Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Class Act

As a surpassingly ideological woman, Margaret Thatcher would probably recoil at how the new film The Iron Lady depicts her in distinctly personal terms as an aging, widowed, out-of-power politician struggling with dementia. But in at least one way the film reflects a political sea change that Thatcher helped set in motion: the decline of the idea that class is a relationship that structures both inequality and solidarity.

In The Iron Lady, class is a form of social distinction, a kind of snobbery that Thatcher overcomes in her own Conservative Party (along with sexism) to become prime minister. In this view, her rise is a triumph for pluck and meritocracy. The Labor Party politicians that she battles and the demonstrators arrayed against her are cardboard figures, either simpletons or hooligans.

Thatcher triumphed as a politician, the film suggests, because she remained true to herself in the face of all opposition. The content of her policies, and their impact, receive comparatively little attention. Yet this is the woman who did as much as anyone to popularize the neoliberal world we live in today, where society is a fiction, greed and gain are the engines of progress, and the most modest forms of social democracy are decried as nothing more than socialist dictatorship.

Some of this is unavoidable in a feature film organized around one central character. But I can't shake the feeling that some viewers will come away from The Iron Lady seeing Thatcher's career as a triumph for diversity (grocer's daughter overcomes the snobs) while never thinking that her vision of politics and government, which denied inequalities of class and exalted individualism at the expense of solidarity, brought us to the atomized, insecure, and massively unequal world that we inhabit today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Everybody’s writing about Christopher Hitchens, so I thought I would add my two cents. I never met him, never exchanged apercus over aperitifs, and was never the recipient of his kindnesses or intellectual benefactions. Like other readers of the Nation over the past three decades, I just read him regularly, agreed with him sometimes, disagreed with him other times. Of course, he wrote brilliantly and facilely on any topic of his choosing, and generally asked the big questions, those worth asking. But he was basically a provocateur, a distiller of outrage, generally (except in his marvelous literary essays),a disdainer and avoider of nuance.

His politics were basically limited to foreign policy.(In this he is unlike his great model, George Orwell, most of whose best work was on the class structure in England.) His basic instincts were always right, insisting on the importance of asking about God’s existence, of the need to maximize human freedom, for eliminating the barriers against liberty. But figuring out to achieve this in an unfree world, with plenty of bad guys, and no unalloyed good guys, is always the rub.

I basically agreed with him on Serbia and Bosnia, which I think was his great turning point in his world-view, with his acquiescence in the use of western power to liberate peoples from tyrannical dictatorship. And I understand, and sympathized with his anger at Clinton in not doing enough in the Balkans, and doing what he did tardily and clumsily to advance this goal.

But I simply don’t understand how he went from blasting Clinton for his bombing of a purported munitions factory in 1998,to, three years later, starring in the Amen corner of cheerleaders for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. It seems so unnecessary— there were plenty of leftists and liberals who managed to combine a detestation for Saddam Hussein with opposition to the war, but he was defeated by his basic inability to see nuance in any situation, and this was a war, with horrible people on both sides, that needed nuance slavered into every crevice. And when the war became a fiasco, he had ample opportunity to admit that he had been wrong, but I guess his vaunted courage deserted him.

Anyway his legacy is obscure. His politics for the last decade of his life, a hodge-podge of ultraleftist remnants and his newfound conservative human rights realpolitik, simply did not make much sense. He left no useful political legacy except as a cautionary reminder if how difficult it is to make one’s way through the mine field of our post-post Cold War world.

If he resembles anyone, its a funnier hipper less sententious version of Whittaker Chambers for our time (with Sidney Blumenthal a stand-in for Alger Hiss.) . He will be remembered, and pardoned by many, for writing extraordinarily well. I don’t think he would have thought that was enough.