November 03, 2013

At last! A sensible obituary for Professor Norman Geras

When I started this blog, if I wanted to blog something but didn't have time I would put a marker on it by posting something like, "I'll return to this later" and used to do just that.  Now I rarely if ever do.  So when I posted on the absurdity of the tributes to Professor Norman Geras it was short, referenced one of his dodgy entries and I said I'd return later and then I forgot all about it.

Well now Flying Rodent (Between the Hammer and the Anvil) has done a rather good obit which he calls Requiem for a Blog, (note, not a Blogger).  I've seen some complain that this Flying Rodent chap tends to express himself very strongly whilst venting a six of one/half dozen of the other non-position on most things.  This obit exemplifies the former but not, thankfully, so much of the latter.

So at the start we see the Rodent commenting on the ludicrous tributes thus:
I'd say that the one point they all share is entirely accurate - that Normblog was one of the great pioneers of the blogging game.

Try as I might, I can't imagine blogs without the Professor, much as I can't picture modern opinion thinkery without Chris Hitchens.  More than any other I can think of, Normblog really should be seen as the archetype of the form.
The form being blogging, not pro-war, pro-Israel, "the left left me not me them" form, blogging itself.  All Geras's friends accord to him a pioneering and pivotal role in blogging which he simply didn't deserve.  At which point it's useful to point out that Geras had to ask a real founder of the form, Chris Bertram, how to get his (Geras's) blog off the ground.  Here's Bertram in his post on the tenth anniversary of Crooked Timber:
 That first email also invited two other people: Matthew Yglesias and Norman Geras. Yglesias (a Harvard undergrad) was a rising star in the blogosphere but had yet to morph into his current superstar incarnation. Geras I knew because we’d once been on the editorial committee of New Left Review together and he’d recently phoned me up for advice on starting to blog.
Actually Bertram goes on to relate the story of how Geras, mercifully, never got to be one of the Crooked Timber above the liners:
That provided us with the first crisis in the (pre)history of Crooked Timber. (Actually, I think, our only real crisis within the group.) At the time, we were either just before or at the start of the Iraq war and some of us were hesitating about which line to take. Geras used the opportunity of the shared emails to bombard everyone with pro-war articles and, after he had circulated a particularly egregious bit of warmongering concern-trolling from Johann Hari, Daniel snapped. If Geras were in, then Daniel would be out. But Geras, facing a bit more scepticism than he wanted, was already sensing that the group wasn’t for him. So we were able to keep Daniel for Crooked Timber. Geras went off to promote so-called “humanitarian intervention” at a solo-blog. He’s been doing that in his characteristic style for a decade; I think we got the better part of the bargain.
Anyway, having got his obligatory "half a dozen of the other" stuff out of the way at the outset Flying Rodent goes on to list some characteristics of the Normblog style:
I think you can split Normblog's political blogging into a few distinct categories:

- Finger-waggy, history-heavy lectures upon the virtue of the current political settlement, usually prompted by some no-mark calling for a non-specific revolution, the jailing of public figures etc.  The prime example here was the Prof's response to the financial crisis, which IIRC was to ignore the globe-spanning corruption and destruction and the resultant austerity catastrophes, in favour of ticking off the only popular protest movement that emerged from the ruins.  Marxism certainly isn't my specialist subject, but Normblog's decision to focus on hectoring of a bunch of nameless hipsters and students suggests that I know even less than I thought I did.

- Sensible-sounding calls for men of violence to do insane and wildly dangerous things.  Generally along the lines of "I read about the suffering of the oppressed people of Abroadistan today.  All decent people would agree that it's now necessary to (antiseptic-sounding euphemism for killing lots of motherfuckers) after which (Cough, cough, mumble) ...Freedom and human rights throughout the region".  Worryingly vague on the specifics, but rock solid on "first principles", which was always a bit of an obvious dodge around practical reality.

- Reminders that e.g. The Taliban are cruel and vicious, presented in tones that suggest that only the author and his mates were aware of this.

- Assertions that democracies can indulge in all manner of violent and lunatic behaviours, because the mere act of people choosing which version of the Thatcherite consensus they wish to rule confers some form of law-swerving legitimacy. Usually deployed in a stentorian lesson on how Americans shooting fuck out of people for no sane reason is an entirely different phenomenon from other foreigners shooting fuck out of people for no sane reason.

- A tiresome and annoying pretence that some minor opinion columnist must logically be saying a thing which he or she patently has not said. The best example is the Prof's ten-year habit of kidding on that he couldn't grasp the meaning of the word "understand", a word he regularly portrayed as meaning "condone and encourage (violent incident (x))", rather than, you know, "comprehend". This one was odd at first, and only became more embarrassing and annoying with repetition, much like a non-stop, decade-long rendition of The Welly Boot Song would.

- Requests for others to engage with the author's ideas, usually accompanied by implications that we hadn't given a matter as much deep thought as the Prof had, or that we were unaware of our biases.  The classic is "I can see it from here, so maybe something is blocking your view of it... Maybe if you came over here, you'd see it". Basically a series of repeated requests for vastly more intellectual charity than the author was ever willing to grant anyone else.

- Lengthy "thought experiments" of the "You hear your neighbour beating his wife and  grab  your trusty rocket-launcher" genus. I imagine that even Normblog's most avid readers would acknowledge that the sole function of these whimsical scenarios were to simplify complex matters well past the point of bathos, with the aim of justifying whatever wacky suggestions couldn't be argued for in their own terms. Of course, the answer "let's ignore that scenario because it's preposterously reductive and self-serving" was merely a symptom of the speaker's unwillingness to engage.

- And of course, the huffy complaints that people the Prof had spent years barracking and denouncing refused to credit his good intentions - roughly, "Why oh why oh why won't these godawful bastards admit that there were good reasons for supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq?".  A reader who got their news from Normblog alone would swiftly conclude that this shameful reluctance to afford charity to the madcap ideas of Professors Emeritii of Politics was one of the major injustices of the era.
There's also some good detailed stuff on Norm (and co's) mo like the shrill denunciations of this or that obscure academic before this corrective appears:
It's for this reason that I say that Normblog was the apex of the form - an era of violent right-wing monsters rampaging like beasts across the planet, while a bunch of  white academics argued in fiery tones that the biggest issue of the age was some conveniently abstract demon like "relativism", or some similar nonsense.
Hmm, so the earlier undue compliment was actually a put-down.  Good for Rodent.  And spot on identifying the use of "relativism" as a "conveniently abstract demon".

My title suggests there has only been one decent honest obituary for Geras and that that was from this Flying Rodent chap.  Re-reading Chris Bertram's post above, I now think that Bertram's was a worthy if premature obituary, premature because Geras was still alive when it was written.


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