Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Thursday, June 12 2003, 04:10 PM
Have you ever walked in on a couple having an argument? Even if both parties are your good friends, it can be hard to figure out what the issue is. So much is communicated beneath the surface -- references to past arguments, tone of voice, body language -- that the matter at hand seems a little beside the point. To an outsider, it can seem like the couple was simply looking for a pretext to renew the ritual of intimate conflict.
I had the same impression reading Tom Nairn's Pariah. Although I'm more familiar with the history and politics of the United Kingdom than most Americans, the details tend to escape me. And it's from those details, for better or worse, that Nairn draws the force for his polemic. I can tell that he despises Tony Blair, but I have a hard time figuring out why he seems to despise him more than he despises Margaret Thatcher. Then again, I'm sure progressives in Western Europe couldn't understand why many of their American counterparts regarded Bill Clinton and Al Gore with the disdain they normally reserve for Republicans.
I suppose it's more painful to have your hopes dashed than to see your pessimism validated. Although the specificity of Nairn's prose sometimes gets in the way of his message, he does a wonderful job of registering Blair's betrayal of traditional Labour values. Some progressives believe that, however bad the British Labour Party and the American Democratic Party have become, they still deserve our support against the "real" right-wingers. But Nairn's forceful argument really gets you thinking. The Hummer is marketed like a large family sedan, but it looks and drives so much like a military vehicle that calling it a "car" requires a suspension of disbelief. You could say the same thing about Tony Blair. And Nairn does.
Although Blair and Bill Clinton have long been mentioned in the same breath, the fact that George W. Bush has had 100% support from the Prime Minister since September 11th reveals how compatible New Labour and New Conservatism can be:
"The scale of real change and possibility calls for Prometheus; instead of which the globe is suffering Blair, Bush, Big Brother, Berlusconi, and Australia's John Howard."
Nairn tries to show here how little difference there is between the fundamentalism of Bush and the forward-thinking of Blair. His list of "killer Bs" exemplifies both what is best about Pariah -- its excoriation of liberal double-talk -- and what is worst about it -- is overzealous collapsing of meaningful distinctions. I mean, even if Blair has been Bush's PR man for the War on Terrorism, wouldn't you rather have him in charge of domestic policy than J.R. Ewing?
The most interesting part of Pariah for me, though, wasn't Nairn's attack on Blair, but his more abstract thoughts on international politics. Since his landmark book The Break-Up of Britain in the 1980s, Nairn has been a powerful advocate for self-determination in Scotland and Wales. You might think that tragedies in the former Jugoslavia would have tempered Nairn's enthusiasm for nationalism. But they haven't. On the contrary, Nairn remains excited by the prospect of disintegrating world powers:
"Although regimented and repressed by the Cold War era, nationalism is constitutive of man's social nature. The era was an aberration, nationality is not."
The fusion of pragmatism and hope in Nairn's words is refreshing, particularly since so few progressives are able to discern anything positive in nationalism. More than that, though, they provide a welcome counterpoint to his sometimes too-merciless flaying of Tony Blair.
Pariah is available from Verso