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Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations

Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations

by Henry Fairlie, Jeremy McCarter (Editor), Leon Wieseltier (Foreword by)

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Henry Fairlie was one of the most colorful and trenchant journalists of the twentieth century. The British-born writer made his name on Fleet Street, where he coined the term “The Establishment,” sparred in print with the likes of Kenneth Tynan, and caroused with Kingsley Amis, among  many others. In America his writing found a home in the pages of


Henry Fairlie was one of the most colorful and trenchant journalists of the twentieth century. The British-born writer made his name on Fleet Street, where he coined the term “The Establishment,” sparred in print with the likes of Kenneth Tynan, and caroused with Kingsley Amis, among  many others. In America his writing found a home in the pages of the New Yorker and other top magazines and newspapers. When he died, he was remembered as “quite simply the best political journalist, writing in English, in the last fifty years.”

Remarkable for their prescience and relevance, Fairlie’s essays celebrate Winston Churchill, old-fashioned bathtubs, and American empire; they ridicule Republicans who think they are conservatives and yuppies who want to live forever. Fairlie is caustic, controversial, and unwavering—especially when attacking his employers. With an introduction by Jeremy McCarter, Bite the Hand That Feeds You restores a compelling voice that, among its many virtues, helps Americans appreciate their country anew.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A native British wit expresses an adopted American ebullience in this sparkling collection of political journalism and commentary. Fairlie (1924-1990) migrated from London to the U.S. in the 1960s, where his writings in the Washington Post, the New Republic and elsewhere both celebrated and pilloried the American scene. The unstuffy Brit applauds America's informality, its gadgetry, its abundance and vastness, and its personification in a cowboy-poet named Hooter he meets in a Mankato, Minn., bar, but he's appalled by its politics. An avowed Tory in Britain, he discovers conservatism's Reaganite version to be "narrow-minded and selfish and mean-spirited"; he duly eulogizes FDR, attacks George F. Will and denounces government bashing as "the sneer of patronizing and vaulting privilege at the needs of ordinary people that can be served only by government." Whether stomping on the "dangerous insects" in the Washington media corps or defending his beloved Scotch whiskey against the Perrier water fad that prompted "the abandonment of... a wholesome and convivial liquor for a suspect Gallic product," Fairlie's elegantly pugilistic prose still feels fresh-and surprisingly relevant to today's politics. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Village Voice

"In 32 timely and relentlessly witty essays, ranging from the political ('A Cheer for American Imperialism') to the whimsical ('The Importance of Bathtubs'), Fairlie proves why he was widely considered to be one of the best multidisciplinary journalists of the last 50 years." — The Village Voice


"I read Bite the Hand That Feeds You. And I'm better and wiser for it. . . . It would have been nice to have had Henry Fairlie around during the Cheney presidency. It's a comfort to have the next best thing." — Tim Heffernan, Esquire.com

The New Yorker

". . . Fairlie brought to America a fluency in history and prose, a jagged wit, a newcomer's affection for the New World, and a set of self-destructive life-style habits charming only in hindsight. . . . This smartly edited collection gets him at his best." —The New Yorker

The Daily Beast

"One of journalism's great iconoclasts."--The Daily Beast

New York Times Book Review

“Display[s] Fairlie’s wit, fluent prose, principled conservatism and love of the United States.”--New York Times Book Review

Columbia Journalism Review

"Jeremy McCarter of Newsweek has done a judicious job assembling the contents. . . . It all remains fresh and reading through it is like attending a circus."—James Boylan, Columbia Journalism Review

— James Boylan

Hendrik Hertzberg

"If you doubt that political essays can induce something like ecstasy, I have three names for you. George Orwell, of course. Dwight Macdonald. And Henry Fairlie—who, with this book, may finally get his due."—Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor, The New Yorker
Andrew Sullivan

“Henry Fairlie was always an inspiration: a rebel, a Tory bohemian, an Oakeshottian, a conversationalist and a merry drunk. He cared more about America than most Americans and wrapped it in a Burkean passion few can equal. This book brings him back to life—and reminds me why we need his like today just as urgently as ever.”—Andrew Sullivan, senior editor, The Atlantic
Sean Wilentz

“McCarter offers Fairlie in full, as far as is probably possible."—Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

Columbia Journalism Review - James Boylan

"Jeremy McCarter of Newsweek has done a judicious job assembling the contents. . . . It all remains fresh and reading through it is like attending a circus."—James Boylan, Columbia Journalism Review
Andrew Sullivan - The Daily Dish (The Atlantic blog)

“And buy Jeremy McCarter's wonderful new collection of some of Henry's greatest pieces — journalism at its finest and crispest and bravest.” — Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish (TheAtlantic.com blog)

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
A New Republic Book
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Bite the Hand That Feeds You

Essays and Provocations
By Henry Fairlie

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Jeremy McCarter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12383-8

Chapter One

Sketches of MPs

In a major address to Parliament on March 1, 1955, Winston Churchill announced that Great Britain would develop the hydrogen bomb to deter Soviet aggression. "Never flinch, never weary, never despair," the eighty-year-old prime minister concluded.

One can leave aside the Daily Mirror, which has now reached the point of billing each great speech by Sir Winston Churchill as "Positively his Last Appearance," but there are still others of more serious intent who think that the Prime Minister has ceased to be a useful servant of the State. If they heard, or have read in full, his speech on the hydrogen bomb, they must either revise their opinion or be very deaf to the accents of leadership. Sir Winston Churchill uses oratory for a specific purpose: not to press home an argument or push a policy through, but to create a mood or an attitude. All his great post-war speeches have been designed to this end. His "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton created the attitude of mind in the West which for the next seven years was to shape all discussions of foreign policy. His famous speech in May, 1953, after Stalin's death, in which he advocated high-level talks with theSoviet Union, created a new attitude, favourable to ideas of co-existence, which in its turn remoulded all subsequent discussion of foreign policy. He rarely, in these speeches, says anything "new." Mr. Shinwell was quite right, from that narrow point of view, in saying that there was nothing original in his speech on the hydrogen bomb. But he is the great synthesiser. He takes the facts, hopes, fears, doubts, speculations of the day and transmutes them into a single, coherent and intelligible challenge to the minds and hearts of his listeners. This is what he did again on Tuesday. This is leadership on a scale of which no other man alive today is capable-read the reactions of the world's press, including the headline which Le Figaro gave his speech, "Meditations on the Theme of the Apocalypse"-and the country cannot afford to dispense with it a moment earlier than is necessary. Let all the rumours be true. Perhaps he does tire quicker than before. Perhaps he does nod now and then. There still remains the creative, imaginative genius of the man. It is of priceless value to the free world, even if his afternoon nap is half an hour longer than before.

From the sublime ... well, it is a rum collection of Labour members who decided to abstain on the Defence debate. The pacifists one respects, and there is nothing more to be said about them. But let us have a closer look at Mr. Maurice Edelman, the blue-blazer-and-brass-button boy of the Labour Party. Mr. Edelman has been perfectly tailored, by whatever divinity shapes our beginnings, to be the star of the Purley Tennis and Badminton Club. (If Purley does not have a Tennis and Badminton Club, it should have.) But he is an adventurous soul, and has sought other worlds to conquer. Drop in at an embassy reception, and there will be Mr. Edelman, fresh with a quip which he picked up a month ago from M. Massigli. Look in at a literary cocktail party, and there will be Mr. Edelman again, this time with a delightful story about Claudel to cap the morning's obituary notices. But, why politics? And, why the Labour Party? Watch him as he rises from his perch behind the Front Bench to put a supplementary question: the slight tug at the back of his jacket to make sure that it is lying straight, the deft rearrangement of his shirt cuff, then (and only then) the ever-so-modulated voice. "Are you ready now, Miss Horsbrugh? Will I serve?" What is behind it all? One asks the question because Mr. Edelman is a man of most elusive convictions. There is no one in the Labour Party who, intellectually and temperamentally, stands farther to the Right than Mr. Edelman, but no one has taken more trouble to avoid identifying himself with the Right. He sits for Coventry North, a hot-bed of Bevanism, with Mr. Crossman rolling them in the aisles next door. But, no, that cannot be the explanation. The mystery remains. What is Mr. Edelman in politics for?

Usually just in front of Mr. Edelman sits Mr. Woodrow Wyatt. They are of the same generation, and they provide an interesting contrast. Mr. Wyatt clearly enjoys politics hugely. One suspects that when he tramps through the division lobby he puffs out his chest and says to himself, "Wyatt, MP, you are making history, you are treading where Chatham trod, you are shaping the universe." It is easy, especially for some of the young cynics in the Labour Party today, to laugh at Mr. Wyatt's attitude. But he has a quality which lifts him above them all. He has the courage of a terrier. He is one of the most outspoken opponents of Bevanism-and it is not easy to be this when you are a young Labour MP representing a Birmingham constituency. But Mr. Wyatt has never felt that it was his duty to truckle to the opinions of his constituency party. Whenever he thinks his constituency party is about to go round the Bevanite bend he just takes the train to Birmingham and calls a meeting. He then tells them a thing or two which had perhaps not reached Birmingham before. There is courage among Left-wing Labour MPs who defy their party Whip, and they receive the praise they deserve for it. But the courage of Mr. Wyatt deserves to be acknowledged too. I have given some space to Mr. Edelman and Mr. Wyatt, because they seem to me, in the contrast between them, to typify one of the main anxieties about the Right wing of the Labour Party today. Many of the new post-war recruits to the Right wing-Mr. Edelman is a protégé of Mr. Hugh Dalton-seem to be characterised by a lack of conviction and even spinelessness which together can be the death of any party. Mr. Wyatt may sometimes chase his tail round in circles in his excitement, but at least he instinctively feels that politics is about something important and is therefore worth getting excited about. You may approve of Mr. Wyatt's views or not, but at least a party composed of people like him can never be in danger of dying of anæmia. One of the reasons for the success of the Bevanite campaign has been the rank-and-file feeling that the Right wing is bloodless. The fault does not lie with the likes of Mr. Wyatt.

Chapter Two

The BBC Attitude to Politics

There are two ways by which a political commentator can struggle through a Parliamentary recess. One is by substituting an "Economic Diary" for a "Political Diary." The other is by writing what journalists know as a "think-piece." During the next three weeks I am going to write three "think-pieces" on the causes of our present discontents-assuming, of course, that Sir Anthony Eden does not once more change the composition of his Government and that Mr. Gaitskell does not ask to see the Prime Minister again. From time to time I am urged to make this column more "serious," and from time to time I succumb to the flattery that "seriousness" is worth striving after. But what do these advisers mean by "seriousness"? What they really mean is that political commentators should analyse politics in a cool, non-committal, quasi-academic fashion. What they are really concerned about is that a political commentator should not say anything which will disturb the smooth running of the present political Establishment in Britain. What they really want is a family of McKenzies and Butlers,= each reducing politics to sociological laws; and as long as the laws survive, Britain, freedom, the West and 500,000,000 souls can go hang.

Some of these reflections are, of course, prompted by an article about the present political condition of Britain which appeared in the New Statesman last week by Mr. Paul Johnson. What has struck him, since his return from Paris, has been a journalistic protest against what he calls the Hydra-and what in this periodical, as in the New Statesman, has previously been called the Establishment. It is not for me to dissent from him that a journalistic protest is taking place. I am quite certain that during the past three years or so a new attitude to politics has been developed in certain journals in this country, and that a large part of the credit is due to Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge, who has acted as what I believe is called a catalyst. But where I think Mr. Johnson went very wrong-and it is an important point-was in his insistence that the journalistic rebels have popular support-that the "popular wind is in their sails." I wish this were true. But I can find no evidence at all that the people of this country really object to the present set-up.

Let us, then, get clear what the protest is against. If I were asked to put it colloquially, I would say that it is a protest against the Mrs. Dale attitude to politics. Some time ago it was pointed out that Mrs. Dale and her henpecked husband never seemed to read a book, listen to music or have any views about politics. Some of those who pointed this out obviously thought that it was possible for a BBC charade character to have an attitude to politics. But the truth, surely, is that Mrs. Dale is not a necessary popular evil of the BBC's attitude; she is its quintessence. What the BBC has striven to do over the past two decades is suggest that politics is a matter of little importance or, at most, a matter on which sensible men need not disagree strongly. Even in religious discussions-such as they have-the BBC producers set out to find the atheist (or agnostic) and the Anglicans (of course), who start from the lowest common denominator and, after half an hour's discussion, present their listeners with the highest common multiple of their views. Have you ever heard Mr. Grisewood, at the end of an Any Questions? programme, say, in his cultivated fireside manner, "Well, the team seems to be agreed about that"? If you have, you have heard the voice of the BBC on politics.

The BBC is the summary and the voice of this attitude to politics. But it spreads far and wide. It is, to use Mr. Johnson's phrase, considered "noisy, vulgar and disreputable" to hold strong views about political questions, and by political questions I do not mean whether the purchase tax should be increased or not. That is the politics of candle-ends. Much, as readers of the Spectator know, though I admire Mr. Gaitskell, one of his most serious weaknesses is his tendency to believe that Parliamentary issues are political issues. The Parliamentary legend of Butskellism has been killed-by Mr. Gaitskell-but I am not at all sure that Butskellism is not as alive today as ever. A political commentator has to make only one disguised attack on someone like Mr. Roy Jenkins, and, one by one, the BBC politicians (of both parties) move in. "Of course," they say, "Mr. Jenkins is a real Socialist. You were just inaccurate when you attacked him." But was I? Mr. Jenkins (and many others fall into the same category) seems to me a good Labour Party boy; but today that need mean no more than that he wants to see the Labour Party return to power and carry out some welcome reforms which he happens to have near his heart. I would certainly entrust Mr. Jenkins with the leadership of a Parliamentary Labour Party. But at the end we would be a country producing noiseless cuckoo-clocks.

I have tried, in the shorthand which is necessary in journalism, to give an impression of the attitude which seems objectionable to me and to some others. I will close by trying to make it clear why I think it is objectionable. One of the heartening things about the last fifteen years has been the revival of the British intellectuals' belief in Britain. The intellectuals have come to recognise that Britain, with all its faults, is the depository of certain standards and a certain experience which can be entrusted to no other country in the world. (Unless there are those who, M. Mendès-France having failed them, now pin their hopes to M. Poujade.) But the attitude of most of these intellectuals is that Britain is a weak, second-class Power which is fighting an important but last-ditch battle. In this weak condition they think that both Britain and the values which it personifies must be protected in the cotton-wool of bipartisanship. My thesis is that Britain within the Commonwealth is potentially the strongest Power in the world, but that this potential will only be realised when political questions again become a matter of conflict.

Chapter Three

In Defence of Ordinariness

Every reviewer should declare his interest; and I frankly confess that I sleep more soundly in my bed at night if I know that Parliament is sitting. It is becoming fashionable again to decry Parliament and its members. I wish, therefore, to use this occasion, not only to celebrate the second edition of one of the great constitutional textbooks of this century, but to celebrate also Parliament itself and its honourable members. It is one thing to criticise the activities of individual members of Parliament; it is quite another to criticise the activity of being a member of Parliament. It is one thing to look at Parliament with a cool, cynical and comprehending eye; it is quite another to belittle Parliament. At the risk of sounding like a nineteenth-century Liberal, I must assert that Parliament seems to me to be one of the glorious achievements of the human race. It is still, today, one of the surest bulwarks of freedom, continuing, as for centuries past, to teach the world by its example.

I opened this new edition of Sir Ivor Jennings's masterpiece* as a duty, in order laboriously to discover where and how he had revised it. Before I had reached the end of his familiar opening paragraph (unchanged) I was reading with wide-eyed pleasure. There is lucidity, of course, but that conveys nothing of the gracefulness of the structure of the book and of the writing, a gracefulness which is the property of the best of Cambridge scholarship; there is learning, but that gives no more than a hint of the unerring precision with which he illustrates his points; there is keen observation, but that gives only the smallest idea of his penetrating comprehension of what Parliament is about; above all, the whole is informed by his belief in the institution of Parliament, but that is a bald way to describe the disciplined passion which lifts the works so far above the level of most textbooks.

Sir Ivor Jennings has worked hard in revising his book, which was first published in 1939. But the overriding impression is of how little the changes matter. Since 1939 there has been a war, during which the Prime Minister enjoyed almost dictatorial powers; the first Labour Government to enjoy power has carried out a crowded and far-reaching programme of economic and social legislation; the changes in British society have made the problems of recruitment to the House of Commons (and the House of Lords) more difficult than ever before. Yet the differences between the Parliament of 1939 and the Parliament of 1957 are only slight. I defy any of those who nibble and niggle at Parliament to deny that this capacity for survival is of incalculable value in a shifting world. Parliament still unites freedom and order in a way which is the envy of the world, and probably its hope. Apart from Redlich's great work on Parliamentary procedure, there is no book I would rather see presented to the members of every new-born legislative assembly than this second edition of Parliament, accompanied by a cross-indexed copy of the first.

There is, for example, one instructive example of the way in which conventions grow and are accepted in the British constitution. In his first edition, Sir Ivor Jennings wrote of the choice of Labour Prime Ministers:

It was made clear when Mr. Lansbury was elected [Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party] in 1931 and still more clear when Mr. Attlee was elected in 1935, that the Parliamentary Labour Party reserved its full liberty of action to elect whom it pleased if the party secured a majority, and thus to indicate to the King who was desired as Prime Minister.

In his second edition, Sir Ivor is able to point out that, in spite of this, George VI automatically sent for Mr. Attlee in 1945, and that "when Mr. Gaitskell was elected chairman and leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party at the end of 1955 it seems to have been assumed that he would be the next Labour Prime Minister." For close students there is much of this kind to be found. There is also much else. What a wealth of social history is summarised in the changed hours during which the House sits on each day, not least in the fact that in 1939 the House could not be counted out between 8.15 and 9.15 in the evening, whereas it cannot now be counted out between 7.30 and 8.30.


Excerpted from Bite the Hand That Feeds You by Henry Fairlie Copyright © 2009 by Jeremy McCarter. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Born in England, Henry Fairlie (1924–1990) was a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post and the New Republic. Jeremy McCarter is a senior writer at Newsweek. He lives in New York.

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