I’ve made my debut appearance on This Space as Stephen takes issue with my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.
He challenges the last few lines: ‘Oppressors don’t fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator’s placard: ‘WAR MEANS FASCISM’. The truth is the exact reverse’ and asks: ‘Isn’t the reverse true only because the phrase is chiastic?’
Well, what I meant by that was that fascism means war. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, this is true in two senses. Fascism means war because it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. And fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for fascism’s defeat.
Mitchelmore writes that the reception to Human Smoke ‘has been troubling because the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers’ responsibility for more recent atrocities.’ Does this mean what I think it means? The responsibility of literary critics for, say, the bombing of Gaza? Mitchelmore doesn’t spell things out. I suppose that’s for the tribunal to decide when we are all shipped off to the Hague.
For all the reviewers haughty disgust at Baker, the fact is the British did not declare war on Germany to end oppression of European Jewry. Forgive me for repeating the obvious, but it was only when Nazi Germany invaded a sovereign nation that war began.
Well thanks, Steve, but most of us were aware that governments don’t act from simon-pure motivations. But outcomes are more important than motives. It’s possible that Churchill was right for the wrong reasons and Ghandi was wrong for the right reasons. Even Baker’s sources make it clear that non-intervention would have resulted in an imperial carve-up between enduring slave empires. This is William Shirer from page 146:
‘The peace that Hitler offers Britain and France,’ Shirer said, ‘is something like this. Stop fighting – you keep your empires – we won’t bother you. As for Eastern Europe, all the little countries in what was once Poland, well that’s the affair of Germany and Russia. You keep away from there. Peace on that basis is possible.’
You won’t have seen this coming, but Mitchelmore goes on to make parallels between World War Two and Iraq. My review is not a defence of the war on Iraq, but let’s follow his tangent anyway.
It’s worth pointing out too that those, like Max Dunbar, who supported the invasion of Iraq, it wasn’t Saddam’s oppression that prompted the US and UK governments. Indeed, he was toppled at his least oppressive, least dangerous time. In the 80s, at the height of his well-sponsored reign, the powerful whose aggressive policies Dunbar so admires, encouraged a terrible war on Iran and, in order to maintain military support, turned a blind eye to the gassing of civilians that would later be used to back-up spurious warnings of WMD that were themselves used to justify an invasion.
Again, it may stun Mitchelmore to know that the facts around Western support for Saddam, and the true motives behind the 2003 invasion, are available outside the Medialens chatboards. What next? A daring expose on the Pope’s religious orientation? Writing in 2005, British Iraqi writer Huda Jawad argued:
Many supporters of Saddam’s removal were under no illusion as to the motivation of the coalition forces for their adventure in Iraq. But, despite the hypocrisy, historical betrayal, and greedy track record of previous endeavours of ‘freedom’ in my part of the world, I, like many others who despised Saddam and all he stood for, could not help but see the window of opportunity that those in power had conspired to open. Perhaps the thirty-year nightmare of Saddam’s regime could finally come to an end?
Again, it’s outcomes, not motives – although Mitchelmore is on stronger ground in his pessimism about the future of Iraq.
He goes to talk about Iraq’s ‘non-violent resistance,’ citing Chomsky, who in an interview with Iran’s propaganda channel said this:
What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways.
Neither Chomsky nor Mitchelmore give any more details about the nature of this non-violent resistance – I’m assuming they mean organisations like the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and the Union of the Unemployed. I’ve always supported the IFTU rather than the official Glorious Iraqi Resistance™ which spends most of its time killing Iraqis for the political crime of trying to vote or worshipping at the wrong mosque.
Finally, I’m accused of ‘using suggestion’:
For example, Ghandi, he tells us, was ‘a committed racist’. If one decides every pronouncement made by each individual quoted by Baker is relevant then juxtaposition is impossible. Surely that is the point of juxtaposition, or is thinking for one’s self – awareness of resonances and alternatives – problematic for some?
Well, since Baker takes recourse to the private utterances of individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt to support his case, I felt it would be informative to include some background on the ugly side of pacifism. Mitchelmore also upbraids me for using the term ‘lazy moral equivalence’: which is no surprise, as it’s a technique he’s fond of using. Thus: ‘The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia’.
Finally, Mitchelmore claims that ‘oppressors do fear pacifism’, and gives the example of The White Rose movement, a non-violent dissident group in Nazi Germany. They aren’t featured in Human Smoke, and their resistance was more courageous than that of any British or American pacifist, then or now.
(Incidentally, technologically savvy readers can now follow Stephen on his Twitter account, which he’s named ‘Twitchelmore’; a title displaying elements of humour and self-awareness that are entirely absent from the main body of his criticism.)