EVE GARRARD: Norm’s influence on me

Eve Garrard

Like many other people, I was influenced by Norm in a lot of ways. The most obvious one was on how to combat anti-Semitism: here I had a great deal to learn, and I learned much of it from Norm (though still not enough—again, like many people I’ll feel the loss of Norm’s steadiness of principle and purpose for years to come). We argued about many things, including meta-ethical issues about the objectivity of moral judgements (I still maintain that I was right and he was wrong); the value of spectator sports (I did finally acknowledge to him that he was right and I really was wrong); the existence in practice of exceptionless moral principles (he was right there too). But thinking about it, I see that the most unexpected influence he had on me was to change my view about Marxists.

Where I grew up, the Marxists around the place (and there were plenty of them) were often Stalinists: ‘I never could see what was so wrong about Joe Stalin’ was a common refrain. Well, even in my adolescence I could see a bit of what was wrong with Joe Stalin, and then as I read Orwell and Koestler, and the political philosophy of Karl Popper, I came to see quite a lot more, and also came to feel that Marxism—Stalinist or otherwise—was an irremediable threat to the kind of liberal democracy that I was coming to think of as the only hope for the protection of human rights. So my view of Marxists was that they were at best deeply mistaken, and at worst murderous totalitarians. No doubt I would have refined my views a bit more respectably if I’d been a political philosopher, but life being short, I concentrated on my main interest in moral theory, and left my political views on the back burner.

And then I came across Norm. Here was a Marxist who clearly wasn’t making any simple mistakes, nor had he any totalitarian leanings. Here was a voice from the Left which had spoken out against the horrors of the Soviet regime well before it became easy and fashionable to do so, and who wrote magisterially on the Holocaust and its implications (I never disagreed with him about a word of that). Here was a secular philosopher who took seriously the idea of human evil, a subject on which all too many impeccably liberal thinkers had nothing of serious interest to say. In the face of that, it was impossible for me to maintain my shamefully crude dismissal of Marxists. Listening to Norm, reading his work, and thinking a bit harder than I’d been accustomed to do about politics, I came to see how it was possible for a person to be both a Marxist and a democrat, and in Norm’s case, to be an absolutely outstanding defender of the universal human rights which play so important a role in liberal political thought.

Damian, in his excellent piece about normblog, A Fine Site, explains why he admires Norm in spite of his Marxism, which Damian entirely rejects. To my considerable surprise, I no longer share this view. I’ll never be a Marxist myself, but I now think that Norm’s liberal and democratic form of Marxism was a powerful element in his distinctive moral stance, the stance which made him the splendid thinker, blogger, and comrade-in-arms whose loss so many of us are now mourning.

FLESH IS GRASS: I wish Norman Geras was still here

Flesh Is Grass

[first published the Flesh Is Grass blog]

At 70 this bright, clear, solid Marxist professor and teacher has died—Engage summarises how he got between the Jews and their foes. Neil D recalls his blogging beginnings. Haroon Siddique plots its rise. Martin in the Margins pays tribute to the man who started him blogging. Norm was a great profiler of less well-known bloggers. He had a whimsical side, attempting emails with Rosie using only one vowel. Nick Cohen calls him uxorious. Harry—the actual Harry—blogs about his methodical patience when dealing with people who could drive saints to mass murder. Ben Cohen, whom Norm taught, remembers him as patient, kind, and sympathetic to his students. I hear that tomorrow there will be a Guardian obituary worth reading.

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BEN STANLEY: Bowling, Norm

Ben Stanley

[originally posted on TwitLonger]

Normfest. A fine idea. Where entry is free, all the bands play country and western, and the fields are full of cricketers toiling and spinning.

I came to normblog late, having noticed that many of the people I most enjoyed following on Twitter had one thing in common: the constant references they made to a chap they referred to simply as ‘Norm’. “I wonder what Norm will make of this?” “Well, obviously, Norm puts it best….” “As usual, Norm is right on the money with this one”. This respect might have been mistaken for excessive deference, but then you clicked on the link and found a few paragraphs of concise and elegant prose that—agree or disagree—couldn’t have been more reasoned or reasonable. I realised that everyone I followed wanted to know what Norm thought, not because of intellectual laziness, but out of intellectual curiosity. Norm quite literally made sense. He set out a clear position on almost everything that crossed his intellectual horizon, and where he could not, he admitted to uncertainty. How rare that quality is in an era of instant and disposable opinions.

Norm was passionate and principled, frank and fair, wise and civil: the very model of a public intellectual. As others have said, he did not use his intellect or position to bully or to insult, but to reason, encourage and educate. Others have posted much about his wisdom and erudition; I would like to emphasise his great decency. Twitter often lends itself to unpleasantness, particularly on the part of those clever and witty enough to compress something savage and wounding into 140 characters. With his command of language and swiftness of mind, I’ve no doubt Norm could have done that had he so chosen, but the point is that he chose not to. There is a big hole in Twitter now, and it is up to us to fill it with reason, goodwill and civility. I will try to follow his example as best I can.

One of my last exchanges with Norm was over a silly hashtag game a few weeks ago, called something like #AddAWordRuinAMovie. (Amid the praise for his blogging, Norm’s prowess at hashtag games has not received quite the attention it deserves.) I retweeted his contribution “Bowling, Shane”, which aptly combined two enduring passions of his: Western films and the great Australian cricket teams of—to his mild vexation this summer–the past. Sidelined yet again by cricket, we got to talking about how a biopic of 90s Australian wicketkeeper Ian Healy would actually be a significant contribution to the canon of great sporting films. Well, in the canon of great blogs, normblog occupies even more hallowed a place.

Bowling, Norm.

ANDREW WEST: Hat-tip, Norm

Andrew West…

…blogs at wongaBlog

I just searched my inbox for emails from Norm. There are more than I expected. I mean, I remembered that he’d profiled me for his blog, despite my being a little blogger with no real readership or reason to attract his attention. That was a lovely thing to do, and made me feel part of something. So there are a few emails about that. But I’d forgotten his competitions and lists. Who are your favourite poets? Musicals? Actors? For each of these there’s my submission and a thank you in reply.

But not just a thank you—there’s always some little comment or aside. Just enough to make me feel like a person, and not another entrant, of which there must have been dozens. And there’s his ‘short short story’ competition, where he published my entry. I was so proud of that. And there’s the time I asked for gift advice for a mutual friend. The reply was quick, eloquent, and apologetically unhelpful.

I only had the briefest of interactions with him. but he was nice to me. He made my life a fraction better, just because he could. That’s gentlemanly. Hat-tip, Norm.

KUNEBLOG: Normblog

[first published at Kuneblog]

In the mid 90s I attended an interview at the University of Manchester for a PHD place. I was waiting outside the room of one of the academics who was having a very heated debate on the telephone. This academic (I won’t name him) was clearly losing the argument, which was about of all things football. I was kept waiting while two Academics debated football. At the time I felt confused, and it probably showed. The winning academic was Norman Geras, who at that stage I knew only for the article about Marx and Justice.

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CITIZEN SANE: So long, Norm…

Citizen Sane

[first published on Citizen Sane]

Like so many, I came to Norm via the excellent Normblog, which I first read in 2005. I was a sporadic blogger at the time and read a piece in The Guardian called “The new commentariat“, a profile of the prominent UK bloggers making a name for themselves on the web and directly challenging the editorial authority/hegemony of the mainstream press. Also profiled was Oliver Kamm, another of my favourite bloggers (who now works on the editorial team of The Times), Harry’s Place and several others. Normblog became required reading for me on a daily basis, up to and including today.

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CHRIS BROOKE: One Hundred Things Norman Geras and I Corresponded About Over the Last Decade

Chris Brooke

[first published on Chris’s blog]

Country music (including but not limited to Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss, and its relationship to suicide) — Marxism — The war in Iraq — The case the British government made for the war in Iraq — Media coverage of the war in Iraq — Differences between British and American media coverage of the war in Iraq — Dead socialists (including the question of whether or not Paul Sweezy was in fact dead: he wasn’t when we began corresponding on the question, but later he was) — Favourite novels — University admissions — Boycotts of Israelis — Blog technology issues — The paradox of democracy — Paul “The Thinker” Richards — Defamation law — French headscarves laws — International rugby partisanship — New Zealand and whether it is a dull country — Amnesty International — Italian anti-war demonstrations — Christopher Hitchens — The precise distance from Boulder, CO to Birmingham, AL — My Normblog Profile — The number of Red Sox supporters who have Normblog profiles — Where the Wild Things Are — Bob Dylan — Continue reading

SALIL TRIPATHI: The politics of an odd couple

Salil Tripathi…

…lives in London, but is a contributing editor at Mint, India’s second-biggest business newspaper and on the board of English PEN. He asked that this article of his about the Euston Manifesto be reproduced at normfest.


On a windy Saturday in February, thousands of people congregated at London’s Trafalgar Square, saying no to the deployment of the Trident missile and demanding that Britain withdraw its troops from Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair had already rained on the parade (this being England) by announcing that some 1,600 troops will leave Iraq later this year.

Peace marches have been a common feature in democracies, but what’s unusual about the recent peace marches, in particular the epochal march on 15 February 2003, which writer Ian McEwan immortalized in his novel, Saturday, is the strange alliance between Britain’s extreme left and radical Islam. Forged by their intense dislike of American dominance in global affairs, those who ostensibly consider religion to be the opium of people, oppose the death penalty and torture, and believe in the equality of sexes, sexual preferences and ethnicities, seem to find nothing odd in making common cause with those who are fervent about their faith, who want apostates to be put to death, and who justify discrimination against women, homosexuals and minorities.

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Tom Deveson

So many people have said it and will say it: Norm made me try to think better and more honestly. I’ve been wondering why I always felt he was rather older than me, although he was born only five years earlier. I realised just now, it’s because he was wise. Gifts like his are rare and precious.

His private kindnesses don’t need to be shared in public, but it’s right and true to say that he was a lovely man as well as a clever man and an upright man. I’m grateful that he invited me onto normblog to write about a book I love and a Test match I remember. His generosity overflowed into so many areas.

As I thought about Norm, two earlier writers came into my mind.

One is Dr Johnson talking to Boswell:

“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant…You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The other is George Orwell writing about Dickens:

“He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

An eighteenth-century Tory, a nineteenth-century liberal, a twentieth-century socialist—we remember them because of their humanity, because of their integrity and because they wrote so well. Now Norm has joined them.

TIM HALL: RIP Norman Geras

Tim Hall

[first published on Tim’s blog Where Worlds Collide]

UK political and cultural blogger Norman Geras, of Normblog fame has passed away after a long illness.

I am very sad to announce that Norm died in Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge in the early hours of this morning. Writing this blog, and communicating with all his readers, has brought him an enormous amount of pleasure in the last ten years. I know that since writing here about his illness earlier in the year he received a lot of support from many of you, and that has meant a great deal to him, and to us, his family. The blog and all its archives will remain online.

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