Owen Jones: Britain’s answer to Ben Norton

norton4
This is Norton

Recently we spent several days getting acquainted with Ben Norton, a baby-faced American whose callow, knee-jerk-leftist pieces for Salon and elsewhere have caused him, inexplicably, to be taken seriously as commentator on world events. He is a walking poster boy for unthinking ideological conformity: he hates his own country, he despises Israel, he’s been a consistent apologist for chavismo in Venezuela, for the Kirchners in Argentina, and for Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and he’s a staunch defender of the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islam generally.

owen
This is Jones

You could be excused for getting Norton confused with the equally boyish-looking Owen Jones, who is currently a columnist for the Guardian. Jones used to write a column for The Independent, and has also contributed to the New Statesman, Mirror, and other leftist outlets. Like Norton, he’s also a fixture on political TV programs. The main difference between these two lads is that Jones is British. Otherwise they’re both singing almost exactly the same tune: anti-American, anti-Israeli, pro-all those Latin American socialists, and, last but far from least, pro-Islam.

Jones, an Oxford grad, has a far-left pedigree: his grandfather was a member of the British Communist Party, and his parents met as members of a Trotskyite group. So he’s not exactly a rebel; he’s just gone into the family business. At 31 (though he could pass for a high-school student), he’s already written two books: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011), which made his name and resulted in his gig at The Independent, and The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (2014). His rise, like Norton’s, has been lightning-swift: in 2013, The Telegraph named him the seventh most influential member of the British left.

chavs
His masterpiece

What has he done to earn all this attention? As with Norton, one is compelled to conclude that he’s become a welcome voice in the pages of the left-wing press and on the politically oriented chat shows because, first, his views are entirely predictable and thus perfectly suitable for the crude this-side-vs.-that-side mentality that governs much of the legacy media and, second, he’s young and cute and lively, a creature of the social-media age whom the powers that be at geriatric media organs like the Guardian, the Beeb, and Sky News think will help improve their sickly readership/viewership numbers among members of his generation.

Certainly he hasn’t brought any fresh thinking to the table. “Modern capitalism is a sham,” he has written, and “democratic socialism is our only hope.” He has made this same statement over and over again, using somewhat different words each time, in innumerable pieces and media appearances.

Sadiq-Khan
Sadiq Khan

As for the Islam issue, Jones, like Norton, is less interested in writing about cases of mass slaughter by jihadists than about incidents in which, say, some non-Muslim is alleged to have pulled a hijab off of a woman’s head or to have yelled some naughty word at her on the street. Indeed, his standard response to those giant terrorist attacks is to wring his hands about anti-Muslim backlash. Last November, he wrote that “in the US Muslims have to endure growing threats of violence and abuse.” He routinely spreads disinformation about Islam (“the Qur’an forbids the killing of innocent people”). This spring, he vocally championed the successful candidacy of Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, for mayor of London, despite Khan’s ties to a radical imam and Islamic State supporter. (Khan, who has supported the “right” of women in the UK to wear full burkas, has already ordered a sharia-like ban on images of “indecently” clad women on public transport and refused  to ban Hezbollah from London.)

What about that little above-mentioned detail about his own personal life – namely, the fact that he’s gay, and would therefore automatically be imprisoned, tortured, or executed in Islamic countries? We’ll get to that tomorrow.

Trumbo crosses the pond

trumbo3
Bryan Cranston as Trumbo

Last week, we examined reviews of the new movie Trumbo, which purports to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Critic after critic, we noted, failed to challenge Trumbo‘s benign view of what it means to be a Communist.

trumbo4
John Goodman in Trumbo

Perhaps the most egregrious offender was veteran showbiz scribe Rex Reed, who despite having lived through Stalinism apparently believes that Communism is somehow not incompatible with democracy. On Friday we focused on a couple of prominent reviewers who actually got it right – Godfrey Cheshire, for example, who points out that Communists like Trumbo “were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy.”

hmirren-xlarge
Helen Mirren in Trumbo

As it happens, a postscript is in order. Trumbo, which opened in the U.S. on November 25, didn’t open in the U.K. and Ireland until this past Friday. And several of the notices in major publications on the British isles, gratifyingly, have proven to be far better informed than the reviews in places like Time and the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Writing in the Mirror, David Edwards mocked a scene in which Trumbo explains his politics to his young daughter by telling her “that Communism is the same thing as sharing her packed lunch with a classmate who has nothing to eat.” This scene, Edwards charged,

suggests that we, the viewers, are as naive and uncomprehending as a six year old. And in its attempt to make Trumbo a misunderstood hero, any mention of his support for Joseph Stalin and other murderous dictators is deliberately but jarringly avoided. Instead we’re given a portrait of a man of unimpeachable integrity whose biggest fault is boozing in the bathtub and ignoring his family.

Donald Clarke, in the Irish Times, makes the same point. The film, he complains, doesn’t give us “any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics,” instead portraying him “as as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.” All this, says Clarke, reflects a “gutlessness…that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.”

trumbo2
Diane Lane and Cranston in Trumbo

The Economist‘s anonymous critic noted that despite the film’s overblown rhetoric “about the blacklist years being ‘a time of fear’ and ‘evil,’” there’s barely a glimpse of any of this in the picture itself:

Even after being blacklisted, the hero’s main complaint is that he is in such great demand that he is too busy to celebrate his daughter’s birthday….At his lowest ebb, he pockets $12,000 for three days’ script-doctoring, most of which he does in the bath while sipping Scotch. Not much of a martyr. Then comes the farcical moment when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bump into each other on his front porch as they beg him to work on Spartacus and Exodus. Trumbo is less an indictment of Hollywood’s cowardice than a jobbing screenwriter’s wildest fantasy.

trumbo1
Goodman, Mirren, and Cranston at Trumbo premiere

Even Peter Bradshaw of the left-wing Guardian called the film on its Communist apologetics. While Bradshaw felt that Trumbo‘s story “needed to be told,” he still criticized it for failing “to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism, a culpable naivety in the light of the gulags.” (Bradshaw also suggested, interestingly, that a biopic about actor Edward G. Robinson or director Elia Kazan, both of whom “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would have been more of a challenging choice.)

The readiness of many stateside reviewers of Trumbo to buy into its whitewashing of Communism remains depressing. But it’s heartening to know that at least some film critics know better.