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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 9 · 9 May 1991

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Blaming Israel

George Ball sees fit to write and the London Review sees fit to print a piece on the Middle East and its many problems that is largely devoted to an attack on Israel (LRB, 4 April). While most of the rest of us are looking to Iraq and the struggle to topple Saddam, and wrestling with the moral issue of involvement in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, more vividly aware than ever before of the many causes of instability in the Middle East, Mr Ball would have us believe that the crisis in the Gulf points only to the necessity of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. We have heard it all before, ad nauseam. Mr Ball’s judgments are his own, but he cannot be allowed licence with the facts. Let me take just one example, but an important one since the linkage between Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait was so crucial to the Gulf crisis. I refer to Mr Ball’s account of the 1967 War. Apparently Israel ‘overran’ and ‘seized’ these territories in an aggressive war and should thus (‘no doubt’) return them to the Palestinians. Mr Ball tells us that President Nasser had no intention of going to war against Israel, and his proof for all of this is a stray quotation from that unimpeachable historical source, Menachem Begin.

It is a view, I suppose, and no reasonable account should omit the case as seen from Cairo or Damascus. But where is there mention of attacks by El Fatah across the Israel-Jordan border or of Syrian shelling of Israeli settlements from the Golan Heights in the months before June 1967? Or of the mobilisation of Egyptian forces starting on 14 May 1967 that precipitated an Israeli mobilisation in response? Or of Nasser’s expulsion on 17 May of the UN forces that had been stationed on the Sinai frontier since the Suez crisis? Or of his proclamation on 22 May that the Gulf of Aqaba was closed to Israeli shipping in the face of clear Israeli forewarnings that the reimposition of the Egyptian blockade would be interpreted as an act of war (which, technically, it was)? Or of Nasser’s declaration of 26 May that Egypt intended to destroy Israel? Or of the meeting of 30 May between King Hussein and Nasser at which Jordan formally united her military forces with those of Egypt and Syria? At the time this was all taken to presage a deliberate war of encirclement against Israel. And if the aim was aggression and expansionism, why didn’t the Israelis have any plans in advance for the administration of the territories they ‘seized’? Finally, Mr Ball writes that there is no doubt that the territories captured should be returned to the Palestinians. But if he really means ‘returned’ then surely the lands should go back to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the sovereign states from which they were taken?

I limit my remarks to points raised by five sentences of Mr Ball’s account. A full critique would, on this scale, take rather too much space. The biographical information about Mr Ball printed on page 2 of the LRB reminds us that he was US Under-Secretary of State between 1961 and 1966. Although critical of aspects of American policy in Vietnam, and finally aware that the conflict could not be won, he was an important member of American administrations responsible for the unsuccessful prosecution of a truly unjust war in that country. Some might wonder if political participation in the Vietnam War gives an individual any right to lecture others on international law and morality.

Lawrence Goldman
St Peter’s College, Oxford

Mr George Ball’s survey of the Middle East is a curious text, coming as it does at a moment when Iraq’s treatment of its Kurds has, almost for the first time (the Western press having in the past displayed a prudent unconcern), been brought inescapably to the public notice. With very little extra effort and loss of life – had President Bush not lost his nerve – the Allies could have created an autonomous Kurdistan which could not possibly have offered a threat to the rest of Iraq or, for that matter, to Turkey. For reasons which have nothing to do with altruism, and a lot to do with maintaining the balance of power (‘regional stability’), they decided not to do so. And perhaps to disguise the fact that neither Washington not London is going to do anything for the Kurds (or Tibetans, or any other inconvenient minority), strong support is expressed, on the highest moral grounds, for the creation of an independent Palestinian Arab state for the benefit of a minority far less numerous than the Kurds and with very much less to complain of.

Norman Langford
Geneva

Defending the indefensible

It’s ironic that journalists, who take great pride in breaching others’ self-protective barricades of denial, turn out to be such ardent stonewallers when it comes to their own activities. Lynn Barber (LRB, 21 March) is simply one journalist among many who, on behalf of their profession, earnestly but defensively deny all allegations of moral myopia – and then start bumping into the furniture with their inept apologias. To her credit, Barber avoids the usual flag-waving and question-begging platitudes about an utterly inviolable Freedom of the Press, but her argument is still cast in predictably all-or-nothing terms. Journalists’ conduct is not only morally defensible – it includes no deception whatsoever! We could change interviewing practices – but the only alternative is uncritical press flackery!

Is there really no deception involved, as Barber maintains, in gaining individuals’ confidences by pretending to be in sympathy with them, inducing them thereby to ‘give more of themselves away than they would wish’, and then using the resulting material in such a way as happens to cause them injury? Perhaps such behaviour can be ultimately justified, but is it really ‘straightforward’ that there is no ethical difficulty here to worry about?

Moreover, I suspect that most people would not see the same gaping moral gulf that Barber does between written assurances of friendship and belief in an interviewee’s story (as in the McGinniss-MacDonald case, which Barber agrees was a betrayal of trust) and similar assurances given in conversation – express and implied, verbal and non-verbal – as in the ‘normal’ journalistic practice that she seeks to defend. There may be a moral distinction here, but it is surely not between deception and a total lack thereof. It is apparently obvious to Barber, however, that interviewers are entirely excused from moral concern for their subjects as long as they make no explicit promises – a legalistic, literal-minded approach that doesn’t do justice to the realities of either moral responsibility or communication. In fact, in trying in this way to place the onus entirely upon ‘the subject’s self-deception, unaided by the journalist’, Barber is taking a page from the book of George Bush, who, slinking behind a veil of verbal hair-splitting, has huffily denied responsibility for stimulating Iraqi rebels’ hopes for military assistance, and from the book of the cock-tease, who, after knowingly arousing sexual expectations with blatant innuendo and body language, indignantly defends her refusal to meet those expectations with a disingenuous assertion of innocence: ‘but I never actually said I would – you just deceived yourself!’

As for possible alternatives to current practice, why shouldn’t interviewers be required to warn their subjects beforehand that, for instance, anything they say can and will eventually be used against them in print if that suits the journalist’s independent judgment? Yes, that might well have a chilling effect on the practice of interviewing. But if so, wouldn’t it indicate that many people now consent to interviews without being aware of the possible consequences, and that they therefore need and deserve precisely the kind of protection that a warning would provide? Perhaps celebrity interviewees need no coddling if they are as mercenary, calculating and savvy about the interviewing game as Barber says they are: but a defence of journalists’ interviewing practices as a whole cannot be built from such interviewees alone, despite Barber’s game attempts to do just that. Barber likens interviews to commercial transactions, so as to apply a form of caveat emptor to them, but seems unaware that contract law makes many emptor-protecting exceptions to the doctrine. She is also ignorant of the fact that the signal virtue of voluntary economic transactions is that all parties typically benefit: ‘one side is bound to be disappointed’ only in the event of fraud or mistake. The parallel Barber draws between the interview and economic exchange is telling – only not in the way she imagines.

It is telling in another way as well, for the business world is the major social sphere in which morality is widely – but benightedly – thought to be basically irrelevant, out of place. In actuality, ethical issues permeate business life, a market system of transactions is grounded in relations of trust – and thus, yoking journalism to business only emphasises its moral dimension, contrary to Barber’s intention.

Lawrence Beyer
Yale Law School

Parsi Magic

In Amit Chaudhuri’s review of Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (LRB, 4 April), he describes the Parsis of Bombay as ‘bad-tempered, incestuous, always with long noses, emblematic, marginal and absolved from the anxieties of modern India’. Shallow lists of stereotypes such as these have been used against the Jewish community in the past and one cannot help feeling that such prejudice is tinged with more than a shade of envy. The Parsis number approximately 100,000 in India and for a tiny community their achievements in public life have been notable. Dadabai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, became a Member of Parliament for Finchley Central, using his position in the Commons to make fiery speeches against the British in India; Jamshetji Tata founded the largest industrial empire in the country, and is famous for his philanthropy and his fair-mindedness, a reputation which has been strengthened by successive generations of the clan; Dr Homi Bhabha was head of the Institute of Atomic Energy and the brains behind India’s early entry into the small group of nations with nuclear capacity. One might add to the list the half-Parsi Rajiv Gandhi, along with other Zoroastrians like Zubin Mehta who have made a substantial contribution to modern Indian life. It is quite well known that it was largely through the toil of its Parsi ship-builders and entrepreneurs that Bombay gained its wealth and status as the most renowned port in the country. Much of this acquisition of wealth and property (at the end of the last century three-quarters of the city’s land was owned by the Parsis) was made possible by the preferential treatment they received from the British; a lot of Parsis enjoyed the British Raj and have never stopped moaning about its demise.

One of the many achievements of Mistry’s book is its ability to display the convivial and tolerant nature of Bombay’s Parsi, Christian, Muslim and Hindu citizens. The Parsis have their faults – too many are inward-looking, ethnocentric and eccentric – but this makes for interesting storytelling and Mistry uses his insider knowledge with sympathy, insight and humour: Mistry’s new home has not produced in him a lofty and supercilious disdain for the denizens of his mother country. Amongst Indians, it’s not just the Parsis that Mr Chaudhuri has it in for. According to him, the Indian face, as opposed to the Western face, ‘being part of a river of faces, refuses to lend itself to characterisation, disappears, like a hint, soon after appearing, remains ghostly, without inwardness’. Why is a sea of faces in Bombay any different from a sea of faces in Euston Station? ‘In the West, because of the climate, people get to know each other in rooms. Relationships form.’ Presumably, in India it is too hot or too cold or too wet to form relationships, people do not meet in rooms, life is just an endless swarm of ‘chance encounters, minor characters and ghosts’. It makes me wonder where all those delicately painted Narayan portraits – the English Teacher, the Seller of Sweets, the Guide – come from.

A.N. Vakil
London N19

Graham Greene

Of all the valedictions to Graham Greene that I read John Bayley’s (LRB, 25 April) was the dreariest. Why invite someone with a clear distaste for a writer to pour a ton of academic sludge over his grave? Bayley’s piece was grudging (even taking Greene to task for living too long), abstractly opaque, unilluminating – qualities which Greene himself, whatever his faults, never stooped to. Bayley belittles Greene by bracketing him with le Carré (even suggesting that le Carré, that purveyor of cardboard contrivances, ‘extended’ Greene’s ‘method’) and by contrasting him with the incomparable Conrad and Dostoevsky; he wheels in Virginia Woolf, of all people, as a weird witness for the prosecution. Greene’s perverse Catholicism and leftism may finally bore and ring bogus but they were elements in a lifelong spirit of challenging rebelliousness and should be understood as such. There may be greater writers alive – Golding, for one – but at least Greene never played safe. And after all, he was more than the author of those few novels which Bayley slightingly mentions. What about his significant contribution to cinema? What about his essays, plays, polemics? Greene was a rounded man of action and letters on a scale to be cherished rather than belittled in our world of the faculty expert, the single-subject bore, the genre bestseller.

Graham Chainey
Brighton

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