On Being Bothered

Be careful what you wish for. For more than two decades, British voters lamented the similarity they perceived between the two major parties that jockeyed for government positions within their First Past The Post electoral system. From the rise of Tony Blair in 1994 until the Brexit vote in 2016, the “neoliberal consensus” dictated and defined the terms of political debate; the choice between the two options felt sterile and marginal. Conservatives felt cheated, their leaders championing gay marriage or wearing baseball caps at theme parks; the Labour faithful bemoaned PFI and City-friendly deregulation. If only – if only! – they said, there was a choice to be made.

The choice for many is now, it would seem, far too stark for comfort.

The 2019 General Election campaign has been a contest between a right-wing, sotto voce  nativist Tory party and a socialist, redistributionist Labour Party; between on the one hand Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of the left for decades and an anti-imperialist peacenik, and on the other Boris Johnson, the true heir to Churchill in his bullish British chauvinism. Where Labour seeks to radically alter the capitalist model under which it perceives voters to toil arduously and to little benefit, the Tories seek Shanghai-on-Thames, a free-trading buccaneer nation of carefully stratified worker-citizens. The Conservative Party has reoriented as the party of a certain part of a rump-England, ruddy and anti-metropolitan; the Labour Party as a fierce opponent of privilege and inequality of all kinds.

Or at least this is the narrative, the dividing lines that appear to have been drawn over a country far more confused and conditional than any of this. One writes country where in truth one means a set of countries, a collection of nations that breaks down with far more granularity than merely “England-n-Scotland”. By this I mean not the non-existent geographical divides of Brexit (to leave behind a further false narrative of a north-south or even class-based oppositionality as regards the EU issue), but rather the competing interests of regions voting more separately and disparately than they have perhaps ever before: the north-east sticking with Labour, the north-west flirting with Brexit, the Midlands with Conservatism. The centre cannot hold – but not in the way you think.

We live at a time of crisis; I am convinced radical shifts are necessary. But Labour’s manifesto is no more or less Leninist than a standard Scandinavian settlement; and Norwegians or Swedes are rarely characterised as firebrands. Likewise, so insipid is the Conservative manifesto that is difficult to brand the party as particular pro-active, or even especially right-wing at all. On either side, each says the other is hiding their true intentions; this may be so, but Michael Heseltine depicted Tony Blair with demon eyes and now both flirt with the Liberal Democrats. Sometimes political parties simply believe what they say they do. Johnson’s Conservative party likely will be confused on a policy level – nativist in some areas, authoritarian in others, emollient elsewhere; Corbyn’s Labour may put up taxes a bit and return utilities to public ownership, but is not going to abolish the army or destroy capitalism. The extremes have not, in fact, yet been reached. Only the limits of the mainstream have been stretched; that this comes as such a shock is evidence more of the withering of the British political consciousness than it is of any especially radical moment.

Nevertheless, what is different about this campaign is its tenor, its tone. The Conservative party, a study has found, has lied in 88% of its online ads; Labour not at all. That the country seems to be considering rewarding this sort of approach to political discourse – of a piece with its figurehead’s approach to truth throughout his journalistic career, but unprecedentedly corrosive of public trust, and in an echo of the Surkovian approach perhaps designed to be just that – really is a bad sign for our politics. The decades of having no choice has appeared to cheapen the idea of having one at all; that everyone is “just the same” has offered carte blanche to voters who simply wish to vote for whomever makes them feel better, regardless of the context. Punch-drunk from degradation, we go giggling into the sea.

The principle objection to any anti-Johnsonian attack is Jeremy Corbyn: he is a threat to our national way of life, to our security; a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-semite. Many of these accusations have more to do with his difficulty in guiding the electorate closer to  his policy perspectives than anything inherently wrong with his actual positions; but the last of these accusations has exercised me a good deal during the campaign and before it. Is it to ignore racism and accusations of it to argue that Jeremy Corbyn might still be the nation’s only hope in the face of a Prime Minister who cares little for what he does with power as long as he has it? Johnson is a figure who will say or sanction anything – avoid all scrutiny or blanket the airwaves with untruths as proves profitable – in order to hold on to an office which, as his own manifesto suggests, he and his party have little idea how to utilise. In this context, is it reasonable to hand-wave accusations of anti-semitism, or to dismiss them, or to accept them but hold them in balance with other considerations? Are any of those approaches defensible? Which is worst?

No one’s ethical choices are pure in the midst of what has been a dismal campaign. Labour’s failure to handle anti-semitism is certainly a sign of institutional incompetence; it may also be a sinister expression of something rotten at its head or heart. That this question is still be resolved to the satisfaction of many in the Jewish community and beyond is a serious issue for Corbynism, which struggles – in the face of daily attacks – to accept any criticism. But voting for Boris Johnson seems to guarantee not the Brexit for which many of his supporters seem myopic in their enthusiasm – that moment of national coming-together – but the speeding-up of a cultural turn in the country which insists on uniformity, on vapid conformity to a set of fictions we all know are lies but which we parrot either because they suit us or because not to do so is to court opprobrium. Perhaps defending Corbyn on anti-semitism is part of this movement; but the level of scrutiny to which Labour has rightly been subjected on the issue stands in stark contrast to the lack of interrogation that is permitted by Johnson’s Conservatives.

Few could describe the current Labour approach to anything – much less the establishment of pogroms – as ruthlessly strategic, and in fact in many ways they emerge from this campaign as a band of dogged pragmatists, of make-do-and-menders. In her recent book on anti-semitism, even Julia Neuberger – not one to compromise with prejudice and an eloquent critic of Labour’s reaction to antisemitism in its ranks – wrote, “there is antisemitism, but it is not like the 1930s.” She exhorts”people who are not Jewish [to] call out … shadowy views”; I have tried to do this in daily life, and, while other anti-Tories won’t face what they might find to be a Hobson’s choice, yet will vote Labour tomorrow.

The compatibility of these positions may be in question; but Boris Johnson has consistently acted with much greater cynical dissonance, elevating hypocrisy to the level of philosophy. Corbyn may oversee a creaking system reluctant to admit fault; Johnson speaks of letter boxes and “piccaninnies,” of hook noses and shadowy conspirators. Here is a man who at one point makes the queasily eugenicist argument that IQ quotas somehow tell us something about who in our society deserves reward; and at another presents himself as the champion of the working class against the marauding foreigner. Here is a man who says there will be no barriers for Northern Ireland, all the while working on a new Sykes-Picot line that will divide Ulster from Great Britain more surely than any border poll.

This Janus-faced strategy contrasts with Corbyn’s attempt to hold together the fractured coalition of Remain and Leave which constitutes not just his party but our whole polity. To reward it is to endorse cynicism. It is to beg for it to continue, to express a preference for the erosion of any semblance of communal feeling or understanding in favour of ever more segmented divisions. Johnson cannot say different things to different audiences unless he splits them apart from one another. To vote for this fragmentation is to say that any effort to unite us is doomed to failure; better to accept our divisions and leverage them. Many of those who may vote Tory tomorrow are not Johnson partisans; they will be making a choice, though one informed more by exhaustion than enthusiasm. We are tired as a nation; to build something new feels like hard work. To play in the ruins at least offers a barren kind of lenience, granted for time served. “Get Brexit done” offers a holiday from politics.

The Conservative anti-political offer, then, is a complete package: knowing fictions, impotent despair of ambition, derogation of duties. Hand it all over to Johnson, let him deal with it while he tells us another joke. The campaign hasn’t so much replaced a lack of choice with a stark one; it has offered the opportunity not to choose, to accept the inevitable, give in – as we did not in 2017 – to the Tory right to rule. If the country makes that choice, it will have confirmed the neoliberal consensus as not so much challenged -either by populist nationalism or resurgent leftism – as in place. There will have been seen to be no alternative, even to lies.

Johnson’s increasingly haggard face looks at you, and asks: can you really be bothered anymore? Behind him, the deckchairs are arranged for you. The loudspeakers burble about another meaningless story, a fiction that will pass. The ship is slowly sinking. It’s been a long time like this. Can you really be bothered anymore?

Can you?

“To Hate Someone, You Don’t Have To Speak His Language”: Umberto Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery”

There’s a chapter in Alexandre Dumas’s most famous work, The Three Musketeers, in which the conniving villain of the piece, the pitiless Milady, is chased down on a dark and stormy night and executed without either fair trial or last rites. On first read and subsequently, I’ve found the whole section, which is in many ways the culmination and triumph of the novel’s lengthy and discursive narrative, rather more than a tad difficult:  the implacability of my erstwhile heroes, the gothic ugliness of the setting, conspire to rob the protagonists of my sympathy. There is something too grim for my tastes, too remorseless, about the demonisation by the musketeers of their antagonist. In the face of their hatred, they seem to lose their moral bearings.

Umberto Eco places this effect far earlier in his new novel, The Prague Cemetery – which takes another of Dumas’s novels, Joseph Balsamo, as one of its founding texts. It begins with an arresting explosion of racist invective. Perhaps the shock of the bile and poison spilled over the page is less in the idea that it was once (is still) believed, but in reading it on a page unyellowed by the passage of time: Simone Simonini, the protagonist of The Prague Cemetery for whom we immediately rather than belatedly lose all sympathy, is an anti-semite of fulsome proportions, and Eco revivifies the full horror of his beliefs, shared by many throughout the course of his narrative, by pulling them from the 19th-century texts which act as the novel’s source material, and placing them on a freshly-turned 21st-century page.

This willful transgression has rightly discomfited many critics. In the Observer, Peter Conrad worried Eco would be misread: “Would it bother him if … credulous readers missed his postmodern irony and took The Prague Cemetery a little too seriously?” In the Jewish Chronicle, meanwhile, David Herman fretted about relativism: “One of the accusations made against postmodernism has always been that its playfulness trivialises real history and real suffering.” Most famously, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, labelled Eco a “voyeur of evil”.

There is something in all this: The Prague Cemetery is the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps the most damaging forgery in all of history, and its emergence from a century’s worth of conspiracy theory and bigotry. Eco does not spare us the details: “My grandfather described those eyes that spy on you, those unctuous smiles, those hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks, those restless creases between nose and lips, wrinkled by hatred, that nose of theirs like the beak of a southern bird” [pg. 5]; he reproduces, at regular intervals, contemporary cartoons of Jewish men and women, the lurid caricatures of the most racist of artists; and, later in the book, a main character proves to be the Frenchman Edouard Drummont, the founder and editor of the infamous anti-semitic newspaper, La Libre Parole.

I’m not sure, however, that any topic, however revolting, should be off-limits to a writer so inclined. Certainly, as Conrad seems to fear, The Prague Cemetery speaks to our own age; but it does so less as clarion call to the neo-nazis and thugs emerging from under their rocks as it does a kind of meditation on the ways in which such worldviews came and – crucially – still come to proliferate. Eco places his novel at the dawn of modernity – Simonini’s grandfather was old enough to remember the ancien regime, the world disappeared by the French Revolution, and his conspiracy theories, which (real history here) he writes in a letter to Augustin Barruel, whose Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire du Jacobinisme is the first of the novel’s many othering tracts aimed at exploring and explaining the degradations of a new modernity.

For Simonini’s hatred is reserved for all ‘others’ – for Germans and Englishmen, Frenchmen and Italians, Russians and Jesuits, Jews and Jacobins, women, socialists, and homosexuals. His narrative, pieced together by another voice identifying itself only as the Narrator, takes the form of a dialogue between himself and a certain Abbé Dalla Picola, a priest who seems to share not just rooms but elements of a life with Simonini. It is a story, not wholly as satisfying as some of Eco’s other novelistic puzzles, which pivots on the sad story of Diana Vaughan, a woman rather sleazily objectified throughout the book (alas, the demonised others are never given even the smallest of countervailing voice). Vaughan is shown to be a figure not invented by the hoaxer known as Leo Taxil, but in fact a young woman living with a kind of violent bipolar disorder, first treated and then exploited by one of Eco’s many awful hypocrites. As the alter egos of Simonini and Dalla Piccola debate their condition through Sigmund Freud’s suggested medium of the dream diary, The Prague Cemetery, it seems to me, makes a case for a pathological Europe which has likewise sublimated and separated, rather than dismissed and dealt with, its basest urges, its beastliest sickness.

Simonini, trained as a forger under a provincial lawyer, tours Europe in the employ of a variety of secret policemen: he attempts to undermine the work of Garibaldi in Sicily and Naples, double-crosses nihilists on behalf of the Russian authorities, provides the raw material behind the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus, and is responsible for the suspicious death at sea of the Italian Novelist, Ippolito Nievo. Most significantly, he draws on a century’s worth of anti-semitic rants, novels and tracts to pen the Protocols, which he sells to the Russian secret police – who know they are false, but seek to harness the prejudices of the laity regardless.

In his rather positive review of the book, David Aaronovitch has remarked that, without a strong grounding in 19th century European history (which, you should know, I do not entirely possess), The Prague Cemetery can be hard-going. In part, I think this is the point – most readers will be lost in the detail at some point, and discover that they, like many before them, have only conspiracy theories to guide them. On the other hand, Eco’s argument – his conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories – is fairly plain: that the hypocrisy of the modern state is guilty of encouraging, rather than dispelling, the ignorance and confusion which give rise to bigotry. “We don’t want to repeat the farce of the man in the iron mask,” intones one French authority, suggesting that they’ve been at it for centuries. [pg. 155] A recurrent motif in the book is that truth is distorted into fiction, which is then recycled as fictionalised truth (the meta-textual games Eco plays here are amongst his most exuberant). “The secret service in each country believes only what it has heard elsewhere,” reflects Simonini [pg. 173], confirming what the novel has already shown us – that the most powerful lie is one which confirms a prejudice. The picaresque style, which is rather broad and can often drag, may not be the best vehicle for conveying this message – but here it at the very least does the job, albeit in an uneven sort of way.

Regardless of the formal niggles, in a Europe in which the north resents the south, and the south the north; in which the British veto a treaty and the French spit back that their economy is finished anyway; in which, from Italy to Austria to the Netherlands, far right political movements are again finding a voice; The Prague Cemetery offers a timely anatomy of the European problem. That first substantive chapter, which does so much simultaneously to destroy and revive our connection with its protagonist, is entitled ‘Who Am I?’. In truth, the subject of its screeds is ‘Who I Am Not’. It is that lack of a positive Europe identity, whether proceeding from the jaded cynicism of the elite or the put-upon despair of the poor, that remains the continent’s great enemy – the dark space between known knowns, which is filled by the malicious and the credulous with poison and conspiracy.

“History is a nightmare,” Conrad writes in his criticism of the novel, “and Simonini’s enfevered babbling won’t help us to awaken from it.” It is true that Eco plays a dangerous game in this novel, and he sometimes enjoys rolling the dice overmuch  – but it is a game which, knowingly or otherwise, Europe, too, still plays. That makes The Prague Cemetery a necessary, even when imperfect, novel.