Last summer I had the pleasure of reading William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal", an account of the siege of Delhi during the Indian rebellion of 1857. I could write a lengthy eulogy on this brilliant and highly readable book, but for now I'll mention two aspects of it that made a particular impression on me at the time.
One was the sheer quantity of research that Dalrymple had undertaken. It was plain that he had spent an extraordinary amount of time carefully mining the historical record to get at the truth of what took place in those fateful months when Britain’s empire on the subcontinent was brought to the brink of destruction. Many of the primary sources he drew upon were seeing the light of day for the first time as a result of Dalrymple's efforts, making this a truly original scholarly contribution.
The book is enlivened in particular by a treasure trove of first-person testimonies, revealing how events appeared at the time to those who lived through them. Letters and diary entries make up a large percentage of the text, to the extent that Dalrymple is mostly just allowing the protagonists to tell their own story. This is the second important point about the book. I can think of few writers barring Edward Said whose work is characterised to such a profound degree by their respect for humanity and their genuine empathy for others. In allowing the subjects of his research to speak for themselves, and in allowing the human qualities of all to inform the narrative, Dalrymple ensures that his readers are informed by the full complexity of the situation and granted an opportunity to empathise with figures from all sides of the story.
Dalrymple's diligent scholarship, his willingness while in search of the truth to accept whatever complexities and contradictions he encounters, and the value he places above all on the humanity of those whose lives he is studying, are the qualities that, for me, really make "The Last Mughal" an exceptional work of history. It is these virtues that provide the foundation upon which he is able to apply the light touches of observant and insightful analysis that from time to time cause you to look up from the pages and spend a few moments reflecting upon what you have just learnt. The best books are those that leave you feeling that your understanding of the world has been enhanced substantively. This, more so than most, is that kind of book.
I mention this now having just come across two book reviews that Dalrymple has written for The Times which highlight vividly the dissonance between his own approach to trying to understand the world and that employed by the broad neo-conservative tendency that has dominated US-UK foreign policy since at least 11 September 2001. The reviews are for "The Second Plane" by Martin Amis, and "Celsius 7/7" by Michael Gove. It is appropriate that Dalrymple should be the person to review these books since the contrast between them and his own works could not be greater. Their principal qualities are apparently the polar opposites of those evident in his own writing: first, an almost embarrasing ignorance of their subject matter, and second, an belligerent refusal to attempt to understand the very people - radical Islamists - that they purport to be presenting an analysis of.
This central contradiction does not escape Dalrymple and, presented as he is with two pieces of work that so thoroughly violate his own intellectual principles, he sets about dismantling them in the careful, insightful manner that we have come to expect from him. He argues that the qualities which made Amis a great novelist, such as his "taste for the extreme and grotesque", are the same qualities that render his political writing self-indulgent and lacking in nuance. "The result", says Dalrymple is a book that "is not just flawed, but riddled with basic misunderstandings". For Amis, unlike Dalrymple, has apparently undertaken little or no scholarly effort to gain a detailed knowledge of his chosen subject matter or to seriously engage with the humanity, however warped and pathological, of the Islamist terrorists he decries. Their alleged fetishisation of death, their sexual frustration, are not qualities that Amis has discovered through reasoned, careful enquiry. They are simply the products of his own lurid imagination.
Dalrymple notes that "Only in one place in the book does Amis actually come across a living Muslim. Arriving at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem after it has closed for the night, he tries to talk his way into the enclosure, and is rebuffed by the guard. “I will never forget the look on the gatekeeper’s face,” he [Amis] writes, “when I suggested . . . that he . . . let me in anyway. His expression, previously cordial and cold, became a mask; and the mask was saying that killing me, my wife, and my children was something for which he now had warrant.”
"This hysterical reaction", comments Dalrymple, "and the strong whiff of racial prejudice it gives off, is smelled again and again throughout this book."
The same disinterest both in the factual record and in the complex realities of human nature is found in Michael Gove's "Celsius 7/7" - the title a cringe-inducingly pompous little-Englander pun on "Farenheit 9/11", the anti-war film by Michael Moore. My familiarity with Dalrymple’s genial and understated writing style made his palpable scorn for Gove all the more powerful: "A prominent example of the sort of pundit who has spoon-fed neo-con mythologies to the British public for the past few years is Michael Gove. Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture — in Celsius 7/7, he just takes the line of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented his being billed, on his book’s dust-jacket, “one of Britain’s leading writers and thinkers on terrorism”."
"Gove’s book", Dalrymple continues, "is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject"; errors and misrepresentations which Dalrymple then goes on to list in depressing detail.
But the crucial point that Dalrymple makes is that "none of this would matter if Gove were still ring-fenced within his op-ed-page padded cell; horrifyingly, however, he now sits in the Conservative shadow cabinet and is credited with having influence on Conservative policy in the region. Worse still, this book was named as the one most taken by British MPs on their summer holidays. Blair was bad enough, the blind leading the blind; now it seems the madmen are taking over the asylum".
Indeed. Blair's demise does not necessarily mark the end of neo-conservatism's malign influence. It was reported in Jasper Gerrard's interview of Gove published in the Observer last January that none other than "Gordon Brown [had] stopped to congratulate [Gove] on his hawkish work [i.e. "Celsius 7/7"]". The Gerrard interview itself is positively toe-curling in its obsequiousness, describing Gove, hilariously, as a "rigorous intellectual" and a "sharp debater" whose "deadliest tactic is to sound sympathetic while tearing your argument to shreds" ('with what?' one wonders). But this is par for the course in the once liberal now staunchly neo-conservative Observer, which also offers the likes of Amis, Andrew Anthony and Nick Cohen page after page upon which to break wind at length on subjects - Western liberalism and political Islam – that they show a singular failure to understand in any serious way.
Dalrymple's point is well made. The madmen are indeed taking over the asylum. Ill informed, even quasi-racist views emanating from the fetid depths of the British neo-conservative imagination are hailed even by ostensibly liberal members of the political class as brilliant visions of moral clarity. After the catastrophe of Iraq, the dangers posed by governments seized with this sorts of chauvinistic hallucinations should hardly need to be explained. And yet, here we are, with so many in positions of power having apparently learnt nothing from the past 6 years of bloody disaster.
It seems to me that the appropriate response to this can be found if we return to what I described at the beginning of this article: the approach taken by Dalrymple in his own writings. Because it is he, rather than the self-proclaimed neo-conservative champions of Western civilisation that is the true heir to the Enlightenment values of open enquiry and the worth of the human being above all else. And it is by utilising those same values in our own political activity (be that on a personal or a public level) that we are able to counteract the dangerous fantasies of those who are forever imagining a world gripped by some Manichean struggle between the white knights of western civilisation and some barbarous horde from the east (led, invariably, by the latest incarnation of Hitler).
Such fantasies inevitably evaporate when confronted with reasonable representations of the truth, as is evident from Dalrymple's reviews of Gove and Amis's turgid efforts, which he blows away with a casual ease. Ultimately, in the political battles of our times, Enlightenment values will indeed prevail over the forces of unreason. Just not quite in the way that British neo-conservatives would imagine.
Labels: Activism, British Foreign Policy, Gordon Brown, Racism