Johnathan Freedland’s always excellent Radio 4 programme The Long View, today compared the loathsome Donald Trump with three previous “outsider”/”celebrity” populists who, at various times, seemed to be potential contenders for the US presidency: William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. All were extreme reactionaries, anti-semites (though there is some evidence that Hearst belatedly changed his attitude towards Jews), and islationists. At various times, all three expressed admiration for Hitler.
In fact, only Lindbergh got anywhere near to being a serious political force, and in his brilliant book The Plot Against America Philip Roth creates a convincing alternative history in which Lindbergh won the Republican nomination in 1940 and went on to defeat Roosevelt in that year’s election.
Freedland reminded listeners that a recording of Lindbergh’s September 11 1941 Des Moines anti-war speech can still be heard. A terrifying forewarning of what Trump now parades before the American people and the real threat he poses to the whole world:
I know that the great Alan Rickman deserves to be remembered as the superb serious actor he was:
H/t Ruth Cashman
… but I can’t resist him as the pantomime villain, and as far as I’m concerned it’s no disrespect at all to remember him as a wonderful, OTT ham
Also, by all accounts, a good guy (an active member of the Labour Party and supporter of many worthy causes).
RIP Alan Rickman.
Guardian obit here
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots. Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians. Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration. Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers. The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.
The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).
It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.
As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.
We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.
It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.
Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..
Joe, his ally, does his best:-
he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.
Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-
As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).
the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.
The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-
Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:
—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.
(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).
He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:
—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…
He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.
It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.
An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.
Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”
He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”
The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”
1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)
The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-
.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…
Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.
Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”
2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-
The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.
Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?
Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).
William McIlvanney 25 Nov 1936 – 5 Dec 2015: writer, thinker, poet of ‘Tartan noir.’
Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy.
Last night and this morning hadn’t helped. He had finally left Bob Lilley and the rest still on the surveillance in Dumfries. On the strength of solid information, they had followed the car from Glasgow. By a very devious route it has taken them to Dumfries. AS far as he knew, that was where it was still parked — in the waste lot beside the pub. Nothing has happened. Instead of catching them in the act of breaking in, three hours of picking your nose. He has left them to it and come back to the office, gloom sweet gloom.
It was strange how this recurring feeling had always been a part of him. Even when he was a child, it had been present in its own childish form. He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled. Then it had been bats and bears, wolves running round the wallpaper. The spiders were the worst, big, hairy swines, with more legs than a chorus-line.
Now the monsters were simultaneously less exotic and less avoidable. He was drinking too much — not for pleasure, just sipping it systematically, like low proof hemlock. His marriage was a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal down which he and Edna had wanered separately, meeting occasionally in the children. He was a policeman, a Detective Inspector, and more and more he wondered how that had happened. And he was nearly forty.
* Guardian appreciation here
Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP
The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.
What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
I urge you to read the whole thing, here.
I’ve just heard the news of the death of Robert Conquest, historian, entertaining right-winger, debunker of liberal pro-Stalinist mythology, and master limerikician. I shall write more, in due course, about Conquest’s politics and his role as a historian. But, for now, let’s just enjoy his limericks …
… all of which brings me on to the true limerick – lewd, obscene and offensive – and the widely-acknowledged master of the genre, Robert Conquest. To the best of my knowledge, Conquest’s limericks have never been published in a proper collected edition, though several have appeared in his friend Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs and Collected Letters.
Here are some of the best:
A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite.
Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.
There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.
That snobbish surrealist, Garsall,
Once did himself up in a parcel;
He addressed it ‘Lord Garsall,
The Keep, Garsall Castle’
And mailed it first-class up his arsehole.
There was old Scot named McTavish
Who went for an anthropoid ravish
But the object of rape was the wrong sex of ape
So the anthropoid ravished McTavish
Possibly my favourite, entitled AT THE ZOO:
There was plenty of good-natured chaff
When I popped in to fuck the giraffe,
And the PRZS
Could hardly suppress
A dry professorial laugh.
Kingsley Amis wrote a follow-up:
When I came back to roger the gnu
I was scarcely delayed coming through,
and the staff – most polite –
cried, “please stay overnight”,
it’s a priviledge granted to few.
Salman Rushdie slams the “pussies”, some of whom are (or were) friends of his:
“If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name,” Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
This speech is simply superb:
The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.
What Must Be Said
by Günter Grass
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel’s atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
wil not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I’ve broken my silence
because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:
There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.
Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:
To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.
I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.
Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:
OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.
This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.
A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.
On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.
Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.