Tony Judt is a courageous critic, prepared to do battle with influential intellectuals in both New York and Washington, fully anticipating the anger he is certain to provoke. Given that, I am reluctant to find fault with his essay on ‘the strange death of liberal America’ – essentially, the intellectual death of the Democratic Party – but there are other things to be said (LRB, 21 September).
It is the wish to achieve a high position in the federal government that has made so many young and not so young people ardent supporters of the Republican Party even when they are not avowedly neo-cons. It is important to recall that Democrats have held the White House for only 12 years since Nixon’s arrival as president in 1969. The inept Jimmy Carter did little to generate liberal enthusiasm among the young, and Bill Clinton, who wasted much of his second term in trying to avoid impeachment, could never be mistaken for a liberal in the Roosevelt or Truman tradition. What is commonly said of Tony Blair – that his has been the best Tory government in decades – can also be said of Clinton, a far better centrist Republican than either Eisenhower or Nixon.
There is no young liberal intellectual who in any way resembles Arthur Schlesinger Jr or the late Kenneth Galbraith, just as there is no Democratic Party contender for the presidency in 2008 who resembles Roosevelt or Truman. Journalists know the price that they are likely to pay if they dare to criticise the president or his aggressively self-righteous and untruthful vice-president. In the new America, with its very rich and its desperately poor, neither excessive wealth nor grinding poverty figures very high on the Democratic Party agenda. Instead, as Judt explains, race, gender and sexual orientation issues give the Democrats the support they need, but are not enough to guarantee their victory in 2008. So there is a move to claim that the Democrats are non-ideological, just good old American pragmatists, faithful to the Stars and Stripes.
Judt asks why the liberal intellectuals have been so silent on Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. He knows the answers, and sometimes comes close to making them explicit. Many Democrats, fearing new attacks following 9/11, subscribed to Bush’s view that Iraq was a clear and present danger, armed with lethal weapons that might at any moment be released. Knowing now that this was false, they are reluctant to admit their error and are confused about what to do next. To argue for an immediate military withdrawal from Iraq is much too hazardous. They dare not tell the truth, that American troops are likely to be in Iraq a decade from now, though almost certainly in somewhat reduced numbers. Judt also knows why the liberal intellectuals are silent on Lebanon. Though he is able to write critically about Israel’s policies in a Jerusalem newspaper, and anticipate criticism, that criticism is nothing like the barrage he experiences in New York whenever he says the same things. As for Iran, America’s liberal intellectuals do not know what to say or recommend. They are aware that Europeans see the Iran issue differently, but dare not suggest that they may have a greater purchase on reality than the president or Condoleezza Rice. They recall the hesitations Europeans had about Bosnia and Serbia in the Clinton years, and are unwilling to believe that this time they may be better informed and more astute.
Judt writes convincingly about Eastern and Central Europe and the support in those countries for the president’s policies in Iraq and elsewhere. In this area, where Judt knows far more than I do, I hesitate to argue the obvious. In Eastern and Central Europe – in Poland and the Baltic states, but also in other former Communist states – the United States is blamed for Yalta and much else. Central European opinions on the Second World War and the postwar settlements are substantially different from those that obtain in the US and the UK, and may well constitute a grave threat to the future viability of both the European Union and Nato.
The hostility to liberal values that Judt describes will not necessarily survive for very long in the 21st century, when economic inequality, climate change and the dangers of terrorism and social upheaval are likely to assume new and more threatening forms. The most significant and powerful indictment of the president and his minions is probably Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Ricks sees George W. Bush as a child of the 1960s; so, interestingly, is Blair. Both will soon go and whether they are eventually succeeded by more able and experienced men (or women) with a sense of history will depend on how the US and the UK and others perceive new threats and opportunities, and how they recognise and remedy the follies of recent years.
‘Tough-minded’ liberals were nowhere near as eager to begin war with Iraq as Tony Judt makes out. Many were, and remain, quite anguished about it – any consultation of the New Yorker, the New York Review and the New York Times will tell you that. Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier and David Remnick, not to mention George Packer and Peter Galbraith, did indeed all support the war, but primarily for humanitarian ends: the removal of a psychopathic and genocidal dictator. Judt’s sly comparison of these commentators’ support for human rights with the Western Marxists’ silence on Stalin in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations is sheer sophistry. But then Judt seems to have no use for talk of human rights at all, because of its ‘abstract universalism’, as though the notions of freedom of conscience, religion and speech were airy fatuities, and somehow not relevant to those living in despotic regimes. Furthermore, Judt nowhere addresses the fact that a majority of Iraqis approved of the invasion. They did so while harbouring no illusions about American intentions: most believed America was there for the oil. Finally, Judt omits one of the most honourable achievements of American liberalism – its agitation for intervention to halt ethnocide in Darfur. The comparative silence of bien pensant Europe should bring a measure of perspective to Judt’s anger, and a measure of shame too.
Tony Judt describes Palestine and Lebanon as the only working instances of democracy in the ‘whole Muslim world’. The Republic of Indonesia may be a relatively new democracy, but it is functioning and, unlike citizens of the US, the UK or Australia, Indonesians may directly elect their head of state.
Eugene Goodheart asks whether I am familiar with two statements he attributes to Hizbullah’s secretary-general, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah (Letters, 7 September). Goodheart uses the inflammatory quotations to accuse Nasrallah of being ‘an anti-semite with fantasies of genocide’. If I am unfamiliar with the statements, it is because they are in all likelihood fabrications. The first (‘If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide’) was circulated widely on neo-con websites, which give as its original source an article by Badih Chayban in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star on 23 October 2002. It seems that Chayban left the Star three years ago and moved to Washington. The Star’s managing editor writes of Chayban’s article on Nasrallah, that ‘I have faith in neither the accuracy of the translation [from Arabic to English] nor the agenda of the translator [Chayban].’ The editor-in-chief and publisher of the Star, Jamil Mrowe, adds that Chayban was ‘a reporter and briefly local desk sub and certainly did not interview Nasrallah or anyone else.’ The account of Nasrallah’s speech in the Lebanese daily As Safir for the same day makes no reference to any anti-semitic comments. Goodheart’s second quotation – ‘They [the Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment’ – comes from the Israeli government’s website at http://tinyurl.com/99hyz. For the record, a Hizbullah spokeswoman, Wafa Hoteit, denies that Nasrallah made either statement.
Goodheart wonders whether, as a former captive of Hizbullah, I may have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome; may I ask in return whether he is succumbing to the disinformation that passes for scholarship and journalism in certain quarters in the United States?
‘We think back through our mothers if we are women,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, but there is no evidence that 18th-century women poets did anything of the sort. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is fine as polemic, but it makes dubious history, especially on poetry (the subject of the original lectures was ‘Women and Fiction’). Helen Deutsch’s review of Paula Backscheider’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry recycles much that was wrong in Woolf and is still wrong in those who passionately wish to bring women into ‘the old-fashioned canon’ (LRB, 21 September).
Eighteenth-century women poets read Milton and Dryden, Pope and Swift, Young and Gray, and they made their mark by trumpeting themselves as exceptions to the ordinary run of women who did not. Retirement poetry was not a specifically female tradition, nor was friendship. It is nonsense to talk of women having been ‘confined indoors for centuries’ and tiresome to be told that Jane Austen – whose family cherished this writer in their midst – hid her manuscript under the blotter as if it was a shameful secret (it wasn’t). These are myths of the ‘I wrote it while pushing the baby around the park’ variety. Nothing is ‘easier to write while distracted’.
Poetic ability signalled superiority – a quality the 18th century valued. For middle and working-class women it might translate into social elevation. Local grandees hunted out talent, following the lead of Queen Caroline, who in the 1730s took up the thresher poet Stephen Duck. There was cachet in being a patron; ‘natural genius’ might be discovered in women as well as men. The washerwoman capable of iambic pentameter, or a rhyming servant, carried social value for a mistress keen on having a reputation as a cultural player. For the upwardly aspiring woman poet in a society which placed women below men there was little inducement to reach back to foremothers: the point was to display ability in the established (high, male) tradition.
We should also bear in mind that poetry expressing the workings of the inner self was relatively unusual until the later 18th century. Wit and satire, based on classical models, dominated. The misogynistic writings of Swift and Pope provided women with opportunities: the retaliatory ‘defence’ of women is a sub-genre all its own. Both men, meanwhile, especially Swift, were supporters of women writers. Social rather than solitary, public and political rather than private, poetry’s ‘hospitable atmosphere’ in the 18th century was about mixing the sexes, not segregating them. It was the development of literary criticism and the institutions that supported canon-formation at the end of the century, along with the Wordsworthian poet as priestly hero, that changed the terms and has complicated later understandings.
Franz Schubert died too soon to benefit fully from his contrapuntal studies with Simon Sechter, who wrote a fugue every morning to clear his mind (LRB, 21 September). Sechter’s most diligent pupil was Anton Bruckner, who wrote some of the most magnificent orchestral fugues in late Romantic music (and gave himself a nervous breakdown through overwork). On 18 August, as part of a new completion of his unfinished Ninth Symphony, Bruckner’s massive final fugue was performed to great effect in the St Florian Basilica near Linz.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.