Monday, 13 July 2009

Saint George and the dragon

There is a lot to admire about Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He is an active man with a vibrant intelligence and a willingness to act. In general, the world is a better place with people like him in it.

Unfortunately many of his articles are rather woeful. Trained as a zoologist, Monbiot has a willful naivity that he must regard as a strength. He is a single issue campaigner who believes he is not. A unsophisticated man who believes he has the key to understanding the entire world. (There is much in this critical review that I agree with.)

Most of the time this does not bother me. The Guardian knows its readership, and knows that it needs on its staff a saintly, curly-haired columnist who writes well-meaning books about the evils of corporations and the virtues of revolution. He is the acceptable face of the naive Left which by its own intellectual weakness is destined never to get a whiff of power.

Sometimes, however, he makes claims that need to be forcefully rejected.

Last week, he complained about "astroturfers" who come on to the Guardian's website and disagree with him about climate change.

Many of the posters [who disagree with him] appear to have fallen for the nonsense produced by professional climate change deniers, and to have adopted their rhetoric and methods. But it is implausible to suppose that this is all that's going on. As I documented extensively in my book Heat, and as sites like DeSmogBlog and Exxonsecrets show, there is a large and well-funded campaign by oil, coal and electricity companies to insert their views into the media.

Monbiot is not alone in having such theories. I used to know someone on Urban75 that spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out how those that argued against climate change theories were paid. And I have often been in discussions with left-wing campaigners simply unable to believe that those with right-wing views can honestly believe the things they do.

So Monbiot takes his argument to its logical conclusion: if those that disagree with him are either stupid, irresponsible or dishonest, then there should be much tighter controls on who can comment.

"I ... believe that everyone who comments here should be accountable: in other words that the rest of us should be able to see who they are."

On the surface this sounds reasonable but both the specific point and the general are deeply problematic.


Banning anonymous responses would severely limit those commenting, and it would restrict the nature of the comments too. People would -- and probably should -- worry about the possible long-term consequences of their posts. A quick google search by a future employer might reveal everything ever posted.

Many current employers would have issues with such open comments. I, for one, am banned from posting on message boards under my own name, as are my colleagues.

There might be positive sides to the idea but it is unarguable the idea would restrain commenting and dampen debate. The Guardian's messageboards would end up a tedious and worthy place, full of people happy to post up bland comments under Monbiot's articles.

The wider point that Monbiot's suggestion raises needs also to be challenged.

People do not need to be misled to disagree with George, nor do they need to be stupid. Everyone has different views, and it is a matter of intellectual maturity to understand this, and to understand what this means.

And people do not need to be paid to disagree with Monbiot's sometimes odd ideas -- they usually contain enough hot debating points to irritate a large number of internet debaters.

Conspiratorial thinking such as this damages our society in other ways. For one thing, it corrupts debate by diverting attention away from critical thinking and wider engagement and towards an inward, defensive approach to intellectual debate.

Look at how Monbiot's attack on poster "scunnered52" in the comments on this thread prompts other debaters to smear other commenters as fakers.

Or look how Naomi Klein's latest book accuses an intellectual, Milton Friedman, to be guilty of genocide, to the broad welcome of the media.

This is not new. Much of Noam Chomsky's oeuvre comprises finding "structural" reasons why journalists and academics do not agree with his unusual point of view and distinctive reading of western history, ignoring their views.


A vivid illustration of Monbiot's politics can be seen in this video of him interviewing the then Labour cabinet minister Hazel Blears.

Blears might be unpopular but she has grit. Unlike Monbiot -- brought up in a large country house in a Tory family, before going to Oxford -- Blears has old fashioned working class roots. Born and brought up in Salford, Blears always says she uses the local people's views and interests to keep her straight.

As such, the pair's encounter is fascinating. Blears keeps to the party line, and tries to demonstrate that the Labour government has helped the poor. Monbiot has no comprehension of this form of politics -- of party, of tribe, of class, of Tory vs Labour -- and instead wishes only to ask Blears why she doesn't agree with the issues he believes to be most important.

There is no middle ground. There cannot be. Monbiot cannot accept the reality of Blear's political world, of cabinet collective responsibility, and the compromises inevitable when making choices in a complex environment (Blair's oft-repeated 'difficult decisions').

If that is politics, Monbiot appears to say, then we must all, everyone in the world, immediately start again, according to the rules he has made up.

But Monbiot's politics is just as tribal as Blears' world. Monbiot is in the "green-left" tribe which decided some decades ago to fight the "military industrial" tribe. All of his political views operates through this narrow prism.

To those that believe that Monbiot is an optimist, I would argue the opposite. It is Monbiot that sees the internet to be full of enemies, out to drag him down (ego?). It is Monbiot that ignores the positive developments in the world (declining infant mortality, for instance) to focus solely on the issues that we currently find difficult to solve, before moving to draw mean-spirited conclusions about those that try to fix them.

Monbiot may think he is so right as to accuse and insult those that disagree with him but to my mind his reaction shows he has already lost the debate. A good debate is open, pluralistic and accepting of the honesty of others' views, however wrong they may appear to be.

As the hour grows late, and I continue to argue, I am reminded of one of my favourite cartoons.

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