Fighting talk: Howard Jacobson and John Pilger
Howard Jacobson can't decide whether the West should 'bomb everything everywhere' or 'don't bomb anything anywhere' - and John Pilger calls Blair 'a contemptible opportunist'.
Howard Jacobson: ‘One part of me says “bomb everything everywhere”, and another part of me says “don’t bomb anything anywhere”.’
‘Blair wants to be Mrs Thatcher, he’s always wanted to be Mrs Thatcher. Of course, she can keep the handbag and hair, but Blair has been looking for a way to be her – and now he’s found it.’
Howard Jacobson, novelist, TV presenter and celebrated Jewish funny man, found himself ‘grudgingly impressed’ by Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference on 2 October. ‘He finally found an opportunity for rhetoric, you could see it in his eyes – my moment has come, this is my hour, I am treading the boards of history. Which is, at one and the same time, kind of impressive and gob-smackingly ludicrous.’
According to Jacobson, Blair’s speech might have been ‘in some ways hugely embarrassing, embarrassing on an awkward teenage scale’, but it was also a relief after three weeks of uncertainty since 11 September. ‘It was strong, extravagant, over the top – but we need a bit of that right now. There has been so much dithering and backtracking since 11 September that we were all, like, “It’s been three weeks already and we’re getting bored. Come on, drop a bomb, say something intelligent, come out of the bunker”. So I was half-relieved that here, at last, was a bit of passion.’
Jacobson points out that Blair has ‘taken this opportunity’ to take a step up in ‘big world politics’: ‘You have to remember that he is not just talking to us Brits now, he is talking to the world. In fact, he’s talking to Americans first and to Britons second. Which might end up annoying the American authorities as much as it might annoy his British listeners.’
‘Of course, Blair is exploiting 11 September’, says Jacobson, ‘but tell me: who isn’t? Tell me that the person standing on the street corner for CND, who has suddenly turned up again looking slightly worse for wear and a bit confused, isn’t using it? Everybody is.’
Jacobson says that he might have been impressed by ‘Blair’s swagger’, but it ‘hasn’t really changed his view of Blair or New Labour’. However, there has been a change in Jacobson since 11 September – and the one-time defender of free speech is now willing to ‘ditch my liberties’.
‘I want to say I couldn’t give a shit about civil liberties – and I actually think we have lost our rights. I would now say, put a camera on every street corner, watch us, monitor us. I am prepared to forego all sorts of things if it means they – those extremists – are forced to forego all sorts of things. I know this is dangerous talk, because laws have a habit of popping up at times of crisis and then it’s bloody difficult to get rid of them later. But right at this moment, civil liberties? Take them.’
Strong words indeed, from a commentator who has defended liberty in the past – from the Jewish writer who defended the right of comedians to make anti-Semitic jokes. But things are different, now, says Jacobson – and freedom might have to be put in check. ‘We have seen the unthinkable happen, and who’s to say it can’t happen again? If one fewer liberty can prevent it, then go for it.’
Isn’t this just fear talking? Should we clamp down on life, liberty and normality on the pretext that another aeroplane could hit another building at any minute? ‘Fear is not irrational’, says Jacobson. ‘There is nothing more rational than fear right now. The only irrational person on the face of the planet now is the person who is not scared for his life. So liberties – I think – just might have to go.’
But Jacobson admits to being ‘torn, confused’: ‘One part of me says “bomb everything everywhere”, and another part of me says “don’t bomb anything anywhere”. I want them to leave me with my free speech, but I also want them to get bin Laden, to get anybody like bin Laden, and to get anybody they even think has anything to do with bin Laden. I want them to be tough on anybody anywhere who makes an extremist statement. But then I sit back and think, “That probably includes me, right about now”.
‘So it’s probably just as well I write and don’t govern.’
John Pilger: ‘Bush and Blair created the famine in Afghanistan…. So forgive me if I’m not touched by their plans to drop aid as well as bombs.’
‘Tony Blair is a contemptible opportunist – both he and George Bush are using the events of 11 September to further their own agendas. And when it comes to Blair, that agenda is authoritarianism.’
John Pilger, investigative journalist and thorn in the side of many a government, has not been ‘at all surprised’ by Tony Blair’s handling of events since 11 September. ‘People have said this is a new Blair or that he is coming into his own – but I haven’t been surprised by the way he has used the events, nor by his bellicose warmongering, nor by his attempts to clamp down on liberties here in the UK. That is what Blair does.’
But Pilger has been disgusted by what he calls Blair’s ‘complete hypocrisy’. ‘He has been shedding tears for the people who died in New York and the Pentagon, as many of us have. But he seems far less moved by those who have died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions that he supports. Blair has made clear that he is standing with America on this – which will mean supporting the killing of people in Afghanistan in pursuit of what? Even those doing the warmongering seem uncertain of what they are pursuing.’
Pilger thinks it is ironic that the USA and the UK are keen to drop food parcels along with smart bombs in an attempt to help the starving people of Afghanistan – considering that they caused the starving in the first place.
‘Bush and Blair created the famine in Afghanistan, which the United Nations now calls the greatest humanitarian disaster in the world. Up to seven million people are at risk – and that has been created by the warmongering of the American administration and particularly of Tony Blair. They have effectively created a stampede, causing people to run for their lives, giving rise to an appalling situation. So forgive me if I’m not touched by their plans to drop aid as well as bombs.’
For Pilger, it’s a bit much to have to listen to some politicians and commentators talk about how our ‘world of peace’ was ‘shattered by terrorism’: ‘It is America that has been fighting wars in many parts of the world pretty much constantly for the past 50 years. And Islamic people – some of whom are now branded terrorists by Britain and America – have actually been the victims of violence and war, as carried out by America and its proxy armies.’
Pilger says he was as outraged as everybody else by the events of 11 September, but asks, ‘What kind of solution is it to kill more innocent people?’. And he’s not even convinced by the logic of killing the presumed guilty: ‘If they catch and do away with Osama bin Laden, it will make him a martyr, which is precisely what he and his followers want.’
So what should Bush and Blair do?
‘Resign’, says Pilger.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
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