The year of the spat

Ben Coren looks back at the various rows and spats that characterised the UK arts and culture scene

As 2008 looms, the arts media has been busying itself reviewing the cultural highs and lows of the past year.

Despite gloomy news of drastic cuts in arts funding and continued predictions of the death of the book, the general consensus is that 2007 has seen a lot of interesting work produced (although some of it, as our film critic Ryan Gilbey observes, has been hard to find).

But aside from praising or damning individual work, and without meaning to be unduly reductive, what were the trends that summed up 2007?

In the UK, celebrity meltdowns and popular environmentalism were both high on the agenda and we’ve also seen an above average number of spats tangentially linked to issues surrounding freedom of speech and the limits of acceptability.

The year kicked off with a ratings grabbing race row in Celebrity Big Brother (more of the same was to follow in the summer series) and since then new cultural brouhahas have been arriving very regularly. This week the BBC was criticised for editing the word ‘faggot’ out of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and in recent months we’ve had both Mozgate and the Amis/Eagleton controversy to keep us suitably outraged, whichever side we’re on.

Of course, the arts have always been an area where debates over what is permissible are played out and a good cultural/political ruckus certainly makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But an argument could be made that the prevalence of these kinds of stories in 2007 paint a picture of a country with a worryingly uncertain set of attitudes towards what can reasonably be said and what can’t.

Perhaps the spats at least brought such issues to wider attention, but did they generate more heat than light? In the case of several of the controversies most of the debate was conducted not by specialists, or by members of the respective minority communities under discussion, but by white, predominantly male celebrities, which is surely somewhat amiss…

Related
Our comprehensive review of the year in arts and politics.

Critiquing the Critics

One response to all this would be to criticise the media for covering these sensationalised quarrels at the expense of more reflective content. Cultural journalism has itself been at the centre of a diverse range of rows this year, with the critics especially under attack. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, took a swipe at the “dead white men” of theatre criticism and Philip Roth allowed one of his characters a ferocious diatribe against the “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” of all literary journalism in his latest novel, Exit Ghost.

Meanwhile, the Booker Prize Chair Howard Davies infamously railed against the failings of book reviewers and the Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire has recently come over all self-flagellating and lamented that most critics’ tips for bands to watch in 2008 represent an “effort to funnel listeners into pens of the industry's making.”

It is debatable if these events constitute a telling trend of some kind or are just a series of essentially self-contained, unrelated incidents. Comments on this, and on whether interventions like those of Hytner and Davies really do serve to make journalists more self aware, are welcome below.

In any case, despite the criticism, no one’s denying that there is still a lot of very good arts writing around: at the risk of seeming immodest, our own Arts & Books pages currently include interesting pieces by David Hare and Toby Litt and we will endeavour to go on providing the best in arts coverage in 2008.

Related
A recent blog on literary reviews.

News Round Up

This week reality TV, the Golden Globes shortlist, an art heist in Brazil and Amy Winehouse’slatest misdemeanours all generated a lot of coverage, but the most remarkable story must be the news that the planned loan of Russian owned paintings to the Royal Academy may not go ahead, possibly for politically motivated reasons.

Meanwhile, Tory about town & one time NS Theatre Critic Michael Portillo was revealed as the Chair of next year’s Booker panel, and, as the TV networks tried to whip up excitement over their Christmas schedules, The Guardian was keeping things resolutely high-brow, offering blogs on academic obfuscation, neglected Central Asian writers and the death of the cultural elite.

For those of a more spiritual bent, a debate was going on over whether Christmas in the West has become overly secular, while the web hosted an amusing dispatch from the “Mind, Body and Soul Expo” and Franco Zeffirelli announced that he is keen to give the Pope a makeover. Happy holidays.

AKG-IMAGES
Show Hide image

High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times