Ok, here we go. My new book What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way will be in the shops by the end of the month – you can order a copy by clicking on the “Books” button – but proofs have been circulating since before Christmas and the publicity is beginning. I’ll try to post every review, good, bad and indifferent, and at the end of it all blog on the experience of a journalist and reviewer being reviewed by other journalists. The first discussion in the mainstream media I’ve seen is in John Lloyd’s column in today’s FT magazine.
Off with our heads
By John Lloyd
January 12 2007
AT Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet, Leonard Bernstein’s version of Voltaire’s Candide has just finished a run. It featured, in one scene, actors wearing masks to represent five world leaders. These were Tony Blair of the UK, George Bush of the US, Jacques Chirac of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia and – the one former leader – Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. The five are dressed in underpants, in the colours of their national flags.
Bernstein’s Candide was completed half a century ago, in 1956. The original lyrics were by the writer Lillian Hellman, who had fallen foul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ search for communists. The polemical intent of the piece was to draw an implicit parallel between that committee’s increasingly frenzied investigations and the Inquisition that condemns to torture and death both Candide and his unvaryingly positive tutor Pangloss, who maintains that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
The present production had another purpose. Largely rewritten by the Canadian director Robert Carsen, it satirised not, as Voltaire did, the view that life was always destined to turn out well, nor a specific event such as the feverish anti-communism of the 1950s. Instead, this was a satire on the US. In case anyone in the audience missed it, the Westphalian castle where Candide begins his wanderings is modelled on the White House and is called West Failure (geddit?). And where, in Hellman’s 1956 libretto, the parallel with the Inquisition is implied, Carsen makes the Inquisitors into the HCUA members, and has the chorus dress up in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than travelling to South America as in the original, Candide travels to a dystopian US, where he meets Voltaire’s five exiled kings, transformed into the five western leaders who are found sunbathing on an oil slick and doing a kind of can-can.
Bernstein’s score has remained, which saves the opera from being as half-witted as it sounds. All the same, it illuminates an important feature of our age.
For much of the past decade, the radicalism of the left has undergone two profoundly important shifts. Its themes have become popular in polite society, and have passed into every kind of artistic production. At the same time it has inflicted a huge, largely unnoticed and possibly terminal defeat on itself: it has become shrilly undiscriminating, thus threatening to make its tradition unfit for governance.
The Chatelet show was the latest manifestation of this. The inclusion of such “satire” in a contemporary opera is now the weariest of tropes yet it reveals what has become of much modern drama and contemporary political chattering: its radical criticism has become empty of content.
The five leaders in their underpants represent, in real life, quite different traditions, governing styles and personalities, and govern very different states. Three (Berlusconi, Blair and Bush) were for ending the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; two were against it. One (Putin) has flattened a region of his own country; none of the others has. One (Berlusconi) owns half the media of his country, and did so when he was prime minister; none of the others do. Some, like Blair and Putin, have increased state spending: others, like Berlusconi, Bush and Chirac, have cut it – and so on. Their policies have had profoundly different effects on their own electorates and on the world.
But so what? In the current state of much of the western intelligentsia, any scatter-gun abuse can masquerade as satire – and claim the badge of courage. Communists and Trotskyites (and fascists, come to that) once made their pitch for the dictatorship of the proletariat, or some other version of “the people”, by claiming that all elected politicians were corrupt, mendacious and either weak or warmongers. Now these same charges are wildly applauded by impeccably bourgeois audiences and repeated at dinner.
This process has not conquered political life, but it has gone quite far. It has destroyed discriminating political thought in a large section of the allegedly thinking part of the west. It has awarded the premier prize at Cannes to a film – Fahrenheit 9/11 – that included a sequence showing life in Saddam’s Baghdad, pre-invasion, as a lyrical playground. It has reduced itself to an unthinking condemnation of whatever western authorities do.
It has not conquered because it still has doughty opponents. One such is journalist Nick Cohen, whose book What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way appears next month. If it does not have a profound effect on the political debate, I will be surprised and disappointed. It is an essay of wide reference and great brilliance, which flays every kind of foot-shuffling excuse for not facing up to the nature of the regime which that most evil (and now, mercifully, dead) tyrant, Saddam Hussein, inflicted on his country and planned for his region.
Cohen surveys a gamut of left-liberal western opinion that, in part under the pressure of the Iraqi war, has forgotten its best traditions and instead lapsed into its worst, that regards nothing as more important than the failures of its own societies, and that lacks the imagination or the will to comprehend the agonies of those living under tyranny.
“We have,” he writes, “no right to turn our backs on those who want the freedoms we take for granted. The best reason for offering them support is because we can.” And that, even amidst the chaos of Iraq, remains a good motto for democrats of any stripe – one that Voltaire, himself a flayer of hypocrisies, knew and which his contemporary adaptors have forgotten.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007