Liars v. Hypocrites
David Runciman is right to describe Blair as a special sort of liar (LRB, 2 November). I’d like to add an example stemming from General Dannatt’s recent criticisms of British foreign policy, which Blair later said he agreed with ‘every word of’. One of Dannatt’s comments was: ‘I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.’ In his press conference a few days later, Blair was challenged by the BBC’s Nick Robinson as to whether he agreed with this; Blair answered a different question so Robinson tried again. Blair first said that Dannatt had not said we should leave now (true but irrelevant); then he said that what Dannatt had meant was: ‘Of course, there … there will be people, and there are people, who will claim that our presence in Iraq or Afghanistan indeed, um, causes problems for Britain around the world. But we’ve got to take those people on’ – and here he paused – ‘I mean, we’ve got to say to people …’ At which point he just rewaffled. He was saying that Dannatt had not said what he actually did say, but was saying that other people were saying that and that they had to be taken on: an extraordinarily bold inversion of the truth. It’s possible that Blair, white queen style, did believe what he was saying while he was saying it (though during the pause a moment of doubt seemed almost to surface), because it’s what he thought ought to be true. It is precisely this ability to believe what one wants to be true that is vital if one is going to be the sort of sincere liar that Runciman paints Blair as.
David Runciman says of Blair’s ‘sincere’ public praise of Brown that ‘it is easy to imagine Blair holding to this line, through thick and thin, in public and in private, even in the heat of battle with Cherie.’ Really? So what exactly does he imagine Tony said to Cherie when he heard that his chancellor might have had a hand in the letter calling for his resignation? ‘Yes, dear, I know you think Gordon’s a lying scumbag, but don’t forget that he’s a remarkable man and a remarkable servant to this country. Let’s have another cup of tea?’ Not even nice Mr Blair can be that sanctimonious. He was, after all, overheard in Downing Street corridors shouting about Brown’s ‘blackmail’, revealing a certain division between public and private selves. Runciman suggests – or just shies away from suggesting – that Blair, following Clinton, believes his own falsehoods; and that this sincerity is the reason for his political success. But there is an elision in Runciman’s account: he also says of Clinton that ‘the sincerity could easily trump the lies’ – implying that Clinton and Blair are sincere about some things and lie about others. There are, pace Runciman, plenty of things Blair keeps back. His religion for one, which he refuses to talk about in public. He no longer reveals himself as he did before he became party leader, when he wrote in a preface to Reclaiming the Ground: Christianity and Socialism: ‘Christianity is a very tough religion. It is judgmental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad … But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgments. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian Socialism.’ This is sincere, just as his determined actions and foreign incursions throughout his decade in office have been all too horribly sincere in their motivation. But the motivation has been private and the lies public. There is no question now that the lies he told about Iraq were lies he knew to be lies. If Blair’s approval rating – 24 per cent and plummeting – is anything to go by, then it must be true that his leering ‘sincerity’ has lost all vestige of charm.
David Runciman is right to say that John Howard lies like a rug – it’s his modus operandi (and goes some way to explaining his nickname, the Lying Rodent) – whereas Peter Costello uses dissimulation in the boringly conventional instrumentalist fashion the electorate is familiar with. But voters take note of physical cues as much as verbal ones. The Australian situation is especially stark. Howard’s extreme physical gaucherie – the cricket ball pitched twenty yards short of a perplexed urchin-batsman at a Pakistani earthquake relief centre, the bottle of Victoria Bitter clutched with white-knuckled discomfort during an election campaign pub visit, the peculiar gait displayed on daily littoral or lacustrine power-walks – is comforting evidence of benignity. Conversely, Costello’s unfortunate habit of smirking – a problem so severe that at one point he received media training with a view to eradicating it – is profoundly alienating, and richly suggestive of the aristocratic certitude Australians loathe. Howard is a politician par excellence, and Tony Blair will never hold a candle to him. Why? Well, to use the parlance of the Australian street, Blair may be as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, but Howard is as cunning as a shithouse rat.
Neutral Bay, New South Wales
Perhaps I was not the only American reader to be confused about what happened to George Wigg; according to Ian Gilmour, he ‘was had up for kerb-crawling at Marble Arch’ (LRB, 19 October). I have visited the Marble Arch, but I have no idea what kerb-crawling is, nor what happens when someone is had up.
In his meditation on Günter Grass’s late revelation of his months as a teenager in the Waffen SS, Neal Ascherson might have pointed us to a comparison with Christa Wolf (LRB, 2 November). Wolf, who was 16 in March 1945, was an ex-champion parading gymnast in the Hitlermädel, the former leader of a work group of Ukrainian women slaves, and so devoted to her Führer that she fantasised about joining a Werewolf fascist resistance group; her greatest love was her woman teacher of German literature, a staunch Nazi: all in all not the easiest of former selves to live with – once she had learned the worst. Years later, in 1975, she said that she had planned to write about her youth ever since she began writing. Perhaps Grass had too. Wolf, however, started to do so in the early 1970s, and her tortured, tortuous engagement with her polluted memories was published as Kindheitsmuster – ‘A Model Childhood’ – in the GDR in 1976. In her book she tries to distance herself from her current, 1970s self (‘you’ rather than ‘I’), and from her youthful Nazi self (‘Nelly’ rather than ‘Christa’); but she always questions that distancing: ‘You expect the child Nelly to walk the plank for you … do you imagine that you can understand someone of whom you’re ashamed?’ Until Grass’s Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, there has been nothing to touch it. I don’t think Christa Wolf will be one of those pointing a finger at Grass for having taken so long to put himself through the mangle.
University of Sussex
Ronnie’s Big Break
Kim Phillips-Fein is wrong about the nature of Ronald Reagan’s 1950s tour of General Electric factories (LRB, 19 October). He wasn’t sent on tour for the purpose of ‘speaking to groups of workers about the dangers of creeping socialism’; he was sent to promote a television show in which he played the host.
I was an employee of the PR firm that represented The General Electric Theater, the half-hour magazine show Reagan presented on the CBS network. Our problem was that everyone knew that Ronnie – as he was universally called in those days – on his own couldn’t draw in the audience needed to keep the show on air every Sunday evening. We came up with the idea that if GE workers could be made to feel pride in the show, they could make up a major core audience. We sent Ronnie out to the GE plants with the message: ‘Live Better Electrically’ and ‘Watch the GE Theater, It’s Your Show.’ I wrote the speech, pleasant and innocuous, a plug for the show and for TV in general (every home should have one) and a call for unity and loyalty to the company. But something odd was happening as the tour proceeded. As he gave the same speech over and over, and the workers happily responded, he began to add some words of his own to my canned speech. Perhaps it was the influence of his new wife, Nancy, maybe it was simply that the enthusiasm of the workers went to his head, but during that tour Ronnie decided he was a star, no longer a featured player. He widened the speech to include some national issues, testing the waters. He went out there a B-list actor and came back a politician.
Apparently it’s emetic
One doesn’t need to have Richard Dawkins’s level of certainty to find Terry Eagleton’s Catholic sermon utterly incoherent (LRB, 19 October). On the one hand, according to Eagleton, God is transcendent, invisible, not a principle nor an entity, not even ‘existent’: indeed, ‘in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.’ This God is neither inside nor outside the universe, but is mysteriously ‘the condition of possibility’.
On the other hand, Eagleton just happens to know that this God chose to reveal himself in Jesus Christ, that he created the world ‘out of love rather than need’, and because this act was gratuitous God is ‘an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it’. This God ‘is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us’, poor fellow. Of course, Eagleton concedes, given the occasional awfulness of man, this God, like Yahweh, might ‘well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago’. (Was the Indonesian tsunami two years ago an expression of this God’s distaste for his handiwork, like the original Flood?)
Eagleton mocks Dawkins’s mockery of ‘a personal God’ (‘some kind of chap’), but how is this gratuitously loving and unneurotic but possibly rather cross and murderously neurotic modernist artist who speaks to us via Jesus not a personal God? It would not be obnoxious of Richard Dawkins to ask how Eagleton knows these things. The reply, I think, would be threefold: Eagleton was brought up a Catholic and is reverting to his roots; God or Christ has somehow ‘spoken’ to Eagleton at some point in his life; and Eagleton just has ‘faith’ that his assertions are true. These are all forms of irrationality, however understandable or even magnificent we find them, and it is not overweening for rational atheism to expose this irrationality, as it always has done. Eagleton says that the Old Testament Jews ‘had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you’. Would these be the same Jews who agree with Eagleton’s confident pronouncement that Christ, with the help of St Paul, has finally shown us how ‘the law is cursed’? Eagleton may have oodles of faith in me but I am free to have not much faith in him, or in his God.
A.C. Grayling (Letters, 2 November) seems to think that religious belief has been discredited by the invention of email – an argument which discovers him in orbit with the late Yuri Gagarin: Soviet propaganda showed that happy cosmonaut floating through space and declaring: ‘There’s no God!’
That A.C. Grayling does not wish to understand forms of divination by the stars is fine, given that, as far as I know, he is not writing a book about astrology. But the implication of his letter is that Richard Dawkins has no need to know about the various and subtle forms of religious thought, even though he is writing a book on religion, because he already knows what he thinks, and he thinks religion is wrong. It is a great shame that the most public defenders of secular thinking show all the dogmatic arrogance and evidence of closed minds that they associate with religious thinking.
A Poet’s ‘Life’
Having mulled it over for a week or two, I’m still not sure if literary biography can be dismissed quite as easily as Colin Burrow suggests in his review of my book on Donne (LRB, 5 October). Surely it works like this: John Donne studies law in London, and in time produces what is usually numbered the first of his ‘up-to-the-minute adaptations of classical elegy and satire’, as Burrow nicely puts it. The experience, the location, the time of life, can’t be said to totalise the meaning of the piece, and at no point, I think, do I suggest that they do; but without them the text would not be the one we have. This surely makes the biographical aspect relevant, even if some find it humdrum. From internal and stylistic evidence, for example, leading Donneans such as R.C. Bald, John Hayward and C.A. Patrides felt that ‘The Sun Rising’ was connected with the time just after Donne’s marriage, early in the reign of James I. The context does not determine what Burrow calls the ‘point’ of the poem; but it might help him assess where the text belongs in Donne’s work. As one of the most distinguished editors of poetry from this period, such questions matter to him.
Readers of this piece rejecting literary biography may nevertheless be interested in a quiet biographical link that connects me to the reviewer. Until recently Burrow was one of my postgraduate supervisors and doctoral advisers at Cambridge; I was surprised and somewhat hurt that he chose to write about my book, but I learned a great deal from him in the past, and shall continue to do so from his scholarship.
Colin Burrow writes: I don’t doubt that it’s valuable to know when poems were written. It is, however, an obvious truth that many people entered the Inns of Court in the 1590s (several of whom may have had clandestine marriages), but only one of them wrote ‘The Sun Rising’. This is why people want to read biographies of John Donne rather than of Francis Mingay, a Suffolk gentleman who entered the Inner Temple in 1592 and who was MP for Dunwich in the Parliament of 1601. Literary biography as it is usually practised is a paradoxical form: it is written because its subjects wrote poems or fictions, which are partially inexplicable particularities, and yet its method can imply that poems and fictions are explicable particularities. That’s why I don’t think intelligent people should write literary biographies unless they can tell us new facts or unless they fully register the resistance of fictions to biographical reductionism.
I’m sorry if John Stubbs thinks I should not have reviewed his book. I did indeed briefly stand in as his PhD supervisor in 2002 to cover a period of leave, and was subsequently one of the two people who met him once a year to review his progress. His dissertation was about Shakespeare and rhetoric, not about Donne or biography, and I very much enjoyed what I read of it. I didn’t speak to him about his book or read any part of it before I got the review copy. Had I felt that I could not judge it impartially I would not have reviewed it.
Stephen Holmes says that ‘the neo-cons defend two diametrically opposed propositions: that the jihadists hate freedom at the same time as hating their own lack of it’ (LRB, 5 October). This is quite wrong. Jihadists certainly ‘hate freedom’, but it is a freedom of a particular kind: freedom of religion, association, speech etc. They do not hate their own lack of such freedoms, and they do not hate abusive and autocratic Middle Eastern regimes for their ‘unfreedom’: they hate them for their impiety. It is the populations at large in the region that despise the lack of freedom. This lack lends inadvertent credibility to jihadists, and helps generate support for them. The neo-conservatives, egregious as they may be, do not, however, conflate the civilian populations with the jihadists, but want to prise them further apart by opening up space for democracy. Too simplistic? Probably. But the force of the argument remains.
While I am certainly relieved to hear that Malcolm Deas’s housekeeper was cared for by the Colombian public health system, I can’t help but wonder if her good fortune in this regard might have owed something to Deas’s connections with the president, whose neo-liberal policies have brought an already weak system to breaking point (Letters, 2 November).
As for plastic surgery, I think of it as a metaphor. Just as plastic surgery is meant to beautify a person, so the appearance – but only the appearance – of the nation is being manipulated. The result is that you never know where the truth lies, as with the current demobilisation of right-wing paramilitaries, a theatricalised manoeuvre likely to strengthen what is already a terrifying narco-paramilitary power structure operating throughout the country and its Congress. Why is it that Colombia has the world’s highest or close to the highest assassination rates of journalists, union leaders and human rights workers? Why is it that more than 95 per cent of their killers remain at large? Why is it that so little is being done to apprehend them?
I hope Deas’s guarded optimism regarding the prospects of peace (with justice) in Colombia is not misplaced.
Columbia University, New York
Why are the stars so bright?
Discussing Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt, Peter Campbell writes that ‘a scattering of bright stars spreads to the Milky Way’ (LRB, 2 November). But are they stars? If so, why are they so bright and why are they in front of both the trees and the clouds? The only plausible explanation is that they are not stars at all but sparks from the fire in the painting Campbell discusses.
Newcastle upon Tyne