Friday, August 03, 2007

To read Johann Hari or The Prince? Tough one...

Shuggy has given a good an overview of the recent Hari / Harry’s Place spat – and there’s little there to disagree with, though I think that even Shuggy is making a small mistake by being drawn into a meaningless argument.

The reason I say this is because, I think, the real problem is the certainty that the likes of Johann Hari exhibits in debate. I recall his columns in 2003, upbraiding all-and-sundry for their objective alliance with fascists. Now he's equally certain that everyone who agreed with him about Iraq at the time is not only wrong, but was dishonest in the first place.

And he's threatening to sue bloggers into the bargain?

Shuggy focuses upon Hari's convert-like zeal, but I'd be more interested in his need to express certainty in all things. Like Hari, Shuggy also supported the war, but he did so, IIRC, along similar lines to the way I opposed it. He spent more time dealing with idiotic arguments that he disagreed with than saying exactly what various forces should be doing. Good bloggers rarely try to bluff expertise. Columnists depend upon such an illusion for their salaries.

If blogging has taught me one thing, it is not to express certainty on anything that you're not a real expert on - and even then, do so with tons of caution and lots of caveats. Or do it with a bit of tongue-in-cheek.

This tends to remove much of the needless venom from most arguments, and makes you less willing to look for reasons to call your opponents out on their personal integrity.

For instance, my own view on the Iraq war was, broadly, that I didn’t have any of the tools I’d need to decide whether it was a good idea or a bad one. I was inclined to think it was a mistake, but I found that all of the core arguments that the anti-war movement used not only had a huge degree of unwarranted certainty and simplicity underpinning them, and they all seemed to be geared to achieve a bigger, unspoken objection; To oppose the Americans and / or Bliar in all things.

This was obviously stupid. I’m not sure whether an PhD in International Relations and a peer-reviewed thesis on ‘Regime Change in Iraq’ would have made me much more qualified to comment on it than I am though. And as my main source of information on the region is journalists, discretion would seem a fairly sound position to take.

The only area that I DO feel qualified to comment on is that liberal democracies can often choose to cut-and-run when a long-term commitment is needed. That Bosnia had shown us that liberal democracies are not going to do what is obviously the right thing even when their nose is being rubbed in reasons to act. In 2003, I doubted that it would be all over by Xmas and felt that a job half-done could be worse than a job not done at all.

And this is an argument that I'd make with regret. I'd underline, again, my view that European liberal democracy isn't as robust as it likes to think it is, and Something Should Be Done About It.

As you will see from what is probably my only other comment in writing on this, I had a few other views on it. But the way things stand at the moment, this may turn out to have been as good a position as any. It wasn't a fantastically eye-catching insight then or now, and you’d struggle to turn it into a half-decent column. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Most of the things that are worth saying about public life are either too boring to print, or can’t be said at all.

Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ provides a good example here. It said the unsayable. There was little that anyone who had experienced the Florentine court would have disagreed with, but no-one would ever have expressed Machiavelli’s insights publicly at the time. It was full of inelegant truisms, and made a reasonably convincing moral case for an appropriate use of arbitrary brutality.

The book itself was only dedicated privately in Machiavelli’s lifetime, and wasn’t published until after his death. And unlike the over-published twits of our op-ed pages, Machiavelli is still worth reading nearly 500 years later, while there is no value in reading what Simon Jenkins, Johann Hari or Polly Toynbee wrote this morning.

The novelty of The Prince was that it uncoupled virtue and practicality. It made the point that very few commentators will make – even today: You don’t always to the right thing by doing the virtuous thing – often the reverse is true.

This has a valuable lesson for us though: Paid commentators – particularly the ones that routinely take polemical positions - are nothing but unqualified purveyors of elegant cant for the most part. There’s almost a formula here: If you write on a wide range of subjects and publish very regularly, and adopt eye-catching positions, you are almost certainly not worth reading.

It is time for us all to arise and drag them though the streets to a public scaffold to have their shoulders broken like poor Machiavelli. I say this, of course, with tongue firmly in cheek. In the meantime, we should all just ignore them for the most part.


KB Player said...

We used to have this saying when I was a kid about people who were too full of themselves:- "He thinks he's Santa Claus and he's not even Guy Fawkes." This could be modernised to:- "he thinks he's a columnist and he's not even a blogger"

Matt_c said...

>>Paid commentators – particularly the ones that routinely take polemical positions - are nothing but unqualified purveyors of elegant cant...

One of the best blog posts I've read in a while. Nice.

Tim Almond said...

"Good bloggers rarely try to bluff expertise. Columnists depend upon such an illusion for their salaries."

Good bloggers are often experts first, writers second. Frequently, they aren't working to any timetable. They don't have to fill a column on a frequent basis to put bread on the table, so aren't always immediately responding to yesterdays/this weeks news.