I can’t find the full text of Michel Faber’s letter to David Cameron, but the Guardian has excerpted it at length, so I can get an idea of what he’s saying. Faber sent Cameron a copy of his new book in protest against the government’s decision to airstrike ISIS in Syria, adding that ‘a book cannot compete with a bomb in its ability to cause death and misery, but each of us must make whatever small contribution we can, and I figure that if you drop my novel from a plane, it might hit a Syrian on the head.’
In the Guardian piece Faber makes several big assertions. Despite opening a dialogue with Cameron – by writing to him – Faber assumes that ‘the likes of Cameron are not interested in what individuals have to say’, says that the UK has no ‘political class of wisdom and grace’ and also comments upon ‘the sheer indifference that our rulers have to what we might wish and what might actually be the wise and humane thing to do.’ It’s a big statement to make because politicians, although not that interested in individuals, are not such monsters as Faber appears to think – no, seriously, they’re not. The parliamentary debate on Syrian airstrikes featured plenty of doubt and angst from both sides. MPs agonised over the motion because no one likes the idea of blood on their hands. We are governed by human beings. At least we have to behave as if politicians are not always indifferent, or as if they can be shaken from an indifference. Otherwise, why vote? Why campaign for change?
Faber says that ‘the human race, and particularly the benighted political arm of the human race, has learned nothing in 10,000 years, 100,000 years, however long we’ve been waging wars’. Presumably people have learned something about war in 100,000 years – otherwise we’d still be fighting with sticks and stones – but forgive an artist the sweeping generalisations. Faber narrows it down a little: ‘What the west sadly lacks is the humility to accept that it’s actually not in our power to sort out immensely complicated problems in the world.’ All we can do ‘is to make the situation worse by destroying infrastructure, by killing and maiming the citizens of a country that we don’t understand in the least, and radicalising and angering people more than they are already’. He talks of ‘the fantasy we can do something. That there is an HQ of evil somewhere. It’s all so adolescent male, the idea that something goes wrong and you just find out who the bad guy is and take them out, you drop a bomb on them or you blow them up with a gun or something, and that’s it, sorted.’
I’m actually sympathetic to his argument here. Beware implementing what David Allen Green calls the Something Must Be Done Act. I am very uneasy about the use of airstrikes, because of the obvious risk to civilian life. Most people would feel the same. But it is surely the case that doing nothing is also an active choice – and that there’s also an arrogance, and a fantasia, to doing nothing. Faber’s characterisation of Syria as ‘a country that we don’t understand in the least’ strikes me as bizarre in an information age where we can learn more about the Middle East than ever before. You can meet Syrian refugees in any large city, you can talk to the Syrian opposition, go on their websites and find out what they think about the airstrikes and many other things. The agora is open as never before.
But this opposition barely figured in the UK debate beyond the gleeful mockery of Cameron’s 70,000 moderate fighters figure, which STWUK are trying to spin into his ’45 minutes from doom’ soundbite. No one was trying to imagine what it would be like living in an ISIS controlled area, or whether the people living there were really so different to ourselves. Hostility to inward migration and to foreign intervention has grown in the UK at the same time and for the same reason. It’s all so complicated, we’re going to get bogged down and it will cost a lot of money. Easier to turn off the news, close our borders and forget none of this bloodshed and horror is even happening in the world. That attitude got us a refugee crisis that threatened to engulf Europe. As Lenny Henry used to say on Comic Relief: Forget geography. These are your neighbours. And Faber’s belief that airstrikes will attract terrorism to the UK (‘dropping more bombs on Syria is only going to strengthen their resolve’) is intuitive but wrong: the UK exports terror these days. Our cocksure middle-class men slip over the Turkish border to cause havoc and devastation in poor countries.
Writers and artists tend to take the far left, anti war position on these things. Critiquing Faber’s words seemed almost pointless – I kept thinking to myself, he’s a distinguished novelist, he’s obviously going to have these beliefs, and his tone of precious ennui, ersatz world-weariness and macabre irony is of a piece with that. Most of the poets, writers, performance artists and radical publishing people I know think the same. I think that, again, it’s a matter of intuition, that creative people believe that they need to take these reflexive positions, as if not to do so could compromise their creative selves. Maybe I’m wrong, but it would explain why they seem so damn sure of themselves – it’s been said before that all the laser-eyed raging certainty in this debate came not from the warmongers but the men and women who said they were all about peace and humanity and virtue. This is a shame because although Faber is maybe right that literature can’t change what happens in the world, I think creative people have potentially a lot of insight and value to put into these debates.
I would like, at some point, to have that kind of conversation.