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Timothy Garton Ash is well known as an astute and penetrating observer of a dazzling array of subjects, not least through his many contributions to the New York Review of Books. This collection of his essays from the last decade reveals his knack for ferreting out exceptional insights into a troubled world, often on the basis of firsthand experience. Whether he is writing about how “liberalism” has become a dirty word in American political discourse, the problems of Muslim assimilation in Europe, Ukraine’s Orange...
Timothy Garton Ash is well known as an astute and penetrating observer of a dazzling array of subjects, not least through his many contributions to the New York Review of Books. This collection of his essays from the last decade reveals his knack for ferreting out exceptional insights into a troubled world, often on the basis of firsthand experience. Whether he is writing about how “liberalism” has become a dirty word in American political discourse, the problems of Muslim assimilation in Europe, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Günter Grass’s membership in the Waffen-SS, or the angry youth of Iran, Garton Ash combines a gimlet eye for detail with deep knowledge of the history of his chosen subjects.
Running through this book is the author’s insistence that, whatever some postmodernists might claim, there are indeed facts—and we have both a political and a moral duty to establish them. By practicing what it preaches, Facts Are Subversive shows why Timothy Garton Ash is one of the world’s leading political writers.
— John Gray
— Brian Urquhart
— Andrew Lynch
“Facts Are Subversive covers a decade of upheaval, disaster and disillusionment, in Iraq, in Washington and elsewhere. It’s remarkable how sane and wise Garton Ash remains, even in the heat of events...This grounding in the solid world helps explain how Garton Ash has been able to remain that rare and essential thing, a reasonable man.—George Packer, New York Time Book Review
— George Packer
If we had known the facts about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, or merely how thin the intelligence on them was, the British parliament would probably not have voted to go to war in Iraq. Even the United States might have hesitated. The history of this decade could have been different. According to the official record of a top-level meeting with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street on 23 July 2002, the head of Britain's secret intelligence service, identified only by his traditional moniker 'C', summarized 'his recent talks in Washington' thus: 'Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.' The facts were being fixed.
In that case, the facts as we now know them are subversive of the justification offered for entering the war of the decade. In the essays that follow, I show how facts can be subversive of the claims of authoritarian rulers (as in Ukraine and Serbia) but also, sometimes, of those of the friends of democratic change (as in Belarus). Facts subvert the lies of oppressors but also the heroic self-images of countries and individuals. Poland's image of itself as a pure victim of history is shaken by the true story of the murder of Jews by Poles in the village of Jedwabne. The United States' cherished claim to moral exceptionalism stumbles over the photographs of torture in the prison at Abu Ghraib. Britain's post-imperial illusions fare little better. Even great political writers, held up to us as moral authorities, are not immune. In this book, I explore the emergence and impact of inconvenient facts in the past lives of both George Orwell and G|nter Grass.
The first job of the historian and of the journalist is to find facts. Not the only job, perhaps not the most important, but the first. Facts are cobblestones from which we build roads of analysis. They are mosaic tiles that we fit together to compose pictures of past and present. There will be disagreement about where the road leads and what reality or truth is revealed by the mosaic picture. The facts themselves must be checked against all the available evidence. But some are round and hard - and the most powerful leaders in the world trip over them. So can writers, dissidents and saints.
There have been worse times for facts. In the 1930s, faced with a massive totalitarian apparatus of organized lying, an individual German or Russian had fewer alternative sources of information than today's Chinese or Iranian, with access to a computer and mobile phone. Farther back, even bigger lies were told and apparently believed. After the death in 1651 of the founding spiritual-political leader of Bhutan, his ministers pretended for no less than fifty-four years that the great Shabdrung was still alive, though on a silent retreat, and went on issuing orders in his name. In our time, the sources of fact-fixing are mainly to be found at the frontier between politics and the media. Politicians have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to impose a dominant narrative through the media. In the work of spinmasters in Washington and London, and even more in that of Russia's 'political technologists', the line between reality and virtual reality is systematically blurred. If enough of the people believe it enough of the time, you will stay in power. What else matters? Simultaneously, the media are being transformed by new technologies of information and communications, and their commercial consequences. I work both in universities and in newspapers. In ten years' time, universities will still be universities. Who knows what newspapers will be? For fact-seekers, this brings both risks and opportunities.
'Comment is free, but facts are sacred' is the most famous line of C. P. Scott, a legendary editor of the British newspaper the Guardian. In the news business today, that is varied to 'Comment is free, but facts are expensive'. As the economics of newsgathering change, new revenue models are found for many areas of journalism - sports, business, entertainment, special interests of all kinds - but editors are still trying to work out how to sustain the expensive business of reporting foreign news and doing serious investigative journalism. In the meantime, the foreign bureaus of well-known newspapers are closing like office lights being switched off on a janitor's night round.
On the bright side, video cameras, satellite as well as mobile phones, voice recorders and document scanners, combined with the technical ease of uploading their output to the world wide web, create new possibilities for recording, sharing and debating current history - not to mention archiving it for posterity. Imagine that we had digital video footage of the Battle of Austerlitz; a YouTube clip of Charles I being beheaded outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall ('he nothing common did or mean / upon that memorable scene' ... or did he?); mobile phone snaps of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address; and, best of all, an audiovisual sampler of the lives of those so-called 'ordinary' people that history so often forgets. (Still almost entirely lost to history is the smell of different places and times, although that is a salient part of the experience when you are there.)
In Burma, one of the most closed and repressive states on earth, the peaceful protests of 2007, led by Buddhist monks, were revealed to the world through photos taken on mobile phones, texted to friends and uploaded to the web. American politicians can no longer get away with saying outrageous things on remote campaign platforms. As the Republican senator George Allen found to his cost, a single video clip posted on YouTube may terminate your presidential aspirations. (The clip showed him dismissing an activist of Indian descent from a rival party as a 'macacca', hence the phrase 'macacca moment'.) In the past, it took decades, if not centuries, before secret documents were revealed. Today, many can be found in facsimile on the world wide web within days, along with court and parliamentary hearings; transcripts of witness testimony; the original police report on the arrest of a drunken Mel Gibson, with the actor's anti-Semitic outburst documented in a Californian policeman's laboured hand - and millions more.
Quantity is not always matched by quality. Behind the recording apparatus there is still an individual human being, pointing it this way or that. A camera's viewpoint also expresses a point of view. Visual lying has become child's play, now that any digital photo can be falsified at the tap of a keyboard, with a refinement of which Stalinist airbrushers could only dream. As we trawl the web, we have to be careful that what looks like a fact does not turn out to be a factoid. Distinguishing fact from factoid becomes more difficult when - as those foreign bureaus close down - you don't have a trained reporter on the spot, checking out the story by well-tried methods. Yet, taken all in all, these are promising times for capturing the history of the present.
'History of the present' is a term coined by George Kennan to describe the mongrel craft that I have practised for thirty years, combining scholarship and journalism. Thus, for example, producing the essays in analytical reportage that form a significant part of this book is typically a three-stage process. In the initial research stage, I draw on the resources of two wonderful universities, Oxford and Stanford: their extraordinary libraries, specialists in every field, and students from every corner of the globe. So before I go anywhere, I have a sheaf of notes, annotated materials and introductions. In the second stage, I travel to the place I wish to write about, be it Iran under the ayatollahs, Burma to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, Macedonia on the brink of civil war, Serbia for the fall of Slobodan Miloevic, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, or the breakaway para-state of Transnistria. For all the new technologies of record, there is still nothing to compare with being there. Usually I give a lecture or two, and learn from meetings with academic colleagues and students, but for much of the time I work very much like a reporter, observing and talking to all kinds of people from early morning to late at night. 'Reporter', sometimes deemed to be the lowest form of journalistic life, seems to me in truth the highest. It is a badge I would wear with pride.
To be there - in the very place, at the very time, with your notebook open - is an unattainable dream for most historians. If only the historian could be a reporter from the distant past. Imagine being able to see, hear, touch and smell things as they were in Paris in July 1789. If I have an advantage over the regular newspaper correspondents, whose work I greatly admire, it is that I may have more time to gather evidence on just one story or question. (Long-form magazine writers enjoy the same luxury.) In Serbia, for example, I was able to cross-examine numerous witnesses of the fall of Miloevic, starting within a few hours of the denouement. During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I was a witness to the drama as it unfolded.
The final stage is reflection and writing, back in my Oxford or Stanford study: emotion recollected in tranquillity. I also discuss and refine my findings at the seminar table, and in exchanges with colleagues. Ideally, this whole process is iterative, with the cycle of research, reporting and reflection repeated several times. I have written more about this mongrel craft in the introduction to my last collection of essays, which was called History of the Present, and - in this volume - in an essay on 'The Literature of Fact'. Most of the longer pieces of analytical reportage that you find between these covers appeared first in the New York Review of Books, as did the review essays on writers such as G|nter Grass, George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin. Several chapters began life as lectures, including my investigations of Britain's convoluted relationship to Europe and of the (real or alleged) moral foundations of European power. Most of the shorter pieces were originally columns in the Guardian. I conceive these mini-essays as an English version of the journalistic genre known in central Europe as a feuilleton: a discursive, personal exploration of a theme, often light-spirited and spun around a single detail, like the piece of grit that turns oyster to pearl. Or so the feuilletonist fondly hopes.
Many of my regular weekly commentaries in the Guardian, by contrast, look to the future, urging readers, governments or international organizations to do something, or, especially in the case of governments, not to do something bad or stupid that they are currently doing or proposing to do. 'We must ...' or 'they must not ...', cry these columns, usually to no effect. Such op-ed pieces have their place, but suffer from built-in obsolescence. They are not reprinted here. Prediction and prescription are both recipes for the dustbin. Description and analysis may last a little longer.
Throughout, I argue from and for a position that I believe can accurately be described as liberal. Particularly in the United States, what is meant by that much abused word requires spelling out (see 'Liberalism'). I write as a European who thinks that the European Union is the worst possible Europe - apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. And I write as an Englishman with a deep if often frustrated affection for my curious, mixed-up homeland, at once England and Britain.
The heart of my work remains in Europe. In this decade, however, I have gone beyond Europe to report from and analyse other parts of what we used to call the West, and especially the United States, where I now spend three months every year. And I have gone beyond the West, especially to some corners of what we too sweepingly call 'Asia' and 'the Muslim world'. (The map on pp. x-xi plots essays on to places, taking some artistic licence around the edges.)
The biggest limitation for any historian of the present, by comparison with those of more distant periods, is not knowing the longer-term consequences of the events he or she describes. The texts that you read here have been lightly edited, mainly to remove irritating repetitions, as well as anachronisms like 'yesterday' or 'last week', and to harmonize spelling and style. I have also corrected a few errors of fact. (If any remain, please point them out.) Occasionally, I have added a few lines at the end of an essay, from the perspective of the end of the decade. Otherwise the essays are printed as they originally appeared, with the date of first publication at the end. You can thus see what we did not know at the time - and sit in judgement on my misjudgements.
The most painful of these was about the Iraq war. As you will detect from 'In Defence of the Fence', I did not support the Iraq war, but nor did I oppose it forcefully from the start, as I should have. I gave too much credence to the fact-fixers at No. 10, and to Americans I respected, especially Colin Powell. I was wrong.
Since this is the third time I have collected my essays from a decade, let me add a word about the ten-year period from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2009. Decades are arbitrary divisions of time. Sometimes history chimes with them. Usually it does not. My first book of essays, The Uses of Adversity, chronicled central Europe in the 1980s. The 1980s ended with a glorious bang in 1989 - a moment when world history turned on events in central Europe. History of the Present chronicled the wider Europe in the 1990s, including some of the Balkan tragedies. The year 1999 was not a turning-point to compare with 1989, but it did see the introduction of the euro, the expansion of NATO to include three central European countries that had previously been behind the Iron Curtain, and what appeared to be the last of the Balkan wars, in Kosovo. The very fact that we were 'entering a new millennium' gave the sense - perhaps the illusion - of a historical caesura.
Unlike 'the 1980s' and 'the 1990s', this has been a decade without a name. I will not embarrass it with 'the noughties'. That is not even a nice try. It is like strapping a frilly frock on to a sweating bull. Somehow it seems more fitting that this decade be left nameless, for not only its character but even its duration remains obscure. It did not begin when it began and it was over before it was over. After the long 1990s, we have the short whatever-we-call-them. With benefit of hindsight, I would argue that the 1990s began on 9 November 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11 written European-style) and ended on 11 September 2001 (the fall of the Twin Towers, or 9/11 written American-style). With hindsight, the 1990s seem like an interregnum between one 9/11 and the other, between the end of the twentieth century in 1989 and the beginning of the twenty-first in 2001. If you look at my account of an extended conversation with president George W. Bush in May 2001 ('Mr President'), you will see that the concerns of the most powerful man in the world were, at that point, quite different from what they would soon become. Islamist terrorists did not get a single look-in.
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Bush administration swiftly concluded - and Tony Blair agreed - that a new era had begun, one they defined as the 'Global War on Terror'. The neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz called it World War IV. But on the unforgettable night of 4 November 2008, which I was lucky enough to witness in Washington (see 'Dancing with History'), as Barack Obama defeated John McCain to become the forty-fourth president of the United States, it turned out that this epoch was over almost before it had begun. Not that we did not still face a grave threat to our lives and liberties from Islamist terrorists - we did and we do - but because other dangers and challenges had emerged, or risen up the agenda. As a seasoned insider once observed: problems are usually not solved, they are just overtaken by other problems.
Excerpted from FACTS ARE SUBVERSIVE by TIMOTHY GARTON ASH Copyright © 2009 by Timothy Garton Ash . Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 16, 2011
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Posted July 4, 2011
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