Eve Garrard has a post up at Normblog on the reluctance of many media organisations to use the word "terrorist" and its cognates. She dismantles fairly comprehensively the justification given by Don Wycliff of the Chicago Tribune for not using the term. Wycliff's justification went as follows:
Our eschewal of the word "terrorist" was in keeping with a stylebook policy adopted several years ago, a policy that is in keeping with the journalistic purpose of the news pages: to provide as complete, thorough and unbiased an account as possible of the important news of the day.
No intellectually honest person can deny that "terrorist" is a word freighted with negative judgment and bias. So we sought terms that carried no such judgment.
Garrard has a number of criticisms of this reasoning, but the one that interests me concerns the claim that the word "terrorist" has negative moral connotations. That's right, of course, but everyday discourse is saturated with such terms. If we give up "terrorist", then we ought, in all consistency, to give up, inter alia, "rape" and "torture" too. Garrard is charitable enough to assume that this can't be the whole story - the argument is too easily disposed of for Wycliff's case to depend on it alone. So she has a go at making explicit what remains implicit in what Wycliff says. Garrard says:
The only reason I can think of for classifying 'terrorist' as a particularly loaded term is the view that its negative loading is somehow misplaced, that really terrorists don't, or don't always, deserve the negative judgement which that term implies.
I think there's another way the argument could go. This would be to say that "terrorist" functions in our vocabulary of praise and blame in a different way to that in which, say, "rapist" does. On this kind of account, one implication of Wycliff's rationale would be that terms such as "rape" are, as it were, more straightforwardly descriptive, less "freighted" with evaluation, or "bias", than "terrorist". I think that's wrong too, but it opens up a possible reply to Garrard that she doesn't anticipate, for the argument she reconstructs on Wycliff's behalf accepts the "negative loading" of the term, but disputes its applicability in certain (obvious) cases.
Two items of note from today's Le Monde. First, news that a three-hour extract from Claude Lanzmann's monumental film Shoah will be distributed on DVD to 5,500 secondary schools across France. Along with, interestingly enough, 250,000 copies of the Guide républicain. The latter is intended as a tool that will enable teachers to "combat racism, antisemitism and communitarian [or identitarian] deviations". A move that will not further endear the French to the "Islamic Army" in Iraq. The group, which is currently holding two French journalists hostage, has issued a communiqué denouncing numerous French "crimes" against Muslims. These include: preventing the Islamic party in Algeria (the FIS) from taking power after its electorial victory in 1992; supporting the "Zionist entity"; and waging war on the "symbols" of Islam.
"I want to know everything," said Liz Alderman, whose son, Peter, was last seen at a breakfast conference in the north tower. Peter Alderman sent out an e-mail at 9:25 a.m., reporting intense smoke on the 106th floor. What happened after that remains a mystery.
"The most important thing I will never know," Ms. Alderman said. "I won't know how much he suffered and I won't know how he died. I travel back into that tower a lot and I try to imagine, but there is no imagining." ("Falling Bodies, a 9/11 Image Etched in Pain", The New York Times)
Ruth Franklin has an interesting piece in The New Republic Online (available, I think, to non-subscribers) about the absence of a "significant work of fiction" addressing the events of September 11 2001. Of course, as Franklin acknowledges, several writers were guilty of "some ridiculously mannered journalism" in the days and weeks afterwards. She mentions Adam Gopnik's remark that the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like mozarella. One also recalls Jeanette Winterson wringing phrases from the catastrophe. "Touch me," Winterson implored. "Remind me what I am. Remind me that this life is the one we make together... The immensity of this event can only be mirrored in the immensity of who we are". And then there was Martin Amis's notorious description of the planes "sharking in" over Manhattan towards their prey.
There have been poems, plays, short stories about September 11, Franklin notes, but no "big, ambitious novel that deals with the terrorist attacks and their aftermath". She goes on to say what she imagines such a novel would look like:
September 11 was a world-historical event, but in New York--unlike at the Pentagon or the field in Pennsylvania--it was also a local tragedy, one that was felt on the street and in the neighborhoods, from Chinatown to Brooklyn Heights, Staten Island to the Bronx. What it demands is a New York novel, a genre that, like the city itself, has reimagined itself countless times over the last two hundred years of American literary history (and produced some of the greatest American novels) but has yet to adapt to the newly altered landscape.
It's interesting that what Franklin misses is a "big, ambitious novel" - as if more self-effacing, reticent forms of novelistic expression were somehow incapable of representing or otherwise addressing this enormity. One suspects, therefore, that she might be disappointed by the French writer Frédéric Beigbeder's novel Windows on the World, just published in translation in the UK but, unaccountably, not due to be published in the US until March 2005.
I recently wrote a review ("Towering Voices" - only available to subscribers) of Windows on the World in which I argued that it was precisely Beigbeder's tact, the smallness of his novel, that was impressive and moving. I wrote:
Beigbeder doesn't expand on the enormous spectacle of destruction. [This is, I think, what Franklin wants the 9/11 New York novel to do: as it were, to parse the symbolism of the disaster and to bring news of the "newly altered landscape".] Instead he tries to imagine his way into ... hidden places, by representing the dead as if they were speaking from beyond the grave. ... [H]alf of Windows on the World is narrated by Carthew Yorston, a Texan real estate agent and divorcé, who has brought his two sons for breakfast in the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. We know from the beginning that they have less than two hours to live... - but "so much the better", the other narrative voice, Beigbeder's own, interjects. "This isn't a thriller; it is simply an attempt - doomed, perhaps- to describe the indescribable." ... Beigbeder risk[s] unoriginality of feeling and plainness of expression here, and the novel is all the more affecting and disconcerting for it.
It's the half of the novel told in Beigbeder's own voice that is most problematic. Unfortunately, a paragraph in which I set out some of my reservations was cut:
There is too much bavardage here, too many riffs on the "smouldering ruins of materialism" [is this what Franklin is after?]. These passages, which read like off-cuts from Beigbeder's previous novel about the advertising industry, £9.99, are not just unoriginal and unilluminating, they also infringe the self-denying ordinance from which the novel derives its power. "If you want to unravel the geopolitical tangle of terrorism", he says at one point, "call the offices of Spengler, Huntington, Baudrillard, Adler, Fukyama, Revel ..." But Beigbeder has been fatally tempted by talk, as if ultimately he can't quite accept that it is better to leave the reader to imagine the "slow agonies" of the victims, than to show them or to embalm them in analysis.
Interestingly, Josh Lacey, in his Guardian review, makes precisely the opposite complaint. In fact, he goes so far as to charge Beigbeder with cowardice:
Beigbeder is a smart, sarcastic writer who likes to shock; confronted by 9/11, he is not only cowed, but cowardly. When he comes to the climax of his novel -the deaths of his characters, the collapse of the north tower - he refuses to write about it. The pages are scarred with odd unexplained interventions - "(paragraph cut)" and "(page cut)" - which look like the work of an editor, but actually seem to represent Beigbeder's choice to step away from his keyboard. But if you are going to attempt to write the unwritable, why give up at the vital moment?
That's a very serious charge, and I think it's misplaced - though Lacey's (unstated) reasons for making it are worth thinking about. He is taking for granted the right of the novelist to venture into forbidden or tabooed places. And his gloss on the novel leaves out Beigbeder's agonised wrestling with the idea that the suffering and death of the victims are the novelist's to possess. Beigbeder writes:
I have cut out the awful descriptions. I have not done so out of propriety, nor out out of respect for the victims, because I believe that describing their slow agonies, their ordeal, is a mark of respect. I cut them because, in my opinion, it is more appalling still to allow you to imagine what became of them.
Beigbeder takes seriously, as Lacey does not, what J.M Coetzee -or rather Coetzee's fictional heroine Elizabeth Costello- has called "the forbiddenness of forbidden places". It's a measure of Beigbeder's seriousness, it seems to me, that he is caught -and recognises that he is caught- between the essentially Romantic notion that the "only interesting subjects are those which are taboo" and the idea, due to Theodor Adorno among others, that some events, some enormities, simply defy representation and that it is blasphemous to try to represent them. Norman Geras has a very important piece on just this question which I commend and endorse.
None of [the] criticism of the Beslan atrocity, and of the kind of terrorism it exemplifies, in any way justifies or excuses the fact that Russia has been fighting an incredibly brutal, destructive, and often appalling war in Chechnya, marked by extensive atrocities (on both sides!), massive civilian deaths, and pervasive violations of the laws of war, including murder, rape and kidnapping of civilians by Russian troops and security services. However, the opposite is also true. Nothing about the Russian war in Chechnya in any way justifies or excuses this kind of terrorist massacre, which ought to be unreservedly condemned whatever one thinks about the Chechen war.
But read the whole thing.
ADDENDUM: Princeton University Press is currently displaying a sample chapter from Michael Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil: Politics in an Age of Terror. I intend to blog about this important book soon. In the meantime, read it yourselves, if you haven't done so already.
BBC 4 showed a rather splendiddocumentary about P.G. Wodehouse last night. It was aired to coincide with the publication of Robert McCrum's equally splendid Life. My review of McCrum's book will appear in the next issue of the literary magazine Zembla; I reproduce it here.
WODEHOUSE: A LIFE
“I go off the rails,” P.G. Wodehouse once confided to a friend, “unless I stay all the time in a sort of artificial world of my own creation.” Wodehouse was referring, of course, to what George Orwell called the “peculiar mental atmosphere” of his fiction – the unchanging pastoral idyll of lunatic aunts, unsuitable cousins and whisky-and-soda at six; but he could just as well have been talking about his own conduct during the Second World War, the murkiness of which once threatened permanently to stain his reputation as the presiding comic genius of English letters.
In this magisterial new “Life”, Robert McCrum shows convincingly that Wodehouse’s disastrous decision to make wartime broadcasts from Berlin in exchange for release from a Nazi internment camp was an act of moral negligence rather than the behaviour of a genuine Quisling. Wodehouse, he says, was “at heart an Edwardian”, and when the modern world impinged upon him so brutally, it was almost predictable that he should go “off the rails” as he did. And that out-of-timeness, McCrum argues, is also the key to understanding the books, which oughtn’t to be obscured by their author’s frivolous and stupid blunder.
McCrum’s treatment of those books is enhanced by the fact that he eschews the fawning and excessive veneration of previous biographies of Wodehouse - he doesn’t refer to him as “The Master” for a start. Admittedly, he does think that Wodehouse “transformed comic prose into a kind of poetry”, but unlike other card-carrying Wodehousians, he doesn’t claim that this merits his subject a place in the pantheon somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. A better comparison, says McCrum, is with the miniaturism and narrowness of Jane Austen.
That judicious and suggestive parallel is entirely characteristic of McCrum’s scrupulous approach. He’s mostly resistant to the temptations of psycho-biography too, briefly mentioning rather than endorsing, for example, the thesis that an early attack of mumps stunted Wodehouse’s libido. McCrum is more interested in the technical challenges which the excision from his stories of all mention of sex posed for Wodehouse. And his analyses of Wodehouse’s fictional method are buttressed by a very rich description of the upper-middle class, minor public school milieu on which the novelist drew in order to create a “lunatic Eden”, whose gentle but fanatically tended acres are among the most hospitable and welcoming in the entire canon of English literature.
ADDENDUM: Backword Dave has some interesting things to say about Stephen Fry's Observer review of McCrum's book. Like McCrum and Fry, Dave considers Wodehouse a "very, very great writer".
[T]here is not just an equivalence, but a blend, between the Islamism that condemns the Western liberal democracies and the international pseudo-Left intelligentsia that condemns them as well. ... We can be certain ... that the performance of the Western intelligentsia has never been worse. Before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes, the intelligentsia was merely deluded. After the collapse of the World Trade Center, it has gone haywire. Essentially a branch of the home entertainment industry, the Left intelligentsia circulates, almost entirely for its own consumption, opinions even more contemptuous of ordinary people than used to prevail on the Right.
Yesterday, in the wake of the Beslan school horror, the historian Corelli Barnett more or less blamed the crisis on the war against terror itself. His thesis was that, since September 11th, the actions of the West (and particularly the Americans) had made things far, far worse.
The problem with this is the simple one that the war with terror was declared by terror itself. Declared in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, declared in New York on 11 September. It wasn't until 11 September, however, that we began to appreciate the scale of what was already happening. The idea that, had we negotiated with the Taliban, left Saddam in place and put more pressure on Sharon to settle, kids would now be safe in North Ossetia, is just wishful thinking.
UPDATE: Eric the Unread, whose blog I'm adding to my links, deals with the Corelli Barnett piece referred to by Aaronovitch.
The fate of the two French journalists held hostage in Iraq remains uncertain. Their Islamist captors have said that French citizens were targeted on account of the new law in France banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in schools (it is not, by the way, a law banning the hijab in particular, though the BBC, for instance, persists in describing it as such). Now, one side-effect of this has been the dissolution of the fallacy that a country's foreign policy, specifically its stance towards the United States, somehow determines its vulnerability or otherwise to Islamist terror. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde, put this very well in a piece last Monday.
The terrorist war in the name of Islam affects, as we've known since day one, all democracies. No-one is safe from it, no diplomacy can hope to constitute a kind of Maginot Line that would better protect us than our Spanish or Italian neighbours from the will to death that has been unleashed since September 11 2001. We reach here the limits of the anti-Americanism which has too often taken the place of French foreign policy.
Colombani knows that this anti-American or anti-Atlanticist strain in French foreign policy predates the presidency of George W. Bush. For example, before the transatlantic imbroglio of Autumn 2002, former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin offered the following summary of Franco-American relations: ‘When cooperation with the United States proves difficult, shouldering the burden of disagreement with them is inscribed in the French model.’ On this view, France owes its global influence to its readiness to play gadfly to the American leviathan – in contrast, according to Jospin, to its neighbours, who find it ‘culturally’ more difficult to take such a stance. (This is especially true of Britain, which, simply in virtue of being ‘anglo-saxon’, is unable to distinguish its interests from those of the US; it is arguably less true than it once was, however, of Germany, whose reinvention as a ‘normal nation’ requires that it be prepared occasionally to oppose America.) Moreover, the model described by Jospin itself predates the emergence of the United States as the world’s only ‘hyperpower’. After World War Two, de Gaulle insisted that one of the conditions of renewed ‘national grandeur’ was an independent foreign policy, the main planks of which were establishment of a French nuclear force de frappe and withdrawal from the military command structure of NATO. The aim was to ensure that ‘the whole world ... ha[d] its eyes fixed on France.’ This remains the major desideratum of French diplomacy today.
But, of course, the French ‘exception’ in international affairs is a myth: France is not a world power and the sooner its political elite gives up that illusion the better. De Gaulle’s largely symbolic defiance of the United States didn’t prevent France from showing practical solidarity with the Americans throughout the Cold War, notably during the Cuban missile crisis. And there was never any question of France leaving NATO altogether, even if American bases on its soil were closed. More recently, the vapid Gaullisms of Mitterand and Chirac provided the background music to French participation in the first Gulf War and the intervention in Kosovo.
That execration of American hegemony is fiercer in Paris than in other European capitals can be explained, in part, by the particular circumstances of France’s abrupt demise as a major power after 1940. For the French, liberation by the Western allies in 1944 was a humiliation nearly every bit as severe as occupation. The extent of France’s decline was measured out in the remedial financial aid provided after the war by the Marshall Plan. As François Mauriac put it at the time, in the space of four years France had passed from being a nation in control of its own destiny to being a nation ‘in care’.
Mauriac also observed, however, that ‘at no time in its history has this great Nation, now so small, been so clearly aware of its vocation; whatever human still remains in the relations between people, France incarnates this and knows it.’ Mixed up in French attitudes towards America, therefore, are the folk-memory of humiliation and defeat, enduring resentment at the fact that France emerged from the war as the recipient of American largesse, and what the commentator Jean-Francois Revel derides as ‘French political and cultural narcisissism’. The obsessive reassertion of French uniqueness, in which the essence of France is identified with an idea of the universal (France as la patrie des droits de l’homme), compensates for the loss of power and influence.
Interestingly, this suggests that neo-Gaullist ‘anti-Atlanticism’ is a tributary of a much deeper and older antagonism, the origins of which lie not in surrender and defeat, but in the revolutionary enthusiasms of 1789, and in France's own sense of its 'manifest destiny' to incarnate universal democratic values. (Incidentally, this thesis, or something very much like it, is worked out compellingly and in extraordinary detail in Philippe Roger's remarkable book L'ennemi américain, which didn't receive the attention in the English-speaking world it deserved.)
The current issue of Dissent reprints the following manifesto published by a group of French Muslims. It clearly merits wider dissemination.
Le Manifeste des libertés
We are women and men of Muslim culture. Some of us are believers, others are agnostics or atheists. We all condemn firmly the declarations and acts of misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that we have heard and witnessed for a while now here in France and that are carried out in the name of Islam. These three characteristics typify the political Islamism that has been forceful for so long in several of our countries of origin. We fought against them there, and we are committed to fighting against them again-here.
Sexual Equality: A Prerequisite for Democracy
We are firmly committed to equal rights for both sexes. We fight the oppression of women who are subjected to Personal Status Laws, like those in Algeria (recent progress in Morocco highlights how far Algeria lags behind), and sometimes even in France via bilateral agreements.* We believe that democracy cannot exist without these equal rights. Accordingly, we unambiguously offer our support for the "20 ans, barakat!" (20 years is enough!) campaign of the Algerian women's associations, demanding the definitive abolition of the two-decades-old family code.
It is also for this reason that we oppose wearing the Islamic head scarf, even if among us there are differing opinions about the law banning it from schools in France. In various countries, we have seen violence or even death inflicted on female friends or family members because they refused to wear the scarf. Even if the current enthusiasm for the head scarf [among some Muslims] in France was stimulated by discrimination suffered by immigrant children, this cannot be considered the real cause of the desire to wear it; nor can memories of a North African lifestyle explain it. Behind this so-called "choice" demanded by a certain number of girls is the promotion of a political Islamic society based on a militant ideology which aims to promote actively values to which we do not subscribe.
For Islamic fundamentalists (as for all machos and fundamentalists), "being a man" means having power over women, including sexual power. In their eyes, any man who favors equality of the sexes is potentially subhuman, or "queer." This way of thinking has proliferated since the rise of political Islamism. Its ferocity is equaled only by its hypocrisy. One of the organizers of the demonstration on Saturday, January 17, 2004, in favor of the head scarf declared that "It is scandalous that those who claim to be shocked by the head scarf are not shocked by homosexuality." Undoubtedly he thinks that a virtuous society hides women behind head scarves or puts homosexuals behind bars, something we have already seen happen in Egypt.
We shudder at what the triumph of these attitudes implies for "shameless" persons in society-like women who fail to wear the head scarf or homosexuals or non-believers.
In contrast, we believe that recognition of the existence of homosexuality and the freedom for homosexuals to live their own lives as they wish represent undeniable progress. As long as an individual-heterosexual or homosexual-does not break the laws protecting minors, each person's sexual choices are his or her own business and do not concern the state in any way.
Finally, we condemn firmly the anti-Semitic statements made recently in speeches in the name of Islam. Just like "shameless" women and homosexuals, Jews have become the target: "They have everything and we have nothing," was something that we heard in the demonstration on January 17. We see the use of the Israel-Palestine conflict by fundamentalist movements as a means of promoting the most disturbing forms of anti-Semitism.
Despite our opposition to the current policies of the Israeli government, we refuse to feed primitive images of the "Jew." A real, historical conflict between two peoples should not be exploited. We recognize Israel's right to exist, a right recognized by the PLO congress in Algiers in 1988 and the Arab League summit meeting in Beirut in 2002. At the same time, we are committed to the Palestinian people and in support of their right to found a state and to be liberated from occupation.
Islam has not received sufficient recognition in France. There is a lack of places to pray. There are not enough chaplaincies nor enough cemeteries. We are aware that young French people, the sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants, are still held back socially and suffer discrimination. All monitoring bodies recognize this. Consequently, "French-style" secularism has lost a great deal of value in the eyes of these young people. Two possibilities lie before them. They can rediscover the strength of a real, living secularism; that is, political action on behalf of their rights and to demand the social gains fought for by their fathers and mothers-who belonged to social classes, cultures, peoples, and nations before they belonged to Islam. Or they can see themselves in an imaginary, virtual "umma" [Islamic community - Eds.] that no longer corresponds to reality, and then masquerade in republican or tiers-mondistes (third-worldist) rags. This only ends up securing unequal, repressive, and intolerant societies. This latter path cannot be ours.