What do George Galloway, Martin Heidegger, the London Review of Books, and the Third Reich have in common, other than that they all give me the creeps? Well, maybe nothing, but let's have a look-see. Concatenations are dangerous, but sometimes they make themselves, as when Boyd Tonkin’s profile of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books (home to Hilary Mantel’s piece on Kate Middleton), appeared in the same edition of The Independent as John Gray’s review of Yvonne Sherratt’s Hitler’s Philosophers.
John Gray pretty much allows Yvonne Sherratt’s book, which is about the complicity of philosophers with Nazism, and therefore “how philosophy was implicated in genocide”, to do the talking, but he infers one or two truths of his own from it. As for example: “Where there is fear in the air, philosophers are no more inclined to heroism than doctors or teachers, who also collaborated with Nazism on a large scale”, and “the ideas he [Hitler] deployed when in power were widely current in fin de siècle Europe, not least in progressive circles”.
Since there are few circles more progressive than that described by the LRB, and since a major platform of its political journalism is an unambiguous hostility towards Israel – “a mendacious state”, according to its editor – you can see in which direction my thoughts are tending. Not towards likening anti-Zionism to Nazism, let me be absolutely clear about that. Just because anti-Zionists of the sort who write for the LRB may themselves enjoy analogising Israel with Nazi Germany, that is no reason I should do the same with them. But intolerance and progressiveness often find themselves in bed together, and as they did in Nazi Germany, so it seems to me they do in the pages of the LRB.
Let’s ask a few questions, if you are wondering why I call it intolerance, about what Mary-Kay Wilmers might mean when she labels Israel “a mendacious state”, for it’s unusual to charge a country, rather than the people who happen to be running it at any particular time, with habitual lying. Would it make any sense to accuse the LRB of mendacity, regardless of its editorship, and if I were to do so, what would be my meaning? That an ineradicable dishonesty inheres to it, inheres to its pages, clings maybe to its typeface, no matter what change of personnel there might be over time, no matter what shift in direction or ideology? And wouldn’t I thereby be suggesting that it can never change, that it always was and always will be, in all its constituent parts, an organ of lies?
Always was and always will be, because if anything less were meant, the accusation could be levelled universally, all states being mendacious some of the time.
If we now look at the charge as it applies to Israel, we are presented with bleak implications indeed. If Israel is essentially, once and for ever, at all times and in all seasons, mendacious, then nothing can be hoped for from persuasion, no election can make a difference, no transformation of the mindset of its population alter what it does or what we think of it. Short of annihilation, the lie, which is intrinsic to its existence, must last for ever.
So if the eternal mendacity doesn’t inhere in its politicians or its people, where is it to be found? Presumably only in Zionism itself. The philosophy ab ovo, not its evolution, not the wrong turns it may have taken over the years, for that would not make the state mendacious, only those who have misdirected it. And not in false or deluded interpretations of Zionism, not in betrayals of it, but in the very aspiration itself, born sometimes out of idealism and hope, and sometimes out of desperation and terror, that Jews should have somewhere of their own to live, since they were manifestly not welcome elsewhere. The question must then be asked: if not Zionism, what? If Zionism was mendacious from the start, then what, in the circumstances in which Jews found themselves, would have been true?
In Mary-Kay Wilmers’ dictum, we hear a mind rejoicing in its imperviousness. It is like someone delighting in being blind. She was not always of this persuasion, she has said, but was “converted” to it by the Palestinian academic Edward Said. “Converted” is her word. She stared bare-eyed into Said’s refulgence and something religious happened. And we know what can go on in the brain when something religious happens. Unconditionality takes over, and “everything unconditional”, as Nietzsche reminds us, “belongs to pathology”.
Here is not the place to trace the various outpourings of virulence and bias dressed up as scholarship that the LRB has published, the rebuttals it hasn’t, the sanctimoniousness of its “progressive” tone. That it is otherwise highly regarded and has published interesting and elegantly written articles on unrelated subjects goes without saying. And I certainly don’t accuse their authors of guilt by association. But complacency, when it occupies the centre, spreads. Even when its idée fixe is not on show, you detect in the LRB a pervading pleasedness with self, a conviction of intellectual rectitude at odds with the virtues of contrariety, versatility and play.
At the intersection of progressive thought and rigid political conviction are buried many corpses. Wherever there’s been certitude, intolerance, prejudice – to say nothing of genocide – intellectuals have massed. They might not do the dirty work themselves, but they create the climate in which menials are flattered to be asked to do it for them. George Galloway is no intellectual but he, too, has seen the refulgence and been converted. He will not converse with an Israeli. In his head, at least, he thus annihilates the mendacious state. I’m surprised that Mary-Kay Wilmers doesn’t give him a diary slot. He has a sprightlier way with words than those non-mendacious Israelis she employs, those exceptions to the rule who, assuming an air of academic gravity, put the boot in.