Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Tony Blair vs Donovan McNabb

Regular readers will know that my main Nemesis, globally speaking, is a guy called Mike Tanier who writes for Football Outsiders and The NY Times, among others. I don't confer Nemesis status on monkeys, and last week Tanier wrote a brilliant essay on the disjointed, illogical structure of publicly agreed hatred that made me think of the ludicrous way it seems impossible to enter into any kind of rational debate about Tony Blair without some idiot declaring, as if it were an undeniable truth, that TB is 'evil'.*

Tanier was writing about Donovan McNabb, the quarterback released this summer by the Philadelphia Eagles (Tanier's an Eagles fan). Philly has a 'robust sports culture', and McNabb is hated by a huge and increasing number of vocal fans who don't understand stats and blame him, despite his having been the most successful QB in franchise history, for never having won a Super Bowl.

Tanier calles these people McNabb Denialists. They will not listen to any form of argument. The clear facts are that Philly has had its best ever NFL decade, that McNabb has clearly been a major part of this, that he holds all the major Eagles passing records, that he was, conservatively according to the stats, the fifth of sixth best QB for the decade of his prime (a great decade for QBs in general), and that he never behaved in a way that brought his organisation into disrepute.

The Denier agenda is that he only cared for numbers, choked in big games, and that his team-centred demeanour was all an obvious front for a selfish passive-aggressive agenda. They say he didn't win 'big games' but he won a load of them. They basically define big games as ones he lost.

Read it yourself, even if you don't know about American football. It's as nice a dissection of an irrational mindset that solidifies into a comfortable truism as you're likely to read this year. The explanation of 'two sides' is particularly recognisable to anyone who gets told at dinner parties that science vs aromatherapy is just 'two points of view'. The Tony Blair thing is slightly less of a neat fit, but it is what I instantly thought. The way in which people persuade themselves to one side of an argument as if they never felt anything else and in denial of all common sense is incredibly annoying.

Ok, fun to finish. In this year's Football Outsiders Almanac, the site's head honcho Aaron Schatz wrote the Buffalo Bills chapter. Buffalo is the smallest media market in the NFL and it's a perennial problem, especially when the team has spent a few years without any identity or charisma. Schatz signs off: The Buffalo Bills have now gone ten seasons without making the playoffs. Unless the rest of the AFC East completely collapses, 2010 will extend that streak to 11. Usually that’s one louder, but when a team falls in Buffalo, it doesn’t make a sound. Tell me these guys aren't good.**

* Important note: you can't say that anyone bleating 'Blair is evil' as a truism is being silly and not say the same thing about people who say 'Thatch is evil.' The world isn't black and white. Surely, for goodness sake, we all know this?
** My all-time favourite Tanier piece, I think, is also about McNabb - it's a Beau Geste inflected piece describing McNabb's departure that perfectly captures the awful tedium of football reporting (here and in America) between seasons. You absolutely don't have to be into the NFL.


Salvador said...

How strange. I have lots of rational debates about New Labour/Tony Blair and don't hear this comment so often although I do hear people moan about him not even supporting a temporary increase in tax on high earners during an economic crisis and - of course - Iraq. It seems to be considered a bit stale and yesterday to complain about the latter, but sadly I still can't really see the "other side of the coin" about this human catastrophe founded on lies. (Not mistakes as some might insist in their more subtle and nuanced way. Overt, blatant and calculated lies.) I wouldn't actually use the term evil about Blair although I would probably extend it to Paul Dacre who is an evil cunt.

Salvador said...

I should perhaps have apostrophised (?) the last word by the way as apparently Dacre loves the sound of it in the morning at staff meetings.

simon said...

Would you settle for "an evil"? Certainly the world is not black and white but to say there isn't evil in it seems to me more thoughtless than to say that there is, and if you're in power and an agent of that evil then I'd say suck it up and take the name-calling. By Blair's own admission, whether or not to turn Britain into a country at war was "his decision" rather than the Government's, and in deciding (and I was one of the very few people I know who, sharing his ignorance of what war actually is, supported that decision... but was simultaneously baffled by the obvious lies - countries with WMDs don't get invaded, that's the whole point of owning WMDs) tremendous evil resulted, for which he has to be held directly responsible because isn't that how it works when you bypass due process? It does rankle when people use the word "war criminal", partly because the Nazis really raised the bar on that term, but also because the phrase implies there has somehow been a crime AGAINST war. And no, he's not evil on purpose but he's of sound body and mind, he took the gamble and he lost. And if you lose you are evil. Serves you right. Them's the salutary, cautionary, getting-it-in-perspective breaks, no?

Robert Hudson said...

I think it is possible to make a nuanced argument that the government's decision (for which Blair is particularly but not solely responsible) to lie about the evidence re Iraq was evil. But people are not making nuanced arguments and calling Blair evil as if it is a simple fact impoverishes debate.

He's just this guy. As Marbury has pointed out, why would he have done it if he had known for certain there were no WMDs? (WsMD is what I always want to type.) He would have known he would, for sure, be pilloried. Not very Blairy. It seems much more plausible that he thought Saddam did have a program. If I were just some guy in a position of responsibility, I would be kept awake at night by things like that. I would, now, be really worried about Iran. I don't know what I'd do, and I don't think I'd consider bombing the enrichment plants this side of a very clear casus belli. But what would I think if I seriously thought, as seems perfectly plausible, that doing so would reduce by 20% the chance of a bomb destroying central London, or of a Middle East nuclear war? It might, it might not, but that's what these guys are facing, and were thinking about then, however muddled.

I reckon they thought there were weapons, or thought there was a very good chance there were, and made a bad, irrevocable mistake. They should be held to account for it. But people do make mistakes. This one had evil consequences, it is perfectly arguable. They should not be let off. But to take the reflexive 'Blair is evil' line is to take a fairly inhuman line on the pressures and issues faced by leaders in times of potential war. You don't want to be Chamberlain, after all, and in the early 2000s, everyone was afraid of being Chamberlain.

I'm not really nailing colours to a wall. This is just a splattergun reply. But it's a complicated, nuanced thing that people are taking a very simplistic line on, and it doesn't help us understand the situation, prevent recurrences or deal with problems. Some people know what they mean when they use the E word, and you'll be one, Simon, but a lot of people parrot received opinions in ways that make themselves feel as if they couldn't or wouldn't have done exactly the same thing, and a lot of them could and would have done. Power is a nasty place, basically, but someone has to do it, and force is a part of international relations, however regrettable.

I sound more patronising than I want to.

Salvador said...

I'm not entirely sure he is "just this guy" unless that term is utterly meaningless. Also, your argument rests on an assertion - namely that "people" are going round shrieking "Tony Blair is evil" with a shocking lack of nuance. Probably some of the anti-war protestors do this but they might just be the noisiest of those who still think the decision on Iraq was profoundly wrong (let's park "evil") I think you're putting the most positive spin possible on the WMD issue. They clearly did not want to be proved wrong on it, they needed WMD to be true because they wanted the war and were deaf to any voices like Blix to the contrary. This unleashed a diplomatic and humanitarian catastrophe and it seems to me equally simplistic to pronounce - as Marbury does - that they were "mistakes". At that level the stakes are rather too high for such errors. But as I say, the neo-cons were thirsting for that war and evidence fell by the wayside at a very early stage.

Robert Hudson said...

I suppose 'just this guy' is a banal thing to say. But I think a lot of people, in an un-nuanced way, forget that politicians are normally bright people going to normal offices doing an unbelievably important job. We all make mistakes and can't cope; luckily our problem is not that someone we believe to be a credible witness is telling us that an obvious madman is building superweapons. I think we can agree that Blair listened to the wrong people, yes? Why do you think he did it? That's the question that gets ignored. Is there a reasonable human reason for him to have made this very wrong decision? What would have to have been different for it not to have been a wrong decision?

Yes, on premises. It depends on people saying in an un-nuanced way that Blair is evil. Listen to Mock The Week, The Now Show, Have I Got News For You, people in pubs and so on. Lots of people aren't like this, but lots of people say 'The war is obviously evil; Blair is obviously evil; and use that as a premise.' If you haven't heard this, you have been spared a lot of irritation. The debate over why he made such a mistake is a much more interesting one.

If history teaches us anything, it is that there are no stakes too high for errors. Chamberlain, to bang that drum, made very high stakes errors. It doesn't make him evil.

Salvador said...

Ah but in my nuanced way I did say SUCH errors! It was an error based on refusing to consider seriously the alternative and increasingly compelling evidence. This was a fairly grievous act of wilful negligence at the best. Why did he do it? I don't know. I suspect there was a mixture of things at work including exhileration at being able to "do stuff" at a foreign policy level that he couldn't achieve in the domestic arena. I suspect he himself has a simplistic understanding of "good" and "evil". But that's a total hunch and I have no evidence for it other than my reading of Blair the politician. I do know what you mean about simplistic mantras - my idea of hell was always a night at the theatre being told that George Bush was mad and stupid or that New Labour were venal and corrupt. But I still think there was something profoundly wrong with Blair and his morality really disturbs me.

Robert Hudson said...

I didn't mean you were un-nuanced. Bleh.

Yes, I think Blair has a simplistic and glib morality, and a belief that the things he does, because he has good intentions, are for the best. I don't think he was *wilfully* negligent. I think he doesn't get stuff, doesn't realise he doesn't get stuff, and the upshot is that he was negligent. This is a very wee explanation for a very big thing, and it leaves stuff out, but it seems convincing to me on a human level.

I don't like his decision-making process, but everyone has flaws. I agree that part of it was that he was excited, as we all get in times of crisis. He, and the people around him who had to agree, should, because of that responsibility, have exercised more care. It is bad that he and they didn't. It's worth investigating and putting measures in place that makes it less likely to happen again. But we're not going to get rid of mistakes. (Or politics being in the hands of people who find being in politics attractive and bearable, who are often glib and simplistic in their approach to problems.)

simon said...

Lovely, completely un-patronising stuff, both. You've argued your point perfectly, Robbie, but I think the insomniac arguments you brilliantly posit are a no-brainer, or rather have to be treated as no-brainer. People exercise power with differing degrees of insanity, but always ultimately with an idea of their own best interests, "obvious madman" or no, and it is really here more than anywhere that you have to remember the world is not just black and white... Had I been Blair, the best motive I can think of for aiding America in the invasion (and that was always the question, not "Should we invade?" but "Given that America looks like it's going to invade, what should we do?") would be - WsMD or no - a fear of what American troops might get up to left to their own devices. But this is why we have the big, big UN, so that nobody these days can be accused of being Chamberlain, or let fear of such an accusation goad them into volunteering their country for war.

Robert Hudson said...

That might be the best motive you can think of, but I reckon the best motives Blair could think of, probably, were that he thought there were WsMD, even if he couldn't prove it. And Saddam was horrible, had impoverished Iraq and his warmongering presence destabilised the region. And he reckoned that the West could introduce a better, more stable alternative. That would be better for the west, yes, but I think it would be an impossible sell, even to the Blair in Blair's brain, if it couldn't be presented as better for Iraq too. This doesn't ignore the West's West-centricisim, but people act in a world where they massively give a shit how they are seen, and how they will be judged for it, and this is a good if incredibly fallible corrective, at least in countries with free presses.

And, since you are in a position of power, thus responsibility, and feeling history's weight on your shoulders, how far do you trust the UN to act? How good is its record on atrocities. Or anything else? These were the arguments doing the rounds 2001-onwards.

Again, not to agree with what he did, but just to try and imagine what he was thinking.

And, to repeat, it wasn't just him.