Most of all and most depressingly, Joseph Anton is an account of how comfortable people in Western democracies react to the threat of political violence.
Not well is the politest available answer. The Rushdie Affair became the Dreyfus Affair of our age because it revealed how, when faced with such extreme provocation, ordinary political categories collapse. Whatever your opinions, if you supported Rushdie, you supported the freedom to write, read and publish what you liked, even when (I would say especially when) books were being burned and death threats issued not in some far away and forgettable dictatorship but in your own land. You supported the rule of law, for Rushdie had committed no crime, and placed the right of the individual to express him or herself above the rights of the collective. The enemies of Dreyfus said that they must keep an innocent man in prison to protect the collective honour of the French army and French state. The enemies of Rushdie said that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s incitement to murder was understandable or excusable because it protected the collective honour of Muslims. No one who professed a belief in freedom of conscience and thought could hesitate for a moment before taking Rushdie’s side. As it turned out, those who shouted the loudest hesitated the longest.
Defending Philip Larkin from his critics, Christopher Hitchens said that readers loved him because he understood everyday suffering. He mapped ‘decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates and clinics’ better than most social democrats. While dying is often referred to as‘going down hill’, Hitchens saw that Larkin realised that debilitation is not an easy glide to oblivion but an exhausting climb of ‘extinction’s alp’.
Hitchens’s account of his climb to extinction is Larkinesque, and not only because his sentences stay in the mind as firmly as good poetry. Hitchens maps the world of intensive care. Not without regret, he dismisses those who pretend they can soften its horrors, including perhaps his younger self. A heart-breaking final chapter contains quotations from great writers that he scrawled as material for an essay he would never live to write. As the pneumonia brought on by oesophageal cancer overwhelmed him, Hitchens recalled Larkin’s reprimand, in ‘Aubade’, of atheists who believe that stoicism will see them through:
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
‘Fair enough in one way,’ Hitchens writes. ‘Atheists ought not to be offering consolation.’ Notice that he did not write ‘false consolation’, as most of us would. Mortality is an argument against comforting cliché, among which the notion that cancer sufferers are ‘fighting’ their tumours outdoes even ‘going down hill’. Hitchens does not feel like a warrior. If only he were like a soldier in battle or a revolutionary on the barricades, he thinks. If only he were suffering for a purpose. But you cannot fight when you are ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water’. Nor is one surprised to learn that Nietzsche had not experienced chronic illness when he offered his ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ for healthy men and women to quote until they learned better. As for purpose: in the best and bleakest line in the book, Hitchens reflects, ‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not”?’
British skepticism has its entertainers – Dara O’Briain, Tim Minchin, Robin Ince and Dave Gorman – who are not just comics, but persuasive proponents of Enlightenment values. It has a star in Brian Cox and a hero in Simon Singh. Now it has a political programme, The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, a former science editor of the Times.
Carry on reading
The New Few, or A Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now
By Ferdinand Mount (Simon & Schuster 305pp £18.99)
If you want to imagine the Prime Minister at seventy, gaze on the features of his cousin at several removes, Sir William Robert Ferdinand ‘Ferdie’ Mount, 3rd Baronet, of Wasing, and one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher. As so often, distant relatives look more like each other than close kin. To a disconcerting degree, Cameron and Mount share the same moonish face, the same soft skin and contented look. Not the smallest of the good lessons The New Few teaches is that appearances deceive.
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Review by Nick Cohen of Justice and the Enemy by William Shawcross.
In 1946, Sir Hartley Shawcross, the chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, gave a noble speech: “Mankind itself, struggling now to re-establish, in all the countries of the world the common simple things – liberty, love, understanding – comes to this court and cries, ‘These are our laws – let them prevail.’”
That any notion of justice prevailed after the horror of the second world war was a miracle in itself. Churchill and Stalin wanted the summary execution of Nazi war criminals. The rule of law prevailed, however. The military court gave the 24 alleged war criminals a fair trial, acquitting three and condemning another seven to prison rather than death. World opinion remembers Nuremberg fondly, but deprecates the efforts of America to punish Islamists suspected of war crimes today.
Yet as Sir Hartley’s son, William Shawcross, notes, if you had offered a Nazi a choice between Nuremberg then and Guantánamo now, he would have headed to the Caribbean at once. American military commissions grant defendants the right of appeal, oversight of their cases by civilian courts and the best legal representation – none of which the victorious allies allowed the defeated Germans.
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Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank – review
In October 2010, American liberals held their largest demonstration in Washington DC since the great crash of 2008. They did not raise their angry voices to denounce fantastic corporate greed and fraud. They were not furious that speculators had destroyed the hopes of millions of Americans. Instead, they staged the world’s first protest against anger – a rage against rage.
Its organisers, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, exhorted their followers at the “Rally to Restore Sanity” to wear “I’m With Reasonable” T-shirts – ironically, of course – and set aside political differences in the interests of getting on with their neighbours. Despite the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement, the pattern Stewart and Colbert set has held. Genteel liberals have allowed American conservatives to all but monopolise political fury since the banks went down. Considering what conservatives allowed financial markets to do, the fact that the right could be furious with anyone but itself is an astonishing story and one that Thomas Frank was born to cover.
Read the whole thing
Imagine the future. Not your preferred utopia or feared dystopia but what you expect Britain to look like in 30 years. It is not idiotic to think that if current trends continue, Britain, much of the rest of Europe, Australia and North and South America will be more Scandinavian. We will accept the equality of women and women in positions of power. We will be more socially egalitarian, or if inequalities in wealth are still as great as they are now, then the class distinctions left by the old aristocracy will be less important. Society will enforce liberalism with more rules and codes. I know people bemoan our existing PC culture, but I doubt their sincerity because no man is a free-marketeer when his boss unfairly dismisses him, and no woman complains about “political correctness gone mad” when she is the victim of sexual harassment. Modern people want transparent and accountable systems that protect their rights. Even if they do not realise it, even if they think they do not want it, they are groping towards the Scandinavian model.
“If current trends continue” are the four most treacherous words in sociology. Current trends have a habit of stopping in their tracks and heading off in new directions. But the belief that Scandinavia represents a possible future helps to explain the phenomenal success of its crime fiction. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has sold almost 30 million copies. British television has shown three versions of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. Now BBC4 is offering us Danish television’s thriller The Killing, the first drama from Europe that can compete with the best of American TV.
Showing the dark side of supposedly ordered societies is a trick used by 1940s film noir writers and the authors of English country-house murders, although I think it is fair to say that this is the first and last similarity between them.
Carry on reading