Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Two Years of Gibberish" (Prospect)

These reflections by the British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft are usefully thought-provoking and worth pondering both by people who opposed the Iraq war (like Wheatcroft) and by people who supported it (like me).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. Just to avoid any possible misunderstanding, the fact that I recommend this piece doesn't mean that I agree completely with everything Wheatcroft says here--though I do think that a lot of it is very much on target, and even where I might not fully agree with Wheatcroft's conclusions I do think he raises important questions.)

Prospect (UK)
September 2003
Issue #90

Two Years of Gibberish

The garbled utterances of the left after 9/11 merely flattered the arguments of warmongers.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

When the hijacked aircraft hit the World Trade Centre two years ago, more than just two buildings and 3,000 lives were lost: amid the rubble of ground zero, many illusions also smouldered. At the time, it seemed as though 11th September might prove to be a great event with small consequences, a horror without meaning or serious effects.

Two years on, it looks more like a small event with great consequences. To say "small" is not to minimise the outrage and the suffering: every death is a sorrow, and grief is not quantifiable. All the same, buildings are destroyed by fire every day, and thousands are killed in accidents. Three thousand dead is no more than the losses in London on one of the worst nights of the Blitz, and that itself was trivial compared to the great burnings in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. Three thousand Americans are killed in road accidents every month, not to mention the scores of thousands of Americans killed annually by guns, in murder or suicide.

But 11th September truly was different. The historian Tony Judt may well have been right when he wrote that, from his New York office window that morning, he had seen the 21st century begin. The political and military consequences of 11th September have already been drastic; not so much the direct effect of the campaign in Afghanistan as the indirect but far more important war in Iraq, of which the consequences are as yet unforseeable but certainly huge.

More than all that, 11th September was a day when consciousness changed. To look back at the responses which the murder evoked from the literary and political intelligentsia is to see something more than many clever and famous people making fools of themselves (enjoyable though that is). Here was a turning point. The mass murder in New York came just over four years after the death of Princess Diana. Writing here about that event, I said that the beatification of Diana by some alleged radicals demonstrated more vividly then anything since the fall of the Berlin wall the final bankruptcy of a large part of the progressive tradition 200 years after 1789. What was said and written after "9/11" might have been the formal declaration of that bankruptcy.

Any event as shocking as this was difficult to respond to perceptively or even sensibly. "Perhaps one of the most upsetting aspects of post-bombing America is the fatuousness of our response," Thomas Laqueur wrote in the London Review of Books, little knowing how much truer his words would be made by his fellow contributors. Maybe there was nothing useful to say, but then writers and performers seldom follow the advice that if you can’t think of anything sensible to say, keep quiet. Silence would have surely been better than the cloud of exotic prose which rose like fumes from the wreckage, as sundry scribblers did their best to justify Karl Kraus’s saying that a journalist is someone who has nothing to say but who knows how to say it. A comparatively harmless case was Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker recording that "On the morning of the day they did it, the city was as beautiful as it had ever been. Central park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant…" and so on until the unlikely insight that what he found some way from ground zero was "almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella." Even as good a newspaperman and historian as Neal Ascherson felt he had to flex his literary muscles: "Manhattan that morning was a diagram, a blue bar chart with columns which were tall or not so tall. A silver cursor passed across the screen and clicked silently on the tallest column, which turned red and black and presently vanished. This is how we delete you…"

But it was writers-with-a-W who really excelled, doing their best to confute Shelley’s grandiose proposition that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That idea always looked dubious—in practice writers are all too often sillier and nastier in their politics than anyone else—and one or two writers were wise enough to recognise this in September 2001. Bret Easton Ellis said that he was too depressed to make phrases, and Philip Roth refused public comment. If only there had been more like them.

When asked to contribute to "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War," George Orwell replied in more than usually intemperate terms: "Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish… I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender…" But he had a point, and his biographer DJ Taylor recently declined to contribute to a collection of "Authors Take Sides on Iraq" on similar grounds if with less verbal violence, recognising that nothing he could say was going to make the smallest difference, and wondering why a writer has any duty to be "engaged." It would after all be odd to see a book called "Stockbrokers Take Sides on Iraq" or "Bus Drivers…" and any such collections from literary ladies and gentlemen ought to be prefaced with a warning: an alarmingly high proportion of the eminent writers of the past century veered towards the totalitarian heresies of left or right, attracted by communism or—in the case of rather more great writers, as it happens—by fascism.

This might not be accidental. Imaginative writers are distinguished not by a sweeter character (too often very much not), greater intellectual honesty, or even deeper intelligence, but—apart from the gift of expression which is their stock in trade—a way of looking at the world which is interesting because it is exaggerated or distorted. After an event like 11th September, such expressive gifts might be more hindrance than help; some things are best said simply rather than dressed up in look-at-me prose. Arundhati Roy claimed that it is "the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing [the event] into the realm of common understanding"; the evidence suggested the opposite.

One writer after another used the horror as grist for verbal display, and thereby excruciatingly illustrated what Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic called the limits of literariness. Sometimes this went beyond parody. "Touch me," besought Jeanette Winterson. "Kiss me. Remind me what I am. Remind me that this life is the one we make together… The immensity of this event can only be mirrored in the immensity of what we are." Martin Amis didn’t ask to be kissed, but instead portrayed the lethal aircraft "sharking in" amid "world hum" to produce "the apotheosis of the postmodern era," not to say "the worldflash of a coming future," before concluding a little disappointingly that he felt "species shame."

And when the fine writers turned to positive prescriptions, the result was more alarming still. Alice Walker, the African-American novelist, had some advice about Bin Laden: "What would happen to his cool armour if he could be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done? What would happen to him if he could be brought to understand the preciousness of the lives he has destroyed? I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love."

Other great creative minds didn’t think that all you need is love. The septuagenarian composer Karlheinz Stockhausen praised the imagination of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the precision of its execution as "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos." (My own reaction to that was a personal decision that I would never again listen to a bar of Stockhausen’s music. Sometimes one has to take a stand.) But most were less exotic, and took a remarkably predictable line, with the Nobel-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo putting it in unusually lurid terms: "The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty—so what is 20,000 dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre, this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation."

Which is to say, "Butwhatabout…?" One after another, literary luminaries and academic pundits felt unable to condemn the killing, express sympathy, and leave it at that. They had to say, "Butwhatabout" US imperialism, what about globalisation, what about Palestine? Rana Kabbani’s reaction was to howl that "All must kowtow to the Pentagon and the almighty dollar, or be blown to smithereens," and she described the murder of thousands of ordinary New Yorkers as "a painful lesson that Americans have had to learn."

Once an armed response by the US had begun, "Butwhatabout" turned into moral equivalence, or "we are all guilty," or tu quoque. The veteran critic and novelist John Berger (yes, still with us) called the mass murder in New York "the direct result of trying to impose everywhere the new world economic order (the abstract, soaring, groundless market) which insists that man’s supreme task is to make profit," and he added that the American war in Afghanistan was an "act of terror against the people of the world."

One step further on from "We are all guilty" was "We ourselves are the truly guilty ones." Two Englishwomen set a high standard here. Mary Beard, Cambridge don and classics editor of the TLS, could not repress "the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming" (not very tactfully, as far as the bereaved of New York were concerned, one might have thought). And Rosie Boycott, who has edited two national newspapers, thought that "the west should take the blame for pushing people in third world countries to the end of their tether." (Do you "push" anyone to the end of a tether? And anyway, Osama bin Laden might bring to mind what a friend of Philip Toynbee said when that well-worn phrase was used about Toynbee: "I didn’t think Philip had a tether.")

At its most extreme, "they had it coming" was used to blame the Americans in general, and even those in the World Trade Centre, for electing the wrong kind of president. "American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants," the New Statesman said in a memorable leader. "Well, yes and no… Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order. If the US often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader."

Actually, the 3,000 dead in New York must have included people who did vote for Nader, and more who voted for Gore. That was recognised, in a peculiarly foolish way, by the egregious Michael Moore (a stupid white man if ever there was): "Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California—these were places that voted against Bush!" Presumably the terrorist murders were wrong in liberal Manhattan, but would have been all right if al Qaeda had attacked Phoenix or Atlanta. Or perhaps terrorists should find means of attack which distinguish between good and bad, killing the Republicans but sparing anyone who voted for an environmentally-correct candidate.

Even Tony Blair, in his extravagant and slightly weird speech at the Labour conference in 2001 following the attacks, said that we should by all means "understand the causes of terror," while adding that no causes could justify what had been done. What he forgot to say was that, in the case of 11th September, the usual prattle about the root causes of terror was not just morally repellent, it was quite simply wrong. It was particularly wrong when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was repetitiously invoked. If the Palestinian people have a just cause, it is far more likely to be harmed than helped by barbarous murder in New York. Anyway, Bin Laden couldn’t care less about the Palestinians, although he does authentically hate "the Jews." He listed Palestine among his grievances, but these also included the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which is what mattered most to him, and "Al-Andalus." Is the medieval reconquista of Spain a root cause of violence? If so, and if the loss of the Iberian peninsula by the House of Islam more than 500 years ago is a legitimate grievance, it will be a tricky wrong to right.

"Root causes" were made more absurd still by what we soon learned about the hijackers. One of the more lucid contributions to the LRB was from Tariq Ali, who actually knows something about the Islamic world. He pointed out that the killers "were not bearded illiterates from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were educated, middle-class professionals from Egypt and the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia." Just so: this was no cry of rage from the wretched of the earth, and the hijackers weren’t radicals or secular nationalists. They were bloodthirsty religious maniacs, who wanted to rule the whole world in the spirit of the Taleban.

Two years later, the sorriest consequence of all this has become much clearer. Because the critics of the Bush administration and Blair government made themselves so ridiculous in the aftermath of 11th September, the proper case against the Iraq war was subsequently much weakened. Sane critics of Bush and Blair must have been embarrassed by the sheer emptiness of the Voices for Peace, one of the instant books which came out in autumn 2001, in which Mark Steel, Ronan Bennett, Annie Lennox ("I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it"), George Monbiot ("Let’s make this the era of collateral repair"), Anita Roddick ("We must shift from a private greed to a public good") and other usual or unusual suspects were rounded up, along with Adrian Mitchell (yes, also still with us), who rather lamely reprinted his old favourite "Tell me lies about Vietnam," which must have taken a few wrinklies back to the 1960s.

These unthinking "radicals" provoked more than just amusement mixed with irritation—they induced a sense of despair. They simply had nothing to say—as they showed when they were asked for more practical advice. If Alice Walker’s suggestion that Bin Laden should be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done was one of the most remarkable entries in this whole sottisier, it wasn’t much different in kind from the fatuities on offer elsewhere. Paul Foot led the way by telling Bush, "first, cut off your aid to the state of Israel." This was like saying, first, conquer the law of gravity, or, first, fly to Venus.

Other pundits came close to admitting defeat. "There is no real solution," John Mortimer sighed, and Jon Snow added limply that "There has to be a complete re-evaluation of how the world ticks." Tom Paulin did have a pragmatic answer—"I’m in favour of the symbolic notion of dropping food parcels into Afghanistan"—and Bruce Kent suggested that the al Qaeda leaders should be tried in absentia: "I would even go as far as combing through their bank accounts."

A crucial distinction was hereby discarded. An invasion of Afghanistan was, arguably, morally justifiable, militarily feasible, and in any case politically inevitable. No American president who had failed to respond with physical force could have remained in office. If the attacks had been carried out by an identifiable state, no one but a pure pacifist would have denied that the US had a casus belli. If there had been an equivalent casus belli in the case of Iraq then that war would have been very different. There wasn’t, of course: the Bush and Blair regimes had to cook up a false case for a war which had been decided upon years ago, which some of the bright sparks in the Washington administration had been publicly advocating for six years, and for which 11th September provided less a reason than a pretext. But saying that the Iraq war was and remains legally and morally unjustifiable would have been much more cogent if it hadn’t been for the earlier fatheaded "voices for peace," whose unintended effect was to make almost any case for war seem more plausible.

Two years on, one further lesson not easily seen at the time—not on the day we all watched the aircraft sharking in, the falling bodies, the crumpling towers, nor in the weeks afterwards when our clerisy gave such an egregious performance—emerges more clearly. The liberal left has forgotten the grammar of pacificism: not absolute rejection of violence but liberal noninterventionism, the noble doctrines of Cobden and Bright. Plenty of the self-styled "dissenters" of two years ago evidently followed a new doctrine. Armed force may be justified, but not if it in any way coincides with British or American national interest. This is almost the opposite of what Bright advocated: armed violence should be restricted to the basic defence of the nation; otherwise although one may have sympathy with suffering peoples across the globe, "it is not my business to make my country the knight-errant of the human race." It was because the left had forgotten Bright’s dictum that Tony Blair was able to wrong-foot his party over Iraq.

A clue to this sorry performance may be found in the relationship between the literary-academic left in the west—or "what’s left of the left"—and militant Islam. On the face of it they should be opposite magnetic poles. So they once were. The Enlightenment knew what to say about religions, all of them: "Écrasez l’infame!" In the 19th century, the progressive party believed that one of the reasons for European superiority over the benighted regions of Asia and Africa was the conquest of superstition.

Today, credulous doting on Islam is not just an expression of western self-hatred. On the face of it, Islam and the western left have nothing in common at all. But they do, in fact, something profoundly important. They share the common experience of defeat. Islamic terrorism is not a function of success but of failure. As a culture and society, Islam enjoyed a glorious golden age between the 8th and 12th centuries, but it has been in decline for many centuries past, some would say since the first fall of Baghdad.

As the 20th century ended, it saw another great defeat. Marxism-Leninism long predeceased Soviet Russia; even democratic socialism has conceded victory to the competitive free market. There was, and is, a distinction between the practical and intellectual left. In the 1930s, the "practical" left on either side of the Atlantic weren’t much interested in communism, but got on with making the New Deal, or preparing the Labour party to win a decisive election. It was the intellectual left, or part of it, which lost its heart to Stalin. But if those Stalinoids were nasty enough when they explained away the Moscow trials, they weren’t silly, and they could plausibly believe that history was on their side. To re-read that catalogue of nonsense from two years ago is to realise that their descendants simply aren’t serious any longer. If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of "Le Tour" (Simon & Schuster), a centennial history of the Tour de France