NICK COHEN: Norman Geras: Rest in peace, comrade

Nick Cohen

[reproduced from Nick’s Spectator blog]

I was shocked this morning to log on to Twitter and learn that Norman Geras had died. I can think of few political writers, who have influenced me more comprehensively. Whenever I faced a difficult moral question, I would at some point think ‘ah, what is Norm saying about this,’ go to his blog and see that Norm had found a way through.

Last year Norm’s colleagues Stephen de Wijze and Eve Garrard published a collection of essays in Norm’s honour. I was flattered when they asked me to write about Norm’s dual life as Manchester University’s Emeritus Professor of Politics and one of the first writers to embrace the Web.

As a tribute to him, I reprint it below.

Professor Geras and Blogger Norm

Late in his life and perhaps much to his surprise, the left-wing journalist James Cameron found that he preferred the familiarity of the old to the shock of the new. “There is much to be said for retaining the past,” he admitted to himself as much as to his readers. “I suppose I am at heart, in everything but politics, a rooted conservative.”

The many admirers of Norman Geras might have thought that Cameron’s words applied as well to him. His love of his family shines through, and his uxorious example is a living refutation of Auden’s aside

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say
Is a keen observer of life,
The word intellectual suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

He adores Country and Western, the folk music of the English-speaking world, and bows to no man (and few women) in his knowledge of Jane Austen. Above all, he loves cricket, that most traditional of sports, and loves it all the more when, as was once traditional, Australia win. Geras is to my knowledge the only political philosopher who could begin a treatise on our responsibilities to prevent torture and genocide after the Holocaust with,

“The idea which I shall present here came to me more or less out of the blue. I was on a train some five years ago, on my way to spend a day at Headingley, and I was reading a book about the death camp at Sobibor.”

Admittedly, he goes on to explain to “those who may not know this,” that Headingley is the home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, but the dismissive use of the auxiliary “may” suggests that he finds the ignorance of “those who may not know this” incredible and reprehensible in equal measure.

And yet on Monday 28 July 2003 at 11.29 am, the apparent small “c” conservative embraced a dynamic new technology, ignored by the media executives who justified their lavish salaries with claims to possess clairvoyant powers.

Norman Geras, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, dispensed with his titles and became Norm – the proprietor of and sole writer for Normblog. “In the immortal words of Sam Peckinpah ‘Let’s go’,” he declared – and off he went.

As Geras is most certainly not a conservative in his politics, his embrace of the freedom the new medium allowed is not as surprising as it seems. “I only really got wise to the blogosphere earlier this year during the lead-up to the war in Iraq,” he explained in his first post. “I began to acquaint myself with other blogs, following the links from one to another in pursuit of the debate that was taking place on this subject. My desire to do so was strengthened by the fact that, since September 11 2001, I’d come to find much of what was appearing on the opinion and letters pages of my daily newspaper of choice [the Guardian] repellent. And as a supporter of the war for regime-change reasons I was also less than comfortable with the balance of views I was encountering in the circles, professional and social, in which I move.”

I could fill the rest of this book with describing what was wrong (and remains wrong) with the liberal consensus which turned Professor Geras into Blogger Norm. A short list includes: its unwillingness to support the victims of psychopathic regimes and movements if their suffering cannot be blamed on the West; a concomitant and inevitable failure to hold onto the old leftish virtue of solidarity with those who share your principles when they are suffering at the hands of ultra-reactionary forces; a preference for the status quo, even when it is intolerable; and a relativist willingness to tolerate abuses in other cultures you would never tolerate in your own, which is really just parochialism dressed up in its Sunday best.

Plenty to argue about, but where to argue? As Geras half-recognized when he described his discomfort he felt about the arguments he was hearing in his circles, social pressure can be the most powerful and debilitating force in intellectual life. If everyone you know, every newspaper you read, every person you once admired is all saying the same thing, it takes an effort of will to argue back. As important – and I speak from experience here – it is hard to disagree rationally, to break from a consensus with intelligent arguments rather than instinctive revulsion. Unreflective consensual thinking is, I believe, more prevalent in England than in any other European democracy because the media are centralised in the capital. Everyone knows everyone else: they talks with, work with, socialize with and, on occasion, sleep with members of their tribe.

The result is stale conformism. For instance, many Conservatives in industry and the City are pro-European because they can see the business case for the Union, but you would never know it from reading the Conservative press. Not one columnist on the Mail or Telegraph treats the EU with anything but scorn. The conspiratorial may say that editorial and proprietorial pressure explain the failure to argue, or even admit the possibility that an argument might be justified. Although I have no doubt that career considerations play their part, the main explanation for uniformity is cultural rather than economic. In the newspapers and think tanks that make up the clubs of Conservative London, saying a good word about the European Union is an unforgivable breach of etiquette.

Dissident leftists often say that the vitriol against those who break the party line is worse on the Left than on the Right. I am not sure that is true: ideologues of all colours treat heretics with equal loathing. But the vitriol is certainly as bad on the Left as on the Right, and it is dispensed with a level of personal abuse rarely matched elsewhere for a reason those who are not part of the liberal-left club regard with amusement.

Despite the evidence of history, leftists assume they possess an intrinsic goodness. Even if their theories turn out to be spurious or projects unworkable, they assure themselves and others that their ideas are offered with good intent; that, to put it another way, the world would be a better place if their theories turned out not to be spurious and their projects delivered as promised. It follows that anyone who breaks with the leftish consensus is not just mistaken but wicked, mad, crooked or a tool of capitalism. The heretic is worse than a life-long Conservative, who cannot be expected to know any better, because he has seen the liberal-left’s goodness – been a good man once himself – and rejected it. The only plausible reason for breaking with the club must be some form of personal corruption. The whiff of the witch-finder rises from much left-wing writing because its authors cannot accept that opponents can disagree with them in good faith. They must be in the pay of Rupert Murdoch or an international Jewish conspiracy. There must be an ulterior motive.

The conditions for conformism in an already centralised media could not be better. On the one hand, the assumption of leftish benevolence stops people from taking on the proponents of bad arguments with the necessary rigour. On the other, the fear of denunciation, keeps the nervous in line. It is for these reasons that you can know what an opinion piece on virtually any subject in the liberal press will say without reading it.

The great service Normblog and its comrades on the Net provided was to break down the gates and allow fresh arguments in new intellectual spaces. New alliances brought contrary opinions and new sources of information to the reader. For someone writing from a similar position at the time Normblog began, I cannot over-emphasise how important it was to realise that I had comrades out there.

Put like this, it sounds easy. Norm recognized faster than most that the old media world was breaking down, and embraced the possibilities the Web was offering. But the sleek media executives who ignored the technology which was to undermine their business models were not quite the fools they seem in retrospect. At the time, it appeared reasonable to wonder why anyone would want to read the thoughts of a blogger sitting in his or her living room. The media long ago replaced their dismissal of Web 2.0 with a frantic embrace of the new technology. Yet their original question remains valid, why should anyone care what bloggers think?

Both the enthusiasts for and denigrators of the blogosphere miss the point that it simply consists of writers. As with most of what appears in the press or on television, much blogging is low grade. More often, it is a private conversation conducted in a public space by friends for friends. Outsiders have no more interest in reading them than they would have in listening into the phone calls of strangers. Many observers have argued that the blogs which rise above online chats stand out because they provide what the mainstream media isn’t giving: in the case of Normblog, an anti-fascist critique of the alliances with or an indifference to theocracy. Although I am sure there is truth in this, the real explanation is surely simpler. Like the best journalism, the best blogs survive because of the quality of their thought and prose.

Norm’s has so well expressed his ideas, and I have so ingrained them, that I now probably do not realise how many principles I take for granted came to me from him. If I examined them honestly I would realise that my notions that the deliberate killing of civilians is always a war crime, or that anti-Semitism and Occidentalism cannot be explained away as an understandable reaction to intolerable Western provocations, or that human rights can only be universal are…well, perhaps, not as original as I would like to think.

“Academic” is almost an insult in English, conjuring up images of narrowness and status-consciousness. Norm is the opposite of Dr Casaubon; he is a true intellectual who explains himself to the wider public without compromising his ideas or avoiding complexity when it is necessary. This is in my view at once the hardest and most admirable writing style for a serious journalist.

To pick an example at random, here is Norm taking apart Karen Armstrong.

Karen Armstrong wants to be able to eat her cake and at the same time keep it whole, unbitten into, let alone chewed and swallowed. Religion, she argues, is misconceived when it is thought of as being about beliefs rather than about practices:

[R]eligion is something you do, and…you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness.

Religious narratives deal in myth, she says; they’re “a programme of action”, “a species of practical knowledge”. Let’s leave aside that a person may lead a life going beyond selfishness without signing up to any religion, either belief- or practice-wise. But notice that little phrase ‘truths of faith’. What are these now if religion is about practice rather than belief? Why still call them ‘truths’? Because when all is said and done Armstrong is holding on to something of the usual referent of the word ‘belief’. Thus:

Skilled practice in these disciplines [‘yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle’] can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Practices, then, lead to ‘intimations’ of the transcendence we call God. But this latter, this transcendence, isn’t itself a practice, and the affirmation that it is some sort of reality looks, willy-nilly, like involving belief. Likewise here:

When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something “true” about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally.
Something true about human life that is called an ‘insight’ just does bring back beliefs about the world, however dependent these might be, for their acquisition, upon practices.

Armstrong’s is a form of special pleading. No one would buy it were they to be told about the practices of dusting, roller-skating and blogging that these yield special insights which can’t be expressed and rationally defended as propositions within a system of beliefs.

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.

In this as in so much of his writing, he is muscular without being intimidating, forthright without being insulting. He speaks to his readers as intellectual equals, and although, alas, we rarely are his intellectual equals we are flattered into a better understanding of the struggles of our time.

As Sam Peckinpah nearly said, “Keep going!”