It is a common assumption with a certain kind of person - one who favours boycotting Israel (and no other country), for example - that if there are Jews supporting or even just saying something, then the something must be free of anti-Semitic import. For a counter-example that disproves this naïve assumption, I refer you to the remarks of Gerald Kaufman MP. 'Here we are, the Jews again', he says as Louise Ellman stands up to speak in the House of Commons. OK, proportion in all things. Kaufman has not been out and about beating up Jewish children on their way to school. The remark is anti-Semitic nonetheless: it carries the suggestion that Jews are always piping up needlessly; and the suggestion that they complain when they have nothing to complain about - both standard anti-Semitic tropes. As for Kaufman's proferred apology, it's worthless. It is proferred if what he said 'caused offence'. And if it didn't? The comment was disgraceful anyway.
In England we have long regarded our Ashes encounters with Australia as embodying the biggest cricketing rivalry in the world. We deceive ourselves. India versus Pakistan is now the most meaningful and tremendous sporting contest...
Compared to the pulsating, passionate, primordial struggle that will today [now yesterday - NG] convulse all of India and Pakistan, the Ashes, it has to be admitted, counts for relatively little.
Peter confuses two things: the fierceness of the rivalry and the quality of the contest. Read on, and you'll see that to validate his judgement he cites various facts in favour of the India-Pakistan rivalry that one could reasonably call excesses: losers facing professional disgrace and social ostracism, unable to return home for fear of physical attack; effigies burnt in the street and police protection required; sour disappointment in defeat, including suicides; mob fury; etc. I would have thought it spoke in support of the Ashes rivalry that, intense and passionate as it is, it usually stays within the bounds of friendly contestation - with the odd exception here and there, such as in 1932-33. Think of it: going on 130 years of a battle that both sides have cared about more than anything else in cricket, renewed every couple of years except during wartime, informed by long tradition - and mostly kept within the bounds of mutual friendship. I'd say that was both 'meaningful and tremendous'.
In the end Peter gets round to acknowledging that 'there is a surprising amount of good humour between rival fans when the sides [India and Pakistan] meet'. And the players, he also says, 'tend to get on very well'. But by then he seems to have forgotten his own opening words. (Thanks: RB.)
The shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize has just been announced. I don't envy the judges having to make the final decision. To stick just with the shortlisted writers whose work I know, a choice has to be made between David Malouf, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth and Anne Tyler. Oy! But I will not shirk the task. If I were a judge...
... it highlights one writer's overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. In seeking out literary excellence, the judges consider a writer's body of work rather than a single novel.
I'm eliminating David Malouf first. Good as he is, I feel he's a shade below the other three. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home are both stunning works, and Housekeeping isn't far behind, but if it's 'body of work' that is being judged then both Roth and Tyler have produced fiction of sustained quality over so much greater a number of books that they have to edge Robinson out.
So it comes down, for me, to Roth versus Tyler. That's a tough decision to have to make. But I'm going for Roth - on the following basis. Anne Tyler has been more consistent; there are fewer troughs - just one dud, in my own view, in 18 books, whereas Roth has several. However, I also think that, with Roth, the peaks have been higher. My vote goes to the author of Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, Patrimony, American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, Everyman, Indignation and Nemesis. What a literary record!
The decision to intervene in Libya has been weighed down from the beginning by a heavy load of the euphemisms, ambiguities, and hypocrisies which so often accompany the resort to violence in international affairs. The keenest advocates of action, France and Britain, had to formulate their proposals to the United Nations in narrowly humanitarian terms in order to convince some doubtful nations that they would not pursue regime change directly...
That's the Guardian, editorializing yesterday. And one can only conclude that it's come down with a dose of the same troubles it's detecting in others. Euphemisms and hypocrisies? Egad, sir, if that's what formulating those proposals in narrowly humanitarian terms amounted to, then why doesn't the Groan say what it, for its part, really thinks: namely that this was a regime-change intervention from the off? And, saying that, then segue into the ditty about illegal war, the duplicity of those prosecuting it and the whole bang shoot (if you'll excuse the expression in this context)?
To see the naked logic of what is hidden in that editorial by its own euphemism and hypocrisy, you have only to read David Rieff at The New Republic:
[F]rom the beginning it has been clear that while this intervention has been couched in the language of humanitarianism and of the global good deed, invoking the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P)... the more important goal has been to support the insurgency, which is to say, to bring about regime change.
But what goes with this more straightforward approach, this telling it like it is, so to say, is a story that is uncomfortable for those practising anti-interventionist euphemism about Libya. It is this sort of thing:
[I]n reality, the infatuation of liberal elites in the West with humanitarian war was barely shaken by Iraq. Many of the same activists who either opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning, or soon recanted their support for it, campaigned ardently for a military intervention in Darfur. The problem, it seemed, was not with the idea of regime change... but with regime change when practiced by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. And now, some of those liberal interventionists are in positions of power, whether formal or informal...
This war - let us call it by its right name, for once - will be remembered to a considerable extent as a war made by intellectuals, and cheered on by intellectuals. The main difference this time is that, particularly in the United States, these intellectuals largely come from the liberal rather than the conservative side.
There you have it. There's opposition to intervention in Libya and there's opposition that sees the clear thread between intervention in Libya and intervention in Iraq. The Guardian isn't ready to allege against Cameron and Obama the same misdemeanours it levelled against the hated Blair and Bush.
This is the question posed yesterday by David Allen Green in the post here. While he suggests some broad guidelines in thinking about the issue, he doesn't pretend to have any cut-and-dried answer. And you can see why it's difficult to come up with one. As David suggests, on the one hand not any old political reason provides an adequate justification for breaking the law; at the same time, in the face of flagrantly unjust laws it could be right to break them (he gives the example of 'helping a member of a persecuted group to escape capture and execution' where that would be a criminal act). So, there is the difficulty. How and where does one draw a line between laws which one finds unpleasant, disagreeable, even unfair to an extent, and those that sit somewhere between gravely unjust and downright monstrous?
I don't have a neat answer to this question either. Each person consults his or her conscience, his or her deepest values. However, there is something more that can be said, I think, of a general, indicative kind. Anyone who lives in a liberal and democratic society and who is a committed democrat accepts, just in virtue of being one, that there will be political decisions, policies, laws, with which they disagree yet go along with nonetheless - opposing them by lawful methods only (argument, campaigning, etc). Not to accept this is to appeal implicitly to a 'rule of dictatorship', according to which 'I get to decide' which of the outcomes of democracy I go along with - which is not being any kind of democrat. That provides at least a rough-and-ready test for answering David's question. Before she can feel justified in breaking it, a law has not merely to be one that the democratic citizen dissents from; it must involve an injustice she judges to be so great that it violates a principle which is, for her, of greater moral weight than her commitment to democracy itself, to abiding by democratic outcomes. To put it another way, it must involve an injustice she judges to be so great that it violates a principle of greater moral weight than that of equality of political rights within the polity, the very principle of democracy itself. This sets a pretty high bar, I would think, for anyone who is indeed of serious democratic outlook.
After posting the piece by Bob Borsley to mark the death of Fred Titmus, I received an email from a reader reminding me of a song in which Titmus features. This gave me the idea - which I can't think why I haven't had before! - of compiling a list of songs that refer to named Test cricketers. The following song doesn't count, unfortunately, because though it contains immortal lines about cricket, no cricketer is named. Still, it can provide a theme tune for introducing the list.
If people keep using a bad argument for something, you may begin to get the idea that they're short of good arguments. It doesn't necessarily follow, of course. But the absence of good arguments would at least explain why, instead of making one, they repeatedly fall back on a claim that has been discredited. Thus, the MPs William Hague, Margaret Beckett and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, among others, write in a letter to today's Times (£):
Sir, Those of us who have represented Britain internationally know that one of the many reasons why we have always punched above our weight is our simple and straightforward voting system, a system that everyone can understand, because it gives one person, one vote.
Democracies all across the world have been founded on the example of our voting system. Today, billions of people elect their representatives through the system of one person, one vote. It took many centuries for the principle of one person, one vote to become enshrined in our democracy. And now that it is there, we believe it would be a grave error to abandon this principle and replace it with a voting system that is more complex, more confusing, more costly and more unfair.
Notice that the signatories to this letter don't say in so many words that AV gives some people more votes than others; perhaps they're too embarrassed to say it outright, because it's both false and silly. But unless that's their intended implication, it's unclear what their objection to AV is. The implication is nonsense, in any case. To see why (yetagain), follow the reasoning reported in this column:
The No to AV campaign released a report yesterday claiming that switching to AV would threaten the principle of "one person one vote" in parliamentary elections.
Under AV, voters rank candidates in numerical order of preference.
If no candidate receives 50% or more of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed according to second preferences. This process is repeated until one candidate reaches the 50% threshold.
According to No to AV research, supporters of the far-right British National Party could have had their votes counted for as many as six candidates if AV had been used in last year's General Election.
By contrast, in seven out of 10 seats, supporters of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates would not see their vote transferred to their second preference, because the result would be decided before their favourite candidate was eliminated.
More than 90% of Labour and Conservative voters would never see their second preference counted, said No to AV.
Matthew Elliott, campaign director of No to AV said: "As this research reveals, a 'yes' vote to the unfair and expensive Alternative Vote on May 5, is a 'yes' to unequal votes and a 'yes' to giving BNP supporters more power at the ballot box."
This is just sowing ignorance and confusion. Matthew Elliott and the No to AV campaign are suggesting that those who don't have their second (third etc) preferences counted are disadvantaged relative to those who do. But all that is happening is that the former get their first preference counted in the first 'round', then again in the second, then again in the third, and so on; whereas other voters, whose first (second etc) preference candidate gets eliminated, have their first preference counted, then their second, then their third... If anything, therefore, those who don't have to have their votes for their less preferred candidates counted have a reason to be happy: their first choice is still in the race, may even win. There is nothing 'unequal' in the voting rights or powers of different voters.
Judith Lennox is the author of 17 novels, most of which have been set in the first half of the 20th century. She has sold over 3 million copies of her books, which have been published widely throughout Europe. Three of her novels, The Winter House, A Step in the Dark and Before the Storm, were shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Further information about Judith's work can be found on her website. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Iain. Here she writes about Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety.
Judith Lennox on A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
The word 'epic' might have been invented for A Place of Greater Safety. The novel is 870 pages long and covers the period of French history between 1763 and 1794. It describes the evolution of a revolution, through the storming of the Bastille and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, until the instigators of revolution themselves are beheaded. Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins are the central characters, but the women in their story live and breathe with equal veracity, their loves and griefs and trials every bit as important and real as the men's. One of the novel's funniest scenes is where the women laugh at and mimic the pomposities of their men, those notable and self-important revolutionary leaders. The huge array of secondary characters forms a vital and ever-changing background, and throughout the narrative that other great personality, the city of Paris itself, is alive with violence and opportunity and filth and grandeur.
The novel's great length allows Mantel to immerse her reader in the Paris of the second half of the 18th century, its politics, fashions, ideas and arguments. It permits the inclusion of the gossip and rumour that fuel revolt, as well as the loves, hatreds, fears and self-deceits of those central to the plot. In the earlier chapters of the book, the rising price of bread resounds like an ominous drumbeat; in the latter part, the city pulses to a different beat: the thud of the guillotine. Though the novel is political it is never dry, and the excitement and ferment of the period, its rampaging desire for change, whirls the reader along. The death-throes of the old régime are followed by the savage birth of the republic, ripped from its mother's belly, like Robespierre's stillborn infant sibling. The scope of the novel also facilitates Mantel's knack of coming at a scene tangentially - it is not always possible, after reading a scene in A Place of Greater Safety, to say what the point of that scene was, but then life is like that, we edge along or retreat a little or blunder about, only seeing in retrospect the purpose and flow of the day-to-day.
Camille Desmoulins is a husband, lover, father, journalist and pamphleteer, as well as a demagogue. He is the lawyer who can hardly get a word out without stuttering, and the revolutionary leader who is terrified of everything. He is violent and vulnerable, greedy and amoral, intensely attractive and more than a little sexually ambiguous. His personal magnetism makes him the friend of both Robespierre and Danton. Robespierre - highly intelligent but emotionally lacking, perhaps a touch Asperger's - is Camille's protector almost to the end of the book. But Camille's charm is dangerous, too. It draws people to him, firing them to become instigators of acts of extraordinary savagery. Mantel suggests that only in anger and invective can Camille shake off fear and lose himself. And yet he is also the man who, during the frenzy of the Terror, faints at the condemnation of an old enemy, and whose remorse and pleas for clemency lead eventually to his death.
Mantel's language is vivid, energetic, often contemporary, sometimes vulgar. This makes the book live. Throughout, there are phrases, wonderful little bits of description or dialogue, that you read several times over, savouring the taste of them, envying Mantel's ability to convey so much in so few words. Camille's extended family, the de Viefvilles, are described as 'a bunch of nerveless crooks'. The Louis-le-Grand school in Paris: 'The rooms were swept by piercing draughts, and by gusts of subdued chatter in dead languages.' Robespierre's thoughts on first meeting the child Camille: 'He was not a free bird. He was a bird that needed looking after.'
Another of the book's great qualities is its wit. There is so much, in the first half of the novel at least, that makes you smile - the exchanges between Camille and his teachers at Louis-le-Grand, the relationship between Camille and his father, Jean-Nicolas, not exactly a meeting of minds. The triangular love affair of Camille, Annette Duplessis and her daughter, Lucile, is to be relished - you might sense the seeds of tragedy early on, but who could fail to be amused by the portrayal of the first disastrous dinner-party to which Claude Duplessis unwittingly invites the man who will eventually marry his daughter, and who could not be ravished by Camille and Lucile themselves. Dark-eyed and beautiful, sweeping back their luxuriant curls with identical mannerisms, they are always, wonderfully and fatally, meant for each other.
I first read A Place of Greater Safety 13 years ago. I started it, then stopped reading it for a long time because my mother was very ill, and did not pick it up again until after her death. Three months after my mother died, my sister and I went to the Canary Islands, for sun and warmth. My sister swam up and down the lido and I sat on an outcrop of black, volcanic rock, watching the waves and reading A Place of Greater Safety. It was one of the few experiences that broke through the numbness of grief, and by the time I reached the last terrible chapters of the book, I could hardly bear to read them, and skimmed them, in a way, almost with one eye closed. The novel will always for me be associated with that part of my life, its loss and regret and expenditure of all emotion, and the restorative power of great fiction.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]