Larry King on England, the U.S. and the Middle East

(I wrote to Larry King, a financial journalist I know who lives in London, asking him to comment on a speech I'd heard on the radio. His response:)

You asked a little while ago whether I experienced the same outpouring of affection and sympathy an NPR correspondent encountered in Italy immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, when strangers on the street heard her American accent and came up and hugged her. You do need to grasp that she was in Italy and I am in England. No one has ever spontaneously hugged a stranger on the street in England, sober. Drunken oafs might paw some bystanders after important victories by the English national football team. The last one occurred in 1966.

Degrees of emotional repression aside, I know what she was talking about. For a few weeks after Sept. 11, people tended to fall silent and offer a certain deference when they heard my accent in a store or restaurant. Sometimes they offered condolences and support as well. Government officials I deal with dropped their usual condescension and thinly veiled contempt, although they maintained their determination to provide no assistance whatsoever, especially that which they were being paid to provide.

I particularly remember a cab driver who offered his sympathy. He was unusual, perhaps unique, among London cab drivers, in holding no strong political views he wanted to bang on about. He asked me what I thought the U.S. would do. I said I thought we'd kill a great many Muslims. ``Good,'' he said.

The outward signs of sympathy dried up within a month or so of the attacks. I would imagine that was the case pretty much everywhere outside the U.S. itself, maybe even outside the New York area. People can't maintain that high an emotional pitch for very long.

My impression is most ordinary people still sympathize with the victims of the attack and agree that retaliation against the attackers is called for. Some members of the press and the ruling Labour party, on the other hand, seem to have decided that a decent period of mourning has been observed, so they can now return to their usual sophomoric sneering at Americans individually and the U.S. and its policies generally.

For the Labour wimps, any urge to sneer freely again has been complicated by Prime Minister Tony Blair's enthusiastic and, to all outward appearances, sincere support for military action against the people Christopher Hitchens so aptly calls Islamo-fascists. Their confusion looks largely political, which is to say, based on their own calculation of what's in it for them.

A Labour member of Parliament who wants to make a fuss about, say, British troops fighting with U.S. troops in Afghanistan knows there's a limit to how much nonsense Blair and the party leadership will put up with. They can punish him in various ways, up to and including dropping him from the party's list of candidates for the next election. Telling a politician he might not be able to run for office is like telling a fish he'll have to get out of the water.

On the other hand, backbenchers have constituents to please. For some of them, that means voters in parts of London that correspond to Berkeley, without the pleasant weather and with a lot more cigarette smoke. For others, it means voters whose origins were in Muslim countries. A number of them brought to the U.K. the same primitive superstitions, deep-seated ignorance, and inclination toward treachery and violence that made their homelands the wretched hellholes they were so desperate to flee in the first place.

You can imagine the dilemma for a greedy, grasping, insanely ambitious, absolutely amoral, and totally spineless politician, if you'll forgive the redundancies. You can almost sympathize, sort of. If not allowing a politician to run for office is like telling a fish to get out of the water, telling him he can run but he's got to piss off a whole bunch of voters is like saying, sure, you can stay in the water -- just swim over there with all the piranha. You can almost hear the mental gears grinding as they try to find a third way.

It's a lot harder to work up any kind of sympathy for the anti-American cohort among the press. Those of us forced to read the London papers sometimes speculate about which is greater: the average British hack's sloth, mendacity, ignorance, obsequiousness, capacity for drink, or aversion to paying for that drink. Smart money tends to split between the latter two.

I'm generally in the minority. I argue for ignorance. British journalists often sound bright and well-educated, because they're facile writers with a flair for argument. Americans especially can mistake that for learning. Our morons sound like morons. But in fact a lot of the local hacks don't know much.

Even when they do know something, they're awfully sloppy about how they use it. For example, a viciously anti-American creature named Robert Fisk, who scrawls for the wildly misnamed Independent, is often described as a Mideast expert with decades of experience. He may be, but look at this segment of a rather fawning and credulous interview with Fisk, which not entirely surprisingly was conducted by the NPR station in Madison, Wisconsin:

Q: First, in your recent column, you said that Osama bin Laden's attack on the United States was not simply a statement but some kind of a lure, a trap, an engraved invitation to retaliation, to some kind of massive retaliation. What exactly do you mean and how would that fit the agenda?

Mr. Fisk: . . . Well, you see, in all his conversations with me, and I've met him three times, once in Sudan and twice in Afghanistan, one of the principal, indeed much more obsessional than he used on the United States, a place he's never been to and which he's a little obsessional about, his principal concern was always he wants American forces out of the Gulf area and he wants the overthrow of the pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That's to say the kingdoms and emirates of the Gulf - the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan.

Note that Fisk gives the impression he believes Egypt and Jordan are bordered by the Persian Gulf. Jordan is separated from the Gulf by Iraq and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States proper -- Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the U.A.E. Egypt is separated from the Gulf by all of the above, including Jordan, and the Red Sea and Israel as well.

Note also that Fisk seems determined to prove wrong everything I said about British journalists at least being articulate. On the evidence above, he's barely coherent.

To be fair, the transcript may be faulty. And in any case, Fisk was speaking off the cuff, where it's easy to lose track of your thoughts, particularly if the thoughts aren't too substantial to begin with. In his actual writing, he presumably pays more attention to what he's saying. So, look at this, which I chose at random:

Note that of the nine paragraphs in this story, the first five deal approvingly with an Arab peace plan; the two concluding paragraphs deal with alleged Israeli transgressions. Buried in the second part of the sixth paragraph is what some might consider a salient point regarding Israeli doubts about that plan. A suicide bomber attacked a Passover dinner two days earlier and killed 20 people. Whatever else you want to say about the story, it hardly strikes me as objective reporting covering all aspects of the situation.

I bring all this up not to pick on Fisk or to hash out the Israeli-Arab conflict. My point is, the latest round of violence between Arabs and Israelis is complicating reactions to Sept. 11.

Fisk is just one of the more egregiously pro-Arab, anti-Israeli voices among the British chattering classes. It's more or less accepted in political discourse here that Israel is in the wrong and the Palestinians in the right. That was the position even before the current incursion by Israel into the West Bank; since then, as you might imagine, anti-Israel sentiment has only intensified.

The roots of the dislike for Israel apparently date back to the period after World War I, when the Brits got a mandate from the League of Nations to run a chunk of the Mideast. They set about drawing up imaginary countries, installing real kings, and creating quite a lot of ill will. It was a typical display of British incompetence in statecraft, a trade for which the Brits persist in thinking they possess uncommon aptitude. In fact, the record suggests you shouldn't let an Englishman negotiate so much as an apartment lease, unless you'd like to end up living under a highway overpass.

They followed up their performance after World War I with some equally inept mucking about after World War II. The experience left them disliking the region's Jews intensely, although for some reason they retained a romantic, Lawrence-of-Arabiaesque affinity for the Arabs.

Exactly why they don't loathe both Arabs and Jews equally is not clear. Some low-grade anti-Semitism still permeates parts of British society, and I expect that's a factor. Guilt probably plays a role as well. Britain curtailed immigration to the U.K. by Jews in the late 1930s, when it was clear what would happen to them as the Nazis spread across Europe. And it blocked immigration to the Mideast after World War II, when everyone knew what had happened to the Jews.

Mixed in with the guilt is some past trauma. The Jews who did make it into Britain's Mideastern territory after World War II had, to put it mildly, gone through a lot before they got there. They were not inclined to take any crap from the Brits. Jewish resistance to British rule was one reason the Brits finally abandoned the whole region in disarray. Now the Israelis occupy in the British psyche something like the position of that smaller kid who kicked your butt in junior high school.

Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn't got much to do with the terrorist attack on New York. Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda's professed aim was to drive U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, which their infidel presence is thought to profane. (As we all know, the U.S. forces first came to Saudi Arabia to defend the indolent Saudis from the Iraqis, who had just stomped across Kuwait and were heading for the Saudi border, but logic or even simple gratitude do not figure largely in the Mideast's political discourse.) Bin Laden's cause, if such is the word, appears largely unrelated to the quarrel on the West Bank of the Jordan river.

But the two tend to get conflated here. Arabs are upset in both situations, and a link is perceived between Arabs so upset at Israel they'll blow themselvs up to kill Jews and Arabs so upset at the U.S. they'll blow themselves up to kill Americans. Since it's assumed the Israelis are to blame for Arabs wanting to kill them, it's not much of a hop, skip, and a jump to the conclusion the Americans must be to blame for Arabs wanting to kill them, too.

So far, only a few members of the press and some politicians on the nutcase fringe of the left wing are leaping to that conclusion, but quite a few others are inching up on it. Even those with some knowledge of history and a grasp of reality are having a problem.

Their problem is one of logic. They can reject the reasoning that says if Arabs want to kill both Jews and Americans, and they're justified in killing Jews, they must be justified in killing Americans. But they can't bring themselves to accept the antithesis: If Americans are justified in killing Arabs who attacked them, then Jews are justified in killing Arabs who attacked them.

I'm not sure how the Brits are going to resolve the impasse that's being created as their sympathy and support for the U.S. collides with their reflexive distaste for Israel. My guess is they'll simply ignore it. They'll send the Royal Marines to Afghanistan to help the U.S. hunt down Arabs who want to blow up Americans, and wring their hands and vote with the rest of the European Union to increase subsidies to the Palestinians, a gang of Arabs who want to blow up Jews. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said a first-class mind was one that could hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously without cracking up. I've never been sure what he meant by that, but I imagine he'd feel right at home in London these days.

-----

Larry King is an American-born expatriate I know who lives in London. He is not the talk show host, nor is he the author of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. From time to time, he contributes a Letter From Europe to my column. Below, I list the letters that have appeared so far.

Larry King's Letter from Europe: Very Little Happens in August (Sep. 6, 1999)

Larry King's Letter from Europe (Feb. 2, 2000)

Larry King Takes Over The Column: Spring in London (April 10, 2000)

Of Twits And Things (July 24, 2000)

Larry King on Eurostar (March 19, 2001)

Joe Brancatelli and Larry King on Rail Travel (March 26, 2001)

Larry King on Foot and Mouth and British Tourism (April 2, 2001)

Larry King on 9/11 (Oct. 15, 2001)

Larry King on Lords and Dukes And Journalists (Feb. 11, 2002)

Larry King on Presidential Greatness (March 4, 2002)

Larry King on British Broadcasting (March 11, 2002)

Larry King on England, the U.S. and the Middle East (April 29, 2002)

Larry King on the case FOR the war with Iraq (March 24, 2003)

Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark (August 19, 2004)

Larry King On The British Election (May 9, 2005)

Larry King On 7/8 Bombing (July 10, 2005)

Larry King: Bye Bye Blair (May 28, 2007)

Larry King: Thoughts On The State of Journalism and Teaching (January 18, 2008)

Larry King Letter from London: American Ex-Pats Vote (May 19, 2008)

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