At last Jeremy Corbyn is being made to pay a price for Labour’s anti-Semitism under his leadership. It has now, for the first time, become definitely hard for him to get through mainstream interviews. He is challenged, and although his answers bend to the wind of criticism a little, this affords him no respite. His repeated response of saying how much he ‘detests all racism’ is like Sinn Fein’s traditional denunciation of violence ‘wherever it comes from’ — an evasion. His demeanour raises wider questions about whether he will ever answer anything which is difficult: there is a reason, after all, why he has not agreed to be interviewed on the Today programme since the election. One can see how uneasy he now is. But this could all too easily go right for him. The worst thought is that greater publicity for Labour anti-Semitism could actually win Labour some votes in the London elections in May. There is no recorded instance of candidates suffering electorally among Muslims for anti-Semitism. The same might apply to London black voters and to much of the London middle-class student vote as well. The Jewish vote is not nearly so numerous, except in a handful of constituencies. On the other hand, old-fashioned, white working-class anti-Semitism seems largely to have disappeared. One must hope that Corbynista anti-Semitism will be seen for what it is — not an untypical deviation, but a central aspect of his followers’ hatred for western bourgeois life — and that Labour will suffer for it at the polls. We are in uncharted waters, though. No mainstream British party in the era of universal suffrage has ever before been anti-Semitic. What if it won a mandate?
I have been faithfully watching Civilisations. It is not at all dumbed down. Indeed, the series suffers from the opposite fault. It is too intellectual — pressed into the service of its presenters’ theories rather than telling a story which the common viewer can follow and enjoy. One finds oneself excited by a particular idea — Mary Beard on the ‘lack of light’ which is often a feature of religious art, David Olusoga on the way that Vermeer never opens windows on the wider world, yet contains symptoms of empire — globes, rugs, a beaver hat — in his interiors. But then one doesn’t learn where it is all tending. The amazing thing about Kenneth Clark’s original Civilisation is how much those of us old enough to have seen it 50 years ago can remember of what we saw. Watching Civilisations, one suffers from cultural jet lag and so can remember little.
It is also somewhat unbelievable. Simon Schama is very brilliant, but is it really true that van Ruysdael’s big windmill represents the Cross of Christ protecting the newly independent Dutch Republic? I don’t know, but given the painter’s careful naturalism, I doubt it. And I know — because a greater expert even than Schama assures me — that Artemisia Gentileschi’s decision to show the allegory of painting without the gagged mouth which the subject sometimes has is not a great assertion of feminism against convention, as Schama claims, but is quite usual. One wearies of being told what paintings are ‘really’ saying.
Part of the problem is the strain of comparison. It is quite right to study the differences and similarities between civilisations, but it is a curious feature of the human mind that this is best done if first acquainted thoroughly with a single tradition. Then one has a secure enough sense of a whole to be able to read across. Without this, one is darting here, there and everywhere. The best comparative bit of the series was Schama’s account of Turkish and Mughal art interacting with western art of the period (and vice versa). This is because the connections are visible, not contrived. I think the series was doomed by its premise that one has to scour the whole world in order to think about civilisation at all. It is really the other way round: one thinks outwards from one’s own smaller space.
The failures of this brave attempt have made me think of a different way that a television account of civilisation could be constructed. It would try to identify the main components of civilisation and give each one a programme — language and writing; government and law; industry, trade and money; science and technology; the arts; love and family; institutions and universities; war; above all, religion, the central impulse of all civilisations until, perhaps, our own. A civilisation starts with a society that cares for its dead, which helps explain why, despite its horror, this Friday is called Good.
The late Alan Watkins was so right that no half-hour spent with Who’s Who is ever wasted. This is partly because it is complete in certain categories — MPs, peers, bishops, judges, generals etc — and therefore dependable; partly because no one can be removed from it except by death, so that it builds up a picture of the past 50 years or so; and partly because each entry is self-composed, so that one can read character between the lines. It takes a certain buoyancy, for example, to dare to fill an entire column of the book with your own entry. In the 2018 edition, the longest entry belongs to Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, filling one and three-quarter columns with his degrees and committees, his membership of the Company of Spectacle Makers, his medal from the S Western Opthalmol Soc (1978) and his recreation, which is ‘wasting time’.
A harder matter to judge is who is not in Who’s Who but should be. One does not know whether absence denotes a refusal or an omission. Xi Jinping (the only entry under X) and Vladimir Putin are present, but of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr Corbyn’s friend Nicolas Maduro there is no sign. Other movers and shakers currently in the news but absent from the big red book are Martin Selmayr and Mark Zuckerberg. By the way, Mr Corbyn, following Margaret Thatcher’s practice, records his father, but not his mother.
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