The Victims of the Backlash

More good stuff from Naunihal in this morning’s email:

WHY ARE THE VICTIMS OF THE BACKLASH FACELESS? Consider two individuals who have been in the news lately: Sher Singh and Balbir Singh Sodhi. You might not recognize either name but you know the face of one of them. Both of them are Sikh Americans – they wear turbans and have beards. Neither had anything to do with Osama bin Laden.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona who was tragically shot dead, presumably in a racist attack. Although there has been some coverage of this event, it is considered a minor story. His face is never shown, so the audience doesn’t have a chance to imagine him as a person, tragically shot down for “looking wrong”.

Sher Singh was on the train from Boston to Washington DC when it was stopped in Providence. He was wearing a green turban and had a long beard. He was interrogated for looking “suspicious”. Although he established his innocence, he was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor charge and led away in handcuffs. This picture was ubiquitous. It was repeated on CNN, and in the local papers. Why ? This was a non-story. A misdemeanor charge of a man who had no connection to the attack. But by showing him being led away in handcuffs, and mentioning that the train was stopped because of suspicious individuals, the media managed to associate him firmly with the attack even while they said he had no connection to it.

Why do we know Sher Singh’s face but not Balbir Singh’s ? Why was Sher Singh’s story major news – when he as known to have no connection to the incident – and Balbir Singh’s minor news – even though his death is part of the backlash ?

Nobody is commenting on the ethics of this, even though the bias seems clear. Indeed, nobody is asking why we are spending more time talking about the loss of curb-side check-in than the death of a fellow American.

It goes further than this, however. While I am pleased to read the backlash stories, they are in some way token. There are other articles about “The American Experience” in dealing with this event, and these in no way show the complete face of out country. Even though I know there were lots of brown-skinned Americans who worked near ground zero – in every capacity from janitor to CEO – most of the faces I saw in the personal stories pieces were white.

The backlash is implicitly reported as a “minority” issue, rather than one which is intertwined with all the other topics being reported. It was only a year ago that people were reporting on the number of brown faces in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, yet somehow stories on the economy only cover people’s fear of flying and not their fear of being assaulted. Have we forgotten all the census stories about the “browning” of America? If not, why is the experience of brown America peripheral ?

In order to be fully effective against the backlash, the media has to report the experience of brown-skinned Americans and Muslim-Americans in the mainstream discussions of “America” as well as in separate pieces on the backlash itself. We need to be seen on page one and above the fold as it were. It is only if the media makes the point that we are all Americans implicitly and explicitly that this point will be heard.

Honor the dead. Fight the Backlash.

For those who don’t know him, Naunihal Singh is a doctoral student at Harvard University and a member of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force. He’s a Sikh, an American, and his high school prom was held at the World Trade Center.

Michaele wrote [18.9.01]: I confess that I have been puzzling about how to respond to Naunihal’s concern about which images of Sikhs make the news and which do not. I should preface this with the comment that I really do not mean to be offensive, and that I am only trying to understand the depth of the charges that Naunihal is making about bias in the media.

Naunihal, since you do seem to be well-networked in the North American Sikh community, do you know if anyone has provided pictures of Balbir Singh Sodhi to the media? I can imagine perfectly benign reasons why the media would not show his image: a) they have not been able to obtain any photos of him, in spite of their best efforts, b) his family has actually requested that his image not be shown on television (as sometimes happens in cases of death that do not in any way seem linked with race). If�I am�to blame the media in this case, then�I need to know that a) the media has access to pictures of Sodhi, and b) they have permission to use those pictures, and c) they have nonetheless decided not to use them. If a, b, and c are demonstrably true, then I think the case against the media is quite damning. But if not, then I have to reserve judgment (although I admit to being generally sceptical of the intentions of the media).

It seems to me that there is a perfectly plausible and non-racist explanation for why the media would have images of Sher Singh and not Sodhi. Singh is still alive – they could capture his arrest in action. Sodhi is someone who came to the media’s attention only after his death – so they have to go out of their way to find people with pictures of him when he was alive. That does not excuse the media for overplaying images of Sher Singh in an inflammatory fashion – and without having any confirmed information that he was, in fact, a suspect in the recent attacks. But it might do something to explain why images of him are comparatively easy to come by.

I sincerely hope that you take this in the spirit intended – as a question about the severity of�your charge against the media – and not as an attempt to whitewash the recent coverage.

Naunihal replied [18.9.01]: When they showed Sher Singh they had already been told that he had no connection to the attack. it was a photograph of somebody who had no connection who was being arrested for an unrelated weapons charge. That’s what they said, but the photo made it look like something else since it was put in the middle of news about the bombing. (It turns out he was harassed and chased by an angry crowd. There were some interesting follow-up articles on this subject, but he was again faceless).

As for the photo of Sodhi – there is no reservation either religious or cultural about photographs. Reporters have spoken extensively to his family, and I can’t believe that a man who has been living in the US for some time has no family snapshots anywhere.

As a matter of fact, none of the three people who were shot this weekend have had their faces shown, either in the news stories I read or in the TV news I watched.

Other people I know agreed that it was strange, given that there were 250 South Asians dead in the blast (an unconfirmed number) and many more who worked in the area, that none appeared in the news coverage.

Furthermore something else strange is happening. A month ago, probably one out of every three stock analysts on TV from the brokerage houses were South Asian. I watched two hours of financial coverage and saw only white faces. Not one East Asian either. It’s a noticeable and visceral difference if you’re tuned into these things.

I’m not claiming a conspiracy. I am claiming that in times of stress we revert to a 1950s image of “America” and it shows. Then again, Brit Hume on Fox news said someting about returning to more traditional values and music (!?!) in the face of the attack.

I sent that piece to the Poynter Institute, the main journalistic clearing house, and they agreed to put something up on the subject so I struck a nerve with some professional journalists. You’re right it could all be coincidence, but my gut isn’t happy. I had expected to see the faces of the people who had been shot on TV and in the news … and instead the stories are buried deep in the paper. I wish I had the time to do a proper news analysis … but I’ll bet all images on national TV have gotten substantially whiter. As for the lack of photos of the three who were shot – I think its guilt, pure and simple. We’re in the middle of victimhood and self-righteous anger, and this would spoil it.

Michaele, again [18.9.01]: Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. Funny – the commentators have gotten noticeably male-r, too. News anchors are still female, but the pundits aren’t. I’ve had a number of feminist emails about that issue. It doesn’t surprise me that you would notice a correlation having to do with race as well. (I confess that I have been avoiding TV news these past two days, and getting everything online and via public radio, so I can’t really comment on the recent past.)

Naunihal, again [18.9.01]: I was talking to my officemate Oxana and commented that they were older, whiter and maler. Maybe something about looking establishment and conveying security. This is definitely true for the financial sector cable news where they had been young and minority.

Naunihal, again [19.9.01]: I saw a photo of Balbir Singh Sodhi on the ABC special last night between 10 and 11. it’s out there, but this is the only time I’ve seen it on TV.

More on the Racist Backlash

From the BBC:

“Police are investigating a racial attack – in which remarks were made about the atrocities in the US – which left an Afghan minicab driver paralysed. The victim, who now lives in Acton, west London, had picked up three men and a woman in the area before dropping them off in Twickenham on Sunday. Police officers found the 28-year-old man shortly after 3am outside the Prince Blucher pub on The Green, Twickenham. He was taken with serious injuries by ambulance to West Middlesex Hospital, where his condition deteriorated. The victim was transferred to Charing Cross Hospital where he is currently stable in the high dependency unit. He is paralysed from the neck down. …”

Twickenham is just over the river from where I grew up. The attackers have not yet been apprehended.

More on the Backlash

My friend Naunihal Singh has just sent this email around:

“I’m feeling angry. Nobody on TV takes the backlash seriously – that the President’s remarks, once, are somehow enough. Now to add to the people in hospitals from violent attacks, the property attacks on temples and businesses, there is a death. “I’m from New York City. My Prom was held at the World Trade Center. But now I have to face a threat from two directions – a continued terrorist threat, and one from my fellow Americans.

“Please – help spread the word. Try to inject this element into conversations about the recent tragedy. Anti-Arab sentiment is going to get worse before this is all over – and that means that all sorts of innocent Arabs, muslims, and those who just “look like them” will be at risk. I’ll be damned if I let racism destroy my nation. I can’t do much about Bin Laden directly, but I can try to make sure that he doesn’t “win” by destroying those things I value most about America.

“Honor the dead. Fight the backlash.”

Naunihal’s not the only person I’ve heard from today who tells me that the racist backlash is being under-reported and de-emphasised in the US media; he’s also kept me informed about racist WTC-related violence here in the UK and in Australia. And he’s right to be angry: those who use Tuesday’s atrocity as an excuse for racial hatred and violence are wholly despicable.

Michaele wrote [17.9.01]: [i] There was a great news/talk program on the local public radio station on Thursday that discussed the backlash against Muslims and veiled women and people who “look like” they are Arab or Muslim. (Again, I think the fact that I have heard programs like this makes me mildly more optimistic, although of course I am outraged by the reports I have heard and the shootings in Texas). One of the leaders of a US Muslim organization was being interviewed on the show because he had given a press conference that morning expressing regret about the bombings and the like. The interviewer asked why many organizations like his had waited until Thursday to speak out against the attacks. His response was that on Tuesday it wasn’t clear who was responsible, and for Muslim organizations to speak out at that point would have been inappropriate, since there would be no reason for them to be singled out. (We didn’t expect every Protestant organization to make a public statement on Tuesday…) I found it really interesting that Muslim organizations were being very conservative early on about trying to counteract a possible backlash – not that they are in any way responsible.

Similarly, I talked with a good friend of mine Friday night, a Palestinian who is a political theory professor at San Diego State, Farid Abdel-Nour. We had a long talk about how this is affecting him, his Arab and Muslim students, and the community in San Diego. He mentioned that he was getting multiple calls from the press everyday, and was avoiding his office. He assumed that they were calling him because of his name and his position at the university, as he cannot think of any other reason why they would think to contact him for comment. He has been avoiding them because he doesn’t think that he has anything to say. He may change his mind – we’ll see.

I’m not sure what my point here is, other than to suggest that not all of the silence (which I actually _haven’t_ noticed at all) about the backlash is a result of the media, but it is also caused by some cautiousness among members of targeted groups. That being said, there has actually been A LOT of coverage out here, both locally and nationally, about the backlash. I’ve seen lots of people talking about it on CNN, as well as local TV. That’s not enough to keep crazy Texans from becoming racist vigilantes, of course. But I’m not sure what would be. Within 24 hours of the bombing, I had heard A LOT of people on the news talking about the importance of not turning to violence against people on the basis of some presumed religious or ethnic connection to the violence.

[ii] Where the press went terribly, terribly wrong, I think, was in advertising the Palestinians who were immediately celebrating the attacks. This was the ONLY image of a response from the Arab world in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and I think that is probably the fault of (a) incendiary press tactics, (b) the slowness of international and in particular Arab public officials’ response to the attacks, and (c) the aforementioned reluctance of Muslim groups in the U.S. to begin speaking out when it was unclear who had perpetrated the attacks to begin with.

[iii] Furthermore, I think that we can be even more critical of Bush than Naunihal’s comments that you quoted suggest. It’s bad enough that he hasn’t repeatedly spoken out against racist violence. The way that he tried to promote unity was through his weird notion of “Judeo-Christianity”. Muslims, he told us the other day, are deserving of our respect because they are a part of “our” “Judeo-Christian” heritage. Aside from the fact that “Judeo-Christianity” is itself a suspect category, which politically is meant to make fundamentalist Christians sound as if they aren’t _really_ anti-Semitic, shouldn’t we reflect on how exclusionary such a category would be, even if it were coherent? Any religious (or non-religious) group that doesn’t fit his “Judeo-Christian” pattern is somehow unequally deserving. Eek!

Naunihal wrote [17.9.01]: The problem is that the coverage is a sideshow. And when a Sikh is arrested on a misdemeanor not related to the attack his face is shown on TV repeatedly; when a Sikh is shot, or beaten with a baseball bat, nobody shows his face.

Mourning and Organisation

Before being shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915 for a crime he did not commit, the legendary Swedish-American trade unionist and songwriter Joe Hill sent his famous last words off in a telegram to a friend, often remembered (with slight but not misleading inaccuacy) as “Don’t mourn, organise”. When five thousand people have been killed so suddenly, and in such a violent, criminal and spectacular fashion, many millions will mourn, both in America and around the world, and they are absolutely right to do so. But that doesn’t mean that “Mourn. Don’t organise” is the right imperative to adopt, as some people seem to think.

Those of us who think that W. is a dangerous idiot, who hate the Anglophone media’s relentless drumbeat of war, and who sympathise with Matthew Parris’s remark in yesterday’s Times that “Playing the world’s policeman is not the answer to that catastrophe in New York, playing the world’s policeman is what led to it” must not be seduced (or straightforwardly bullied) into thinking that they shouldn’t educate, agitate and organise against what they fear is about to happen. If the “war” we are being promised by the media and the politicians is anything like as ghastly as those who are baying for it want it to be, a peace movement will have to constitute itself very quickly indeed. The right-wing politicians in the Executive Branch are doing much to exploit these civilian deaths for their own political ends; for their critics to imagine that it is somehow “inappropriate” or “unpatriotic” at the moment to criticise the government, or to counter-mobilise for peace, or to continue to oppose the stupidities of National Missile Defense, or to ask the hard questions about why what happened happened, is the height of folly.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

It is never too hard to find examples of Orwell’s Newspeak dribbling out of the mouths of the governing classes, but the sewage flows freely this week. The tone was set early on by a thoroughly bellicose column in Wednesday’s Washington Post: “We Must Fight This War”. Its author Robert Kagan is, we are told, a “a “senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”.

The British media is not too far behind; the editorial pages of today’s Sunday Telegraph rose to the occasion. Exhibit A was an article by Henry Kissinger (“President George W Bush has wisely warned that the attacks on New York and Washington amounted to a declaration of war”, et cetera ad nauseam); Exhibit B was a leader column (“Only two courses of action are open to Nato: appeasement or war. There is no third way…”, ditto), which approvingly quoted Shimon Peres’s recent remark that “every country must now decide whether it wants to be a smoking or nonsmoking country, a country that supports terrorism or one that doesn’t”.

The author of the first piece is reckoned by many of those who think about these things to be an international war criminal of the first magnitude, for his interventions — most of which can be reasonably described as terroristic — in Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor; the man quoted in the second is the deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs in the government of Israel, i.e., the number two to prime minister Ariel Sharon, the man indirectly responsible (according to Israel’s own inquiry, no less) for the Falangists’ bloody massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 which left many hundreds of Palestinians dead. (Sharon was the commanding officer in Lebanon, and gave the order which let the militias into the camps, with highly predictable consequences).

We need Robert Fisk in the Independent on Sunday to remind us at a time like this, because no one else will, that today is the nineteenth anniversary of the start of the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila. There was an excellent BBC Panorama programme broadcast on 17 June about Sharon’s role in the massacres: its webpage has a full transcript, and other useful information.

Raj wrote [17.9.01]: AMERICA DECLARES WAR ON WORLD, SELF. AGAIN.

America is a contradictory place to be. Witness Mr Bush on racism: “We must be mindful that, as we seek to win the war, we treat Arab-Americans with the respect they deserve,” Mr Bush said. “There are thousands of Arab-Americans who live in New York City who love their flag,” the President said. “We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror.”

Compare and contrast with Bush’s white supremacist subtext in the declaration of what CNN is calling “America’s New War”. America’s new war indeed. The US has been fighting racist wars at home and abroad for a while now. Discrimination against Latin@s, through the War on Drugs and more recently Plan Colombia. War against East and South-East Asians with the demonisation first of Vietnam, and now China. The war on African Americans and the poor through “Zero tolerance” and a racist judiciary. The Christian Right’s consistent war on women through pro-life initiatives. The War on Arab Americans has been going on for a while in the media. And now, tragically, America’s New War on the New Enemy Within. America seems to be finding new wars with the frequency and arrogance of Browning’s Duke.

And with equally fatal results.

Oliver wrote [18.9.01]: I was worried by one aspect of your comments about the contents of the Sunday Telegraph. It seems absolutely right to highlight some of the awful truths about Kissinger’s record in government. But when it comes to putting Peres’s quote in context, you have nothing to say about him other than that he is a member of Sharon’s government. You then expound at length on Sharon. It strikes me as unfortunate to taint one with the others actions, especially when they are such different politicians, and especially as so much else on your weblog page concerns bias in the reporting of the terrible racist attacks that have followed in the wake of last week’s tragedy.

Chris replies [18.9.2001]: Peres is not Sharon, true. They aren’t even in the same party. But when Mr Bush talks about refusing to make a distinction between terrorists and those who “harbor” terrorists, I can’t help thinking that the Israeli government is harbouring a rather important one. And while I don’t especially want to get into an argument about whether Israeli government policy amounts to state-sponsored terrorism — given their admitted use of what they euphemistically call “targeted killings” and everyone else calls “assassinations”, and the use of helicopter gunships in reprisals against stone-throwing Palestinians — I tend to think that’s a very plausible construction to place on things. The general point is that it ill becomes any Israeli minister to talk so smugly about a distinction between those countries that sponsor terrorism and those that don’t, because of traditional problems about motes and beams (and barley, O).

New York

The scale of Tuesday’s disaster in New York remains staggering.

I was in living in Boston in December 1999, when six firefighters burned to death in a warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts. The story was reasonably straightforward and gained a certain amount of force from its elemental simplicity: they went into the building believing (falsely) that there were people trapped inside who needed rescuing, and they didn’t come out. The media, local and national, made much of the tragedy: the tabloid Boston Herald, to which I subscribed for its year-round baseball coverage, ran innumerable front pages on the story. It was all very moving, and I was suitably moved. (There was a nasty subtext to some of the media coverage about the relative worth of the lives of the firefighters on the one hand and the homeless people who squatted in the warehouse on the other, but this was, all things considered, only a marginal narrative in the media frenzy). The funeral procession was said to be the largest single gathering of firefighters anywhere in the world, and President Clinton was there, too, and he said a few words.

Six firefighters died in Worcester and big chunks of New England were traumatised. I read today that _two hundred and two_ firefighters were still on the missing list in New York (and they must all be presumed dead by now), together with _fifty-seven_ police officers. They all went into the World Trade Center thinking there was useful work to be done inside, and were crushed to death when the towers came down. And they are only a small fraction of the overall death toll. A hundred other comparisons could be drawn to make the same point: this was, and is, huge; and it was, and is, quite horrible to think about too much.

The comparison with Pearl Harbor is frequently being drawn — America’s “Day of Infamy”. Pearl Harbor did lead to America’s entry into the Second World War, and America did rally around the leadership of its President, FDR, and various other creditable things flowed from the raid, but (lest we forget) America also interned its citizens of Japanese origin in special camps in the months that followed. If this is indeed a second Pearl Harbor it is very important that bigotry towards Arabs, whether American or not, is stamped on very hard. There have already been several reports from the US of violence against Arab-Americans and other Asian-Americans (including Sikhs and Pakistanis), which is disgraceful. For all his palpable faults, Mayor Giuliani has been doing an excellent job in New York in recent days — he has risen to the occasion, unlike W. — and by both speaking and acting promptly to help defuse anti-Arab bigotry, he deserves yet more praise.

Right-wing pundit (and Magdalen graduate) Andrew Sullivan found these words to go in his own weblog. They suit his disreputable political agenda a little better than they suit mine, but I still think they are both haunting and apposite, and I’ll repost them here:

“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.”

— From W. H. Auden: “September 1, 1939”

There is a good article in today’s Times (how rarely can you say that!) by military historian Michael Howard. It makes the point that over the last hundred years the three main goals of terrorists have been (i) self-advertisement, (ii) to demoralise governments, and (iii) “to provoke the government into such savage acts of suppression that it forfeited public support and awoke popular and international sympathy for the revolutionary cause.” Given the rhetoric of the US Government and its various allies as they talk of pursuing the people behind this enormity — for once, the word is not being misused by the media — it will be a something of a surprise if they don’t go overboard on the provocation front. Do the American politicians really think that their interests are best served, and that their cities will be made safer in the long run, with all this talk of dividing the world again into “us” and “them” and then waging unceasing “war” on the latter? Let us hope they calm down; and let us hope still more fervently that yet more civilians do not die as a result of the American-led military action which now seems depressingly inevitable.

Launches & Relaunches

It is a time for launches and relaunches. My undergraduate Politics tutor Adam Swift officially launched his new book Political Philosophy: a Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians at a party at Politico’s Bookshop in London on Wednesday evening. It was originally to be subtitled A Guide for Students and Prime Ministers, as the book was written so that even Tony Blair might understand it, but the publisher vetoed the title owing to concerns about its prospects in the American market. Then it was going to be … for Students and Statesmen, which is nicely alliterative and has a useful Platonic echo, but that was insufficiently gender-neutral, so now we have … for Students and Politicians instead. (I’m still worrying about the position of the apostrophe in Beginners’). It was a good party, and it is a good book, certainly up there with Jonathan Wolff’s An Introduction to Political Philosophy as one of the best recent treatments of a surprisingly tricky topic.

The C Team

The Conservative Party began to relaunch itself yesterday, with the election of Iain Duncan Smith as its new Leader.

David Lloyd George’s coalition government fell in 1922 when the parliamentary Conservative Party voted heavily to withdraw its support at the famous Carlton Club meeting of 19 October. As well as precipitating Lloyd George’s departure from office for the last time, the vote also led to the resignation of the Tory leader in the House of Commons Austen Chamberlain, who was the son of Joseph and a half-brother to Neville, as well as being, of course, the last Tory leader before William Hague who was never also Prime Minister.

Andrew Bonar Law became Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, but his ministry was not a strong one. In today’s language, a handful of the Tories’ “big beasts” refused to serve, including both Arthur Balfour (PM 1902-05, Foreign Secretary, 1916-19, etc.) and Chamberlain himself (War Cabinet, India Office, Chancellor, etc, 1915-22), and this led Winston Churchill — who also lost office in 1922 owing to his then association with the Lloyd George Liberals — to label the new administration of Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and various peers “a government of the second eleven”.

Let me pursue this useful analogy and be the first to brand the new Tory front bench an opposition of the Tory Party’s Third Eleven. It is quite simple. The last time the Tories fielded their 1st XI was in the early 1990s. The big beasts (although I’m not sure they were called that then) were all there: Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Douglas Hurd, James MacKay, probably Malcolm Rifkind, possibly John Major; there were also of course assorted knaves and fools like Jonathan Aitken and William Waldegrave to make up the numbers, but in general, whatever one made of their politics, many of these people were at least credible as senior government ministers. From the middle of the 1990s until the present we’ve had the “B” team in charge: William Hague, Brian Mawhinney, Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard, Ann Widdecombe, Francis Maude, and so on. And now with the premature passing of this political generation in another instalment of electoral oblivion, the Tories have picked a comically poor new squad to challenge for power. Iain Duncan Smith is now the Leader — and it is not too early to say that he will become the _second_ Tory Leader since Austen Chamberlain never to make it to the top job. Oliver Letwin is Shadow Home Secretary. Liam Fox at Health. David MacLean as Chief Whip. John Bercow. Eric Pickles. I could go on in this vein for a while. And together with these assorted mediocrities, we also have a blast of unsavoury wind from the past with the restoration of the odious Michael Howard, who is now Shadow Chancellor.

Part of this, of course, owes to the passage of time. Perhaps I am also being nostalgic in automatically thinking that today’s politicians just aren’t what they once were? Several members of the Tory team are no longer available for selection for various reasons, some of them electoral. (As many serving Cabinet Ministers lost their seats in 1997 as in the previous thirteen General Elections put together.) Political careers are getting shorter and shorter all the time — William Hague, the extreme case, is all washed up and he only turned forty in March. And no doubt a part of the problem owes to the difficulties of running a decent Opposition front bench with only 160-odd MPs from which to try to squeeze out the remaining droplets of talent. But the mediocrity of Mr Duncan Smith’s team is very striking, and it makes the Labour ministers look like Parliamentary giants. Quite an achievement. And whatever my reservations about the “New” Labour government, the continuing decade-long disintegration of the Conservative Party which began, I suppose, in the Autumn of 1992 — not so much with the pound’s ejection from the ERM as with Mr Heseltine’s difficulties over the pit closures — is still immensely entertaining to watch.

Relaunch

And so to the relaunch of this weblog. I pulled the plug on it over the Summer in order to concentrate as much as I could on my dissertation manuscript. But the new term is now approaching, and I can’t keep that degree of single-mindedness going any more, which makes it a good time to start scribbling here again. (Tuesday’s events knocked my concentration out of the window, too). I certainly can’t promise to post to the weblog every day, but I hope to do so a few times each week. And, with luck, the technology at blogger.com won’t frustrate me quite as much as it did back in June.

Comments on any snippets are extremely welcome; all that are suitable for public consumption will be posted in the relevant spaces.

State of the World

I was in the Little Bookshop in Oxford’s Covered Market earlier today, looking for the usual left-wing books that I tend to buy when I think I have spare cash, and I found a secondhand copy of the The State of the World Atlas, first edition, 1981, on sale for £1.50, edited my Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal. I bought it without hesitation: a bargain.

After a gap of many years, I began thinking about this book again after reading Franco Moretti’s marvellous Atlas of the European Novel last year, another book which uses imaginative maps in a creative way to make very serious points. Then I found myself wondering just how implicated The State of the World Atlas and its successor volumes — including at least one edition of The War Atlas — are in the decade-plus-long process of my political opinions shifting ever leftwards, from 1988 or so to the present.

I think that I must have been given a copy of the book in 1982 or 1983, not too long after it was first published. It must have been before 1984, as that was when The New State of the World Atlas was released, and we had a copy of that, too, though not, I think, any of the successor volumes published in 1987, 1991 or 1995 (though I did have a copy of the 1985 State of the Nation Atlas, an altogether less interesting book in the same vein).

For when I started reading the Atlas, aged nine or so, I loved it. I was interested by the different ways in which the maps were drawn and coloured, in order to present different kinds of information on any number of subjects. At first I looked at the images; it was a couple of years at least before I began reading the small print in the endnotes at all carefully, and finding out what the sources of the information presented were, and it was many years later that I would have come to the conscious realisation that the people who put together this wonderful volume were very left-wing indeed, and that the Atlas was a first-rate piece of entirely admirable and (in my case) terribly effective propaganda.

The Atlas did many things. It taught me that the UNESCO-backed Peters projection of the face of the globe was a horrible distortion on page one. By the time we get to maps 7 to 12, I was being taught something about military conflict in the world, about the arms industry, and about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Map 24 displayed patterns of international indebtedness; map 37 introduced me to the idea of a tax haven; maps 53 and 54 to the extent of the pollution of the face of the earth. Flipping through the book’s pages tonight, I am reminded of just how much my opinions about the state of the world are stuck in a 1981 timewarp, because of the powerful impression this book made on me at the time.

It is at the end of the book that the political agenda becomes most apparent. Some of the maps seem dated: map 56 is of “The First Inflationary Crest”, and graphically displays the various national inflation rates of 1974. Others seem prescient: map 62 depicts “Russia’s Ununited Republics” and emphasises the strains of ethnic and national politics in what we can now – but not then – call the former Soviet Union. And the book closes with maps showing changing abortion laws, and patterns of 1960s student protest and 1970s urban insurrections. The significance of these meant absolutely nothing to me in 1982-3, nor for a time afterwards — but I know that I pored over these pages and that something from them entered into my soul.

In the last few years, there have been a few tenth anniversaries to get used to. People my age tend to think they are too young to have to have the feeling that something they remember happened a decade ago, but it crops up too often to be ignored. I can remember newspaper articles from 1988, the revolutions of 1989, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, all as if they took place yesterday. The State of the World Atlas is now twenty years old for me, a rather alarming thought, but twenty years later it remains a wonderful, wonderful book, and it is delightful to remake its acquaintance again, after a gap of so many years.