And in other Cambodian news…
When LI was a mere whisp of a lefty, we worked at a now defunct hardware chain store in the paint and crafts department as a clerk. It was a good time for LI. We were moonily enamored of the woman who ran the department – a small, fierce, and (unfortunately for our heart) married woman, D. D. was a little Nubian queen, or thought she was; she was in continuous flirtatious battle with the assistant manager of the place, Henry. We were also going to college then. While the thought of attending a class is enough to makes us ill, now, then we were in the magic undergraduate continuum – everything in class connected with everything in life. It was like being an astronaut and discovering, after landing on a dark planet, a whole other civilization outside the capsule door.
It was around that time that Jesus fell out of our life, and Marx fell into it. We had the zeal of a convert when it came to politics. So we left political materials around in the lunch area, hoping … well, that some of the crew would be turned on to the theory of surplus value. Barring that, at least we could make people aware of the criminal American policy as it had been ruthlessly pursued in Southeast Asia. The latter was somewhat successful. I remember one of the crew asked me whether, as a communist, I had ever been beaten up. With the unspoken assumption being that it might be a good idea for someone to do the beating. Martyrdom! we treasured that remark.
One of the books LI put out was Sideshow, William Shawcross’s indictment of the Nixon/Kissinger war in Cambodia. That is still an eyeopening book. That the U.S. countenanced the wholesale, blind bombing of a country is still mindboggling. When we hear the likes of Hitchens condemning the criminal acts of the Iraqi guerrillas, we think about the fact that he is now pals with a set of people who were implicated in the much more extensive mass murder wrought by random carpet bombing, and we think: wow. It really isn’t worth it, gaining a pittance of notoriety in return for his soul. But who are we to understand these exchanges?
Which is why it was especially distressing, this year, that William Shawcross came out in virulent defense of Pax Americana. The New Statesman’s Jason Cowley, last month, wrote an article about the man that crawled in on little cat’s feet, and then inserted jaguar claws in the jugular. Shawcross has become a heavy defender of the Bush Pax idea. Worse, he is now proposing (oh say it isn’t so!) to write the biography of the Queen Mother for a cool million. This, from the man who quit the London Times when he found out that the editor was ghostwriting Henry Kissinger’s stuff.
According to the article, Shawcross, who is the son of one of the Nuremburg prosecutors, was a pretty glamorous item back in the late sixties.
“From the beginning Shawcross, who in 1971 married the writer Marina Warner, was interested in US power and the role and influence of that power in the world. He was a liberal internationalist; he wanted the United Nations to be strong so that it could act as a check and balance to US power, and to spread human rights and democracy. As a reporter, he witnessed the catastrophe in Vietnam, he understood how south-east Asia had the potential to become a laboratory for world destruction, and he wrote from Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He particularly despised the cynicism of Henry Kissinger. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of Cambodia (1979), in which he highlighted the secret US bombing of Cambodia, is a fierce indictment of both Richard Nixon and Kissinger, whom he blamed for the American invasion of peaceful, agrarian Cambodia, the removal of Prince Sihanouk and, later, the murderous excesses of the Khmer Rouge. 'Cambodia was not a mistake,' he wrote. 'It was a crime.'
Page remembers how Shawcross became disaffected from the Sunday Times when the then editor, Harry Evans, agreed to edit Kissinger's memoirs. 'Kissinger is subliterate and William, like many others, thought that Harry, who is a good writer, was wrong to lend a war criminal like Kissinger such grace.'
Ah, the days of vivid, cartoon like enemies! Nixon was such a gift, in a way, to the band of leftist cultural critics – half journalist, half polemicist – and his withering away took away their great subject.
The article is mainly concerned with Shawcross’ conversion. The use of religious terminology doesn’t really seem quite right, here. Shawcross is simply growing more comfortable with his money, his position, and his self interest – a self interest that, carefully cultivated, lands you in deals for official biographies. Which is pure cream, since the point is to flatter the wealthy, not sell the damn things. For selling, go to the unofficial biographers – the Kitty Kellys. The official biographies are coffee table books that have all the bland tedium of coffee tables.
While contemplating the vastness of the Queen Mother’s intellect and her imprint on our time, Shawcross has apparently found the time to write another book, this one a rip roaring defense of the War in Iraq and a charge against its enemies – Saddam, Chirac, and the whole damn pack. The vituperation comes from years on the left – which is all the left leaves a writer like Shawcross, or Hitchens. This is much different from what it used to leave the conservative convert. In an earlier generation, the James Burnhams gained, from their years with Marx, a sense of method, a sense for the whole. The new lefts James Burnhams are pretty much at sea when it comes to method – underneath it all, they are led by their feelings. Feelings are very much a product of the environment – especially when the environment gets more and more upscale.
However, to be fair – it would be easy to feel like getting rid of Saddam H. would be a good thing. In fact, in the 90s, LI felt this strongly. We felt it strongly enough that we felt like the neo-cons were partially right – the U.S. had a moral obligation to help rid Iraq of the man. That obligation emerged from the Kuwait war, and from the regime of sanctions. It entailed supporting revolution in Iraq, no question. And no question, nobody was going to really support revolution in Iraq – the regime of scoundrels that the U.S. tried to implant after the fall of Baghdad was evidence enough of that. Our opposition to the war in Iraq was to this particular war, at this particular time -- not to the idea.
All of which means that we can appreciate how someone like Shawcross could be for a war to take Saddam H. down. However, Shawcross isn’t simply for taking someone like Saddam down – he is for establishing a U.S. empire. The Iraq War turned out to be a peculiar ideological transit point for ex lefties to get on the bus. It is a pretty good bus too -- the Murdochian bus, the Fox News bus, the Washington Post bus. And so they are off…
Our favorite graf in Cowley’s article is about Shawcross’ current circs:
“The home of the Shawcross family, an Elizabethan mansion called Friston Place, is at East Dean in East Sussex. It is there, with his third wife, the society heiress Olga Polizzi (of the Forte dynasty), that Shawcross regularly entertains Christopher Hitchens, John le Carre, assorted Saatchis, Richard Perle, the restaurateur Oliver Peyton, Tory grandees and other right-wing establishment figures. 'I remember going to Friston for a lunch party old Hartley was hosting for Margaret Thatcher,' says his friend and Sussex neighbour, the writer and academic Robert Skidelsky. 'Thatcher was on her way to Glyndebourne, and I remember that every time she wanted to make a point, she stamped her foot on the ground. And every time she stamped her foot, she unwittingly pressed a bell under the table, which sent the servants rushing into the room. William was there that day, and he is very good in that kind of company, because he's so charming. But I don't think he's serious in his work about the things I'm serious about, especially the search for truth . . . You begin by rebelling against pomp and power and end up by identifying with them.'
Maggie the mad and her stamping foot – what a great story! Really, it takes us back to the movie, The Ruling Class -- which, it turns out was not a black comedy, but a straightforward documentary about how the denizens of this ecological niche live. Pickled in their own preposterousness, how can you not love the wealthy and their bootlickers? They make for such rich anecdotes.
A final comment, then, which is a bit too revisionist about Shawcross for our taste, but still captures what happened to the guy:
“Others are less generous. 'Shawcross is a vintage product of the Eton/Oxford/Foreign Office elite,' says John Pilger. 'His coming hagiography on the Queen Mother is entirely understandable, as is his hagiography of Rupert Murdoch, whose rapacious power he admires. He was once thought by some to be a progressive, which was useful social currency then; we now understand better the kind of liberalism that wears a mask for great power.'”