The Revolt of the Pendulum, p.1Clive James
A commentator has indeed great temptations to supply by turbulence what he wants of dignity, to beat his little gold to a spacious surface, to work that to foam which no art or diligence can exalt to spirit.
Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare
Many times, unsettled by his own astonishment, Golo Mann returned to the question of how, in the 1960s, there could have been such a remarkable renaissance of Marxism, whose recipe for health had already, for a generation, been laden with intellectual compromise and victims by the million. To him, it was as if a spectre had reawakened. And if that filled him with anxiety, he also had the counter-spectre before his eyes, together with the knowledge that it had been in their competition with each other that they had both first grown strong. From the common experience of the older generation, the ruins and the traces of suffering were still visible, indeed written in the wind. Most frightening of all, it had become obvious that no historical disaster could quell the longing for one or another of the world-burning ideologies; that even the bloodiest of evidence could do nothing against it; and that there seemed to be no horizon where such a no-man’s-land might end.
Joachim Fest, Begegnungen
Originating in my homeland, like the smile of Kylie Minogue and Rod Laver’s cross-court running forehand, the phrase ‘the revolt of the pendulum’ is an invention surely destined to conquer the world. In Australia in late 2007, when the Liberal government of John Howard, after eleven years in power, was finally replaced by the Labor government of Kevin Rudd, a Liberal Party politician said that the change had not been a landslide victory for the incoming party. He said that it was just ‘the revolt of the pendulum’. He was right, but his language was imprecise. A pendulum doesn’t revolt. But it does swing, and a swing of the pendulum was the most that had happened. The change took place within the limits of modern democratic politics, in which one party concerned with national wealth and public welfare contends against another party concerned with the same two things, but in different proportions.
This is the balance which obtains in the three leading English-speaking democracies, the US, the UK and Australia, and we usually measure the other English-speaking democracies, and all the non-English-speaking democracies, by the extent to which they come near equalling it, or at least aspire to. There may be more than two main parties, but if there are fewer than two, namely one, then we are usually talking about an elected dictatorship which won’t be liberal, and will be democratic only in the sense that the people periodically get a chance to re-elect their oppressor. A free liberal democracy in its full sense is governed by the pendulum. It might fall short of the principles of justice enunciated by John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, but if its government can be changed at the whim of the people then it fulfils the minimum requirement of a liberal democracy set by Karl Popper in his years of exile to faraway New Zealand, an open society where he was free to consider how human liberty could best hold its enemies at bay. When Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history, he was really talking about the arrival of a general recognition – spurred by the full development and final discrediting of the horrors unleashed by some of the alternatives – that the free liberal democracy was the most desirable state. He was right to the extent that the argument was settled. He was wrong only in supposing that history might listen.
Devoid of a mind of its own, history doesn’t care about a reasonable conclusion. Unfortunately both parts of that sentence apply to many of the public intellectuals who concern themselves with world affairs. For them, a political system which has attained a condition of vibrating stasis provides an insufficient resonance. Briefly, they find it boring. Bored, they play with fire. Those on the left, almost invariably living in a liberal democracy or something like it, would prefer to believe that the liberal democracies, by their nature, are invariably the instigators of any contrary forces that might arise. In the same free countries, those on the right would prefer to believe that liberal democracy must modify its system of justice in order to defend itself against extremism. (They don’t see themselves as extremists, although they patently are.) Faced, in the democracy we happen to inhabit, with these two contrary aberrations, we are forced to conclude that the old system of placing the intellectual life of liberal democracy on a continuum from left to right is obsolete.
Such a conclusion, if all could reach it, would usefully reflect the facts about the whole life of liberal democracy, the chief fact being that it can no longer be viewed as being on a continuum either: ever since Nazi totalitarianism and Communist totalitarianism stood revealed as being essentially similar, the old tripartite horizontal distinction, with liberal democracy in the middle, has looked less and less realistic. Better to think of liberal democracy as the breathable atmosphere of a planet. Above the breathable atmosphere there is an unbreathable stratosphere called extremism, trying to get in. In this stratosphere of extremism, suffocating and invasive, what used to be the far left and what used to be the far right are continuous. The extremes not only touch, they blend. In that sense, and in that sense only, totalitarianism has finally become global. On the ground, it has only a few states left to call its own. But in the air, it is everywhere.
It would be a good thing if the word ‘extremist’ could be taken up more widely to denote any movement which wants to deal with a contradictory opinion by silencing the voice that dares to utter it. Among my own friends, there are several who would have been less likely to be falsely branded as ‘Islamophobes’ if they had inveighed, not against Islamism, but against Islamic extremism. The word ‘Islam’ and the word ‘Islamism’ are easily confused, especially by those who have an interest in confusing them. The term ‘Islamic extremism’ more intelligibly says what is meant. Islamic extremists want to silence all opposition. Especially they want to silence opposition within Islam. By saying that Islamism is the enemy of Islam you are positively asking to be misunderstood. By saying that Islamic extremism is the enemy of Islam, you are clearly opening the way for a salient fact: there are more than a billion Muslims in the world who don’t want to kill you for your opinions. Those who do are a minority, which can just as easily – more easily, one would have thought – be called uncharacteristic as characteristic. As minorities go, it is quite large, but it is a very small proportion of the total population from which it emerges. That fact should gives us cause for hope. The Islamic extremist minority’s depredations against the interests of the hated West might get a less clear run if they are seen to injure the interests of the Islamic majority as well. Some evidence for the hope’s being well founded is already in, and has been generated under conditions that could scarcely be more intense.
When people are ready to risk their lives to argue for tolerance, those of us who are running no risk at all should be slow to insult them by treating our freedom to conduct reasoned argument as if it were of negligible value. Better to think of it as valuable beyond price: the only guarantee of a decent life for all. If those of us growing old behind the safety of a desk are still hungry for adventure, there is a battlefield before our eyes. It comes to us as an unrelenting barrage of print and images. It won’t kill us any faster than time does, but if we don’t play our part then others will surely suffer, because although comprehension might have no direct effect, incomprehension will always have its consequences. Either we make the best sense we can of what we see and hear, or we have done less than nothing. Not a very daring aim, perhaps, but it has sustained me while I have been putting this book together. My own story, as usual, is the wellspring of what I have written: my own story with all its trivialities, petty ambitions, sad deficiencies, ludicrous failures and negligible victories, all these things the product of a curiosity t
Most of the essays in this book were written as book reviews or commissioned pieces since my last collection of critical prose, The Meaning of Recognition, came out in 2005. Some of them, in their origins, date from slightly earlier, because they were begun while my later book Cultural Amnesia was being composed, and for a while I thought that the themes they contained might be incorporated into it. In each case, after I decided that an essay deserved a separate life apart from that book, I developed it as an individual piece and found a home for it in a suitably receptive periodical, whether in Britain, Australia or the USA. If I received any requests from periodicals in Ireland, Canada, South Africa, India or New Zealand I would certainly consider them. The idea of an Anglosphere, or international English-language commonwealth, seems very real to me: a sign, in fact, that the old Empire was something better than an aberration, if somewhat less than an ideal.
One of the privileges of my position as a living relic of literary journalism is that I can sometimes peddle a finished article rather than just wait to be offered a commission. The range of publications in which I might pull such a trick has thankfully widened in recent times, and not just because my market value has gone up pro rata with the increasing curiosity generated by my continued ability to breathe. The actual number of suitable publications has increased. In Australia, for example, the Australian Literary Review, in its latest form, has at last been given the editorial resources befitting its status as a supplement to the country’s leading newspaper. Rupert Murdoch will be able to brandish a copy of it when he arrives at the pearly gates and St Peter asks him whether he really thinks his proprietorship of the News of the World qualifies him for entry. And the current-affairs magazine the Monthly, carrying the flag of the new and vigorous Black Inc. publishing empire, has room for the longer article in a way that the now defunct Bulletin rarely did. It’s always good to know that such specialist magazines as the Australian Book Review and Quadrant and the Griffith Review are widely read in the universities, but the Australian Literary Review and the Monthly are right out there on the newsstands, and the newsstands are where I like to operate if I can. Australia, by now, does the intellectual magazine well, but it’s the commercial magazine for the general audience which carries the bigger prize: a readership whose attention is not automatically conferred, but has to be won.
In Britain, Prospect now has a rival, called Standpoint, on the other side of the political centre; so now there are two newsstand magazines in search of the longer essay. Two buyers are enough to create a seller’s market. Sometimes it takes only one: under their current editorship, the cultural pages of the New York Times are wide open to critical prose written at the highest level, and a literary journalist would have to be crazy not to try getting in. The question remains, however, of what one is trying to sell. I hope the pieces in this book add up to an answer. One either does this kind of thing as journey-work, or else one tries to convey a viewpoint. For the old sweat, the chief advantage of having been around the block a few times is that he develops a viewpoint anyway, just to make sense of the era that he has succeeded in living through. Sometimes he has succeeded in nothing else, but a grizzled enough veteran will congratulate himself on having survived to be issued with a Freedom Pass.
Armed with such experience – which, appropriately nuanced, can be made to sound edifying if not dramatic – it becomes difficult to avoid writing essays. The obituaries alone would keep me busy, and there is also the necessity to bark for the various activities by which I supplement my pension now that I am no longer a wage-earner on main-channel television. Whether I go on stage alone or tour with my song-writing partner Pete Atkin, I have to send out my handbills if I am to do my share of filling the house in the next town. Writing such material could be treated as a formulaic chore but I prefer to give it the works. Some of the results are here, and to any readers who find the intensity of self-promotion embarrassing, I can only say that it seemed to me like a matter of sink or swim. As for my website, www.clivejames.com, it makes no money at all but I have to publicize it if it is not to make even less, and besides, I value my twilight folly too much to sell it short: I have never been more sure of being on to something, even if I still don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s what Prospero called a midnight mushroom. Anyway, my web-spinning needs promotion in the MSM (mainstream media: yet another set of initials to cope with) along with anything else I get up to in these crowded days of retirement. The wares of Autolycus rattled on his cart, but he still had to cry out that he was there. So writing the next essay is something that one is always doing, like writing the next poem. I just hope I’m getting better at it. Encouraged by the worldwide reception for Cultural Amnesia, I have a second volume of the same proportions in mind, and perhaps even a third, if there is time: but the difference between those projected books and the essays that appear in this book will mainly be a difference of scale. If I hadn’t thought that the pieces here assembled could contain the utmost of what I have to say on their subjects, I wouldn’t have written them. That, in fact, was the attraction: the chance to prove that one’s freedom to reflect on life has not been wasted.
Being so occupied has helped to make for a quick few years. Some of the world events during this period might have seemed slow to unfold. Barack Obama was a full two years on the campaign trail before he won a victory which will seem to history like the work of a moment. The events in Iraq, between 2003 and 2008, gave critics of allied intervention plenty of opportunity to say that an unending nightmare had been unleashed. And indeed, for the parents and relatives of the dead soldiers and innocent civilians, there could be no quick end to the agony. But the events themselves, despite every possible blunder having been made by the forces of salvation, turned out to be finite. The decisive moment was in early 2007, and almost all the international commentators missed it. They had made such an investment in the idea of an irreversibly catastrophic intervention that they were disappointed, rather than chastened, by any evidence that Iraqi democracy might be establishing itself even though the word-blind President Bush said it was. When the zealous leaders of the Sunni and the Shia finally started showing less interest in killing each other and more interest in fighting off the attentions of al-Qa’eda, pundits accustomed to placing all blame on America were stuck with a conundrum: reluctant to admit that the Pentagon’s famous ‘surge’ might actually have made a positive difference, they were obliged to entertain the possibility that the Iraqis had their own opinions about the inevitability of a civil war. The blogs coming out of Iraq sent a clear message that for any citizen free to act, the aim was to rebuild. But for most commentators outside the country, the conundrum was too much, and they lapsed into echolalia. To put it bluntly, they had a theory, which was proof against any facts.
The pervasive effect of just such a blind obduracy was one of my themes for Cultural Amnesia. It was also a theme, steadily growing more dominant, in my previous collections of essays, and once again it is a theme here. It’s a perennial theme. I wish it wasn’t, and by that wish I state my difference from all those negligent vigilantes who profess a grand vision of how the world must go. (I wish I had thought of the term ‘negligent vigilantes’, but it was Alain Finkielkraut: fine phrases should never be borrowed without acknowledgement.) In the twentieth century, many among even the best-qualified intellectuals thought that liberal democracy either had a natural outcome in Nazi-style fascism or was helpless to oppose it, and that Communism might therefore have credentials as an historical force to shape a just future. Only slowly was
But a sensible viewpoint is not glamorous enough for those who are commanded by a vision, and the vision of the culpable West is now the dominant vision among the intellectuals of the world, and all the more dominant if the West is where they come from. Those of us without that vision must content ourselves with having a viewpoint, which even at its most coherent is nothing more ambitious than a set of views. Any set of views should logically begin with the view that there is something desirable about a political system that leaves us free to have them, even if that system finds it difficult, as it should, to deal with views that are inimical to its existence. In any free nation, for example, there will be eloquent voices to proclaim the virtues of isolationism. And indeed that view is considerable: it can always be plausibly said that the United States would be better off if it had never gone near Iraq. But to say that Iraq would be better off, you need to be pretty detached about what Saddam Hussein and his ineffable sons might have done next, let alone about what they had done already. And to say the same about Darfur, if and when the cavalry rides to the rescue, will take something beyond detachment: it will take a wilful forgetting, a rewriting of the past which will involve yet further reconstruction of the language, so that nothing can be called evil if it is not caused by the only forces that have the power to correct it. Interference will always have a moral cost, and to accept that cost without question will always be callous. The moral cost can even be too high: in retrospect, it might have been better if the people of South Vietnam had been left to their fate, which they would have voted for anyway, just as the people of Czechoslovakia once voted for it, postponing their freedom into the generation after next. But the idea that there need never be a moral cost in leaving things as they are is one that only a visionary could hold. Charles Lindbergh had a vision of isolationism that would have kept America out of World War II. But he could express his vision only as one view among others: the surest sign that his country, when it was drawn into a war against evil, was not entirely evil in itself. It could have been said at the time that America’s only aim was to secure its oil supplies, but it could equally have been said that the GIs were on their way to save the life of Harold Pinter, and that second thing would have been true.
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