In this week's New Statesman: Islamophobia on trial

China's rise, America's fall | Hari Kunzru dances to Kraftwerk | US Writing Special

Breivik's paranoid fantasies

As the trial of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik begins, the New Statesman reflects on the wider ideology, and hatred of multiculturalism, that informed his actions. Read the New Statesman's leader, "The most shocking thing about Breivik is how many agree with his opinions", here.

Without the declaration that Breivik is too insane to stand trial, Daniel Trilling, the author of the forthcoming Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right, writes that we’re forced to ask where such hate doctrine in Europe and the US originates from:

To think that every cultural conservative is a secret extremist or a Breivik-style killer-in-waiting would be [a] paranoid fantasy. But the point about far-right ideology is that it is parasitical on the mainstream. 

The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as “extremists”. The Nazis used anti-Semitism because it already existed in German society. Their successors today use Islamophobia because it already exists in our societies. From a tiny grain of truth – the threat of Islamist terror – has been spun a whole mythology about the imminent collapse of western civilisation and, whether they realise it or not, conservative ideologues are helping spread the poison that enables the far right to grow. 

Elsewhere in the magazine, Peter Wilby considers Islamophobia’s insidious printed form, referring to “studies [that] suggest more than two-thirds of British press stories about Muslims portray them as a threat to British values.”

China's rise, America's fall

The financial crisis has seen the global economy turned on its head. In back-to-back essays this week, the New Statesman charts the economic rise of China against the US’s concurrent decline. 

In “The beginning of a new world order”, the journalist and co-founder of the think tank Demos, Martin Jacques, demonstrates how, as we emerge from the wreckage of the global recession, China - rather than America - is set to dominate through both soft and hard power.

Alongside this, Edward Luce, the author of Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, reveals, from his extraordinary access to Pentagon officials, that even they admit the era of US global dominance is over.

Hari Kunzru dances to Kraftwerk

On 15 April, the novelist Hari Kunzru joined 449 neophiliacs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for one of an eight-night retrospective performance by Kraftwerk, “generally reckoned to be the most influential pop musicians of the past 30 years”. 

Kunzru reconsiders the German electronic outfit’s “rigorous aesthetic modernism” – “They seem to celebrate post-war Europe as perhaps the ultimate “nonplace”, banal but somehow perfected, and sing out its banality as a kind of transcendent pop joy” – and describes the joy instilled in him last Sunday by these four now middle-aged men:

We are experiencing the aural equivalent of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a towering symbol of the New. And we are finding the New quite funky, thank you. The auditorium is soon filled with 450 very lucky New Yorkers succumbing to the sexual discipline of the disco, bodies jerking masochistically to relentless, synthetic, industrial beats.

In the Critics

The bulk of the Critics section this week is devoted to an American writing special. Mark Greif and Heidi Julavits, editors from two of the US’s leading literary periodicals, n+1 and the Believer, examine the recent flourishing of “little magazines” across the Atlantic. “The field of US small magazines has grown in the past few years,” Greif writes – especially magazines perched at the intersection of politics and culture. “The prospects for left-wing cultural life seem more generous in 2012. Maybe that’s because the ethos that you should make art and thought, not to feel like an artist, but because you have something to say, has found an opening in history again.” Julavits is slightly more pessimistic about the prospects for long-form literary and cultural journalism: “No matter how well (or not well) something might be written, the new challenge is this: how much time a reader will read any text before his or her brain flips to another text.”

Also in this US Writing Special, Sophie Elmhirst profiles Jonathan Safran Foer; the novelist and critic Ben Marcus asks why American writers today are obsessed with apocalypse; Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Shalom Auslander about his novel Hope: A Tragedy, in which the protagonist discovers an elderly Anne Frank living in his attic in upstate New York; Olivia Laing reviews The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, a contribution to the debate raging in the US now about “how fictional non-fiction is allowed to be” and Jonathan Derbyshire revisits Michael Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States on the 50th anniversary of its publication. 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus Denis MacShane on the implications for the democratic left if François Hollande is victorious in the French presidential election, Nicholas Wapshott argues that it’s not yet time to write off Mitt Romney, and Mehrezia Labidi, a speaker in Tunisia’s parliament, tells Mehdi Hasan how Islam, feminism and democracy are compatible.

 

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder