I was shocked this morning to log on to Twitter and learn that Norman Geras had died. I can think of few political writers, who have influenced me more comprehensively. Whenever I faced a difficult moral question, I would at some point think ‘ah, what is Norm saying about this,’ go to his blog and see that Norm had found a way through.
Last year Norm’s colleagues Stephen de Wijze and Eve Garrard published acollection of essays in Norm’s honour. I was flattered when they asked me to write about Norm’s dual life as Manchester University’s Emeritus Professor of Politics and one of the first writers to embrace the Web.
As a tribute to him, I reprint it below.
Ah. I too contributed an essay to that collection (and I too was flattered to be asked). I can do that as a tribute too. So I will.
For this post – appreciate Nick’s.
Monday 28 July 2003 Normblog began.
Norman Geras, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, dispensed with his titles and became Norm – the proprietor of and sole writer for Normblog. “In the immortal words of Sam Peckinpah ‘Let’s go’,” he declared – and off he went.
As Geras is most certainly not a conservative in his politics, his embrace of the freedom the new medium allowed is not as surprising as it seems. “I only really got wise to the blogosphere earlier this year during the lead-up to the war in Iraq,” he explained in his first post. “I began to acquaint myself with other blogs, following the links from one to another in pursuit of the debate that was taking place on this subject. My desire to do so was strengthened by the fact that, since September 11 2001, I’d come to find much of what was appearing on the opinion and letters pages of my daily newspaper of choice [the Guardian] repellent. And as a supporter of the war for regime-change reasons I was also less than comfortable with the balance of views I was encountering in the circles, professional and social, in which I move.”
I could fill the rest of this book with describing what was wrong (and remains wrong) with the liberal consensus which turned Professor Geras into Blogger Norm. A short list includes: its unwillingness to support the victims of psychopathic regimes and movements if their suffering cannot be blamed on the West; a concomitant and inevitable failure to hold onto the old leftish virtue of solidarity with those who share your principles when they are suffering at the hands of ultra-reactionary forces; a preference for the status quo, even when it is intolerable; and a relativist willingness to tolerate abuses in other cultures you would never tolerate in your own, which is really just parochialism dressed up in its Sunday best.
Plenty to argue about, but where to argue? As Geras half-recognized when he described his discomfort he felt about the arguments he was hearing in his circles, social pressure can be the most powerful and debilitating force in intellectual life. If everyone you know, every newspaper you read, every person you once admired is all saying the same thing, it takes an effort of will to argue back. As important – and I speak from experience here – it is hard to disagree rationally; to break from a consensus with intelligent arguments rather than instinctive revulsion. Unreflective consensual thinking is, I believe, more prevalent in England than in any other European democracy because the media are centralised in the capital. Everyone knows everyone else: they talk with, work with, socialize with and, on occasion, sleep with members of their tribe.
The result is stale conformism.
For some purposes, I think, consensus is a good thing. I’ve talked about this often. There’s a stale conformism about the idea that it’s wrong to torture people for the lolz, for example. You need some stale conformism of that kind to avoid living in a hell on earth where brutal sadistic violence lurks around every corner. But you want to keep the stale conformism as minimal as possible.
Which is, more or less, what my essay for Living Towards Humanity is about, so I’ll post that now.