Diary - Terry Eagleton

The dispiriting news is that we are not going to be wiped out by terrorists, but by bird flu. This i

Fellow conspiracy theorists will have noted that the United States has arranged for Michael Jackson's trial to coincide with the aftermath of the Iraqi elections. This surely can't be accidental. Distracting the public from Iraq with a sex-and-celebrity spectacle beats any of Alastair Campbell's crafty synchronies. Actually, the two farces are not all that dissimilar. Both are about American narcissism and egomania, not to speak of the damage to the innocent (alleged, in Jackson's case), which stems from being cocooned in your fantasies of omnipotence. Bush hasn't got round to dangling Rumsfeld off a hotel balcony yet, but it's surely only a matter of time.

Like a lot of NS readers, I've knocked on doors at election time, though from a Labour viewpoint the time it takes to walk up the drive is usually a fair indication of whether it's worth the trouble. Iraqi parties, just like those over here, plan to ferry their voters to the polls, only in Humvees rather than family Fords. Voters clad in body armour with blankets over their heads will be whisked into polling booths like serial killers into courthouses. It never happened this way in East Grinstead. Once in the booth, they will confront a list of candidates identified, for security purposes, only by a few tantalising details: "Slim, easygoing 32-year-old pro-invasion Shia ready to fulfil your most shameful political fantasies". As voters emerge from the polling station, the Sunni masquerading as a party rep will draw a silent finger across his throat. Meanwhile, some of the 200,000 or so refugees from Fallujah now rotting in camps outside their devastated city could be drafted in to make tea in the committee rooms. The whole ghastly charade is almost as depressing as trying to drum up support for George Galloway in Gerrards Cross.

All the papers have noted the number of times Bush used the word "freedom" in his inaugural speech, or sometimes "liberty". (Who said he was semantically impoverished?) He was right to hammer it home, since "freedom" is the most usefully ambiguous term in the political lexicon. It has both a high-minded spiritual sense and a low-minded material one, so you can appear to mean the first while intending the second. Freedom is a precious human right . . . and a rationale for incinerating small children. The lost souls of Guantanamo thirst for it, and small farmers are bankrupted in its name. The language of freedom is one of the few to be spoken with equal fluency by archbishops and casino owners, oilmen and Oxford philosophers. No one is against it, which is exactly what is so vacuous about it. What will destroy us is not mean-minded materialism, but visionary idealism.

Or if not that, then parrots. The most dispiriting news this week is that we are not going to be wiped out in a terrorist attack. Instead, we are going to be wiped out by bird flu. This is a far less satisfactory prospect. There's a smack of high melodrama about being slain for being imperialist infidels by mad-eyed Islamic fundamentalists, whereas being done in by birds is simply embarrassing. The government is considering inflatable mortuaries, which is only one step away from disposable graveyards. Keep a close eye on that budgie.

It seems that I've been dropped as a book reviewer by the Irish Times for daring to criticise Seamus Heaney. He lent his bardic seal of approval to an unctuously self-congratulatory ceremony in Dublin some months ago, at which a handful of new members were triumphally admitted to the EU on second-class terms. The Phoenix Park was full of beaming, backslapping Irish political boyos; and army officers shouted orders in Irish, just to prove that the nation cherishes its unique identity at the very moment when it's busting a gut to look exactly like Switzerland. Meanwhile, the Gardai were beating up protesters outside. Irish writers haven't on the whole marched or spoken out on Iraq (they come to London for posh dinners, not demos), but they'll declaim poems celebrating a club that cripples the world's poor with its tariffs, because that's not political, you see.

So I wrote a poem for the Irish Times's literary pages satirising this grisly event, which they published, I suspect, only because they hadn't a clue what it was about. Once the penny dropped, all review copies and telephone calls ceased instantly. This is a splendid thing. In the old Ireland, you were censored for criticising the Virgin Mary. Now it's Seamus Heaney. That's progress.