May 19, 2013 § 11 Comments
This year marks the 50th anniversary of CLR James’ wonderful, groundbreaking work Beyond a Boundary. To call it a book about cricket is a bit like calling cricket a ‘game’. Beyond the Boundary blends politics and memoir, history and journalism, biography and reportage, in a manner that transcends literary, sporting and political boundaries. V S Naipaul, not a man given to offering easy praise, described it as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’. John Arlott, that most wonderful of cricket commentators, wrote of Beyond the Boundary, that it was ‘a book so outstanding as to compel any reviewer to check his adjectives several times before he describes it and, since he is likely to be dealing in superlatives, to measure them carefully to avoid over-praise – which this book does not need’.
Beyond the Boundary was a book that CLR James had to write, and that only he could write. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist – there are few modern figures who can match the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics even when it became fashionable to do so. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of Western literature and Western civilization. He was a man whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. The book is in the image of the man himself. Brilliant, complex, contradictory, beautifully observed, deeply insightful, but sometimes also romantic and naïve. And, of course, boundary-crossing. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 20, 2013 § 7 Comments
In 2004, David Goodhart wrote an essay called ‘Too Diverse?’ in Prospect magazine, of which he was then editor. Liberals, he suggested, had to face up to a ‘progressive dilemma’. Too much immigration undermined social solidarity, particularly in a welfare state. We had to choose between the two. The essay caused considerable controversy, but became a key point of reference for many communitarian thinkers, both Labour and Conservative.
Goodhart, now director of the centre-left think tank Demos, has developed that essay into a book. At the heart of The British Dream are three key themes: first, the chasm between the elite and the public on the issue of immigration; second, the corrosive effect of immigration on community solidarity and traditional identities; and third, the problems caused by what Goodhart calls ‘laissez faire multiculturalism’. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
As I am away this week, I am republishing some old material that has not previously appeared on Pandaemonium. This is a review of Gray’s Anatomy, a selection of writing from the philosopher John Gray, It was first published in the Times in April 2009.
On the eve of the Iraq war, John Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognizing their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)’. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered. The trouble is that few readers got the joke. ‘Months and years later’, Gray observes, ‘I continued to receive protests taking me task for my indecent suggestions’.
March 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
‘Imaginative literature’, Chinua Achebe wrote at the end of his essay The Truth of Fiction, ’does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.’ Achebe, who died on Friday, has often been called the greatest African novelist. He was, of course, a great novelist, full stop; one of the towering figures of modern imaginative literature. But Achebe himself would have disdained such an epitaph. To be called simply a writer, rather than an African writer, he more than once observed, was a ‘statement of defeat’. Colonialism, he insisted, created ‘universal man’ by erasing the identities of the peoples whose freedom it denied. As Obierika, one of the characters in Things Fall Apart, puts it, ‘The white man has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’.
Achebe had little patience for the romanticisation of the African past, and of African cultures, of the kind often found in the Negritude movement. But he dismissed also notions of cosmopolitanism and of values rooted in the rejection of specific identities. Yet, his very use of literature and of the novel revealed his desire to reach out to more universal forms. There was always in Achebe’s writings the same kind of tension we can find in Frantz Fanon’s work, between the local and the global, the particular and the universal, between an admiration of European cultures and a detestation of the impact of such cultures. I have as ambivalent a relationship with Achebe’s ideas as I have with Fanon’s. But there is no ambivalence about his fiction. In imaginative literature, far more than in political thinking, that tension provided for creative development. ‘Storytellers’, as he put it in Anthills of the Savannah, a novel that engages with his own writing, ‘are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.’ ’My weapon’, Achebe once observed, ‘is literature’. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is all but complete (yay!). Hopefully, blogging will be back to normal next week. In the meantime, here is another old book review plucked from the vaults, this one of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on a Revolution in Europe. It was first published in New Humanist in July 2009. For more discussion of the myths about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam, see my Milton K Wong lecture, which is in two parts.
In his classic 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, the American historian, political theorist and anti-immigration activist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard warned of the coming collapse of white civilization under a ‘swarm’ of ‘colored’ people. Whites had already been driven out of their ancestral homeland in the Caucasus. The land ‘which in the dawn of history was predominantly white man’s country, is today racially brown man’s land in which white blood survives only as vestigial traces of vanishing significance’. And ‘If this portion of Asia, the former seat of mighty white empires and possibly the very homeland of the white race itself, should have so entirely changed its ethnic character’, Stoddard asked, ‘what assurance can the most impressive political panorama give us that the present world order may not swiftly and utterly pass away?’
Stoddard was worried, too, by the prospect of a resurgent Islam. ‘In so far as he is Christianized, the negro’s savage instincts will be restrained and he will be predisposed to acquiesce in white tutelage’, he wrote. ‘In so far as he is Islamized, the negro’s warlike propensities will be inflamed, and he will be used as the tool of Arab Pan-Islamism seeking to drive the white man from Africa and make the continent its very own.’ To protect Europe and America from a similar fate, Western nations had to ensure that ‘the rising tide of color finds itself walled in by white dikes debarring it from many a promised land which it would fain deluge with its dusky waves.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
March 10, 2013 § 13 Comments
I am still closeted away, finishing my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. So, here is another of my old book reviews, this one on Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning. It was first published in the Independent in August 2010.
In an age in which public intellectuals are often highly divisive figures – think of the storms surrounding Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins or Bernard-Henri Lévy – few generate more controversy than Tariq Ramadan. Political activist, Muslim scholar, and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, he is to some the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’, a courageous reformer who helps bridge the chasm between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy. To his critics, Ramadan is a ‘slippery’, ‘double-faced’ religious bigot, a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism. When, in 2004, Ramadan was appointed professor of religion by Notre Dame, America’s leading Catholic University, the US State Department revoked his visa for supposedly endorsing terrorist activity.
The debate about Ramadan was re-ignited earlier this year with the publication of The Flight of the Intellectuals, American writer Paul Berman’s savage attack on European thinkers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for what he regards as their appeasement of Ramadan. The Quest for Meaning, Ramadan’s first book aimed at a wider Western audience, arrives therefore at a timely moment. It is, he writes, ‘a journey and an initiation’ into the world’s faiths to discover the universal truths they hold in common and to set out ‘the contours of a philosophy of pluralism.’ Unfortunately it will do little to settle the argument about the nature of Ramadan’s beliefs. There is a willfull shallowness about this work, a refusal to think deeply or to pose difficult questions, that is truly shocking. Insofar as it is provocative, The Quest for Meaning seeks to provoke not through the excess of its rhetoric but through the banality of its reasoning. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 7, 2013 Comments Off
As I continue my life in purdah, trying to complete my book, here is the second book review drawn from the vaults. The review is of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins; it was originally published in August 2010 on Norman Geras’ normblog, as part of his Writer’s Choice series.
The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins. « Read the rest of this entry »