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Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name

The “historian of the present” Timothy Garton Ash claims to look at the world with unflinching hones

There is a widely held view that print journalism is a dying industry, and it is easy to think of reasons why newspapers should cease to be the medium through which we find out what is happening in the world. The internet and free news-sheets are edging newspapers out of that business. Technology, recession and the expanding freebie economy seem likely to push the process further. Despite grand claims for citizen journalism, the likely result is a loss of quality in reportage and an overall decline in newspapers as cultural institutions.

Against this rather dreary background, it is pleasant to find one of the most exotic varieties of journalism flourishing in Britain. We tend to think of the feuilleton as a continental European literary diversion, a melange of impressionistic observation and reflection ill-suited to buttoned-up Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, especially in these straitened times. When done by a gifted and knowledgeable writer, however, the feuilleton can show what newspapers, and newspapers alone, can achieve – even in a culture that is supposed to be inhospitable to this kind of writing. Describing the pieces collected in Facts Are Subversive, Timothy Garton Ash writes: “I conceive these mini-essays as an English version of the journalistic genre known as a feuilleton; a discursive, personal exploration of a theme, often light-spirited and spun around a single detail, like the piece of grit that turns oyster to pearl. Or so the feuilletonist fondly hopes.”

Deploying “the mongrel craft that I have practised for over 30 years, combining scholarship and journalism”, Garton Ash achieves something that neither the reporter nor the academic can normally attempt. He gives us a “history of the present”, in which the struggles captured in the instant news media become chapters in narratives that reach back through the generations and centuries. But his aim is to do more than tell a story, however gripping and illuminating. He wants to add to what he calls “the literature of fact” – a type of writing that invokes verifiable truths about the world, and presents them in a style of unflinching honesty that he calls veracity. As examples of what he means by veracity, he mentions George Orwell and Primo Levi, true witnesses of their time. I would add to this list Joseph Roth, whose wonderful despatches from interwar Berlin and Paris – published in English as What I Saw and The White Cities respectively – have the same bittersweet flavour of unmistakable truthfulness.

Most of the shorter pieces originated as columns in the Guardian, others as pieces in the New York Review of Books, and some as lectures; all of them first appeared between 2000 and 2009. These “mini-essays” are diverse in their subject matter, which includes upheaval in post-communist countries; Britain’s equivocal relationship with Europe; America’s changing position in the world; Islamism, terrorism and secularism; dictatorship and the “army-state” in Burma; millenarian democracy in Iran; and the intellectual and moral contributions of Orwell, Günter Grass and Isaiah Berlin. But these themes were not selected semi-randomly, because they have been topical. They address some of the defining issues of the era in which we live, and yet show how difficult it is, ultimately, to define this decade. At the same time, they illustrate some of the problems that go with the literature of fact.

Like diplomats, politicians resist any account of the facts that points to irresolvable conflict, because that suggests an implicit recognition of the limits of their skills. Political language tends to avoid such conflicts and so, on the whole, does Garton Ash. But facts are stubborn. Not all problems can be resolved by intelligent compromise; some are not soluble at all. It is part of the literature of fact to recognise this feature of life.

In the years when most of these pieces were written, world events were being shaped by the Bush administration. Whether one belongs in the dwindling band of neocons and muscular liberals who think Bush was on the right track, or agrees with Garton Ash (as I do) that the impact of US policies on the world during these years was “mainly for the worse”, the clear risk is that of exaggerating America’s power. As he asks in the preface, noting that the “decade” with which these essays are concerned may not even have lasted as long as eight years, running as it does from the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 elections, “Is this to overestimate the singular importance of the United States?” Plainly, it is. Even at the start of this short decade, there were many contexts in which US power was incapable of achieving US objectives. Osama Bin Laden was not captured; Iraq proved irreconcilably divided; the much-trumpeted “war on terror” blundered on without any conclusive result.

The danger of political writing in the Bush years was not just that of overestimating US power, however. It was of accepting a parochial and transient US world-view. In focusing so relentlessly on Islamist terrorism, American policymakers and commentators screened out far greater challenges. Climate change and peaking natural resources will undermine global stability in the coming decades more deeply and enduringly than almost any Islamist advance. It is only if some al-Qaeda spin-off gets its hands on nuclear materials and converts them into usable weapons that the world will be changed to a degree that is even remotely comparable.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is entirely real; only fools believe otherwise. But it is just one part of the larger problem of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which will remain and could even grow after networks such as al-Qaeda have ceased to be a global force, as dangerous technologies leak out to criminals, cults and new brands of extremism.

The reception of Garton Ash’s writings on Muslim fundamentalism is instructive in this regard. He provoked a firestorm by suggesting that Muslims in Europe would have to face up to an Enlightenment version of fundamentalism which demanded – as a condition of Muslims being accepted as Europeans – that they renounce their religion in favour of secular humanism. Such a demand was not only patently unrealistic, as Garton Ash himself pointed out, it also smacked of intolerance. Yet these are debates in which anything that looks like – or can be misrepresented as – an assertion of moral equivalence provokes immediate and intense condemnation. In a footnote to the original article, he writes that he has “long since abandoned the term ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’, since it gives rise to the misunderstanding that some symmetry is suggested with ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ – a label now used almost synonymously with ‘terrorist’”.

As far as current discourse is concerned, Garton Ash has a point. Although they are often intolerant, today’s evangelists for secular humanism do not preach or practise violence. As he puts it, “there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford”. On the other hand, the conflation of fundamentalism with terrorism is not supported by the facts. Fundamentalists are by nature illiberal, and most are more than happy to repress the freedom of others, but it is silly to portray them all as terrorists. Very few fundamentalist Christians support the murder of doctors who perform abortions – a type of terrorism that is fortunately rare, but terrorism nonetheless. Again, many Muslim fundamentalists support abhorrent policies against women and gay people, but that does not make them potential recruits to al-Qaeda.

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism, this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing fundamentalisms is real. In this respect, the facts are subversive, and the vagaries of the present discourse should not stand in the way of recognising the facts.

John Gray’s most recent book is “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Allen Lane, £20)

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country