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Press: LRB probes unquestioned moral poles

28 March 2024


THE London Review of Books carries two essays illuminating Good Friday, even though neither is framed that way. Each, in its way, demolishes a secular narrative of innocence. The longer of the two, the one that will echo loudest in the world, is Pankraj Mishra’s winter lecture, now reprinted, on Israel’s appropriation of the Holocaust as an excuse for everything.

The Gazan war, he argues, threatens to expose as a sham the whole moral framework of “rules-based international order”, as the American Empire saw itself, and, with it, the post-1945 faith in moral progress. “Netanyahu and his cohort threaten the basis of the global order that was rebuilt after the revelation of Nazi crimes.

“The profound rupture we feel today between the past and the present is a rupture in the moral history of the world since the ground zero of 1945 — the history in which the Shoah has been for many years the central event and universal reference. . .

“Perhaps Israel, with its survivalist psychosis, is not the ‘bitter relic’ George Steiner called it — rather, it is the portent of the future of a bankrupt and exhausted world. . . It is possible that Israel will succeed in ethnically cleansing Gaza, and even the West Bank as well. There is too much evidence that the arc of the moral universe does not bend towards justice; powerful men can make their massacres seem necessary and righteous. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a triumphant conclusion to the Israeli onslaught.”

The whole thing is 7500 words long, and should be read slowly and carefully, perhaps as an observance on Holy Saturday.

IF THE Holocaust represented the pole of unquestioned evil in the modern imagination, the pole of good was surely represented by Nelson Mandela. Stephen Smith’s review of a recent biography should put an end to that. That Winnie was a monster is well understood. “During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s alcoholism and increasingly erratic behaviour had exposed the ANC to the apartheid authorities, which infiltrated her network of lovers, henchmen and factotums. . . This is the subtext to the many crimes of Mandela United, carried out in her name and sometimes in her presence: extortion, assault and battery, arson, rape, murder.”

What I had not realised is the degree to which Mandela himself protected her once he had been released from prison, though he can have had few illusions about her nature and conduct.

“She was sentenced to six years in jail in 1991 on charges of kidnapping and assault, but this was replaced on appeal with a fine equivalent to £4000 today – a paltry price for the dozen killings she aided, abetted and may well have ordered.”

The end is especially chilling: “Mandela, who in his final years suffered from dementia, asked for Winnie on his deathbed (he no longer recognised his third wife, Grace Machel). They were alone together when he died. The New South Africa was turning away from Mandela towards the Mother of the Nation. Forgiveness — not a moral position, but a strategy devised by Mandela to avert a bloodbath — had run its course. Winnie had finally come out on top.”

You might think that Christianity would be the natural beneficiary if the world lost its faith in progress, but it would, in that case, be a Christianity that placed a much deeper emphasis on the inextricable sinfulness of human nature and the necessity of supernatural redemption than is currently fashionable, even at Easter. Mandela and the Holocaust are the moral poles of a great many sermons to this day.

In part, this is because people really do not like to be told that they are sinners. In any case, in the rich world, it is unimaginable that there could be a salvation that was not available for money. That seems to me the basic premise of American culture: the existentialists thought that life was about choice; the advertising industry tells us that all choice is really shopping.

THE New York Times
had an interesting review by someone who described herself as “a recovering evangelical” of Devout by Anna Gazmarian, a woman raised as an Evangelical who has “a diagnosis of a bipolar II disorder”: in the US, such a diagnosis means that her health insurance will cover certain otherwise unaffordable drug treatments.

“She takes this as yet another sign that her faith is at fault. . . Her daily prayer journals contain lists of all the ways she hopes to die. The next years contain five different psychiatrists’ offices, eight different mood stabilizers and two kinds of A.D.H.D. medication. Throughout, she tries desperately to hang onto her faith.”

She is finally rescued, the review suggests, when a sympathetic doctor suggests she try ketamine. “That, a liberating poetry class, marriage and motherhood all converge to bring her stability and even joy.” The order of this listing is extraordinary. I would have thought that motherhood, marriage, and poetry were all more effective than drugs — but then you can’t shop for any of them; so they can’t be as real.

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