent ferret. Rosa Klebb is the blood-thirsty lesbian torturer in the James Bond book (and film) From Russia With Love. Polly isn't a lesbian and doesn't drink blood, to the best of my knowledge, but she does operate a torture chamber. For the English language. Here she is, merrily mixing her metaphors almost as skilfully as Gary Younge:
"Labour [is] still straddled between being a tarnished government and an insurgent opposition. But since the budget, blame for the past is receding; Tory finger-pointing is losing its poke. Labour's cautious tendency tugs back towards the centre-ground "where elections are won", but Bradford West shows over-caution has great dangers too. What's it to be: a fiscal straitjacket or a business-building, demand-stimulating, jobs-and-growth Keynesian answer to hyper-austerity? Some blend of the two is cooking ...[The Tories'] every step will be hobbled through to the next election, stifling any high-flown protestations of political virtue... The political establishment needs shock treatment from time to time: a whiff of revolution from riot or electoral rebellion gives Westminster a defibrillator jump..."
I repeat: it is not easy to write as badly as that. Try it sometime. Unless you're a member of the Guardian-inflected community yourself, you'd probably find it very difficult. But I'd be guilty of dishonest spin too if I pretended that all Guardian journalists write badly. No, I have to admit that some write well. Simon Hoggart writes well and is funny with it. I don't agree with many of George Monbiot's political views, but I do think he's a good writer. Catherine Bennett is much less well-known than Polly Toynbee, but a much better writer. She's rumoured to have been behind Norman Johnson, the "Free Radical" columnist who wrote a very funny (and clever) spoof of David Aaronovitch, the ex-communist, Iraq-war-supporting, former Guardian journalist whose conceit, deceit, and autophilia were viscerally skewered with clubs of acidic satire on a week-by-weekly basis. As Gary Younge might have put it.
I'd bet Blair's ego to Cameron's sincerity that you've never heard of him, but one of my favourite political writers was the late Peter Simple, who wrote a partly satirical, partly whimsical column for The Daily Telegraph. Simple had an uncanny knack of creating people before they existed: that is, his invented characters would sooner or later appear in real life, as though conjured from Non-Entity by the power of Simple's pen. In the 1960s, for example, he invented a pretentious, tirelessly self-publicizing, transgressive writer called Neville Dreadberg. Dreadberg is uncannily like Will Self. He also invented J. Bonnington Jagworth, the militant leader of the Motorists' Liberation Front, who loudly asserted the inalienable right of the motorist to drive where he wants, as fast as he wants, and over what or whom he wants. Jagworth, also invented in the 1960s, is uncannily like Jeremy Clarkson. Then there's Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the Marxist millionairess, who campaigned tirelessly for a People's Republic from her luxurious house in Hampstead. Mrs Dutt-Pauker is uncannily like Margaret Hodge, although Hodge doesn't share her praeternatural ability to detect, at great distance, the presence of politically incorrect objects, such as South African fruit in a supermarket. But apparently that fascisti-frugivoyance wasn't so much invented by Simple as described by him. Step forward Nick Cohen's mum:
In the early seventies, my mother searched supermarkets for politically reputable fruit. She couldn't buy Seville oranges without indirectly subsidizing General Francisco Franco, Spain's fascist dictator. Algarve oranges were no good either because the slightly less gruesome but no less right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar ruled Portugal. She boycotted the piles of Outspan from South Africa as a protest against apartheid, and although neither America nor Israel was a dictatorship, she wouldn't have Florida or Jaffa oranges in the house because she had no time for the then American president, Richard Nixon, or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. (op. cit., introduction, pp. 1-2)
The dark and disturbing truth about left-wing or "progressive" politics -- that it's a substitute for religion -- has rarely been better illustrated, though Cohen doesn't entirely get the joke. That's remiss of him, because his own surname is actually Hebrew for "priest". But it was a German word that came to mind a lot when I was reading this book: Schadenfreude. It was funny to see an atheist rationalist recognize the irrational, crypto-religious nature of the politics to which he'd devoted so much time and energy. Not that his current politics are much better than his old: like his fellow Orwell fan, the late Christopher Hitchens, Cohen is a great believer in "Let's you and him fight." George Orwell wrote against fascism and then put his own neck on the line -- literally -- by fighting against it in Spain in the 1930s. In the early twenty-first century, Cohen and Hitchens risked nothing worse than R.S.I. (Repetitive Strain Injury) as they beat the drums for wars against Islamofascism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Cohen is a much better writer than Hitchens -- which isn't difficult, I admit -- and more honest in some ways too. This book is a good guide to the pathology of the left from someone who's seen that pathology from the inside:
Outsiders don't understand the enfeebling self-consciousness of political debate on the middle-class liberal-left: they can't imagine the thoughts strangled and tongues bitten to avoid giving the smallest offence to audiences overanxious to find it. The director of a prison reform charity once told me that he struck all metaphors and similes from his speeches. Even if it was a bland cliché of "the government is like a rabbit caught in the headlights" type, he knew half his listeners would stop listening to him for thirty seconds while they double-checked that he had not unintentionally insulted a disadvantaged or ill-favoured group. (ch. 12, pg. 337)
All politics is pathological, of course, but that doesn't mean some forms of it aren't worse than others. Which would you rather suffer from, for example: acne or cancer? Slowly but surely, the omnivigilant, omnipotent dystopia of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is being realized by the liars, psychopaths, and traitors who presently run Britain. Cohen isn't a psychopath, a liar, or a traitor, but, as an influential and important "progressive" journalist, he has to accept part of the blame for what's ahead. Simply put, we're in this mess in part because Cohen and Co. have been much more influential and much more widely read than Peter Simple.
When Captain Christopher Hitchens, VC, DSO, died by a roadside in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty for the Internationalist Harry's Brigade, victim of an Islamofascist I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device)... In fact, of course, that isn't the way Hitchens' story ended. His unwillingness to die for the Sacred Cause of Freedom and Equality is one of the two big ways he differed from his great hero George Orwell, who was shot through the throat fighting for Republican Spain against Franco's fascists. The other big way Hitchens differed from Orwell is that Orwell was a very good writer and is a pleasure to read. Hitchens was a very bad one and is often painful to read. Here he is describing his time as a militant student Trotskyist:
"Let us go, then, you and I [sic], to a dingy and rather poorly lit union hall in Haringay, North London. The time: the mid-1970s. The place: a run-down but resilient district, with a high level of Irish and other immigrant population. I am the invited speaker and the subject is Cyprus, the former British colony in the Mediterranean which has recently been attacked and invaded by both Greek and Turkish armies. Many refugees from this cruel bombardment and occupation have arrived in London to join the staunchly working-class and left-wing Cypriot community that has been here since the 1930s. My articles on the ongoing imperial crime have won me a certain audience. The brothers and sisters in Haringay aren't easily impressed by visiting talent, and it's unlikely that I'll even get the taciturn treasurer of the local branch to refund my "tube" fare from downtown, but I'm used to this no-nonsense style and have even trained myself to approve of it. Before being exposed to my scintillating rhetoric, the audience will be subject to a steady series of quotidian preliminaries..."
Two of Hitchens' chief characteristics are on display there: his self-righteousness ("cruel bombardment", "on-going imperial crime") and his love-of-the-long-word ("scintillating rhetoric", "quotidian preliminaries"). He regularly and remorselessly breaks almost every rule Orwell proposes in the masterly essay "Politics and the English Language" -- Hitchens himself would probably have described it as a "magisterial disquisition". But, like all truly bad writers, Hitchens didn't need to pump up the polysyllables to work his cacographic magic. This, I think, is the silliest, smuggest, most self-regarding opening sentence I've ever read:
"In the early days of the December that my father was to die, my younger brother brought me the news that I was a Jew."
It was written in an essay long before Hitch-22, but Hitchens was so pleased with it that he quoted it as he told the story of how he took the short step from militant adolescent Trotskyism to militant post-adolescent neo-conservatism. I've never managed to finish all of Hitch-22, but I've had it out from libraries four or five times now. Like Tony Blair and Oasis, Hitchens fascinates me almost to the point of obsession. What do they have in common? A three-letter word: How? How in the name of Heaven did any of them become rich, famous, and successful? Oasis were a mid-league pub band, Blair a sixth-form narcissist, and Hitchens one of the most pompous and turgid writers the world has ever seen. Reading some of the prose in Hitch-22 is rather like rubber-necking a car-crash. It's not just the bad writing: the bad logic is gruesomely fascinating too.
Take the section in which he describes a young American who was inspired to join the US Army by one of Hitchens' essays, and was killed by an I.E.D. on a roadside in Iraq. Hitchens describes his feelings of guilt when the death was brought to his attention and he got to know the bereaved family. Had it never occurred to him previously that writing passionately in favour of war helps to create wars, and that young men do occasionally die in them? It's an example of Hitchens' detachment from reality and lack of self-awareness. A convinced atheist who campaigned for Sacred Causes all his life; a fan of Orwell, Waugh, and Wodehouse who raped the English language rather than wooing it; a passionate war-monger who never lost so much as a fingernail in the wars he helped create: Hitchens lays himself bare here and I'll no doubt continue to stare and shudder for a long time to come. Hitchens is beyond justice now, but I hope Blair and Oasis do go on trial one day, for crimes against humanity and against music, respectively. What punishment would be good, when the trials are over? Solitary confinement with a copy of Hitch-22 sounds good to me.
The word "genius" is over-used and I try to avoid using it of artists, writers, and musicians. But sometimes it's hard not to. I'm sure that Wagner was a genius and I'm pretty sure that Poe was too. When you read his stories, you're know that you're in the presence of a very powerful intellect and imagination. And a very disturbed intellect and imagination too. After you've read a story like "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Masque of the Red Death", or "A Cask of Amontillado", it should come as no surprise that Poe was an alcoholic who led a tortured life and died at the age of forty. Reading Poe can be like being caught in a rip-tide: a frightening experience that you don't forget in a hurry. That marine simile can be expanded: human psychology is a lot like the Atlantic. It has sun-lit shallows and stygian deeps where monsters dwell. Poe was a psychonaut, or psychosinaut, who descended into the abyss of his own psychology and captured some of the monsters he found there. His stories are rather like giant aquariums where the monsters are still swimming, dark, deadly, and ferociously fanged as ever. Peer into the aquariums at your peril: the horrific revenge of the dwarf Hop-Frog, in the story of the same name, isn't for weak stomachs or the pyrophobic. Poe knew about hate and lust for revenge and showed his readers, in unflinching detail, where they can take us.
But Poe didn't just write gothick horror: he almost single-handedly invented the detective story. The Sherlock Holmes stories are central to English literature, but Doyle owes a huge debt to Poe's stories of the French detective Auguste Dupin. Doyle ironically recognized that debt when, in "A Study in Scarlet", he had Holmes remark of Dupin: "He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine." In propria persona, Doyle said of Poe that "each [of his detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" I can't re-read the Dupin stories about with as much perverse relish, or reluctant perversity, as I can re-read the gothick stories I've mentioned above: they're much longer, much more complicated, and more dated because have real historical settings, rather than phantasic ones. But it's here that the power of Poe's intellect is even more obvious: his horror, like his poetry, is based on instinct and emotion, not the logic and rationality personified in Dupin. Perhaps that's why his horror and poetry aren't technically perfect: his poetry has the power of a storm or tidal wave, not the grandeur and symmetry of architecture, and there's an artificiality and effort to even his best stories that isn't found in the best stories of, say, Clark Ashton Smith. Wagner is a culture or civilization in himself and Poe, who achieved greatness in several genres, isn't far behind. He had a sense of humour too, and though, to twenty-first century readers, it sometimes led him astray in his purely comic stories, it can make his gothic horror even more disturbing. Skulls grin, and so does Edgar Allan Poe.
To the end of his prematurely curtailed but ferociously productive life, Christopher Hitchens remained a devout admirer of the Marxist theoretician and revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Among the many pieces of advice offered by Trotsky to a largely indifferent mankind was this: "We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life." And Trotsky practised what he preached: before the much less charismatic, but also much more cunning, Stalin sent him into exile, he oversaw murder and torture on an industrial scale. One can't make the omelette of a fair and just society without breaking a few eggs, after all. Even if the eggs scream and bleed while they're being broken. Trotsky also believed that lies and deceit are often necessary tools of Higher Ends. All in all, he would not have been out of place in the Spanish Inquisition, though I'm sure he would have disapproved of the Inquisition's inefficiency, slow methods of slaughter, and anachronistic insistence on using theology to justify its barbarism.
One should, of course, use dialectical materialism instead. But theology and dialectical materialism, like Trotsky and the Spanish Inquisition, have a great deal in common. Hitchens was a fool in many ways, but one of the biggest was his failure to see that religion can exist in disguised forms. The Soviet Union was officially an atheist state, but it had an infallible ideology (dialectical materialism), prophets (Marx and Engels), sacred scriptures (Das Kapital), sacred sites (Lenin's tomb), sacred festivals (May Day), and so on. Hitchens' quarrel with Christianity and Islam -- he doesn't pour as much vitriol on Judaism, for some reason -- seems largely odium theologicum, or the hatred characteristic of theologians who disagree with each other. He disapproved of murder and torture when they were committed in the wrong cause: an explicitly religious cause. In the right cause he didn't object to them. Otherwise he would not have been such a big fan of Trotsky, or of the bloodthirsty neo-conservatives who brought slaughter to Iraq in pursuit (so they said) of democracy and secularism. Thanks to that intervention, Iraq is now more divided on religious and sectarian lines than it has been for many centuries.
Among the many accusations the neo-cons throw at their opponents is that of "racism". It is "racist" to believe that Middle Eastern tyrannies, where democracy had never existed and corruption had always flourished, cannot emulate advanced Western democracies like Switzerland or Sweden. For "racism", read "blasphemy"; for "racist", read "heretic". Hitchens and his fellow secularists have a religious psychology, but because they didn't give their ideas explicitly religious labels, they fail to recognize that glaring fact. You can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, the Roman poet Horace said two millennia ago, but she will return. If Hitchens had truly understood the rationalist Darwinism he so ostentatiously flaunted against the irrationalist fundies, he would not have expected anything else. Religion obviously appeals to something very deep and ancient in human psychology. Humans need a sense of purpose and community, for example, and they like to have an enemy to unite against. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all meet those needs, but so do Trotskyism, neo-conservatism, and green politics. The modern belief in climate change and global apocalypse, for example, looks a lot like the old belief in hell and damnation. Hitchens' belief in slaughtering one's way to freedom and democracy, in battling the evil irrationalist heresies of racism, sexism, and homophobia, met religious needs under secularist, rationalist labels. Like Richard Dawkins, Hitchens often makes me feel ashamed to be an atheist. Unlike Dawkins, Hitchens is a bad and verbose writer with little understanding of science. He was a fool while he lived and science will make him look even more of a fool in future. Or so I prophesy.
Who breaks a butterfly on the wheel? That (slightly adapted from Alexander Pope) was what The Times asked when Keef and Mick of the Rolling Stones were sentenced to jail for drugs offences in the 1960s. In 2012, I'm asking: Who fires a cruise missile at a gnat? This expensively produced book, written by rich and successful comedians, is the autobiography of a fictional character called Alan Partridge. He's an ex-sports reporter from Norwich, now a DJ on "North Norfolk Digital" with an "audited audience" of 11,000. He reads The Daily Mail, is crass and socially inept, and likes Phil Collins. This book mercilessly mocks and satirizes him, his tastes and opinions, and, by implication, the "community" to which he belongs. The twitter-storms are hardly going to be raging over a book like this, are they? And you won't get any death-threats or have the police knocking on your door. All of that could happen to a comedian, if he chose the wrong target in vibrant, modern Britain, but Alan Partridge doesn't belong to any protected and privileged minority. Quite the reverse: it's open season on white, male, hetero scum like him. Alan Partridge, like David Brent of The Office, is a very safe comedic target. He's supposed to be a winker, but I'd say he's much more of a winker's creation. If you think there's any point to this kind of comedy, I'd say you're a bit of a winker too. For real comedy about little people, produced with affection and even love, look to Sandy Stone, one of Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries' creations. For real comedy about crass and stupid people, produced with skill and even daring, look at Ali G. Alan Partridge is supposed to be pathetic, but he's not as pathetic as his creators or his fans.