[first published on Max’s blog]
I was shocked and saddened to hear, on thumbing through my Facebook newsfeed while waiting for a bus, that Professor Norman Geras had died. I never met the man, although I was a fan of his writing for some years, and we corresponded a little—I was even honoured to be featured in one of his Normblog profiles. The retired professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester more or less kickstarted a wave of 2000s political blogging, and in his writing on 9/11, Iraq and terrorism provided an essential counterpoint to some of the crazier stuff in the mainstream media and in liberal social circles at the time and since. Norman’s writing, and that of others, had a direct impact on my own thinking about what was going on in the world, which underwent a slow but dramatic change as I read more and more and began to grow up a bit intellectually. But Norm was never purely a political writer, and wrote prolifically about literature, philosophy, travel, relationships, anything that crossed his wise and gentle mind.
Put it this way: he could make cricket sound interesting.
Of course I am saying nothing that wasn’t said yesterday, and I would recommend Nick Cohen’s tribute to Norm, and the essays on Harry’s Place here and here. What comes across, in the tributes and in Norm’s own writing, is the essential reason of the man. Political debate is characterised by an awful schoolyard-adversarial style, redolent of cliqueish thinking and received truth, that runs through parliamentary debates, broadsheet op-eds and activist blogs like Japanese knotweed: as Norm himself defined it, “no moderation, however, much less humility, only a kind of prancing contempt.” This is everywhere, and is part of the reason why most people distrust politics. But Norm never lost his cool. Nick Cohen identifies, in Norm’s critique of Karen Armstrong, a quality of restraint that does more than emotion ever could:
Notice how Norm takes no cheap shots. There are no jokes about Armstrong being an ex-nun or criticisms of her other writings, deserving of criticism though they are. The argument in front of him is all that matters. Notice, too, how he takes the reader through the distinction between practices and truths, and allows us to grasp a complicated idea through the clarity of the writing. Observe finally, that Norm’s avoidance of polemical bitterness and his observance of the normal rules of polite debate does Ms Armstrong no good: she still ends up in pieces on the floor.
If you have never heard of Norman Geras, the good news is: it’s all still out there. His writing is all archived at the normblog site and he is one of the few bloggers whose prose has lasted beyond the immediate. His mild and sane voice will echo through the ages.