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Short CutsJohn Sturrock
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Vol. 25 No. 8 · 17 April 2003
Short Cuts

On Bullshit

John Sturrock

945 words

The letters we’ve published in the LRB in the past weeks trying to reclaim the strong sense of the word ‘bullshit’ were timely, now that we’re having to shield our eyes and ears from a sandstorm of official cant: the cant first of all that kept revising the motives supposedly justifying the present reprise of the Gulf War, which to no one’s surprise turned out to be more and more of a humanitarian kind the nearer we came to the actual bombing and shooting; and the cant that goes with the reporting of the war, which is being waged, we’re assured, with ‘depravity’ on one side – e.g. Mr Blair’s false claim that two British soldiers had been ‘executed’, rather than killed in action – and with every humane consideration by the cap-à-pie armoured proponents of Shock and Awe.

Bullshit, in the good old sense of the word, is with us, in quantities and of a moralism that grows more offensive by the day. Who won’t have felt sickened, not by the pictures shown on Iraqi television (and reshown here, be it noted) of captured Americans, but by the sanctimonious ‘outrage’ expressed at this piece of enemy callousness by the paired Presidents, the one in Washington and the other in London? The assumption that we should all share that outrage was an insult, in the face of what is being inflicted on the population of Iraq. It’s not even clear that the airing of such images is an offence against the Geneva Conventions, though given the ugly opportunism of the legal advice – will we ever be given sight of that? – that has seemingly assured our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary that they are currently acting according to international law, arguments are no doubt ready to hand if required to demonstrate that it is indeed an offence, and that its perpetrators can expect to be hauled before some ad hoc American tribunal, or perhaps held without charge in an annexe to the offshore prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

Timely, too, as we duck the bullshit, is the appearance of a new book (the second he’s written) by Sir Bernard Ingham, who was Mrs Thatcher’s chief press secretary at the time of the Falklands War in 1982. His first book was called Kill the Messenger, a title rich in ‘poor me’ implications; this one is called The Wages of Spin (John Murray, 261pp., £18.99, March, 0 7195 6481 6), the implication of which is that Sir Bernard wants to impose a buffer zone between himself and those who now do the bullshitting job he once did: they being headed, it seems, not for a knighthood but for the everlasting fires. In his closing paragraph he backs shudderingly away from the spinning dervishes who have followed him, writing of ‘the manifest failure of the Blair way of government, with its obsession with media manipulation, to uphold its reputation and that of politics generally’. He goes to the remarkable extreme, as only a PR man could, of explaining the historically low turnout in the last general election as a protest non-vote against the Machiavellianism of the spinners, as though electors might be more turned off by an excess of transparent propaganda than by what the governing party had in practice failed to achieve. The citizenry didn’t have to wait for the arrival of the man the bullshitters urge us to look on as the mother of them all, Alastair Campbell, to distrust what all governments say, as opposed to what they are seen to be doing. On the other hand, the turnout at the next general election could be a lot lower still, as the great many former Labour voters who are appalled by Blair’s trumpeted ‘sincerity’ in a shocking and awful cause, and his Party’s wholly dishonourable failure to challenge him, look despairingly about for someone to vote for – and can’t find it in a Liberal Democrat Party that has put on a wretchedly pallid show of opposition to the war, so increasing our disenfranchisement.

An interesting detail to be found in Ingham’s book is that his predecessor as chief press secretary at the time of the Suez expedition in 1956 resigned because he objected to the way in which the Eden Government was deceiving the public. Happy days. Ingham’s objection to the role he was expected to play at the time of the Falklands is altogether different: that he wasn’t told enough of what was going on, and so couldn’t do his job properly. Which I take to mean that if we were deceived in the course of that war, as we clearly were over the Belgrano affair, don’t blame me, blame my masters (or mistress). It would be nice, if a little hard to believe that, had Ingham been free to do his job as he wanted, we’d have been, like so many Philip Larkins, the less deceived. Some of his readers may wonder, however, why a chief press secretary did not resign like his predecessor if he felt he was being sidelined at a moment – such as now – when a government should have sufficient trust in the mature reactions of its citizens to spin out less bullshit, not more. The bullshit count this time around promises to be higher than ever, as we read of reporters and film-crews being ‘embedded’ (‘in bed with’ would be better) into units of the aggressing army and conclude dismally that we would get a fuller picture of what is going on in Iraq if we had had access to al-Jazeera as well as our own news channels.

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Letters

Vol. 25 No. 10 · 22 May 2003

I enjoyed John Sturrock’s ‘Short Cuts’ about bullshit and other matters (LRB, 17 April). Several months ago I moved to Spain. In current times I am glad to be out of England and living in a country where ‘No a la guerra’ stickers appear everywhere on cars. I can switch between English and Spanish TV channels. News coverage of the war on the latter seemed infinitely more fair, largely because it did not seem to depend on embedded reporters.

A week into the war, my husband became reacquainted with an old Iraqi friend who had previously run a chess café in London and had moved to Spain to open a restaurant. Over drinks at his home we had the unusual and interesting experience of viewing channels beamed in by satellite from every Arab country you can think of, from Libya to the UAE. The pictures were entirely different from what we were seeing on Western television; reality probably lies somewhere in between. Our friend was desperately seeking information on the welfare of his sisters and their families in Baghdad and could not understand why the Americans had felt it necessary to take out the phones and electric power. To this day he has been unable to get through to his family to find out if they are alive or dead. The oil is up and running. Contracts for rebuilding have been awarded to American companies, but Iraq’s heritage has been looted and no true account of the extent of civilian casualties has been given.

If you are as disturbed at all the bullshit as I am, may I suggest that you search on Google for Prescott Bush (the grandfather) to get an idea of the deals the family has been involved in.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Orihuela Costa, Spain

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