Russian propaganda—or so it seemed in 2005—is a shadow of its former self. But in Belarus the state television maintains Soviet levels of venom and mendacity. How should we respond?
The first New Cold War podcast from 2005 asks what the Eurovision song contest tells us about the Macedonian question.
The most important discussions in European security are happening behind the scenes. It’s time for politicians to be honest with the public about the real threat we face—and the steps we will have to take in dealing with it.
The INF treaty is the last plank of the 1980s-era east-west accord. We should save it, not imperil it. That’s not appeasement, but we should concentrate on deterring Russia, not provoking her. (piece originally published in the London Times)
I apologise for the long delay in posting material to this blog. I’ve been busy in my new job as International Editor, as well as working the CEE beat and trying to hurry along my new book about Russian spies.
I have also put a lot of work into the new Economist blog, Eastern Approaches.
In the meantime, the Economist has changed its rules so that I now must wait for a month before posting articles in private mailings or on my own site, so that our website garners the maximum amount of traffic. I think this is an entirely reasonable stipulation given that the Economist shareholders paid for the article to be written in the first place!
What I am allowed to do is to alert people to the articles’ existence. I do this on Facebook and Twitter. Anyone on this list who is on facebook is welcome to be my “friend” or to “follow” me on Twitter, where I am edwardlucas
You can look at my “twitter feed” here
The messages are a bit cryptic but you will soon get the gist. They include links to stories I have written in the Economist and elsewhere, and other interesting material. These links are usually shortened to something that looks like www.bit.ly/Abc123.
Here are some examples from my recent work on the absurd and damaging row between Poland and Lithuania
http://bit.ly/bPEVxQ war of words worsens between #poland and #lithuania. V tiresome
http://bit.ly/dedVTS new blog post on absurd damaging row between #poland and #lithuania
Poland, Lithuania and self-centredness — http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/10/poland_and_lithuania
http://bit.ly/cbEE6E sad sharp article (in Polish) about looming lithuania-polish spelling fiasco row
– A major military training exercise including more than 1,700 US Polish and Baltic troops has begun in Latvia http://bit.ly/9O3qjZ
If you find facebook more convenient, the same material is there.
This will in effect catch up on most of what I have written in the past few months but not posted here.
I would particularly recommend the long review I wrote of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands which you can find here
What I will post in this mailing is four recent columns from European Voice, and a fun piece that I wrote about growing chilies in my office and naming them after famous Estonians (it has appeared in estonian but not yet in English).
Chili peppers are not part of Estonian cuisine. But they have helped make some of Estonia’s most distinguished sons and daughters famous at the Economist.
I should begin by explaining that my enthusiasm for all things Estonian is not my only eccentricity. Among the others are obsessive interests in railways, cricket—and spicy food. My sister and I frequent a London restaurant called “Hot Stuff” and at Christmas and birthdays exchange bottles of hot sauce with names like “Wild Dog” and “Liquid Fire”.
Although we don’t believe in serious sibling rivalry, a bit of competition is fun. So when she started to grow chillies in her garden, I decided to grow bigger and better ones in my office. Soon I had a tray (a colleague’s unused inbox) filled with compost and a two dozen tiny green sprouts. “What are you going to call them?” a colleague asked.
As a joke, I answered “they’re all famous Estonians”. Then I thought to myself, “why not?” I started jotting down names at random of Estonians I admire and would like to have as company in my office. Otto Tief. Jaan Tõnisson. Jüri Kukk, on whose behalf my mother, an Amnesty International stalwart, used to write letters. Other heroes of the resistance such as August Sabbe and Alfons Rebane. Aili Jürgenson and Ageeda Paavel, the teenage girls who blew up the first Soviet war memorial in Tallinn and were sent to Siberia. Kristjan Palusalu, the great prewar wrestler (who some say was cheekily chosen as the model for the real Bronze Soldier). Then my favourite writers: Lydia Koidula, Betti Alver. Kross and Kaplinski. I researched the Estonians who had been on postage stamps and who had public memorials. I added Kreutzwald, Jakobson, Jakob Hurt and some more pre-war politicians. All the heads of state of the prewar republic deserved mention, I reckoned. I added the two most impressive Estonians I met: Ernst Jaakson and Lennart Meri. All that was missing was an English connection (Rebane doesn’t count). I settled on Gert Helbemäe. I doubt many modern Estonians have heard of him, but he was a leading light in Estonian literary exile circles in Britain until his death in 1970.
I bought more trays, pots and labels and started potting out the seedlings. Working out how to arrange them on the windowsill proved surprisingly time-consuming. At first I tried to do it logically: all political prisoners over there, pre-war politicians here, 19th century writers in one corner, 20th-century ones in the other, and so on. But my sense of mischief soon triumphed. Why not Koidula in bed with Kreutzwald? Their real-life epistolary relationship was tragically abortive (I’ve just been reading Madli Puhvel’s excellent book about it).
But it seemed a shame not to transcend the boundaries of time and space more radically. I decided that it would be more fun for Koidula to meet Betti Alver, and for Kreutzwald to get to know the latter-day literary giants such as Kross and Kaplinski. It was the same with the politicians. Initially I just laid them out according to a real-life chronology. But it seemed much more interesting to put Ernst Jaakson and Konstantin Päts together. I created a “military heroes” tray where Sabbe, Laidoner and Rebane could exchange stories.
I couldn’t decide what to do with Lennart: he would fit in well everywhere and would be sorry to miss out on meeting any other others. In the end I decided he should share with Tammsaare and Jakobson: he would be the right person to explain to them what had happened in the years since their death. I spent a lot of time trying to work out whether people had met in real life: did Rebane and Laidoner know each other, for example? What were Ernst Jaakson’s relations with Rebane like?
In the process, I got hopelessly muddled about which chili was which. Some are “Scotch Bonnets”, some are “Habaneros” and a few from the world’s hottest chili, the “Dorset Naga” (this is so spicy that it is the only food product that is cannot be bought by under-16s in a British supermarket).
Then something rather odd happened. My colleagues are very patient with my enthusiasm for Estonia’s achievements. We do write about Estonia when it matters (on everything from the euro to the high anti-corruption scores, the flat tax, e-government and so on cyber-defence). We are robustly supportive of Estonia’s position on language and citizenship laws. I even managed, a few years ago, to get three pages on Finno-Ugric grammar into the Christmas edition. We wrote a big obituary for Lennart Meri. But they maintain a polite distance to the subject. If I start talking about Estonia at office parties, I usually find that my audience is two pot plants and an intern.
My own plants changed that. My office is next to the kitchen, so I have a lot of people stopping by, as well as the cartographers, layout artists, fact checkers and other journalists who visit to discuss the paper’s International Section (editing that is now my main job: eastern Europe is a sideline). Lots of them, ranging from interns to even my bosses, started asking me about the names on the labels. I was only too pleased to explain.
The answers proved rather shocking. It is one thing to know dimly about the miseries of communism in a faraway country. It is another to be given a real life example. “Did all the Estonians get sent to the Gulag?” asked one colleague, after I had given a quick explanation of the fates of Päts, Laidoner and Meri.
As more colleagues started asking questions, I prepared some short biographies and photos, trying to find other hooks for their interest. A colleague specialising in Iraq was particularly interested to hear how Laidoner, on behalf of the League of Nations, had drawn Turkey’s eastern boundary after World War Two.
The plants named after people who had been in Siberia had to be closest to the window in order to enjoy the sunlight. As Jüri Kukk had died from forcefeeding, I was particularly careful not to over-water him. Oddly, the plants did not grow to match their names. Tammsaare, fittingly for a giant in literature, proved a giant in his botanic reincarnation too. Given his physical prowess, Kristjan Palusalu should have been similarly huge, but he remained a spindly little thing. Jüri Kukk, by contrast proved to be a great sturdy plant, as did Marie Under. Ants Piip and Jakob Hurt simply refused to grow more than a couple of centimetres.
Some of my visitors began to think it would be nice to have their own Estonian. After a lot of repotting into larger containers, my windowsill was getting rather crowded. I know Estonians hate crowds, so in principle I wanted to give them more space. But it was hard to give them away. Initially I said that those nobody who had been in exile in real life should be moved out of my office. Losing ones’s homeland once is enough for anyone. Female poets were in particular demand. The deputy editor, Emma Duncan, took Betti Alver. But I simply refused to get rid of Lydia Koidula. It is bad enough having her disappearing from the 100 kroon banknote, let alone having her leave my office. One colleague insisted on a female poet, but I persuaded him to take Tammsaare instead.
The foreign editor, in between his other duties, has proved an affectionate and diligent guardian for Gert Helbemäe. When I was at the farewell party for the Estonian ambassador, Margus Laidre, I was delighted to meet an elderly lady from Leicester who had actually known Helbemäe. “He would have been so pleased” she told me.
In the summer, I was away for several weeks, but our editorial secretary, in between
her other tasks (arranging trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the Chinese embassy to give visas, and helping journalists recover notebooks left in trains and planes) paid scrupulous attention to the watering instructions I left behind. All the plants were alive and well when I got back.
But my colleagues were not happy. One senior journalist said grimly “It’s like the Niger Delta here”. I could see why. A plague of small black insects was buzzing round my plants, and escaping to other offices. I apologised profusely, explaining that these were
“chekist” insects who were trying, as so often in the past, so sabotage Estonia. But the joke fell flat. On close examination, I think the compost, not the plants, was to blame. There was no time to lose. Muttering “nyet rastenia, nyet problemy” I took ruthless action, putting a dozen of the smaller plants into the bin and repotting the survivors in new compost.
My colleagues are happy again. But now they are impatient for the plants to flower and fruit. That requires some sunny weather. The Economist can influence a lot of things. But not that.
And here are some recent columns from European Voice, where my old weekly column continues.
From Charter 77 to Charter 08, from Havel to Xiaobo
14.10.2010 / 04:36 CET
China’s Nobel prize-winner found inspiration in Czechoslovakia’s history. The West too should learn lessons from that period.
Read Charter 08, the central document of the Chinese human-rights movement, and the echoes of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 are unmistakable. Indeed, Václav Havel, the country’s former president and a founding signatory of his country’s Charter, is one of the strongest backers of the Kafka-loving Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political prisoner who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Havel and Liu both understand the power of the ideas that brought down the Evil Empire and the Iron Curtain – and want them to free a billion Chinese from the corrupt, secretive and brutal rule of their unelected communist chieftains.
The top officials of the European Union have congratulated Liu. But from national governments, the reaction is mostly of silent, cringing embarrassment. That recalls the lily-livered approach that most European countries took when Havel and his pals were harassed and jailed (and in some cases beaten or killed).
I spent much of the 1970s and 1980s trying to drum up interest in causes that at the time seemed as obscure and hopeless as Liu’s jailing seems now, such as the `tiny Soviet Baltic republics’, the `former’ Polish trade union Solidarity, or indeed raising money to buy a word processor for an unemployed playwright in Prague (the communists confiscated it; we bought Havel another). World-weary diplomats (and on occasion my editors at the BBC, where I worked) would explain patiently that the “dissidents” were irrelevant. Much better to concentrate on rubbing along with the people in charge.
Only in early 1989, as I arrived in Prague as the city’s sole Western newspaperman, had senior British officials started meeting dissidents – until then, it was the purview of a lowly junior official. A few weeks later, I was the only foreign journalist at Havel’s parole hearing, where his communist jailers solemnly pronounced on his “good behaviour” in prison before releasing him.
It is commendable that dozens of Czech and Slovak politicians (then mostly in opposition, now mostly in power) backed Liu’s peace prize in January. The cities of Budapest and Wroclaw deserve praise for officially receiving the Dalai Lama last month.
But the big trend is the other way, for reasons both commercial and geopolitical. China has lent Moldova $1 billion (€720 million). Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, signed big deals in Italy and Turkey this week and said that China would buy Greek debt. In Poland, a Chinese consortium is building bits of the Lódz-Warsaw highway. Wanhua has bought Hungary’s big chemicals company Borsodchem.
For many countries, better links with China balance Russia’s revisionist approach to its history and geography. Alyaksandr Lukashenka (to give his name its Belarusian spelling) has just visited Shanghai; he described China as his country’s “best friend”. In the run-up to elections on 19 December, the Belarusian leader’s options are narrowing. Russia denounces him in public, and may be backing a rival candidate. The EU, clutching several years’ worth of withered olive branches, is standing back.
Trade and investment with China are fine. But not at all costs. Politicians who claim to believe in European values but who shun the Dalai Lama and stay silent on slave labour camps, jailed dissidents, internet censorship and the like should wonder how they will explain their behaviour to a democratically elected leader of China in years to come (perhaps, who knows, even to Liu himself). Try practising sentences such as: “I was greedy and cowardly and fawned on your jailers – I’m sorry.” Havel, who knows what the inside of a prison cell looks like, has set a stellar example. Others should follow.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.
The narcissism of small Baltic differences
21.10.2010 / 04:33 CET
They should be the best of friends, so why are relations between Poles and Lithuanians “the worst in Europe”?
In a rational world, Poland and Lithuania would be best friends. They have centuries of shared history and culture. They worry about the same things (neighbours), for the same reasons (bitter experience). Each is in a position to help the other. Yet Polish diplomatic sources say relations with Lithuania are “the worst in Europe”. The foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, will not visit Lithuania until it allows members of the local Polish minority to use the letter `w’ (and several others vital for writing Polish names) in official documents such as passports. Poland is blocking Lithuania’s participation in a new French-German-Polish military unit, the `Weimar battle-group’.
To outsiders it is truly puzzling. NATO’s contingency plans require Polish soldiers to risk death defending Lithuania from a (theoretical) Russian attack. The two countries need each other on everything from energy security (building a new nuclear power station) to better roads and railways.
So why is the mood so bad? Poles say Lithuanians are nationalist and stubborn. Lithuanians say Poles are arrogant – and (some say) stoking the row artificially in order to create a pretext for betrayal: selling the Mažeikiai oil refinery, Lithuania’s biggest industrial asset, to Russia.
The best way to understand the issue is to imagine a couple that long ago were married but then separated when both went to foreign prisons. Released, they had a brief violent quarrel, followed by a frosty period during which they ignored each other. They then ended up in prison once more. Now they are free again and living as neighbours.
Trauma makes both twitchy. And they see things differently. One side (Poland) remembers the `marriage’ 450 years ago fondly. Lithuania thinks it unfair and increasingly suffocating. The joint Polish-Lithuanian state eclipsed the once-glorious Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and ended in polonisation and the near extinction of national culture.
Superficially, the arguments now are trivial. Deep down they are serious. Lithuania (population: 3.5 million) still feels profoundly uneasy about the cultural and linguistic weight of Poland, more than ten times larger. Many suspect that Poles, deep down, do not regard modern Lithuania as a proper country: just a stray province with a funny language, supposedly ancient but in fact largely invented in the 19th century. Poland forcibly polonised the `occupied’ Vilnius region in the interwar years. Now, even mild steps to restore Lithuanian language and culture there are stymied by pressure from mighty, forgetful Warsaw. Accepting a `polonised’ alphabet or bilingual street signs would be painful and doing so under pressure from Poland would mean surrender to intolerable bullying.
Poles find this baffling, paranoid and irrelevant. In modern Europe, people should be able to write their names as they wish (Poland allows its Lithuanian minority to use their diacritical signs; the Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities are even allowed to have an extra line in their passports giving their name in the Cyrillic alphabet). Moreover, having promised to sort this problem out, Lithuania has repeatedly broken its undertaking. That makes Poland (and some top Poles) feel humiliated. They are also furious about the Lithuanian authorities’ treatment of Polish-owned Mažeikiai (including pulling up some important railway track, and refusing to sell it an oil terminal). They believe that they bought Mažeikiai to help Lithuania survive a Russian squeeze on energy supplies. Now they wish they had not. (Lithuania believes that Mažeikiai’s owners, PKN Orlen, are bossy, greedy and ungrateful.)
Readers may, glumly, feel reminded of another pointless, arcane argument: about the name `Macedonia’. Friends of Poland and Lithuania are hoping that it will not become as damaging. But politicians on both sides give little reason for optimism.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.
Awakening the (fictional) ghosts of eastern Europe
28.10.2010 / 04:35 CET
While eastern Europe’s literary landscape looks less imposing than it did under communism, gems are still being produced.
Communism’s horribleness produced great literature. Milan Kundera, Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma – to take three writers from the then Czechoslovakia – fired salvo after salvo into and over the Iron Curtain, delighting readers east and west of it.
Twenty-plus years since communism collapsed, the literary landscape looks less imposing. The Romanian-born German author Herta Müller deservedly won a Nobel Prize for literature in 2009. But she is not yet a household name in the English-speaking world, where surprisingly little of her work has been translated (try the “Land of green plums”, or “Atemschaukel” if you can read German). The great names of the past are mostly dead or past their prime.
It is all the more encouraging, therefore, that Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish novelist of half-Estonian ancestry, has done so well with “Purge”, an international best-seller and prize-winning novel that has received rave reviews (not least from me).
“Purge” deals with sexual violence in Estonia, linking two eras: the rapes and forced concubinage that followed the Soviet occupation in 1944, and the trafficking of women in the lawless post-Soviet period.
It makes unsettling reading for anyone – and particularly for some Estonians. Jaan Kaplinski, the most heavyweight writer of the Soviet-era generation, has pointed out on his blog that an unremittingly bleak picture of Soviet Estonia is misleading, because many people lived humdrum and even happy lives. “The USSR after the death of Stalin was not a prison camp. It was a lousy country, but there were and there are many much more lousy countries in the world.”
Then Piret Tali, a prominent journalist, wrote a long and interesting article criticising Estonians’ desire for a “white ship”: a novel that would, at a stroke, finally inform Europeans of the unknown, unheard horrors of the captive Baltic states. People who have experienced something first-hand do not need a “universal narrative” about it, she noted.
Estonians’ sensitivity is understand-able. In a way it echoes the reservations many Czechs have about Kundera. Oksanen, now 33, spent her childhood summers on a collective farm in Soviet Estonia. But she is not really Estonian, just as Kundera stopped being fully Czech when he moved to Paris post-1968. Works of fiction crystallise opinion in a way that often trumps real memory. Particularly when Hollywood takes over, the Second World War becomes American-centred and sentimental to the point of parody. The effectively fictional “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” have had a far more powerful impact than some dull old history textbook that deals with mere facts. Even Timothy Snyder’s epic new history of Europe’s wartime killing fields, “Bloodlands”, can hardly redress that balance.
The UK, with a lot of cultural and academic clout, finds it hard to fight misperceptions about history. It is much harder for the people of smaller countries, such as Czechs, who dislike being portrayed as sex-crazed, self-centred and shifty by Kundera, and even worse for Estonians, who fear that outsiders will see them principally as a country of sluts and rapists.
Criticising readers for gullibility is pointless. And criticising novelists for inaccuracy is outright unfair. Their responsibility is to their muse, not to facts. Oksanen is not writing social history; nor is Kundera. If she turns magical realist and puts sea-monsters and witches in her next book she can. (In fact, “Purge” is well-researched.)
The big point is that good literature may inspire some readers to find out what really happened. It was the desire to understand the dilemmas of Kundera’s hidden heroes that took me to Prague as a young journalist in early 1989. I have been searching ever since.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.
A house, a cup of tea and me
Welcome to the new site. I wrote a piece for the Polish tabloid Fakt last week about President Komorowski’s trip round Europe. The Polish version is here (well translated btw–thanks to whomever did it). The English version reads as follows:
Even his friends do not claim that President Bronisław Komorowski is sparkling company. He speaks no foreign languages and has never lived abroad. He has no expertise in world affairs, no close friendships with foreign leaders. He is not Donald Tusk or Radek Sikorski. But he is a sensible man representing a country that matters. He will find no difficulty in gaining meetings and audiences.
Not that the competition is very strong. Most presidents from “new Europe” are lightweights, cranks or political meddlers: Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic is a notorious example. Foreign leaders are tired of his bizarre theories about the menace of the EU superstate, or the green conspiracy behind global warming. They shudder when Romania’s rumbustious Traian Băsescu wants to visit. They find Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaitė insufferably self-important.
They thought Lech Kaczyński was tiresome too: his tussles with the Polish government about the minutiae of foreign policy, such as appointments, places at meetings and so on, and his overpowering sense of historical grievance stoked old stereotypes of Polish amateurishness, complexes and unpredictability.
Mr Komorowski heralds a different era: a sensible man working with his government colleagues rather than against them. Poland’s strong economy and stable politics, along with the upcoming EU presidency next year, mean that Polish ideas are taken seriously as never before. Mr Komorowski’s personal biography may be quite similar to his predecessor’s. But what he represents is a quite different country and mindset, conditioned not by the troubles of the past but the opportunities of the present.
The big question is what happens next, after the sighs of relief and the polite welcomes are over. What about the ideas themselves? Mr Komorowski shows every sign of sticking loyally to the script written by Mr Tusk and Mr Sikorski. He promotes EU integration and expansion, warns Brussels against neglecting “new Europe”, sharply distances Poland from the Kaczyński-era romantic attachments to Ukraine and Georgia, cautiously praises the apparent change of heart in Russia, and maintains a loyal but moderate Atlanticism.
That is fine as far as it goes. But it is vulnerable to events. What happens if Russia turns nasty again? The Polish government has bet heavily on the Kremlin’s sincerity in the year since Vladimir Putin’s half-apology at Sopot. Is there a “Plan B”? What happens if Barack Obama’s administration reciprocates the lukewarm and apathetic approach that Europe already displays towards America? Will Poland support more EU bailouts for the spendthrift countries of southern Europe? Poland’s foreign policy looks fine in good weather; it has yet to be tested by storms.
Another question is Mr Komorowski’s own role. Will he be content to be a general message-runner for the government, attending state funerals when Mr Tusk is too busy? To be a really effective foreign-policy figure he will need to learn English, at least for use in private meetings. I suspect not. Being decent and boring has worked well for him so far. His current crop of headlines may be the first and best.
Tony Judt, historian and intellectual, died on August 6th, aged 62
Aug 12th 2010
QUIZZICAL, erudite and clear-sighted, Tony Judt never let matters rest. He worried at his own beliefs—Zionist, Francophile, socialist and Euro-federalist—until they fell apart and reformed under the pressure of his restless, meticulous intellect. Few people in the Anglo-Saxon world can call themselves “intellectuals”, continental-style, without feeling (and sounding) a little odd. But in Mr Judt’s case the word deserved a capital “I”.
In the world of brain and pen, his main trade was as a historian: he plunged into that at Cambridge in the 1960s, and stayed with it even when immobilised by the wasting disease that cost him his life. His was no narrow historicism: he scorned the idea that the past was a guide to the future. But study of it could help avoid making the same mistakes twice.
Though he worked in America from 1987, his intellectual centre of gravity was Europe; the defining event in his world view was the second world war, and Hitler’s Holocaust. The aftermath of those catastrophes was the theme of “Postwar” (2005), a 1,000-page tome that dealt with the 44 years between the end of the main fighting and the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian empire that survived it. It was a book more bought than read. But even skimmers got the message: the European Union was a vitally important experiment, an attempt to transcend the ideological, nationalist and ethnic schisms that had cursed the continent. Prosperity, modernisation and peace, plus a judicious dose of amnesia, would lay the ghosts to rest.
But Mr Judt was no sentimental Europhile. His deep connections with the Czechoslovak opposition under communism gave him rare binocular vision, and an edginess towards those who focused only on the luckier western half of the continent. He detested the shallowness and artificial obscurity of European-born intellectual fashions such as post-modernism and structuralism. In politics, he bemoaned what he saw as the degeneration of the EU into a racket run by an elite class of administrators for the benefit of its richest citizens. Admittedly, the Eurocracy’s enlightened despotism was better than the other kind. But the cult of efficiency was no substitute for democracy and justice.
Mr Judt’s deepest knowledge was of France, and particularly its post-war intellectual history, which he regarded with a mixture of fascination and disgust. “Past Imperfect”, published in 1992, was the definitive book about the self-indulgence and wilful self-delusion of the French brainboxes who failed to see that Stalin was a monster.
His evisceration of the phoney and creepy was best displayed in his journalism, often in his natural home of the New York Review of Books. A savage collection of essays, “Reappraisals”, published in 2008, skewered among others Louis Althusser, a mad Marxist wife-killer with a cult philosophical following, and Eric Hobsbawm, a distinguished British historian with unrepentant pro-Soviet views. George Bush fared little better: Mr Judt was a trenchant critic of his policies in Iraq and the Middle East.
In hot water
He was fearless in his fights. When he found the pro-Israel lobby in America too strong, and thought Israel’s democratic credentials were weakening, he said so. That got him into the hottest water of his career. It started with an essay in the NYRB in 2003 stating that the peace process was “finished”; that the Jewish state was an “anachronism”; and that legitimate criticism of Israel was being silenced by bogus charges of anti-Semitism.
Nobody could accuse him of letting fly from a position of ignorance. He had been an ardent teenage Zionist, working as an interpreter during the six-day war of 1967. But to many his critique was exaggerated. Given the intense publicity he attracted, it was hard to argue, as he did, that debate was habitually squelched. The notion that Israel had no friends outside America, or could be “the” (his italics) threat to world peace, struck even some of his friends as extreme. Lectures were cancelled and the New Republic, a longstanding ally, removed him from its masthead.
A severe self-critic, he dealt poorly with sniping from others. This East End boy did not wear his learning, or his polyglottal talents, lightly. He tended to dismiss adversaries as fools, rather than as merely mistaken, or half-right. As the head of a richly endowed faculty at New York University, his contempt for the poverty of British universities could sound gratingly complacent. He could fund-raise. So should they.
His final ordeal might have inspired great self-pity, though he displayed no hint of it. Just under a year ago, he appeared at a public lecture in a wheelchair to announce that he was suffering from a variant of motor-neurone disease, in which the body succumbs to inexorable paralysis: like being imprisoned in a shrinking cell, he said. But he wrote about that too, in poignant, crystalline vignettes about his upbringing and travels.
He was “raised on words” though by the end his vocal muscle, “for 60 years my reliable alter ego” failed him: “vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate”. He minded that, while insisting that “the view from inside is as rich as ever”.
The rise and rise of English
May 27th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. By Robert McCrum. W.W. Norton; 310 pages; $26.95. Viking; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
English is what matters. It has displaced rivals to become the language of diplomacy, of business, of science, of the internet and of world culture. Many more people speak Chinese—but even they, in vast numbers, are trying to learn English. So how did it happen, and why? Robert McCrum’s entertaining book tells the story of the triumph of English—and the way in which the language is now liberated from its original owners.
The author’s knack for finding nuggets enriches what might otherwise seem a rather panoramic take on world history from Tacitus to Twitter. Take the beginnings of bilingualism in India, for example, which has stoked the growth of the biggest English-speaking middle class in the new Anglosphere. That stems from a proposal by an English historian, Thomas Macaulay, in 1835, to train a new class of English speakers: “A class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.” At a stroke, notes Mr McCrum, English became the “language of government, education and advancement, at once a symbol of imperial rule as well as of self-improvement”. India’s English-speaking middle class is now one of the engines of that country’s development and a big asset in the race to catch up with China.
Bit by bit, English displaced French from diplomacy and German from science. The reason for this was America’s rise and the lasting bonds created by the British empire. But the elastic, forgiving nature of the language itself was another. English allows plenty of sub-variants, from Singlish in Singapore to Estglish in Estonia: the main words are familiar, but plenty of new ones dot the lexicon, along with idiosyncratic grammar and syntax.
Mr McCrum hovers over this point, but does not nail it. English as spoken by non-natives is different. The nuanced, idiomatic English of Britons, North Americans, Antipodeans (and Indians) can be hard to understand. Listen to a Korean businessman negotiating with a Pole in English and you will hear the difference: the language is curt, emphatic, stripped-down. Yet within “Globish”, as Mr McCrum neatly names it, hierarchies are developing. Those who can make jokes (or flirt) in Globish score over those who can’t. Expressiveness counts, in personal and professional life.
The big shift is towards a universally useful written Globish. Spellchecking and translation software mean that anyone can communicate in comprehensible written English. That skill once required mastery of orthographical codes and subtle syntax acquired over years. The English of e-mail, Twitter and text messaging is becoming far more mutually comprehensible than spoken English, which is fractured by differences in pronunciation, politeness and emphasis. Mr McCrum aptly names the new lingo “a thoroughfare for all thoughts”. Perhaps he should have written that chapter in Globish, to show its strengths—and limitations.
Life in Iceland
Nasty, brutish and short
May 27th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Wasteland With Words: A Social History of Iceland. By Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson. Reaktion Books; 288 pages; $39.95 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
Filthy, damp, cold and exhausting, living in Iceland for most of the past millennium had one redeeming feature: that the long dark winter evenings gave people the chance to read a lot and tell stories. That combination of cultural depth and material backwardness is the central message of Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson’s social history of one of Europe’s smallest and remotest countries.
Given its 300,000 population (about the size of New Orleans), Iceland produces a lot of news. Its volcanoes and banks have blown up with dreadful consequences for locals and outsiders alike. Alone in Europe, it husbands its fish stocks properly. It used to be horribly expensive to visit. Now its hauntingly barren landscape is a bargain holiday destination. This book, drawing on Icelanders’ astonishingly detailed diaries and letters in past centuries, gives the outsider a rare glimpse into the past lives of an extraordinary people.
The story is not wholly pleasant. Even readers with strong stomachs will find them tested. The book opens with an account of a man who rips his own testicles off with a cord after a tantrum involving allegations of infidelity. The pressure-cooker of emotions induced by isolation (the road round the island was completed only in 1974) dispel any stereotypes of Nordic stolidity. The dank squalor of the turf-built hovels in which most Icelanders lived is described with disconcerting relish, along with the suppurating sores, stoically borne, that resulted. Clothes were boiled in urine occasionally, but were otherwise worn without washing.
Life lightened up in the 19th century when mechanisation allowed Icelanders to make some money from fish. In 1940 British and then American forces occupied the island to safeguard it from Nazi Germany. That broke the country’s isolation for ever. The author regards with distaste the pell-mell enthusiasm for globalisation, and casino capitalism that marked the last decade. He is particularly scathing about the bogus boom-year talk of the virtues of the Icelandic national character (innovative, resourceful, etc). Thrift and hard work, not showing off and speculation would have been more accurate, he says.
Books on Icelandic social history are rare. So it is a pity that this one has so many odd omissions. The author barely mentions the greatest tragedy in Icelandic history, the colossal volcanic eruption of 1783 which cut the island’s population by a fifth, to just 40,000 people. He writes a lot about childhood (and child labour) but rather little about sex (which helps while away those dark winter evenings). In particular, he says almost nothing about the country’s fascinating national cuisine. Iceland is a country where raw puffin hearts, pickled rams’ testicles and putrefying shark flesh are all regularly eaten. It may be that, as an Icelander himself, Mr Magnusson does not find such dishes particularly exotic. His readers, especially the unsqueamish ones, would be hungry to know more.