Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Who lacks imagination? Howard Jacobson on 'Conspiracy Theorists' last Saturday’s Independent (28 August 2010):

Conspiracy theorists lack imagination: In our determined unimaginativeness, we turn Kelly and Blair alike into less than men.
('We' here of course means 'they': and make sure you're not one of them.)

Unfortunately, what follows is itself lacking in imagination. The introduction is a dreary trudge through the usual weary tropes:

those who see a conspiracy in the fall of every sparrow (shurely: suspect foul play behind the violent death of a publicly dissenting member of the military-intelligence establishment?)

Too much time on their hands


An overactive imagination (This is a cunning decoy hidden among all the other ever-so-reasonable possibilities)

they invent where invention is not called for

they reject plain and feasible explanations in favour of elaborate and unlikely ones

they mentally inhabit a middle earth of spies and secret agents, of liars, double-dealers, hypocrites, and murderers (like the one - hobbits aside - that Kelly physically inhabited then?)

the world explicable to them only as a place where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted to tell the truth

And later: the monkey of conspiracy is out of the cage

But what's the gimmick? What peg is this stuff hung on? Well, we know this already from the title and lead, and it's a pretty flimsy one, based on a minor departure from the otherwise rote recitation of ritual abuse:

But of this I am sure: suspicion might be the word for it, daydreaming might the word for it, but imagination is not. Instead of an excess of imagination, They have too little of it. That might get the attention of one of two of the lighter-sleeping readers.

So we have our headline, but how is it justified? What is the intriguing insight that underlies this modicum of originality in Jacobson's otherwise entirely pedestrian screed? We'll ignore the deeply uninformative literary namedropping, and get to the point.

Instead of the blind and innocent victim of malign political forces (for which read the "Bliar" Blair, or those he had unloosed), we were presented with a man more like ourselves in nature and in circumstance – a challenge to our imagination in the sense that profound fellow-feeling for suffering is always difficult when we would rather root out blame and apportion punishment.

Stuffed into this paragraph are a number of assertions and insinuations:

  • Those who doubt the Hutton verdict think it was murder, rather than an inadequately-investigated solo or assisted suicide.
  • Murder hypotheses portray (and perhaps must portray) Kelly as a 'blind and innocent victim', rather than agreeing on the known facts that Kelly was disgruntled but unwilling to blow the whistle, that he was employed as an apologist for military intervention in Iraq, that he was well-aware of his situation.
  • Kelly was not an innocent victim, even though all accounts have him being treated atrociously by one powerful actor or another, and despite the fact that the only discreditable thing he seems to have done in relation to the affair was to almost-deny, eventually, under extreme pressure, that he was a certain (confidential) source. As lies go, this is not so very different from others given in response to improper questions in circumstances in which silence will be subject to adverse inference. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, for example, seems to require - on pain of frustration - that lies be told on application forms that pose improper questions. More broadly, this aspect of Jacobson's case has a whiff of the smear-tactic about it: Kelly died, if our sensitive and compassionate moral tutor is to be believed, 'in disgrace'.
  • There are two admissible scenarios: in one of them - the suicide hypothesis - the government is not to blame.
  • Kelly was 'like us' in circumstance, rather than inhabiting a middle earth of spies, etc.
  • Those who believe that Kelly was murdered must blame Blair or 'those he had loosed' (a nicely vague phrase, but the intent is clear: they think Blair did it directly or indirectly.) By implication, other hypotheses are not even worth consideration.
  • Hutton-dissenters are intent on apportioning blame and punishment, and it seems they are even hoping that Blair will be indicted for the murder of David Kelly. They aren't concerned with, say, discovering the truth, demanding due process, preventing further ratcheting of the state's ability to cover things up, or exposing political realities.
  • There is a trade-off between apportioning blame and punishment and 'profound fellow-feeling for suffering'.
  • 'We' - they - prefer blame and punishment to 'fellow-feeling for suffering'.

That David Kelly might have hacked away inexpertly at his wrists out of disappointment in himself, in shame and damaged self-esteem is not what we want to hear when we're hot on the tail of Blying politicians and their corrupt ideologies.

Here's that third-person 'we' again, used here to make the accusation of rampant bias seem a little less accusatory. And again, the Kelly business is being tied to Blair. What's all that about then?

David Kelly dying in solitude and disgrace, brought down by false promises and disloyalties – for some of which he must take, and clearly did take, the blame – remains one of the most desolating events of the build-up to the Iraq war. I am not saying that is the end of the matter. There is, of course, room for us to sorrow over Kelly's private tragedy and to rail against the duplicitous warmongering of the time if that's how we see it, but even how we see that is necessarily affected by our willingness, or not, to exercise imagination.

So the important things are: that Kelly must take some of the blame, and that if whether we see the dupicitous warmongering of the time as indeed being duplicitous warmongering depends on our 'willingness, or not, to exercise imagination'. I think we can safely assume that the 'duplicitous warmongering' view is intended to be the unimaginative one.

And if you think that's a prelude to my arguing that Tony Blair, too, has "an equivalent centre of self", you're damn right.
Like recurring twin parables of the human soul, Kelly's fate and Blair's became entwined again this week.

More Blair stuff? How did the fate of Kelly and the rather different 'fate' of Blair become entwined this week? I didn't notice that.

Blair being Kelly's executioner; Kelly, by the same reasoning, Blair's nemesis. Go along with this and Blair's decision to donate the earnings from his memoirs to the British Legion will look like blood money.

Ah, I get it: Jacobson wants to do a bit on the 'blind unreasoning Blair-hatred' that accompanied the pre-announcement that he would be donating some (all?) book proceeds to the British Legion. Unfortunately for Jacobson, this attempted segue falls flat work, because any 'blood money' claims are based on the Iraq carnage, not Kelly's death. One may note that no donation to the Foundation for Suspiciously-Dead Weapons Scientists was announced. (Did you spot the point at which Blair-critics were shown to be conspiracy theorists, by the way? Probably not - there isn't one.)

Let someone ascribe it to Blair's troubled conscience and the cry goes up that Blair has no conscience. Only it doesn't, does it. Jacobson's making stuff up again. The biggest reaction to that kind of claim is generally from Blair-fanciers angrily asserting that Blair has nothing - nothing - to be uneasy about.

Suggest that as a Christian who led the country into an unpopular war which he continues to assert it was right to wage, he might nonetheless regret the loss of life, and you will be scoffed at. Blair a Christian? Come off it. Well, he's not a very good Catholic, given that he's unrepentant about assisting a war that was in contravention of Church just war doctrines. But again, this is just made up, isn;t it? People do not for the most part deny that Blair is in some way uneasy about the war, even regretful about the death and destruction. They do deny that he is entirely sincere and honest about it, and about most other matters - a denial that seems amply justified.

And so, in our determined unimaginativeness, we turn Kelly and Blair alike into less than men.

Jacobson hasn't established this at all so far as I can see. By constrast, his treatment of the conspiracy-monkeys does seem to fit this pattern rather well.

When it comes to Blair's religious beliefs we want it all ways, arguing on the one hand that such views are a monstrous impertinence in a man bloodied by war and made glossy by cash, while on the other doubting that a man like Blair could genuinely hold them. But these two are incompatible only on a deeply 'unimaginative' view of the many kinds of partial, insincere and self-deceptive attitude human beings are capable of. To suggest that Blair is vainly and flippantly adopting - and adapting - religious ideas as part of his 'pretty straight kind of guy' antinomianism is apparently beyond Jacobson's powers of imagination.

But why shouldn't Blair be a devout Christian? He won't be the first believer to have spilled blood. A man can go to war and not want to go to war. A man can go on defending that war and still sorrow over its consequences, still pray to God, still hope to make amends, still seek redemption. The money from those memoirs might strike some as a profound insult, but that doesn't make the gesture false.

Some or all of these may indeed be possible on various interpretations and allowing for various human foibles. Jacobson is a pretty good writer, but not a clear thinker, and it shows here. Instead of a clear point, we have a scattering of half-baked suggestions. As for 'that doesn't make the gesture false' - well it doesn't make it sincere either, and there is a range of views about how genuine, how self-deceieving, and how mendacious Blair's various attitudes are or were. They get pretty uninteresting pretty quickly, seen in the scheme of things, but even for those who, like Jacobson, seem fixated on individual motives (I notice he left that 'obsession' out of his anticonspiratorial litany), this is a very poor attempt at bringing to bear some insight into the human psyche.

Remember that scene where Hamlet comes across his uncle – the adulterous, incestuous and murderous Claudius – absorbed, as Hamlet thinks, in prayer? It appears to be the perfect moment for Hamlet to exact the revenge demanded of him by his father's ghost. "Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a praying." Except – except, Hamlet reasons, that would be no revenge, that would be "hire and salary" because to kill Claudius while he prays would be to send his soul the quickest way to heaven. And so the moment passes. In fact, as we know, having heard Claudius admit to himself that he cannot honestly ask forgiveness for the murder he committed because the things he murdered to attain he still desires, he is unable to pray. "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below," he ruefully acknowledges. Murderous or not, Claudius takes seriously the theological implications of prayer. And thus the joke is on the lesser theologian, Hamlet, who seems to think you need only bend the knee and that's you in the clear with your maker.

Well, this is odd. Here Claudius, the unrepentant killer, represents Blair. The Blair-blamers whom Jacobson is attempting to delay and discourage are represented by the fatally indecisive arch-quibbler, Hamlet, who has a just grievance. Has Jacobson thought this one through?

We could argue about which of the two men is the more religious in this scene – the sinner who would repent but can't, or the avenger with his eye on hell who fails to estimate the subtleties of his adversary's conscience – but there can be no doubt that Claudius's understanding of repentance is deeper than Hamlet's, as Tony Blair's, for all we know, might be deeper than ours.

Well, 'for all we know', perhaps. But all the indications we do have suggest that Tony Blair is indeed a very shallow man. But are we still going on about Blair's personality and private thoughts? I thought this was supposed to be a discussion of conspiracy theorists and their lack of imagination.

Concerned only to condemn, assuming hypocrisy where there is none, Hamlet becomes the dupe of his own blunted imagination.

But Hamlet doesn't assume hypocrisy, does he. Come on, Howard, all this is tenuous enough without getting it wrong.

And in the process loses out on what would have been an exquisitely timed moment for revenge, with Claudius in torment, rooted to the irreligious here and now. Or is this rather an excuse for dithering, Hamlet's tragic flaw? Or is that too 'plain and feasible' an explanation (of a fictional event)?

Do not those who loathe Blair miss out likewise by assuming he is able easily to put his conscience to sleep? What if, in the stillest reaches of the unforgiving night, Blair cries as Claudius cries, "O wretched state! O bosom black as death!", as the soul that would be free becomes more and more ensnared in falsity?

What are the Blair-loathers meant to be missing out on? What falsity is Blair supposed to be ensared in? How does this relate to the idea that Blair still thinks the war justified overall? This stuff was wooly nonsense to start with; by now it's become an Angora enigma. There's just the hint of a good point in here - and combined with expertly-styled prose, this is no doubt enough for the casual reader to come away with some vague idea that some points have been won by the 'side' of Blair, compassion and sanity against the opposing team of hate-filled, unimaginative and deluded 'conspiracy theorists' such as those who are unhappy with the Hutton inquiry.

I am not saying Blair does, but allow him his humanity and he just might.

Forget conspiracy yeah, forget conspiracy. Concentrate on, oh, what was it? Guessing that Blair may secretly regret enabling the war? Because he doesn't have anything really to regret, but he probably is tormented by his regrets, and that's punishment enough for anything. And all you (sorry: us) spiteful, blinkered haters could enjoy greater satisfaction imagining his possible nightmares:

only think what hellish satisfactions we forgo when we let politics ride roughshod over our imaginations.

And of course the other benefit is that you can do that in private, without asking a lot of impertinent questions.


  1. Jacobson shows as little imagination when posing as a CThinker caricature as Amis did when explaining Atta's mind.
    A nice line in skirting around the Iraq destruction conspiracy.

  2. This seemingly endless series of op pieces about how foolish conspiracy theories are not only lack imagination themselves, but are incredibly vague about what conspiracy theories they are talking about. As it is, the authors appear to be be attacking things that largely exist in their own minds.

  3. Why assume that the simplest explanation for Hamlet's thoughts here is due to his 'dithering'. A grave wrong has been done to him and he, believing in Christian metaphysics if not endorsing Christian practice, wants to send Claudius to Hell (as opposed to allow him to get to Heaven (poss via Purgatory). This is perfectly reasonable given his vengeful state and his deeply held beliefs. After all, he doesn't show himself to be a ditherer at all at other stages (killing of Polonius/end of the play) so why assume he is one here, as opposed to taking his own explanation at face value. Also, Shakespeare, as a dramatist, would probably want to insert a more psychologically interesting aspect to his character than mere propensity to dither.

  4. As usual, the intention is to turn the focus away from the controversial events, and on to the psychological state of those that refuse to believe the latest official version.

  5. Is it overly cynical of me to think, now that we seem to be slowly edging towards the possibility of a new inquest, that such an inquest will only be granted once they know the results will be 'favourable'?

  6. Soilysound. I'll wager you that we won't get an inquest. The appeal for 'new evidence' doesn't give me confidence. After all, the point is surely that the (at best) incompetence of the handling of the evidence we already have.

  7. Well the attorney general is apparently examining the evidence. I'd suggest if he had the slightest inkling that anything embarrassing would be uncovered by an inquest he'll obviously say no. Otherwise I think he might say yes because it would be one in the eye for those that dare question the establishment.

  8. A small clue, soilysound - Dominic Grieve used the word "reassurance" as a goal for any new inquest, which doesn't reassure me. If he does allow an inquest however it would be even more difficult to square up all the myriad inconsistencies in Hutton as scores more inconvenient facts would emerge under cross-examination, leading to an even bigger accusation of whitewash. I can't imagine Hutton being trashed however ludicrous the conclusions were,flying in the face of simple medical and scientific truths. However, I live in hope...