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Irrational movements

Cohen v Honderich

Nick Cohen’s interview with Ted Honderich in this week’s New Statesman has something of the fascination of a slow-motion car-crash. We are warned early that Cohen is not sympathetic to his subject’s opinions:

I can’t say I’m a fan. I am hugely suspicious of the belief that irrational movements have rational causes…

We can be reasonably confident that by “irrational movements” Cohen does not mean things like nervous tics, peculiar new forms of drug-assisted teenage dancing, or other motions that might be judged “irrational”, such as leaping out into the path of a speeding juggernaut.

No; it seems to be his idea that “irrational movements” are those groups of people who practise what he calls “Islamist violence”. Well, this ascription of irrationality is a product of weak thinking. As an ideology of mass murder, the “al-Qaeda” franchise, for example, is vicious and criminal, but “irrational” it most certainly is not. To say that it is “irrational” is, indeed, comforting – as it is comforting to call it “fascist”, another word that Cohen petulantly insists on later. After one has intoned the words “irrational” and “fascist”, no more investigation into the subject is required. Furthermore, “irrational” implies that religion is really the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The label “irrational” is, in the end, not much better than that of “functioning insanity”.

All this is by way of prologue to Cohen’s meeting with his interviewee, a prologue further extended and spiced up by the ingenious application of a kind of architectural pathetic fallacy:

Our meeting began badly and got worse. I had arranged to talk to him at a conference at the Royal College of Art in London’s museum district: a bland, modernist building overshadowed by the exuberantly gothic Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums.

It is hugely important to pick an interesting building in which to talk to your interviewee. Still, Cohen’s schoolboy error is at least partly redeemed by the fact that the exuberantly gothic Honderich stands out in the depressing environs of the venue:

The college is an anonymous place where it is easy to miss people, but there was no missing Professor Honderich. Six foot five inches and 73 years old, he was all flowing grey hair and dramatic poses as he marched up to me and began to denounce a Channel 5 documentary by Times columnist David Aaronovitch.

The college is an “anonymous place where it is easy to miss people”. Odd. Surely if a place is visually bland, which is presumably what Cohen is grasping at by calling it an “anonymous place”, then human beings stand out better than they would in a place with ornate decor featuring, perhaps, numerous suits of armour, waxworks, or hyper-realistic portraits? Anyway, it is true that Honderich is tall, and that he is mature in years. However, we can be pretty confident that he is not all “flowing grey hair and dramatic poses”. That puts me in mind of a gigantic Dulux dog acting in a Noh play, or some kind of horrible alien, made entirely from hair.

I wonder, meanwhile, what exactly were Honderich’s “dramatic poses”, and how exactly he adopted his “dramatic poses” at the same time as he “marched” up to his poor interviewer? Did he take a few military goose-steps and then stop to vogue in various arresting shapes, before goose-stepping some more? Were the dramatic poses, indeed, so hurtful to Cohen’s frail sensibility that they might themselves count as “irrational movements”, thus proving the unhinged nature of the man before he even got to open his mouth? Sadly, we are not further illuminated on the subject. A few vague swipes must do. Let us hear more:

I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was going on about, but so vigorous were his condemnations that I assumed he had been pilloried. Only later did I learn that Honderich himself had made a documentary for the channel (which the Guardian described as a “fatheaded” attempt to blame Islamist terrorism on “almost everyone but Islamist terrorists”). The station’s controllers then commissioned Aaronovitch to argue that you couldn’t make excuses for terror. At no point did he mention Honderich. Nevertheless, the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired.

One can hardly doubt that if the Guardian describes something in such august terms of disapprobation as “fatheaded”, then it is assuredly so. No need for the intrepid interviewer to watch the programme himself: a ready-made Guardian opinion will do. Cohen says simply that “the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired”. Well, Honderich no doubt explained the following to Cohen. Honderich’s documentary (which I have not seen either, and about the chubbiness of whose cranium I therefore decline to speculate) was commissioned as part of a strand entitled “Don’t Get Me Started”, a format designed for people to advance a polemical, one-sided argument. Aaronovitch’s programme was the only time this strand has commissioned a “reply” in order, it seemed, to “balance” things said in the first. This is the substance of Honderich’s complaint, although you wouldn’t know it from Cohen’s article.

Nonetheless, Cohen makes a stirring effort to engage in constructive dialogue:

What interested me, I said, as I tried to calm him down, was that in the Seventies, when he had originally argued that revolutionary violence may be justified, there actually were movements of the revolutionary left. Now, nearly all the violent threats to the status quo come from the far right. Did it make a difference to him that the proponents of violence were the Iranian ayatollahs, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, organisations which had incorporated parts of classical fascist tradition?

Let us pause to note the absence of a rather significant constituency from Cohen’s picture of today’s “proponents of violence”. Those who argued in favour of the invasion of Iraq were too, in point of brute and indisputable fact, “proponents of violence”. No doubt Cohen, like many, was sincere in his faith that the violence he recommended would serve a greater good, but it can hardly be gainsaid that it was violence he was proposing. (After, that is, he had opposed it.) His violence, perhaps, can be accounted good and clean on account of its noble distance from the “classical fascist tradition”. His violence, though it kill tens or hundreds of times as many people, is, let us say, violence for democracy, and so hardly to be compared to that other, “fascist” kind.

As it happens, I also disagree strongly with aspects of Honderich’s most recent book (which Cohen shows no signs of having read), such as that the murder of civilians is the “only means” to liberty for Palestinians, or his analysis of the causes of 9/11, 7/7 and so on. These are important subjects to argue about. Cohen, unfortunately, satisfies himself with an appeal to fascism, an impressively thorough Unspeaking (or Unthinking) of the very possibility that “violence” has been committed by anyone other than the “fascists”, and a slew of personal insults: “I was in front of an academic who was more used to giving lectures than listening to them”; “Dear God, the man was obsessed”; “His voice was as monotonous as a metronome” . . .

Hang on – as monotonous as a metronome? Monotonous means without variation in pitch. In fact, a lot of metronomes use different pitches to indicate different beats of the bar. What a running metronome is is monorhythmic. Since Honderich’s is apparently a voice that also “boomed” yet at other times expressed “orotund satisfaction”, I regretfully deduce that Cohen is terribly confused, psychoacoustically as in other matters.

Cohen climaxes with some cheap pseudoanalysis:

It’s a poor consequentialist who can’t think about consequences. Honderich can’t because, I think, the emotional consequences of admitting that not all the darkness of the world is the fault of the west would be too great for him to endure.

Does such shabby cant, such a craven retreat from argumentum ad rem to argumentum ad hominem, itself belong in the category of “irrational movements”?

  1. 1  Aenea  November 21, 2006, 2:17 pm 

    “One can hardly doubt that if the Guardian describes something in such august terms of disapprobation as “fatheaded”, then it is assuredly so. No need for the intrepid interviewer to watch the programme himself: a ready-made Guardian opinion will do.”

    Don’t you write for the Guardian? Or is that just a money gig?

  2. 2  Ken  November 21, 2006, 2:37 pm 

    I share your amazement at this article. It would be more offensive if it was less astonishing. As you say, one’s own opinions of Ted Honderich’s ideas are neither here nor there in the face of the stream of nonsense and misrepresentation Cohen has produced. Surely the New Statesman’s editor cannot have seen this and approved it for publication?

  3. 3  Dan Goodman  November 22, 2006, 4:10 am 

    That really is an absolute classic of a Cohen. I think my favourite bit is “as I tried to calm him down”. I love the image of the level headed, rational torture apologist Cohen calming the frenzied and half-demented philosopher. I seriously cannot understand why supposedly progressive publications like the New Statesman and the Observer continue to print his rubbish. I suppose it’s habit.

  4. 4  Steven  November 22, 2006, 11:30 am 

    Aenea, the Guardian is not quite so Stalinist an organization as some appear to believe.

  5. 5  John  November 22, 2006, 12:40 pm 

    Everyone gets pissed of by articles/interviews that don’t get to the point and excessively set the scene. Most people either give up reading it or read a few paragraphs on.

    The first point you made was good, but the rest of it (which I only skimmed through) was needless nitpicking and excessive pedantry.

  6. 6  Aenea  November 22, 2006, 1:26 pm 

    I didn’t say it was.

  7. 7  Steven  November 22, 2006, 1:32 pm 

    My mistake; I thought you were implying that because I write for the Guardian, I might somehow be obliged to treat every word it prints as Olympian truth.

  8. 8  Steven  November 22, 2006, 1:33 pm 

    John, I didn’t actually read your comment but I’m sure it’s pointless.

  9. 9  Steven  November 22, 2006, 3:05 pm 

    Honderich has replied to Cohen’s piece.

  10. 10  John  November 22, 2006, 3:33 pm 

    Steven — It’s just as well you didn’t. It wasn’t especially flattering.

  11. 11  Steven  November 22, 2006, 4:12 pm 

    Ah, then I’m glad my delicate sensibilities were spared.

  12. 12  Andrew Brown  November 23, 2006, 9:46 am 

    The Honderich reply is most enjoyable, if a little long and pompous. But this section rings entirely true: “Polite bafflement was not his way of proceeding at all. Opining, presuming, interrupting and hectoring is what he attempted and did some of. Listen is what he didn’t do. Understand is what he was not in a fit state to do.”

  13. 13  Steven  November 23, 2006, 10:34 am 

    Yes, I enjoyed that bit too. It has a flavour of Yoda about it. Also particularly apt is Honderich’s point that when Cohen calls him someone who is “more used to giving lectures than listening to them”, this actually implies Cohen was the one lecturing, and being miffed that his ostensible interviewee wouldn’t sit quietly and listen.

  14. 14  dsquared  November 23, 2006, 12:41 pm 

    if someone gave Nick Cohen and Ted Honderich a weekly chat show, I would probably be more likely to watch it than the dismal “David Starkey’s Last Word”.

    By the way, the Guardian website search doesn’t seem to pick up the word “fatheaded” as applied to Honderich or his program, so I think it must have appeared in the TV listings pages. Since those aren’t really a proper part of the newspaper I can go back to believing that every single word the Guardian says is the literal truth, while at the same time worshipping Honderich as a demigod.

  15. 15  minerva  November 24, 2006, 5:48 am 

    I don’t understand why certain forms of terrorism aren’t irrational on some level simply because its costs far outstrip its gains. Violence on a massive scale is often irrational because the good sought is not worth the evil created. The war in Iraq seems entirely irrational. Blowing oneself (and other people) up to achieve some impossible political goal? This is not irrational?

    Al-Qaeda. If you read Bin Laden’s statements there are some parts that are lucid and reasonable and there are some parts that are totally muddled. In fact, his arguments do remind me a bit of the unabomber’s and I think his plan to take over the world is a bit unhinged. As is Bush & Cos. I’d call them all irrational, in fact. (1) Their views are based on false beliefs. (2) Their means are not likely to accomplish the ends they have (3) The ends they have are batshit.

  16. 16  Steven  November 24, 2006, 10:11 am 

    I agree we’re up to our ears in batshit, but I still don’t agree with the word “irrational” for the reasons expressed above. I like your comparison of OBL with the Unabomber, though. Of course it turned out that OBL made a correct rational calculation when he hoped to spark a massive retaliation in the Middle East from the US. Also he got what he wanted vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.

  17. 17  Chris Ellis  November 28, 2006, 7:17 pm 

    dsquared, You’re right that the review of Honderich’s programme appeared in ‘The Guide’. It was by Andrew Mueller, who seems to have a monopoly on political programmes. I complained to the editor about his bigoted review, but received no answer. As for Cohen, I’ve only just come across the loathsome fellow.

    I’ve only just come across Stephen Poole too, having navigated from his excellent Cif article (28th Nov). Stephen, I’m delighted to have found your blog and shall return to it whenever I’m in need of some good, sane comment. Regards, Chris.

  18. 18  Chris Ellis  November 28, 2006, 7:29 pm 

    Steven, Sorry. I stupidly misspelt your name.

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